Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Moral and Political Thought

Picking up where I left off the last: This business of hardwired political views as a new science is, as they say in Hollywood, "blowing up;" it's becoming a big deal. The metaphor "hardwired" ought to be looked at for a second: does our moral and political behavior really work as if someone had spot-welded all the parts together, with no going back and unplugging these wires from over here, plugging those in there, soldering a new cable into a jack bought at the parts store because a component was discovered that would access other systems was spied in the manual, etc? No changes can occur? It's a "done deal" at some point?

Well, apparently lots of scientists would like us to think so. There's the Grail of isolating the one gene, or a cluster of genes, that would sure enough predict that your two-year-old would indeed grow up to read Noam Chomsky...or Ann Coulter. In Sasha Issenberg's piece I linked to above, a political strategist reads some new Psychology books and decides he'll help his candidate by focusing ads based on "thinkers" versus "feelers." Haidt says most of our political "thinking" is "moral instinct papered over," and what a good writer Haidt is! It's lines like that that get people persuaded you're really onto something. And maybe he is. A quick diversion:

In a previous blogspew on Jonathan Haidt, I linked to his YourMorals.org test. Here's another test, called Political Compass. It's much shorter than the battery Haidt's colleagues want you to take, and one of its main purposes is to get you out of thinking on the dumb Euclidean line of
Left<-----------Centrist------->Right; it's more 3-D-ish, and it's HERE if you wanna take it. I think it gives a certain snapshot of who you are politically, and by association, morally. I've taken the test three times now, most recently within 72 hours of my writing this. HERE's my result. I'm a "left libertarian." A quite pronounced one, it seems.

Robert Anton Wilson explains the Dumb Game of Left-Right Euclidean politics in a way no one else I've ever seen come close. [Thanks to the guys at rawilsonfans.org.]

Haidt says he wrote The Righteous Mind not to try to convince anyone to switch their allegiances, but to try and understand the Other better, and possibly minimize the hate. (His name rhymes with "fight," not "fate," as I've been listening to people talk about him lately.) I liked the last two paragraphs of Jonathan Ree's pithy review in The New Humanist. The most I can implement from this book, I take it, is to use George Lakoff's framing techniques to talk about Authority, Sanctity, and Loyalty in a way that might catch the ear of a "conservative." I'll get back to Haidt in a moment, but I was talking about genes and morality...

I think we can safely agree that we have a reflex for self-flattery, that emotions do rule, that our reasoning is like a lawyer's trying to win a case. And of course our political ideas are NOT totally deliberative. I do think environment and experience and learning all contribute, especially if one has tested one's own presumptions many times. I've done it. I've read National Review. I read Francis Fukuyama's The End of History. I once had a job where I was offered a transfer to another library branch, one in a very beautiful and wealthy section of Los Angeles, where most of the patrons I'd meet would be old, very wealthy Republicans. I had very long hair and thought I'd try testing myself here - I'm pretty sure I was a left-libertarian then too - and I was prepared to experience lots of nastiness. But after a few years, I really liked most of the patrons, and they were very sweet to me. Some were obviously very conservative, but they asked me questions about politics and I gave them my honest takes, and they respected me.

I'd say about 8-12% of the patrons I ran into there were the classic mean, pinched, bitter, evil, ugly rich old white people. Most were surprisingly, delightfully pleasant. This opened my eyes. It didn't change my politics much though.

                                  William Irwin Thompson. "The history of the soul is always
                                  the history of the voiceless, the oppressed, the repressed."
                                  Photo by Michael Laporte

But do I think genes will explain all this? No, despite NYU psychologist Ned Jost's findings in the "The End of the End of Ideology" paper, mentioned in Issenberg's excellent overview article. Indeed, read the section on Jost's work and see if it doesn't look isomorphic to the Rattray-Taylor oral/anal lists I gave in my previous blogpost. Jost: We're not divided by class, geography or education so much as by temperament. 

Temperament. O! How I urge you, Dear Reader, if you haven't already, to read the first lecture in William James's Eight Lectures on Pragmatism. If Haidt and his data-set don't come off as "tender-minded," then you weren't paying attention.

It seems the search for a genetic substrate that will explain macro-world phenomena gets you funding. It allows scientists to do what they really want to do: wake up in the morning and go to work to solve some problem of some sort. If their hypotheses don't work out the way they had envisioned, they write that up anyway: it's still good science: if we thought it worked this way, we were probably wrong. Meanwhile, jobs and knowledge were created. And though searching genomes and testing genes has gotten much cheaper over just the past year or so, it's still heady stuff. It's creative work, too. Get the ideas. Figure out how to test them. Figure out how to test your test. It's brainy stuff, aye.

But I remember the great generalist and one-time M.I.T. lecturer William Irwin Thompson - who dropped out of academia - saying about hardcore sociobiology something along the lines that it's sheer bullshit to say you're going to find a gene to be an auto-mechanic. You say morality and a political bend is more "basic" than something as particular as Thompson's reductio ad absurdum? You're probably right, but do we realize how dizzyingly complex "genes" are? If you try to keep up with this stuff, it seems like it's getting to be like particle physics. Or worse. It may be even more complex than that, especially if we take into account epigenetics, where RNA plays a much bigger part than we'd imagined. It's not just DNA sending RNA "the" message to other genes to make proteins z, q and x3. That was the older, simpler days. Now the environment has genes and RNA-DNA feeding back in ways we didn't guess, hopping genes, "junk DNA" that is turning out to not be so junky...I mean check out this recent article, "Chromosomes Organize Into 'Yarns': May Explain Why DNA Mutations Can Effect Genes Located Thousands of Base-Pairs Away," from a few days ago.

Although why I'm some left-libertarian socialist and those who love Fox News are decidedly...<cough> not, and I find their morality, extrapolated/writ large as basically stupid, devolutionary, and sadistic, I don't really know why I'm like this. One parent was staunchly Democrat. Another a Republican who never really got into the Issues. I have a sibling who went from extreme Right Wing Christian born-again Evangelical to a sort of New Church, Jesus said to heal the sick and feed the poor leftist Christian. Most of the other immediate family members aren't very political, although if they are, it's right wing authoritarian stuff.

Ultimately, it's genes, something like ethological "imprinting," family upbringing, peer group at puberty, geography, historical moment, accidents like meeting a very influential person at one point or another when you're vulnerable to some sort of change, and...more accidents and happenstance. Genes? Yes. And probably a bunch of stuff we have only the slightest inklings about. Here's one we've just begun to really gain deeper understandings about:

There's a neuroeconomist named Paul Zak. He wondered about how economies are effected by the human action of "trust," which seemed kind of nebulous to me. He thought - and it made sense to me - that the more trust, the better the economy works. Here's a short article on the "trust hormone" that we make endogenously and secrete when we make eye contact, hug, smile at each other, fall in love, etc. The video of Zak is about 3 minutes long. So add to all the factors above: hormones.

                                        Neuroeconomist and "Dr. Love," Paul Zak

Finally, back to Jonathan Haidt. In my understanding of the world to date, there are some people who, like Oscar Wilde, thought/think that obedience to authority was the Original Sin. In modern terms, these people have often transcended the socio-sexual Hive Morality and experienced neurosomatic bliss, then showed others how to do it. We got the Sexual Revolution from these people, largely. And I see that movement as still going strong, still playing out on the stage, at least in the West. When Authoritarian Men try to roll back gains women had made, even subject them to sexual humiliation, I think it's largely because women have made so many gains. Women are doing well, relative to men, at least in Unistat. By 2019 they will probably make up at least 60% of all graduate students. And they will continue to do well. As well they should. They aren't hurting men by doing well. But a small, loudmouthed, fairly fascistic set of men are responding to the changes - probably mostly unconscious of the deeper reasons why: their fear of losing Control - so they are making themselves very busy right now, shooting every toe on each foot, one by one...

                                                         Oscar Wilde: Heretic

Those who transcend Hive Morality - cranks, neophiles, inventors, deviates, heretics - drive human evolution. The drag on cultural evolution - the Authoritarians, the inflexible Loyalists, the Sanctimonious about some Angry God they've projected from within themselves onto the rest of us: they are most of the Church, most of the Politicians and Legislators ("Well...let's look at precedent!"), and Mammon-worshippers. They're nationalists, often racists and small-minded loudmouths who say they're for individual liberty but do quite something else. These are the drags on progress. Haidt thinks they deserve to be understood by "liberals" because these people - the guardians of Hive Morality - don't want things to change, because it represents a threat to their status in the primate hierarchy.

Given my political bend, no wonder Haidt's equal Big Six doesn't wash with me.


Psuke said...

This is reminds me of "The Happiness Hypothesis"...also by Haidt. Full disclosure: I didn't finish it because he started annoying me so much I couldn't pay attention over the cries of "BS! Misleading or oversimplified BS!"

Originally I picked it up because I liked the premise: distilling and combining ancient wisdom, studies in Positive Psychology and neuroscience to find the things that *really* make us happy. Sounds good on paper, yes? But it seemed to me there were several places where a bit of delving and questioning might not have been amiss: two specifics that stand out are 1) gossiping apparently makes us happy - justification being that it acts as community policing; and 2) somehow the concept of "moral disgust" makes us happy by invoking some sense of transcendence? I confess this was right around when my irritation was getting too great to be able to read anymore.

I won't go into why, as that's practically a blog post of it's own, but based on what you've blogged here I seriously question his standing as an "intellectual". Or perhaps just a good thinker. I can't argue he's not well read, but I do question his conclusions about it all.

michael said...

After reading Haidt on the righteous mind, I skimmed through his happiness book and another one. I will admit I live in a reality labyrinth and there are others who inhabit tunnels or labyrinths that permit ideas I find distasteful, and if it's some academic who lives in that world, they're legitimate. I simply cannot, no matter how much I try, admit their axioms/values are all that impressive to me. But I do see Haidt as legit; I just don't like him at all. It's fair to pit Lakoff against Haidt, and I find Lakoff makes FAR more sense to me than Haidt does.

Here's what gets me about Haidt: for the intellectual domain he's working in, his research is empirical. I just think he's trying to make a name for himself by asserting he's basically a liberal guy, but that most liberals overlook basic values...so he's always on the lookout for a series of riffs of frames that violates what he perceives as the assumptions of the educated liberal class: it' creates talk, noise, he sells books. BUT: I also think he believes his own stuff.

I forget where he wrote or talked about it, but when he was researching for his morality book, Cheney-Bush were doing everything that outraged him, and yet, he's looking at data on values and morals and political outlooks and peer-reviewed studies about all that...and he turned to his wife and said, "My god! The conservatives are right about a lot of this stuff!" (I paraphrase)

Haidt had some sort of intellectual conversion experience and it just happened to be the one that would find favor with people who own/run the country AND be so controversial that his status as public intellectual would go way up. What a coincidence!

I do think he's earnest, well-read, well-meaning and wrong. The conservative values he applauds may have allowed for survival and group cohesion during past epochs, but they're killing us now. THAT's what pisses me off about Haidt.

The gossip riff is a difficult one. I find it's the semantics of "gossip" that make the whole thing turn.

Happiness Studies are a big deal, and there are so many better ones than Haidt's, and I don't give a fuck how supposedly empirical his work is: the assumptions seem wrong enough to me.

Here's one I saw recently that made a lot of sense to me: How To Get Happy Fast: 7 Items: sex, socialize, exercise, smile, do a cognitive task,make downward comparisons, and sleep:

Psuke said...

That last is a list I can get behind, given my own researches (and self-experimentation). :D

Psuke said...

(If this shows up twice, I apologize, but I think blogger hiccuped when I commented before)

I had a running review going in my head while I was reading this (Happiness) book, and one line I had was: I won't argue findings, but I will decidedly disagree with the conclusions drawn about what they mean!

"Nature" doesn't always get it right, and being capable of rationality and self-programming I think we can improve on what what our subconcious hands us...or rather, we can get better at examining it and seeing what we "really" think. Which is my understanding of what individuation is.

I remember Anais Nin saying in one of her diaries that no system of economic or political reform would ever really work until people underwent some kind of analysis. I think Reich said something similar in Sexual Revolution (his analysis of why Soviet Russia failed as a communist state). And I think there's a lot of truth in that.

michael said...

"Nature" is one of my favorite spook-words. It can justify ANYTHING...including my love. Nature wants...

Human nature being what it is...

It's not in the Nature of things to...

When I behold the transcendental grandness of what Nature has seen fit to provide, I think we can all agree that....

Funny: I was reading W. Reich just before I read your comment. His posit of "Work Democracy" in The Mass Psychology of Fascism seems a heady brew for me. I (ironically?) find his views about true and proper orgasms sorta Authoritarian. But that book is a hell of a work!

How easy it is to push the brilliant heretic down the Memory Hole, esp after they went nuts. What was that line from Pound? "Every man deserves to have each of his ideas examined individually," something like that.

I did get the feeling Nin got more out of therapy than I or my friends did. And if so, what were the diaries for? I'm glad she kept them anyway.

Psuke said...

I think the diaries were her "remembering things the way she wanted to remember them." Or perhaps, more accurately, the way she wanted to be remembered.

It's an interesting thing about therapy - so much depends on one's willingness to be honest, and the therapist's willingness/ability to push. Having had a couple of therapists, I've decided it is as much art as anything. And many are just bad, bad artists.

A (to me) hilarious observation I've noticed regarding "Nature" is that natural phenomena, when referred to in discourse...are called "natural" when the speaker agrees, or is using it to justify an opinion...and "primitive" "savage" or "animalistic" when the phenomena or behavior is disagreed with. This is *especially* true when talking about sex and its repercussions.

Have you read/seen Marat/Sade? I can't remember the quote off the top of my head, but de Sade has a line where he says he "hates Nature" because it accepts and allows, well, just about everything. I don't "hate Nature", but I have to admit he's got a point.

michael said...

I got lucky and had a few experienced friends tell me, before I had any therapy: if you aren't crazy about the therapist, don't hesitate to find someone else. I finally found a guy that was really great...and yet I'm still fucked up!

("Yea, but think how fucked up you'd be if you never had any therapy!")

I love your idea about "lots of bad artists." It makes a ton of sense to me. And some were so well-meaning and sweethearts. Just...not...adequate for my nervous system. I remember one sweet guy started asking me if I'd read Ayn Rand. And then there was the Indian woman, who was too beautiful, so I had to quit. (She wasn't a good artist either, and I felt bad about quitting her, as if she lost a client because of her looks.)

Aye yea: "nature." I love George Carlin's tough love: toxic waste and cancer and Natural: they came from Nature. We're nature. Everything we see around us is Nature.

And (Loser) Ken Cuccinelli had enough money to mount as serious bid in VA. He wondered why God hadn't struck the country down for allowing abortion. And being a typical Republican (individual liberty/get the government off our backs), wanted to outlaw "sodomy." His backers/donors should be exposed! Let's shed some sunlight on the billionaires who gave money to "Cooch." He actually had a chance of winning!

In my experience, though, he had a point: sodomy - which includes oral sex - is not natural. It's BETTER than natural, somehow.

Yes, I said it: Sodomy is BETTER THAN NATURAL!

Whew! I feel better for getting that off my chest. (Laugh Out Loud)

michael said...

Oops: forgot, carried away by sodomy:

No, I haven't seen Marat/Sade. I did read the play twice.

Is it on Netflix?

Psuke said...

Actually (and not to diminish the Lulz on sodomy as better than Nature, because yes LOL), I forget where I heard it...but sodomy (certainly as regards to homosexuality) does occur in nature. There's apparently a type of swan (I think, gawds I wish I could remember where I heard this so I could check) that form same sex pair bonds that build nests together and help raise their relations' young. And oral sex happens among animals, too. We only like to *think* we're the species with enough free will to be perverse (yay, perverse!) but no such luck. If only we could be like bonobos. My heroes, the bonobos are.

Netflix *might* (and I'm fairly sure they *do*) have the disc, but they do not have Marat/Sade available on streaming. Which makes me sad, because now I mention it I'd love to see it again. I was excruciatingly happy to see the live production that played in San Francisco last year. I thought they did an excellent job of walking the line of creepy, uncomfortable, tragic and funny.

michael said...

I wish I owned this book, but I did check it out from the library a few times:

Biological Exuberance:

About 750 pages of gay sex in the animal kingdom. It's a tremendous work.

And here's a recent story about insects that made me laff:

As a Brit might say, "Buggerall!"

Now I really want to see a production of Weiss's play, if only on "film."

Psuke said...

It's available through Link+. I bless whoever came up with Link+, one of the better library ideas *ever* (I mean aside from having libraries at all)

michael said...

I love it too! Info scientists (i.e, librarians) had long dreamed of the idea, but they thought they needed some of inter-library cataloging system...and a broad enough local tax base to pay for shipping books all around the area. Long ago, I'd fill out Interlibrary Loan slips and pay $3 of $5 to have some weirdo/rare book sent from another state to my library.

I'm what librarians call a "heavy user" and they seem very pleased when we use Link+, and a tad saddened when people don't know it exists and is "free."

My local library system is Linked up with the Claremont Colleges, Cal State system, San Francisco Public, and (oddly) I also get a lot of books from U.Nevada Las Vegas.

It's when I go into a research library in some university and go up and down the stacks and pick out 15-20 odd volumes and camp out with them for two hrs that I realize how much knowledge is missing from the Net. Not only the knowledge, but the way its presented, in books, which demand solitude and deliberation.

Only at UC Berkeley have I noted the libraries seem to be used pretty heavily. I've been to some Cal State libraries and got the feeling that maybe two people per day even walk down the aisles that stack, say, the world literature (Dewey 800s).

Take care of those Link+ books! Notice the sticker? If lost, automatic $115 plus misc charges. Yikes! I guard 'em like a junky guards his stash.

Psuke said...

Yes, having consumed (devoured, in some cases) books in a variety of formats, I still think that dead tree books are the most engaging, and (in some ways I think) impart the most knowledge. Perhaps because the tactility brings more of the CNS into play? Even solitude and deliberation a computer (or tablet or whatever) doesn't "speak" to me like a book does. And oh, the joy of wandering the stacks of a large library or used book store...

I wonder what the foundation of that is?

michael said...

Good Qs...I don't know. I know I increasingly feel like a reactionary in my advocacy for books against the tablet tide and Siri surge. I do love ye olde laptop (using it right about now, smatterfact); but I supect a psychological predisposition to tolerance for long periods of quiet interiority and reading books sets us apart, although it's deeper than that, I'm sure.

I will attest to a fetish for the tactility of books. A bunch of my books obtained mildew spots when in "storage" in a non-climate-controlled garage on the LA harbor during a rainy winter...and I still converse with them in their physical imperfections.

I bought a bunch of books used online, via half.com and other places...and remember the these books would reek of cigars. (I tried to imagine the circumstances in which Leary's _Chaos and Cyberculture_ was surrounded by guys with big stogies in their mouths.)

If I didn't like the aroma of one of these books, I inserted those little sheets of lemon-scented "static-free" things for the clothes dryer in random pages, and that solved that.

I'd love to see hemp legalized, and books printed using hemp instead of wood pulp from trees.