The rational tail and its emotional dog (and its practical ethical implications)


Deutsche Version: Der emotionale Hund und sein rationaler Schwanz (und deren praktischen ethischen Implikationen).

Youtube Version

This is a title of a ground-breaking article by the brilliant evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt.


Research on moral judgment has been dominated by rationalist models, in which moral judgment is thought to be caused by moral reasoning. Four reasons are given for considering the hypothesis that moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post-hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached. The social intuitionist model is presented as an alternative to rationalist models. The model is a social model in that it de-emphasizes the private reasoning done by
individuals, emphasizing instead the importance of social and cultural influences. The model is an intuitionist model in that it states that moral judgment is generally the result of quick, automatic evaluations (intuitions). The model is more consistent than rationalist models with recent findings in social, cultural, evolutionary, and biological psychology, as well as anthropology and primatology.

He contrasts moral rationalism, according to which objective moral truths stem from human reason with moral intuitionism as championed by the Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume:

His most radical statement of this position was that “we speak
not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (Hume, 1739/1969, p. 462).
The thrust of Hume’s attack on rationalism was that reason alone cannot accomplish the magnificent role it has been given since Plato. Hume saw reason as a tool used by the mind to obtain and process information about events in the world, or about relations among objects. Reason can let us infer that particular action will lead to the death of many innocent people, but unless we care about those people, unless we have some sentiment that values human life, reason alone cannot advise against taking the action. Hume argued that a person in full possession of reason yet lacking moral sentiment
would have difficulty choosing any ends or goals to pursue, and would look like what we now call a psychopath.

He then went on giving cogent empirical arguments why our moral feelings first come about through non-rational and irrational processes and are only rationalized in hindsight and most often unconsciously.

If moral reasoning is generally a post-hoc construction intended to justify automatic moral intuitions, then our moral life is plagued by two illusions. The first illusion can be called the “wag-the-dog” illusion: we believe that our own moral judgment (the dog) is
driven by our own moral reasoning (the tail). The second illusion can be called the “wag-the-other-dog’s-tail” illusion: in a moral argument, we expect the successful rebuttal of an opponent’s arguments to change the opponent’s mind. Such a belief is like
thinking that forcing a dog’s tail to wag by moving it with your hand should make the dog happy. The wag-the-dog illusion follows directly from the mechanics of the reasoning process described above. Pyszczynski and Greenberg (1987) point out that by going through all the steps of hypothesis testing, even though every step can be biased by self-
serving motivations, people can maintain an “illusion of objectivity” about the way they think.


He then said something very relevant for Christians, and more generally for everyone genuinely seeking to follow the Golden Rule:

The bitterness, futility, and self-righteousness of most moral arguments can now be explicated. In a debate on abortion, politics, consensual incest, or on what my friend did to your friend, both sides believe that their positions are based on reasoning about the
facts and issues involved (the wag-the-dog illusion). Both sides present what they take to be excellent arguments in support of their positions. Both sides expect the other side to be responsive to such reasons (the wag-the-other-dog’s-tail illusion). When the other side fails to be affected by such good reasons, each side concludes that the other side must
be closed-minded or insincere. In this way the culture wars over issues such as homosexuality and abortion can generate morally motivated players on
both sides who believe that their opponents are not morally motivated.

Culture war, intolerance and bigotry

As can be expected, these lines have caused a lot of heat for they tend to infuriate every culture warrior on both sides of the great divide. But this has a strong explanatory power.

This explains why both Christian and atheist extremists forget all basic rules of human decency when affronting each other by using emotional bullying, ridicule and constant mockeries. They are convinced that reason is on their side, that those disagreeing with them are either morons or profoundly wicked people, and that they deserve to be treated in the rudest manner.


As he himself expected, Haidt provoked a great furor as he wrote an article pointing out the numerous biases dominating the thoughts of most militant atheists yearning for the destruction of an entity called “Religion”.

I consider the following principle as being a moral ground rule which ought to govern every heated debates or clash of worldview:

it is always wrong to mock, ridicule or bully a respectful and kind opponent, regardless of how offensive and reprehensible some of his or her ideas might be.

Cognitive psychology can be a great help to better understand our own biases but it will never do one thing: making for ourselves the decision to always strive to follow the Golden rule no matter what.


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