Monday, October 1, 2012

Hating Haidt

Well, actually Haidt is pronounced like 'height', so not such a clever title after all. Damn. And I don't really hate him, in fact I like his book and enjoyed his TED videos.

I do want to criticize Haidt's confounding moral stories. His empirical work involves telling subjects stories where someone breaks some sort of social taboo in a way that he hopes will make it really hard to find a victim that was harmed by the violation of the taboo. That way, he eliminates the care/harm basis of morality and will reveal the intuitive role of his other 'moral modules' (fairness, autonomy, sanctity, loyalty, authority... am I getting those right?).

For instance, he has a story of a brother and sister who commit incest, but it's only once, they are careful not to cause a pregnancy, and though they decide never to do it again, it makes them feel closer, in the story at least. Other stories involve the guy who had sex with a dead chicken before cooking and eating it, and the family who ate the family dog after it died accidentally. I see three problems.

1) Morality should condemn risky behavior, even when the gambler does not lose. Your moral evaluation of a decision should not change based on the outcome. When people make decisions, they must consider risk of harm. This before-the-fact aspect of moral evaluation seems at least as important as the after the fact, ex post aspect. Yet they must be the same, since it makes no sense to condemn something that hasn't happened yet, but excuse an identical choice after it has played out. Since the ex ante evaluation is more restrictive, it wins out.

Imagine this story, in Haidt style, as an example. A man goes to a bar and without initially intending to, gets drunk. He stumbles to his car, aware (and amused) that his abilities are impaired, but he gets in the car and drives home successfully, though with some weaving, etc. He flops into bed, and other than a headache in the morning, no one is worse off or knows anything about his adventure, which he barely remembers himself. What is our moral evaluation of this person's actions? Although he took a serious risk, he has not actually harmed anyone. What is the moral difference between him and a nearly identical person, making identical choices, but who was unlucky enough to kill 4 people accidentally? Risk of harm is relevant to the care/harm foundation.

2) In these stories, the protagonists break various social taboos in secret, and Haidt claims no harm is done and no one knows. But the persons involved know. I don't know about you, but I don't want to have any of these incidents show up in my personal narrative, the story I tell myself about me. I want to just say no to the chapters on incest, bestiality, and dog cuisine, even if you could guarantee secrecy and 'harmlessness'. That's part of morality for me, not just "Is someone else harmed?" but also "Will I be harmed? Is that the sort of person I want to be?" I guess you could say that if we did not have these social taboos, I would not consider myself to be harmed by experiencing them. I doubt that Haidt would accept what I say, but I don't know how he would respond. Should I impose my own decision on others, or theirs on myself? Does it make sense for me to treat myself differently?

3) Haidt asks his subjects to evaluate the morality of the actions of the persons in his stories. He avoids the question of whether these actions if morally condemned should be formally proscribed by law and hence punished formally, or perhaps legal but informally punished. I can't see how he would ignore this. To me, only violations that involve significant harm (the care module) seem worthy of being backed (and punished) by formal law. I condemn plenty of other things as wrong, but I'm not so willing to give these evaluations the force of law. Perhaps this makes sense, because only harm caused by force should be punished by force. (What about fraud?) The punishment should fit the crime.

Haidt seems to want to add a new category to the old pair of 'malum prohibitum' (evil by prohibition) and 'malum in se' (evil in itself). Unfortunately my latin stinks, so I don't know a good latin word to make the phrase 'evil because it's disgusting'.

I should probably have admitted at the beginning of this post that I had trouble processing some of his ideas/claims about 'thicker' morality in other less individualistic cultures, based on the sanctity, loyalty, and purity modules. Maybe it's not the sort of thing you can easily learn from reading a book. Haidt himself claims to have only barely intuited the outlines before visiting India, where it became much more real for him.

Saletan reviews Haidt:


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