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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Tolerance, Endorsement, And Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt gave a fascinating and informative talk at the 2007 New Yorker Conference (well caught by Mike's Blog Roundup.) In it, he discussed the moral foundations which animate liberal and conservative worldviews, and offers some prescriptive advice on how the two poles may be better able to comprehend these foundations. There are two main positions from which Professor Haidt proceeds (text from the University of Virginia website - all empheses mine.)

On how, and why, reason intrudes on and rhetorically shapes moral "gut feelings":
Haidt shows how evolutionary, neurological and social-psychological insights are being synthesized in support of three principles: 1) Intuitive primacy, which says that human emotions and gut feelings generally drive our moral judgments; 2) Moral thinking if for social doing, which says that we engage in moral reasoning not to figure out the truth, but to persuade other people of our virtue or to influence them to support us; and 3) Morality binds and builds, which says that morality and gossip were crucial for the evolution of human ultrasociality, which allows humans — but no other primates – to live in large and highly cooperative groups.

Shorter Haidt: We have a gut feeling for morality, we all want to be on the same page, and that is what gives society its cohesiveness. Good stuff.

On how Haidt unironically uses reason to intrude on and rhetorically shape moral "gut feelings":
Haidt argues that human morality is a cultural construction built on top of – and constrained by – a small set of evolved psychological systems. He presents evidence that political liberals rely primarily on two of these systems, involving emotional sensitivities to harm and fairness. Conservatives, however, construct their moral understandings on those two systems plus three others, which involve emotional sensitivities to in-group boundaries, authority and spiritual purity.

First, I apologize for the cheap snark regarding Haidt's use of reason - first of all, it was low-hanging fruit and, secondly, I do happen to find his analysis very compelling. Chalk it up to a little deconstructionist humour.

Regarding his first set of principles on how basic moral insight is distorted by the application of reason (when reason is embarked upon persuasion, truth becomes a side issue), I heartily agree. However, while his line of reasoning and tolerance for the underpinnings of conservative morality is reflexively charming to this author's liberal bent, I am here to take it apart a bit, and hopefully succeed in presenting a sharper intellectual contrast on this question. In terms of tolerance and dialogue, this is perhaps counterproductive, but I don't want to fall into the natural trap of sacrificing the truth on the alter of persuation (point 2, in the first U.Va. quote above).

I'd like to point out that Prof. Haidt's five "evolved psychological systems" are presented in a flat manner, with each given equal weight as regards moral primacy:

  • 1. (Mitigating) harm ("liberal" concern)

  • 2. (Manifesting) fairness ("liberal" concern)

  • 3. (Respecting and maintaining) in-group boundaries ("conservative" concern)

  • 4. (Respecting and maintaining) authority structures ("conservative" concern)

  • 5. (Embodying) spiritual purity (allegedly a "conservative" concern)


  • First of all, I want to take number five (spiritual purity) out of the schism of liberalism/conservatism. I think that it is a stretch to say that anyone does not hold spiritual purity as an important value. As the spiritual realm is something that reason cannot easily comment upon, I hold that it is the various appearances of what constitute spiritual purity which are held up to debate and disagreement, not spiritual purity itself. I submit that point five is actually fractured through the prisms of the other four.

    Now, as to the equal weight given the other four points, I'd like to slash through the weediness of that and state that the first two points are of more fundamental pedigree, whilst in-group boundaries and authority are meta-concerns, pure constructs of thought which have no basis outside of their self-referential interest in continuity and security. I do not argue that they do indeed spring from evolutionary impulse - as a matter of fact, I argue that among the four remaining points, points three and four are restricted to evolutionary cultivation, whereas the first two are discoverable outside of the requirements of development over time.

    This is the first return to a palpable and irreconciliable schism between "liberalism" and "conservatism." This is not good news for those of us who wish to Kumbaya our way to the future, but what do you expect from a self-confessed liberal? For that is how Jonathan Haidt describes himself.

    (If you haven't already, please go watch the Professor's talk before proceeding. It is erudite, persuasive and very well thought out. I appreciate his work, it provoked this post, and his arguments deserve to be aired by the Professor himself before absorbing my criticisms and observations.)

    Liberals like Professor Haidt, lovable as they are, are the reason why, when asked, I, rather drily, state that I'm "to the left of Che Gueverra." (While this is just a rhetorical device to give me some intellectual space in the sphere of conventional liberal thinking, the truth is that Che probably would find my thinking dangerously radical.)

    What I see from this distance is that Haidt is doing what every blinkered, well-intentioned liberal constantly strives for: Comprehension of, and tolerance for, the Other (in this case, "conservatives.") On top of this, what with all of the recent denunciation of conservative thinking as being black-and-white, inoculated from the nuance of a more complex worldview, it is a hell of a bone to throw to the "other side" to insinuate that they work from a more complex synthesis of moral systems (five points as opposed to two! Why, they're more on the ball than we've given them credit for!) This is already gaining traction.

    As I said - first of all, I don't find that those "moral systems" all weigh equally on the scale of primacy. There is another factor, however, which muddies the waters of the liberal/conservative debate, and that is the issue of tolerance vs. endorsement. I would like to restate the surviving four points thusly:

  • 1. (Mitigating) harm (a concern of tolerance)

  • 2. (Manifesting) fairness (a concern of tolerance)

  • 3. (Respecting and maintaining) in-group boundaries (a concern of endorsement)

  • 4. (Respecting and maintaining) authority structures (a concern of endorsement)


  • Where there is a bright line separating tolerance and endorsement as distinct concepts, there is also a bright line between the liberal and the conservative argument. Unfortunately, both sides of the argument all-too-often conflate tolerance with endorsement, and this is where the trouble begins. In considering this I would hope to show that, while our approaches to the liberal/conservative schism may differ, Professor Haidt and I both strive for the same destination - an improved dialogue between the ideological combatants. I say this with a nod to his principle, which I find unassailable, that "Intuitive primacy, which says that human emotions and gut feelings generally drive our moral judgments."

    Always go to the gut-check.

    First, I'd like to indict conservative thought by observing that "in-group boundaries" and "authority structures" are all about what is "endorsed" by the tribe. "Tolerance" is invariably seen as some sort of slippery slope to the endorsement of who-knows-what kind of anti-social madness will invariably evolve from it. In that sense, conservative thought simply cannot countenance tolerance as separate from endorsement.

    With liberal thought, it gets a little more complicated (surprise.) While liberal thought can intellectually see the difference between tolerance and endorsement, all-too-often in practice they are conflated. They are conflated when the liberal becomes reactionary to the conservative complaint. What, you don't like gays? Well, let's turn up the volume and have a lusty and lascivious parade and engage in all sorts of PDAs to stick it in your intolerant face. Uncomfortable with unfettered free speech? Well, I'm gonna burn your favorite flag and show you. In this reactionary vein, liberals tread dangerously close to conflating tolerance with endorsement themselves, and play to the fears of conservatives, further inflaming the dialogue.

    This is a classic case of being correct without being right. One really should display compassion for the foibles of our fellows, not contempt. For there are good reasons why conservatives are the way they are, and fear and insecurity play a big part in it (when one has artificial constructs to protect - groups and authority - this is unavoidable.) Validating fear is very counterproductive in the task of awakening liberal insight, which requires comfort and in-the-skin security.

    The tolerance/endorsement conflation is seen in our drug policies. Too many people instinctively think that a favorable legal environment for marijuana use, for example, is tantamount to some kind of endorsement for marijuana use. This is natural for those who look to the tribe and its authorities for direction. A truly liberal thinker is baffled by this. I can in all good conscience, for example, council my children to remain substance-free for whatever reasons I might have, and at the same time not persecute the "demons" around me who "un-wisely" choose drug use. From a conservative view, however, if it is at all manifest, then it is an endorsement and a threat to my ability to guide my children, and therefore needs to be addressed... by the tribe and its authorities. Simple as that.

    I wish to thank the Professor for his shiny new intellectual object. It has been a delight. However, I find Professor Haidt's intellectual gymnastics to be, however well-intentioned, a bit too much of a reaching-out to the psychology of fear which is embodied in conservative thought. While an admirably liberal exercise, I, with not a little melancholy, here re-anchor the debate in reality.

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