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Haidt on Moral Values

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I really enjoyed Jonathan Haidt’s latest book, the Righteous Mind. It is filled with many facts and ideas I wasn’t aware of, and it makes me feel like I know more about myself and the world. Reading such books is one of the finer pleasures in life.

There are many things I found interesting and profound. For example, sport is to war as porn is to sex, probably a harmless release for an primitive urge He notes that judgment and justification are two separate processes, and our narrative part of our brain, the voice we all hear in our head when we talk to ourselves, is just the justifier. Don’t trust it! It is partisan hack for your intuitions. IQ is a predictor of how well people argued as measured by the number of arguments they use to buttress a hypothesis, but not better than others at finding reasons for the ‘other side.’ So, given one of his big ideas here is that we intuit our beliefs first, then rationalize them, it seems our analytic side merely helps us better convince ourselves and others we are right, and not be right in itself.

An important point he doesn’t mention is that most of our beliefs do not pertain to matters of pure logic, but more complex assertions that are based on a wide set of data and assumptions. Thus, if everything were a math problem, we could trust our reasoning, but unfortunately life isn’t a math problem, so we can’t trust reasoning to get us to the right answer. That seems pretty convincing with my observation that after a certain level, more smarts does not make you wiser, just able to generate a broader, more articulate, or more rigorous defense of your beliefs.

He makes a good case for trying not to form an opinion on something too quickly, and see the other side’s argument using their best faith, best arguments, and really letting them stew in your brain for a while before articulating a rebuttal. This way you will actually change your mind on occasion, and hopefully fixate on correct beliefs more often. If you claim a side it is hard to change your mind because your talking side really want to convince others and yourself that you were right all along, and your biases ‘blind and bind’ more quickly the more you invest in them. To have strong opinions, weakly held, means you can’t advocate for them too strenuously too quickly.

But let me address something I think is wrong. He says there are 6 innate values people have

1) care, compassion.
2) fairness, justice.
3) liberty, oppression
4) loyalty, group pride
5) authority, respect
6) sanctity, disgust, purity

Liberals, in Haidt’s view, value care and fairness the most to the exclusion of the others; conservatives value all of these. Most non-Western cultures value all of these. He thinks liberals, of which he is one, are wrong to dismiss loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity as backward because these are all helpful intuitions in living in complex societies where a lot of trust is needed.

Yet, I too find myself prioritizing care, fairness, and liberty, and not very interested in loyalty, authority, and sanctity, and he notes this is typical for libertarian/conservatives. So, most conservatives are conservative for reasons I do not generally cherish. To me the issue is whether ‘care’ in the form of welfare or affirmative action is really helpful; I find this kind of care to be counterproductive–encouraging behavior that creates dependence–thus I do seem compassionate because I do not like welfare. It’s like the difference between the short and long run, because giving $10 to a homeless guy helps him in the short run, but in the long run it just allows him to continue in his bad habits. So, I just think true love includes tough love, which isn’t really that I don’t care, rather, I think a different type of care is a better means to an end we all share.

Further, liberals may score low on loyalty, but they love group politics, noting various demographics underperform and thus need affirmative action. And for liberty Haidt notes that conservatives are concerned about liberty vis-a-vis the state, liberal vis-a-vis corporations. For sanctity, liberals think about organic foods and a clean environment, conservatives a more chaste sex life. For liberty, liberal think about freedom from corporations, conservatives from government. For fairness, liberal think about equality of results, conservatives equality in opportunity. So, I don’t think his 6 foundations are that different between liberals and conservatives, they are just applied differently, because of different factual beliefs about the how these things actually work.

Haidt ends this book with some pretty interesting insights on himself. He notes that liberal interest in regulation is good because externalities, and note regulation on lead in gasoline as an example. The Federal Register has 34000 pages, so of course some, with hindsight, were home runs. That doesn’t imply they aren’t net bad, let alone that at the margin we ought to be eliminating regulations as opposed to adding them. It is, in his words, a weak confabulation for his prejudices.

Then there’s the part in the book where he notes he read a book by Jerry Muller on Conservatism, and the author noted that conservatism was not based on mere orthodoxy, but rather, the idea that encouraging respect, self-reliance, and loyalty were actually a reasoned method to help communities prosper, and their individuals to obtain more satisfactory lives. This reasoned defense of conservative values floored him, because he saw it was, at the least, intellectually defensible and could be argued in good faith. That he came to this conclusion in 2008 highlights the bubble the poor guy was in.

I don’t doubt for a second the good intentions of everyone but psychopaths. This book just confirms that at some point we decide we know the right policies, and then we become partisan confabulators. The key to me is that my opinions on such big issues are an avocation, not a vocation, so I can change my mind without a huge cost. Interestingly, blogging in this respect is very helpful, as I find I often write something in response to the latest outrage, and pull in the lawyerly left side of my brain to explain. But then later I can go back, note my post was weak; that a comment noting I picked out a straw man was true, and change my mind. I could list them out, but that would be a little to narcissistic (who cares about the laundry list of my beliefs that have changed, in any event they aren’t really major–I haven’t rethought socialism). But when I change my mind it is generally months later, never right away.

Having a bog allows me to articulate my intuitions, evaluate them, note the ill-tempered but sometimes trenchant rebuttal comments. Academics, politicians, and journalists really don’t have that luxury because they become part of a team, and if you want to work up in those status hierarchies you have to be consistent and loyal, which means our most prominent rhetoricians aren’t really thinking out loud, rather just rationalizing their team’s prejudices (what they call, reasoned principles).

Haidt ends his book with a great line: ‘We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.’ This is an attempt to get us to bridge political differences based on ideas discussed in his book. Unfortunately, given our desire to rationalize, the internet allows us to quickly google ‘why global warming is true/false’ very quickly, and we can then easily become satisfied with our assumptions because on virtually any issue there’s some well written brief for any argument, and a well-written rebuttal for any argument. Thus, as it is now easier than every to rationalize our prejudices, so it is ever more important to understand why we do this, and how to mitigate it.

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