arguments -- 7/07/16

Today's encore selection from -- The Moral Animal by Robert Wright. Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers (b. 1943) argues that, consciously or subconsciously, we keep our rationales for our actions and beliefs carefully arrayed near the surface -- ready as necessary for our defense:

"The reason the generic human arguing style feels so effortless is that, by the time the arguing starts, the work has already been done. Robert Trivers has written about the periodic disputes ... that are often part of a close relationship, whether a friendship or a marriage. The argument he notes, 'may appear to burst forth spontaneously with little or no preview, yet as it rolls along two whole landscapes of information appear to lie already organized, waiting only for the lightning of anger to show themselves.'

"The proposition here is that the human brain is in large part a machine for winning arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is in the right -- and thus a machine for convincing its owner of the same thing. The brain is like a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth, regardless of whether they in fact have any of either. Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth; and like a lawyer it is sometimes more admirable for skill than virtue.

"Long before Trivers wrote about the selfish uses of self-deception, social scientists had gathered supporting data. In one experiment, people with strongly held positions on a social issue were exposed to four arguments, two pro and two con. On each side of the issue, the arguments were of two sorts: (a) quite plausible and (b) implausible to the point of absurdity. People tended to remember the plausible arguments that supported their views and the implausible arguments that didn't, the net effect being to drive home the correctness of their position and the silliness of the alternative.

"One might think that, being rational creatures, we would eventually grow suspicious of our uncannily long string of rectitude, our unerring knack for being on the right side of any dispute over credit, or money, or manners, or anything else. Nope. Time and again -- whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which -- we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage isn't warranted."


Robert Wright


The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology


Vintage Books A division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 1994 by Robert Wright


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