Criticizing Mooney’s Praise of Haidt

In response to a post by Chris Mooney about Jonathan Haidt, I’ll compare and contrast The Righteous Mind and The Republican Brain. But I’ll begin with a more broad comparison.

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I’ve read both Haidt’s book and Mooney’s book. I’ve also read some of George Lakoff’s books (most specifically relevant is Moral Politics). I’ve read as well a fine book by Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler (Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics), of which I highly recommend. There are other authors and books I could mention, but I won’t for simplicity’s sake. 

Of these four, the book by Hetherington and Weiler was the most satisfying as an overview of what scientists presently know about ideology and polarization. The other books, in comparison, only sample this vast field. However, Lakoff’s book was most satisfying in offering the most generally useful framework (useful in explanatory power and useful in fairly describing both sides).

Going by a different standard, the books of Haidt and Mooney probably would be the most satisfying to the general reader. Both of them are good at clearly communicating what is otherwise complex and sprawling. It can’t be doubted that Haidt and Mooney have in combination brought this debate to the public in a way that hasn’t been done previously, although Lakoff must be given credit for paving the way.

For the rest of this post, I will solely focus on Haidt and Mooney.

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Personally, I prefer Mooney more than Haidt.

It’s not that Haidt fails in formulating an interesting hypothesis but it certainly requires more research and, I would add, better research. Mooney presented himself as being more intellectually humble in two ways. First, he remained closer to the research itself whereas Haidt constantly speculated and philosophized. Second, he was more upfront in acknowledging the complexities and uncertainties which probably is the reason he wasn’t prone to speculate and philosophize.

Mooney doesn’t attempt an overarching theory like Haidt’s moral foundations theory, instead just following the evidence. Mooney put forth some possible explanations, but he never formalized them into a singular inclusive theory. Mooney’s approach opens up discussion by not claiming to have it figured out. Haidt, on the other hand, can come off as too certain of his own research and arguments.

It’s surprising that Mooney doesn’t perceive the difference between his work and that of Haidt. It was Mooney’s book, among others, that helped me understand the deficiencies of Haidt’s approach.

The best example of this is the issue of research methods (the debate about which unfortunately doesn’t get enough attention in books directed at a more general readership). Haidt has relied on self-reports which are notoriously unreliable whereas Mooney presented reasearch that went way beyond self-reports. Haidt’s self-report research is useful as a preliminary step or else when corroborated by more reliable methods, but such research by itself isn’t adequate for the type of overarching theory he wants to prove.

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Related to this, I kept noticing how selectively Haidt used evidence.

It looked like he was often seeking evidence to fit his pet theory instead of a theory to fit all of the evidence, not that he was necessarily doing this intentionally and consciously. Such cherrypicking would even be expected from one part of his theory. Maybe he doubts the human capacity for objective reasoning based partly on self-observations. Or maybe based on the assumption of human unreason he felt it would be ineffective to appeal to the reasoning of his audience.

Considering the data intentionally or unintentionally excluded from the book, it wasn’t hard for me to find holes in Haidt’s arguments. He needed to do a more wide-ranging survey of data before presenting a theory. This, of course, assumes he wanted to present a rational defense in the first place (i.e., a logical argument that is fair and balanced). I suspect he was intentionally emphasizing persuasion more than reason which would make sense considering that is what he should do according to his own theory.

This does make his arguments challenging to analyze. The standard he was using to make his arguments probably aren’t the same standards I hold to in my own valuing of reason. It seems somewhat pointless to rationally analyze a theory that doubts the validity of rational analysis.

Let me make one thing particularly clear.

I don’t doubt his motives per se. I’m sure he has good intentions. In fact, it is because of his good intentions that, as a moderate or centrist or even right-leaning liberal, he wants to understand conservatives and wants to communicate in a way conservatives will understand. This is praiseworthy as a motivation but not praiseworthy in how Haidt acts on it, at least in the case of his book. Persuasion used to doubt reason is a very dangerous thing.

Haidt ends up bending over backwards to reach out to conservatives. He tries too hard to bring conservatives to his side and so as a consequence he is willing to sacrifice treating liberals fairly in his analysis of moral foundations, going so far as to dismiss large aspects of liberal morality and thus defining his entire theory according to conservative beliefs and values. In doing so, he cherrypicks the evidence which distorts his presentation and biases his argument.

Ironically, this causes his book to fail according to Haidt’s own standards. Instead of acting as a bridge over the divide, he simply switches from a former liberal bias to a conservative bias. This switching of biases doesn’t in any way achieve balance or promote mutual respect and understanding.

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Haidt falls into the typical liberal trap of “The Cult of Centrism”. The most famous example of this can be found in the mainstream media’s love of false equivalence.

It’s odd that Mooney doesn’t see this problem in Haidt as he is otherwise fully aware of this problem among liberals. Haidt wants to be reasonable or at least appear reasonable, but it is this very namby-pamby liberal impulse that ends up making him blithely unreasonable.

Mooney interestingly gives a slight nod to this fact at the end of the post in which he praises Haidt. Even so, he somehow concludes that Haidt essentially agrees with his book. This perception of agreement is shown even more clearly in another post by Mooney. I get the sense that there is more disagreement than either wants to let on… probably for reasons of presenting a strong defense against the naysayers both have faced. I also get the sense that Mooney just wants to stay on good terms with Haidt and so feels compelled to defend him against the criticisms Mooney would more objectively apply to a stranger.

Here is from the post linked above at the beginning of this post:

“I have differences with Haidt myself. Most importantly, I think the research he’s surveying–and the research he himself has done–adds up to a much tougher conclusion about political conservatism than he is willing to lead with (if you read between the lines, though…).”

So, the trick is that you have to read between the lines in order to discover what Haidt really meant. Methinks this is being overly generous.

I would argue that this problematic for any number of reasons.

Readers shoudn’t have to guess what an author actually meant, especially not in a book describing scientific research. Mooney didn’t write in such a convoluted or opaque manner. If Mooney is correct that Haidt wasn’t communicating as clearly and directly as he could have, then this is a major failing of his writing style if not a failing of his entire line of reasoning.

Furthermore, why does Mooney assume he knows Haidt’s secret thoughts and subtly implied meanings? One could read all kinds of potential meanings between the lines. Maybe Mooney is simply wanting to believe Haidt agrees with him more than he does and so is reading into Haidt’s bok something that isn’t there. Maybe Haidt wrote precisely what he meant to communicate without any hidden messages to be deciphered.

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This leaves me a bit confused. I’m not sure what Mooney ultimately thinks about Haidt’s book.

If we take the conservative bias away from Haidt’s argument, then we would have a very different theory than what Haidt presents. It seems Mooney would like to reinterpret Haidt’s book according to his own image. I’d be fine with rehabilitating Haidt’s theory by removing the problematic parts, but I doubt Haidt would like this as he doesn’t see those parts as problematic.

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Haidt & Mooney, Moral Foundations & Spiral Dynamics

This post is the third in my series about Haidt’s newest book, The Righteous Mind (here is the previous post, second in the series).

I was watching a video of Jonathan Haidt speaking about compassion in respect to the moral values of liberals and conservatives. I’ve already criticized Haidt elsewhere in the first post in the series (basically, Haidt has many seemingly unquestioned premises that bias both his research data and his theoretical interpretation). In this post, I want to shift my focus somewhat. The second post in the series focused more on the cognitive research and I’ll continue that discussion while using the issues of criticism as entry points into Haidt’s theory.

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To begin my analysis, the following is an insight that came to mind (my thoughts about cognitive research, although placed in the context of Haidt’s theory, is more directly inspired by my reading Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain). There are two pieces of data that superficially appear contradictory, but on closer inspection may represent expressions of the same fundamental thing:

  1. Research shows that liberals are more willing to challenge authority and so lack the submissive attitude of unquestioning respect toward authority which is common among conservatives. For example, more liberals than conservatives state they’d be willing to slap their own father. ‘Openness’ is the main psychological trait that correlates to liberalism. What ‘openness’ is about is cognitive complexity, capacity for cognitive dissonance, intellectual curiosity, desire to experiment and explore, etc. But ‘openness’ also relates to being less inclined to fall into motivated reasoning (confirmation bias, backfire effect, etc)… on issues related to politics, anyway. I’ll point  out the obvious fact that ‘openness’ can’t operate while submitting to authority.
  2. The other aspect is that polling data shows liberals are the only demographic (in the US) with majority support for compromise. Similarly, Democrats of the past several decades show more bipartisan support than Republicans, no matter which party controls the presidency. Also similarly, Pew data shows that “Solid Liberals” (liberal across the board) don’t state a majority positive view of Obama (while Democrats back in the 80s showed majority support of Reagan), but the corresponding category of conservatives showed a strong majority (around 70%) stating a negative view of Obama. So, conservatives are more polarized against liberals than liberals are against conservatives (which means conservatives are more prone to partisanship than liberals). Polarization, it turns out, doesn’t take two to tango… or else, to extend the metaphor, conservatives are by far leading the dance.

Maybe it is precisely because of willingness to challenge authority that liberals are also more willing to compromise, and maybe liberals willingness to challenge authority even among their own is what creates a less partisan attitude. Liberals don’t identify as much with narrowly defined groups and so don’t get stuck as much in the us versus them mentality (their group identity being larger with greater inclusivity, more loosely defined with more porous boundaries). Submitting to a specific authority might allow you to work better with all others who are part of your group, but it will also make it more difficult to work with all others who are outside of your group (a very important point to keep in mind in relation to the diverse multicultural society of a liberal democracy). It could be that liberals are resistant to authority for the very reason they sense how unquestioned authority has great potential to create divisiveness. Liberals are more sensitive to divisiveness in itself (which might relate to research Jost did about liberals being less happy because of their awareness of and sensitivity to inequality and unfairness). Plus, liberals probably dislike divisiveness for what it leads to, specifically how it can close down rational independent thought (which might relate to research about how social stress and fear can cause liberals to react with a more conservative attitude, thus at least temporarily suppressing their preferred liberal-mindedness).

So, despite liberals willingness to challenge authority, it is maybe unsurprising that liberals demonstrate the most respect to those they see as having fairly earned authority such as scientists (intellectual-minded and social-minded meritocracy rather than social Darwinism and hierarchical role-playing)… or maybe its just that liberals are attracted to authorities who are liberal-minded for such authorities aren’t the kind that promotes divisive groupthink. I’d emphasize the aspect of my argument asserting that, for liberals, fairness is closely connected to the idealization of rational independent thought (i.e., higher rates of ‘openness’ and lower rates of motivated reasoning about politics).

Jonathan Haidt, however, argues that humans aren’t primarily rational. I would agree in a general sense, but he is conveniently ignoring an important fact. Relatively speaking, liberals are more rational than conservatives when it comes to political issues (or so the research shows it to be the case in liberal democracies like the US). This is significant since the political issues that provoke the strongest motivated reasoning are always mired in moral issues, all of politics ultimately being inseparable from morality. In practical terms, this doesn’t necessarily mean liberals are more well informed for that has more to do with education and there are plenty of well educated conservatives; but what it does mean (as shown by research; read Mooney’s book for a helpful summary) is that liberals are less misinformed while conservatives are more misinformed. The odd part is that conservatives are more misinformed to the degree they are informed, what is described as the “smart idiot” effect. This also relates to how conservatives and experts (well educated conservatives fitting both categories) are most prone to the backfire effect which is when challenging info causes someone to become even stronger in their opinions.

The failure of the liberal ideal of rationality isn’t necessarily a direct failure of liberalism (either as an ideology or a predisposition), rather it could just be a failure of liberals being forced to live with conservatives and authoritarians who don’t share this ideal (in fact, often stridently oppose it and seek to undermine it). Ignoring authoritarians, conservatives do have many other wonderful strengths and conservative-mindedness has many wonderful benefits to society (such as appreciating the importance of social order, ability to remain focused and persistent, practical knowledge on how to lead and organize effectively, talent with emotionally persuasive rhetoric, etc); however, the Enlightenment ideal of objective rationality isn’t one of them, at least not in terms of being resistant to motivated reasoning about politics, most specifically not political issues that are implicated in emotionally-laden moral values (which includes almost all political debate these days, the culture wars still going strong).

Related to a limited view of rationality, an inherently conservative view, Haidt promotes a limited view of compassion that favors conservative moral values. He emphasizes parochial compassion which he considers conservative: “think locally, act locally”. What he ignores is that much of conservative politics is non-local to the extreme such as hyper-nationalist patriotic support of global military dominance (some might even say imperialism) with its concomitant military-industrial complex and international “free trade” corporatism. So, the conservative vision of parochial compassion might be more accurately stated thusly: “think locally, act globally”. On the opposite side, he also ignores how much liberals argue for localism: grassroots democracy, advocacy for community-mindedness and an environmental sense-of-place, the “buy local” movement, community gardens, etc. The evidence would seem to prove the liberal claim that thinking globally fits perfectly fine with acting locally.

Haidt’s confusion here might be that he is paying more attention to conservative rhetoric than conservative behavior, an important distinction Corey Robin clarifies in his book The Reactionary Mind (which I’ve written about previously). This connects to an aspect of Haidt’s research that I was wondering about. Is Haidt testing for which moral values people state they believe in? How does he determine someone isn’t merely stating what they think they should say? And how does he determine to what extent those statements are genuine versus hypocritical?

This is a fair consideration for social conservatism has been correlated to authoritarianism (low ‘openness’, high ‘closure, strong need for security and social order, submissive to authority, etc) and authoritarians have been measured as rating high in hypocrisy. In light of the research on motivated reasoning, it would be easy to speculate that conservatives might show more hypocrisy with political issues which means their stated values might not perfectly correspond to their actual behavior.  I personally think actual behavior is more important than stated values, and so I’d rather have a theory that accounts for actual behavior. Haidt uses his research to conclude conservatives are more balanced between all moral foundations, but obviously this may not mean conservatives are more balanced in how they act according to their stated values.

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I’ll now return to my thoughts related to the video of Haidt’s talk.

Haidt mentioned one very interesting piece of data. Oxycontin is related to feeling good and feeling love. One might think that this would open one up to a larger sense of empathy and a more inclusive sense of self. However, Haidt claims the research shows that high levels of oxycontin actually reinforce the experience of an in-group and an out-group. As such, even though it increases an experience of love, this positive feeling is directed toward one’s group and not to perceived outsiders.

I don’t know the research, but I suspect that this general trend would show much disparity if it were broken down between conservatives and liberals. We already know that empathetic concern shows a massive difference (see here) and so one might suspect that oxycontin would simply exaggerate this difference. Liberals’ greater empathetic concern for strangers is unlikely to be lessened or disappear because of oxycontin, unless there is something about oxycontin that I don’t understand. Going by the research I do know about, I’d suggest liberals may be the exception to the rule of oxycontin-motivated groupthink (maybe even having the complete opposite effect). Closing the ranks on one’s love-fest might be easier, especially for conservatives. I would just add that it isn’t necessarily inevitable and probably isn’t an equally likely tendency for all people (i.e., not fundamental enough to human nature for it to be made a cornerstone of the entire moral foundations theory).

Let me explore further the issue of comparison and the differences in how it manifests. In an attempt to prove conservative morality superior in society, Haidt refers to research showing conservatives give more than liberals: give more money as donations, give more blood, etc. I’ve heard this many times before, but it doesn’t stand up to analysis. Besides problems with how liberalism and conservatism are defined, there are too many confounding factors that aren’t controlled for and too many aspects that are ignored. It seems to be more of a result of cherrypicking data according to a partisan agenda. The following are some issues and questions I’d bring up in formulating a counter-argument:

  • The younger generation is the most liberal generation alive (along with being the least religious) and they also have extremely high rates of volunteering, although obviously being young they don’t have much excess money to donate. Older people, on the other hand, are more financially secure and more conservative (including more conservative when they were younger).
  • Liberals are more supportive of public services and the taxes that pay for them. Blue states give more money in federal taxes than do red states, and this ends up supporting red states that receive more money from federal taxes than blue states. Blue states have a net loss and red states a net gain. The reason for this is that the red states have more poverty and so red states end up spending more federal money paying for their own local public services and infrastructure. The poor are better off in blue states than in red states (less poverty, less income inequality, less health problems, less high school dropout rates, less teen pregnancies, etc.) which means, no matter the amount of charity, the poor are better served by the collective decisions of liberal communities.
  • Conservatives may give more to churches, but how much of that money simply goes back to benefit the giver through paying for church costs and for proselytizing and for the promotion of political causes? Also, how is tithing fundamentally different than a club fee? Conservatives say taxes aren’t charity, but in a democracy taxation is a public decision. Conservatives say that taxation is coercion by force, but churches implicitly or explicitly threaten your soul to eternal damnation if you don’t obey God’s command about tithing.
  • Liberals quite likely choose to buy more products that donate money to non-profits, but even in paying more for such products this isn’t considered charity. Liberals probably are more likely to work for non-profits and for government agencies helping those in need. Liberals may give more in time than in money because they are more likely to choose careers related to helping people, and much of the help they give might not be recorded.
  • Some argue the data shows rich conservatives give more than rich liberals, but maybe rich conservatives are simply more interested in getting tax breaks from charity giving than liberals. Is it really charitable if part or most of your motivation is about getting a tax break? How much of this is a difference in people giving money that doesn’t get recorded such as if they aren’t interested in reporting it for a tax break? Since the Bible tells Christians to pray in secret, maybe many Christians (liberal Christians?) and those similarly inspired choose to give in secret. Are conservatives actually giving more? Or is it that conservatives are reporting they give more and/or reporting more of what they give? How accurate and representative are the public records about donations of money, time, services, blood, etc?
I could list even further criticisms and questions, but I think I made my basic point. Besides, others have already done a good job of questioning and criticizing (some of the comments at the following links are worth reading as well):

Poor methods invalidate conclusions
By branstrom

lies, damned lies, and statistics
By Richard Bennett “truthinista”

Who’s More Charitable – Liberals or Conservatives?
By Michael White

Who gives more, the right or the left? Studies of conservative and liberal giving disagree with Arthur C Brooks
By Storytellersrus

Concerns About Arthur Brooks’s “Who Really Cares.”
By Jim Lindgren

Haidt’s Righteous Mind
By cognitivedissident

Who gives
A new book appears to show that religious folks, mostly conservatives, are more charitable than secular liberal types — until you look closely at the numbers
By Christopher Shea

Ethical Conduct in the Moral Right
Are religious people really more ethical than atheists?
By Nigel Barber, Ph.D.

Are religious people more ethical in their conduct? II
Does religion make people donate more to charity?
By Nigel Barber, Ph.D.

Bowling for God
Is religion good for society? Science’s definitive answer: it depends
By Michael Shermer

The last link is particularly relevant to Haidt’s talk. And here is the relevant part:

“Is religion a necessary component of social health? The data are conflicting. On the one hand, in a 2005 study published in the Journal of Religion & Society–“Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”–independent scholar Gregory S. Paul found an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and teen abortions and pregnancies) in 18 developed democracies. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD [sexually transmitted disease] infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies,” Paul found. Indeed, the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions and teen pregnancies.

“On the other hand, Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks argues in Who Really Cares (Basic Books, 2006) that when it comes to charitable giving and volunteering, numerous quantitative measures debunk the myth of “bleeding heart liberals” and “heartless conservatives.” Conservatives donate 30 percent more money than liberals (even when controlled for income), give more blood and log more volunteer hours. In general, religious people are more than three times more generous than secularists to all charities, 14 percent more munificent to nonreligious charities and 57 percent more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person. In terms of societal health, charitable givers are 43 percent more likely to say they are “very happy” than nongivers and 25 percent more likely than nongivers to say their health is excellent or very good.”

Even assuming it were true that conservatives give more, it’s possible this data means that conservatism both causes more problems and does more to solve the problems caused. More liberal societies tend to have fewer social problems in the first place (look at the cross-cultural data that compares various data to income inequality: here, here, and here) which might mean liberals prefer spending time and resources on effectively solving problems at the root, rather than treating symptoms. This issue of social problems in conservative communities is the point made by the guy who speaks right after Haidt’s talk, but as I recall Haidt didn’t offer any rebuttal or acknowledge in any way the merit of this data. What the guy pointed out in response to Haidt’s talk is that the greatest problems are found in red states, the precise places where conservative morality has its greatest influence and hence should demonstrate its greatest merits.

That is what I would call damning evidence. If conservative charity actually helped those in need and fundamentally solved social ills, then you would expect to see the complete opposite of what the data shows (see here, here, and here). All in all, measuring donations may not be the best way to measure moral good and social benefit — for the reason that showing what an ideological demographic collectively gives can hide the data about the real world consequences of their ideology in terms of what it takes away; in the case of conservative ideology, what is taken is this: freedom from high rates of poverty, violence, disease, etc. Even if measurements of donations is a proxy for moral intentions, it wouldn’t therefore necessarily follow that moral intentions are a proxy for ethical results… the road to hell and all that.

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This is where the rubber meets the road, wherever that road may lead.

I’ve found that even when I share this data that conservatives don’t necessarily give it much credit. They are often more concerned about principles than about results, or to put it another way the results they are most interested in is that of defending their moral values (social order — i.e., authority and conformity — probably being the most central). For example, the fact that countries banning abortions end up increasing the number of abortions overall is irrelevant or less relevant to many social conservatives for abortion is a moral issue rather than a pragmatic issue (mothers harmed by illegal abortions are simply receiving their deserved punishment, sadly ignoring the potential harm to the fetus if the pregnancy continues to full term after the botched abortion and, furthermore, ignoring the increased economic health costs that will be paid by society).

This connects to my last post about Haidt which distinguished between conservative moral intuition and liberal ethical reasoning. I would further argue that the liberal tendency to compromise and the larger liberal sense of empathy relate to liberals being more focused on measurable results for society (over authority, social order, and group cohesion). This is the standard liberal defense of pragmatism. For conservatives, if their values are undermined, then any other result doesn’t matter or else is less relevant for in their minds breakdown of their conservative moral order inevitably means breakdown of all social order (imagining any other possibility is beyond the scope of their moral vision). The abortion issue isn’t really about abortions for conservatives, rather it’s about family values and a specific cultural vision of how society should be organized — meaning how such moral order by way of the power of authority can be used to enforce social order (even if that requires creating laws to limit and control human behavior, sometimes even when casualties are incurred and the majority of citizens are against it, the War on Drugs being an example).

Conservatives are less bothered by persistent social problems for they assume the world is imperfect and, in the case of conservative Christians, they assume humans are born sinners. In this worldview, life isn’t fair and that is just the way it is, always has been and always will be. It isn’t fundamentally a matter of who is more charitable, rather what purpose charity serves. For conservatives, the value of charity shouldn’t be judged according to it solving what they perceive as insolvable problems. Conservatives don’t even agree with liberals about what is a problem. For example, consider sexuality. The problem isn’t about teenage pregnancy, STDS, or whatever. The problem is unmarried people having sex in the first place, thus acting against conservative moral values which challenges and undermines conservative social order. Such things as pregnancy and STDs, if anything, are the solution to the problem for as consequences of immoral behavior they are seen as self-created punishments and theoretically they are also deterrents, although their role as punishment doesn’t necessitate they effectively accomplish deterrence.

As I’ve explained previously:

“The purpose of condemning sexuality isn’t about whether people are actually able to follow the rules perfectly. The rules are there to create conformity through guilt and punishment. And they work. They suppress the individual for the sake of social order. The moral rules are red herrings that distract away from the fundamental issue. Maybe that is part of the power of such morality. People obsess over the surface details and the underlying motivating force can work unconsciously.”

Most liberals probably don’t disagree that this moral methodology accomplishes its goals, although many would say it’s immoral to use rhetoric to hide what they perceive as the real agenda. To liberals, this may seem like dogmatism forming the groundwork for authoritarianism. But to conservatives, they would claim this is being principled and would argue that liberals don’t understand (as Haidt argues, liberals supposedly lack an intuitive understanding of morality). In the conservative worldview: right is right, wrong is wrong. Conservatives see liberals’ moral pragmatism as moral relativism, and this is why liberal values often aren’t perceived as moral. Even Haidt doesn’t acknowledge all of the primary liberal values and so of course he doesn’t include those unacknowledged values as part of his moral foundations.

In the end, it comes down to conservative order and authority (i.e., closure) versus liberal freedom and egalitarianism (i.e., openness) which at least partly translates to moral principles vs ethical results. The question is as follows: Is the success of a society determined by how that society conforms to a particular vision of moral order or by how a particular vision of moral order conforms to society? Or to put it another way: Is the goodness of a moral ideology determined by how well human behavior conforms to social values or how well social values conform to human nature? Which then leads to another question: Do we want a society based on unquestioned authority or based on questioning democracy? This is the choice we face when put into stark terms of either/or which is the terms that conservatives prefer, but liberals (and others who are more liberal-minded) are left to wonder if there might be another way. Is balance between conservatism and liberalism possible? Or else could at least cooperation be made feasible? If there is another way, how would liberals ever be able to persuade conservatives out of their black and white thinking (all or nothing, this or that, us vs them)?

Jonathan Haidt seems liberal-minded in attitude and idealism, whether or not he identifies as a liberal. He is arguing for the liberal position in advocating for his own sense of liberal-mindedness (not that he necessarily describes it that way), but oddly he tends to emphasize the conservative perspective (or rather what he perceives as the conservative perspective) in his theorizing about compassion and moral foundations. I’m not sure what to make of this. Is he overcompensating for a sense of guilt about his former liberal bias that he has spoken about? Or is being contrarian in order to goad his mostly liberal audience toward questioning their own assumptions?

* * *

In reading Jonathan Haidt’s views, I feel frustrated. He continually uses liberal values and viewpoints to criticize liberalism. He offers some important insights and yet simultaneously increases confusion. It’s unclear if there is a net gain in what he offers. This is shown in the annotation added by Bruce Gibb to an article written by Haidt. Gibb’s annotations are helpful because he is bringing in the developmental framework of Spiral Dynamics which points out the greatest weakness of Haidt’s theory.

From his description of himself, Haidt sounds like he began as a young man with a sense of morality centered in a more individualistic/liberty orientation, what Spiral Dynamics calls the orange value-meme (vmeme for short); and so he naturally felt in conflict with the hierarchical/law-and-order blue vmeme that seeks to suppress individuality and fights against increasing individual liberty. In striving to live up to the liberal ideals he found in anthropology, he used his strong liberal sense of empathy to develop a social-oriented green vmeme worldview where it became possible for him to understand the social-oriented blue vmeme worldview. From the green vmeme, he no longer took personal offense at blue vmeme’s criticism of orange vmeme; in fact, green vmeme also is critical of orange vmeme, although from the opposite side; but his lack of understanding of Spiral Dynamics caused him to conflate blue vmeme’s criticisms of individualism with green vmeme’s criticisms of individualism.

This causes Haidt to criticize modern liberalism (Enlightenment ideals, often labeled as classical liberalism) from a post-modern liberal perspective. The confusion this creates is that he seems to think that by criticizing liberals he will help build a bridge of understanding for blue vmeme conservatives, but this sadly shows a lack of insight. Lower vmemes by their nature can’t understand higher vmemes in the way that a child has to first develop language skills before they can attempt to understand science. Development builds in stages where each state is built on previous stages. This is why Haidt can understand blue vmeme from his greater stage of personal development, but green vmeme by itself doesn’t allow him to understand why blue vmeme can’t understand his own viewpoint. It would require he develop even further to understand the limits of green vmeme in the way he understands the limits of orange vmeme. Green vmeme wants to bring people together in mutual understanding, but that isn’t what blue vmeme wants.

If Haidt understood Spiral Dynamics, he would understand that lower vmemes are inevitably in conflict with higher vmemes but not necessarily the other way around. Modern society can’t solve its problems by returning to a pre-modern worldview. Such social problems can only be solved by transcending and including through further development. Blue vmeme is the thesis, orange vmeme is the antithesis, and green vmeme is the synthesis. However, if we start with orange vmeme as the thesis, then green vmeme is the antithesis; but blue vmeme can’t offer any insight about the relationship between orange and green, instead synthesis must be sought in yellow vmeme which is the next stage of development.

Transcend and include is the key. It was because Haidt transcended the conflict of blue vs orange that he was able to include blue vmeme into his more comprehensive worldview. However, because orange vmeme is prior to green vmeme, the former is as resistant to green vmeme as to blue vmeme and so this antagonism disallows green vmeme to as easily include orange vmeme. It’s because blue vmeme has been so severely weakened by modernity that it can feel less threatening to someone centered in green vmeme or higher. Afterall, most people these days don’t have to worry about suppression of free speech and the burning of heretics, factors that were quite common during the heyday of blue vmeme dominance.

Another confusion is that Haidt isn’t able to see how much society has changed in recent centuries. He still sees the liberal movement as centered in individual-oriented orange vmeme whereas like Haidt the liberal movement has actually shifted its center to green vmeme. Along with this shift of liberalism, the conservative movement has shifted its center increasingly out of blue vmeme and into orange vmeme. This is why liberals defended free market capitalism and libertarian values in centuries past and yet no longer as strongly defend them, often criticizing them instead. It is rather conservatives who have taken up the former position of liberals, although blue vmeme religion has slowed down this shift and created a cultural divide within the conservative movement. The modern conservative movement of blue vmeme meeting orange vmeme is what has created fundamentalism (orange vmeme literal-mindedness serving blue vmeme religion) and reactionary conservatism (blue-vmeme nostalgia serving as rhetoric for orange vmeme individual liberty).

The vmemes should be differentiated from specific ideological groups and movements. When modern politics began, conservatism was centered in blue vmeme and ever since the rhetoric of the conservative movement has held closely to this sense of their own collective past. However, as liberalism shifted out of orange into green, it created an opportunity (a necessity even) for conservatives to use orange vmeme to attack the green vmeme of liberals. The differentiation that must be made in terms of conservatism (specifically reactionary conservatism) is the differentiation between the blue vmeme rhetoric of the culture wars and the orange vmeme choices that dominate Republican policies. It’s not enough to define conservatives (or liberals) according to their own rhetoric.

Let me explain the value of Spiral Dynamics. It doesn’t limit the ideological movements to where they began centuries ago. It explains how and why the main ideological movements have changed so much, within the movements themselves and in the relationship between them. Therefore, it allows us to consider the value memes on their own merits. It is true that blue values of strong social order are important, but we don’t need to return society to a center in the blue vmeme in order to include those values. We should be careful to not limit conservatism to just blue vmeme. Like development in individuals, development in movements is diverse and complex. As a society develops, the population of that society needs to develop as well.

* * *

I’ll end with a defense of the liberal values of intellectuality: logical debate, higher education, academic scholarship, scientific method, etc. In doing so, I want to build my own bridge toward conservatism and the bridge I’ll build is through the Enlightenment ideal of the “rational actor”.

This ideal represents the historical beginning point of liberalism and often a helpful meeting point between liberals and libertarians (along with libertarian-minded conservatives), but this ideal has most recently been taken up by conservatives as they explore ways to adapt conservative values to modern society. Traditional Christianity saw people as irrational, specifically in terms of Original Sin and how the fallen nature of mankind disallows people to act in their own best interest, hence the necessity of the church to act as guide and authority and hence the necessity of individuals to place their blind faith in God. Modern Christians, however, have been transformed by modern values of individualism. Conservative Christians will now more often use the belief in the “rational actor” as a way to impose a moral order that once would have been imposed by church authority and divine fear. They’ll argue that we must allow people to suffer the consequences of their own choices which implies that people are potentially capable of making good choices, an assumption that the early Christian church did not share. The pre-modern theology of Original Sin has been translated into the modern idea of selfishness, the perceived sin of individualism. Conservatives feel this pull between blue vmeme traditionalism and orange vmeme modernity, and these two vmemes are simply in too much conflict at this point in our societal development.

Liberals, on the other hand, see the idea of a “rational actor” in more secular terms. To the degree they believe in it, they would see its strongest manifestation in the science and in academia, the two main pillars of knowledge and learning. It is through liberal faith in Enlightenement ideals that liberals can reach out to libertarians and other more rational-minded people on the right. However, this liberal faith in the intellect has been shaken for politics and science have shown how shaky is the ground upon which stands the ideal of the “rational actor”. This is the main theme of Mooney’s recent book about the research on motivated reasoning. Nonetheless, liberals don’t want to give up on this ideal for no better ideal has yet been found to replace it. Even in its imperfection, it is our best hope for maintaining what democratic advancements we have gained as a society. The conservative attack on Enlightenment ideals has shaken the confidence of liberals and caused the more moderate and intellectual conservatives to flee the conservative movement or at least to grow weary of the divisiveness of the culture wars. In recent decades, conservatives took hold of the reigns of power and having created a new order through reactionary conservatism they aren’t sure they like what has resulted. In response to the loss of power, liberals in recent decades have been doing some serious soul-searching.

As a liberal-minded critic of orange vmeme hyper-individualism, I appreciate the importance of the blue vmeme fear about breakdown of social order. Conservatives and liberals alike have good reason to fear the collapse or degeneration of our society. However, there is one thing that liberals understand that conservatives have yet to fully comprehend: Social order in a liberal democracy such as America is dependent on the Enlightenment ideals so fiercely defended by liberals. Fortunately, a growing number of conservatives are beginning to figure this out and they are becoming less tolerant of the anti-intellectualism promoted by the radicalized religious right. The insight that liberals have is that the creation of “rational actors” in a democracy doesn’t happen by itself. It is very difficult and costly to create a population of educated and informed citizens who are able to act responsibly and choose rationally, but the destruction of this democratic process of citizen-making can be quite easy as it typically is easier to destroy than to build.

What liberals like Mooney point out is how conservatives are unaware of their own lack of rationality about politics. This is a dangerous situation, both for the lack of rationality and the lack of awareness. How do we collectively solve a problem that much of the population doesn’t understand when part of the problem is that very same lack of understanding? A democracy is a difficult way to run a society. Freedom doesn’t come cheap. If you don’t care about freedom, it can be simple for a dictator  or an elite to enforce order through military might and social oppression. Social order isn’t necessarily difficult to attain, but social order without freedom can only be maintained by keeping the population submissive through fear.

Despite conservative doubt about modern society, I’m fairly sure most conservatives don’t genuinely want to return to a pre-modern society ruled by a blue vmeme regimented hierarchy. Either conservatives will learn to appreciate Enlightenment ideals or our society will fail. In order to convince conservatives of this dilemma, liberals need to realize that conservatives by nature are less prone to the type of thinking promoted by Enlightenment ideals. The value of science and higher education, the worthiness of intellectual fairness and curiosity, all of this needs to be translated into conservative terms and thus made to mesh with the conservative predisposition. What conservatives are great at is defending the status quo of a society, and so what liberals need to do is assist in making the standards of rational thinking the new status quo of our society. The liberal-minded need to convince the conservative-minded that the intellectual traditions and institutions are indispensable in maintaining social order.

Haidt, in pointing out the weakness of rationality, isn’t helping. We liberals already know the weaknesses of rationality and that is precisely the reason we defend rationality. It’s in fact liberals, more than conservatives, who deeply and profoundly understand the problems that ensue from anti-intellectualism and motivated reasoning. Humans are capable of rationality as long as society and its institutions put great value on rationality and put great effort into defending it. Mooney shows very clearly the misinformation that is created when a large portion of our society cynically embraces an anti-intellectual worldview. Haidt is completely wrong in arguing that liberals should be more like conservatives in embracing a more ‘intuitive’ understanding. If Haidt were to read Mooney’s book and took the data seriously, he couldn’t make such a dangerously naive argument.

* * *

I have a hard time determining what all of this might mean for the moral foundations theory promoted by Haidt. It might be true that there is a basic set of moral foundations. However, it also might be true that as Spiral Dynamics theorizes such foundations might themselves be built on other foundations which in turn are built on even earlier foundations.

Haidt is arguing for blue vmeme as the ultimate foundation of human nature and society, but according to Spiral Dynamics there are multiple vmemes prior to that stage of development. Why does Haidt pick the blue vmeme as his choice for where society should center itself? If the most fundamental is assumed to be the best, why not instead pick as the center one of the earlier vmemes such as red, purple, or beige? On the other hand, if “transcend and include” is a truth of development, shouldn’t we instead seek a collective centering in the higher vmemes where a more integral social order would become possible?

Haidt’s Moral Intuition (vs ethical reasoning)

This is part two in my series about Jonathan Haidt’s most recent book, The Righteous Mind. To read the first in the series, click on the link here. To see some of the discussion inspiring this post, check out the comment sections of the Amazon reviews of Haidt’s book.

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I had a thought about one aspect of Haidt’s theory that has been bothering me. The bothersome factor has to do with the broader field of social science research as it relates (and as, I argue, it should be related) to Haidt’s research. Maybe someone who has read his book can respond.

I’m reading Chris Mooney’s book The Republican Brain. Mooney isn’t focusing on moral foundations, although he does have a short section where he discusses Haidt’s model and research. Like others have suggested, Mooney sees an obvious correlation between moral foundations and cognitive functioning (Kindle Locations 2075-2079):

“You will probably have noted by now that the moral intuition research of Haidt and Ditto is not fully separate from the [cognitive] research covered in the last chapter. It overlaps. For instance, take conservatives’ greater respect for authority, and their stronger loyalty to the in-group, the tribe, the team. Respect for authority, at its extreme, is hard to distinguish from authoritarianism. And viewing the world with a strong distinction between the in-group and the out-group clearly relates to having lower integrative complexity and less tolerance of difference (although it can also, on a more positive note, mean showing
loyalty and allegiance to one’s friends, and more patriotism).”

An important difference between Haidt and Mooney is the former is arguing for an overarching theory and the latter isn’t. Mooney, instead, simply acknowledges the complexity (Kindle Locations 2087-2089):

“In comparing the psychological, personality, and moral differences between liberals and conservatives, it is not clear which differences come first—which are more deeply rooted, and whether one causes the other or not. But it is clear that they travel together, and that all are reliable dimensions for distinguishing between the two broad groups.”

It would seem that Haidt is overstepping what can be rationally and fairly concluded from the diverse research. We know many of the factors, but we can’t entirely claim to know their causal relation.

So, Haidt’s view of intuition being greater than reasoning has some truth to it while also containing much speculation. We know that all people are predisposed to motivated reasoning. Yes, such bias can manifest as post hoc rationalizations of our intuited moral values. What Haidt ignores or doesn’t fully acknowledge, intentionally or not, is that not all people are equally predisposed to motivated reasoning in all types of situations. Mooney’s book presents a logical argument based on damning evidence about how conservatives are more predisposed to motivated reasoning when it comes to political issues, and it is clear that political issues are inseparable from moral issues in these cases of motivated reasoning.

The problem here has a number of factors.

First, there is the possibility that liberals use intuition less and/or reasoning more in discerning moral values and making moral decisions. Even if liberals use intuition more than reasoning, it is still important that liberals use reasoning significantly more (i.e., use motivated reasoning less) than conservatives. This even undermines Haidt’s critcisms of the sciences being filled with liberals as if this represents an institutionalized and systematic bias. By not wholly engaging the cognitive research (and thus not integrating it into his theory), Haidt appears to want to sidestep the simple fact that liberals have a predisposition suited for science while conservatives have a predisposition that too often puts them in opposition to the major aspects of the scientific enterprise (Mooney discusses this in his book).

Second, the fact that conservatives use motivated reasoning more in these political/moral scenarios ends up problematizing Haidt’s intuitionist theory. How can intuition be separated from motivated reasoning? The simple term of ‘intuition’ covers over a lot of complexity. On the other hand, it might not be possible to entirely separate intuition from reason either. What appears as intuition may just be a heuristic developed from previous reasoning, as some research suggests. So, is Haidt’s ‘intuition’ about feeling over reason or simply about unconscious processes (whether or not those processes originally formed through conscious reasoning)? Reasoning and motivated reasoning can be hard to differentiate in oneself, but importantly the research has clearly distinguished them in actual behavior (specifically in the actual behavior of liberals and conservatives).

Considering all of this, I still feel confused about Haidt’s ‘intuition’. To be fair, part of that confusion might have more to do with me than with Haidt’s theory as I still haven’t yet fully grasped all of the nuances and details of his theory. However, I think part of my confusion is based on the research data being more complex than Haidt’s theory allows for. There might not be a way to fit all of the data into Haidt’s theory which means it is either incorrect or incomplete.

After Mooney’s discussion of moral foundations, he extended his thoughts by discussing the alternative theory of George Lakoff (Kindle Locations 2107-2144):

“However, there is another famous account of the different moral systems of liberals and conservatives, which implies a more uneven distribution of biases. It is closely related to Haidt’s account in some ways, but not others. I’m referring to the account advanced by Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff, in his book Moral Politics and subsequent works.

“Lakoff’s opening premise is that we all think in metaphors. These are not the kind of thing that English majors study, but rather real, physical circuits in the brain that structure our cognition, and that are strengthened the more they are used. For instance, we learn at a very early age how things go up and things go down, and then we talk about the stock market and individual fortunes “rising” and “falling”—a metaphor.

“For Lakoff, one metaphor in particular is of overriding importance in our politics: The metaphor that uses the family as a model for broader groups in society—from athletic teams to companies to governments. The problem, Lakoff says, is that we have different conceptions of the family, with conservatives embracing a “strict father” model and liberals embracing a caring, “nurturing” parent version. The strict father family is like a free market system, and yet also very hierarchical and authoritarian. It’s a harsh world out there and the father (the supreme authority) is tough and will teach the kids to be tough, because there will be no one to protect them once the father is gone. The political implications are obvious. In contrast, the nurturing parent family emphasizes love, care, and growth—and, so the argument goes, compassionate government control.

“Lakoff’s system intriguingly ties our political differences to child-rearing styles (much evidence suggests that Republicans are more likely to physically punish their children). It also overlaps with Haidt’s—particularly when it comes to wanting to care for those who are harmed (nurturing parent) and respecting authority (strict father). What’s more, both accounts overlap with the research on personality and psychological needs—the strict father model, respect for authority, and the exercise of group loyalty all help to provide certainty and order through the affirmation of hierarchy and stability and the resistance of changes to existing social structures.

“But there’s also a key difference. Lakoff’s account implies that liberals and conservatives will have a different relationship with science and with the facts. He told me as much in an interview for this book (and an article in The American Prospect magazine that preceded it).

“The core reason for this differential bias turns on the issue of authority and from whence it springs. In our interview, Lakoff explained that conservatives should have no problem with science or other factual information when it supports their moral values, including free market goals (e.g., the science of drilling for oil, the science of nuclear power). The strict father wants the kids to go out and thrive, and producing energy through technology is an honorable way of doing it. However, science can also be an unruly guest at the party—highly destabilizing and threatening to conservative values, and with the potential to undermine traditional sources of authority that conservatives respect. Scientific evidence “has a possible effect over the market, foreign policy, religion, all kinds of things,” says Lakoff. “So they can’t have that.”

“Liberals, to Lakoff, are just different. Science, social science, and research in general support an approach that he calls “Old Enlightenment reason”: finding the best facts so as to improve the world and society, and thus advance liberals’ own moral system, which is based on a caring and nurturing parent-run family. “So there is a reason in the moral system to like science in general,” says Lakoff.

“Here also arises a chief liberal weakness, in Lakoff’s view, and one that is probably amplified by academic training. Call it the Condorcet handicap, or the Enlightenment syndrome. Either way, it will sound very familiar: Constantly trying to use factual and reasoned arguments to make the world better, and being amazed to find that even though these arguments are sound, well-researched, and supported, are disregarded, or even actively attacked, by conservatives.”

Anyway, this is my long-winded way of presenting my hypothesis. Here is my own speculation based on the data I’ve seen so far:

In an introductory philosophy class, the teacher explained the distinction between morality and ethics, a distinction that seems relevant to my own understanding and relevant to the topic at hand. Morality could be more or less about intuition, whatever intuition may prove to be. However, morality as it is generally used too often becomes conflated with ethics. If morality as distinct from ethics is about intuition, then ethics as distinct from morality is about reason.

Going by the evidence, I would argue that ethics might be more applicable to the liberal value system since for political issues liberals are less predisposed to motivated reasoning. It might not be that liberals don’t use intuition. Rather, maybe liberals just use reason and intuition more equally and maybe even use them more in relation to one another. The difference could be that: Conservatives tend to see moral intuition and ethical reasoning as more opposed or at least less perfectly aligned which fits their own nature; And liberals tend to see moral intuition and ethical reasoning as more inseparable or at least more perfectly aligned which fits their own nature.

What distinguishes the two might not just be which moral foundations they favor. There might be a more fundamental and prior cognitive difference that would motivate such favoring. Liberals and conservatives might not just have different values but actually be different psychological types. If this is true, Haidt is only looking at one part of the picture, the part that emphasizes the conservative view of non-rational moral intuition as primary motivation.

This might also explain why Haidt’s research found that liberals favored certain moral foundations less than conservatives, the explanation being that those more conservative moral foundations may not be as open to ethical reasoning (for they aren’t based on or conducive to the functioning of the liberal trait ‘openness’). For example, respect for authority may not be compatible with an intellectual opposition to motivated reasoning for such an intellectual mindset would place evidence and logic above authority, thus challenging authority. So, liberals would tend to respect authority more when authority respected reason (academics, scientists, etc) while conservatives generally respect authority when reason doesn’t challenge authority (religious apologists, partisan think tank experts, etc). One could argue that this might undermine Haidt’s claim  that conservatives value authority more than liberals. A similar pattern (and discrepancy with Haidt’s theory) might be found with the other supposedly conservative moral foundations as well.

A different theory could be formed by interpreting the moral foundations through the lense of ethical reasoning. Bringing the trait ‘openness’ to bear upon the data might necessitate entirely reworking the scheme of moral foundations.

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For those interested in researching the issue for themselves, here is Haidt’s presentation of his intuitionist theory and following it are some responses by others:

https://motherjones.com/files/emotional_dog_and_rational_tail.pdf

http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/review-of-the-emotional-dog-and-its-rational-tail/

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13869790500492680#preview

http://www.yourmorals.org/blog/2010/08/i-did-not-make-a-mistake-in-disagreeing-with-haidt/

http://darwinianconservatism.blogspot.com/2009/11/jonathan-haidts-darwinian-moral.html

http://beta.in-mind.org/issue-4/fairness-judgments-genuine-morality-or-disguised-egocentrism