Saturday, June 2, 2012

Haidt gets better

Part II of The Righteous Mind is much better than Part I. It consists of four chapters, and I'll say a little about each.

Chapter 5 is not great. Haidt rightly notes that utilitarian and Kantian ethics focus on one thing, happiness or autonomy, and say little about virtues or God, unlike other moral systems. But he calls this a Western phenomenon, rather than simply a feature of two kinds of theory, as if virtue ethics, communitarianism, and the natural law tradition, for instance, just don't figure in Western thinking. Admittedly, he's talking here about the moral thinking of the American college students on whom many psychological studies are based, but surely some of them think, as he seems to deny, in terms of community and divinity, or at lest some plurality of values. Indeed, Haidt goes on to identify narrowness in moral thinking with liberalism, and not all college students are liberals. His labeling system is so crude that he ascribes the "ethic of autonomy" not only to John Stuart Mill but to Peter Singer as well. Singer apparently values justice and rights "only to the extent that they increase human welfare" (p. 99). He should read Animal Liberation. Sigh.

The really good thing about this chapter is that Haidt supports, or at least implies support for, pluralism. He believes in multiple values, not just, say autonomy. Good. (He insists that he isn't making value judgments, only doing psychology about our moral thinking, but then he also uses sub-headings such as "How I Became a Pluralist," so it seems pretty clear that he is not just describing others' beliefs.) He says that seeing that people have different moral matrices (an idea I quite like) helped him understand how decent people could vote for the Republicans. They aren't just racist poor people and self-interested rich people after all! But, I would say, not so fast. And I don't mean this as a slam on Republicans. Democrats are quite capable of self-interest and racism too. Liberals can be prejudiced. It seems like an excess of charity to suggest that political differences come (entirely or primarily) from different value systems in which only recognizably good things are valued. In fact, surely nasty prejudices account for a lot of the things people do and even for the beliefs people claim to have. And surely self-interest is a big motivator, even if economists sometimes overstate its importance.

Chapter 6 starts with Haidt's theory of moral taste. Again he talks about Hume, again he disses "ethicists" who, supposedly, much prefer deontology and utilitarianism to anything Hume would have liked. Hume was not a million miles away from utilitarianism, though, and, as I mentioned above, there is such a thing as virtue ethics. It's quite popular with ethicists, even if it isn't the majority view. Haidt is exaggerating, and probably just ignorant about the people whose views he happily writes off. But it gets worse. He begins to speculate on p. 116 that Bentham and Kant might have suffered from the kind of autism called Asperger's syndrome. He officially concludes that Kant probably did not, but the idea is certainly planted in the reader's mind that these philosophers have something wrong with them. Never mind that Mill was a utilitarian too, and certainly not autistic. On p. 120 Haidt begins a section entitled "Getting Back on Track." So the Asperger's business was irrelevant after all? Then why include it? Anti-philosophy propaganda, it seems to me. Haidt seems to be counting on his readers to tend to ignore whatever people with autism have to say. And he seems to be counting on them to make diagnoses of dead philosophers that are not supported by the evidence. Ugly.

The chapter ends on a better note, as Haidt tells of his investigation into "identifying the adaptive challenges of social life that evolutionary psychologists frequently wrote about and then connecting those challenges to virtues that are found in some form in many cultures" (p. 124). He comes up, at this stage, with five such virtues: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Chapter 7 goes through these "moral foundations" in turn, explaining the evolutionary advantage of each, and how it affects current moral thinking (and unthinking reactions).

  • The genes of those who care for the young, weak, sick, and injured tend to survive more than those of people who don't. Hence, we care. "It was harder to find bumper stickers related to compassion for conservatives" (p. 134), and liberals seem to care more than conservatives, but we all care and oppose harm.
  • Cooperation has survival value, too, so we all value reciprocity (fairness) and oppose cheating. Liberals dislike the rich getting a better deal than the poor, conservatives dislike the lazy getting a better deal than hard-working people. (Let me just note that what people say might not be what they really mean. Do conservatives object to rich lazy people? Do they want a better deal for hardworking janitors? I'm sure some do, but some distinctions between the "hard-working" and the "lazy" might be code for social snobbery or just racism. Haidt doesn't show signs of having given this possibility much serious consideration.)
  • Loyalty is good, betrayal is bad. But liberals are so focused on care and their version of fairness that they tend to emphasize loyalty much less than conservatives do. Sports fans and patriots are more likely to be conservative.
  • Hierarchical structures are often useful (Haidt is somewhat tentative in this area), so it's good for people to be able to show due respect for authority and deference when appropriate. Liberals tend to be more subversive than conservatives, or to think of subversion of authority as a positively good thing.
  • It helps to try new things and not be too picky, but adventurousness can be dangerous. Foreign foods and foreign people can be toxic or germ-bearing, so might be best avoided. Haidt identifies this kind of thinking as a concern with "sanctity," and it is bigger among conservatives than liberals. It even extends to things like respect for the flag. (This seems like a very mixed bag, but there you are.)
Chapter 8 talks about surveys taken to find out the moral attitudes and beliefs of liberals and conservatives. Self-identified liberals care much more about care and fairness than the other values Haidt has identified. Self-identified conservatives care about all of them. But conservatives were not all happy when they heard about Haidt's research and findings. One explained angrily that what he opposes is not what Haidt said but his being taxed and the money given to "a non-producing, welfare collecting, single mother, crack baby producing future democrat" (p. 168). Another identified a typical Democrat as someone who, among other things, has "had 5 kids from 3 different men." Note the sex of the person these conservatives most dislike. (It might also be worth thinking of what the popular image of people on welfare is--it isn't exactly rare for them to be pictured, e.g. in news stories, as African-American.)

Haidt does not mention this. His conclusion instead is that he had made a mistake in treating fairness as if it were mostly a matter of equality. Conservatives don't want equality as such, they want proportionality. People should get what they deserve, with the lazy getting much less than the hard-working. So he adjusts his conception of fairness, and also adds another moral foundation: liberty. People want to be left alone, and they don't want oppression.It's hard to believe that Haidt draws this conclusion from that evidence, but if you can, read pp. 168-169 for yourself (here or here, perhaps). I like his plurality of values, and the fact that he wants to avoid just-so stories in evolutionary psychology, and that he wants to understand why people think and behave as they do. But his own prejudices and his treatment of the prejudices of others are bizarre, and seem to distort his theory quite badly.        

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