Overweening Generalist

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Moral Systems: More on Haidt and Some Old School Stuff

Recently I wrote about Jonathan Haidt and his ideas surrounding his "social intuitionist model." He's been studying the deep psychology of morality for around 25 years. Early on he realized that moral values and decisions are based on emotions at the deepest level; environmental aspects came later: opinions derived from learning, experience in the world, etc. But the trick is: we're not aware of this. I think there's an overwhelming preponderance of evidence, if only in cognitive neurolinguistics alone, that supports this idea. (Will this ever filter down to Joe and Josephine Twelve Pack?) We think we're "right" and spent a lot of time being lawyers trying to prove our case, and when we're talking with people who have a different set of values, we're bound to not make sense to them, as they do not make sense to us. (I confess most of the time I listen to conservatives and think I understand them, but that if all of their ideas reigned, our species would end quicker than if all "liberal" ideas reigned. There's my confession for a Sunday, from a Mystical Agnostic Libertarian Socialist.)

The data set he used to come to his conclusions is largely based on an extensive questionnaire, and you can add Haidt's and his colleagues' data set by going to Your Morals.org. I'm about 70% done. This jit is extensive! But so far I'm being too dry about this. Here's a good one for us to ponder:

Remember when Andres Serrano came out with his work of art titled Piss Christ? He was being deliberately shocking, of course. Liberals tended to support his right to express himself freely, but conservatives tended to see Serrano's work as an affront to all they held dear. Now here's a question for liberals: what about an artwork that had a little statue of Martin Luther King submerged in the artist's own urine? When interviewed the artist said he just thought "the Left" had made too much of MLK's contribution to history, that the Rev was "overrated" and a "sacred cow ripe for hamburger meat."? Do you still feel the same way about "free expression"?

I like this one even more, and it's directly from Haidt and colleagues:

Mark and Julie are brother and sister. ("Ut-ohhhh...I think I see where this is going!") They go on vacation from the US to the south of France and have a wonderful time. One night, while drinking wine in Provence, one thing leads to another and they have sex. They use two different types of contraception. They really enjoy it, but afterwards decide to never do it again. The experience, they both agree, made them even closer. They swear each other to undying secrecy and indeed, they never tell anyone.

Here's the Q: was doing what they did okay? If not, why?

Now, I confess that when I first read this scenario, I only needed about three seconds to say to myself, "I see nothing wrong with what they did." Haidt says most people don't think it's okay, they often forget the two forms of contraception. When reminded they say, "Oh yea." And they're still not okay with it, and try to find a reason why. Haidt calls Qs like this "moral dumbfounding."

Haidt says liberals have a harder time with this one than conservatives, which I find puzzling. Then, in one interview - the one from The Believer - (see near the end) he says liberals highly value Avoiding Doing Harm to others. Incest usually means some harm has been done, so "liberals" try to find "the victim" to justify why it's wrong. Haidt identifies himself as a liberal - or he did up until around two years ago, more on this later - so he knows; because he's an insider/expert on morality he knows there's no victim, so he says it's a trick question. He seems smug to me there, in 2005.

I wonder if "liberals" really do try to find victims more than conservatives. I don't know. I'm dubious. But maybe he's right.

Okay, so Haidt and colleagues have decided there are Six core moral values in which moral systems are built: Care, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. (Earlier he had four, but he asserts coherent systems can be built on combinations of all Six, or four, and he even uses a Chomskyan term, "grammatical," in a sense very reminiscent of Noam's idea that there are countless possible sound-patterns and syntaxes, but only a few are/were used in the real world of humans speaking the world's languages.)

[An aside: 20th century conservative and champion of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, Mortimer Adler, got together with a few tweedy friends and eventually decided there were 102 Great Ideas in the Western Tradition. I think maybe I'm morbidly fascinated about how intellectuals make their models, reify them, then move in, fall in love with their own models - Robert Anton Wilson called this "modeltheism" - and then push their models on all of us, in attempt to Enlighten us all.]

I like that, in a recent interview, Haidt says that there are no universal human moral values that are right; they are a social construction, and the proof being the very fact there are many moral systems in the world. And they're all right in their own way.

Here's where I part ways with Haidt: his data set is self-selecting. But worse than that, the Six seem arbitrary to me. But worse than that, even if we grant him his Six, he conveniently builds an edifice in which all the values are good, right, true and equal. He's in, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb would put it: Mediocristan: he can use his data and a whole world can be built out of it - which he admits moral system are anyway: they're "castles in the air that are nevertheless 'real' castles, and we live in them," to paraphrase one of his lines. He can plot his values in some Bell Curvey-way and then come up with "insights" that help him build his intellectual capital. But it gets more and more puzzling to me from there on in...There's some horrible Platonicity in Haidt's scheme, as I see it.

Haidt was always a liberal, and really hated the George W. Bush administration, and he also says he despises the "current" Republican party. And yet, in looking at all his data and writing his latest book, he realizes that conservatives (I really wonder who these people are?) are playing all Six, while liberals only play Two of the Six: Care and Fairness. This is absurd to me on so many levels that this blogspew would be far too long if I enumerated why this is just...well...okay, I'll say it: stupid. Why? Read on. (I vehemently assert that I admire the attempt, though.)

Another huge problem for me with Haidt's system is it's synchronic. It doesn't explain history very well. I'm not sure he wanted it too. I think Haidt honestly and earnestly wants "liberals" and "conservatives" to  try to understand each other. One of his best lines, for me, is that he hopes liberals and conservatives will stop hating each other and see each other as part of a yin-yang. Bless him for this peaceful thought, for whatever it's worth.

I must amend something from the above paragraph, and it sheds light on another problem in Haidt's thinking here: if we're talking about deep, evolutionary time, clearly Haidt addresses this. He's read The Selfish Gene. He's well-versed in Evolutionary Psychology. And he defends religion against the "New Atheists" of Dawkins himself, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens: religion, although there's quite a downside to it, evolved so that larger groups of non-immediately-blood related people could co-operate and attain bigger goals. Okay: but the thrust of the book is about the fierce, ugly acrimony in Unistat today between Haidt's abstract "conservatives" and "liberals." The problem is: the partisan ugliness is fairly recent. Let's say 1980. Or 1960, to be charitable. This is why I leveled the charge of synchronic...I'm not so sure his evolutionary psychology is fully baked with the ingredients of the artificial construct of Pick Six Core Moral Values and then tabulated questionnaire data-world Haidt dwells in.

Anyway, Haidt was furious with W's administration, but now that Obama's in, time to collate his data and come to a better understanding.

But he goes to Occupy Wall Street's Zucotti Park and becomes a liberal scold, telling them "conservatives believe in equality before the law." (What???) Why? Because Obama's in now? Just HOW has Obama made that much of a difference from Bush?

Haidt had recently realized that "conservatives" are playing on all Six, and "liberals" on only Two, or maybe Three. He observes the Occupiers have no sense of Hierarchy, which is derived from one of the Big Six, Authority. Is Haidt even paying attention to what's going on in the world? Whether it was Liberals or Conservatives, they allowed the bankers, and the rich to plunder the economy. Obama has not made significant amends to the banking rules that allowed this to happen. People's lives are ruined; many are desperate. What a time to realize you're not a liberal! Especially when a long-term study by U. of Georgia and NYU scholars showed that the current Republicans are the most conservative in 100 years.

The Occupiers - as good liberal types - want Fairness, one of Haidt's Six. But if you've got your degree from a fine institution and can't find a job and your student loan debt is massive, how are you going to exercise your Liberty? And in doing the right things - working hard, delaying gratification so you can get your degree and go out and work hard, contribute Loyally to the country you love - how are you supposed to value Authority, when the Authorities have looted the treasury, stacked the deck in their favor, and pepper-sprayed you because you're trying to exercise your rights (Liberty) under the Constitution? (To those who watched OWS on TV and didn't actually hang out and talk with at least twenty or hundred people at rallies, and really listened, I can honestly report that, in my experience, about a third of the OWSers I talked to were thoughtful, patriotic, and brilliant young people. Another third were well-meaning but seemed - for lack of a better word - "lost" to me. Another third were Street People. And while I'm parenthetically ranting, furthermore, as an American, I'm disgusted that we allow so many of our fellow Americans to live like that..."disgust" is highly correlated with "conservative" values, according to some non-Haidt studies on social morality, but I wildly digress...)

This bit about "conservatives" playing with a full Six and "liberals" not seems ridiculous to me. The OWSers that were astute are not crazy about the Democratic party, but they see the Dems (and I concur) as less harmful than the Republicans, who seem to value whatever the Billionaire Class favors.

                            Gordon Rattray-Taylor. I'll be getting to him shortly, below.

Haidt seems to not see how Congress and the Presidency are bought. (Where's the Sanctity there?) Does he pay attention to stories about how the Conservative Supreme Court has ruled that  police can strip search anyone for any reason? That the Unistat Prez - whether under the "conservative" Bush or the "liberal" Obama - can kill, detain without due process, and torture whoever they want, all while talking about "transparency" yet becoming more and more opaque every day? Does he ever read stuff like THIS? What about this article, which I found via my colleague Annabel Lee at Double Dip Politics: is accurate, current knowledge about how the world works not a core moral value? I suspect he doesn't. Hell, I hope he doesn't or he's probably just another tool who believes that information "is" liberal. What world does Haidt live in, where, right when the country implodes, he writes a book extolling "conservative"s' morality of Authority, Loyalty, and Liberty, and he tells his wife "I can't call myself a liberal anymore." He's a "centrist."???

Oh yea: in passing Haidt says "libertarians" are totally different from liberals and conservatives. But I guess I'll have to get hold of his book to see if he says anything substantive about libertarians. My experience with libertarians is that they are smarter, but more disparate concerning The Six. I know libertarians who don't seem to care all that much about Three (Sanctity [unless you're talking about The Market or Mother Nature], Authority, or Loyalty; but they differ in very interesting ways about the Other Three (Care, Fairness, and Liberty). If anyone can flesh out Haidt on libertarians for me (perhaps you have the money to just buy the new book; I have to wait on a library list), I'd be grateful to hear it.

Someone once said you can't be neutral on a moving train. I have no idea what it means, brass tacks, to be a "centrist" in this world, 2012 Unistat. I think you have to live in Mediocristan to understand it. Richard Nixon would be an extreme "liberal" today. Haidt must be making some good money, or wants to please those who can make things even better for him. (<----That's me being a dick, blowing off steam. I apologize. That was below the belt. But I can't wait to hear him talk about how Romney's got a point on some topic, that strict Authority really is important, if you want all your taste buds firing on all cylinders or all your rods and cones seeing the ultra-violets when others can't, or the graphic equalizer in your brain is giving vent to the whole audio-political spectrum of values...)

Now: all I've blathered on here is subject to the same proto-sociology of knowledge contained in Max Weber's quote that "Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun." But I can also take a page from Weber's student, Karl Mannheim, who said that knowledge will take on certain shapes for people depending on their socioeconomic status. I'm going Old School on Haidt here: he's doing really well as a Public Intellectual. I think he's honestly trying to solve a Very Hard Problem. And from what I can see from here, he's not helping things much. Now Haidt would say to me, "You admit you haven't read my new book. And I understand you're a struggling freelancer. Your politics and values reflect that..." Etc.

I bet I would like Jonathan Haidt if I met him. I would ask him what he made of studies like this one, which make a lot of sense to me. Or UC Berkeley's Jennifer Stellar and her colleagues' findings as explained in this article. Or, how do you explain the very many historical examples of people like Arianna Huffington and David Horowitz? Are the self-indentified "conservatives" who answered Haidt and Co's Qs roughly the same people Monbiot is talking about here?

Is the Daily Show's studio audience - packed with liberals - response to Elon Musk's response to a question about Musk's futuristic thinking (Internet, sustainable energy, and space exploration) solely due to their "liberalism," or are they maybe glad to hear something from someone who's a neophile towards scientific research? And this is something virtually non of their "leaders" mention, or if they do, it's really lip service?

Earlier I hinted that I preferred my Grand Narratives concerning Big Ideas to be diachronic, and explain things within a historical perspective. I'm biased this way.

Recently I re-read the introduction to a sleeper of a book - Gordon Rattray-Taylor's 1954 gem Sex In History. Rattray-Taylor says when he reads scads of history books the historians very often present a maddening epistemological problem, and one is "influence." Historians will explain that something changed because someone was influenced by someone else or some cultural event, or whatever. But, as Rattray-Taylor writes, "He seems to feel that the development of a trend has been 'explained' if it can be shown that the people concerned came under the influence of some similar trend elsewhere. Thus, historians have laboured to show that the appearance of a school of lyric poetry in twelfth-century Provence was due to the influence of Arabic poetry of a similar kind." Similarly maddening for Rattray-Taylor was the explanation of people coming under the "spirit of the times,"without explaining why  they came under the Spirit.

As you might have guessed from the title of the book, Rattray-Taylor's proffered explanation - which to me is just as great as Haidt's and I happen to like it more, and I do think these things are comparable and should be compared and contrasted and played with and pondered and possibly incorporated into a yet newer vision - is summed up by Robert Anton Wilson on a basic chart based on Rattray-Taylor's book, in Wilson's Ishtar Rising

Rattray-Taylor saw a yin-yang/pendulum-like cycle of oscillations in history's values, based on attitudes that emanate from deeper attitudes towards sex, and he's influenced a tad by Freud, but also other Germanic thinkers who came after Siggy. I will copy the chart out here, and then bid the blogspew adieu because, once again I've typed far, far too much and if you're reading this now I bet you're the only one who stuck with my harangue, but anyhoo:

Patrist (anal)                                                                      

  1. Restrictive attitude toward sex                     
  2. Limitation of freedom for women
  3. Women seen as inferior, sinful
  4. Chastity more valued than welfare
  5. Politically authoritarian
  6. Conservative: against innovation
  7. Distrust of research, inquiry
  8. Inhibition, fear of spontaneity
  9. Deep fear of homosexuality
  10. Sex differences maximized (dress)
  11. Asceticism, fear of pleasure
  12. Father-religion

Matrist (oral)

  1. Permissive attitude toward sex
  2. Freedom for women
  3. Women accorded high status
  4. Welfare more valued than chastity
  5. Politically democratic
  6. Progressive: revolutionary
  7. No distrust of research
  8. Spontaneity: exhibition
  9. Deep fear of incest
  10. Sex differences minimized (dress)
  11. Hedonism, pleasure welcomed
  12. Mother-religion
These are Idealized Types, of course. Most of us fall somewhere in between these polarized pairs of values, which I suspect can be plotted on a vast continuum. - the OG


Sue Howard said...

Very interesting - thanks for the info on Haidt (whom I hadn't previously encountered).

Lakoff, of course, says that conservatives put 'moral strength' & self-discipline "above" empathy, etc, on most issues - and v.v. for liberals, and presumably this gets reinforced by framing which reinforces it. But he seems to say that all the various different moral 'measures' are accessible by everyone, they just atrophy though lack of use on a given issue (eg lack of framing-reinforcing).

RAW wrote: "the orthodox conservatives and liberals, not to mention nazis and marxists, are really pernicious, and the Austrian libertarians are basically okay".

But that was after he'd just criticised the 'Austrians' for a having a view of capitalism that (he thought) could only come from having no experience of working in a crap corporate job for years. (I agree with RAW on this point).

So, RAW basically seems very critical of conservatives, liberals and libertarians to some extent. Elsewhere he's written that his emotional bias lies with the "bleeding-heart" liberals (eg support of underdog - moral empathy perhaps) whereas his intellectual bias leans to libertarian (or anarchist) thinking.

He's also stated that much of the left seems, to him, to be on some "pathological hate trip". That stuck in my mind, so I know I've quoted it accurately.

But RAW's 'battle' seemed to be with stupidity and the unnecessary suffering that it produces. And I guess that no one moral or political bias has a monopoly on stupidity.

Sue Howard said...

Sorry about all those references to RAW (Robert Anton Wilson) there - I forgot I wasn't posting to the RAW google group.

I should also add to my above comment that I've never lived in USA, so I don't have first-hand experience of the type of dangerous rightwing "religious" lunacy that seems to dominate a lot of political views in the US. The conservatives in Britain seem somewhat different (although in many ways just as dangerous, to my mind).

michael said...

Sue: all your comments are gold, and, au contraire, discussing RAW in any context, for any reason on this blog is highly appreciated, as I suspect 75% who read this OG's ramblings are Wilson fans.

I find Lakoff's ideas about how morality works in the real world far more accurate to my phenomenal-existential-empirical mind. Why? Because it allows for far more gray areas, is in keeping with neuroplasticity, can account for changes in the individual over time, has much more to say about the vast uses of the overall semantic environment as a strong influence in people's views of morality and politics, and his research seems far more empirical than Haidt's. This idea of Haidt's of taking Six moral values as axioms that can be extrapolated to moral systems that work in the "real world" but some people seem to "use" more of he Six than others...it just seems strictly from Mediocristan to me.

There are all kinds of videos of Haidt online. Look at how he talks about Authority. I'd find it appalling if it wasn't so ridiculous; i.e, "subject to ridicule." He wants to harp on how important parental Authority is over children, and "liberals" don't get it. He likes to riff like this: liberals are okay with their teenage daughter getting an abortion without telling their parents, because they're afraid the parents wouldn't let the kid get the abortion. But conservatives "get it," and he quotes some conservative mom who says, "I would't let my kid pick her own orthodontist! Why would I let her pick her own abortion doctor?"

Not much said about the Authority of scientists and little things like Evolution, or global warming. I guess that's not really Authority.

I was taught to "respect your elders" growing up. By the time I was 16 I had tested this and found it wanting: so many of the Elders I talked/listened to were religious bigots, deplorable racists, alcoholics who beat their wives, and Business Criminals.

Haidt lives in a souped-up, modernized Aristotelian bubble, it seems to me. And this Model looks more and more moribund as I try to understand it.

I liked all the ideas and quotes from RAW, and what a breath of fresh air to be reminded that, in "reality," people are far more complex, and the spectrum of moral and political values ought to be seen in a non-Euclidean way, fer crissakes! Haidt and colleagues made it easy on themselves by assuming there "really is" only liberals and conservatives. Then they hammer all the square shapes, oblongs, stars, rectangles, ellipses, etc: into their round hole.

He'll probably become more and more of a star as a public intellectual; afterall, Unsitatians love anything tribal, in which we mustn't be asked to count above two: it's Us vs, Them. How...stupid, really. But like I said in the blog, I admire the attempt. He probably means well.

Eric Wagner said...

I wonder what percentage of American adults model themselves as "liberal" and/or "conservative".

Great blog, as usual.

I fear the graphic equalizer in my brain needs a new battery.

Your comments about twelfth century Provance make me want to read Peter Makin's _Pound and Provance_ and some Rumi.

Do you think Bob succeeded in his intent to fill _Ishtar Rising_ with Daoist insight? I have mixed feelings about that. I remember starting to reread that book the day Bob died.

That Rattray-Taylor lists seems appropiate today with all the "War on Women" rhetoric filling the airwaves.

michael said...

@Eric: I suspect that if we had four or five viable political parties - that is, if the One Business Party with two wings didn't have a stranglehold on electoral politics in Unistat - then Haidt's data would look very very different.

I havent' read Makin's Pound and Provence book. I like his book on the Cantos. Rumi is a big deal in the Bay Area, and I read a few years ago that Rumi outsells all other poets worldwide.

I'm one of those RAWphiles who thinks Ishtar Rising is an underrated book. I've talked with two other RAWphanatics who don't like the book all that much.

(I think) There's a vein of feminist thought in that book that seems to have caught up with him over the last 29 years.

I see enough Daoism permeating IR, sure. But RAW also baldly states his Hermeticism in the book; many writers on the ludic, chaos-creating Messenger God see Daoism as isomorphic to Hermes's role in the West. (I tend to agree. Or rather, I "see" this too.)

The attempts by the Republicans to roll back gains made by women in part has actuated me to tackle Haidt and "moral" models lately. I'm going to write one more and then I have to move on to something else, playing the OG.

I regret using the word "stupid" when addressing Haidt's model. It qualifies as a useable model and is robust and thoughtful and has as an overtly stated aim a change from both moral "types" seeing each other as yin/yang rather than hating each other, which is noble, I think. But after immersing myself in Haidt (it's astonishing how much you can learn about a guy's latest book w/o even reading it, and I'll give more links in my next post to show what I mean), the dissonance that I see between his flawed model, coupled with the current dire situation and Haidt's sudden champion of conservative morality...just drove me up a tree...and I hoped that calling it as I saw it was in some way fulfilling what blogging was all about...

I'm enjoying your new blog, Eric. Other readers with interest in Poetry, check out:

forrest said...

I agree that there's something fishy about Haidt's conclusions & why the people who buy into them do so. And being basically lazy, not wanting to waste time thoroughly digesting a bucket of aged fish guts, I arrive at your blog...

but I don't think you've quite put your finger on it. Yes, "drink the whole six-pack" was a really really dumb conclusion for anyone to draw from all the... stuff he's assembled... But people with a taste for some of that more dubious, "pre-rented" beer really love the implication that "Hey, this guy says it's okay to nuke the whales if we're motivated by the value of 'upholding Authority!'"

One screaming flaw in that notion of a need to maintain parental Authority -- is that what you preserve by authoritarian disciplines is not authority, but coercive power-over. Which is not only unstable & self-defeating, but basically ugly. I don't know if you've read Gabor Mate's book _Scattered_ [although I suspect that you, like me, like Mate himself, with find that subject "like looking into a mirror."] A big part of what he's saying: If you're concerned for long-term human development of the kids, and for them continuing to actually like you after they've survived your parenting, then Stamping Out The Insurrection can't be your priority.

michael said...

@forrest: I've not read _Scattered_, probably because I am so?

Haidt does go to appreciable lengths, seems to me, to make distinctions between legitimate authority (telling kids to not play on the highway and all kinds of things most of us would agree with), but I could never get over his desire to allow Authority more sway in other areas.

While I disagree with Haidt on a LOT of stuff, I do find him attempting to be, for lack of a better term, "intellectually honest." I think the "conservatives" are tasting all six tastes while "liberals" only taste two (or whatever that shit is, he has a few riff like that) to be really lame...but I think, honestly derived from his LOOOONG questionnaires. (Which I linked to, earlier.) I think his data, and his personal status as an intellectual trying to create "space" for others to think in, led him to a faulty schema.

The thing about Haidt and Authority that bothers me is that it's self-sealing. If you tell Haidt, "I can't stand your ideas about conservatives being right about authority; I think you're really full of it and here's why: (points A,B,C,D,E...etc)," he'd say that's 'cuz you're a liberal, and that's what liberals say!

I say Haidt take questions from a smart audience and one guy asked, how can anyone justify the marijuana laws when all the science shows that alcohol is worse, and Haidt, very blase, said, you need to look at conservative's value of the Sacred: what's more sacred than the human body? Drugs harm the body. That's why...

...Which I found STUNNINGLY poor thinking...but then I'm a "liberal" and I think we should learn from the authority of SCIENCE. Of course I'd think that!

Thanks for the comment, Forrest. I'll see if I can get hold of Scattered.