Tag Archives: Jonathan Haidt

Morality for Cats and Dogs

Marc Bekoff presents the gist of his new book, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, in a Daily Camera op-ed:

Do these examples show that animals display moral behavior, that they can be compassionate, empathic, altruistic, and fair? Yes they do. Animals not only have a sense of justice, but also a sense of empathy, forgiveness, trust, reciprocity, and much more as well.

The books comes out this spring. I look forward to reading it. But I have to wonder in advance, do animals only demonstrate two of Jonathan Haidt’s moral sensitivities? Are animals only concerned with fairness and preventing harm to others? You can observe in group/out group biases at the zoo. Perhaps liberal minded scientists aren’t wont to test and look for other moral sensibilities among all creatures great and small. Bekoff mentions some animal behavior that could be characterized as a concern with hierarchy and loyalty, though, again, it’s not clear whether this merely might making right. Is the idea of the sacred among these beasts too much anthropomorphism? Anyway, interesting stuff…


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The Partial Spectator: What Makes Stories Interesting

Robin Hanson has some thought-provoking posts up about storytelling.  He points to some research involving an evolutionary explanation for why certain stories appeal to us, why we recoil from certain kinds of antagonists, and why certain heroes lift our spirits.  Most of the research sees the function of storytelling as a form of coalition building.  Like religion, it’s a kind of glue for the social order.  Cooperators are rewarded.  Defectors are punished.  I’d have to agree with Hanson, though, that these explanations tend to overlook some of the benefits that accrue to individuals who use stories, and the media in which they’re told, to score status points for themselves.  Like the antagonists mentioned in this wonderful paper on Victorian literature, storytellers and story-lovers may use literature as a tool to gain power, prestige, wealth, and even social dominance. (See Tyler Cowen).

The epjournal paper on Victorian literature announces some interesting conclusions:

Agonistic structure in these novels displays a systematic contrast between desirable and undesirable traits in characters. Protagonists exemplify traits that evoke admiration and liking in readers, and antagonists exemplify traits that evoke anger, fear, contempt, and disgust. Antagonists virtually personify Social Dominance—the self-interested pursuit of wealth, prestige, and power. In these novels, those ambitions are sharply segregated from prosocial and culturally acquisitive dispositions. Antagonists are not only selfish and unfriendly but also undisciplined, emotionally unstable, and intellectually dull. Protagonists, in contrast, display motive dispositions and personality traits that exemplify strong personal development and healthy social adjustment. Protagonists are agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable, and open to experience. Protagonists clearly represent the apex of the positive values implicit in agonistic structure. Both male and female protagonists score high on the motive factor Constructive Effort, a factor that combines prosocial and culturally acquisitive dispositions.

I do not wish to dispute their findings. But I do have a bone to pick with the authors’ conclusions.  They use a moral score card to evaluate characters according to what goals a character pursues. They construct a list of motives and goals, principally devised by consulting the biological imperatives discussed in evolutionary psychology. In pursuing these goals, the authors found morally repugnant characters tend to be obsessed by wealth, prestige and power, whereas heroes tend to strive for socially constructive goals like aiding others, obtaining education, and forming friendships. What I find suspicious is that these findings support Jonothan Haidt’s description of a liberal moral sensibility. A liberal morality, you’ll remember, has a very high sensitivity along two dimensions: avoiding harm to others and promoting fairness. So I take these findings less as evidence for the moral importance of biological imperatives (such as coalition building), but more as evidence to support Haidt’s description of the liberal sensibility.  In other words, liberal readers tend to like characters who are both concerned with preventing harm and driven by a sense of fairness. 

So what’s the problem? Well, it could be that these novels merely reinforce the liberal sensibility. Those readers attuned to the moral concerns of the Victorian novel–mainly to its repudiation of social dominance–will tend resonate with the moral tone of the characters represented in the story. But I want to hazard a guess that another set of novels, those novels tuned to a different moral frequency–perhaps those involving authority and sanctity–will have different effects on its readers. On another frequency: look how disgusting most left-wingers find Ayn Rand. 

The smoke has cleared in most literature and philosophy departments. We are now returning to an age when intellectuals pontificate on the moral importance of literature. But their interest in literature as moral philosophy only betrays their own bias for the liberal sensibility. Exhibit A–James Wood in How Fiction Works

Since Plato and Aristotle, fictional and dramatic narrative has provoked two large, recurring discussions: one is centered on the questions of mimesis and the real (what should fiction represent?), and the other on the question of sympathy, and how fictional narrative exercises it.  Gradually these two discussions merge, and one finds that from, say Samuel Johnson on, it is commonplace that sympathetic identification is in some way dependent on fiction’s true mimesis: to see a world and its fictional people truthfully may expand our capacity for sympathy in the actual world. 

This post has grown too long. But suffice it to say that only a liberal sensibility would cast the novel as tool for evoking the sense of sympathy. In fact, the novel has many other moral uses. I suspect more than helping project us into the suffering of others, it also helps us to respect certain authorities, feel a sense of the sacred, and provide us with a tradition.

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The Wolfe Tells Larry He Should’ve Barked

Another great Wolfe interview–does he have a new publicist?–this time for the National Association of Scholars. Wolfe recounts the Larry Summers gaffe.  He raises a point that speaks to the weakness of Jonathan Haidt’s theory of political psychology.  The intuitions fueling the rage against Larry arose as they did because he had so flagrantly violated the egalitarian taboo:

They weren’t attacking him on intellectual grounds but on religious grounds. They were treating him as a heretic, a transgressor. They were assaulting his character. We learned how to deal with that one in our sophomore year at St. Christopher’s. If someone impugns your character, you can’t waste time trying to defend it. You’ll just end up sitting there wringing your hands and bleating something lame like, “I am, too,a good person.”
Iannone: So you should do what instead?
Wolfe: Attack the attacker. Attack his—in this case, their—character. All he had to say was, “I cannot…believe…what I am now witnessing…members of the Harvard faculty taking a grossly anti-intellectual stance, violating their implicit vow to cherish the free exchange of ideas, going mad because a hypothesis that has been openly discussed for almost half a century offends some ideological passion of the moment, acting like the most benighted of Puritans from three centuries ago ransacking all that is decent and rational in search of witches, causing this great university to become the laughingstock of the academic world here and abroad, sacrificing your very integrity in the name of some smelly little orthodoxy, as Orwell called beliefs like the ones you profess. I’m more than disappointed in you. I’m ashamed of you. Is that really how you see your mission here? If so, you should resign…now!…forthwith!…and take to the streets under your own names, not Harvard’s, and forbear being so small-minded and egotistical as to try to drag Harvard down to your level. Ladies, gentlemen…kindly do not display your ignorance…on these hallowed premises…while holding aloft the flags, the standards, of this university. Be honest with yourselves, even if you can’t be honest with Harvard. Look…think…and see…what you have become.” That would have taken care of the whole thing.

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The Sanctimonious Left: Cult Obama

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Left-Wing Moral Intuitions Involving Sanctity & Authority

Jonathan Haidt’s research into moral psychology possesses many virtues. I recommend any of his papers on gut reactions and moral judgement for a mind-quake inducing aha. (Turns out Hume was closer to the truth than Kant.) But besides delineating five types of moral judgement–recoiling from harm to others, unfairness, disobedience, despoiling the sacred, and disloyalty–Haidt outlines a theory for political psychology. As he sees it, conservatives have different settings from liberals along these five moral dimensions. The liberal cares more about preventing harm to others and upholding fairness than he cares for authority and the sanctity of sacred spaces. Liberals also care less about in-group loyalties. On the other hand, the conservative amps up his authority, in-group bias and sanctity settings. So Haidt says. But I have to say Haidt’s taxonomy of political psychology lacks the power of his research into morality. Haidt writes:

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. When Republicans say that Democrats “just don’t get it,” this is the “it” to which they refer.

If Haidt thinks that left-wing ideologies are without any sense of the sacred, then I offer this video to refute him. One horse laugh is better than 10,000 syllogisms.


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