Sunday, May 27, 2012

Philosophy envy?

I've started reading Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind and I'm glad I have. It certainly seems to be the kind of book I should read, since it is popular, somewhat scientific (and therefore more academically significant than a merely popular book), and deals with ethics. But it's annoying too. Most of my annoyance comes from Haidt's treatment of philosophy, which seems very unfair. I can't tell whether this unfairness is deliberate or not, but Haidt does say that he started out wanting to be a philosopher (or student of philosophy at least) before switching to psychology. So I wonder whether some lingering resentment is showing through in his treatment of philosophy.

Here are some examples. On p. 28 Haidt says that:
Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There's a direct line running from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg. I'll refer to this worshipful attitude throughout this book as the rationalist delusion.
The connection between Kant and Kohlberg is fair enough, but is there really a direct line from Plato to Kant? The influence doesn't seem very direct to me. Perhaps more to the point, when Plato and Kant talk about reason, or something that gets translated into English as 'reason', they aren't necessarily talking about the same thing. And even more to the point that I want to make, Western philosophy should not be identified with Plato and Kant. Approximately no one agrees with Plato, and Kant is not short of critics.

On p. 32 Haidt brings in Rawls:
He [Edward O. Wilson] was a professor at Harvard, along with Lawrence Kohlberg and the philosopher John Rawls, so [!] he was well acquainted with their brand of rationalist theorizing about rights and justice. It seemed clear to Wilson that what the rationalists were really doing was  generating clever justifications for moral intuitions that were best explained by evolution. Do people believe in human rights because such rights actually exist, like mathematical truths, sitting on a cosmic shelf next to the Pythagorean theorem just waiting to be discovered by Platonic reasoners? Or do people feel revulsion and sympathy when they read accounts of torture, and then invent a story about universal rights to help justify their feelings?
I don't know that Rawls would deny that what he is really doing is generating clever justifications for moral intuitions. He said his project was political, not metaphysical, after all, didn't he? But to say that these intuitions are better explained by evolution is to fail to distinguish reasons from causes. Rawls is not trying to explain how we have come, historically, to have the intuitions we do. He is trying to offer the best way to make sense of the intuitions we have. It is also to be optimistic about the explanatory power of evolution. I don't mean that evolution is not true, only that its truth does not always help us understand why things are as they are. Often it provides little more than a basis for plausible just-so stories.

The bit about mathematical truths is amazing. Is there a cosmic shelf? No. So what would Haidt say about the Pythagorean theorem? That it is a clever justification for mathematical intuitions best explained by evolution? Maybe it is something like that. It is still true. To say otherwise, on the grounds that evolution provides a "better" explanation, would be to misunderstand the nature of mathematics. And there seems to be a similar misunderstanding of philosophy here.

Thankfully, scientists have now shown Western philosophy, i.e. Plato, to be wrong. Reason ought not to be in control, because of the "shocking revelation" that "reasoning requires the passions" (p. 34). Silly Plato. He should have listened to that guy who compared the mind to a chariot pulled by two horses with reason at the reins. Without passion the chariot won't go. To be fair to Haidt, he does provide reasons to reject this as a picture of how the mind works. As he sees it, the mind is more like an elephant over which the rational part, which rides it, has little control. Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions. That's right, in opposition to the naive and discredited theories of Western philosophy, Haidt supports the view of .... David Hume. Not just implicitly, but very explicitly, with quotations and name checks. Bizarre.

I suppose it makes for a popular story. Philosophy is hard and not just anyone can do it well, so let's reject it as irrelevant. If that means wildly distorting what philosophers actually believe then so be it. (In case anyone reading this doesn't know; Hume is extremely popular with contemporary philosophers, Plato is not.) Sad to see.

More later, no doubt, with plenty of puns on Haidt's name: sheer Haidt, Haidters gonna Haidt, etc.

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