Monday, June 4, 2012

The end of Haidt

(His name rhymes with height, by the way.)

The final third of The Righteous Mind offers an evolutionary hypothesis about why people are social animals, or "groupish," as Haidt puts it (which I won't try to assess--it sounds reasonable to me); suggests that we can become 'hive-minded' in certain circumstances (ancient phalanxes and modern raves, for instance); suggests further that religion can be explained in evolutionary terms because it helps bind groups together; and then suggests ways we might all learn to get along better. It's a bit of a mess, but not all bad.

On p. 190 he concedes that "a great deal of our moral, political, and religious behavior can be understood as thinly veiled ways of pursuing self-interest." How much is a great deal? On p. 315, in the first paragraph of his conclusion, Haidt calls moral psychology "the key to understanding politics." He isn't contradicting himself here, but there is something of a tension. We are left to imagine how it is meant to be resolved. Perhaps self-interest makes up a significant minority of the reason why we disagree over politics. Perhaps it is the main reason, but moral psychology allows us to understand the mysterious rest. I don't know what Haidt thinks. 

Chapter 10 concerns what it takes to switch our minds from merely groupish, but still largely self-interested, to bee-like parts of a collective hive-mind. Haidt suggests University of Virginia football games (I must not have been drunk enough when I went), witnessing nature's awesomeness, drugs, and dancing with lots of other people at raves. So a drug-fuelled rave in a field (with thousands of UVA fans) ought to be close to the ultimate buzz (ho ho). I almost regret not having had that experience, but I can too easily imagine that it would have been very much as Jarvis Cocker describes in "Sorted for E's and Whizz" (i.e. "adequately supplied with Ecstasy and amphetamines"):
Oh is this the way they say the future's meant to feel?
Or just 20,000 people standing in a field.
And I don't quite understand just what this feeling is.
But that's okay cos we're all sorted out for E's and whizz.
And tell me when the spaceship lands cos all this has just got to mean something.

In the middle of the night,
it feels alright,
but then tomorrow morning.
Oh then you come down.
Haidt doesn't say much about this problem, but he does recognize a downside to the hive. A nation-sized hive, he says, would be bad (he quotes The Doctrine of Fascism). But without membership in some smaller-scale hive we might suffer from Durkheimian anomie. We need to find a group or team to identify with. How about a football team? After all:
A college football game is a superb analogy for religion. (p. 247)
Well, no it isn't. Basically because of the fact that "all this has just got to mean something," and football doesn't have the right kind or quantity of meaning to offer. (I still like it, but that's not the point.)

More superficiality and ignorance from Chapter 11:
[T]he two most important thinkers in the history of the social sciences [are] Darwin and Durkheim. (p. 259)
Really? Not Marx or Weber? No psychologists or economists?
Gods and religions, in sum, are group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust. (p. 264)
Ah. Maybe it's unfair to take a statement like this out of context. After all, don't I agree with it, really? I sort of do, but it still strikes me as superficial. Almost breathtakingly so.
Utilitarians since Jeremy Bentham have focused intently on individuals. They try to improve the welfare of society by giving individuals what they want. But a Durkheimian version of utilitarianism would recognize that human flourishing requires social order and embeddedness. It would begin with the premise that social order is extraordinarily precious and difficult to achieve. (p. 272)
Didn't Bentham's immediate follower J.S. Mill say quite a bit about the importance of society, and not just the individual, in Utilitarianism? Haidt appears not to have read it.

In the last main chapter, Haidt tells us of his own political and moral views, and how they changed from being narrowly liberal to more open-minded, when he went to India, and then to more conservative, when he read Jerry Muller (ed.) Conservatism. This book taught Haidt that conservatives view human nature as inherently flawed, and understand the importance of maintaining society's moral structure. Liberals, he says, tend to damage this delicate structure by going too far too quickly. His own view is a wise mix of liberal and conservative, not surprisingly: governments should restrain corporate excesses (liberal), regulation is the solution to some problems (liberal), markets are "miraculous" (libertarian conservative), and "you can't help the bees by destroying the hive" (social conservative).

The last, conservative, two points are odd. Markets do work in remarkable ways, and freedom generally is a very good thing. But does anyone really deny this? Did Bill Clinton? Does Barack Obama? On p. 305 Haidt writes:
I find it ironic that liberals generally embrace Darwin and reject "intelligent design" as the explanation for design and adaptation in the natural world, but they don't embrace Adam Smith as the explanation for design and adaptation in the economic world. They sometimes prefer the "intelligent design" of socialist economies, which often ends in disaster from a utilitarian point of view.
How often is sometimes? And who are we talking about here? No one with any serious influence on US policy or legislation, surely. Or does Haidt have some peculiar definition of socialism in mind? I wonder how much Smith he has read. The liberal Martha Nussbaum is a fan, after all, rather like, it seems to me, every mainstream Democrat.

When he gets to his social conservatism Haidt suddenly starts talking in metaphors. He spells out a few more details on p. 309, but there isn't much there:
For example, the urge to help the inner-city poor led to welfare programs in the 1960s that reduced the value of marriage [Haidt doesn't explain how this is even possible, let alone how it supposedly happened], increased out-of-wedlock births, and weakened African American families. The urge to empower students by giving them the right to sue their teachers and schools in the 1970s has eroded authority and moral capital in schools, creating disorderly environments that harm the poor above all. The urge to help Hispanic immigrants in the 1980s led to multicultural education programs that emphasized the differences among Americans rather than their shared values and identity. Emphasizing differences makes many people [liberals?, conservatives?--this seems relevant if we're assigning blame] more racist, not less.
The paragraph ends there, without further examples from the 1990s and 2000s, and is followed by the hand-wavy, "On issue after issue, it's as though liberals are trying to help a subset of bees (which really does need help) even if doing so damages the hive."

I'm not convinced that liberals should be judged by what they seem to be trying to do. Nor are they necessarily wrong in general if some of their efforts to help those in need have unintended bad consequences, either in addition to their good consequences or instead of having any good consequences at all. The record of liberals on social issues in the 1960s and 1970s is surely better than that of conservatives on the whole. I don't hear many calls for a return to segregation, even here in the graveyard of the Confederacy. I agree with the Burkean idea of changing slowly when possible, and only changing at all when necessary, but I see no evidence that liberal social policies have "destroyed the hive." It wasn't welfare that created problems for African Americans, and social conservatives don't have an exemplary record in this particular area.

In sum: Haidt talks a bit like Sarah Palin, but what he actually says sounds like a mainstream Democrat who accepts that everyone is capable of making mistakes. He also talks as if philosophy is irrelevant, but takes inspiration for some key ideas from Hume (people aren't nearly as rational as we might think) and Isaiah Berlin (moral pluralism). He seems, in short, to be rejecting the very things he is, in fact, embracing. I can't tell whether this is a deliberate tactic or just a sign of confusion.

To me the most interesting part of the book is the middle section, the one where he identifies six moral foundations: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity. Each has a polar opposite, which helps to define it: harm, oppression, cheating, betrayal, subversion, degradation. It seems clear that harm and oppression are bad, or, put another way, that care and liberty are good. Fairness/cheating is trickier, because cheating seems like a kind of harm, but let's allow this one too. Now what about loyalty/betrayal? Loyalty to good people is good, but loyalty to bad people might not be. And not only might betrayal be good, when the person you betray is bad, but betrayal also sounds very close to cheating. If you break a promise is that cheating or betrayal? I would lump fairness and loyalty together and call them justice. And I think I'd do the same with authority/subversion. Authority is something like rightful or just power, and subversion (I would think) is only bad when what is subverted is good. (Which allows for the conservative point that, other things being equal, the status quo is always good.)

Finally we have sanctity/degradation. This is a weird one. Degradation sounds really bad, but simply regarding some things as sacred doesn't sound particularly good. "Is nothing sacred?" has rhetorical power, but it matters what is held to be sacred (not simply that something be so held). Haidt uses this category to cover respect for the American flag, an aversion to marijuana and other toxins, opposition to same-sex marriage, and xenophobia. But isn't respect for the flag more a matter of loyalty? On p. 149 Haidt even lists liberty, one of the other six foundations, as something that people hold to be sacred. So is sacredness really a sixth foundation, or is it an attitude toward the other five moral foundations? Opposition to immigration and love of the flag seem to me to be forms (perhaps misguided forms) of loyalty to a particular group, which is already covered under loyalty. Marijuana and same-sex marriage are connected by a concern (again, perhaps a misguided one) with the human body. Smoking anything is bad for the body, and if the body is a temple then this is a moral issue. Sexual ethics are related to this. Again, if the body is a temple then it matters how we use it, and one view is that certain kinds of sex are inappropriate. I would group concerns about sex and the body into a category called 'life', which is clearly an important concern in contemporary moral issues.

So instead of Haidt's six foundations I would focus on four clusters of issues: care/harm (or pleasure/pain), liberty/oppression (or autonomy versus its absence), justice/injustice, and life/death (including ideas about sexuality and the human body). But I agree with him that it's very helpful to see people as having different values, or caring about things in different ways, rather than as simply being right or wrong, moral or immoral. To the extent that this is his main point, I agree with him and value his book. I also agree with his picture of human nature as mostly non-rational. But the book does leave something to be desired, especially in its treatment of philosophy.

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