Tuesday, September 09, 2008


A great article (as always) over at Edge - with some great responses by interesting thinkers.

Here is a key quote from the main article, followed by some thoughts by Sam Harris.
This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation. I often had to correct people when they said things like "it's wrong because… um…eating dog meat would make you sick" or "it's wrong to use the flag because… um… the rags might clog the toilet." These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume's dictum that reason is "the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them." This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.

The second conclusion was that the moral domain varies across cultures. Turiel's description of morality as being about justice, rights, and human welfare worked perfectly for the college students I interviewed at Penn, but it simply did not capture the moral concerns of the less elite groups—the working-class people in both countries who were more likely to justify their judgments with talk about respect, duty, and family roles. ("Your dog is family, and you just don't eat family.") From this study I concluded that the anthropologist Richard Shweder was probably right in a 1987 critique of Turiel in which he claimed that the moral domain (not just specific rules) varies by culture. Drawing on Shweder's ideas, I would say that the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.

When Republicans say that Democrats "just don't get it," this is the "it" to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label "elitist." But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?

And this:

In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally. (You can test yourself at www.YourMorals.org.) We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment.

In The Political Brain, Drew Westen points out that the Republicans have become the party of the sacred, appropriating not just the issues of God, faith, and religion, but also the sacred symbols of the nation such as the Flag and the military. The Democrats, in the process, have become the party of the profane—of secular life and material interests. Democrats often seem to think of voters as consumers; they rely on polls to choose a set of policy positions that will convince 51% of the electorate to buy. Most Democrats don't understand that politics is more like religion than it is like shopping.

Religion and political leadership are so intertwined across eras and cultures because they are about the same thing: performing the miracle of converting unrelated individuals into a group. Durkheim long ago said that God is really society projected up into the heavens, a collective delusion that enables collectives to exist, suppress selfishness, and endure. The three Durkheimian foundations (ingroup, authority, and purity) play a crucial role in most religions. When they are banished entirely from political life, what remains is a nation of individuals striving to maximize utility while respecting the rules. What remains is a cold but fair social contract, which can easily degenerate into a nation of shoppers.

The Democrats must find a way to close the sacredness gap that goes beyond occasional and strategic uses of the words "God" and "faith." But if Durkheim is right, then sacredness is really about society and its collective concerns. God is useful but not necessary. The Democrats could close much of the gap if they simply learned to see society not just as a collection of individuals—each with a panoply of rights--but as an entity in itself, an entity that needs some tending and caring. Our national motto is e pluribus unum ("from many, one"). Whenever Democrats support policies that weaken the integrity and identity of the collective (such as multiculturalism, bilingualism, and immigration), they show that they care more about pluribus than unum. They widen the sacredness gap.

A useful heuristic would be to think about each issue, and about the Party itself, from the perspective of the three Durkheimian foundations. Might the Democrats expand their moral range without betraying their principles? Might they even find ways to improve their policies by incorporating and publicly praising some conservative insights?

And he concludes thus:
If Democrats want to understand what makes people vote Republican, they must first understand the full spectrum of American moral concerns. They should then consider whether they can use more of that spectrum themselves. The Democrats would lose their souls if they ever abandoned their commitment to social justice, but social justice is about getting fair relationships among the parts of the nation. This often divisive struggle among the parts must be balanced by a clear and oft-repeated commitment to guarding the precious coherence of the whole. America lacks the long history, small size, ethnic homogeneity, and soccer mania that holds many other nations together, so our flag, our founding fathers, our military, and our common language take on a moral importance that many liberals find hard to fathom.

Unity is not the great need of the hour, it is the eternal struggle of our immigrant nation. The three Durkheimian foundations of ingroup, authority, and purity are powerful tools in that struggle. Until Democrats understand this point, they will be vulnerable to the seductive but false belief that Americans vote for Republicans primarily because they have been duped into doing so.

Brilliant essay, and as ~C4Chaos has pointed out, integral in ways most integral political articles are not, which is to say, useful.

Sam Harris, however, is not amused.
Haidt is, of course, right to worry that liberals may not always "hold the moral high ground." In a recent study of moral reasoning, subjects were asked to judge whether it was morally correct to sacrifice the life of one person to save one hundred, while being given subtle clues as to the races of the people involved. Conservatives proved less biased by race than liberals and, therefore, more even-handed. It turns out that liberals were very eager to sacrifice a white person to save one hundred non-whites, but not the other way around, all the while maintaining that considerations of race had not entered into their thinking. Observations of this sort are useful in revealing the biasing effect of ideology—even the ideology of fairness.

Haidt often writes, however, as if there were no such thing as moral high ground. At the very least, he seems to believe that science will never be able to judge higher from lower. He admonishes us to get it into our thick heads that many of our neighbors "honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats." Yes, and many of them honestly prefer the Republican vision of cosmology, wherein it is still permissible to believe that the big bang occurred less than ten thousand years ago. These same people tend to prefer Republican doubts about biological evolution and climate change. There are names for this type of "preference," one of the more polite being "ignorance." What scientific purpose is served by avoiding this word at all costs?

And he concludes with this:
Haidt is, of course, right to notice that emotions have primacy in many respects—and the way in which feeling drives judgment is surely worthy of study. It does not follow, however, that there are no right and wrong answers to questions of morality. Just as people are often less than rational when claiming to be rational, they are often less than moral when claiming to be moral. We know from many lines of converging research that our feeling of reasoning objectively, in concordance with compelling evidence, is often an illusion. This is especially obvious in split-brain research, when the left hemisphere's "interpreter" finds itself sequestered, and can be enticed to simply confabulate by way of accounting for right-hemisphere behavior. This does not mean, however, that dispassionate reasoning, scrupulous attention to evidence, and awareness of the ever-present possibility of self-deception are not cognitive skills that human beings can acquire. And there is no reason to expect that all cultures and sub-cultures value these skills equally.

If there are objective truths about human well-being—if kindness, for instance, is generally more conducive to happiness than cruelty is—then there seems little doubt that science will one day be able to make strong and precise claims about which of our behaviors and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are bad. At time when only 28 percent of Americans will admit the truth of evolution, while 58 percent imagine that a belief in God is necessary for morality, it is truism to say that our culture is not prepared to think critically about the changes to come.

To a certain extent, I think, Harris is willfully misunderstanding Haidt's argument. Haidt is NOT arguing for moral relativity, but rather, he is pointing out that a certain moral worldview exists in conservatives that liberals have failed to grasp. And no amount of rational argument is going to influence that worldview because it is emotionally-based, not reasoned out.

Harris is bright and engaging, but he consistently fails to understand the existence of worldviews and how they shape beliefs. His scientism is great for those who agree, but like the logical arguments of the liberals against the conservatives, will do nothing to sway non-believers.

Other responses are from Daniel Everett, Howard Gardner, Michael Shermer, Scott Atran, James Fowler, Alison Gopnik, James O'Donnell, and Roger Schank.

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