Friday, August 10, 2012

More on Haidt and Moral Psychology

I have finally finished a complete reading of Jonathan Haidt's book "The Righteous Mind" that I have mentioned in several previous posts (enter 'Haidt' in the search box in the left column). This complete reading is unusual for me; my normal behavior is to just read a review of a new book, or skip, hop, and skim through the Kindle version. Here I pass on some clips from Jost's recent review.
In The Righteous Mind, Haidt attempts to explain the psychological foundations of morality and how they lead to political conflicts. The book's three parts are not as compatible or settled as Haidt's ingenious prose makes them seem. The first revisits the intriguing arguments of an earlier, influential paper in which he argued that moral reasoning is nothing but post hoc rationalizing of gut-level intuitions. The second introduces an evolutionarily inspired framework that specifies five or six “moral foundations” and applies this framework to an analysis of liberal-conservative differences in moral judgments. In the third part, Haidt speculates that patriotism, religiosity, and “hive psychology” in humans evolved rapidly through group-level selection.
After arguing that “moral reasoning” is nothing more than a post hoc rationalization of intuitive, emotional reactions, Haidt risks contradiction when claiming that liberals should embrace conservative moral intuitions about the importance of obeying authority, being loyal to the ingroup, and enforcing purity standards. If one were to accept Haidt's post hoc rationalization premise and his findings about differences in the moral judgments of liberals and conservatives, a more parsimonious (and empirically supportable) conjunction would be: For a variety of psychological reasons, conservatives do more rationalizing of gut-level reactions, and this makes them more moralistic (i.e., judgmental) than liberals. It does not, however, make them more moral in any meaningful sense of the word, nor does it provide a legitimate basis for criticizing liberal moral judgment the way Haidt does.
Haidt argues that the liberal moral code is deficient, because it is not based on all of his “moral foundations.” The liberal, he maintains, is like the idiot restaurateur who thought he could make a complete cuisine out of just one taste, however sweet. This illustrates the biggest flaw in Haidt's book: he swings back and forth between an allegedly value-neutral sense of “moral” (anything that an individual or a group believes is moral and serves to suppress selfishness) and a more prescriptive sense that he uses mainly to jab liberals. Ultimately, Haidt's own rhetorical choices render his claim to being unbiased unconvincing. If descriptive morality is based on whatever people believe, then both liberals and conservatives would seem to have equal claim to it. Does it really make sense, philosophically or psychologically or politically, to try to keep score, let alone to assert that “more is better” when it comes to moral judgment?
Before drawing sweeping, profound conclusions about the politics of morality, Haidt needs to address a more basic question: What are the specific, empirically falsifiable criteria for designating something as an evolutionarily grounded moral foundation? Haidt sets the bar pretty low—anything that suppresses individual selfishness in favor of group interests. By this definition, the decision to plunder (and perhaps even murder) members of another tribe would count as a moral adaptation. Recent research suggests that Machiavellianism, authoritarianism, social dominance, and prejudice are positively associated with the moral valuation of ingroup, authority, and purity themes. If these are to be ushered into the ever-broadening tent of group morality, one wonders what it would take to be refused admission.

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