Jonathan Haidt: What the moral sciences should look like

September 29, 2011 | By | Reply More

At Edge Video, psychologist Jonathan Haidt has given a briskly presented 30-minute lecture on what the moral sciences should look like in the 21st century. He opened his talk by indicating that we are now in a period of a new synthesis in ethics, meaning that in order to do meaningful work in the field of moral psychology, one has to draw from numerous other fields, including biology, computer science, mathematics, neuroscience, primatology and many other fields. The bottom line is that one needs to be careful to not attempt to reduce moral psychology to a single principle, as is often done by those who advocate that morality is a code word for a single test, such as welfare-maximization or justice-fairness.

I have followed Jonathan Haidt’s work for several years now, and I am highly impressed with his breadth of knowledge, his many original ideas, and the way he (in keeping with his idea of what moral psychology should be like) synthesizes the work of numerous disparate fields of study. In this post, I am sharing my own notes from my viewing of heights two-part video lecture.

In Haidt’s approach, the sense of taste serves as a good metaphor for morality. There are only a few dominant bases for moral taste (akin to the four types of taste receptors), taste can be generally categorized as “good” or “bad,” and despite the fact that there are a limited number of foundations for moral and sensory taste, there is plenty of room for cultural variation–every culture has its own approach to making good moral decisions (and making good tasting food).

Haidt warns that those studying moral psychology should be careful to avoid two common errors that are well illustrated by two recent journal articles. The first article, titled “The Weirdest People in the World,” indicates that most of the psychology research done in the entire world is done in the United States, and the subjects tend to be Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (“WEIRD”). Not that one cannot do psychology with this homogenous group of subjects (typically college students), but one needs be careful to avoid generalizing to the entire world based upon a WEIRD set of subjects. In fact, WEIRD people tend to see the world much differently than people in many other cultures. They tend to see separate objects (versus relationships), and they tend to rely on analytical thinking (categories and laws, reason and logic) versus holistic thinking (patterns and context). Does this make us WEIRD people more accurate since we think in these analytical terms? Not necessarily, but before generalizing, we need to take it to heart that we live in an unusual culture. Haidt warns that this problem is exacerbated because our psychologists tend to surround themselves with similar-thinking others, and when this happens, the confirmation bias kicks in and they will inevitably find lots of evidence to condemn those who think differently.

The second major caveat offered by Haidt takes the form of the following article: “Why Do Humans Reason?” By Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier. The question raised by this article is “why are we so bad at reasoning in some contexts (e.g., the Wason tests and various types of syllogisms)? The biggest problem of all is the confirmation bias. Haidt wonders (along with the authors of the article) “Why do we search for evidence that supports our beliefs? He notes that it is almost impossible to train people to do otherwise. Similarly, why does self interest so easily bias our reasoning? The answer offered by Sperber and Mercier is that reason was not designed to pursue the truth. Rather, it was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. The evidence is everywhere; reason often fails to deliver rational results. In fact, it is often detrimental to rationality. People “systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions.” Reason tends to “seek justification and not truth.” This article, according to Haidt, explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning and reason-based choice.

Of course, people have often used reason for purposes other than winning arguments, but it always tends toward the confirmation bias; we are blind to the flaws in our own reasoning. But there can be safety in numbers, as long as we are willing to criticize each other. “That’s what other people are for…to criticize us.” In fact, science done by individuals working in isolation is also prone to the confirmation bias. “Science works very well as a social process when we can come together and find flaws in each other’s reasoning.” Haidt indicates that the confirmation bias is especially troublesome in moral psychology, “were we all care deeply about what’s right and wrong and where most researchers are politically liberal.” This lack of diversity in the field means that there is often no one to speak up and criticize psychologists where they are unconsciously spinning the evidence as a big happy family.

In determining what the moral sciences should look like in the 21st century, Haidt looks to David Hume (also one of my favorite philosophers), who famously concluded that reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions. Haidt recommends that we continue Hume’s project by emulating him as follows:

1. Naturalist-Hume believed that morality is part of the natural world. Haidt agrees, urging that the natural world is proper approach, “rather than studying Scripture or and a priori logic.” It is most important to look at the world in order to do moral psychology.

2. Nativist-David Hume would’ve been a good Darwinian, and he felt that morals are founded on the characteristics of the human species.

3. Sentimentalist-Hume believed that morality is guided by personal tastes, which Haidt re-labels “moral intuitions.”

4. Pluralist-Hume advocated for virtue ethics rather than the two major alternatives (deontology and utilitarianism). Virtue ethics, which has its roots in Aristotle’s writings, and even some thinkers preceding Aristotle, advocates the practice of one’s social skills in order to be moral. It is a “messy” theory that will cause one to become pluralist or at least non-parsimonious, but this is a good thing. Haidt warns that we should not elevate Occam’s razor into “Occam’s chainsaw.” We should be careful to not oversimplify. The payoff is that we get a theory that fits what we really know about human nature. At this point, Haidt mentioned his theory of the the human being as being like a rider on an elephant. In that illustration, virtue ethics is a type of morality that believes it is best to try to train the elephant. On the other hand, deontology and utilitarianism constitute “instruction manuals for riders.” In fact, Haidt questions these latter two theories as advocating that people need to follow the principles even when they feel wrong.

Virtue ethics once flourished. Haidt asked why it faded, and concludes that it was the “attack of the systemizers.” Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham) and deontology (Immanuel Kant) were both established by “two ultra-systemizers who bordered on having autism or least Aspergers Syndrome. Nonetheless, these two theories took root at a time when the Industrial Revolution was underway. These two theories were embraced in violation of the two giant warning flags Haidt described early in the lecture: A) “We assumed weird morality represented human morality,” and B) “we place too much emphasis on reasoning, assuming that it was capable of determining moral truth.”

Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory strives to avoid these two traps. His five foundations are not the only candidates, but they seem to be the best candidates for the “taste receptors of the moral mind.” Haidt beckons that we should follow in Hume’s footsteps, and reminds us that it’s okay to be “reductionist” as long as we are also an “emergentist.” When you are both, you are able to go down to the basic levels of phenomena, but you are also able to consider the equally important upper levels of institutions and moral traditions. “Culture and psyche make each other up.”

As we head into the 21st century, Haidt again warns that we need to be cautious about our own biases, because morality has its roots in human tribal tendencies. We are animals who have been designed to bond together in groups in order to compete with other groups. These should be our starting points for the next century of psychology.

Share

Tags: ,

Category: cognitive biases, Good and Evil, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Leave a Reply