Saturday, March 10, 2012

Jonathan Haidt and Moral Decision Making, Implications for Integral Theory

Jonathan Haidt has a new book coming out next week, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion - and this is likely to be an important book. Although it is also sure to raise a lot of controversy from psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists for a variety of reasons.

Haidt has become a leader in the popularization of cultural psychology - an important new field that seeks to combine an understanding of our subjective, interior experience (psychology) with an understanding of how we construct the social and cultural meanings in which we are embedded. that surround us.

As defined by Jonathan Rée at the New Humanist (who is not impressed with Haidt's new book):
Cultural psychology applies the principles of Darwinian natural selection to problems about morality, consciousness and human existence, and Haidt believes that it offers definitive evidence-based solutions to the problems that have been baffling philosophers since the dawn of civilisation.

The first perspective I came across was from Matthew Kalman Mezey, a founding member of the Integral Institute. He also created the London Integral Circle and is now Senior Networks Manager, Online & International, for the RSA (if you are not familiar with these folks, you should be). He is co-author of Beyond the Big Society, a report from the RSA that includes Robert Kegan's developmental model.

Here are his brief observations shared on the Adult Development listserve.
I've been thinking a lot about Jonathan Haidt's rejection of the rational/deliberative approach of neo-Piagetian moral stage theorist Lawrence Kohlberg lately.

 Haidt argues that our thinking system is simply not equipped to lead, it doesn't have the power to make things happen.

 Basically our intuitions come first - and any rational moral reasoning is merely post-hoc rationalisation.

 As Haidt pretty much rejects Kohlberg and developmental psychology, I was wondering whether any developmentalist has sought to defend developmental psychology from the academic fans of intuition/automaticity who are currently in the ascendent. (I've seen a couple of pieces by Darcia Narvaez that broadly does this, and one overview by Baumeister).

 Haidt also argues that nearly all psychology research is done on WEIRD samples (ie Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) who are completely unrepresentative. They are also analytical, autonomous and see only a world of separate objects.

 But doesn't the best developmental psychology research find that late stage development begins to bridge this (East-West?) chasm - and see connections, dialectical interweaving, rather than an isolated, rationalist view?

 In other words, developmental psychology offers us the hope of transcending the narrow, atomised view that Haidt somewhat rejects - yet it is Haidt himself who has closed the door to this hopeful opportunity.

 Do keep an eye out for Haidt's upcoming book: 'The Righteous Mind - why good people are divided by politics and religion' - it will be a fascinating read, especially for people in the US.
More on this view below.

Another review comes from Michael Dowd at Metanexus. Dowd is an American evolutionary theologian, bestselling author of Thank God for Evolution (2008). From Wikipedia:
On April 2, 2009, Dowd at the United Nations addressed the lack of an evolutionary worldview which he maintains has resulted in a global integrity crisis that requires a deep-time view of human nature, values and social systems to provide a solution for going forward.

His comments come in an article called The Evolutionary Significance of Religion: Multi-Level Selection, in which he looks at three new books, including Haidt's.
So, let me now whet your appetite for the three books forthcoming this year that will continue the work of advancing our understanding of how human societies evolve by (a) multi-level selection (individual traits selected for “the good of the group”) and (b) the unique powers of religions to foster large-scale group cohesion and a spirit of sacrifice (with or without “God”). Here they are:

1. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (publication date: March 13, 2012). Haidt is a professor in the psychology department at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis.

Description: A groundbreaking investigation into the origins of morality, which turns out to be the basis for religion and politics. The book is timely (explaining the American culture wars and refuting the “New Atheists”), scholarly (integrating insights from many fields), and great fun to read (like Haidt’s last book, The Happiness Hypothesis).

“A remarkable and original synthesis of social psychology, political analysis, and moral reasoning that reflects the best of sciences in these fields and adds evidence that we are innately capable of the decency and righteousness needed for societies to survive.” (Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University)

The Righteous Mind refutes the “New Atheists” and shows that religion is a central part of our moral heritage. Haidt’s brilliant synthesis shows that Christians have nothing to fear and much to gain from the evolutionary paradigm.” (Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution)

“Haidt’s research has revolutionized the field of moral psychology. This elegantly written book has far-reaching implications for anyone interested in politics, religion, or the many controversies that divide modern societies. If you want to know why you hold your moral beliefs, and why many people disagree with you, read this book.” (Simon Baron-Cohen, Cambridge University, author of The Science of Evil)

The Righteous Mind is an intellectual tour de force that brings Darwinian theorizing to the practical realm of everyday politics.” (Christopher Boehm, University of Southern California, author of Moral Origins)

“Here is the first attempt to give an in-depth analysis of the underlying moral stance and dispositions of liberals and conservatives. I couldn’t put it down and discovered things about myself!” (Michael Gazzaniga, University of California, Santa Barbara, author of The Ethical Brain)

Comment by Michael Dowd: In an early draft of his book, Haidt crafted a lovely analogy to illustrate the difficulties that advocates of “multi-level selection” are facing in their encounter with the reigning paradigm of individual- and gene-level selection. In a passage that didn’t make it into the final manuscript (but you can savor here), after outlining four distinct lines of evidence in support of multi-level selection, Haidt illustrates how unique humans are in the animal kingdom (with respect to good will beyond kin selection and reciprocal altruism) while poking fun at those who argue against group-level selection in human societies by pointing to examples of where it doesn’t exist among other animals:
Imagine going to the zoo with a friend who has never seen a giraffe and doesn’t believe they are real. He declares: ‘It is possible in theory for an animal to have a neck longer than ten feet. But I shall endeavor to prove that such long necks do not in fact exist.’ Your friend takes you to see lions, bears, elephants, snakes, and penguins. He takes measurements at each exhibit, each time exclaiming, ‘No long necks here!’ Each time you say, ‘Enough! Can we go to the giraffe house now?’ But your friend doesn’t seem to hear you.

Human beings are the giraffes of altruism. Yes, most of human nature was shaped by natural selection operating at the level of the individual. Most, but not all. We have a few group-related adaptations too, as many Americans discovered in the days after 9/11. We humans have a dual nature—we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves. We are 90% chimp and 10% bee. If you take that claim metaphorically (not literally), then many of the groupish and hivish things that people devote their lives to doing will make a lot more sense. It’s almost as though there’s a switch in our heads that activates our hivish potential when conditions are just right.
Kalman's perspective is what I find interesting. In Wilberian integral theory, intellect is necessary but not sufficient for nearly all other developmental lines, including (especially?) morality. But Haidt would argue that intellect has little to do with it, that we respond to moral issues from an intuitive level, not a cognitive level.

There is considerable support for this perspective in the field of neuroscience, and we most often see this research trotted out to deny free will. For example, in a 2008 study - (Soon, Brass, Heinze, & Haynes, Nature Neuroscience) - it was found that . . .
The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.
Haidt takes this much further according to Rée:
The mind, he said, is not a peaceful philosophical realm where reason and consciousness reign, but a battlefield of conflicting impulses largely beyond our knowledge and control: or rather, it is like a mighty elephant crashing through the forest with a would-be rational rider perched precariously on its back.
On the other hand, Walter Glannon argues against equating the functions of the brain with the experience and function of the mind. He feels that, while brain and mind are linked in by-directional pathways, there is an irreducible difference between the subjective experience of mind and the objective observation of the brain's neuronal networks:
The mind is a set of conscious and unconscious states including beliefs, desires, emotions, memories and intentions that emerge from the brain. This does not suggest a dualistic view of brain and mind, since brain and mind are linked by bi-directional pathways. Mental states are mediated by the activity of neuronal networks that enable arousal and awareness. Beliefs, emotions and other mental states, in turn, can influence the brain by the way they represent events in the natural and social environment.
The brain is subject to material analysis, but the mind is not. The essence of mind is consciousness. Attempts to explain consciousness in physical terms have failed, because consciousness cannot be reduced to physics or the organization of neural networks. The essence of mind is so unique that it cannot be described in terms of any known physical parameters. Mind, according to philosopher John Searle, is “ontologically subjective,” which means that its essential features cannot be described from an external point of view. What is defined by neuroscience cannot be the essence of the mind.
I take Glannon's view further is arguing that mind is not even confined to the brain-body but, rather, extends into the physical environment, the interpersonal and intersubjective, and is really much more of a process than an object (see Thomas Metzinger, and this interview).

So all of this ties back into the main point. Haidt believes we make most if not all of our moral decisions in the same way we decide to push a button - pre-conscious and unaware often of our motivations. I have no doubt that he cites the research showing the we make political decisions, in particular, with the "gut," not the brain, then we construct a rationalization for the decision after the fact.

In one study (Healy, Malhotra, Mo, 2009), researchers found that voters were influenced by emotional events (sports outcomes) having nothing to do with candidates:
Voters‘ decisions and attitudes are thus shown to depend considerably on events that affect their personal level of happiness even when those events are entirely disconnected from government activity. Our results provide new evidence on the significant limitations of the electorate‘s capacity to hold elected officials accountable for their actions.
This kind of emotional priming is very powerful, and is more much more diverse and ubiquitous than only sporting outcomes. This research would seem to counter any hope of rational decision making in politics.

But returning to the original argument,  Michael Lamport Commons (creator of the Model of Hierarchical Complexity, founder of the Journal of Adult Development, Society for the Quantitative Analyses of Behavior and the Society for Research in Adult Development, and co-editor of the journal Behavioral Development Bulletin) suggests that the time frame for decision making is crucial to how the decision is made. When decisions are immediate, he suggests that Haidt is right, but if the decision is deliberative then Kohlberg is right. He sites his own paper, Informed Consent: Do You Know It When You See It?, as evidence in support of that distinction.

Commons suggests there is ample support for Kohlberg (see here and here).

I suspect there is a far greater level of complexity to all of this than Haidt's model or Wilber's model can possibly account for. Another field of research has demonstrated that we are far more interconnected than we may have ever guessed.
[A]s we began to think about the idea that people are connected in vast social networks, we realized that social influence does not end with the people we know. If we affect our friends, and they affect their friends, then our actions can potentially affect people we have never met. We began by studying various health effects. We discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend gained weight, you gained weight. We discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend stopped smoking, you stopped smoking. And we discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend became happy, you became happy. Eventually, we realized that there were fundamental rules that governed both the formation and the operation of social networks. We concluded that if we were going to study how networks function, we also had to understand how they are assembled. One cannot, for example, be friends with absolutely anybody. People are constrained by geography, socioeconomic status, technology, and even genes to have certain kinds of social relationships and to have a certain number of them. The key to understanding people is understanding the ties between them . . . . (Christakis & Fowler, 2009) 
According to Kenneth Gergen, the idea of interior experience and, by extension, the self, is dependent on being connected to and with others - it is through relational process that we come to know our interiors.
More generally, it may be said, there is no action that has meaning in itself, that is, an action that can be isolated and identified for what it is. There are no acts of love, altruism, prejudice, or aggression as such. In order to be anything at all, they require a supplement, an action by at least one other person that ratifies their existence as something. (p. 32)
It's relevant here that Gergen applies these ideas to morality, making a distinction between first-order morality (hierarchical) and second-order morality (relational):
At this point it is useful to return to the vision of relational being. As proposed, it is through collaborative action that moral value is given birth. Through co-action we emerge with visions of a satisfying life; we achieve harmony, trust, and direction. Herein lie the grounds for first-order morality. At the same time, as we generate enclaves of the good, we also tend to create an exterior, the less than good. In more extreme form, in establishing the good, evil is under production. And as we are moved to control, punish, incarcerate, and ultimately to eliminate evil, so are those who are under threat drawn into defense. In effect, a major outcome of conflict among first-order moralities is the severing of communicative connection. In this severing, the potentials for generative co-action are destroyed. As the eliminative impulse is set in motion, we move toward mutual annihilation. We slouch toward the end of meaning.

To eliminate all those whose values are not identical to one’s own, would leave but a single voice…and an empty silence.

It is precisely here that we may invite into being a process of second-order morality, that is, collaborative activity that restores the possibility of generating first-order morality. Second-order morality rests not on a logic of discrete units, but of relationship. From this standpoint there are no acts of evil in themselves, for the meaning of all action is derived from relationship. Holding single individuals responsible for untoward actions not only represents a failure to confront the relational conditions from which the act has emerged, but results in alienation and retaliation. In the case of second order morality, individual responsibility is replaced by relational responsibility, a collective responsibility for sustaining the potentials of coordinated action.(13) To be responsible to relationships is, above all, to sustain the process of co-creating meaning. In relational responsibility we avoid the narcissism implicit in ethical calls for “care of the self.” We also avoid the self/other split resulting from the imperative to “care for the other.” In being responsible for relationships we step outside the individualist tradition; care for the relationship becomes primary. (p. 363-364)

As much as I like Gergen and like this perspective (imagine how different our world would be if we each made decisions based on a relational perspective), it's partial. He's assuming a higher level moral development than we are likely to see in an average U.S. citizen anytime in the near future.

He does offer a qualification, however, that feels useful.
The ideal of second order morality is in a non-foundational foundation. We move toward a foundational ethic for going on together, but without declaring this ethic as absolute, true, or ultimately grounded. Second-order morality is not a wedge for reinstating universal hierarchy; it is an invitation for mutual exploration. (p. 365)
What if we could apply a second-order moral stance to the Haidt/Kohlberg issues? We might see that some of what Haidt is describing as unconscious or preconscious is actually more relational than we may have ever known (following Christakis & Fowler) and that Kohlberg's moral hierarchy actually describes a move from egocentric concerns to relational concerns wherein moral choices are made not from an individual perspective in consideration of the community, but from an embedded, relational perspective in which subjective and intersubjective are merged into the relational.

I don't know - I am just thinking out loud here. I could be totally wrong and this may make little sense to anyone but me (I suspect I have left out many steps in my thinking).

Anyway, when Haidt's book is out and I have had a chance to read it, I will report back.


Christakis, NA & Fowler, JH. (2009). Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Gergen. K. (2009). Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community. New York: Oxford University Press.

Glannon, W. (2006, Spr). Free will and moral responsibility in the age of neuroscience. Lahey Clinic Medical Ethics, 13:2, 1-2.

Healy, AJ, Malhotra, N. & Mo, CH. (2009, Jul 27). Personal Emotions and Political Decision Making: Implications for Voter Competence. Retrieved from

Soon, CS, Brass, M, Heinze, HJ & Haynes, JD. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience, 11, 543-545.

Post a Comment