Thursday, June 30, 2005

Jonathan Haidt

Via No Nym in the comment section of Bitch PhD. comes a link to the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. It looks like interesting an important stuff that philosophers should be more aware of. He takes his research to show that virtue theory is the most psychologically viable form of ethical theory. I should like him, then, as I am a virtue utilitarian (I believe we should cultivate the personality traits that would bring the greatest amount of well being to the greatest number of people.) The problem, though, is that he posits too many constraints on the virtues we are capable of.

My comments are based, quite inadequately, on reading one of the essays posted to Haidt's site, as well as the ancillary material on the site. What do expect from a blog?

Haidt presents a strong nativist account of the origin of ethical beliefs, where culture builds on five innate modules he labels suffering, reciprocity, ingroup-outgroup, hierarchy, and purity modules. These modules generate intuitive moral reactions which can then be shaped by culture to form belief systems.

So far, this all looks good for people like me who believe that moral knowledge comes from reflective equilibrium. Reflective equilibrium takes intuitive reactions and organizes them into a consistent scheme. This requires both abandoning some deeply held moral intuitions and working to acquire new ones, so that the set works as a consistent, livable, whole.

The problem is that Haidt's modules are not equally good generators of moral intuitions. Two of the modules, suffering and reciprocity, are foundational for morality. These are the modules that let us instinctively feel the suffering of others and recognize that social relations are fair or unfair. These modules are clearly the basis for the moral emotions of compassion and justice, and should be cultivated. The other three modules are problematic, and one of them is genuinely stupid. The stupid module is the purity module. This is the module that creates our intuitive repugnance for bugs and food that our culture considers unclean. It is also the module that makes some people shudder at the thought of gay sex or human cloning.
It's evolutionary purpose was to keep us away from disease, but now that we have a good scientific understanding of where disease comes from, we can move beyond it. The other two mediocre modules are the modules for outgroup enmity and hierarchy. These are the modules at work in chimp behavior, when the alpha male gets a monopoly on reproduction, or when one troop of chimps wars with another.

Basically the compassion and justice modules are in conflict with the modules for bigotry, oppression (particularly patriarchy), and superstition. Unfortunately, Haidt's strong nativism implies that we cannot dampen these modules or learn to disregard their products. We have to accept them as they are. Hence, in his advice to Democrats, he suggests exploiting the products of the three dumber modules to win votes.

His root shortcoming is that he works within a two paradigm approach: there are only empiricists and nativists, those who think that morality is inborn and those who think it comes from culture. The goal of moral psychology is to find a reasonable compromise. What is missing from this picture are the endogenous, self-regulating parts of the human mind. Humans have feedback systems, which Liszka labels "strength of will" and "autonomy" in his brilliant ethics textbook Moral Competence, which give us control over our moral character. If we didn't have these systems, it would be impossible to internalize moral codes or become ethically competent. Haidt ignores these systems. He explicitly says that conscious reasoning only serves to excuse their intuitions. "If you focus on the reasons people give for their judgments, you are studying the rational tail that got wagged by the emotional dog." This is just not true. People are capable of self improvement, indeed of great moral shifts.

Like a lot of module oriented nativists, Haidt's view seems profoundly pessimistic. Given what I have read, I would not want to live with the species he describes.

Oh yeah, and check out his Disgust Scale. American males average 14, females, 18. I score a very girly 17 manly 10.5. I also on the other hand can't rotate 3D objects in my head. I bet my brain is weakly lateralized, too.

[Update: I missed the part in the scoring instructions where you divide the score on part II in half. Oh yeah, and the test I took was the first one on the list. Molly got an 11.]

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