Thursday, May 11, 2017

Book review: The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt is a book about morality.  It's about the ways in which people form moral opinions and the underlying basis for human morality.

The book begins with a description of how the author's views have changed over time and how the conventional view of how children develop morality has changed over time.  To oversimplify, at one point people viewed children as inherently immoral and needing to be taught about morality.  Then children were viewed as being inherently moral and only needing to be protected from forces that would stunt there inherent goodness.  Then Lawrence Kohlberg re-invented morality as a rational way of rationally reconciling one's own desires with the desires of others.  And finally he came to the conclusion that people have inborn moral intuitions that we use to construct our theories of morality.  That won't be any surprise to readers of The Secret of Our Success but of course this book actually came out before that one, even though I read them in the opposite order.

Carving at the Joints

The author looked at the response people gave when asked about moral questions and came up with Moral Foundation Theory which is that all our moral intuitions around grounded in one of five foundations.

  • Care, wanting others to have healthy and happy.
  • Fairness, wanting people to interact justly.
  • Loyalty, wanting members of your group to act in the group's best interest.
  • Authority, the wanting people to respect legitimate authority.
  • Sanctity, wanting pure things not to be polluted.
Haidt further argues that we arrive at most moral conclusions intuitively and only come up with rational explanations for our intuitions afterwards in an ad hoc manner.  He also argues that modern liberals are morally stunted because they rely only on the first two foundations and ignore the other three.  I'll come back to that in a bit but first I want to talk about the five foundations he came up with.

Being an "armchair scientist" who comes up with "just so stories" is something that scientists usually look down on.  Haidt mentions this directly at one point.  But it's an important criticism nonetheless and good scientists should always be looking for ways to test their hypothesis.  This isn't to say that there's no place for armchair theorizing in science.  Einstein essentially came up with his theory of relatively in his armchair working from a bit of evidence and an intuition for what sort of solution would be the most mathematically beautiful.  But because of that we consider Einstein a remarkable genius and most people who concoct theories and stories in their armchairs get it wrong.

When Haidt started laying out his moral foundations my thoughts immediately turned to the various theories of personality that people have come up with over the years.  Hippocrates had his four humors theory of personality.  More recently Myers and Briggs have their theory of personality which has become popular.  But seeing that it was hard to agree on how to divide human personality a number of scientists got together and tried, though several iterations, to look at hundreds of traits and see if they naturally correlated with each other and formed clusters.  They did and so the Big Five personality schema came to be.  There might be some flaw in it but it's a lot better than you could come up with just sitting in your armchair and thinking about how the people you know are different.

Earlier theories weren't entirely wrong.  Pretty much every theory of personality had a measure of introversion/extroversion and the Big Five does as well.  But to the extent that other measures of personality are predictive and consistent for a person over time it's mostly only to the extent that they agree with the Big Five measures.

So when Haidt talked with a few fellow researchers about the survey responses he got and tried to sort them into categories it's almost a certainty that he failed to carve nature at the joints.  Care and Sanctity do seem like natural categories to me that are maybe as clear as extroversion is but I wasn't at all convinced that Fairness, Loyalty, and Authority were natural categories and in particular Fairness seemed to be covering a lot of complexity.

Sure enough, after Haidt does some experiments, gets some pushback, and adds a sixth foundation of Liberty which is broken our of Fairness.  But without some sort of factor analysis I'm not at all sure that the six factors in Haidt's new moral matrix actually correspond naturally to the foundations of individual morality.   Still, I think the notion that there are foundations to our sense of morality is a useful one.

Reasons for Reasons

Part of the start of Haidt's moral foundations theory was noticing that when he gave a story, say about a man engaging in sexual congress with a dead animal, to a western college student they would feel it was wrong but when they tried to persuade the ostensibly skeptical interviewer that it was wrong they would try to point to or make up concrete harms caused the act.  By contrast people from other cultures or with less education would often feel more comfortable saying that it's just wrong without any recourse to specific harms.  

Haidt points to this as an example of the Sanctity moral foundation which seems more or less true since I think he probably got that foundation right.  But he also presents the college student's inability to articulate that it's just wrong as them being out of touch with all the foundations of morality.  I'm not sure that's right.  When you're arguing about harm you can be sure that anybody with an intact sense of empathy will have a fairly similar sense of harm to what you have even if they might not have seen some chain of connections whereby an act might cause a harm.  But people's notions of purity are very culturally based and whether a pig, a snake, a menstruating woman, etc are intrinsically impure is going to be wrapped up with their culture in a way that you can't be sure of persuading them no matter how clearly you lay out the facts.  So trying to frame immorality in terms of harm might be a proper response to living in a cosmopolitan society regardless of how in touch one is with one's moral foundations.

The whole notion of moral persuasion struck me as something like a gaping hole in the center of the book.  The author says that we use reasoned argument to persuade but also says that reason is nearly useless in terms of morality.  Ok, but then why do we use reason to persuade other people.  If I'm trying to persuade someone that something is wrong I don't just think of what moral foundation it violates then repeat "Authority, authority, authority" to make my case.  Nor do I rely solely peer pressure though that's related too.  I make reasoned arguments that somehow seem to have an effect on people's moral intuitions going forward.  Occasionally I even make a moral argument to myself that changes my own intuitions though I'll grant to the author that that isn't very frequent.

Reflective Equilibrium

The problem with being guided solely be one's intuitions is that they're inconsistent.  I might feel in my gut that that if someone makes a mistake calculating the change from a purchase and I get an extra dollar that's entirely fair.  I might also feel that if they make a mistake and I lose a dollar that's intrinsically unfair.  And I might feel that hypocrisy is and even being ashamed at my own hypocrisy.   So how should I act?

 Let's say that my friend says something really offensive so I raise my sword and strike him down.  Then the next day when I'm calmer I feel very sorry about it.  Was I acting morally when I struck?  Was I even acting in accordance with my morality when I struck though I felt full of a righteous certainty at the time?

Defining terms is a tricky business.  People might argue for hours about whether a tree falling in the woods makes a sound.  If I define sound as sensing the world with my ears or as vibrations in the air then I've got a workable definition.  But if you choose to define sound as sensing the world about you with your eyes then you'll be running counter to other people's understanding of what sound is and you'll fail to communicate with them.  Likewise if you talk about morality only in terms of what people find intuitive without regard to what they find persuasive then you're not really talking about what everybody else means when they discuss morality.

Haidt discusses research that shows that even young children can have moral intuitions the same as adults can.  But I still think that most of us would agree that there are ways in which young children are less moral than adults and that efforts to teach them to share, for instance, are meaningful moral instruction.  I don't want to say how much instruction versus experience versus reason promotes the growth of morality because I don't know.  But I am sure that each makes some sort of contribution.

Darwin and Society

Haidt spends a lot of the book arguing that liberals should embrace a broader conception of morality.   He says that using just Care and Fairness is like cooking with only salt and sugar and that you need more flavors to make a tasty dish.  He describes how many of the moral philosophers who constructed theories based on just a single foundation were autistic.  He says that the reason that the Democrats never win elections is that they only pay attention to those two foundations and that to win they'll have to embrace all five.  But then he somehow claims he "has been entirely descriptive until now" and launches into his real argument.

He outlines how societies that stick together have certain advantages over societies that suffer from people defecting from common norms all the time.  There's some data about how, for instance, religious people give more to charity and some anecdotes about orthodox Jewish diamond merchants.  And there's a lot of woolly speculation on gene and culture evolving together and so forth.  And finally, because Europe has a birth rate below replacement, we have to stop being so individualistic and embrace more collectivism.

I think it's true that social cohesion is underappreciated as a force by liberals but I have two responses to that line of argument in general.

First, while it's true that more collectivist countries like, e.g., Pakistan have populations that are increasing faster than Germany's there are exceptions.  China is also very collectivist generally but also has a declining population.  The US is generally more individualistic than Europe but has an increasing population.  It looks like birth rate has more to do with a country's wealth than with its social cohesion. But if we're imagining a world of Darwinistic competition between groups wealth brings power and being less powerful is surely a dangerous strategy even if it lets you have more babies.  It looks like despite all the advantages conformity can bring individualism bring advantages too in the realm of wealth and science and we can't just evaluate the benefits of one without taking account of the benefits of the other.

For my second point I'll invoke Hume who Haidt praises many times in the book.  An 'ought' cannot be derived only from an 'is'.  Even granting that having a different sense of morality would let us be more successful in terms of being more powerful or having more reproductive success it doesn't follow that that is the right thing to do.  You can value many things besides having lots of babies.  Happiness.  Military power.  Science.  Art.  Helping other groups.

Anybody who commits murder or rape in order to have more babies is a monster.  I wouldn't do that.  You wouldn't' do that either.  In some sense my genes would 'want' me to do that but I'm not obligated to care what they think.  If you're inclined to reduce all morality to a single theory then that's one you could embrace but I think that the the utilitarians and deontologists have much nicer unified theories of morality even if Haidt criticizes their reductive impulse as autistic.  They still beat social Darwinism.

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