A Critique of Haidt's Categories And Indirect Review of "Liberals aren't Un-American, Conservatives Aren't Ignorant"
I have read some of Haidt's stuff before. I liked the overarching point he was trying to make in this particular article, but in most of his research, the data is almost always interesting, his analysis and conclusions are almost always question begging to the point of being nausea-inducing. You see it in this article. He labels some moral attitudes 'rational' or 'rationalistic' and others 'non-rational'. That isn't doing science, it is doing philosophy. And there is good reason to think that it is bad philosophy. The idea, for instance, that emotion or feeling is non-rational is self-defeating since feeling and emotion go into the process of constructing an epistemology, a theory of knowledge and the process of categorizing 'rational' and 'irrational' and 'non-rational' in the first place. All conceptions of what it even means to 'reason' or 'know' are interest-relative and context sensitive. That is the thrust of the postmodern critique and it finds confirmation both inside science and most philosophers who seek to hold on to some concept of knowledge at all would agree with that.
Martha Nussbaum, pulling from the best cognitive psyche research we have, in her book UPHEAVALS OF THOUGHT, argues persuasively that emotions themselves can be rational, and are part of our rational faculties. The idea that reverence is 'non-rational' and only the harm principle is 'rationalistic' is completely unsupported scientifically and philosophically it is suspect. (There is no non-circular argument for utilitarianism and there are very, very good arguments against it. The same can be said of just about ANY ethical philosophy.) Paul Woodruff, using Nussbaum’s research argues in his book REVERENCE that reverence is a rational judgment, and that any mind that lacks a strong sense of reverence is exhibiting features of rational dysfunction. Maybe you are disinclined to agree with Woodruff, but until you acknowledge the possibility, and deal with his (and Nussbaum’s) research and arguments, any labeling falls under suspicion of being little more than ad hoc and circular. And while I can make a very good case that Haidt overstates what we can know from evolutionary psychology, there is an interesting self-refuting pattern to Haidt's pronouncement on these issues.
"Evolution" developed ALL our faculties, our emotions no less than our purely abstract logical functions. Both only exist because of survival friendliness. If emotions and abstraction didn’t help us to survive, we wouldn’t have either. But do they give us access to reality? If you are inclined to think that survival value is going to closely track truth value (that is, if you think a feature of the mind is only likely to help us survive if it helps us see the world as it really is), then yes. If you are disinclined to think that, then no. But there’s no way to do this piecemeal. You can’t just assume emotions are non-rational and then make up truth-independent but survival-friendly reasons why we feel that way, because the faculties you’d be using to make that distinction are sourced in the same place, and there is no non-arbitrary reason why you can’t just make the same move with those faculties as well. I mean, anyone can assume the falsehood of a certain kind of reasoning and then give evolutionary reasons for why people behave or think that way, philosophers play that game all the time. But if you’re going to take that skeptical attitude, then you open up the possibility of adopting it for ANYTHING we have to believe and ANY way we happen to reason. I personally think reason is broader than all that. In the end ALL our faculties are important, but also all are fallible. I think that is the only attitude that is internally consistent, and consistent with the facts on the ground.
But I agree with Haidt that the political discourse in this country has gone off the right track, and everyone falls into using simplistic labels too easily. So what is the problem, really, and what is the solution? If I don’t accept that we are looking at too incommensurable paradigms, or the clashing of rational and irrational worldviews, what is really going on.
Here, Haidt’s own evolutionary psychology may be helpful broadly. People evolved within a context of the tribe. Small family groups, not large scale societies, were the primary moral unit. And because protecting your tribe meant protecting your genes, evolution 'programmed' us to think in terms of one group being better or more important than another. That just makes good natural selection sense. So people tend to congregate in camps and seek to valuate that camp to the expense of others. This is sometimes called 'us and them' thinking.
We naturally think of ourselves as more valuable and important han others, and since it is hard to convince ourselves of this sometimes, we often choose groups that, because of their size and scope, are easier to imagine as of some special value over and against other groups, and we use THAT as our vehicle of egoism. Now, combine that with another problem, namely that as time goes on, and the world evolves at an ever-increasing rate, we encounter more and more situations that are removed from the context in which our moral reasoning capacities evolved. This creates confusion and fear, which reinforces our perceived need for some kind of group context, for a tribe, which offers comfort and security.
The other upshot is that none of us can claim some kind of privileged access to moral truth. That is because, in reality, our perception of a moral reality is vague, unformed, and not really geared to deal with the problems of today. The moral dimensions are larger, but our ability to think about them remain pretty small by comparison. That is on one level a pessimistic assessment. But on another it offers hope. Becuase we can, if we so choose, realize we are ALL in the same boat. And the recognition of our collective ignorance can breed humility. It could also paralyze us morally, but it need not. It is important, for me at least (as a minister) to note something very similar exists within the Christian tradition, and Christianity has at its best times been struggling with a similar question for years: how to reconcile the doctrine of sin-nature with the call to moral action. I think that, if we can admit our limitations in the face of ever-growing moral difficulties, while yet still holding fast to what we believe to be the truth, then while we may not end all division, it will cease this senseless arrogance and hatred festering on all sides.
In the end I cannot be sure of the rightness of any of my actions. And the truth is, I never could. The current state of things really only enlightens what we already knew: that the neurotic quest to remove all moral risk from life, the quest to secure some absolute proximate security, paradoxically leads to an immoral life and creates a kind of ultimate insecurity. All we can really do is take the risks life has presented to us, do the best we can with the limited capacities we have, and throw ourselves on the mercy of God, hoping there is vindication, on the other side. If we can recognize this fact, if we can live into repentance (or some analogous secular psychological fact for our less than religious friends) and grace rather than certainty, we can be saved. It is the uneasy heart of the moral risk taker, rather than the assured heart of moral certitude, that can lead to real moral creativity, stop the hatred that stems from a fear of confusion and unknowing, and maybe even lead to some reduction in the problems themselves.