How do you decide what to believe, what not to believe? How do you decide what is the morally right or correct thing to do in any situation? For example, when you are offered the Covid-19 vaccine, will you accept it and the Government’s assurance that it is safe? Or will you decline in the belief that it will change your DNA or, by implanting a piece of nano technology, will allow the Government to track your every movement? If you discovered that there are plans to build a 5G transmitter close to your home, would you immediately start a campaign to stop the transmission of this brain damaging radiation? Or would you look forward to the enhanced connectivity that it will offer? When you hear mention of Qanon, do you think that this is just the tip of an massive iceberg of corruption at the very heart of the US establishment? Or do you dismiss it as the completely unsubstantiated ravings of people with over-active imaginations? How do you know? Do you consider yourself to be open minded, willing to consider any proposal put to you on its merit? Or do you find that you have an instant opinion on such a proposal?
Why have I just written a whole paragraph of questions without offering any answers and without offering a proper introduction to what I want to say? Well, in short, it’s because I genuinely believe that most of us never stop to properly question the beliefs that we hold and the process by which we came to them. I do not think that we have been taught how to critically think, or if we have, that we need much more practice in doing so. That’s why I have become very enthusiastic about community philosophy. Often known as ‘Philosophy in Pubs’, this is a grass-roots movement that brings together ordinary members of the community to discuss ideas in an open and respectful way. The Bridport Philosophy in Pubs Group that I organise only has two rules: That all participants must be open to be challenged, and having to rationally justify what they say; and that we challenge or criticise the idea, not the person who expresses it. I can’t help thinking that if these two rules, and the critical reasoning skills that you develop from them, were widely adopted, even taught in schools, that our society would be in a far healthier state.
As it happens, the January meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs Group (to be held ‘virtually’ on 27th January) will be discussing a book that tries to get to the very heart of how you answer the questions posed in the opening paragraph. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathon Haidt makes a three-fold claim. First, that we are nowhere near as rational as we would like to believe we are; that our responses to questions and events arise from our emotionally based intuitions and that we generally only use reason, post hoc, to justify them. Second, that these intuitions themselves arise from six basic psychological systems in much the same way that all the flavours we experience when we eat arise from five basic tastes. And third, that once we have become aligned to what he calls a ‘tribal moral community’ (our particular moral or political belief system) our adherence to this community both ‘binds and blinds’ us. Oh, and just to make his point clear, this isn’t something that ‘the other side’ do. This is something that we all do. Yes, you do it. I do it.
If Haidt is correct (and remember, we should not just accept that he is) this means that our initial response to his argument will be an emotional one rather than a rational one; it may feel intuitively correct; it may feel that he has insulted my intelligence. Either way, I think that it is beneficial to stop and consider how his arguments make us feel. Likewise, I think that it would be beneficial to use his approach to reflect on our answers to not just those questions I asked initially, but on our responses to all those news items that that provoke a strong reaction in us. And having done that, why not start on all our basic moral and political beliefs? Okay, maybe (just maybe) I’m getting a bit carried away. But whether Haidt is correct or not I do think that there is great value in constantly having our opinions and beliefs challenged. If you agree, and would like further details about the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs Group, please do get in touch.