CH5 (“BEYOND ‘WEIRD’ MORALITY”) SELECTIVE SUMMARY – commentary in bold
5.1 WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic people) are statistical outliers in the group of humans – and therefore bad samples for generalizing about the group of humans. They are perhaps most obviously outliers in that, at least in cases not involving other-harming or unfair action, they resist inferring from feelings of disgust upon considering a social situation to that situation being morally bad or involving someone doing something morally wrong. For example, they are much less inclined to say that someone having sex with a chicken carcass and then eating it is (universally, morally) wrong. Similarly for other “harmless taboo” cases. Therefore, good empirical moral psychology should not sample only WEIRDos (e.g., university students in the United States – hard to get much WEIRDer).
5.2 An explanatory account of WEIRDness: such folks tend to think of the social and non-social world in terms of separate objects. For this reason, Westerners do better than non-Westerners in the “absolute” version of the framed-line test, displaying a tendency to focus on, take in, and remember the absolute magnitude of the line as well as its magnitude in relation to the square box that it is in. And, for this reason, Western folks tend to see themselves in terms of their preferences and life-plans rather than in terms of their role-relationships with others (the “I am…” test; e.g., ‘adventurous’ versus ‘a good father’). And, regarding putative moral norms, they integrate their moral systems around the protection of individuals (hence, the focus on the claims that individuals have against each other and the state), not the protection of groups or society.
5.3 Richard Shweder’s three-fold distinction in kinds of moralities (or elements in a morality): the ethic of autonomy (as dominates the WEIRD folks), the ethic of community, the ethic of divinity. The ethic of autonomy is associated with caring/helping and rights. The ethic of community is associated with the concepts duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation, patriotism. The ethic of divinity is associated with the concept of sanctity and sin, purity and pollution, elevation and degradation.
5.4 How Haidt, an opinionated, partisan, atheist liberal became an “ethical pluralist.” Studying the culture in the city of Bhubaneswar in Orissa, India by living with folks (anthropological method), he liked the people he was spending time with, began to actually feel the different values/norms of community and divinity – things started striking him as impure, degrading, or lacking respect for tradition. Though he could equally see/feel the sexism (as when the women were not allowed to eat with the men), the non-WEIRDo, non-ethic-of-autonomy values became equally real. And so, when he got back to the U.S., conservatives no longer seemed utterly crazy (and certain sorts of objects, like copies of important books, seemed holy).
5.4a Descriptively, this kind of diversity in moral thinking seems quite important. Even WEIRDos “sanctify” things and seem to intrinsically value respecting (certain sorts of) authority, for example, even though this is not given much voice in their ethical thinking. However, for all that Haidt has said so far, the elements of the ethics of community and divinity (as characterized) have no normative purchase at all. He needs to show that his “enculturation” experience gave rise to sensitivity to morally valuable things that he would otherwise have been blind to…
CH6 (“TASTE BUDS OF THE RIGHTEOUS MIND”) SELECTIVE SUMMARY – commentary in bold
6.1 Haidt is trying to explain the diversity in moral thinking, but thinks we need to integrate evolutionary psychology rather than simply describe different approaches that seem to hang together (Shweder’s approach with his three-fold distinction in moralities.) Using this kind of approach, we might view morality like tastes in cooking/cuisine. The standards for cooking/cuisine, though varied, have to take into account the types of taste buds we have and how they interact or fit together. So you end up with quite a bit of variation, but within certain confines (not a crazy scope of variation). And, normatively, you evaluate a cuisine or a dish of food relative to our types of taste receptor (“this is sweet and it plays off the salty bits nicely”) but not just anything passes muster as a good dish.
6.2 What normative moral theory looks like if we don’t have a view like this, if we are ethical monists: Bentham and utilitarian thinking (harm), Kant and deontological thinking (rights). Thinking Bentham is right is like thinking that the best sort of restaurant would have to only have sweet stuff (say, because neural signals from sweet receptors are the strongest). Bentham was autistic, Kant was borderline autistic. Ultra WEIRDos.
6.3 If morality is pluralistic and we want to have a rigorous theory describing it, then we need a theory of what our “moral taste buds” are like. More precisely, we need an account, in evolutionary-psych terms, of the basic functional elements that, like our taste receptors, provide the basis for cobbling together reasonable moral practices and evaluating them. Haidt borrows the concept of cognitive modules to describe our “moral taste receptors.” “Modules are like little switches in the brains of all animals. They are switched on by patterns that were important for survival in a particular ecological niche, and when they detect that pattern, they send out a signal that (eventually) changes the animal’s behavior in a way that is (usually) adaptive… An evolved cognitive module… is an adaptation to a range of phenomena that presented problems or opportunities in the ancestral environment of the species” (Sperber and Hirschfeld). For example, evolution has provided humans with a face-recognition cognitive module. And most mammals have a snake-recognition-and-avoidance module. So you might start to get a good solid theory here by describing the “moral taste buds” and mapping them onto a cross-cultural list of common virtues associated with how the “moral taste buds” function.
6.4 The basic framework for describing what our “moral taste buds” are and how they function: adaptive challenge, original trigger, current trigger, characteristic emotions, associated virtues. This is the framework for “moral foundations theory.” For example: the care/harm “foundation” (or set of cognitive modules) goes like this. Adaptive challenge: protect and care for children, Original Triggers: suffering or distress, or neediness expressed by one’s child, Current Triggers: baby seals, cute cartoon characters, Characteristic Emotions: compassion, Relevant Virtues: caring, kindness.
6.4a Haidt officially endorses a “Humean” anthropological and psychological view of normativity (and hence moral normativity). But, not being a philosopher, he does not really motivate why or how, from all the descriptive stuff, normativity is supposed to pop out. The material about taste receptors, their affect, and how they function is suggestive (it is intuitive that a good dish has to “fit” how our taste receptors work in some way in order to be good – and intuitive that this is part of what it is for a dish to be good). Perhaps this is even a good model for modern-day Humeans. But Haidt does not really say at all how the normative bit is supposed to go. What he says is just schematic: what a good moral practice is, like what a good dish is, is constrained by relevant basic affective/motivational functional elements, not an anything-goes affair.
6.4b In my view, the key to any plausible Humean view is the evaluation of desires and thereby the actions that they tend to produce. Not all desires, not even all natural desires, are or remain part of the motivational/functional basis for evaluating other, more derivative desires and behaviors – some, like planets in the wrong orbit, get flung out of the system. Even granting this kind of Humean view of how normativity works, Haidt has not shown the none of his moral foundations, either generally or in a specific sort of social circumstance, are or become things that jeopardize a relevant sort of social functionality that is beneficial to us (rather than being something that, causally and functionally, tends to get “thrown out of orbit” and normatively should be thus flung away). For all he has said, having a sanctity/degradation element is incompatible with the sort of moral functionality that best provides for the things we care most about or that benefit us the most.
6.4c Later, Haidt says that he accepts utilitarianism (he seems to be convinced that deontology is superstitious rule-following). But it is really unclear how he gets this from his Humean foundations (in fairness, he does just assert that he accepts something like welfare consequentialism). Oddly, as far as I can tell, Haidt rejects deontological elements in morality partly because they are “part of the elephant” not a product of our powers of reasoning (as Greene’s applied philosophy results seem to show). But this makes no sense. Though we would need reason to discover this if it is true, why not hold that the urgent emotional element that corresponds to pushing the fat guy onto the tracks to stop the train (but not some action that changes the path of the train, an equal number of lives being saved) does not, along with relevant causal and functional elements, give rise to formally deontic reasons not to do certain sorts of things to others (that would, roughly speaking, constitute failing to respect their agency, welfare, dignity, etc.)?