Ultimately enhancing human flourishing

More thoughts on morality, Haidt, emotion, confabulation, intuition, reasoning, cultural relativism, disgust, purity, and so on.

Haidt at Edge again:

We all care about morality so passionately that it’s hard to look straight at it. We all look at the world through some kind of moral lens, and because most of the academic community uses the same lens, we validate each other’s visions and distortions. I think this problem is particularly acute in some of the new scientific writing about religion.

I’m not sure that is a problem. I can see that it’s a potential problem, and I can believe it’s sometimes a problem, but I’m not sure it is a problem overall – because I think the moral lens of the academic ‘community’ is likely to be better than many other possible lenses. One of the exceptions is when that ‘community’ gets so excited about the fact that other cultures have different lenses that it decides all lenses see equally well.

Which is not to say that Haidt is not interesting here; he is. To summarize: morality and rationality depend on the proper functioning of emotional circuits in the prefrontal cortex; human morality is the product of natural selection; automatic and unconscious processes can cause much of our behaviour, even morally loaded actions that we thought we were controlling consciously. Emotion matters; morality is hardwired; a lot of what we do is automatic rather than conscious. We’re not all that rational. Furthermore, we confabulate: we make up rational explanations for things we’ve done for unconscious reasons. We’re not all that rational, and sometimes when we are rational we’re just telling a story about something we’ve done for reasons we’re not aware of. Okay. But…

These findings suggested that emotion played a bigger role than the cognitive developmentalists had given it. These findings also suggested that there were important cultural differences, and that academic researchers may have inappropriately focused on reasoning about harm and rights because we primarily study people like ourselves – college students, and also children in private schools near our universities, whose morality is not representative of the United States, let alone the world.

Wait. Why ‘inappropriately’? Does he mean inappropriately in an epistemic sense – that that’s not the way to get a broad sample? Or does he mean in a moral sense – that that’s not the way to think about morality? The first of course makes sense, the second is more dubious. I think what’s going on in this article is that he starts out doing the first and then gradually shades into doing the second – he gradually moves from the descriptive to the normative.

Studies of everyday reasoning show that we usually use reason to search for evidence to support our initial judgment, which was made in milliseconds. But I do agree with Josh Greene that sometimes we can use controlled processes such as reasoning to override our initial intuitions. I just think this happens rarely, maybe in one or two percent of the hundreds of judgments we make each week.

Maybe, but on public and contentious issues, don’t we use controlled processes such as reasoning quite a lot? And more to the point, don’t we have to? Is that not the only alternative to simply heeding our visceral initial reactions and then going with them? Wouldn’t that simply push us back into a world where automatic hatred of black people or gays was normal and unproblematic? A world where all our gut-level contempts and dislikes and desires to bully and exploit would grab the reins and bolt?

Mind you, as potentilla pointed out, he does explicitly say he is being descriptive rather than normative – but I’m not always convinced.

My point is just that every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing.

I think that’s wrong. The caste system for instance does not enhance the human flourishing of the people in the bottom castes. Strongly patriarchal ideologies and ways of life do not enhance the human flourishing of women and girls. Chattel slavery did not and does not enhance the human flourishing of the slaves. I’m perfectly willing to agree that my dislike of ways of life that treat some people like shit is emotional first and rational second if at all – but I’m not willing to agree that every way of life is basically good at heart. Mind you, Haidt hedged his bets there – he didn’t say every longstanding ideology and way of life ultimately enhances human flourishing – he said every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some insights into ways of ultimately enhancing human flourishing – which could mean exactly nothing, and be conveniently unfalsifiable. What – even the most reactionary brutal male-dominated way of life sits around having insights into ways of ultimately enhancing human flourishing, then has a jolly good laugh at the whole subject and goes on as before? Well maybe so, but what good is that? Why bother saying it? Why bother saying it if not to rebuke atheists who prefer to second-guess our intuitions?

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