Monday, May 28, 2012

More Haidt

OK, I've finished the first part (roughly the first third) of Haidt's book, and it's more of the same. He writes very clearly and uses lots of neat examples from psychology and philosophy. It would be interesting to try to use it as a textbook, except I think you would have to work to get students to believe the good bits and doubt the bad bits. Mostly he's arguing that people are not all that rational, that we tend to rationalize non-rational feelings rather than think things through on the basis of pure reason, and we rarely change our minds as a result of reasoning, although we do as a result of peer pressure. We are social animals, believing overwhelmingly what we have evolved to believe or what our social groups tell us to believe. Reason is not the slave of the passions, but it mostly does what they ask and only rarely steers the elephant in a direction it does not want to go.

None of this really strikes me as being anything like as new as Haidt seems to think it is, although his confirming evidence is certainly up to date. That most people are not very rational is something Plato believed, after all. That no living person is completely rational is also a platonic belief. And that wise decisions are more likely to come from a group of people than from an individual is also something Plato would be likely to accept (although, of course, it depends on the people, as I assume Haidt would accept too). That moral philosophy will not make a bad person good was known to Aristotle. And Haidt's general view is very much a Humean one, with the twist that reason is not quite the slave of the passions, at least not all the time. And I imagine most philosophers would agree with that (otherwise why be a philosopher?).

[UPDATE: Perhaps I should qualify this. When Hume says that reason is the slave of the passions he means that reason sets no goals, it can at most tell us how to achieve those goals. When Haidt agrees with Hume, what he means is that people make moral judgments and decisions on the basis of things like feeling, instinct, and peer pressure, not reason. When Haidt suggests that people sometimes use reason to come to conclusions about morality and politics he may or may not be saying something that Hume would agree with, depending on exactly what he means. When I say that most philosophers would probably agree with Haidt I mean that they probably value reason and see it as something more than a way to rationalize non-rational feelings. They still might be subjectivists about ethics.]

Haidt's position is pretty orthodox philosophically, but he keeps bashing philosophy all the same, either out of ignorance or to keep up the appearance that his message is more explosive than it really is.

Deontologists [apparently the only thing moral philosophers can be other than utilitarians] talk about high moral principles derived and justified by careful reasoning; they would never agree that these principles are merely post hoc rationalizations of gut feelings. [p. 65]
Taken literally this might be true, but I think Leon Kass and Elizabeth Anscombe might be exactly the kind of people he wants to deny exist. We aren't all caricatures of Kant. Maybe no one is.

On p. 67 Haidt quotes Joshua Greene's conclusion of a study of people's moral judging and reasoning, to the effect that we have strong feelings about what must be done or not done, and then try to rationalize these feelings. Haidt sees it as a "stunning example of consilience" (p. 67). The "action" in ethics is supposedly shown to be in emotion, not reasoning. Ethics has been "biologized."

The problem here, as I see it, is that Haidt treats everyone as if they are doing moral psychology, just (sometimes) really badly. The low point is perhaps on pp. 73-74, where Haidt writes:
As is often the case in moral philosophy, arguments about what we ought to do depend upon assumptions--often unstated--about human nature and human psychology.
Then there's a footnote:
At least Plato stated his assumptions at great length. Many other moral philosophers, such as Kant and Rawls, simply make assertions about how minds work, what people want, or what seems "reasonable." These assertions seem to be based on little more than introspection about their own rather unusual personalities or value systems.
He goes on to say that Rawls is wrong because it has been found that most people would not care more about raising the standard of living of the least well-off person than about raising that of the average person  if designing a society from behind a veil of ignorance.

Kant's value system is basically Christian. Rawls's is liberal. Neither is exactly unusual, and the idea that their moral views are based on unstated assumptions about psychology is odd. What assumptions does Haidt have in mind? He leaves this unstated. How, in what way, are they assumed? He doesn't say. Anyone who says that Kant simply makes assertions about how minds work has not read the first Critique. And anyone who thinks we can test empirically what people behind the veil of ignorance would think (bearing in mind that such people would be ignorant of their own race and sex, for instance, i.e. they would not be real people) has seemingly not read even the Wikipedia entry on Rawls. I don't blame Haidt for not having read Kant or Rawls. But why bash them in that case?

Kant and Rawls are not doing psychology. Their concern is not primarily with what or how people think about ethics or politics but with what and how people should think. The categorical imperative is a justification (or rationalization, if you prefer) of certain values, and a tool for solving moral dilemmas. If Kant thinks it is rational that's because he thinks it's good (in a particular kind of way), not because he thinks that is how people actually do reason. And the same kind of thing goes for Rawls. If people were rational, he claims, they would draw the conclusions he draws concerning the basic principles of justice. I haven't read the study that Haidt cites, but Rawls is not making the kind of claim that could be empirically confirmed or refuted. So either the study is misconceived or else Haidt has misrepresented it. The abstract of the paper says that:
Overwhelmingly, the chosen principle is maximizing the average income with a floor constraint: a principle which is a compromise between those proposed by Rawls and Harsanyi. It takes into account not only the position of the worst-off individual but also the potential expected gain for the rest of society.
But, of course, the people in this study were not in the original position. So Rawls is not proved wrong, however suggestive or curious the findings might be.

Simply put, moral philosophy cannot be biologized because of the fact/value distinction. (However much of a continuum there might be linking the factual with the evaluative, it is still important to be able to see the difference between the factual, positive end and the normative, evaluative end.)

Another curiosity:
Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. (p. 89)
Over the page he expands:
I'm not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law. Rather, what I'm saying is that we must be wary of any individual's ability to reason.
We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.
So reasoning should be carried out dialectically, with exchange of ideas and peer review. (Maybe we should even have government by a group of intelligent and ethical people who pool their wisdom for the good of the state. You wouldn't get Plato thinking of anything like that!) Thank goodness for modern science!

Haidt ends every chapter with an "In Sum" section. Here's mine:

  • Haidt writes engagingly and lucidly about matters of great interest and importance, citing lots of recent empirical studies to support his conclusions
  • These conclusions are largely in line with what most philosophers would tell you about people's moral thinking, and indeed are at least mostly in line with what I think of as common sense  
  • Yet Haidt, who clearly does not understand philosophy, presents his findings as a mighty blow to philosophy, as if it were a powerful giant that needs to be defeated because it is nothing more than bad science. The plucky David who slays this evil Goliath is none other than that lovable underdog, modern science. Hurrah!  

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