Jonathan Haidt’s “Inner Lawyer”

Jonathan Haidt offers the third illustration in the clutch of three we are examining. All three involve two functions—actively suppressing information and not receiving the information—but it gets complicated because I am the person who plays both parts. I hide information from myself; I search actively for it but am unable to discover it. It makes no sense. It is like hiding a treasure where you will never be able to find it.

Nevertheless, we have looked at two instances of this—I am the one who is saying they areepiscopal 9
three instances of the same thing—and I am arguing that this third episode, the Jonathan Haidt episode is essentially like the others. “The others” include Queen Susan of Narnia (in Prince Caspian) who would have believed Aslan was there if she had allowed herself to believe it. “The others” also include a character I call “the Episcopal Ghost” (in The Great Divorce) who suppressed his gradual loss of faith because he wanted other things, incompatible things, more. Thus, he drifted to a place where he could be, “sincerely heretical.”

The question for today is simply this: Does Jonathan Haidt, in the episode he narrates, fall into the same category? Let’s begin with the most directly relevant quote from Haidt’s account, “I then lied so quickly and convincingly that my wife and I both believed me.” I lied so well that I believed me? Really?

Here is Haidt’s account.

On February 3, 2007, shortly before lunch, I discovered that I was a chronic liar.[1] I was at home, writing a review article on moral psychology when my wife, Jayne, walked by my desk. In passing, she asked me not to leave dirty dishes on the counter where she prepared our baby’s food. Her request was polite, but its tone added a postscript: “As I’ve asked you a hundred times before.”

My mouth started moving before hers had stopped. Words came out. Those words linked themselves up to say something about the baby having woken up at the same time that our elderly dog barked to ask for a walk and I’m sorry but I jut put my breakfast dishes down wherever I could….so I was acquitted.

Haidt continues to write the review article. Then:

I disliked being criticized, and I had felt a flash of negativity by the time Jayne had gotten to her third word (“Can you not…”). Even before I knew why she was criticizing me, I knew I disagreed with her… The instant I knew the content of the criticism (…leave the dirty dishes on the…”) my inner lawyer went to work searching for an excuse… It’s true that I had eaten breakfast, given Max his first bottle, and let Andy out for his first walk, but these events had all happened at separate times. Only when my wife criticized me did I merge them into a composite image of a harried father with too few hands, and I created this fabrication by the time she had completed her one-sentence criticism (…counter where I make baby food?). I then lied so quickly and convincingly that my wife and I both believed me.

'I didn't hear you calling. I can't listen to everybody who yells at me.'

‘I didn’t hear you calling. I can’t listen to everybody who yells at me.’

As I indicated in the introduction, it is that last sentence that matters most to me. He lied to his wife in this instance. He does that a lot, apparently, because he calls himself “a chronic liar.” And he didn’t do it because he chose to. He did it because his “inner lawyer,” who, apparently acts on his behalf without being asked to, produced this excuse. And the excuse was so good that not only did his wife believe it at the time, but he, himself, believed it at the time as well.

Excursus: I need to find a place to say that Haidt did, eventually, realize what “he” (his inner lawyer) had done. And when he realized it, he accepted it. He didn’t ignore it, he didn’t deny it, he didn’t repress it. He realized what his inner lawyer had done to him and presumably—this is not part of his account—he went to his wife and told her what had happened.What he would be forced to say is that “it”—my inner lawyer—lied to you this morning, and as soon as I discovered it, I came to you to correct the account which he, deceitfully, sold to both of us. Notice the “it” and the “I.”

The Length of the Process

Reincursus: (End of excursus, I’m just playing) So now we have all three instances before us. Let’s rank they first by how long the process took. Haidt’s lying is obviously the fastest. He—his inner lawyer—starting putting together an untrue account of his actions three words into his wife’s accusation. That’s fast. Susan admits on Day 2 that she “really believed” on Day 1, but also says that she did not really believe on Day 1 because she did not allow herself to. The inner reality she constructs a day later—“would have believed had I allowed myself to”—shows an awareness of something. Did she sense the inner lawyer at work and chose not to go over the the desk to see what the lawyer was doing?

The Episcopal Ghost is the slowest by far and we have only his friend Dick’s understanding to go on. Now it is true that Dick says the same thing was happening to him at that time, so he does have an inner perspective. Then too, Dick is a Spirit—in other circumstances, we might say “an angel”—and he is in Heaven, that place of ultimate reality, so presumably he knows what is true and says what is true.

Direct Agency

So that is a ranking that takes the speed of the process into account. Let’s look now at direct agency. Who acts most clearly as an agent making choices? This time I think we have to put Haidt last. His account of what happened—his “inner lawyer”—is the gold standard for failure of agency and I am going to try to use it to look at the other two cases.

Haidt, to say the same thing another way, does not act at all. The “inner lawyer” acts and Haidt is, for a little while, deceived. So we score Haidt, in this first round, at least, with no agency at all.

I would put Queen Susan next. On the second day, she admits that she “really believed…Haidt 6
deep down inside” that Aslan was there or “I could have if I had let myself.” So even when she was saying she could not see Aslan, some part of her knew that she did see him. We can say this another way. Susan’s “inner lawyer” was not as good as Haidt’s “inner lawyer.” Susan felt, or could have felt, that the “inner lawyer” was doing something and could have made it her business to find out what it was. At the time Haidt—or someone—lied to his wife, there was nothing to attract his attention, to make him wonder.

I would put the Episcopal Ghost last. This line is the crucial line for the Episcopal Ghost. It would be better for my argument if he said it himself, but he cannot, so it is said instead by a completely trustworthy witness who shared the Ghost’s vulnerability at the time. We accepted, says the angel, “every half-conscious solicitation from our desires.” Now…not get all arithmetical, but “half-conscious” means that only half of the subversion of his faith was “unconscious.”

If the question is one of agency, who could have acted on his own behalf and did not, they the Ghost wins. There were times, according to the angel, when you were conscious of being pressed by your desires, being seduced [2] by your desires. At that point you could have done something, but you chose not to. You could have “gone over to the desk” and looked at “what your inner lawyer was writing” on your behalf and you could have torn it up. There was that much opportunity for agency on your own behalf, but you did not take it.

One of the things I like best about blogging is that you get to propose a topic, to make the argument, and then to decide that the argument was solid. You do all that yourself. Well…really you just decide that the argument is “solid enough.” Or you just decide it isn’t going to get any better and you just abandon it. So I am going to declare that my attempt to show that Haidt and the Ghost and Queen Susan were involved in the same process—the same close family of processes—and can be understood in the same way.

What to do?

Of the remaining questions, let me chose one. “Can we do anything about this?” I think the best answer is Yes, but you notice that the agency question reappears. When we say “we,” we are back to agency. At the moment, Susan could not want less desperately to be out of the woods, the Ghost could not want less passionately to be accepted by the smart and modern world, and Jonathan Haidt could not want so urgently to remember what had happened that his “inner lawyer” just shut up.

But if we start the story further back for each of these characters, things look better. It is possible, in principle, for Susan to know that when she gets stresses, she is vulnerable to selling out higher values for lesser ones. It would have been possible for the Ghost to clarify his highest commitments—the angel says that “resisting” and praying would have been a great help—and so have been less vulnerable to the daily solicitations of other needs. I don’t really see any help for Jonathan Haidt, and, in all fairness, he told that story to illustrate that there is no help available, but something in him began to separate the strands of his lie almost as soon as he was done telling it. That’s pretty good.

I put my money on identifying categories. I want to be able to say, “In it is situations like THESE, that I am in most risk of selling out.” OK, so how do you form the categories? You pay careful and systematic attention to how you explain things to yourself and you notice the situations that keep recurring. Then you give those situations a name of some sort, e.g., dealing fairly by people who are hostile to my cause. That is a category name. And if you have done the work [3], the categories you build make you more sensitive to “what happens in situations like these.”

That would have been a great help for the Ghost, at the time in his life when he was selling his birthright for a mess of favorable reviews. It would have made Susan aware that these are situations where she really doesn’t want to see Aslan and if she is to see him, she needs to set her fears aside and know what “she really knows, down deep.”

Professor Haidt, you’re going to have to handle this one on your own.

[1] I needed to stop here anyway to give you the citation, but while I am stopped, let me just celebrate that sentence. That is the first sentence in Chapter 3 (page 52). Who would not want to keep reading? Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.
[2] “Seduced” is one of those wonderful words that packs so much imagery it is hard to mistake its meaning. The word come into English from Latin, where the prefix se- means “apart, away, aside” and the root is the verb duco, “to lead.” So “to lead astray.” But “astray,” the part of the word contributed by the prefix, presumes that there is a right way to go. “Astray” cannot mean anything if there is not a right way to go. So the word means “You could have gone here, but you were led off and went there.” Also “to lead” means that these are not choices you made yourself; someone led you.
[3] I am a big fan of a recording device I call a “causal attribution journal” (CAJ); it has been my principal academic focus since 1974.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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