Monday, November 23, 2009

Jonathan Haidt's Darwinian Moral Psychology

Jonathan Haidt is one of the leading proponents today of Darwinian moral psychology. He takes up many of the themes that I have considered on this blog as he explains morality as rooted in the psychological propensities of evolved human nature. I have briefly mentioned Haidt previously in connection with Edward Westermarck's Darwinian theory of the incest taboo.

Two major themes run through Haidt's work. First, he argues for the primacy of moral emotions rather than moral reasoning in shaping our moral judgments. Second, he explains the "culture war" between American secular liberals and religious conservatives as a dispute over the moral foundations of politics: while liberals see morality as primarily concerned with protecting individual autonomy, conservatives see morality as also concerned with binding people into groups through norms of communal loyalty, respect for authority, and religious purity. This same split arises globally in the contrast between modern cultures that emphasize individualist morality and traditional cultures that emphasize communal and religious morality.

Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. You can find links to many of his major writings at his home page.

The best brief statements of his general position are his essay for "The Third Culture" website--"Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion"--and his essay in Science--"The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology" (2007). The full sketch of his "Social Intuitionist Model" is in his article for Psychological Review--"The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail" (2001). His book chapter on "The Moral Emotions" (2003) distinguishes the various moral emotions. His book chapter on "Morality" (2009) is the fullest elaboration of his moral psychology. In some of his other papers, he surveys his research distinguishing liberals and conservatives in their moral judgments.

In Plato's Timaeus (69b-70b), we are told by Timaeus that the divine craftsman originally created the immortal soul, but then this immortal soul in the human head had to be joined to a mortal body as a chariot for carrying the head around. The divine reason in the head was separated by the neck from the rest of the body, so that immortal reason could securely rule over the mortal parts of the soul--spiritedness in the chest and appetites in the lower parts. This is the Platonic tripartite psychology that is elaborated in the Republic.

Haidt cites this Platonic psychology in the Timaeus as the beginning of a long rationalist tradition in moral philosophy, according to which the great moral drama of life is the striving of reason to exert its rightful mastery over the passions. Haidt rejects this Platonic rationalism in favor of Humean emotivism (2001, 815; 2003, 852). He endorses David Hume's provocative claim that "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." The fundamental issue here is stated at the beginning of Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals: "There has been a controversy started of late . . . concerning the general foundation of morals; whether they be derived from reason, or from sentiment; whether we attain the knowledge of them by a chain of argument and induction, or by an immediate feeling and finer internal sense; whether, like all sound judgment of truth and falsehood, they should be the same to every rational intelligent being; or whether, like the perception of beauty and deformity, they be founded entirely on the particular fabric and constitution of the human species."

Haidt agrees with Hume that moral judgments cannot arise by pure reason alone, because while reason can gather and process information about the world that elicits or directs our moral emotions, reason by itself could never motivate us to act if we were not moved by moral sentiments to care about ourselves and others. Most commonly, our moral judgments are caused by quick moral intuitions, and moral reasoning arises only later to rationalize the judgments caused by moral emotions. Less frequently, however, if one's moral intuitions are weak or contradictory, and if one has developed a philosophical bent towards reasoning with oneself and others, moral reasoning can directly cause a moral judgment (2001, 829; 2003, 866).

As distinguished from nonmoral emotions,Haidt identifies the moral emotions as "those emotions that are linked to the interests or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or agent" (2003, 853). Although Haidt does not mention Westermarck, he is following Westermarck's idea that while human beings have evolved emotional dispositions to approve of whatever helps them and disapprove of whatever harms them, this emotional approval or disapproval becomes moral when extended to society in general, so that moral emotions show apparent impartiality.

Haidt shows how modern biological research confirms this Humean moral psychology. Evolutionary studies and primatology suggest that the moral emotions have evolved as social instincts to support cooperation based on ties of kinship, reciprocity, and group attachment. Behavioral game theory shows how moral emotions reinforce human dispositions to detect and punish cheaters while rewarding those who are trustworthy. Neuroscience shows the neural basis of reason and emotion in the brain and how practical decision-making is hindered by emotional defects. Psychopaths are moral strangers--apparently without conscience--because while their reasoning capacities are normal, if not superior, they lack the moral emotions necessary for a normal moral life. Psychopaths are dramatic manifestations of the failure of pure reason to sustain moral behavior.

But while the scientific evidence clearly supports a "dual-process" model of moral psychology as combining reason and emotion, Haidt concedes that the existing empirical evidence cannot resolve the current debate over the exact roles played by moral reasoning and moral intuition, with at least three positions represented by Haidt, Marc Hauser, and Joshua Greene. The debate is over the question of whether moral emotion is the master (Haidt), the servant (Hauser), or the collaborator(Greene) of moral reasoning (2009, 18-19).

According to Haidt, the complexity of moral experience comes not only from the interaction of reason and emotion, but also from the diversity of the five foundations of morality with distinct evolutionary origins. As animals bound together by ties of kinship, human beings evolved with natural inclinations to care for and avoid harming their kin. As social animals who engage in reciprocal relationships, human beings evolved to cooperate with those they trust and punish those they don't. These evolved dispositions support two foundations of morality--a concern for harm, care, and altruism, and a concern for fairness, reciprocity, and justice.

But while these concerns for harm and fairness would have supported the evolution of cooperation in small foraging societies based on face-to-face interactions, they would not have sustained cooperation in large groups of strangers. Cooperation within larger groups required an evolutionary process of group-selection in which, as Darwin saw, individuals cooperated within groups to compete with other groups. Through tribal warfare, the more successful groups would tend to be those whose members were loyal, submissive, and reverent towards their group. And thus the virtues of patriotism, obedience, and piety would be favored by natural selection working on instinctive traits and cultural traditions.

This, then, Haidt infers, supported the evolutionary emergence of three more foundations for morality: "These three we label as ingroup/loyalty (which may have evolved from the long history of cross-group or sub-group competition, related to what Joe Henrich calls 'coalitional psychology'), authority/respect (which may have evolved from the long history of primate hierarchy, modified by cultural limitations on power and bullying, as documented by Christopher Boehm), and purity/sanctity, which may be a much more recent system, growing out of the uniquely human emotion of disgust, which seems to give people feelings that some ways of living and acting are higher, more noble, and less carnal than others" ("The Third Culture").

There is a tendency for secular liberals in modern societies, Haidt suggests, to assume that the only concerns of morality are principles of harm and fairness, so that individuals should be free to live as they please as long as they are not harmful or unfair in their treatment of others. But Haidt points out that this liberal emphasis on the "individualizing foundations" of morality ignores the "binding foundations" emphasized by religious conservatives and by people in more traditional societies. In contrast to the "contractual approach" to morality taken by secular liberals and modern cultures, religious conservatives and traditional cultures take a "beehive approach." For the "beehive approach," group loyalty, respect for authority, and religious purity are moral virtues.

This distinction between the "beehive approach" and the "contractual approach" corresponds to Ferdinand Tonnies's famous distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (civil society). "Gemeinschaft refers to the traditional and (until recently) most widespread form of human social organization: relatively small and enduring communities of people bound together by the three pillars (whether real or imagined) of shared blood, shared place, and shared mind or belief. People keep close track of what everyone else is doing, and every aspect of behavior (including clothing, food, and sexual choices) can be regulated, limited, and judged by others. But as technology, capitalism, mobility, and new ideas about individualism transformed European ways of life in the 19th century, social organization moved increasingly toward Gesellschaft--the kind of society in which individuals are free to move about, make choices for themselves, and design whatever lives they choose so long as they don't harm or cheat others" (2009, 6). Modern moral psychology and moral philosophy has been largely dominated by the psychology of Gesellschaft, Haidt observes, which creates a moral parochialism that is blind to the moral pluralism expressed in the full range of the five moral foundations.

Haidt acknowledges--although he does not stress it as much as he should--that what we really see in both cultures and individuals is not an absolute separation between Gesellschaft-psychology and Gemeinschaft-psychology, but mixtures that differ only in emphasis or ranking. Secular liberals and modern cultures emphasize the "individualizing foundations" of morality, while religious conservatives and traditional cultures emphasize the "binding foundations" of morality. But the full range of moral psychology is there on both sides of the divide. What distinguishes different individuals and different cultures is a "selective loss of intuitions." But that loss is never complete, because the complete spectrum of five moral foundations belongs to the universal moral psychology of the human species (2001, 826). The example of African women who have chosen to eliminate female circumcision, even when this has been a sacred custom, illustrates how people in traditional moral cultures can change cultural practices that harm their children.

I generaly agree with Haidt, although I think he quickly passes over some problems that need more thought. I agree with him in his empiricist view of moral psychology as grounded in human nature as opposed to any transcendentalist view that would appeal to Nature, Reason, or God as cosmic sources of the Good. As Hume said, the general foundation of morality in human sentiment is a foundation in "the particular fabric and constitution of the human species." This empiricist grounding in human nature is evident when Haidt writes: "Whether the moral emotions are ultimately shown to be the servants, masters, or equal partners of moral reasoning, it is clear that they do a tremendous amount of work in the creation and daily functioning of human morality. The capacity to feel contempt, anger, disgust, shame, embarrassment, guilt, compassion, gratitude, and elevation may or may not separate humans neatly from other animals, but it certainly separates us from Homo economicus. Morality dignifies and elevates because it ties us all to something greater than ourselves: each other" (2003, 866).

But doesn't Haidt himself recognize that when human beings strive for elevation by looking to something greater than themselves, they are often looking beyond their fellow human beings to some transhuman reality--Plato's Idea of the Good, Kant's Categorical Imperative, or the Biblical God? Like many traditionalist conservatives--from Cicero to Burke to Kirk--Haidt sees that belief in a transcendent order can bind a society together, even as he explains that social binding as a purely human disposition that does not have to be based on transcendent truth. Haidt speaks of "the socially functional (rather than truth-seeking) nature of moral thinking" (2007, 998). And he says that a Gemeinschaft "uses God as a coordination and commitment device" to reinforce group solidarity (2009, 43). But, of course, for the true believer, God is more than just "a coordination and commitment device"!

This "socially functional (rather than truth-seeking) nature of moral thinking" points to the conflict that one can see in the Platonic dialogues between the philosopher and the city. The Socratic philosopher questions the unexamined opinions and passions of his community and asks for rational justifications for morality. If morality really is based more on emotional intuitions than on rational proofs, such Socratic questioning is subversive of moral order and even impious, which is why Socrates was executed. Can any morally healthy society allow freedom for Socratic philosophers to question the moral traditions of society without thereby dissolving the moral bonds of society?

As Haidt indicates, Plato does present (in the Timaeus and other dialogues) stories about the transcendent grounds of moral order in cosmology and theology. But it is not clear that Plato or Plato's Socrates fully endorses these cosmic stories. (This has been the subject of previous posts.)

Haidt says that those few people who are intensively trained in philosophic reasoning might show the supremacy of reasoning over the emotions, at least for those few people like themselves (2001, 829; 2003, 866; 2007, 1000). Depending upon how one reads Plato, one might argue that Haidt actually confirms Platonic rationalism by showing that reason can rule in the souls of those few human beings capable of living a philosophic life. But then doesn't the passionate commitment to philosophy depend on emotion, on the erotic passion for ideas (as in Plato's Symposium)? Doesn't the very word philosophy--"love of wisdom"--suggest this?

Haidt's references to Plato's Timaeus as the beginning of a long tradition of moral rationalism suggest that this tradition was unchallenged until Hume. But one should notice that in his paper on the "Moral Emotions," Haidt repeatedly quotes from Aristotle's account of the moral emotions in his Rhetoric. In Aristotle's Rhetoric--and to some extent, in his Nicomachean Ethics--we can see the beginnings of a rhetorical tradition of moral philosophy and moral psychology that runs through Cicero to Hume.

That would explain why Hume (in the passage from the Inquiry cited above) saw his moral psychology as closer to the ancients than to the moderns: "The ancient philosophers, though they often affirm, that virtue is nothing but conformity to reason, yet, in general, seem to consider morals as deriving their existence from taste and sentiment. On the other hand, our modern enquirers, though they also talk much of the beauty of virtue, and deformity of vice, yet have commonly endeavoured to account for these distinctions by metaphysical reasonings, and by deductions from the most abstract principles of the understanding."

Like Haidt, Hume saw that religion could support morality. But he also saw that biblical religion could promote a dangerous moral fanaticism, as in the European wars of religion and the English Civil War. This points us to the dark side of religious and communitarian morality.

Haidt acknowledges this dark side when he says that "morality is not just about being nice" (2003, 857-58). If religious and communitarian morality is rooted in an evolutionary history of group selection, as Darwin argued, we can understand why such morality can be so cruel in the treatment of those outside the group. Haidt says that "religious prosociality should be targeted primarily toward co-religionists," and he refers to "the traitors and apostates who must be put to death in the name of the group" (2009, 35, 40). The three "binding foundations" of morality can be sources of immorality! "The binding foundations can certainly motivate horrific behavior. . . . Religion brings out the best and the worst in people" (2008, 17).

But except for these few passing remarks, Haidt never elaborates on this dark side of communitarian morality. Nazi Germany, for example, was a horrifying manifestation of communitarian morality where individual life was to be subordinated to the higher good of the ethnic Volk. Anyone who has seen Leni Riefenstahl's documentary film "The Triumph of the Will," about the Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg in 1934, has felt some of the powerful moral emotions that can be elicited by communitarian rhetoric and ritual that solidifies a group in its determination to fight against those perceived as threatening outsiders. The danger of the Nazi movement came not from its lack of morality but from the emotional depth of its fanatical morality. (This is made clear in Claudia Koonz's book The Nazi Conscience.)

So what's the answer to the dangers of communitarian morality? Haidt cites Thomas Sowell's analysis of the "unconstrained vision" of liberalism versus the "constrained vision" of conservatism as illuminating the differences between Left and Right. In Darwinian Conservatism, I call this the difference between the Utopian Vision of the Left and the Tragic Vision of the Right. This difference is reflected in the two possible answers to our problem. The utopian answer coming from liberals is what Haidt calls the "ideal Gesellschaft," in which everyone would give up their communitarian commitments and live purely as autonomous individuals. This is utopian because it's hard to see how human beings could be satisfied with such an atomistic individualism.

Extending this to the global level, the utopian solution would be a universal humanitarianism. Haidt seems to endorse this when he writes: "As technological advances make us more aware of the fate of people in faraway lands, our concerns expand and we increasingly want peace, decency, and cooperation to prevail in other groups, and in the human group as well" (2007, 1001). This reference to "the human group" sounds like David Sloan Wilson's claim that we can overcome group conflict by developing a "shared value system" that would make the "global community" a "moral community." But neither Haidt nor Wilson ever explain how exactly this "global community" would work. It is true, as I have suggested in some recent posts, that international human rights have emerged as something like a global morality of the human community. As Darwin indicated, we can extend our moral emotions of sympathy to ever wider circles of humanity, but we will always feel a stronger attachment to those close to us than to those far away.

The continuing conflicts over the interpretation and application of those human rights suggest that we are unlikely to ever achieve a fully impartial cosmpolitan morality. As examples of such conflicts, we might think of the debate over female circumcision, which has been the subject of some recent posts. Or we might think of how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has disrupted the human rights movement--with critics of Israel arguing that the Israeli treatment of Palestinians violates human rights, while the defenders of Israel arguing that Israel is just exercising its right to self-defense.

Even within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we can see irresolvable conflicts. On the one hand, the Declaration is highly individualistic in its statement of rights. On the other hand, Article 29 is highly communitarian: "Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society."

The second way of answering our problem would look to the Tragic Vision, which works with the tragic imperfections of human nature with no expectation of utopian transformation. In taking this position, I would agree with Haidt that we need to recognize all five of the moral foundations as defensible and desirable. But we should see that the tension between these often conflicting foundations can be somewhat moderated but never completely eliminated.

Sometimes the conflicts will be so severe that there is no resolution except through violence and war. Nazi Germany was defeated not by moral arguments but by military force. Perpetual peace is impossible because whenever we face such unresolvable conflicts over matters worth fighting about, we will go to war to settle the conflict. As I have suggested in Darwinian Natural Right, Darwinian Conservatism, and many posts on this blog, moral history often coincides with military history. In fact, as Haidt indicates, Darwin believed that tribal warfare was a major evolutionary source for human morality.

The tragic vision of this problem would suggest another way of mitigating the problem within social orders. As Haidt indicates, conservatives want to combine the "individualizing foundations" with the "binding foundations." They try to do this by promoting diverse Gemeinschaften within a single Gesellschaft. As members of the same nation, we can deal with one another as individuals bound together by moral principles of care and fairness. But as members of tightly organized social groups within that nation, we can enjoy deep communitarian and religious solidarity with our fellow group members. For example, Haidt often cites the experience of a fundamentalist Baptist church in Massachusetts as an illustration of traditional communitarian life (2009, 43). But the Gemeinschaft of a Baptist church in Massachusetts is very different from that of Nazi Germany or an Islamic theocracy. The members of the Baptist church can leave if they wish without fear of coercion, except for the punishment of social ostracism, because the church doesn't have totalitarian control over the whole nation.

Of course, this complex combination of social multiculturalism with political individualism creates problems of its own. So, for example, how far does a liberal democratic society go in tolerating the cultural practices of Islamic fundamentalists and other communitarian groups who want to enforce patriarchal authority over their women and children? In many parts of Europe and North America, such questions have provoked troubling debates. We can moderate but not abolish such conflicts.

What we know for sure, from historical experience, if we embrace the tragic view of human imperfection, is that human beings cannot be trusted to exercise absolute power in enforcing communitarian virtues on individuals without their consent, because we know that such power will be abused in tyrannical ways. We also know, however, that if human beings are free to join communitarian groups based on a shared morality of group identity, they will find their deepest satisfaction in doing so.

There are many posts on related themes, some of which can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Paul said...

There is a lot to chew on in this post.

I'm pretty sure that any human coalition will employ all five of the moral foundations of Haidt's taxonomy. What I rarely see argued is a naturalistic perspective on what kind of coalition or community best leads to human flourishing. I agree with Nietzsche that modern science necessitates a "revaluation of all values" insofar as it makes incredible a teleological cosmos, which was a prominent feature of all human communities at the time. If human beings can no longer commit themselves to their respective communities or collectives, they will surely lead impoverished lives because of it. I think that religious conservatives understand this in some way, shape or form, and that liberals really don't have a compelling response to it. Given the dark side of religious and other answers as to what larger collectives and enterprises we should commit ourselves to, out of their own concern for fairness, justice, and the protection of the weak from abuse, they ought to have one.

Although I will admit that I have scant evidence to back up this claim, I think that the success of the Nazis in a Germany that was fairly secular is some sort of evidence that coalitions and communities devoted to cosmopolitan ethics are susceptible to being out-competed by coalitions that more successfully employ the communitarian moral foundations.

Lorenzo said...

Great post. I am, however, dubious about US liberals not being concerned with purity: if Haidt's questions construed concern about use of language and certain opinions as forms of purity, he might get a different response.

Political correctness has two elements. The first is evangelical niceness: concern to not use language to denigrate collective groups. The second is opinion bigotry: deeming certain opinions or use of language as utterly unacceptable and a failing of moral character. PC in the latter sense may be construed in terms of fairness and caring, but really it is a concern with purity that puts people in a clear moral hierarchy and enforces ingroup loyalty. This is particularly obvious, for example, in environmental issues, particularly global warming. And creates cognitive blockages at least as great as any fundamentalist religious believers suffer.

Jonathan said...

I am thrilled to have received such a close reading of my work from Prof. Arnhart. I agree with his summary of my views, and I acknowledge the gaps he has pointed to, the places where I say little, or ought to address pressing objections.

In particular I share concerns expressed about enforced communitarianism, and about the damaging effects of multiculturalism and moral diversity. I see a tension between the human need for thicker, binding, communal lives, and the tendency for such binding to become repressive, particularly given the enormous and heritable variation in human personalities. Some people want to be bound, others will find it painful. I'm a Durkheimian, but I believe that people vary in the degree to which they have Durkheimian needs. (Libertarians are quite low on those needs).

Thank you, prof. Arnhart!

Jon Haidt

Alan said...

I'm a big fan of Prof. Haidt's work, but it does result in using "morality" in two senses: the evolved morality we find ourselves with, whose chief recommendation is functionality (at least, over the last 50,000 years or so), and the more conventional idea of the morality we should have currently, to make life enjoyable in the absence of existential threats.

Technology is capable of such great magnification of the "dark side of communitarian morality" that we may need to evolve further in a hurry, or, since that won't work, find a new morality that's more rational. I think Prof. Haidt has convinced me this won't work either.

Depressing. But interesting.