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Jonathan Haidt: What the moral sciences should look like

September 29, 2011 | By | Reply More
Jonathan Haidt: What the moral sciences should look like

At Edge Video, psychologist Jonathan Haidt has given a briskly presented 30-minute lecture on what the moral sciences should look like in the 21st century. He opened his talk by indicating that we are now in a period of a new synthesis in ethics, meaning that in order to do meaningful work in the field of moral psychology, one has to draw from numerous other fields, including biology, computer science, mathematics, neuroscience, primatology and many other fields. The bottom line is that one needs to be careful to not attempt to reduce moral psychology to a single principle, as is often done by those who advocate that morality is a code word for a single test, such as welfare-maximization or justice-fairness.

I have followed Jonathan Haidt’s work for several years now, and I am highly impressed with his breadth of knowledge, his many original ideas, and the way he (in keeping with his idea of what moral psychology should be like) synthesizes the work of numerous disparate fields of study. In this post, I am sharing my own notes from my viewing of heights two-part video lecture.

In Haidt’s approach, the sense of taste serves as a good metaphor for morality. There are only a few dominant bases for moral taste (akin to the four types of taste receptors), taste can be generally categorized as “good” or “bad,” and despite the fact that there are a limited number of foundations for moral and sensory taste, there is plenty of room for cultural variation–every culture has its own approach to making good moral decisions (and making good tasting food).

Haidt warns that those studying moral psychology should be careful to avoid two common errors that are well illustrated by two recent journal articles. The first article, titled “The Weirdest People in the World,” indicates that most of the psychology research done in the entire world is done in the United States, and the subjects tend to be Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (“WEIRD”). Not that one cannot do psychology with this homogenous group of subjects (typically college students), but one needs be careful to avoid generalizing to the entire world based upon a WEIRD set of subjects. In fact, WEIRD people tend to see the world much differently than people in many other cultures. They tend to see separate objects (versus relationships), and they tend to rely on analytical thinking (categories and laws, reason and logic) versus holistic thinking (patterns and context). Does this make us WEIRD people more accurate since we think in these analytical terms? Not necessarily, but before generalizing, we need to take it to heart that we live in an unusual culture. Haidt warns that this problem is exacerbated because our psychologists tend to surround themselves with similar-thinking others, and when this happens, the confirmation bias kicks in and they will inevitably find lots of evidence to condemn those who think differently.

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Affirmative action for conservatives?

February 20, 2011 | By | 13 Replies More
Affirmative action for conservatives?

I have written several posts holding that we are all blinded by our sacred cows. Not simply those of us who are religions. This blindness occurs to almost of us, at least some of the time. Two of my more recent posts making this argument are titled “Mending Fences” and “Religion: It’s almost like falling in love.” In arriving at these conclusions, I’ve relied heavily upon the writings of other thinkers, including the writings of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Several years ago, Haidt posited four principals summing up the state-of-the-art in moral psychology:

1. Intuitive primacy (but not dictatorship)
2. Moral thinking is for social doing.
3. Morality is about more than harm and fairness.
4. Morality binds and blinds.

In a recent article at Edge.org, Haidt argued that this fourth principle has proven to be particularly helpful, and it can “reveal a rut we’ve gotten ourselves into and it will show us a way out.” You can read Haidt’s talk at the annual convention for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, or listen to his reconstruction of that talk (including slides) here. This talk has been making waves lately, exemplified by John Tierney’s New York Times article.

Haidt begins his talk by recognizing that human animals are not simply social, but ultrasocial. How social are we? Imagine if someone offered you a brand-new laptop computer with the fastest commercially available processor, but assume that this computer was broken in such a way that it could never be connected to the Internet. In this day and age of connectivity, that computer will get very little use, if any. According to Haidt, human ultrasociality means that we “live together in very large

[caption id="attachment_16630" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Image by Jeremy Richards at Dreamstime.com (with permission)"][/caption]

groups of hundreds or thousands, with a massive division of labor and a willingness to sacrifice for the group.” Very few species are ultrasocial, and most of them do it through a breeding trick by which all members of the group are first-degree relatives and they all concentrate their efforts at breeding with regard to a common queen. Humans beings are the only animals that doesn’t use this breeding trick to maintain their ultrasociality.

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The things our biggest and most nebulous villains have in common

June 20, 2010 | By | Reply More
The things our biggest and most nebulous villains have in common

Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis is one of my favorite books of all time. It is in the top 10 books I have heavily annotated. Here’s a sampling of why (although if you search for “Haidt” in the search field of this website, you will find 20 of other posts regarding Haidt’s work). In the following excerpt, Haidt discusses what all of our biggest villains seem to have in common:

When the moral history of the 1990s is written, it might be titled desperately seeking Satan . With peace and harmony ascendant, Americans seemed to be searching for substitute villains. We tried drug dealers (but then the crack epidemic waned) and a child abductors (who are usually one of the parents). The cultural right vilified homosexuals; the left vilified racists and homophobes. As I thought about these various villains, including the older villains of Communism and Satan himself, I realized that most of them share three properties: they are invisible (you can’t identify the evil one from appearance alone) their evil spreads by contagion, making it vital to protect impressionable young people from infection (for example from communist ideas, homosexual teachers, were stereotypes on television); and the villains can be defeated only if we all pull together as a team. It became clear to me that people want to believe they are on a mission from God, or that they are fighting for some secular good (animals, fetuses, women’s rights), and you can’t have much of a mission without good allies and a good enemy.

How devastingly “refreshing” that modern villains are so identifiable and that they are doing such tangible damage. We are now looking at a devastated national economy, two expensive and needless wars, a ruined ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico, an energy crisis and a helpless political system created by an utterly dysfunctional election system that, for the most part, attracts megalomaniac ignoramuses and repels humble, good-hearted and well-informed people. It remains to be seen whether we will ever be able to let go of our bogeymen and, instead, focus on our real villains.

Addendum: See this related post on “The Power of Nightmares.”

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The sacred places of people who are not religious

February 14, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More
The sacred places of people who are not religious

I’ve been reading more of Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, including Chapter 9, titled “Divinity With or Without God.”

Haidt’s travels through India led him to conclude that divinity and disgust were located on the same axis. As evidence of this, consider that throughout the world, cultures hold that divinity and disgust must be kept separate at all times. The relevant practices include “food, body products, animal’s, sex, death, body envelope violations and hygiene.” Haidt found that people recruit disgust “to support so many of the norms, rituals and beliefs that cultures use to define themselves.” (Page 186).

To know that which is sacred, identify that which elicits disgust and travel the opposite direction:

If the human body is a temple that sometimes gets dirty, it makes sense that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” If you don’t perceive this third dimension, then it is not clear why God would care about the amount of dirt on your skin or in your home. But if you do live in a three-dimensional world, then disgust is like Jacob’s Ladder: it is rooted in the earth, and our biological necessities, but it leads or guides people toward heaven–or, at least, toward something felt to be, somehow “up.”

Haidt, an atheist Jew, is not suggesting a particular path to that which is Divine. He is certainly not concluding, for instance, that religion is the only path to that which is divine.? Rather, he is emphasizing that we all have a sense of what is sacred to us, what is “divine,” and we justify it in various ways.? He cites Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane, agreeing with Eliade that “sacredness is so irrepressible that it intrudes repeatedly into the modern profane world in the form of “crypto-religious” behavior.” He specifically cites Eliade’s conclusion that even a person who is committed to a “profane existence” has

privileged places, qualitatively different from all others–a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in his youth. Even for the most frankly nonreligious man, all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the “holy places” of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had received the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.

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Why conservatives and liberals talk past each other on moral issues.

July 7, 2007 | By | 24 Replies More
Why conservatives and liberals talk past each other on moral issues.

I’ve studied moral philosophy for many years, mostly in frustration. Though many philosophical theories of morality have offered tantalizing glimmers, they ultimately fail to account for the “moral” decisions people make in the real world. Traditional philosophical accounts of morality have appeared especially feeble in light of the ongoing and volatile American culture wars. For instance, some of us claim that torture is OK while others feel that we have a moral duty to impeach the President and Vice-President for failing to stop the torture. Starting with the assumption that both sides to this controversy are sincerely, no philosophical moral system begins to account for both of those positions.

Luckily, we are in a new era with regard to understanding morality. Cognitive scientists such as psychologist Marc Hauser and primatologist Frans de Waal are studying morality with new sets of tools.

Recently, I had the opportunity to read an extraordinary article by Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”) and Jesse Graham: “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions That Liberals May Not Recognize.” This article is written in an easily accessible style and its 16 pages are packed with ideas that bridge Haidt’s theories to the real world. If you’re in the mood to watch rather than read, sit back and view this video of Haidt describing his approach (the 30-minute video moves right along–Haidt is an eloquent speaker as well as a talented writer).

I’m not going to try to hide my excitement at Haidt’s approach. The more I learned about it, the more I thought of the words T. H. Huxley spoke upon learning of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection: “How stupid of me not to have thought of it.”

If you want to test your own moral foundations before proceeding, go to Haidt’s site and take a short test to determine your own moral foundation. Then read on (either read Haidt’s article or come back here).

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