I have been encouraging people to read Haidt for a half-dozen years, not with unqualified approval, but because he is clearly onto something. Now he is big news, with a NYTimes bestseller and a gig with TED. One is supposed to be gratified when the general public catches on to something one has recommended, and feel a warm I-told-you-so glow. I don’t, whether because my character is too large for that or too small. I’m merely annoyed at having to repeat myself.
First, Haidt is an honest man, or at least was when I first read about him. His data about moral reasoning took him someplace unexpected – somewhere that looked right from the outset to go against his preferences – and he reported it fairly and followed the trail. Good on him for that. I don’t know if the criticism and fame have caused him to back down from that integrity, because I haven’t read The Righteous Mind. I am hoping he has stood firm.
He has also modified his views in response to fair criticism. I wish it were more, but I’m grateful for any. His original research showed that moral reasoning is different in different groups. I noted at the time that the UPenn students were considered to have gotten the answers “right,” which struck me as an immediate red flag. Something more akin to “thinks like a social psychology professor,” or even “knows how to answer test questions” was being measured, not moral reasoning. Haidt didn’t see that at first, but caught on pretty quickly. He has since attempted to refine and categorise the differences. Most controversially, liberals apply two axes to moral reasoning, conservatives apply five (now six). This lead to irate liberals insisting that the other 3-4 axes were stupid and unnecessary, while conservatives glowered that this proved what they had been saying about the moral blindness of liberals all along.
At the time, I noticed immediately that liberals also reasoned along those additional axes, but it hadn’t shown up in the test because of Haidt’s originally liberal bias. (There’s a lot less of that now.) For example, one question was whether you would use an American flag to clean a toilet if you had nothing else. The original “right” answer was Yes, because you were smart enough to see that the cloth was only symbolic, yadda yadda. The Ivy League 20-year-olds got that right. But Haidt hadn’t asked similar questions which might evoke the same response from liberals, such as whether you would wipe your bum with a newspaper photo of MLK or Gandhi if you had nothing else. There were examples from the other axes as well, illustrating that liberals – and in fact all human beings – used all categories. I spent about three months pointing that out in comment sections around the web, and like to think I did my little bit in getting Haidt to come ‘round on that.
It does remain true that all groups do not apply all six axes with the same intensity, and some are indeed unimportant to one group or another. It also remains true that some, though not all, liberals view Haidt as the Antichrist. They are unable to even remain polite in discussing his ideas. He is becoming one of those figures that others dash themselves against, drawing amazingly stupid statements out of supposedly smart people.
Alert readers will note that this general idea is precisely what CS Lewis wrote in The Abolition Of Man in the 1940’s. We have similar moral precepts and groundings, but we rank them differently. It would be interesting to know what Lewis would have thought of Haidt’s schema, which he concludes is as much biological as cultural.
Jonathan Haidt’s other repeated theme is that our moral reasoning, like all our thinking, is not under the strict control we like to think. We decide something and then rationalize it immediately, as quick as thought. We’re fine with that idea when it applies to other people, but we rebel against it when it comes to our own group, and ourselves especially. Those other knuckleheads might be voting for Romney/Obama for purely emotional, tribal reasons, but we – or at least a far greater percentage of Us – have solid logical reasons in voting for Obama/Romney.
Anyone who has worked with addicts, or other categories which sap the insight, knows this. The intelligent simply play chess against themselves, finding more elaborate reasons why they drink. It is not Haidt’s opinion, but it is mine, that liberals are especially prone to this type of self-delusion, not in spite of their gifts of intellect but because of them. The gifts of summarizing, general knowledge, and social knowledge leave one especially prone to overconfidence in opinion.
We’ve got a leg up here. We discussed this at length for months in 2011, in the May We BelieveOur Thoughts? series. This isn’t new information here. That our brains telegraph what we will decide before we ourselves have realized it, and the interesting neurological experiments illustrating this, we have noted before. (Brief summary for new readers: a helluva lot of our thinking is involuntary and not fully rational. But not all. People seek advice, people change their minds, people really are undecided and attempt to apply reason. Okay, well… some people do, and the others are at least theoretically capable. Be humble, but not discouraged.)
** ** **
For all that, I have some criticism of Haidt’s theories. Though he is clearly onto something which is holding up under repeated testing and examination, he may not be describing it accurately. There is no particular shame in that. It’s not that I have seen a better theory, or have one of my own. But this is new territory, trying to discern where the tectonic plates are underneath our moral reasoning. I have raised enough red flags about his original theories. Let me raise more.
Haidt is a researcher in social psychology. In that field he may indeed be regarded as an authority. He might make mistakes, and may even turn out to be wrong, but his errors are constrained there. There are pitfalls he has entire awareness of which nonspecialists could easily miss. In describing the research in neurology, decision-making, imaging, and other branches of social science, is is one step removed. He is much better placed to understand and describe than most of the rest of us, but these are allied fields, not specialties, for him. This removal grows greater as he gets away from his expertise. His knowledge of genetics and evolutionary psychology is secondhand. In particular, he seems to be positioning himself as an expert in moral philosophy, because he has a theory in social psychology which has bearing there. In The Happiness Hypothesis this was quite clear. He is a smart man. He has some honesty, integrity, and open-mindedness. He is willing to buck conventional wisdom. He has thought about these things a good deal more than most people, and likely conferred with others about same. But in moral philosophy, he’s just another smart guy who has thought about stuff.
The difficulty is likely to come when the variance between groups shows any genetic cause at all. Haidt is going no further at the moment than asserting that all human beings have these categories embedded in our inherited schema, less cultural than heritable. It's the standard mythology that evolution is reliable science up until about 50,000 years ago - just enough to kick fundamentalists with - and then pretty much stopped. Further differences are not allowed. We have to be one big happy family after that. But the Steven Pinker questions, about the diminution of violence beginning in NW Europe, are going to occur to Haidt and allied researchers soon. Do some groups have "better" moral reasoning? What do we mean by that? Can they be ranked? Oops. No, no they can't. Move along now.
I would think that the best line of escape is along epigenetic lines - that's very cool now. But Pinker only partly relied on that. He is smarter than I, as Haidt likely is as well, and if the ignore/mumble platitudes/wave the arms vaguely about the Enlightenment strategy worked for him, Jonathan my dart there as well. Yet both are still young, and I have hopes they will push the envelope more.