Saturday, September 22, 2012

Is Haidt's Darwinian Psychology Nietzschean or Nihilist?

Leo Strauss would probably have seen Jonathan Haidt's new book as a sign that we still suffer from the crisis of liberalism.  After all, Haidt affirms his agreement with Isaiah Berlin's moral pluralism, and Strauss saw Berlin's statement of liberal pluralism in "Two Concepts of Liberty" as "a characteristic document of the crisis of liberalism" (in Strauss's "Relativism").  According to Strauss, Berlin shows the self-contradiction in modern liberalism.  On the one hand, liberals like Berlin argue that there is no absolute standard of value, because the ends of life that individuals can rightly choose are divergent and conflicting.  On the other hand, liberals like Berlin must take an "absolute stand" in favor of "negative liberty"--the freedom from excessive interference in one's private sphere of thought and action--as the condition for the peaceful coexistence of conflicting ways of life.  "Liberalism, as Berlin understands it," Strauss observes, "cannot live without an absolute basis and cannot live with an absolute basis."

At the end of his essay on "Relativism," and also in his essay on "The Three Waves of Modernity," Strauss argues that the crisis of liberalism evident in Berlin's thought was most clearly seen by Nietzsche, who saw that liberalism was suicidal in embracing the relativism of scientific historicism and evolution.  The teaching of historical and evolutionary science is a "deadly truth," because if it is true that everything has evolved over history--including human nature--then nothing is eternal, and there is no eternal cosmic standard for judging human goodness or excellence.  If there is no fixed order of Being but only the flux of becoming, then there are no permanent standards for human life, and everything collapses into the abyss of nihilism.

Like Berlin, Haidt insists that he is "a pluralist but not a relativist" (319, 338).  But he never clearly explains this.

Through much of his book, Haidt seems to assume the truth of the fact/value dichotomy, which seems to support value relativism.  So, for example, he says that human beings are "conditional hive creatures," in that "we have the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves."  He then concludes that this "has enormous implications for how we should design organizations, study religion, and search for meaning and joy in our lives" (223).  But then in a footnote to this passage, he explains: "My use of the word should in this sentence is purely pragmatic, not normative.  I'm saying that if you want to achieve X, then you should know about this hive stuff when you make your plan for achieving X.  I'm not trying to tell people what X is" (362, n. 6).  Could "X" be a fascist, communist, or Islamic dictatorship?  Is he suggesting that dictators could learn from his science how to be more successful dictators by turning on the hive switch?  In fact, Haidt indicates that people like Mussolini and the radical Islamists have understood how to turn on the hive switch (14-15, 241-43, 271, 293).

If the choice of "X" is purely arbitrary, then that's relativism.  Indeed, some of Haidt's mentors like Richard Schweder have affirmed cultural relativism, even to the point of defending the female genital mutilation of children as a deeply rooted cultural practice.

But clearly Haidt does not want to be a moral relativist in this way.  After all, the whole point of his book is to help us live together peacefully despite our moral diversity.  And the very possibility of such peaceful coexistence of conflicting moral matrices depends upon everyone agreeing to the ethical foundation of individual liberty as the condition for people "to coexist peacefully without interfering too much in each other's projects" (98-100).

This requires the value of liberal tolerance, which means no tolerance for moral communities that want to enforce their norms through violent coercion or "moralistic killing" (268, 337).

Like Berlin, Haidt must take an "absolute stand" for negative liberty, for the liberty to live one's life--including the choice of one's hives--without excessive interference from others.

Strauss suggests that the only ground for any "absolute stand" must be a moral cosmology of eternal order that includes the eternity of human nature.  As an evolutionist, Haidt rejects the idea that morality must be grounded in a transcendent metaphysical order of the cosmos, because he thinks morality can be sufficiently grounded in the empirically observable order of human experience as shaped by genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and individual judgment.  And thus he can defend the moral order of a pluralist society ("full of small-scale hives") as promoting human happiness by satisfying the widest range of the natural human desires for moral order.

Without realizing it, Haidt is thus reviving the evolutionary moral psychology of Nietzsche in his middle writings--Human, All Too Human, Dawn, and the first five books of The Gay Science.  In these writings, Nietzsche embraced Darwinian evolutionary science and applied it to the social and moral order of human life.  Everything has evolved, Nietzsche declared.  Human beings have evolved.  And thus there are no eternal facts.  Human morality must be derived from their natural history as animals.  "The beginnings of justice, as of prudence, moderation, bravery--in short, of all we designate as the Socratic virtues--are animal: a consequence of that drive that teaches us to seek food and elude enemies" (Dawn).  In contrast to his early and late writings, Nietzsche here saw no need for eternalizing human life as supported by a moral cosmology of metaphysical or religious design, and thus he saw no need for the metaphysical rationalism of Plato's Timaeus. 

In these middle writings, Nietzsche speaks well of liberal democracy, and he resolves the "crisis of liberalism" by showing how liberalism can be grounded in evolved human nature that is enduring but not eternal, rather than a cosmic teleology of eternal order.

Haidt and Berlin follow this Darwinian Nietzsche in rejecting the Platonic metaphysics of moral cosmology in favor of an empirical science of human moral psychology.

Oddly, Strauss ignored this Darwinian Nietzsche, while directing his attention to the Nietzsche of the early and late writings--the Nietzsche who expressed his religious longings for a moral cosmology of intelligent design, which would sustain "the eternal basic text of Homo natura" (Beyond Good and Evil, 230).

As I have argued in many previous posts over the years, I regard conceptions of cosmic teleology and the eternity of species as implausible, because they contradict what we know from ordinary experience and from modern science.  For example, as I indicated a few months ago, to affirm the eternity of species (as the Straussians do), one would have to even deny the scientific understanding of photosynthesis as the historically contingent condition for all life, including human life.

More plausible would be Darwinian conceptions of immanent teleology arising from the natural history of the human species, which support standards of moral and intellectual excellence rooted in the natural desires of an enduring but not eternal human nature.

The debate here is about the fundamental issue in political philosophy and the social sciences.  The issue is suggested by the title of Haidt's book: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.  The subtitle points to the fact of political and religious disagreement about the ends of life.  The main title suggests the human inclination to believe that there must be one final solution to all disagreement about the ends of life, one right answer, one way of life, that must be treated as sacred and thus unquestionable.  While Haidt believes that sacralizing one way of life as the best way helps to bind people into moral communities, this also blinds them to the rightful claims of other ways of life, and thus induces a dangerous fanaticism that leads to violent conflict.  Haidt observes:
"Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings--but no other animals--to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship.  But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralisitic strife.  Some degree of conflict among groups may even be necessary for the health and development of any society.  When I was a teenager I wished for world peace, but now I yearn for a world in which competing ideologies are kept in balance, systems of accountability keep us all from getting away with too much, and fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means.  Not a very romantic wish, but one that we might actually believe." (xiii)
We should remember that this problem of righteous violence as it arose in the Wars of Religion and the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries provided the historical conditions for the development of liberal thought in early modern Europe.

Monism or pluralism?  One way or many ways?  Is it possible to have an open society in which people who disagree about the ends of life can agree to live together peacefully?  Or must every healthy society be ultimately a closed society that enforces agreement to one way of life that must be treated as sacred and thus unquestionable?

Strauss argued that every good society must be in principle a closed society that looks up to one way of life that cannot be questioned.  (And even if philosophers must raise questions in a closed society, Strauss suggested, they must do so secretly.)  If liberalism requires an open society in which nothing is sacred, and every way of life is tolerated, that's a suicidal relativism that makes it impossible for liberal societies to defend themselves against their enemies.

In response to this criticism of liberalism, Berlin and Haidt defend--rightly, I think--a pluralist view that is neither monistic nor relativistic.  They both reject the monism of rationalist metaphysics that looks to one final solution to conflict in which all the ends of life are compatible in the perfect society.  That's why they reject the tradition of metaphysical rationalism that began with Plato's Timaeus, which supported the moral cosmology of the "Great Chain of Being" that came to dominate premodern Western culture.  They defend a tragic view of life in which the diverse ends of life are in conflict without any possibility of being rendered harmonious. 

Berlin and Haidt avoid relativism, however, because they believe that there is an enduring human nature that is manifest in a natural range of ends.  Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory is his attempt to map the fundamental moral principles that are rooted in a universal human nature that will manifest itself in every human society, although the expression of those universal human ends will vary across societies and individuals.  Even though that universal human nature is not eternal, because it is the product of an evolutionary history, it is stable enough in our common human experience to set universal standards of judgment.  So that we can judge societies by how well they allow for the fullest expression of those natural human ends.

From what Berlin and Haidt say, one can infer that the liberal society that they defend is neither absolutely closed nor absolutely open.  It is a mostly open society that tolerates as much moral pluralism as is compatible with the moral principle of liberty, which means that moralistic violence will not be tolerated, because it violates the negative liberty of individuals to be free from physical coercion in their choice of moral communities in civil society.

The idea of a liberal society as a mostly open society is vague, but Berlin and Haidt would say that it's the sort of necessary vagueness that is required for political life, in which drawing boundaries requires prudential judgments that cannot be reduced to clear and precise rules. 

So, for example, should Muslim parents who practice female circumcision--cutting off the clitoris and sewing up the vulva of their daughters--be free in a liberal society to engage in that practice?  Some liberals will say this is a permissible exercise of parental authority in a multicultural society.  Others will say that this is a crime of violence against children that no liberal society can tolerate.

Parental care of children is a natural human desire that belongs to our evolved human nature.  Parental care is thus a natural human good in every society.  But judging how that natural end is to be balanced against other ends will vary across societies and individuals. 

As I have suggested in some previous posts, the best approach to the problem of female circumcision might be to teach parents about the harm that the most severe forms of genital mutilation can do to their children, and then encourage them to organize groups to change this practice.  We can assume that in general parents want to do what is best for their children, and we might try to use that motivation for moral reform.  Or we might require that this practice be forbidden until the girls are old enough to consent to it as young adults.

This is not relativism, because we are appealing to certain natural desires (such as parental care and human mental and physical health) as standards of judgment.  But the judgments in particular cases will be variable according to the circumstances. 

This leaves us with tragic conflicts of ends--the authority of parents and the best interests of children.  But it's not clear how the moral monist looking for one final solution could ever eliminate the messiness of such tragic choices.

Previous posts elaborating some of these points can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Does this reduce every moral judgement to "don't do it! Unless you really want to." Female circumcision is harmful! Unless you have higher reasons for it.