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.
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We often discussed empathy at this website, for instance here. And here. Most of the time, we discuss the importance of empathy-based morality without invoking any supernatural beings, beliefs, or commandments. This is not to claim that religion is always irrelevant to such discussions.
For the past day, I have repeatedly thought about Rush Limbaugh’s recent invocation of Jesus. He claimed that Jesus would prefer that we lower the tax rates for rich people and that we dismantle the federal social safety net for those who are not rich.
This morning, coming out of a courthouse a poor-looking man smiled and said, “I hope you’re having a good day.” I thanked him and walked on, struck that an upbeat man of such modest means, a man I didn’t know, would take time to greet me. That reminded me of a recurring thought I have: If I were God, I would visit earth dressed as a poor person, and I would mingle with well-to-do people to see how they treated me. If I were God and I did this, I would repeatedly be reminded that rich people avoided me.
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I found this question via FriendlyAtheist, who shared this big pdf file (poster size, but only 1.6Mb), with a list of questions, each answered in various ways in different parts of the Bible, and a graphic showing links between the different areas where the different answers occur..
To my title question, the poster shows:
gen 17:19, exo 12:14, 17, 24, lev 23:14, 21, 31, deut 4:8-9, 7:9, 11:1, 11:26-28, 1chron 16:15, ps 119:151-2, 119:160, mal 4:4, mat 5:18-19, lk 16:17 ≠
lk 16:16, rom 6:14, 7:4, 6, 10:4, 2cor 3:14, gal 3:13, 3:24-25, 5:18, eph 2:15, col 2:14
Those of us who don’t know all the verses need a convenient way to look them up, like http://bible.cc I’ve linked two of the sample verses, above.
I like the parallel view, showing each verse in 15 popular English Bible translations.
Assume that Frans De Waal is correct when he writes that empathy is the foundation of morality, in that it wells up from deep in our bones and that it evolved over many years in our ancestors. What, then, are the functions of the moral rules and moral maxims (and yes, Commandments) that we hear every hour of every day? If these rules aren’t the wellspring of our inclinations to be kind and decent (and sometimes violent), what function do they serve? After all, it certainly seems that we are oftentimes guided by our moral rules, even if those rules don’t account for that deep empathy that fuels our conduct.
Philosopher of cognitive science Andy Clark considered this issue in a chapter titled “Connectionism, Moral Cognition, and Collaborative Problem Solving,” found in an excellent anthology titled Mind and Morals, (edited by Larry May, Marilyn Friedman and Andy Clark (1996). This anthology, based on a conference that occurred at Washington University, explores the interconnections between moral philosophy and cognitive science.
“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.
This is a continuation of my interview of Mark Tiedemann, who is both an established science fiction writer and an author here at Dangerous Intersection.
In the first video in this post, Part IV, Mark discusses science, religion and morality. In the second video in this post, Part V, he discusses sex.
I had an extensive discussion with Mark, and I will actually have one more post featuring video of our conversation. I expect that those will be published tomorrow night.
In this video, a military veteran named Mike Prysner spoke out about the military’s main weapon: racism. He argues that without racism, none of the military’s expensive weapons could ever be used, and there would be no chance that the working people of one country would be convinced to kill the working people of another country. His argument regarding the power of racism is another way of pointing out the explosive power of ingroups and outgroups and the curing power of diversity–a willingness to embrace the humanity of people unlike ourselves.
For more on the often-used recipe for going to war, see this post on “War Made Easy.“