Monday, December 14, 2015

Bloggers Are The Best Seekers After Moral Truth

I am reading Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, which I think I am going to categorise as a necessary book, one that must be read if the topic is to be understood, whatever shortcomings it might have. I have seen much but not all of this information in other venues, but it is nicely arranged here, in a more engaging style than The Happiness Hypothesis.

In the meantime, I was struck by his description of Phil Tetlock's work on two different types of moral reasoning, exploratory versus confirmatory.  Confirmatory moral reasoning is what we do 90+% of the time, instantly and seamlessly seeking justifications for whatever it is we just did or decided.  It is our built-in PR firm or built-in lawyer, and doesn't bother much about the actual truth. Yes, it's all rather tawdry, but it seems to have served us well in an evolutionary sense. The appearance of morality and justifying our behavior may sound like we're mostly faking, but in small societies, there's a limit in what you can get away with, and smoothing things over with a good excuse that shows you generally acknowledge the underlying rules is an economical way of getting at real moral behavior.

Yet we all know that the exploratory moral reasoning, the "evenhanded examination of alternative points of view" is the real deal, and that requires accountability.  Interestingly, Tetlock found that three factors must go into the accountability, all of which apply to bloggers: 1) Decision makers learn before forming any opinion that they will be accountable to an audience. 2) The audience's views are unknown, and 3) They believe the audience is well-informed and seeks accuracy. Haidt explains:
When all these conditions apply, people do their darndest to figure out the truth, because that's what the audience wants to hear. But the rest of the time - which is almost all of the time - accountability pressures simply increase confirmatory thought. People are trying harder to look right than to be right.
He then quotes Tetlock to the effect that we are also, perhaps even mostly, trying to convince ourselves.

Well, that looks like bloggers, doesn't it?  There's some weakness around factor 2), because each site has an audience and the blogger knows something of what they believe.  But that is true of any writer, or indeed, any communicator. Unfortunately, you will notice that this applies less to blog commenters.  Of which I am also one.

It's bad news in the end, though.  Tetlock also found out that the best moral reasoners aren't any more moral in their actions than poor moral reasoners.


Sam L. said...

Depending on the blogger and the subject, some bloggers know their readers/commenters will agree with them because that's the right opinion to have, and release the baying hounds. So I've heard in the science fiction community, though I've personally not run into it.

Christopher B said...

"evenhanded examination of alternative points of view"

A wolf and a sheep are going to have very different ideas about the acceptable range of alternative points of view regarding dinner.

Maybe what Haidt and Tetlock are finding is that even when exploratory reasoning is attempted the range of alternatives examined is limited by confirmatory reasoning, so what we're actually looking at is something more on the order of 1% of the time rather than 10%

2p said...

"Well, that looks like bloggers, doesn't it?"

Sounds like 'confirmatory moral reasoning' :)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Never. Complete objectivity on my part.