Saturday, August 31, 2013

Comments on Haidt's Righteous Mind: Moral Convention vs. Universal

It's good; you should read it. There are multiple good reviews elsewhere, but suffice it to say, he builds a case using empirical psychology data with some evolutionary psychology arguments that human morality is built on six different foundations, and the differences between individuals and groups are mostly differences between how much we emphasize each foundation (rather than completely ignoring them). There is a clear problem that arises in the context of a globalized world, one that he didn't address, perhaps deliberately.

That is: the only way to tolerate differences in your neighbor's values, is either 1) not be in a position to do anything about it anyway, or 2) not consider your values to apply to all humans. And the only two way to accomplish #2 are a) consider your neighbors to be less than human or to otherwise believe their moral character is irrelevant, or b) admit that your values are provincial.

Haidt draws a strong distinction between the WEIRD experimental subjects that have produced most moral psychology data so far (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) who are actually quite strange relative to most humans, and maybe even relative to most other people in their own countries. He points out that secular WEIRD individuals place most of their morality on the harm/care foundation, neglecting others like authority and sanctity. He doesn't make an explicit value judgment to either the more "complete" traditional moralities vs. the harm-based WEIRD morality, but he does recognize that oppression and unhappiness can arise more easily from strongly authority and sanctity-based morality. Our WEIRD morality is strange precisely because it's not a natural condition of human minds and in each of us who hold it, is a product of long education and conditioning. Have we made a mistake, or might this be progress? After all, individuals suffer, and groups don't, and if individuals suffer because of arbitrary commitments made in morality-space by their culture, it's hard to see why that's acceptable. Someone is depressed because they happen to be part of a culture that says homosexuality is impure and the prophet said so and can't be questioned?

I am obviously reacting to such moral systems with my WEIRD harm-based morality. And here is the problem: people with these very different moral systems meet each other, in trade, in tourism, on the internet, and increasingly, as next door neighbors. Haidt does point out a difference bewteen universals and social conventions, but both of these become problematic. For one thing, when there is a group with sacred practices mandatory for its members, but not for the greater population, it's unclear how it's not dehumanizing the outgroup by dismissing their ignorance of said practices. For example, Jews circumcise boys and do not allow pig products to be consumed, but it's fine if gentiles do it. It seems that either people notice the difference from what they're doing compared to what they're Christian neighbor is doing, and on some level don't take their own rituals too seriously; or they do take them seriously, and don't consider the outgroup worthy of the same level of consideration. (Well of course you say, it's an in-group ritual, that's the point; but my point is it's different when you're one tribe of people surrounded by the desert, versus interspersed with other people that behave very differently who you have to constantly acknowledge. It's probably no surprise that assimilation becomes an issue.)

On the other hand, when something is considered a universal, in a globalized world we have the opposite problem. Where next door neighbors are either forced to on some level consider their neighbors inferior or just not take the rituals seriously, a universalist can only work to spread their value to everyone. Again, when it's the neolithic and you're an isolated city-state this doesn't present such a burden. But if you have (for example) a major prohibition against creating images of your prophet (let's just call him, oh I don't know, Allah) and then you see one such image in a cartoon from another country, it doesn't matter where it is or whether it's a Muslim country; you feel obligated to act on it.


Pat said...

Haidt's glib assumptions disturbed me upon reading Righteous Mind. I do think your points are valid but there's more to it I think.

Haidt's research is significant but his conclusions seem weaker, purporting validity simply on account of having claimed something as moral. He's definitely got my harm-based value system pegged, as I can't imagine a moral system which does not take that into account.

On the other hand a convention-based value system could, as your Aztec example suggests, entail largescale slaughter of innocents. Therefore his guiding principle is not outcome but the fact that a significant number of persons embrace something. Following that line of reasoning there might be a scenario by which Haidt would have us summon deference to a belief system which from all educated assessments would likely lead to our extinction. What good would that be and how would it be moral.

I get the creepy feeling that he's indulging in a word game, not having offered full definitions of the basic concepts he employs. He offers no place for delusion which is the main thrust of much more ambitious works by thinkers such as Fromm and others. I suspect that this is because he omits the judgment of outcome. No moral system can stand in judgment of any other.

Conspicuous by its absence was any analysis of a moral system that might entail convention that would certainly lead to a negation of its own principles. Quite often a convention-based moral system will claim that its principles lead to a superior outcome. In fact, it's difficult to gain popular support without having done so. That is where the ship of a convention-based moral system crashes on the rocks. But since there is no criteria for success of judgment it cannot be questioned and we must take Haidt on his word that others might "benefit" from listening and, if I hear him correctly, borrow from it...because he tells us so, because there can be no delusion or contradiction, and because no princpals proponents of a moral system make claims to its efficacy. All of which is, of course, nonsense.

He carefully constructs a box from which there is no escape. There is no basis for questioning any moral system because of the sanctity of anything deemed moral. And if you do take exception your guilty of moral hubris. No one could ever make headway against such an argument because all bases for argument are eliminated when an assessment of a moral system is a moral one.

In some ways his contentions reminds me of Goedel's work in mathematical logic in which he basically, via logical proof arrives at a contradiction, in essence proving that no self-contained system can prove itself. The only difference being that he takes the negative approach, asserting that no marl system can disprove my opinion slick, but hardly compelling.

I have other examples of Haidt's grandiose hubris, mostly from hot air he blows in interviews. His research it much less affected by his own moralizing. I suspect that's because of what he might risk in some review by his peers. In a side of himself that he exposes to popular culture he strikes me as careless and egocentric.

What bothers me even more is that on many occasions he then rushes to the head of the class to claim that he personally has the answer as he begins to castigate the harm-based perspective.

Pat said...

After thought...another good criticism comes from Sam Harris:

Michael Caton said...

Thanks for your comment as well as for Harris's link. I'm actually a (literal) card-carrying new atheist, and I think Sam Harris's position there is the correct one - namely, that there is such a thing as a universal morality for human beings that relies on harm consequentialism. But allow me to defend Haidt for a second, because I don't think he's guilty of these charges. Haidt is mostly descriptive rather than normative. He's telling us how humans do behave, not how we *should* behave. (He does recommend that people with purely harm-based systems should at least understand that there are other dimensions that other moral systems use in their actual behavior.) About these other moral systems he makes no assertion whether they're good or bad.

I wasn't aware of a Harris comment on this previously, and I'm actually very surprised at Harris's labeling Haidt as a relativist. This seems to be a rare case of Harris missing the point. It's like this: imagine you were to research and then write a book describing the ways that the actual car manufacturers of the world build cars, you would of course note that some of them build combustion engines a little differently from the others. Maybe you present this to the Ford engineering department, and they're quite surprised at some of the things that the other manufacturers are doing, which aren't important to Ford. But in so doing, you would not a) be recommending to Ford (or anyone) how to build their own cars and b) it would be very strange indeed for people to accuse you of not believing in the objective reality of the laws of combustion and physics that these engines rely on. That seems to be what's going on here.