I have written several posts holding that we are all blinded by our sacred cows. Not simply those of us who are religions. This blindness occurs to almost of us, at least some of the time. Two of my more recent posts making this argument are titled “Mending Fences” and “Religion: It’s almost like falling in love.” In arriving at these conclusions, I’ve relied heavily upon the writings of other thinkers, including the writings of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Several years ago, Haidt posited four principals summing up the state-of-the-art in moral psychology:
1. Intuitive primacy (but not dictatorship)
2. Moral thinking is for social doing.
3. Morality is about more than harm and fairness.
4. Morality binds and blinds.
In a recent article at Edge.org, Haidt argued that this fourth principle has proven to be particularly helpful, and it can “reveal a rut we’ve gotten ourselves into and it will show us a way out.” You can read Haidt’s talk at the annual convention for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, or listen to his reconstruction of that talk (including slides) here. This talk has been making waves lately, exemplified by John Tierney’s New York Times article.
Haidt begins his talk by recognizing that human animals are not simply social, but ultrasocial. How social are we? Imagine if someone offered you a brand-new laptop computer with the fastest commercially available processor, but assume that this computer was broken in such a way that it could never be connected to the Internet. In this day and age of connectivity, that computer will get very little use, if any. According to Haidt, human ultrasociality means that we “live together in very large[caption id="attachment_16630" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Image by Jeremy Richards at Dreamstime.com (with permission)"][/caption]
groups of hundreds or thousands, with a massive division of labor and a willingness to sacrifice for the group.” Very few species are ultrasocial, and most of them do it through a breeding trick by which all members of the group are first-degree relatives and they all concentrate their efforts at breeding with regard to a common queen. Humans beings are the only animals that doesn’t use this breeding trick to maintain their ultrasociality.
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I’ve been hesitant to write about this, because the tendency to indulge self pity creeps in around the edges. I’m hesitant because for me this is personal. But in the past year we’ve seen a rise in attention being paid to a great human tradition—bullying.
A gay youth outed by his peers committed suicide. Other gays under a microscope all over the country have found themselves driven to the edge. National “movements” to deal with this problem have sprung up like mushrooms after a spring rain. The last time we witnessed this level of discussion about bullying was after a couple of disaffected youths murdered several of their peers at their high school and then took their own lives, leaving behind ample testaments that what had driven them to do this had been years of bullying.
A recent episode of Glee dealt with the subject, the lone out gay boy in the school having come under the daily assault by an oversized pituitary case who, for no apparent reason, had decided to make life hell for the outsider.
I suppose it was this episode that prompted me to write about this. Because it indulged some pop psychology, which I stress is not baseless, to explain the bully’s behavior—he, too, was a closeted gay who hated himself for it. The idea being that we hate that which we are which we cannot accept in ourselves.
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moral behaviors are typically the product of multiple levels of moral functioning, and are usually energized by the “hotter” levels of intuition, emotion, and behavioral virtue/vice. The “cooler” levels of values, reasoning, and willpower, while still important, are proposed to be secondary to the more affect-intensive processes.
Haidt has used the metaphor of an intellectually-nimble lawyer riding on top of a huge emotion-permeated elephant to illustrate his counter-intuitive approach, suggesting that the small articulate lawyer on top often lacks meaningful control over the elephant. Moral judgments are usually dominated by emotions such as empathy and disgust (the strength of these is represented by the big-ness of the elephant). In short, Haidt is quite sympathetic to David Hume’s suggestion that moral reasoning is essentially “the slave of the passions.”
In the March 25, 2010 edition of Nature (available here), Paul Bloom expressed concern that something important has been left out of Haidt’s model. In reaction, Haidt defended himself against Bloom’s attack (see below), indicating that Bloom (whose work Haidt admires, for the most part) has misconstrued Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model. I believe that summarizing this exchange between Haidt and Bloom sharpens the focus on the meaning of Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model.
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“Thou shalt love puppies.”
Does the above Commandment explain why people dutifully gravitate to homeless puppies, adopt them, feed them and love them? Of course not, because there is no such commandment.
Nor are there any other abstract moral principles requiring us to love puppies. We love puppies because the urge to love small tame animals is deep in our bones. We love puppies because we are built to love (contrary to those who claim that life is fundamentally dog-eat-dog — Consider also, that the “struggle for existence” is only a conceptual metaphor with limited application). Our human bodies are pre-rigged to take care of cute little mammals, especially when they appear to love us back. We would love puppies even if there were a commandment telling us to NOT love puppies.
Remember how interested so many people from the United States were in soccer a few weeks ago? “Soccer” was prominent on many American mainstream news sites. Remember how almost everyone was talking about that upcoming game against Ghana, a game that was to be played on June 26? But then Ghana beat the U.S. That loss now allows us to run a little experiment. How many of those American “soccer” fans were in a “soccer” frenzy merely because the United States had a chance to win? How many of these American “soccer” fans were jingoists rather than true soccer fans?
Using Google Trends, you can see how the United States audience falls flat after the United States was knocked out of the tournament. It turns out that a huge number of American “soccer” fans only cared about soccer when patriotism fanned the flames of their “soccer” interest.