Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jonathan Haidt's Social Intuitionist Model

Haidt (say "height") hated the Dubya Admin, and identifies as a left-liberal-progressive. He's just put a book out called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. (NB: Amazon blocked the actual current cover of the book, for reasons that will be clear when you click on the link to Chris Mooney later in this blogspew.) It was released less than a month ago, and it's getting really hot. I have not had a chance to read it yet, but I've been studying this guy's ideas for the past few days, and meditating. He thinks "liberals need to be shaken." Haidt thinks liberals misunderstand conservatives far more than the other way around.

                                                           Jonathan Haidt

A University of Virginia psychologist (now visiting prof at NYU), his "social intuitionist model" has its roots in David Hume, who wrote, in 1739:

"Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." For Hume, philosophers who attempted to reason their way to a moral stance started from highly suspect grounds: our passions are more basic, and we then begin to reason from there; we are like lawyers when we reason about morality: we want to win. We want to be "right." But it seems most of us are blind to our own passions, our own unconscious biases. Indeed, Haidt has a pithy line about this: "Morality binds and blinds." It binds us to others who share our passions, and blinds us to seeing things from the other point of view.

In explaining his title, The Righteous Mind, Haidt says, "An obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into our minds that would otherwise be objective or rational."

                                                              George Lakoff

All of this seems quite reminiscent of George Lakoff's ideas. Well, at first glance it does. Haidt's ideas about morality clash with Lawrence Kohlberg's and Jean Piaget's, who are far too rationalistic. Similarly, Lakoff went to great pains in his books Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't and especially The Political Mind, to eloquently show how 18th century Enlightenment ideas about rationality are all wrong; most of our what goes on between our ears is unconscious. As Robert Anton Wilson thought, there's a part of our brain - the frontal cortex - that fervently seeks to believe it's running the whole show. But it ain't so.

But wait a minute. Haidt is using Hume to ground his project. That's pretty 18th century and Enlightenment there. It's "empirical" to contrast with continental rationalism, but if you read interviews with Haidt he's far more with the Enlightenment rationalists than Lakoff is. Lakoff's work seems to me far more empirical than Haidt's, to me in my present state of ignorance. (I plan to read Haidt's book as soon as the 23 others ahead of me in the public library line finish their readings.) Others in the public sphere seem to think Haidt and Lakoff are basically on the same page. (See Chris Mooney HERE.)

I must say: Haidt's views make the topic of religious and political differences even more fascinating than they needed to be, for me. This area was already too exciting intellectually for me.

Aside from the link above, "Explaining Liberals To Conservatives, and Vice-Versa."
A 2005 interview for The Believer. Tamler Sommers seems to play the role of Socrates uncommonly well, and I thought Haidt comes off as a tad lame here.
A 2012 interview for Thought Catalog, with Haidt on his game and very polished.

Finally - I could go on ad nauseum, as usual, but won't - if you get into Haidt and his colleagues' morality tests (the links are noted in a couple of the articles), and note Haidt''s clusters of values, he seems to value tribalist modes of being far too much for my taste. He seems to bend over backwards to be ecumenical there, and I think it's a big mistake, but then...I'm unconsciously biased, right?


Ron Krumpos said...

The complete title of Haidt's book includes Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (sic). Almost all of the reviews of The Righteous Mind have been about morals in politics. Let me add a comment about morality in religion vis-à-vis society and the relationship between conscience and morality.

The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned."

The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion lists some interesting historical observations on the word. Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not. The moral dilemma is when these two views conflict.

(Quoted from my free ebook on comparative mysticism, "the greatest achievement in life," is a chapter called "Duel of the dual.")

michael said...

Thanks for chiming in, Ron. My problem with this is the abstraction "Conscience." We define it the way it suits us; this is why I'm for as much EMPIRICAL data as I can find on how to unpack what "conscience" actually means in some non-essentialist sense.

If we look at Haidt's data, it's mostly very interesting questionnaires, and they're not being answered by the poor, the working class, and immigrants. He has assumptions about what his data means, too. I think his data is interesting, but am suspicious about drawing Big Conclusions, which he has done.

I appreciate your efforts towards fleshing out comparative mysticism. What an interesting topic!

Ron Krumpos said...

Michael, you replied My problem with this is the abstraction "Conscience." We define it the way it suits us;

That is why I quoted The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology for a definition. Assuming they are reasonably (sic) correct, does the rest of my comment make sense to you?

michael said...

Ron: Oh hell yes you make sense. The definitions you gave covered the historical background for "conscience" quite well in relatively few words.

I have thought a lot about Freud's superego and Jung's collective unconscious through the years. I use - in a William Jamesian pragmatic sense - both definitions, according to how well I see they fit the present case.

I think it was Schopenhauer who once pointed out, in a talk about universal morality, a newspaper clipping in which a person jumped in front of a streetcar to save a stranger's life; they had no chance to deliberate. The guy just sacrificed his own life to save someone else's. And Schopenhauer (I THINK it was him) said he thought this indicated there was an innate sense of human morality and that we were all connected in some way. He was before Jung, of course.