Monday, October 20, 2008

My Rational Emotive Elephant

I wrote before on C and C about women and men and rationality. I had been long puzzled, I explained, by the fact that women were taken to be less rational, when on the face of it, women are the less impulsive, less violent, more cautious of the two genders.

What I came to think, on mulling it over, I said, was that while women may be sort of a little irrational about a lot of things, a lot of the time, men are sort of really irrational about a few things -- you know, sex, money, at certain times.

I don't know if that's right. But I was thinking about it again reading this great book by Jonathan Haidt called The Happiness Hypothesis.

Haidt says the self is like an elephant and a rider. Reason can guide your inner elephant, but only through persuasion and training, not really through force. Sometimes the rider knows what is best, but sometimes the elephant does. Haidt describes riding a horse on a scary cliff, and suddenly failing to use the reins to guide the horse at a crucial moment. He figures he's going to go over the cliff, but of course the horse doesn't want to go over the cliff either. The horse doesn't even need direction. He knows which way to go.

I like this metaphor, which seems to me to grant that neither reason nor emotion should always have the upper hand. Sometimes the rider knows what's best; sometimes the elephant does.

Now, it's tempting to say that irrationality is when the rider doesn't control the elephant. But the fact that the elephant can be right means this is too quick. Irrationality is just taking actions that don't make sense. Like steering toward the cliff. Both the rider and the elephant can have this sort of problem.

If that's right, it seems a person could be "rational" either by having a strong rider, or by just having an elephant who wants the right things.

Speaking for myself, I've never felt in much in control of my own decisions in the riderish sense. My rider is there, but he's either really weak or really gentle, as I wrote about before.

On the other hand, I think my elephant has generally good impulses. OK, sometimes he has to be guided away from overindulgence in pleasures, but other than that, he's pretty OK. I am impulsively inclined to be nice to people, to do work that is interesting and useful, to make my loved ones happy, and to keep my home tidy.

Does the fact that I am impulsively inclined to want things that are actually in my own best interest, and that I follow those impulses make me more rational or less? I don't know.

But I will say that some impulses, like the impulse to violence and rape, aren't just impulses you want to be able to control. They're impulses you don't want your elephant to have at all.

Haidt says a bit about retraining your elephant. The main thing is it takes practice. I guess this is what culture and cultural inhibitions were doing for us, before we all decided that total autonomy and chaos was the way to go.

Me, I think a little general elephant retraining might be in order for some of us.

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