NeuroPsychology Of Politics – Haidt Two


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This is the second installment of an interview with BELIEVER  magazine, in which Dr. Haidt says that “reason is the press secretary of the emotions”.  In a process he calls “moral dumbfounding”, the students’ moral beliefs are challenged, forcing them struggle intellectually.  How they struggle, how they come to their conclusions, deal with their emotions, is the ultimate goal of the research.  I believe.

it’s actually our intuitions—fueled by our emotions—that are doing most of the work

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BLVR: I want to talk about the philosophical implications of your model for a moment. When I came across your work, I thought it provided a good deal of support for a position we can describe as moral skepticism. In particular, I thought the social intuitionist model makes plausible the claim that there is no such thing as objective moral truth, even though human beings believe that some of their moral judgments are objectively true.[1] But you don’t draw skeptical conclusions from your findings, do you?

JH: For me it all hinges on the distinction made by David Wiggins between anthropocentric truths and nonanthropocentric truths. If anybody thinks that moral truths are going to be facts about the universe, that any rational creature on any planet would be bound by, then no such facts exist. I think that moral truths are like truths about beauty, truths about comedy. Some comedians really are funnier than others. Some people really are more beautiful than others. But these are true only because of the kinds of creatures we happen to be; the perceptual apparatus—apparati—that we happen to have. So moral facts emerge out of who we are in interaction with the people in our culture.

BLVR: So you would call those truths? Take someone like Drew Barrymore—some people find her fairly hot while other people don’t see what the big deal is. You would say that there is some truth concerning what her aesthetic appeal really is?

JH: Well, apparently, if there’s that much disagreement about her, she must be somewhere in the middle. There’s much less disagreement about Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney. So they are more attractive than Drew Barrymore.

BLVR: So in other words, the way you determine the truth is by how much agreement there is?

JH: It’s not that simple. But these are truths in which how people respond is the most important piece of evidence. You could never say that person X is really hot even though nobody thinks so. I think about it this way. One of my favorite quotes is from Max Weber: “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun.” So I think that with morality, we build a castle in the air and then we live in it, but it is a real castle. It has no objective foundation, a foundation outside of our fantasy, but that’s true about money; that’s true about music; that’s true about most of the things that we care about.

BLVR: So give me an example of some ethical truths in the limited sense that you’re talking about.

JH: Let’s see… you should value and repay those who are good to you. You should protect and care for those who you are superior to, in a dominant position to. You should not hurt people unless there’s a very good reason to do so—where good reason means a moral reason, not just a reason advantageous to yourself.

BLVR: So let’s take one of those: you should take care of those people who are in an inferior position to you—

JH: You have a position of authority over them… so you should take care of them.

BLVR: What makes that true?

JH: What makes that true… what makes that true… now I feel like I’m the subject of one of my own dumbfounding experiments.

BLVR: Well, that’s what I’m wondering. Why isn’t this one of those cases?

JH: Nothing makes it true—it’s a truth that grows out of who we are… what makes that true… See, I guess that’s the wrong question. This is—I know that philosophers are very into justifications but… nothing makes it true.

BLVR: OK, but then how—

JH: Well, OK, let’s see. Catherine Zeta-Jones is beautiful—what makes that true? Um, her… shape, I suppose.

BLVR: But don’t people think that there’s a difference between moral truths and aesthetic truths? If someone doesn’t find Catherine Zeta-Jones beautiful, for whatever reason, you don’t necessarily think that he’s wrong, do you?

JH: I might, actually.

BLVR: Most would think that maybe he just has different tastes. Maybe he likes blondes, he likes men, he hates Australians, or whatever. But now take a moral judgment like “it’s wrong to torture people.” If someone says, “no, it’s not wrong at all… it’s fun, actually, you should try it,” you don’t just think: to each his own. You think he’s wrong, that he’s made a mistake. And that’s where you want justifications—you want to be able to convince people that they’re wrong in a way that has nothing to do with their individual preferences on the matter.

JH: That’s right, so we need justifications for our moral beliefs; we don’t need them for our aesthetic beliefs. We can tolerate great diversity in our aesthetic beliefs, but we can’t tolerate much diversity in our moral beliefs. We tend to split and dislike each other. I recently wrote a paper on moral diversity, addressing the fact that many people, especially in academic settings, think that diversity is a virtue in itself. Diversity is not a virtue. Diversity is a good only to the extent that it advances other virtues, justice or inclusiveness of others who have previously been excluded. But people are wrong when they say that everything should be more diverse, even, say, rock bands. It’s an error, an overgeneralization. I’m sorry—back to your question. And this relates to the distinction between moral pluralism and moral relativism. I subscribe to the former, not the latter.

BLVR: Talk about that for a moment. What’s the difference?

JH: What I want to say is that there are at least four foundations of our moral sense, but there are many coherent moral systems that can be built on these four foundations. But not just anything can be built on these four foundations. So I believe that an evolutionary approach specifying the foundation of our moral sense can allow us to appreciate Hindu and Muslim cultures where women are veiled and seem to us to lead restricted lives. These are not necessarily oppressive and immoral cultures. Given that most of the world believes that gender role differences are good and right and proper, they are unlikely to be wrong, by which I mean, they are unlikely to be incoherent or ungrammatical moralities. We in America, especially liberals, use only two of these four bases. Liberals use intuitions about suffering (aversion to) and intuitions about reciprocity, fairness, and equality.

But there are two other foundations—there are intuitions about hierarchy, respect, duty… that’s one cluster. And intuitions about purity and pollution, which generate further intuitions about chastity and modesty. Most human cultures use all four of these bases to ground their moral worldviews. We in the West, in modern times especially, have to some extent discarded the last two. We have built our morality entirely on issues about harm (the first pillar), and rights, and justice (the second). Our morality is coherent. We can critique people who do things that violate it within our group. We can’t critique cultures that use all four moralities. But we can critique cultures whose practices are simple exploitation and brutality, such as apartheid South Africa or the American slave South.

BLVR: OK, but why is it that we can critique apartheid South Africa whereas we can’t critique a culture that uses genital mutilation where chastity and fidelity of females is considered a high virtue? What makes us able to do one and not the other?

JH: You have to look at any cultural practice in terms of what goods it is aiming for. Veiling, or keeping women in the home, is usually aimed at goods of chastity and modesty. Not all human practices are aimed at moral goods. Sweatshops, child pornography, child slavery, the slavery of Africans in the American South—none of these is aimed at goods provided by any of the four foundations. These are just people hurting and exploiting others for their personal monetary benefit.

BLVR: Do you ever worry that you’re doing what the subjects in your experiments do—attempting to justify a strong intuition against exploiting people, and then trying to come up with a reason why that’s wrong, whereas maybe your intuition doesn’t flash as powerfully against the veiling of women… I would think in your work that that’s something you might be extremely sensitive to. How would you answer the charge that you’re merely trying to come up with a reason why exploitation of different races is wrong, and veiling of women is not, without providing a sufficient basis for this judgment?

JH: That’s an excellent question. Consistent with my theory, I must say that I never looked at the other side and considered whether I might be wrong in that way. We tend to think that we’re right, and we’re not good at coming up with reasons why we might be wrong. So, that’s a great question to think about. Whether I am motivated to apologize for or justify some practices and not others. That said, I certainly don’t think I’m motivated in that way… my first experiences in Muslim or Hindu cultures were emotionally negative, in seeing the treatment of women and the hierarchy. It took me a while to get over that. And to see that these practices offended my American sensibilities, but that I was being ethnocentric in that respect.

The women that I spoke to in India—while there was a diversity of opinion, most of them do not see it as American feminists see it; they did not see veiling as something imposed upon them, to oppress them, to deny them freedom. In contrast, most black slaves in the American South were not happy about their position. And many slave owners knew that what they were doing was wrong, or at least they were ambivalent about it. Now you might say: well, maybe the women have been brainwashed? So there are two tests you can do. The first is to ask: do the people who appear from the outside to be victims endorse the moral goals of the practice? The second test is: how robust is this endorsement? Even when they learn about alternative ways in other cultures, do they still endorse it? So while you might have found black slaves in the South who were so brainwashed that they accepted their status, I believe that if they heard about other countries where blacks were not enslaved, they would not insist that blacks ought to be enslaved.

BLVR: OK, so then tracing it back to these four modules or bases on which moral systems are based. Because that’s where you’re going to provide your justification for whether we condemn other cultures or whether we can’t…

JH: That’s right, those are the four pillars in the air upon which we’ll build our culture-specific moralities.

BLVR: These four pillars are a product of evolution. How do you respond to the age-old philosophical question that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”? Darwinism gives us a descriptive story of why we might endorse things that come out of them. How do you get the claim “one ought to treat people below you kindly” out of this “don’t harm people” module that’s in place because of its contributions to biological fitness? That’s the puzzle. Because when you do put your foot down and say that a culture ought not to act in a certain way, how are you getting that “ought” from a purely descriptive story about pillars of morality that evolved for nonmoral reasons?

JH: You keep asking me to provide some kind of external justification, to go outside the system. But when I’m within the game—

BLVR: Not external justification… even internal, I’m just looking for any kind of justification.

JH: Well, from within the game, within our web of significance, it’s wrong to hurt people.

—Continued Tomorrow—


10 thoughts on “NeuroPsychology Of Politics – Haidt Two

  1. Now we’re getting somewhere! I agree – there is no such thing as universal, objective truths and morality. It is all relative to a pre-established value system. And that’s how we get a spectrum of opinions that each individual has claimed to be the only truly moral thing to do.

    I like example of the veiled women. Yes, to me it did offend, because our culture endorses freedoms of sexuality rather than values of morality surrounding sexuality. But, I can see the appeal. Women in western cultures want to be viewed as “sexy”, because they’ve made it synonymous with “beautiful”. Maybe women of other cultures don’t see it that way.

    But, what is most important is the freedom of choice, above all else. Even if it is choosing to do something society would consider amoral.

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