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. 



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.)


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).



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).


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.

21 thoughts on “HAIDT, THE RIGHTEOUS MIND CHS 1 & 2

  1. I can’t say that this summary is making me want to read the book. I’ll keep my eyes open for future installments, but I’m curious to see whether, in the end, you (and David Potts) think the book is actually worth reading. My immediate reactions are (1) that you’re quite right that Haidt’s view is not nearly so Humean as he seems to think it is; treating the emotions as cognitive — even allowing that they necessarily have an affective/motivational component — already takes us pretty far from Hume, and probably further than even Haidt is willing to go, given that there is nothing in what you’ve described here that even comes close to showing that reason is the slave of the passions; 2) while I can appreciate the value of Haidt’s work as a corrective to the rationalism of Kohlberg et al., I can’t see why the main lines of the theory should be regarded as novel discoveries; the distinction between automatic and controlled information-processing seems like a fashionable version of Aristotle’s distinction between the part of the soul that has reason qua discursive thought and the desiring part of the soul that can listen to reason (itself a development of Plato’s view), and the emphasis on the fundamental role of the latter in moral development and in what most people actually believe and do is also already in Aristotle, particularly when one remembers that the Rhetoric is in part a work of applied moral psychology (anyone who has absorbed the Rhetoric will not need to be told to “talk to the elephant”); 3) the novelty and the Humeanism seem to come with the claim that reason always follows intuition and serves to produce post-hoc rationalizations, but it’s hard to see why we should think that this is so or why we should discount the role that reasoning can play in shaping intuitions; when we appreciate the cognitive aspect of emotions (even emotions like disgust), that they typically depend on beliefs, that beliefs can be changed by reasoning, and that many of the unreflective intuitions that even children have come from what they’re taught by others, whose beliefs often depend in part on reasoning, then it begins to seem implausible to suppose that reason is always just a public relations manager. But I can also just appeal to my own experience, which is admittedly the experience of a reflective person but is, I think, hardly eccentric: I now have certain intuitive emotional responses to things that I did not always have, and I no longer have certain intuitive emotional responses that I once did, and these changes have a whole lot to do with my having changed my mind about certain things as a result of reasoning. Whatever role my other emotional intuitions played in shaping my thinking, it was by no means merely post-hoc rationalization. Any plausible psychological model has got to be able to account for this.

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    • I think your main point here is a good one: this automatic versus agency-controlled distinction in human nature is an old one and the Haidt vs. the received rationalist view in empirical moral psychology is just the latest chapter. In this sense, the general outline of Haidt’s view is not necessarily very new. But the mistake of attributing too much to agency and its powers of explicit deliberation is alive and well and continues to rear its head. One reason for this is that the smart people who figure this stuff out are all very good at using reason explicitly, seeing its benefits, etc. I’d say much of the value in reading Haidt’s book (or maybe better yet some of his academic papers – I often found myself wanting more details when he described his studies) is simply seeing the particulars of how this debate plays out here, on this particular topic. Also many of the cases/studies are striking or puzzling and just worth knowing about (however, these details did not make it into my summary).

      Haidt does not hold that moral reason-giving is always post-hoc rationalization. And – despite reaching a bit in drawing parallels with other, more purely cognitive judgment and reason-giving – he does believe, correctly, that public reason-giving in moral reasoning is special because you are doing something like justifying potentially unpleasant attitudes and actions against others for the sake of publicly enforcing a rule that is supposed to serve everyone.

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      • It’s good to hear that Haidt doesn’t think that reasoning is always post-hoc rationalization and that it’s more a matter of correcting an excessive emphasis on explicit reasoning than purporting to have discovered something that psychologists have overlooked (I mentioned Aristotle last time, in keeping with my usual all-the-good-stuff-is-already-in-Aristotle riff, but I might have mentioned any number of psychologists, philosophical or empirical, who seem to have seen reasoning as even more epiphenomenal than Haidt — Nietzsche and Freud come to mind). If what we’re getting here is more in the way of empirical studies on just how the relationship works, then that’s all to the good. It seems rather less dramatic than the sales pitch, but that seems to be a fairly typical feature of psychology presented for non-specialists these days.

        What I find particularly helpful, though, is the bit you discuss in response to Irfan below about WEIRD people. My own experience and intuition (!) lead me to believe that most people in most places do not hold many (or any) moral views (including political views) on the basis of careful abstract reflection on principles, but rather on the basis of the emotional responses they have to things, which are in turn mostly shaped by how they’re brought up, who they hang out with, and various inclinations of their personality. Even people who pass as reasonably well educated by current standards tend, I think, to appeal to abstract principles as tools of persuasion but do not hold the views that those principles supposedly justify because they were persuaded of the truth of those principles. Like David Potts, I think this is also true of many academic philosophers, though I may not be quite so cynical about that as DP seems to be. But while I share Irfan’s skepticism about the concept of “Western” culture, it also seems quite clear that people who are EIRD, at least, are likely to differ in certain ways from people who are not, and it has long struck me as an oddity of empirical psychology that so many claims are made solely on the basis of studies with college students. Even my own experience with Americans who are not at all well educated — and I grew up in Appalachia, so I’ve encountered plenty of folks who aren’t well educated — suggests differences in moral discourse, at least, and in particular a lesser tendency to appeal to abstract principles or to express commitments purportedly based on them (e.g., vegetarianism, environmentalism, etc.). Let’s just say that none of the ordinary working folks I’ve met in Ohio ever acted or talked like student activists. If a moderate difference in class and educational experience can yield that kind of difference, I wouldn’t be the least surprised if people who aren’t industrialized, rich (by global standards), or democratic think and talk even more differently.

        Whatever those differences, though, my own sense is, as I said, that it’s really pretty rare for people to hold moral beliefs (or lots of other kinds of beliefs) on the basis of an explicit inquiry into what they should believe, even when those people are highly educated and frequently appeal to sophisticated theoretical ideas (student activists might be a prime example; I’ve yet to meet a student spouting critical theory slogans who I’ve suspected of having come to those beliefs via a careful process of reading that material alongside its rivals). It would probably be a mistake to think that concrete moral thinking ought to proceed solely in strict deductions from abstract, self-evident first principles, but whatever the ideal is, it has seemed pretty clear to me for a very long time that explicit, abstract moral reasoning is rationalization for most people, at least when we’re talking about fairly fundamental matters or especially controversial topics. If the recent trend in psychology has been to think otherwise, that genuinely surprises me. I’m not sure I can think of many ‘great’ philosophers who have held otherwise; even Kant, the arch-rationalist, is at his best when describing the lengths that we will go to rationalize decisions that we’ve really made on the basis of non-rational inclinations.

        The more pressing question, to me, is to what extent we can (and should) do otherwise. As someone who gets paid to initiate students into liberal education, I tend to take for granted that most people in the position to spend a bunch of time reading can shape their moral (and other) beliefs on the basis of careful, explicit reflection and come to act accordingly, at least most of the time. I also tend to take for granted that this is highly desirable, that it is in fact a necessary element of human virtue. Haidt’s work would be unsettling if it offered a powerful case for thinking that most explicit moral reasoning will not ultimately amount to more than post-hoc rationalization. That does seem to be how at least some people have represented the upshot of his claims, but it sounds from what you’re saying that he doesn’t even think it has that implication, let alone that it really does point in that direction.

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        • I agree with a lot of that, but since we’re trading experiences (an activity I think very much doing even if derided as unphilosophical gossip) I wanted to offer a friendly amendment to this:

          My own experience and intuition (!) lead me to believe that most people in most places do not hold many (or any) moral views (including political views) on the basis of careful abstract reflection on principles, but rather on the basis of the emotional responses they have to things, which are in turn mostly shaped by how they’re brought up, who they hang out with, and various inclinations of their personality.

          My experiences are similar, but I think it’s worth highlighting some notable exceptions to the “mosts” and “manys” there. It’s particularly salient for me in Palestine, but it’s a general phenomenon. Two broad categories.

          (1) I’ve met people here in Palestine (including people in refugee camps) whose specifically political insight has been mind-blowing, at least within a certain circumscribed context. These are often educated people, but not people who have had top-notch educational opportunities–educated enough, say, in the equivalent of public schools to convey their thoughts in comprehensible English, but despite their ambition and promise, not people who have gotten past a high school degree or a BA (and not at particularly good schools). In many cases, they’re people who have been confined to county-sized swatches of territory for their whole lives (they lack permits to leave, and in some cases, lack cars or access to mass transit). They can usually get on the Internet, but typically lack access to books. Etc.

          What’s struck me is that if you focus on their political judgments about their surroundings, their knowledge outstrips anything you’ll read by self-styled experts back home in the States. And I don’t just mean pointillistic factual claims about what road goes where, or how to get through this checkpoint, or what the Israelis did to us this week, etc. I mean genuine political insight into, for lack of a better way of putting things, what is going on around here and why.

          I spent an afternoon in Hebron with two Palestinian guys in their late 20s, one a professional tour guide and one an activist for Christian Peacemakers, and the two of them gave me a seminar in political psychology to last a lifetime–five or six hours long. But we focused on questions like: Why is Hebron Area H2 the way it is? Why do the settlers act as they do? Why do the Palestinians respond to the settlers as they do? What are the dilemmas that both sides face? What are the settled motivations on either side, especially the ones that are an obstacle to a just settlement? What are the strategies by which the occupation neutralizes resistance? What are the counterproductive things that Palestinians do to fall into resistance-neutralizing traps? What mistakes do outsiders make when they think about this conflict? What facts are important but never get reported or discussed? What prognosis do they see for the future? What would they say to Israelis if they could? What would they say to Americans? Why does the Christian Peacemaker work in Hebron for Christian Peacemakers? Does it bother him that he could get killed doing what he does? Most abstractly, what (in broad outline) would they be content to call a just settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict?

          I don’t regret paying the sum I paid for that seminar. It was one of the most educational experiences of my life.

          Could they have followed our discussion on Hume, Rawls, and the circumstances of justice? Apart from never having heard of Hume or Rawls, I think not. That’s too abstract a topic, one that requires generalizing too far past their experiences. Could they even justify their own basic assumptions, e.g., that the occupation is unjust? No, those assumptions are too viscerally immediate to be put in doubt or articulated in a fully coherent, non-circular way. But when it came to discoursing on, or reflecting on, things within the ken of their experience–the moral psychology of ordinary life as they experienced it–I found their insight (and that of other people like them) frankly amazing. Circumstances had forced them to confront political realities in a way that isn’t true for most of us, and they had acquitted themselves in a way that most of us do not. And to repeat, I don’t just mean political realities like, “The soldiers usually come by around 4, so let’s get the hell out of here well before that,” or “If you want a blue ID, here’s what you’ve got to do to get one.” I mean reflective judgments about the political psychology of people under occupation as well as those enforcing or demanding it. They were, to coin a phrase, experts in the normative phenomenology of the occupation.

          (2) Here’s a less exotic example. It’s a little-discussed fact (in academic philosophy) that Americans excel at shop talk. If you spend a couple of hours in conversation with a doctor, lawyer, engineer, cop, fire-fighter, nurse, small business owner, HR manager, banker, etc., I think you’ll find that they’re remarkably good at offering sophisticated observations of relevance to on-the-job life or more abstractly, the “business ethics” (broadly construed) of their line of work. Naturally, it doesn’t pay to make the conversation overly abstract (cf. Socrates and Cephalus in Republic I, or Socrates and Euthyphro in the Euthyphro, etc.). So if you ask a doctor, “Yeah, yeah, I hear what you’re saying about the nitty-gritty of being a doctor–but what is health, anyway?” you’re not going to have a productive conversation.

          But if you ask, “Why are community hospitals doing so poorly in Orange County?” or “What do you think of the for-profit trend in hospital ownership?” or “What do you think of malpractice law?” etc. you often get remarkably insightful answers. And what makes the answers insightful is that they combine moral judgments with claims about institutional structure plus little-discussed facts that would only be known to a hands-on practitioner.

          Of course, this shop talk epistemology doesn’t necessarily generalize past the shop, e.g., to politics, ethics, religion, or even everyday life. You could have an insightful conversation with the doctor or cop about medicine or police work, and then five minutes later, the same insightful person may well tell you, “And you know…that’s why I’m voting for Trump.” Suddenly, the hitherto insightful person will sound like a blithering idiot. If you only hear the latter part of the conversation, you’ll be inclined to think she’s nothing but an idiot. But if you cut out just before she started talking politics, you reach a different conclusion.

          Bottom line: granting everything that David says, there’s something else there worth noticing.


          • I wholeheartedly concur with all of that. My experiences are different (and less interesting, alas) than yours, but lead to the same conclusion. Though I suppose I wouldn’t go so far as to say that most people I meet are insightful in some way, lots of people are, and it typically has very little to do with their educational background. I’m even tempted to say that there are some kinds of insight into people and social/political circumstances that really only come with first-hand experience and that lots of abstract theoretical sophistication would likely obscure. This kind of intelligence and insight really has very little to do with the basis of people’s moral and political views, though, and I didn’t mean to imply that most people are unintelligent or lack insight into anything worth wanting insight about. In a broadly similar way, though, that theoretical sophistication about, say, politics or sociology or psychology can prevent insight into everyday life, I suspect that theoretical sophistication about ethics and politics can prevent ethical insight. At the very least, theoretical sophistication is compatible with a decided lack of insight; spending enough time with philosophers is sufficient to demonstrate that.

            I do think that the sort of thing I describe as typical of most people (and that Haidt seems to think is maybe typical of all of us) is a kind of vice; ideally we should subject our beliefs to careful rational scrutiny and try to believe and act in accordance with what seems most reasonable because it is most reasonable, which I think will include some abstract principles (I am not an extreme particularist). But like most everything else, it’s a vice that comes in degrees and is compatible with having an admirable degree of other virtues (I don’t endorse a strong version of the unity of virtue). Certainly the prevalence of the vice, even if I’m right about it, does not license the kind of contempt for “the many” that Aristotle sometimes seems to have indulged in (though I think it’s rather more justified than many commentators seem to think). It’s particularly relevant, I think, that it’s not true, so far as I can see, that the vast majority of people are entirely unreflective and uncritical or make no effort to subject their moral and political views to rational scrutiny. What I think is, rather, that the critical reflection tends not to go very deep for most people, which is one reason why so many people cannot see those with whom they have fundamental disagreements as anything other than ignorant, stupid, or evil. I was really pretty shocked when I learned in graduate school that very few of the people I met in any discipline had gone through a protracted period of being seriously, painfully uncertain about what to believe with regard to fundamental and important issues, even though of course many of them, especially philosophers, had changed their minds about some non-trivial but secondary matters. Whatever the reasons for that may be, one thing that seems to matter is that it’s really excruciatingly uncomfortable not to know what to believe about fundamental ethical and political issues, particularly when they are wrapped up in one’s sense of self. It is much easier to find some sophisticated theoretical work that conforms to one’s prejudices, whatever those happen to be, than to really open oneself up to the possibility that one’s cherished beliefs and attitudes are mistaken.

            I don’t mean to be presenting myself as some kind of saint of rational reflection here; I’m no doubt guilty of letting my emotional tail wag my rational dog and thinking that I’m really just reasoning things out. I think I’ve gone further than many people in taking fundamental alternatives seriously, but it’s a pretty hard thing to do, and maybe even irrational to do too often. The difficulty accounts at least to some extent for its rarity. But in saying it’s a virtue that most people lack to a considerable degree, I don’t mean to imply that achieving it is easy, and the difficulty (as well as our own imperfections) should surely affect how we judge people who lack it.

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            • Have been traveling, so just catching up with some of these comments (responding here to DJR).

              I guess I agree with all of that, so these are just some add-ons. First, I didn’t know that you grew up in Appalachia, and it seems to me that Appalachia is at least as interesting as Palestine. I’ve spent very little time there, but know people who have.

              I think your first point has some interesting epistemic-political implications. So on the one hand, there are people with experiential insight into the phenomenology of everyday life, but in a way that doesn’t figure into their official moral and political views. On the other hand, the people tasked with articulating and defending moral and political views (theorists), often lack insight into everyday life. That’s perhaps a neater/more glib/possibly tendentious way of summarizing your point, but it’s the way I would put it (being neat, glib, and tendentious).

              One thing I’d say about that, provocatively and as a speculative hypothesis to try on, is that I think it’s the result of an Aristotelian hangover. Despite all of the Nussbaum-inspired scholarship on Aristotelian phronesis and virtue as involving “sensitivity” to the “salient features” of the normative world, political theorists are pretty content to demote, then ignore, huge swatches of that world as not worth their consideration. The two swatches that come to mind: the practices of alien cultures, and the experiences of people engaged in what academics regard as boring, tedious, banausic forms of techne.

              On the first: despite pro forma, politically correct nods to multiculturalism, Anglophone political philosophy (in Depts of Philosophy) is fixated on Rawls & Co, who was himself fixated on the politics of North America and Western Europe. The rest of the world falls away, as though of no particular importance to political political philosophy. One gets the sense that we haven’t outgrown the distinction between Greeks and barbarians. It’s amazing to me to read discussions of “distributive justice” as though the only relevant consideration was: what is to be the fate of the welfare state in “Western” nations? Yes, that’s an important issue, but does it define or exhaust the whole topic? Perhaps it does if you’ve never experienced any other aspect of the topic, but not otherwise.

              On the second: it’s amazing to me how much of “the literature” is recipient oriented. Demands are made of producers to do this or that for this or that needy or worthy recipient, with no sense of what it’s like to have to do this or that. I can’t count the number of defenses of a right to housing I’ve read in the philosophical literature, but I’ve never read anything there that showed any grasp of what it’s like to be a landlord. Same with rights to health care and health care providers, and so on, down the line. It’s as though the producers are just “there” as a fixed given, and the aristoi are there make demands of them, directing their labors in this or that direction. Whatever one thinks about positive vs negative rights, or the welfare state, etc., I think Ayn Rand was right to insist that this was a blind spot in the outlook of the hyper-educated theoretician, and it has its distant origins in Aristotle’s demotion of techne. (Highly relevant.)

              On graduate school, I have to say that my experiences were quite different from yours (mine having taken place at Notre Dame Philosophy in the mid 1990s). Though I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about it at first (it wasn’t my first choice), Notre Dame turned out to be an extraordinary place to go to grad school: I was extremely fortunate to have gone. On the curriculum side, the faculty had a judicious combination of approaches to philosophy (analytic, Continental, historical, topical, etc.) and I would say that the grad students I knew were remarkably willing to discuss and think about fundamental issues, trading reasons indefinitely until the cows came home. I often think that half of my professional life is a quest to re-create the conditions of graduate school. I’m probably the least distinguished graduate of the program, but the more distinguished ones are some of the leading lights in the field–something that could have been predicted (and in some cases, was predicted) right at the outset. That was driven home to me a couple years ago when I gave a paper at a festschrift for my mentor, David Solomon. It was a reunion of sorts, and I found myself thinking: I can’t believe I had the luck to attend this school.


              • True that. One can at least appreciate that Rawls & co. tend to make explicit their limited focus on the politics of technologically advanced, pluralistic nation-states, but while I don’t think any single thinker should be blamed for limiting her focus, it’s a shortcoming of the field as a whole that it so infrequently lifts its gaze beyond ‘our’ conditions. Nussbaum is probably the one broadly Rawlsian writer who has devoted considerable attention elsewhere and to questions that arise in light of different conditions; no doubt that has a lot to do with her tag-teaming with Sen and other development economists. Maybe the situation is rather different in political theory, which tends to be more empirically engaged and less preoccupied with Rawlsian ideal theory, but I don’t know that material well enough to say.

                Your point about the literature being recipient-oriented and ignoring the producers has struck me many times; it’s not that the literature says this or that about it, but that it doesn’t even raise the questions. As it happens, this is one of the reasons I am generally opposed to treatments of justice and politics narrowly in terms of rights; it’s one thing to think that everyone should be able to receive housing and medical care, another to think that there is a human right to housing and medical care. But the dominance of rights language is such that if I deny the latter, I’m taken to deny the former. That’s not too surprising in ‘ordinary’ discourse, but one would have hoped that philosophers would be more subtle. But while plenty of political philosophers eschew the language of rights, the idea comes back in different forms — I’m still trying to figure out, for example, how Nussbaum’s use of ‘entitlements’ is not just an embarrassed circumlocution for ‘rights.’

                I’m not surprised that you encountered people at Notre Dame for whom philosophy really mattered. One reason I like intellectually serious religious believers so much is that ideas really matter to them at a fundamental level and they really care about truth. I’d rather disagree with someone like that than agree with someone for whom it’s all just a fun game.

                I grew up mostly in southeastern Ohio, so it wasn’t quite the deep Appalachia of West Virginia and the like, and conditions differed quite a bit in the various places I lived. I don’t know if it is as interesting as Palestine, but it is probably less dangerous and, I would guess, less materially impoverished on the whole. In many ways the places I grew up were very much like most of the Midwest, except that some people had rather different, not quite southern accents.


          • Here is one (admittedly somewhat cartoonish) framework for explaining some of what you say here, Irfan: there is a lot of psychological and social-institutional “texture” to just how people (and institutions) can fail to be (or fail to do their half of being in) the fundamental moral relationship to one another. (Alternatively, and perhaps a bit less cartoonishly, we might say that there are multiple basic respects of recognizing, trusting, and respecting one another, and institutions – and different of these become salient and visible in different contexts.) If something like this model is right, it would hardly be surprising that people who are in complex personal and institutional relationships that are unjust are particularly “sensitive” to the different ways that injustice can manifest itself. But this is more like perception than reason. Or better more like what Nomy Arpaly calls “reason sensitivity” – there is a rationality and wisdom to it, an implicit integrating or weighing, not just a registering. This is a more positive or optimistic result that is broadly compatible with Haidt’s broad picture and social intuitionist model of moral reasoning. (Haidt stresses reason-criticizing – in the context of a trusting social context, perhaps with a common purpose for all involved – as a mechanism for correcting each other’s bad reasoning and for getting each other to have on-target moral intuitions that they might not have otherwise. One of the things I take from what you relate, Irfan, is that social circumstances plus a certain level of education and curiosity can put people in better touch with moral reality as well.)

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            • Yes, I think that’s important and right. I haven’t read Haidt, but if he’s missing that, he’s missing something important.

              So here’s how I would put it–you can judge how similar or different it is from the way you’ve put it (I haven’t read the Arpaly you mention, either, so I don’t know how this stacks up against what she says). Social life is extraordinarily complex, and operates along multiple dimensions. We can’t really cognize any of these dimensions in a purely perceptual way, but the levels differ by the degree of abstractness involved in judgments about them.

              At one extreme, social experience is quasi-perceptual, or perceptual in a theory-laden way, e.g., correctly reading someone’s body language in a conversation, or inferring that a customer needs your help, or correctly suspecting that something is wrong with this motor or organ system or situation, and that something has to be done about it soon. We make these judgments relatively quickly, and don’t bother to process all of the information integrated involved. We just accumulate the information and use it in practical contexts.

              At the other extreme, we access some features of the social world by very, very abstract reasoning, up to and including the most outlandish thought experiments that abstract away from the particularities of our quasi-perceptual experience. And within reason, that’s legitimate, since the particularities would distract from understanding the most general explanatory or normative features of social life.

              Problems arise when a person spends all or most of his time at one cognitive extreme while adopting a view that requires the demotion of the value of the opposite extreme. These are cartoonish stereotypes, but I think there’s something recognizable in both: There’s the person who built his own small business two decades ago and works his ass off during the workweek to keep it profitable, accumulating 40 hours of implicit but epistemically valuable experience each week. He then decompresses by getting wasted on the weekends, so that the epistemic value of what he learns each week gets flushed down the toilet every weekend. His dogma: philosophy is bullshit; I learned my lessons on the job, at the School of Hard Knocks.

              At the other extreme, there’s the socially conscientious, environmentally friendly academic mandarin whose life is a series of incredibly interesting seminars on interesting subjects in beautiful places. Dogma: the unexamined life is not worth living, but then, some lives are not worth examining.

              Each person’s experience is invisible to the other, and each has a rationalizing dogma to avoid experiences that would give insight into the experiences of the other. The first person has failed to articulate his implicit experience, or articulate what’s epistemically valuable about it. He “has” valuable knowledge in some sense, but he lacks justification both about what it is and why it’s valuable (or for what ends).The second person has gotten so far from ordinary experience that it’s unclear who or what her theorizing is about. And for that reason, if you ask her the right question about the presuppositions of her theorizing, you’ll discover that she’s in a similar epistemic predicament as the first person: on certain crucial issues, she lacks justification.

              You could also imagine epistemically virtuous counterparts of both people, and it becomes an interesting question what they have to do to distinguish themselves from their vicious counterparts.

              I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s an interesting take on this general issue (but with very different emphases) in Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics.

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          • David R. – Where in southern Ohio? I’m from the Dayton area, but (one of) my step-families is from the Hillsboro area (pretty Appalachian). My brother (half-brother) is a southern Ohio hick – I say this entirely with affection – and I start talking a bit like a southern Ohio hick when I get on the phone with him.


          • WordPress did not alert me to your comment, Michael, otherwise I wouldn’t have waited over a week to answer it.

            I was born pretty much right across the river from Wheeling, West Virginia and lived in that area until I was about 14, at which point I moved with my mom to the incomparable Athens, Ohio. I lived in and around Athens until I moved to Texas for graduate school. The rest of my family has pretty much stayed put, but migrated a tiny bit northwest toward Columbus and northeast toward Steubenville. From a national point of view they’re all very close together, but in Athens hardly anybody knows my last name, whereas where I grew up nearly everyone does. Athens is its own special place, but the rest of it not somewhere I would choose to go except to see my family. I’ve spent a fair bit of time around Cincinnati, which is rather different, as is the northern part of the state.


  2. I hadn’t wanted to start this until next week, since I’m deeply buried in another reading project and since there’ll be a lot going on chez Potts this Fourth of July weekend. How-some-ever, not to let the conversation go immediately cold, I’ll make a few comments. I should reiterate that I haven’t yet read the chapters you’re talking about. But I’ve read papers of Haidt’s and his other book, and I think I understand his views in general well enough. So here goes.

    Your chapter summaries match my own understanding of Haidt pretty well. I didn’t know he had any particular ideas about the “right” moral intuitions, though. I’m surprised if he thinks that coming to have a proper moral view is a matter of “civil social interaction and argumentation” in the way you describe. I don’t think his “intuitionism” is intended to be a normative theory at all.

    Thus, in your point 1.3, when you say:

    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.

    I don’t think Haidt would necessarily disagree at all. One of the things I’d like to explore in this reading is just this idea. I suspect that Haidt is dead right that moral judgments emanate from intuitions rooted ultimately in a mix of emotional reactions, personal insight, and cultural learning. Norm-based reasoning is a basic human trait. Children spontaneously model their behavior on that of selected adults and assume that the modeled behavior is normative, get angry when others don’t conform, and so forth. There is no human culture that isn’t saturated with norms concerning nearly every aspect of life and behavior. These norms are culturally evolved and inculcated. They constitute a sort of culturally accumulated technology for living—even a sort of cultural wisdom, if you like. There’s a subset of these that we call “moral,” but qua cultural norms they are no different from any others. Cultural norms are not arbitrary constructs unconstrained by human biology, psychology, or reasoning. We still have certain innate emotional reactions, innate “ideas,” physiological needs, psychological drives, and the ability to reason about how to satisfy all these things. These constraints shape the cultural evolution of cultural norms. Nevertheless, cultural norms have a certain life of their own. We assimilate them automatically—especially as children, but throughout life also—without necessarily understanding their rationale. Indeed, usually without understanding their rationale.

    There is a familiar story of the woman who cuts the small end off the ham and sets it next to the bulk of the ham in the roasting pan when she roasts a ham. She does this because it’s what her mother did. One day she asks her mother why she did this. She replies that she’s not quite sure, but that’s what her mother always did. Intrigued, they phone grandma, who says, “Oh, I always cut off the end because the whole ham wouldn’t fit in my roasting pan!” This story seems generally intended as an admonition to question tradition, (and of course we should always be prepared to do this,) but it is also an illustration of the process of cultural transmission and how it does not depend on a thorough understanding (or even any understanding) of what a given norm accomplishes. It shows this via a case of a norm that doesn’t accomplish anything! But it was transmitted anyway. It was transmitted—and the story is entirely realistic—because cultural transmission doesn’t depend on necessarily knowing the whys and wherefores of the norms that are transmitted. It is a mistake to draw from this story the conclusion that these people were just stupid. The point, rather, is that they were people, and people acquire sophistication through accumulated culture, which people absorb without thoroughly understanding.

    The fact that cultural transmission can backfire in the way illustrated in the story is analogous to the way heuristic reasoning processes can backfire. In the well-known question about Linda the bank teller, who participated in student demonstrations in college and majored in philosophy, people tend to say it’s more likely that Linda is a feminist and a bank teller than that she is just a bank teller—in clear violation of elementary logic. They do so because they are bewitched by her profile, which says “feminist” a lot more strongly than it says “bank teller.” Reasoning by profiles this way is often accurate—though not always, as in this case—and (being automatic) a hell of a lot easier than logical reasoning. But the lesson here should not be that people are irrational. The lesson should be that human cognition employs many heuristic shortcuts that save time and energy and that are usually effective but can sometimes backfire. Similarly, the fact that cultural transmission can backfire doesn’t mean it isn’t a key element of what makes us seem so smart as a species.

    So, when we encounter a case like the brother–sister sexual episode, it is reasonable to suppose that we react via an automatically generated mix of learned cultural norms, biologically driven emotions, and personal beliefs. It is also reasonable to suppose that we do not find ready-to-hand a rational justification for any of these norms, emotions, or beliefs—any more than the woman who is cutting her ham in two. Cases like the brother–sister sexual episode make a powerful demonstration of this point, just because of the way they leave us fumbling for a justification for our intuitions.

    I think our moral “intuitions” are nearly all like this. And when I say “our,” I mean most definitely to include academic moral philosophers. Most academic moral philosophy strikes me as just exactly the sort of post hoc rationalization of dimly understood intuitions that Haidt is talking about (only with the comedy of its own high seriousness and pretentiousness throw in). Academic moral philosophers prattle a lot about moral “reasons,” but what they really have mostly, it looks like to me, are moral intuitions (a.k.a. prejudices) which they are struggling mightily but mostly unsuccessfully to justify.

    This is why it would be good to set aside intuitions and put moral principles on a scientific foundation to the extent possible. For my suggestion of how to do this, see the “Aristotelianism” section of Morals and the Free Society. (Insert a smiley face here.) I don’t see any conflict between my program there and what Haidt is doing.

    On this view, our biologically driven emotions will have evolved through genetic evolution, which means there’s a good chance they’re supportive of human life and well-being. And our cultural norms will have evolved through cultural evolution, which means they too have a good chance of supporting human life and well-being. Of course, “a good chance” is far from a certainty. Just because certain functions, processes, norms, etc. evolved doesn’t necessarily make them good for us, much less optimal. The Hayekian flavor of all this, by the way, is quite strong.

    Finally, none of the above precludes using reason in principle to determine morals. I’m sure Haidt doesn’t mean to say otherwise. So your point 2.2 is dead right, I would say.

    Concerning Kohlberg in general, I haven’t read what Haidt says—as I stated at the outset—but it sounds like he means to challenge Kohlberg’s stage theory, according to which, when you ask kids about the reasons for their moral judgments, the littlest kids appeal to rewards and punishment, semi-little kids appeal to conventional norms as such (“this is what good people do,” “this is the American way”) and bigger kids appeal to universal principles (“this is just what is right”). Kohlberg thinks only sophisticated Westerners instructed by Kant are grown up enough to appeal to such highfalutin principles. Haidt thinks otherwise, based on cross-cultural research. So, re your point 1.1, I don’t think it’s a matter of people making a conventional/universal distinction. The distinction is Kohlberg’s. And Haidt doesn’t seem to think the distinction has the sort of uniform, staged applicability that Kohlberg attributes to it—probably not for Western kids any more than for anybody else. But here I’d probably better shut up until I’ve actually read what Haidt has to say.

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    • There is a lot here, David. Thanks for diving in and taking one for the team to make sure the ball gets rolling… I didn’t mean to get things started too soon (possibly I forgot some particulars of our communications) and feel free to take some extra time to get through chapter four and get the next chunk of summary/commentary up.

      Some points/responses:

      (a) You are right that Haidt takes himself to be doing work that is only descriptive. So, I think, did Kohlberg. However, I think the “normative overlay” (that says things like that children start using good reasoning to get to moral views that are better) is important. It is part of why people care about the descriptive stuff and it explains the dynamics in the field (e.g., why Kohlberg was so influential, why it took so long for folks to acknowledge points from sociobiology, not called evolutionary psychology). Perhaps it would have been better not to have included the “normative overlay” in the characterizations of the relevant positions.

      (b) The bit about civil interaction and argumentation is not part of Haidt’s social intuitive moral of moral reasoning. However, in his description and defense of it, he stresses elements like being empathetic and friendly with people (so that their “elephant” trusts you). The idea seems to be that, if you do this, then politely stating your opinions, giving your reasons, and challenging your interlocutor’s reasoning can influence others, mainly by putting them in a position to have intuitions that they would not otherwise have. (However, I’m not sure if the empathy part or just the stating one’ s opinion part constituting using the social-influence channel – as opposed to the reasoning channel – to get others to see things differently and change their minds.)

      (c) Perhaps Haidt would agree that, say, one’s disgust upon thinking about brother and sister having sex constitutes not only an intuition in the descriptive sense, but also an intuition in the epistemic sense (of constituting or producing reason to believe or prima facie justification). My point is just that he does not make this explicit. Perhaps this amounts to the unfair complaint that he is not being a philosopher…

      (d) You bring up several points that I’m simply going to flag because they are important and can be kept in mind for future discussion (hopefully, my restatements here are accurate and helpful):
      – the (potential) relationship between JH’s social intuitive model of moral reasoning and cultural “uptake” and cultural evolution,
      – the (potential) relationship between pattern-based reasoning (which Haidt discusses explicitly, but I did not mention) and universally-good standards of reasoning)
      – whether or to what extent normative moral theorizing is a sophisticated exercise in post-hoc rationalization
      – what a good theory of what makes moral intuitions reliable or justified looks like
      – the extent to which genetic/biological evolution produces emotions/intuitions that are accurate (and relative to the production of what end)
      – what cultural evolution consists in and the extent to which it produces emotions/intuitions that are accurate (and realtive to the production of what end)


  3. I don’t have the Haidt book, and have to ration my time a bit, so I’m not going to be able to take a very active role in the Haidt discussion, but I’d be interested in some elaboration on the cross-cultural aspect of Haidt’s fieldwork and theorizing. At the most straightforward level, what cultures did he study? At a deeper level, what is a “culture,” anyway? The concept is notoriously slippery, and “cultures” are notoriously hard to define and individuate.

    Specifically, how does he define “Western” culture and distinguish it from “non-Western” culture? I’ve always found this distinction baffling. Sometimes, it seems to refer to a “culture” shared by North Americans and Western Europeans, so that South Americans and Eastern Europeans turn out to be “non-Western.” Sometimes it refers to the heritage of Greece, Rome, and (and?) the Judeo-Christian tradition, so that Islam becomes non-Western. But I’m not sure how the legacy of Greece and Rome gets transmitted to 21st century people, or how Judaism and Christianity become one “culture” when they’re hyphenated, or how Judaism and Christianity make such an easy fit with “Greece and Rome,” or why the “Judeo-Christian tradition” is different from one that includes Islam. Robert Putnam (and others) have argued that Northern and Southern Italian cultures were fundamentally different. Are Sicilians non-Western? Even the obvious candidates for non-Western status involve countries that were colonized and sometimes ruled by Western powers (India, Japan, the countries of Africa), while others are modernizing and “Westernizing” at a rapid clip (China).

    I’ve made it a point while traveling abroad to try to pinpoint “cultural differences” between the people I meet when I travel, and the people I deal with back home. Not a scientific sample, obviously, but what I encounter never maps onto any received view concerning “Western individualist culture” and “non-Western culture.” For whatever it’s worth, my experiences here in Palestine do not (at all) map onto your summary of Haidt’s dissertation field work (fifth indented paragraph under “Ch 1 Selective Summary”). Comparing, say, American and Palestinian university students, I see virtually none of the differences regarding (a), (b), and (c) that Haidt highlights.

    Incidentally, Haidt’s dissertation was accepted in 1992, and the dissertation itself is about 73 pages long. So his cross-cultural claims can’t literally turn on the dissertation fieldwork per se. That fieldwork has to be the basis for other work; it can’t be the fundamental empirical basis for his claims. Methodologically, I’m very skeptical that you can capture cross-cultural differences in moral outlook by the methods of Haidt’s dissertation: structured interviews about five somewhat idiosyncratic moral scenarios (which is what the dissertation was based on). I’d have to work through the details to articulate specific reasons for skepticism (which I don’t have time to do right now), but as a general point, the research methodology seems too simple to capture real cultural difference.

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    • Haidt’s work is influenced by Richard Shweder (an anthropologist) who studied moral views and reasoning in Orissa, on the east coast of India. Haidt studied children and adults in both southern Brazil (Porto Alegra) and northern Brazil (Recife). Interestingly, he found the difference between Kohlberg-like patterns and patterns in which disgust/purity and role-appropriate respect play a large role was most striking – whether in or around Philadelphia, in or around Porto Alegra, or in or around Recife – between more-highly-educated, higher-status city folks (something like the Kohlberg pattern) and the less-well-educated, lower-status country folks.

      Haidt does not say much about what counts as Western, culturally speaking. Here is what he focuses on: people who are WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) and people who are not. His general complaint, of which Kohlberg is only an example, is that you cannot do good social psychology if you just interview college students (or other folks who are WEIRD). Being WEIRD or not is an important variable that you have to take into account. Of course, the different elements here probably each do some work. But I think Haidt would say that, regardless of any oversimplification regarding the WEIRD category, it is necessary to pay attention to it if you are to avoid making mistakes. And, importantly, WEIRD people are weird – statistically, they are a small sample of humanity.

      I think we’d have to get into more detail about the structure of Haidt’s studies (maybe David P. is qualified to delve into this at some point in our discussion, if he’s like to do that) in order to evaluate them. Maybe the relevant work here (in Brazil) is not his dissertation work? Here is a description of the work: “The design of the study was… “three by two by two,” meaning that we had three cities, and in each city we had two levels of social class… and within each social class we had two age groups… That made for twelves groups in all, with third people in each group, for a total of 36 interviews. This large number of subjects allowed me to run statistical tests to examine the independent effects of city, social class, and age…” (p. 24). And “My idea was to give adults and children stories that pitted gut feelings [involving disgust and disrespect for authority, particularly powerful ‘harmless taboo’ scenarios] about important cultural norms against reasoning about harmlessness, and the see which force was stronger. Turiel’s rationalism predicted that reasoning about harm is the basis for moral judgment, so even though people might say its wrong to eat your dog, they would have to treat the act as a violation of a social convention… Shweder’s theory, on the other hand, said that Turiel’s predictions should hold among members of secular societies but not elsewhere.” I’m cannot right off hand locate in the text information about how many questions were asked (though some of the questions are surely the one’s he uses as examples in the book). Anyhow, hope this helps…

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  4. It is worth emphasizing, and perhaps something that I did not make clear in my summaries, that one of the main narrow, descriptive negative conclusion of Haidt’s research – at least at this point in the story of his intellectual development – is simply something like this: thinking about universal, moral wrong is not limited to thinking about harm-related and fairness-related wrongs (the alternative being thinking in terms of non-universal, conventional wrongness – that may or may not count as moral wrongness, this is not clear to me). I gather that the received view in empirical moral psychology, when Haidt got his education, held that all thinking about universal moral wrongness is thinking about universal moral wrong due to harming others or treating them unfairly. It seems right to me that Haidt’s studies disproved this (especially as he controls for “hidden thoughts about harm” driving the verdicts of universal moral wrongness about apparently harmless taboos and such – confounding factors that Turiel and his followers were sure would be found, but were not, except in WEIRD subjects [and even here the thoughts about harms and fairness were often post-hoc rationalization and hence not what accounts for having the beliefs/reactions to harmless taboo scenarios]).

    We should, then, distinguish two narrow, empirical questions: (a) “What is the content of thoughts about universal moral wrongness (and perhaps wrongness that is genuinely moral or not merely conventional)?” and (b) “Whatever the content of thoughts about universal moral wrongness, how do we come to these thoughts – to what extent via explicit deliberation, to what extent via immediate or intuitive belief-formation?” Haidt answers this second question, at least in a very general way, with his social intuitive model of moral reasoning.

    And, as David Potts points out and as I should have been more careful to distinguish, these are different from any normative questions concerning (c) reliability and justification/reasons (under what conditions are moral intuitions reliable or come along with some degree of justificatory force), (d) what conclusions about moral wrongness are ultimately correct (and justified), and (e) what makes processes of moral reasoning (broadly construed to include both intuition-driven and explicit-deliberation-driven processes) good and what jobs do intuitive and explicit-reasoning processes – in both individual and social contexts – have in helping us think well morally overall and reach correct and justified conclusions? What I’m calling the “normative overlay” of at least the early Kohlberg-dominated work in empirical moral psychology seems to have assumed some answers to [d] and [e] at least – and some at least somewhat-controversial answers that conveniently dove-tailed with important currents in secular, progressive thinking. Something similar reasonably might be said of Haidt, or at any rate his presentation here. Though he clearly distinguishes his empirical, descriptive work from the question of which theory of morality is correct, he does not mark out the above normative issues that are closely related to his descriptive work.


    • Here’s a question about the notion that moral judgments are tied up with the notion of harm. One way, which seems quite plausible to me, of drawing the connection would be to think that whatever it is you shouldn’t do is ultimately harmful in some way, whether to others or oneself. I wouldn’t necessarily expect that way of thinking to be universal, but I wouldn’t expect it to be culturally peculiar, either. But another way of drawing the connection would be to think that whatever it is you shouldn’t do is something that you shouldn’t do because it would bring about some distinct harm, either to others or oneself. I would expect that to be somewhat peculiar, given that it basically amounts to consequentialism, which is only one way of thinking about morality, and far from universally dominant even in Western culture. But this is where I’m puzzled. The first way of connecting moral judgment to harm seems almost trivial; you will be harmed by doing something impure, or taboo, or whatever, just because it is bad for you to do things that you shouldn’t do. Challenges to that sort of claim would seem to be challenges to the claim that you shouldn’t do whatever it is you supposedly shouldn’t do, and hence to be criticisms of morality or of particular moral claims rather than rejections of the claim that doing what you should not do is harmful to you. I would certainly be surprised if there are many conventions of moral discourse and judgment that systematically reject this claim. But the second way of connecting morality and harm seems far too parochial to have ever been taken for granted by psychologists. So am I misunderstanding something here?


  5. Good distinction. However, it is unclear that things that are wrong are always things that also harm the agent (and equally unclear that people think of matters this way, regardless of what the facts are). The trivial connection here is to personal motivation (and perhaps normative reasons), but personal motivation and normative reasons are not always relative to some end of self-benefit (or harm-to-self-avoidance). So I don’t think that the first option lands you with a trivial thesis about how moral wrong and harm are connected.

    I do think that the Kohlberg-type model makes a stronger ‘because’ claim (something like that it is the harm – to others – that explains the wrong). But I think that a plausible characterization of the sort of thinking and conclusions that Kohlberg has in mind would have to acknowledge an element of justice (say, reciprocity in harms and benefits) as well as an acknowledgement that others suffering as well as one’s own does and should matter to one. I think both thoughts of the form “This is wrong, and wrong for anyone, because it inflicts significant harms on others” and thoughts of the form “This is wrong, and wrong for anyone, because it constitutes not returning benefits bestowed” are thoughts that Kohlberg and Turiel *should* want to include in the relevant category – because both are both important elements in morally evaluating conventions. (Both sorts of thoughts involve harms or benefits in some way. Unjust actions both typically concern things like the failure to reciprocate benefits and typically constitute a derivative type of harm – even if they typically are not thought of as constituting a kind of self-harm unless you are an Aristotelian of a certain stripe ;-). It is, then, understandable to characterize all thinking about the moral status of harming others and treating them unfairly as “harm based,” but I think doing so glosses over important distinctions. It seems right, David R, that the harm involved in treating someone unfairly is not a harm that explains the unfairness, just something that is correlated with the unfairness.)

    David P probably has better direct knowledge of the relevant literature (in the history of empirical moral psychology and contemporary empirical psychology). Maybe he can say exactly what the going view was, or is, regarding all (or some important subset of) universal moral thinking concerning harms, avoiding harming others, etc.


    • David P probably has better direct knowledge of the relevant literature (in the history of empirical moral psychology and contemporary empirical psychology). Maybe he can say exactly what the going view was, or is, regarding all (or some important subset of) universal moral thinking concerning harms, avoiding harming others, etc.

      Yeah, you’d think I could. I have read Kohlberg and some of his critics and written essays on Kohlberg. I was in Larry Nucci’s graduate student research group on moral psychology at UIC (Nucci is a co-author of Turiel; he has a paper on Haidt’s reference list). But I’m afraid all that was at just about the time Haidt was in Brazil doing his dissertation research! My memory in general is not that good. And my copy of Turiel’s book has sat on my bookshelf unread for over 25 years. Maybe it would be a good idea to go through my files and dust off that old material, but I haven’t. So my ability to speak with authority about these guys is strictly limited. One thing I remember for sure: the Kantian drift of it all was very strong. It’s hilarious in a way. The 5th stage of moral development, according to Kohlberg’s theory, is social contract thinking (à la Locke). So that’s good, but the pinnacle is not reached until one grasps the (Kantian) principle of universalizability and thus achieves the sixth stage. Are we seriously supposed to believe that these stages are purely data-driven findings? I think Haidt is right to accuse these authors of using “science” to support a progressive political agenda, and I think it’s pretty clear also that their philosophical preconceptions about what constitutes advanced moral reasoning inappropriately influenced their supposedly descriptive theorizing.

      As for our discussion of the past few days, the one thing I would like to add is an emphasis on Haidt’s distinction between thin and thick moral views. He’s made allusions to this so far, but that’s all. I expect he will say more later in the book. The idea is that a moral view becomes thinner the narrower is the range of situations and actions to which it pertains. Morality in the Western tradition has become progressively thinner over time. In antiquity, moral systems were complete systems of life that told you what was important and what you should be concentrating on—and how—at more or less every waking minute. By the time of Kant, however, morality has become detached from the achievement of happiness and from the daily conduct of life and has focused almost entirely on the narrow question of why on certain occasions you are obliged to act in opposition to your desires and to what would seem to be your interests.

      One of Haidt’s main points in these chapters is that morality may be thin in secular, liberal, Western societies, but it is thick in much of the rest of the world. That is really the point of his dissertation research. He found that children more than adults, uneducated working stiffs more than educated elites, and non-WEIRDs more than WEIRDs: (a) treated cases like the child who doesn’t wear his school uniform as serious moral issues, not as violations of mere conventions; (b) treated harmless taboo violations as serious moral issues, even without harm as a basis for doing so; and (c) did so despite explicitly acknowledging that the infractions are harmless.

      In this respect, the distinction between conventional and universal reasoning is a bit of a red herring. Haidt agrees with Kohlberg/Turiel in regarding universal reasoning as characteristic of true moral reasoning. The groups that treat violations of “conventions” and harmless taboos as moral violations do not consider that what has been violated is a mere convention. Rather, they regard them as universal and unalterable. (They may well recognize that other societies may not honor the relevant principles; but they think that simply means those societies are wrong to do so.) Also, it is not that they don’t get that there are conventional rules. For example, presumably the people Shweder worked with in India recognize driving on the left side of the road as a convention; in other places, people drive on the right and it’s okay. However, for these people, the rules in question in Shweder’s and Haidt’s vignettes are not mere conventions. These people have a much broader set of rules they regard as moral (and therefore universal and unalterable). They have a thicker morality.

      It is strictly only Turiel who is accused of making harm the be-all-end-all. Although I have to say, the accusation would not really be unfair if it were spread wider. It is easy to find statements from liberal Western authors to the effect that “do no harm” is the essence of morality and everything else is details. For instance, “Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other ‘sins’ are invented nonsense” (Heinlein, in Time Enough for Love). Or again, Richard Rorty in his last couple of decades took to repeatedly quoting, with evident approval and the suggestion that this about sums it up, Judith Shklar’s line that a liberal is a person who believes that “cruelty is the worst thing we do.” (Rorty also at this time regularly addressed his readers as “we liberals.”) However, it doesn’t really matter whether we take harm as the essence of morality in Western societies or throw in fairness as a separate addition. This is still going to be a thin morality. In fact, in Haidt’s Science paper of 2007, he does treat harm and fairness as independent strands in Western morality. He identifies, in addition, three other strands recognized to varying degrees often much more strongly elsewhere: (i) loyalty and group cohesion; (ii) authority and the importance of respect and obedience; (iii) bodily and spiritual purity. One of the things I’m hoping for in The Righteous Mind is more discussion of these principles of thicker morality. That article gives a nice summary of Haidt’s thinking, by the way, for those who aren’t reading the book but would like to see an account from the horse’s mouth in relatively few words.

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      • Just a bibliographical postscript to David Potts’s comment: Robert Campbell has a paper (co-authored with John Chambers Christopher) on the Kantian presuppositions of moral development theory, focusing on Turiel and Kohlberg, from way back in 1996 in Developmental Review. I read it back then, but haven’t read it since. There was a response from Turiel et al. in the next issue of the journal.

        Here is the abstract. Here is a PDF to the full paper (47 pages). Here’s a link to Campbell’s CV for more.

        Though it’s a mixed bag, on last reading (fall of 2014), I found Carol Gilligan’s critique of Kohlbergian moral development theory apt and provocative (In a Different Voice).


  6. Pingback: Haidt, The Righteous Mind, chs. 3 & 4 | Policy of Truth

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