Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Don't you dare hurt my feelings, or I'll have you arrested

Jonathan Haidt is one of my favorite working psychologists. He does fascinating research investigating how people make moral judgments. And I appreciate his attempts to:

...transcend the “culture wars” by using recent discoveries in moral psychology to foster more civil forms of politics.

Certainly, politics seems very uncivilized. As an homage again to the late DF Wallace, I'll quote him that:

(T)he likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name, much less talk about...

But I have to express concern with some issues in this article. First, what a title: WHAT MAKES PEOPLE VOTE REPUBLICAN? As if it is some illness. He even admits, granted in a self-disparaging fashion, to diagnosing the condition:

In the psychological community, where almost all of us are politically liberal, our diagnosis of conservatism gives us the additional pleasure of shared righteous anger.

I've already brought attention to the flaws of rigging a study to make conservatives look stupid, but now it seems "liberal academics" (my god, I'm turning into Bill O'Reilly) are trying to make them look mentally ill (disclaimer: I'm a libertarian academic). Still, my concerns are primarily different, and related in parts to previous criticisms I've made. Haidt notes that his research finds that republicans and democrats tend to view morality differently. Democrats view morality in an "academic" way such that questions of morality deal primarily with harm and fairness (immoral behavior is harmful and/or unfair). Republicans accept those domains (as Haidt calls them) but also consider morality from the perspectives of group loyalty, respect for authority, and sacredness. He describes it this way:

(T)he second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.

I've noted previously the importance (but failure on Haidt's part) of differentiating *how* people make moral judgments (moral psychology) and how people *should* make moral judgments (moral philosophy). He seems to make this oddly clear when he writes about how he came to the above judgments regarding the domains of morality:

For my dissertation research, I made up stories about people who did things that were disgusting or disrespectful yet perfectly harmless. For example, what do you think about a woman who can't find any rags in her house so she cuts up an old American flag and uses the pieces to clean her toilet, in private? Or how about a family whose dog is killed by a car, so they dismember the body and cook it for dinner? I read these stories to 180 young adults and 180 eleven-year-old children, half from higher social classes and half from lower, in the USA and in Brazil. I found that most of the people I interviewed said that the actions in these stories were morally wrong, even when nobody was harmed. Only one group—college students at Penn—consistently exemplified [the traditional academic] definition of morality and overrode their own feelings of disgust to say that harmless acts were not wrong.

I'm trying to think of another area of academic research where the following scenario would occur: Questions about that area are posed to different types of people. Educated people answer it one way while others answer it a different way. The conclusion is that the educated people are answering it incorrectly and everyone else is answering it correctly. I can't think of another area of academic research where that would occur, but it seems to be exactly what Haidt's doing here. Educated people view morality one way, others view it differently, so we should change the understanding of morality to more closely reflect the most common views. Again, let me be clear: If the claim is that we are simply *describing* how people make moral judgments, Haidt's descriptions of how most people make them are relevant. But if we're looking at how people *should* make moral judgments, it does not seem appropriate that majority should rule. Would we change our understanding of calculus because most people didn't answer questions relating to calculus the way educated people do? What about evolution? Surveys find:

Belief that God created humans in their present form decreases as education increases, ranging from 58% of those with high school education or less who believe in the biblical explanation to only 25% of those with postgraduate education.

Should we pose a "second rule" of human biological development that states:

(T)he second rule of biology is that human biological development is not just a function of evolution (as most liberals think); it is also about God creating people in their present form.

Wouldn't that be consistent with Haidt's reasoning on moral psychology? I suppose one could argue that morality is different than calculus and evolution. Haidt does that, suggesting that unlike areas where there are objective answers, morality is subjective, it "varies across cultures" and therefore "isn't it unfair to impose on all cultures a definition of morality drawn from the European Enlightenment tradition?" But I say he's wrong. His specific topic is morality and American politics. Because our democratic political system is based largely on a "morality drawn from the European Enlightenment tradition" we (at least try to) educate citizens to make political judgments based on that tradition. It seems appropriate, then, to educate people to make moral judgments on that tradition, also, as our political system is what it is because of its moral underpinnings. Haidt's data indicates that educating people to make such moral judgments works. Why not advocate for that rather than simply redefining morality as whatever regresses to the norm?

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