Epstein: "Psychology vs. Public Policy"

Psychology vs. Public Policy
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
June 19, 2012

I first met Jonathan Haidt at an academic conference on psychology held in Berlin in 2004, and was impressed with his findings about how ordinary people make moral decisions in their everyday lives. His recent book, The Righteous Mind, carries with it the subtitle, “Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.” This work follows his earlier book, The Happiness Hypothesis. His arresting hypothesis about human nature is captured in the title of his important article in Psychology Review, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail.”

Received wisdom often has it that ordinary people engage in deep philosophical deliberation before they reach judgments about what’s right and wrong in individual cases. Haidt rightly rejects the claim that these deliberative processes precede our judgments. Our everyday behavior reveals exactly the opposite pattern. Any modern defender of what used to be called “faculty psychology,” opposed to the Lockean theories of the tabula rasa (blank slate), needs a model of the mind that treats it as something more sophisticated than a set of unorganized neurons that organizes itself solely through experience.

The blank slate theory must be wrong under the evolutionary theories that Haidt rightly adopts. There are certain generic features about the world that all conscious species need to perceive in order to survive. For instance, human beings require knowledge of time, space, and mass in order to process their experiences. If these concepts are pre-programmed into the mind, it will spare newborns of the need to acquire them from scratch in settings otherwise fraught with danger. Natural selection plays a role in favoring those attributes that are critical to success and survival.