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Moral Dumbfounding: The Case Against Intuition

In a better-functioning world, individual opinions on contentious issues would be laid out in an organized fashion much like a court case. One side presents its argument, the other presents a rebuttal, and the victor is determined after thoughtful consideration. However, the inner court of the mind of college students does not always function the same way. Skipping straight to the verdict, strong emotional reactions and instinctual habits have increasingly led students to bypass this process, formulating opinions without close examination.

As a result, the practice of critical analysis is undermined and the practice of autopilot-thinking becomes normalized. When students determine that it is no longer necessary to scrutinize the ideologies they support but rather blindly accept them, they are not critically thinking and they become oblivious to their responsibilities as members of a civil society. Furthermore, the consequences of jumping to conclusions instead of employing diligent reasoning manifests itself in grotesque ways, especially on college campuses.

In a recent article published by the New York Post, Columbia University student Alexandra Villarreal reveals the friction created by defending instinctual opinions at the expense of rationality in the context of political correctness on campus. After being criticized as a “social justice warrior” online, she explains her realization:

[T]o him [the commenter], I was a warrior for pushing a politically correct agenda by using rhetoric that wasn’t my own, but instead airy slogans right out of the leftist playbook.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but he was right.

I’m a rising junior at Columbia, one of the most PC universities in the country. We consider ourselves a community of protesters that links arms to keep out anything “oppressive,” even when we don’t understand its complexities. Our favorite words are “problematic” and “privileged,” especially when they work hand in hand.

Villarreal’s commentary is important because it underscores the reality of ideological movements on college campuses. In a situation where someone disagrees with a particular ideology or viewpoint, it’s far easier to fall back on predetermined and ingrained “playbooks” and “airy slogans” rather than to truly engage one’s peers. This phenomena has impeded productive discussion in many of my classes, where students regurgitate arguments that they themselves have not created or scrutinized, yet adamantly believe are valid.

This can lead to the paradox that psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls “moral dumbfounding,” in which people have strong moral and instinctual reactions but fail to establish any kind of rational principle to explain their beliefs. He concludes that the deliberate thought process, if it is used at all, serves to justify our biases instead of work against them. The problem with validating intuition after the fact is that in some cases gut feelings are unconscious. In other words, instead of thinking through a situation to weed out irrationality, individuals are using rationality to defend irrational reactions.

Villarreal is not necessarily bemoaning the lack of critical thinking on campus, but rather a consequence of it: censorship as a means to an end. Students on campus and in classrooms are quick to rely on their instinctual opinions when labeling instances of contention as “oppressive” without considering to what extent they actually are. But the most intuitive path in a given situation is not always the smartest. By admonishing others for not subscribing to a certain point of view, individuals are not only forgetting to fight against their instinctual biases but also freezing out other opinions by defining the limits of discussion. Taken to the furthest degree, the consequence of tribalism is the dissolution of free individual thought.

Exacerbated by lazy thinking, the fear of rejection—whether that be embarrassment, shame, or perhaps more punitive measures—has been amplified, creating an incentive for students to shy away from discussion. In my own experience, classrooms have eerily become echo chambers because self-censorship is more popular than engaging with ideas. Displaying the concept of loss aversion, theorized by Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winner Daniel Kahneman, students would rather avoid the loss of being labeled as a “privileged oppressor” by their peers than to achieve the gain of delving deeply into a topic (namely, exploring the merits of each side’s argument). Through this logic, the quickest way to persuade others to adopt certain opinions is to restrict and block out your opponent’s opinions.

Free speech exists in the larger society in order to combat such issues. However, when lazy thinking works to censor others, threatening First Amendment principles, the need for a culture of free speech on campus becomes ever more apparent. Villarreal sums up the need for open discourse:

We recognize the backwardness of our parents and laugh at their “ignorance” while they cry at ours. We isolate certain demographics from discussions because we’ve decided their voice has no place in our movement — or in our lives. Political correctness is a euphemism for exclusivity and closed-mindedness; it blocks all perceptions that defy the liberal millennial mold.

None of this means we can’t draw lines for ourselves or consider certain expressions of bigotry beyond the pale.

But as a country and a generation, we need to be more accepting of viewpoints different from our own.

Homogeneity in ideology isn’t unique to millennials, but it’s getting worse with us, and it inhibits any kind of growth in our ability to interpret and analyze social issues.

Today, we are afraid to cause offense or be subjected to criticism when “offbeat” ideas come to mind. As a result, these ideas often remain hidden instead of explored and tested. The tension that comes from provocative issues is largely due to miscommunication and creating unnecessary barriers that inhibit connection. Therefore, authentic discussion about how and why we believe the things we do is absolutely necessary in order to combat our own individual, and group-biased, intuitions.

Michele Hau is a FIRE summer intern.

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