Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Charity, moral psychology, and politics

I think I'm going to have to read at least enough of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind to be able to talk about it professionally, but it sounds flawed in its conception (judging by bits of reviews I've seen, nothing more). Perhaps it's the reviewers who are getting it wrong. And perhaps I've said this before, although a quick search of this blog suggests I haven't.

Here's the stuff I have in mind. Nicholas D. Kristof writes that:
“The Righteous Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychology professor, argues that, for liberals, morality is largely a matter of three values: caring for the weak, fairness and liberty. Conservatives share those concerns (although they think of fairness and liberty differently) and add three others: loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity.
Another way of putting it is this: Americans speak about values in six languages, from care to sanctity. Conservatives speak all six, but liberals are fluent in only three.
This makes conservatives sound better than liberals. William Saletan produces a similar kind of sound:
Social conservatives see welfare and feminism as threats to responsibility and family stability. The Tea Party hates redistribution because it interferes with letting people reap what they earn. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order — these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt’s startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet.
There is a basic mistake here which I think is easy to see if we substitute racial purity for any of the listed themes or values: having more values is not necessarily better (although I agree that it might be), in the way that having a more varied diet or speaking more languages is undoubtedly better. I'm guessing that the common source of this error is Haidt himself, although I'll have to read his book to find out.

A second problem is the apparent use of charity in interpreting people's political beliefs. Perhaps the Tea Party hates redistribution because its members believe in reaping what you earn. But perhaps these people oppose redistribution for purely self-interested reasons (they expect to do badly from it), or because they are racist and think of the poor as likely to be members of ethnic minorities that they regard as lazy. I imagine that individual members of the Tea Party vary, and that some are influenced by two or more of these and other considerations.

Saletan also says:
Haidt has read ethnographies, traveled the world and surveyed tens of thousands of people online. He and his colleagues have compiled a catalog of six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Alongside these principles, he has found related themes that carry moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation.
The concern he attributes to the Tea Party seems to have to do with fairness. But it's worth asking whether people actually do reap what they earn. Some do, some don't, surely. Some people get rich by working hard or being very talented, or both. But luck usually comes into it somewhere, and not every talented, hard-working person has good luck. Similarly, some poor people are lazy. Some lack talent (but is that their fault?). And some are simply unlucky. If anyone denies that luck is involved (and thoughtful conservatives such as Hayek do not do so) then they aren't necessarily showing sensitivity to some value to which others are blind. They might be in denial of the truth. And the more values we have to attribute to them in order to try to make charitable sense of their beliefs, the less coherent their belief-system might be.

Another question concerns the idea that liberals don't care about all six "themes." Trades union members care about loyalty, for instance. Religious people, many of whom are politically liberal, believe in and value authority. And supporters of women's rights often refer to women's bodies as things that the government should not touch. Isn't that a kind of sanctity? Perhaps it is better counted as a concern with freedom. Still, Haidt's views seem problematic in a variety of ways. They do address an important issue though. Which is why I need to read his book.


  1. Yeah, this is the sort of thing that happens when you measure values like sanctity by--I'm guessing based on ways I've seen these things measured in the past, including in H's earlier work--looking at how often people go to church. What about the people who go to church by going to the woods (Thoreau)? And as you say, some values are sacred to liberals. And your point about having more values not always being a good thing is well-put.

  2. Thanks, Matt. Going to church by going to the woods sounds like something I would do. Probably too off-beat to count.

  3. What does it mean to say that someone does not speak the language of sanctity, for instance? It sounds to me somewhat like saying that someone does not have a certain concept. Cora Diamond has a paper on a similar topic (“Losing your concepts”). But what kind of claim is it to make of someone that they don’t have a certain concept? How, for instance, is absence of concept in someone verified?

    There is another question—a question that is related, or can be related: “Why can I not persuade you of X? (when it is so obvious to me that you are wrong and I’m right!)” And the two issues can be related in this way: to answer the question about my inability to persuade you, I may appeal to something stronger—and more elusive, and deeper—than lack of information on your part; I may appeal to a lack of concept on your part (or to lack of ability to speak some language).

    To tell someone—to inform them as a matter of fact—that they lack a concept can be paternalistic. It is to tell them that they lack a certain kind of interest: that their world fails to interest them in a certain kind of way—the way that would make them call upon the concept. But to tell someone what they are interested (or not interested) in may be to rob them of their first person authority.

    It is, I think, a fact that people’s first person authority may be shaken, if not lost in certain cases. And relatedly, it is a fact that sometimes people fail to have certain concepts. But when I lose my first person authority, it is not as if someone else gains it instead. First person authority is not a commodity in this way. And if I have lost my first person authority, then I have lost myself, and the only way for YOU to talk to me, and perhaps persuade me about some matter, is to help me restore my first person authority: help me, for instance, discover a certain interest in myself that would make me want to call upon a certain concept. – There is a difference between that and just accusing me of not having the concept.

  4. All good points, Duncan, Matt, and Reshef. Just to add a fairly banal point: it seems to me that it is important to understand that values don't exist in a vacuum, so even apart from the *number* of values, we ought to ask about the way in which they are embedded. Values in and of themselves may not be "goods" in the sense that having this or that particular one always leads to more goodness or a better state of affairs or less suffering. Another way of making my point here is simply to point out that there *is* honor among thieves...

  5. Thanks, Reshef and Martin. I'll address Martin's point first just because it's shorter.

    Martin--yes, and perhaps especially among thieves, thinking of groups like the Mafia (or perhaps the old Mafia, or some myth of the Mafia). Loyalty to a bad cause is not good. Nor is a strong but misguided sense of sanctity, if this is (as I imagine) tied to notions of disgust. Some disgusting things really are bad, e.g. the desecration of corpses. But people who claim to be morally disgusted are often just bigots.

    Reshef--Verifying the lack of a concept in someone's life would be very hard, although in some cases someone might freely (and plausibly) admit not having it. An atheist might seem to have no use for the concept of blasphemy, for instance, and might be happy to admit this. (Really proving that the concept is completely absent from their life might be difficult, but it also might not be worth trying to do.)

    I agree with much of the rest of what you say, but I'm not quite sure what you mean when you talk about robbing someone of their first person authority. Are you thinking of a case where I tell someone they are not interested in something despite their insistence to the contrary? So, if I am one of Haidt's conservatives, I might tell one of Haidt's liberals that she lacks the concepts of sanctity, authority, and loyalty, or that she is not really interested in sanctity, or (loyalty to) her country, say. That kind of claim might be true, but it might be paternalistic, as you say. If they insist that they do have a sense of the sacred (for example) and I tell them that their sense is not genuine or does not count, then that is quite an insult. If it is to be more than an insult then I might need to make a genuine, and non-insulting, attempt to educate them.

    Is that what you mean? Or have I missed the point?

  6. Duncan,
    Yes. This is what I meant. Although it is confusing to me too. For if I lack a concept, then your telling me that is the truth, even if I find it insulting. And prima facie, this lack is my fault, and I don’t have a complaint against you. So where is the moral problem coming from?

    (Telling someone that they lack a concept is, I think, different from telling them that they’re ugly, for instance: It is not just impolite to tell them that they lack a concept. In addition, you seem also to somehow be telling them that they are responsible for the shortcoming. And the responsibility is of a deep kind, because in a sense it is first and foremost a duty to themselves that you are accusing them of failing to fulfill.)

    So perhaps what I’m suggesting is this: The sense in which there is something wrong in saying of someone else that they lack a concept is connected to the fact that saying this is more than just stating a fact (even if it is true)—it has to be more. Saying of someone (even of oneself!) that they lack a concept, in other words, is NOT simply playing the language game of reporting facts.

    I’m suggesting that lack of concept is like lack of interest of a certain kind (interest in the world that would make one call upon the concept). And if I’m right about this, then expressions of lack of concept—like expressions of lack of interest—are primarily asserted in the first person. The relevant language game, that is, is not that of reporting facts, but of giving expression to a mind. If this is true, then accusing someone of lack of concept may involve failure to see that. It is somewhat like trying to express another’s interest for them—another’s opinions, pains, or experiences for them. At least, this is what I suggest.

    Part of the difficulty here is that we sometimes need the help of others when we attempt to express ourselves, and we sometimes can help others when they attempt to express themselves. And that adds another layer of complication. So perhaps we should say something like this: the discussion here is about the place where people are forming, establishing—creating almost ex nihilo—their first person authority. It is the delicate place, where they gain the ability to participate more fully in the language game of self-expression. And perhaps this is also true: helping others is very often not a “safe” activity either. For in order to help others here you have to let yourself be exposed, and examine your own abilities of self-expression.

    I admit that I’m fascinated by the issue you raised: the discussion about lack of concepts, and the relation of that to lack of values. In particular, I’m fascinated by this activity of forming concepts, and values—of acquiring an interest in the world that makes one call upon certain words. And relatedly, I’m interested in the role of others in the process, and more generally in the public nature of the activity—and the special form that this public nature must take. I want to say that making contact with others here is not so much making contact with them in a space; it seems to be more like making contact with them by creating a shared space.

    In any case, it sounds as if Hadit is not so much interested in creating shared spaces. It seems he prefers scolding people. And if my impression is right, then it does not at all make me want to read his book. You’re a better person than I am.

  7. Thanks, Reshef. I'm not a better person than you are, which I will now prove by responding inadequately to this thoughtful comment. I don't think Haidt wants to scold people so much as to understand, or pretend to understand, why they disagree. He does so on the basis of the idea that there is probably some right or truth on each side, combined with the contrarian idea that conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. I don't know whether he's consciously trying to be contrarian in this kind of way--it seems almost perfectly designed to sell copies of his book--but it's just about plausible enough to be taken seriously and surprising enough to be interesting (or "interesting"). I want to read it because it's a more or less scientific study of ethics, and I'm interested in ethics, but I know you are too. What I mean is I'm interested specifically in the question of what people believe, what values they have, and how this might explain disagreements about contemporary moral issues (there is a connection with teaching, here, and with a textbook that I'd like to write). I don't relish the prospect of actually reading the book, because it seems misconceived and is very long. But it's all part of the job.

    Lacking a concept seems to involve not having noticed certain facts and/or a kind of connection between them. So to say of someone that they lack a concept is to suggest a kind of dopiness on their part, a lack of education in the sense in which one might educate oneself (or be educated by others, or some combination of self and others). So, yes, I think it has to do with self-expression, but not in a straightforward way. I don't know about creating a shared space. Maybe that's right. And I don't at all have a clear sense of what I'm talking about. But I think it's more like leading someone into a space they have not previously been aware of. You share it with them as you lead them, so there is a sense in which you create a shared sense but also a sense in which the space is already there. It's like leading someone to like a kind of music or food that they don't get. I think. They come to see the world a different, bigger, way.