Thursday, 13 November 2008

Getting an IS from an OUGHT

Jonathan Haidt is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. His talk at Beyond Belief 3 was on morality or why liberals and conservatives don’t understand each other. His recent book is going to have the title the Rightious Mind: Why Good People are divided by Politics and Religion.

He is an articulate speaker and he gave a perceptive talk which I believe captured beautifully what morality is to a lot of people. There is many reasons why I’m interested in what he has to say. One of them would be of course to understand the opposition better. To also perhaps reconsider if there is something wrong or missing in your own views or to better communicate with people you disagree with.

In this sense its almost like an exercise in gathering intelligence behind the lines in war. As such Haidt and the work of his colleagues have crystallised many of the reasons why Liberals and Conservatives dont "get it".

One the first concerns I have with Haidt is not the content but the ambiguity in his view of the five factors of morality. At the start of the talk he calls himself a liberal, a moral consequentialist and utilitarian. He also goes on to claim that he is no moral relativist in a later exchange but right at the end of the round table discussion he spells out the point that we need to think of morality as “team sports”.

So does Haidt endorse what conservatives think of morality as valid? Does he wish to live by their principles? I’m not sure and he may be committing an odd inverse of the fallacy of deriving an ought from an is--saying that morality Is what Conservatives claim it Ought to be. I will attempt to show here that I don’t think his concepts although as descriptions are accurate they are neither real morality or a good system of ethics for today’s 21st global community.

Let me outline the five moral factors that Haidt presents.

1. Principles of harm and care.

This is simply happiness and suffering. Don’t cause harm to people, help them to get on etc. Try your best to reduce other peoples suffering if you can.

2. Fairness and Reciprocity. The golden rule. I scratch your back you scratch mine. Tit for Tat. One good turn deserves another.

(This is where Haidt claims that morality stops for liberals and the following 3 apply more to social conservatives.)

3. In Group loyalty. Loyal to the tribe. My country right or wrong. Patriotism, nationalism. Favour your community, race, religion, in all matters. Modulate your interests to that of the group. Obey group rituals etc, hold and show to hold similar beliefs and practices etc.

4. Deference to authority. Father figures, priest, preacher, teacher, men in uniform, the president or head man (providing he belongs to your in group.)

5. Purity. Virginity, sex, heterosexuality, drug taboos, food taboos, images, information, ideas. (This one surprised me but upon reflection it is a very perceptive remark upon concerns that motivate conservatives and the religious.)

Haidt argues that for conservatives morality is the balancing between these five factors. Factors one and two operate largely in relation to 3. (group loyalty). If you’re a liberal and you look at this you have a sort of epiphany, so that’s why they hate us.

Consider deference to authority as an example. Haidt sees the status of the President of the United States as a quasi like religious position. A position of ultimate authority appointed by God that should be free of critical analysis. This also translates to other positions of authority within society and critical acceptance of them. I don’t need to point out the reputation of liberals as activists, campaigners, sceptical of authority and untrusting of power figures. Also look at the mocking and criticism that George Bush came into from liberal critics.

Liberals are seen as cultural vandals, traitors and a infectious virus that threaten to undermine the country (I’m principally talking about America here but it can apply to every society.) Needless to say I don’t agree with either the conservatives idea of morality or Haidt if he is claiming it as moral strategies. “well you would say that wouldn’t you” You might reply, well yes but not because I’m more of a liberal but because it has been framed the wrong way.

Haidt’s last three factors are best not thought of as moral systems or concerns but as Adaptive strategies that foster strength, cohesion, trust and community in homogeneous social groups competing against rival ones.

Haidt actually has a passage in his talk that supports my claim. He quotes the famous passage from Charles Darwin from the Descent of Man that discusses morality and its effects on group selection- what factors make one group more likely to out compete another one. Human groups that are highly structured (authoritarian) and militaristic and banded. That have trust and can co-operate ( group loyalty) that have cults of purity and infection (keep isolated from other groups and ideas) are more likely to survive and out produce the other group.

Cults of purity and in-group loyalty would of course extend to rules about marrying out. In my own country it still raises eyebrows between inter-marrying Protestants and Catholics. A few short years ago it could have resulted in murder. Much the same could be said for American mixed race marriages in the south a few short decades ago. Similar things can be seen for the Hindu caste system or in Iraq where a young Muslim girl was stoned to death by the male members of her family recently for talking with a white British solider. It was rumoured that she fell in love with him. Taboos about marrying out linked to purity have the effect of course of not allowing any “foreign” or “contaminating” influences that would pose a threat to the status quo and homogeneity of the group. If marrying out did occur then one party would have to sacrifice their social and moral identity.

Societies that are ruled by dictators or authoritarian leaders and are tightly organised can of course achieve great things that more democratically inclined societies couldn’t because of disagreements and the inability to implement decisions.
Stalin for example ran a brutal regime that was responsible for the death of many millions of Russians but modernised the country and made it a superpower within a few decades. Russia under Stalin operated under a cult of personality and had its fractious in group loyalties and out group hostilities. It ran an “efficient” strong state though one that did little to contribute to the welfare of the people overall.

The punch line is when societies come crashing, human societies that are closely bonded, trusting of each other, have a strong single leader who operates as he sees fit, are aggressive towards rivals, are more likely to out compete peaceable, plural democracies.Morality is the way diverse indivduals are able to co-operate in order to prosper. The key difference is conservatives are hostile to difference, change, individualism.They want to suppress these factors. Where as liberals are the opposite. Looking at it this way is there any suprise that there is conflict?

There is another claim that I believe Haidt makes--namely that homogeneous societies that follow the five factors are more likely to be happy than ones who aren’t.

Let us imagine a society that is white, heterosexual, largely Christian. Women operate only in church, kitchen or home. Young men have extended stays in the national services, young women look after children and babies. Raucous music and drugs are strictly illegal. There is little dissent, no satire or criticism. There is though strong, vibrant communities of individuals working together and looking after each other. They all belong to the same political party and regularly have parties and parades celebrating their culture and beliefs.

The society I am describing is not American Protestant evangelicals in 2008 but what would have looked like in Germany in the 1950’s after the Nazi's had flattened Europe and rolled out its Lebensraum aims. The Nazi’s had a vicious cult of purity and of course passed racial hygiene laws, demonised Jews and homosexuals. Though such a “vibrant” “strong” “happy” community would have been created, the consequences of such a transformation would have been and where appalling.

There is no question that the five factors that Haidt discusses were useful strategies in our evolutionary pas. They create unnecessary misery and divisiveness. They are also a bad and outdated response to globalisation and modernity.

While some disagree that there is no such thing as progress. I think its largely clear that the historical trend is one away from theocracies and despotism and towards democracy, human rights and individual freedoms. Though it may take some time for it to spread to certain parts of the world, here in western Europe the genie is out of the bottle and is here to stay.

Christian conservatives in America may be the most happiest set of people in the country but this fact is matched by countries like Norway and Sweden which are largely secular and atheistic. At this point you may be tempted to say well good for them and good for them too. This misses the point though. At what price does the Christian fundamentalists keep their community happy? The effects of their socially unifying beliefs on capital punishment, abortion, stem cell research, teenage sex and drugs is one that is largely maladaptive. Homicide, abortion, STD, divorce and violent crime rates are higher in conservatives states and cites than liberals ones. We should also consider what happens to individuals who cannot or will not conform to the social and cultural norm.

I have argued elsewhere that we can conceive of morality as a four fold step. Reason in acquiring facts and information and leaving superstition and dogmatism at the door. Second, using those facts to best decide what consequences will produce the most human happiness and lessen suffering. Third the golden rule and fourth considering a civil society. Freedom and liberty may be more desirable though in some cases than lessening suffering or promoting wellbeing (such as free speech). Allowing people freedom to choose their beliefs and actions is vital and is the most important aspect to civil society.

Stable, informed democracies are the best ways in which individuals of all kinds can flourish. What is needed is global ethics and world morality. Tribalism, dogmatism and irrationality are to be opposed in all forms. This does not mean we should not support appropriate authorities or write off the importance of community and human connection. I believe a police force and criminal justice system are essential to society. No one apart from conservatives is saying that you cannot have friends or intimacy or strong, happy, moral societies without believing any unjustified claims or demonizing outsiders, except maybe Jonathan Haidt.

Best and be well

Michael Faulkner.

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