What’s So Great about Joint Intentionality? Haidt, Tomasello, and Henrich

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt invokes Michael Tomasello’s notion of “joint intentionality,” calling it our evolutionary Rubicon; i.e., the critical trait the evolution of which made us irrevocably human and led inevitably to the development of a large number of our most distinctive human characteristics, especially our groupishness. Haidt writes:

When everyone in a group began to share a common understanding of how things were supposed to be done, and then felt a flash of negativity when any individual violated these expectations, the first moral matrix was born… That, I believe, was our Rubicon crossing. (239)

I think Haidt gets a little too carried away over joint intentionality. The purpose of this post is to explain why and to suggest a more sensible alternative proposed by anthropologist Joseph Henrich.

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Haidt—The Righteous Mind, Chs. 7 & 8

In chapters 7 and 8, Haidt describes in detail his account of our innate “moral foundations”—a relatively small set of fundamental psychological mechanisms that underlie and produce our moral intuitions. In previous chapters, he has argued that moral judgment is driven primarily by moral intuition—that the intuitive dog wags the rational tail—and that our moral intuitions cover more areas of life than just harm and fairness. It is now time to get specific. Just what are these fundamental, innate sources of moral intuition, and how can we show that we really have them?

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Haidt, The Righteous Mind, chs. 3 & 4

In chapters 3 & 4, Haidt elaborates his basic dual process model of the mind, which he represents metaphorically as a (rational, conscious, deliberative) rider on an (intuitive, unconscious, automatized) elephant. This sort of dual process theory is in a fair way to becoming orthodoxy in contemporary psychology. (Though it’s not there yet. See this symposium in Perspectives on Psychological Science, kicked off by this target article by Keith Stanovich and Jonathan St. B. T. Evans. The best single account of the dual process theory that I know of is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.) In Haidt’s version, emotions are emphasized in the elephant, and the rider is treated as subordinate and even subservient to the elephant. Thus, his view has more than a whiff of Platonic dualism about it, with the twist that the Platonic charioteer can’t control his team of horses. At best, the charioteer urges and remonstrates with the team. For the most part, the charioteer’s role is to persuade others that the team is going the right way, whatever the appearances may be.

This adversarial view of the relationship between elephant and rider doesn’t sit particularly well with me, much less the treatment of reason as mere post hoc rationalization. Continue reading

My famous friends: name-dropping without (much) shame

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post dedicated in part to discussing the work of people I either don’t know, or barely know at all. Today’s post is just the opposite: a name-dropping attempt to bask vicariously in the glory of others’ accomplishments, simply because they happen to be friends or relatives of mine. There’s no credit like unearned credit! I’m going to bold everyone’s name below, just to make this post look more like the gossip column that it is.

My friend William Dale is Associate Professor of Medicine at Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. (He has a half dozen other titles, but never mind.) He seems to make it into The New York Times every other day for his work on geriatrics, but here’s the latest, about the connections between his work and the National Social, Life, Health, and Aging Project at Chicago. And yes, that’s him in the header photo of their page.

I’m not sure I know Jose Duarte well enough to call us “friends,” but we have hung out a bit, so I’ll gloss over the niceties. Jose has been creating waves for his research, with Jonathan Haidt, on the political biases of research in social psychology. Here’s a piece in The New Yorker about his most recent publication. And here’s a link to the paper itself, “Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Research.”

My friend Stephen Hicks is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the publication of his 2004 book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. It’s gone through God-knows-how-many printings, and at least five translations that I know of, with more on the way. (I’d like to put in a vote for an Urdu translation, by the way.) I’d like to think that I made some tiny contribution to the success of the book; as co-managing editor of Reason Papers, I happened to edit  (all right, co-edit) one of the longer and more positive reviews of the book. But obviously, I couldn’t have done that unless Stephen had written the book (and Steven Sanders had written the review!) in the first place.

Finally, on the Famous Friend Front, my buddy Chris Sciabarra is featured in a piece on Ayn Rand in New York Magazine, improbably titled, “Ayn Rand, Girl Power Icon.” Amusingly, the piece opens with Chris’s professed puzzlement about the phenomenon, and only gets better from there.

I mentioned famous relatives. Did I tell you that my cousin Khawaja Saad Rafiq is the Minister of Railways for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? I only mention that because here’s a piece featuring Saad bhai in the Pakistan Observer. In it, he takes issue with Jason Brennan’s thesis in The Ethics of Voting. According to Dr. Brennan, we have no duty to vote, but according to cousin Saad, the “Country Can Only Make Progress Thru the Power of Vote.” Well, Saad bhai doesn’t quite mention Dr. Brennan by name, but the implicit spirit of contention is there. I actually think that a conversation between Saad bhai and Dr. Brennan on voting would be a hilariously instructive affair for all parties. In fact, I offer in advance to serve as interpreter to overcome the language barrier* for the conversation. I rather doubt that the event will ever happen, but as a thought-experiment, I think it has a lot to recommend itself.

*PS, I kind of think that language would be the least of the barriers involved. Cf. Bernard Williams on real and notional confrontations, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, pp. 160ff.

Postscript, December 19, 2014: Amazingly, within a few weeks of my issuing a call for an Urdu translation of Explaining Postmodernism, Stephen Hicks has announced a forthcoming Hindi translation. Behold the power of PoT.