September 18, 2007

"He likens the mind’s subterranean moral machinery to an elephant, and conscious moral reasoning to a small rider on the elephant’s back."

How morality may have evolved:
In... "The Happiness Hypothesis," Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia, has been constructing a broad evolutionary view of morality.... driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.

The emotional responses of moral intuition occur instantaneously — they are primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world. Moral judgment, on the other hand, comes later, as the conscious mind develops a plausible rationalization for the decision already arrived at through moral intuition.
Read the whole thing. And take the tests. I did. The tests compare your answers to the answers of political conservatives and liberals, and, for me, supported my belief that I am in the middle. (I'm not sure whether my test results were classified as conservative or liberal. You're asked several questions in the beginning, about social issues, economics, and national security. Since I go left, middle, and right, respectively, on those questions, I don't know where my answers counted.)

17 comments:

EnigmatiCore said...

Quick summary: there are moral rules that 'protect' individuals, and moral rules that 'protect' "the group". Liberals value the moral rules that protect individuals but place little value on moral rules that protect the group. Conservatives (according to the study) place more value on the moral rules that protect the group.

I find that very interesting, because the rhetoric of liberals tends towards appeals about the group ("it takes a village") whereas conservative rhetoric tends towards appeals about individualism and personal responsibility.

Ann Althouse said...

Enigma, I noticed that too. It's obviously much more complex.

hdhouse said...

I'm not sure it is more complex Ann. I took the first test under 3 different registrations, one "me", two "screaming liberal", three "bedrock conservative" as at least in test 1 it was pretty easy to see how it was set up.

The "me" came back predominantly liberal but got beaten back once by the conservative view and by a lot. The other two were predictable.

Time will tell if this test isn't just another self-fulfilling test..as in "would you like to be an a. social worker b. librarian c. fireman when you grow up? ___

paul a'barge said...

a broad evolutionary view of morality

In other words, this guy's entire thesis is devoid of the concept that we get our morals from our creator.

Occam's Razor, baby. Occam's Razor.

Paddy O. said...

'I'll take spots, then,' said the Leopard; 'but don't make 'em too vulgar-big. I wouldn't look like Giraffe--not for ever so.'

'I'll make 'em with the tips of my fingers,' said the Ethiopian. 'There's plenty of black left on my skin still. Stand over!'

Then the Ethiopian put his five fingers close together (there was plenty of black left on his new skin still) and pressed them all over the Leopard, and wherever the five fingers touched they left five little black marks, all close together. You can see them on any Leopard's skin you like, Best Beloved. Sometimes the fingers slipped and the marks got a little blurred; but if you look closely at any Leopard now you will see that there are always five spots--off five fat black finger-tips.

'Now you are a beauty!' said the Ethiopian. 'You can lie out on the bare ground and look like a heap of pebbles. You can lie out on the naked rocks and look like a piece of pudding-stone. You can lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunshine sifting through the leaves; and you can lie right across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular. Think of that and purr!'

Internet Ronin said...

The tests appear to me to be seriously flawed. Once again, I think HD House has it right.

Richard Dolan said...

This is quite bizarre: "He likens the mind’s subterranean moral machinery to an elephant, and conscious moral reasoning to a small rider on the elephant’s back. Psychologists and philosophers have long taken a far too narrow view of morality, he believes, because they have focused on the rider and largely ignored the elephant."

You know you're in for a wild ride when some professor decides that, over the millenia that these topics have engaged the interest of intelligent observers, all other "[p]sychologists and philosophers have long taken a far too narrow view of morality." It seems that, for Prof Haidt, vague notions such as the "mind’s subterranean moral machinery" are not enough. According to him, it turns out that there are "two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference." Even stranger is that he regards a phenomenon he calls "dumbfounding" -- an inability to explain or express the basis for some strongly felt "moral intuition" -- as the proof of the whole thing.

This professor's thesis is an extraordinary mismash of conceptual confusion -- exhibit A for Wittgenstein's notion about losing one's way by misusing common words. Prof Haidt thinks of the "mind" as an object capable of being "aware" and characterized by "mechanisms" and "systems" that "evolved" like some bodily organ, and subject to dissection -- notions that all sound vaguely neuroscience-y, but that just float around without any anchor in this piece. The brain is an object; Descartes thought the mind was, too, but that idea led to all manner of confusions and has long since been debunked. Unfortunately, those distinctions are all ideas that "philosophers have long taken" and developed, and so for Prof Haidt they must be wrong.

Perhaps the article is unfair in making this professor's work sound like fashionable fluff. That's how it strkes me, anyway. Ann recommends that we read "the whole thing," and so must see more in this piece than I did.

But putting aside the substance, why is it that, when social scientists wander off into topics like this, they trot out such ridiculous images ("focus[sing] on the rider and largely ignor[ing] the elephant")? Is there some "separate mental system" that compells them to choose images like that, which just makes the whole thing sound as utterly foolish as it is in substance?

blake said...

Paddy O.,

I read that story to a child once, not having read it before (since I was a child myself, and probably an abridged version).

"Oh, plain black's best for a ..."

Paddy O. said...

Blake,

Yeah. I scanned for a fitting 'just so' quote and was wary about what Kipling might add.

The version I found ended with the quote I posted. "Think of that and purr!" is much more appropriate now than Kipling's original ending.

Kathy said...

I read that story to a child once, not having read it before (since I was a child myself, and probably an abridged version).

The story is part of our first grade curriculum, and the schedule includes a warning that some older versions will need to have an offensive word edited out by the parent. Fortunately, the copy I purchased, although not abridged, is new enough to have had that part removed. That way I don't have to keep the book away from the child who can read!

Revenant said...

Paul,

In other words, this guy's entire thesis is devoid of the concept that we get our morals from our creator.

That's exactly wrong. The process of evolution IS our "creator" -- so a theory that we acquired morality via evolution is quite literally a theory that we acquired morality from the same thing that created us.

Occam's Razor, baby. Occam's Razor.

I'm not sure how "a being of infinite power created us, gave us morality, and then erased all physical trace of himself from existence (after rigging the planet to look like life evolved here naturally" is somehow a simpler theory than "morality is a survival trait".

Revenant said...

You know you're in for a wild ride when some professor decides that, over the millenia that these topics have engaged the interest of intelligent observers, all other "[p]sychologists and philosophers have long taken a far too narrow view of morality."

Maybe I'm reading you wrong here, but it sounds like you're arguing that the long history of philosophy makes it arrogant to suggest that philosophers are barking up the wrong tree.

The thing is, philosophers haven't actually made any forward progress in our understanding of morality during those thousands of years. When it comes to answering questions like "so, why is it morally wrong to cook a baby and eat it", philosophy still can't give an answer.

Freeman Hunt said...

I consider myself "Very Conservative" and came out in the middle on everything except Respect for Authority where I was below both groups. Hm.

Richard Dolan said...

Rev: Arrogance is hardly the problem, although it fits. The categories that Prof Haidt offers here -- "subterranean machinery," "two separate mental systems," "dumbfounding," etc. -- are a joke. He wants to sweep away as "narrow" the work of millenia, but repeats basic conceptual mistakes that have been understood for a long time and that show how his own theory is utterly confused. He ends up sounding like a bad parody of Chomsky, offering a pop-psych theory based on some mechanistic notion of an innate moral grammar hardwired into the subterranean "machine," with the added filigree of "one ancient and one modern" mental "system" engrafted on top. Please. "Dumbfounding" is a good word to describe the whole thing.

You're wrong to say that "philosophy still can't give an answer" to basic moral questions. In fact it has gotten quite good at doing that. Moral philosophers (and others) focus intently on the logic of moral discourse (the title of a famous text), the analysis of proposed moral universals, analyzing whether particular actions in various settings are morally irrational or unprincipled or contrary to accepted notions(determined by looking at what people say and do), etc. And Prof Haidt's categories of "moral intuitions" and reasoned "moral judgments" have a long history, offering much more to think about that his notion of "dumbfounding." What philosophy can't do is provide a mandate requiring any particular action based on moral principles; that is the work of custom, law or theology.

It's possible that someone will one day come up with a revolutionary new way to think about these old problems. But don't hold your breath waiting for it.

Revenant said...

He wants to sweep away as "narrow" the work of millenia

Work? Hm. Work usually produces something useful. Philosophy is no closer to understanding morality than it was three thousand years ago.

but repeats basic conceptual mistakes that have been understood for a long time

The notion that some human moral impulses are hardwired and others are not is not demonstrably a "mistake". There is good empirical evidence for it, especially when we consider that animals behave in a very similar way to humans with regard to certain moral concepts.

You're wrong to say that "philosophy still can't give an answer" to basic moral questions. In fact it has gotten quite good at doing that.

Could you give an example of a moral question -- such as "why is rape wrong?" -- and its demonstrably correct answer?

Moral philosophers (and others) focus intently on the logic of moral discourse

Yes, but that runs smack into the fact that morality has no demonstrable connection to logic. Philosophy has focused primarily on examining moral systems, but modern evidence strongly suggests that there IS no such system -- that the various moral systems humans used are basically just rationalizations for our underlying moral impulses, which seldom have anything to do with logic.

This is why philosophers tie themselves in knots trying to cook up various flimsy proofs that, say, consensual incest is right or wrong, whereas the correct answer is almost certainly that we (like many animals) have simply evolved a revulsion for incest because of its negative genetic effects. We "know" consensual incest between a sterile man and his adult daughter is wrong, not because there's some complicated moral system explaining to us that A=B=C=wrong, but because our brains have SEX WITH YOUR DAUGHTER IS WRONG written across them in bright neon letters.

Richard Dolan said...

Rev: I don't have any magic cure for what seems to bother you about philosophy. You say: "Work usually produces something useful. Philosophy is no closer to understanding morality than it was three thousand years ago." Some philosophy is quite utilitarian, but not in the sense that it results in any tangible product. The "utility" it offers is a function of the value many have put on the importance of the examined life. If by "something useful" you are instead looking for a code of conduct that will guarantee a happy or holy or satisfying life, that's not normally what most people find in it or get out of it.

As for whether philosophy is closer to "understanding morality," I'm not sure what you mean. Perhaps your point is that the same problems that bothered Plato and Aristotle (and the authors of the Bible) are still quite alive today, and so are many of their answers. True. But philosophers aren't just repeating what was said long ago, nor are they only using the same analytical approaches. I don't understand why you want to dismiss all that with a sneer ("Work. Hm." "flimsy proofs", etc.).

You ask: "Could you give an example of a moral question -- such as "why is rape wrong?" -- and its demonstrably correct answer?" Many different approachs to moral philosophy provide a clear answer. For example, a Kantian approach take as a moral universal its version of the Golden Rule, and condemns as immoral any action that treats another as a mere end to be used without regard to the other's inherent worth. Alternatively, a consequentialist theory focuses on the harm that rape causes to its victim. A social contract theory focuses on rights and obligations due each other in any ordered society, and condemns the rapist on those grounds. All three of those approaches (there are many others as well) yields a clear answer to the "why is rape wrong" question. But the tone of your comment suggests that you are really looking for some secular version of the Ten Commandments -- a moral code based, not on the persuasiveness of the principles and reasoning supporting it, but instead on the authority of its source. That describes a legal code (secular or religious), not a moral philosophy.

You end by saying that "morality has no demonstrable connection to logic." That just strikes me as grossly uninformed. If you're interested in reading some contemporary papers in ethics (and many other areas of philosophy as well) that might cause you to change your mind, an easily accessible source for lots of interesting stuff in analytical philosophy is:
http://consc.net/weblogs.html. On the ethics link, for example, they are discussing Prof Kamm's arguments about whether one has a greater duty to assist a person in need who is physically closer (e.g., the kid drowning in the pond as you drive by and can see him) rather than someone far away (pick any disaster occurring in the third world, or just the endemic problems there of hunger and easily preventable disease). Perhaps you'll find a little more logic in moral discourse than you thought was there.

Eric Brown said...

Richard Dolan said: He ends up sounding like a bad parody of Chomsky, offering a pop-psych theory based on some mechanistic notion of an innate moral grammar hardwired into the subterranean "machine," with the added filigree of "one ancient and one modern" mental "system" engrafted on top. Please. "Dumbfounding" is a good word to describe the whole thing.

The idea that a lot (in fact most)of our inferences about the world are non-conscious is not pop psychology, it is rather a very robust finding in cognitive psychology. This is what the 'elephant' represents. Conscious thought is an evolutionarily later development, the 'rider' on the elephant. The metaphor is apt. "Dumbfounding" happens when the non-conscious moral judgment conflicts with the logical (conscious) one.

I'm not sure about you individually, but my observation has been that philosophers have much more difficulty with the idea of non-conscious decision-making than do, say, psychologists. But the scientific evidence shows that it is universal.