David Potts and I are reading, summarizing and commenting our way through Jonathan Haidt’s THE RIGHTEOUS MIND: WHY GOOD PEOPLE ARE DIVIDED BY POLITICS AND RELIGION. Non-readers are invited to follow along and comment – or better read along as well. This is an important and good book. All the cool kids have already read it. Here is the format: six weeks, summary/commentary on two chapters each week, David and I alternating. I’m starting off. What follows is longer and less simple and clear than I would like, but in the interests of getting things rolling, here we go.
CH1 (“WHERE DOES MORALITY COME FROM?”)
CH1 – SELECTIVE SUMMARY
Haidt presents and marshals evidence against (what was until recently) the predominant “rationalist” view of moral psychology (the study of what moral thinking is like and how it
develops or progresses in children and young adults [moral psychology was originally part of developmental psychology]). This view, with roots in Piaget, with Kohlberg as the founder, and Turiel capping things off to produce the mature view, goes like this (my loose paraphrase):
moral thinking and knowledge is exhibited by children, when their brains are ready for it, when they distinguish merely conventional from universal wrongness and reason their way (via imaginatively seeing things through the eyes of others) to the non-conventional, universal wrongness of harming others; in thus applying (good) reasoning, we progress from worse to better moral judgment and arrive at something like the modern, secular-humanist or progressive moral outlook that places not harming others at its center
Given that moral psychology is supposed to be empirical and descriptive, what comes after the semi-colon (the evaluative or normative stuff) is perhaps somewhat controversial. But it is definitely there and very much motivated the fervent dedication to rationalism (and the initial, unjustified academic beat-down of sociobiology, due to its grounding moral thinking in emotions – some of them not so pretty, from a modern, secularist standpoint – that were shaped by natural selection).
Haidt recounts how his dissertation field work established that the received rationalist view is wrong because, in non-Western cultures, people (a) tend not make much of the distinction between convention-dependent and non-convention-dependent or universal wrong (they tend to view all wrong as universal), (b) accordingly tend to view universal wrong as including much more than harming others (e.g., disrespecting elders, stepping outside of traditional roles, having improper sexual mores, eating impure foods, etc.) and (c) seem to come to these opinions about what is universally wrong either intuitively (via emotions like disgust) or through what authorities in their culture tell them (e.g., that this or that is just not to be done or taboo).
Haidt also discovered that much moral reasoning is post-hoc rationalization. This is especially evident in cases of “moral dumbfounding” or the experience of being certain that something is wrong, not being able to articulate why and proceeding to spin out various reasons, often pretty weak, as to why (in Western societies, people will often confabulate harmed parties, to fit their odd disgust-based moral intuitions and judgments – e.g., about it being wrong for brothers and sisters to have sex together – with something like the don’t-harm-others principle). On Haidt’s “intuitionist” picture, we don’t use good reasoning to get from a (bad, misguided) convention-dependent view of wrongness to a (good, on-target) universal idea of wrongness – and we often use bad reasoning to rationalize intuition-based moral judgments. And when we think about universal wrongness, we don’t think only in terms of not harming others (or only in terms of this and justice/fairness), but also in terms of respecting authority, sanctity, purity, sexual propriety, etc.
(From later in the book: Haidt calls the positive view that he developed in response to rationalism “intuitionism.” I take it that this sort of view goes something like this:
moral judgment and thinking, and going from worse to better moral judgment and thinking, is mostly about having the right intuitions (and getting oneself into a position to have the right intuitions) – roughly, focusing on the right things and having the right intuitive reactions.
Though reason can play a role here, it is an ancillary role. And – importantly – the key to coming to focus on (and have appropriate intuitions about) the right things is civil social interaction and argumentation (and presumably simply being exposed to other sincerely-held, reasonably-held points of view, other cultures, etc.). This is reflected in Haidt’s “social intuitionist” model of moral reasoning.)
CH1 – SOME OF MY RESPONSES, THOUGHTS, COMMENTS:
1.1 The conventional/universal wrong distinction is not, as Haidt claims, merely a function of a certain Western, individualist, just-don’t-harm-others mindset (though it is fair enough to say that this was the confounding factor in Kohlberg’s studies). Logically, it is a function of people coming to believe that some things are wrong in merely-convention-based ways while other things are wrong universally – of folks having and competently employing this distinction. Intuitively, coming to this sort of distinction in wrongness (from the position of not having it) does constitute progress in moral thinking. And, quite plausibly, this progress is often brought about, in essential part, by good reasoning (as in “wait – we might have had different conventions about what it is okay to eat, why no pork instead of no chicken? – and they do have different rules about what you can and cannot eat in other cultures and the people in those cultures seem not to be totally crazy or awful people… how does all of this fit together?”).
Against Kohlberg and Turiel, what one is progressing from in grasping this distinction appears not to be something akin to blindly following convention (see 1.2 below); and what one is progressing to is not a “harming others and only harming others is wrong” standpoint (or something similar that makes room for justice/fairness as well). But Haidt does not focus on this kind of important general sort of transition in moral thinking or how it comes about – only the flawed Kohlberg/Turiel construal of it. I suspect that, in doing so, Haidt shortchanges the role of explicit, controlled deliberation in an important aspect or element of (good) moral thinking.
1.2 It is worth noting that, logically, convention-based moral wrongness presupposes non-convention-based or universal moral wrongness. In particular, it could be wrong to flout this or that taboo in one’s culture due in part to this taboo being in place in one’s society (i.e., conventionally) only if it is wrong – universally, not-dependent-on-conventions wrong – for one to flout the taboos (or the taboos of the right pedigree) that one’s society has in place. So I think Kohlberg characterizes thinking about conventional wrongness wrongly – it is not just blind obedience, but reflects belief in universal moral order. This, combined with Haidt’s cross-cultural results, constitute strong evidence that the starting point of moral thinking is bedrock beliefs in universal moral wrongness.
1.3 At the level of reasons and justification, it is plausible that: (a) we have some reason to affirm basic, intuitively-arrived-at moral beliefs and (b) such reasons are often prima facie sufficient for justifying those beliefs. This constitutes a more-convincing defense of the idea that more traditional moral thinking is reasonable and to be respected. What Haidt does (instead of endorsing this sort of view) is simply: (1) knock down the Kohlbergian/Turielian prejudice that anything other than harm-based moral reasoning is some kind of blind obedience to arbitrary convention or authority and (2) suggest that, whatever the promised land of good moral reasoning and conclusions is, we have deep-seated emotions and automatic moral judgments that might make it harder than we might think it is to get to that promised land. For all Haidt has said, it might be that people of a conservative or traditional mindset are deeply unreasonable and wrong in their moral outlook in the fundamental sense of not even bringing any real moral reasons to the table. Perhaps their straying from real moral considerations is understandable (in that they are tempted away from them by sham moral reasons), and perhaps understanding this justifies treating them with dignity. I think Haidt is aiming for more in this book, but cannot get it without something like the idea that I’m articulating here (but that requires doing at least just a bit of normative moral epistemology beyond vague intuitions about what constitutes good or bad reasoning and good or bad conclusions).
CH2 (“THE INTUITIVE DOG AND ITS RATIONAL TAIL”)
CH2 – SELECTIVE SUMMARY
Haidt tells the story of how he came to believe that something like Hume’s view is true (reason is a slave of the passions, not the other way around – and not the “Jeffersonian” dual or competing process model either). But his version has a twist. The twist is that emotions are essentially cognitive or instances of information-processing. From an information-processing standpoint, emotions are type of intuitions. In moral reasoning, our emotions can be intuitions about what is right and wrong. Our conscious reasoning, at least usually, serves to give public justifications for why we think X or Y is or is not wrong (and, importantly, the purpose is to justify ourselves to others, not reason our way to conclusions or report our actual reasons/motives for our judgments).
In broad terms the relevant distinction is between automatic and controlled information processing – between the emotional or intuitive “elephant” and the reason-generating “rider.” The elephant is antecedent to the rider and the rider exists and functions to serve the elephant. In the social and moral realm, the rider often serves as something of a “press secretary” or “public relations manager” for the elephant/self. Haidt presents his “social intuitionist” model of moral reasoning in this chapter. If you want to change someone’s mind, he says, “talk to the elephant” – convince your interlocutor that you understand them, that you are on their side in some sense, etc. (empathy) and then use your judgments and your reasons to generate new intuitions in them (that’s their elephant, the automatic type of information-processing). If you try to defeat their arguments, they will simply resist (if your criticisms are devastating, they will just get mad rather than change their minds).
CH2 – SOME OF MY RESPONSES, THOUGHTS, COMMENTS
2.1 I like the focus on the cognitive aspect of emotions. However, it is false that emotions are simply cognitions or ways of processing information. They have an affective/motivational aspect to them that is important. Haidt implicitly addresses this in stressing empathy so that the social (judgment) and rational (reasoning) persuasion channels for generating intuitions in others can be used. It is true, though, that if we focus on the affective/motivational aspect of emotion, emotions will seem altogether different from judgment and reason – and the relationship between the two will be obscured. His social intuitionist model of reasoning is really insightful.
2.2 Hume was getting at the affective and motivational stuff in speaking of the passions. His idea was that the passions set the goals while practical reason just figures out the best way to achieve them. This is different from the idea that, in moral reasoning and elsewhere, the processes are judgement-formation and reason-giving are distinct and the latter often serves to rationalize the former. So Haidt’s view does not really constitute the Humean “reason as slave of the passions” view with a twist. It is more just a view of how moral cognition (and public reason-giving) works.
2.3 Haidt assimilates the kind of post-hoc reason-giving in moral reasoning and argumentation to the cognitive phenomenon of “seeing that” versus “reasoning why” (and how the former can float free of the latter or how these are separate processes). Though there may be a common pattern across purely cognitive and moral-reasoning cases, as Haidt recognizes, there is something special about public reason-giving in moral argumentation: the reasons are given, in part, to justify to the objects of one’s judgment that one is saying, in part, that they should be disapproved of, shunned, punished, etc. So there is some social urgency to the matter! There is not much of an analogue to this in public reason-giving in purely cognitive matters (though perhaps there is something a bit similar when one has a cognitively distorting, personal stake in a factual belief that is being challenged by someone). And we need to distinguish the private canvassing of reasons (and to what extent this reflects one’s actual reasons for holding a moral judgment or other belief) and the public expression of this from the kind of socially-motivated public reason-giving described. But all of this gets glommed together into the view that, more often than not, in moral reasoning and elsewhere, our reason-giving is basically rationalization for what we already believe on (good or bad) intuitive grounds.