The limits of scientism

John Gray, emeritus professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, has an interesting review of Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind" in The New Republic.  He admires the book in many ways, but argues that Haidt suffers from provincialism (he's hung up on American notions of the left/right split in politics) and from the usual limitations of a faith in scientism.  In Gray's view, Haidt's newest work is a sophisticated example of "attractively simple theories that [are believed to be] invested with the power of overcoming moral and political difficulties that have so far proved intractable."

Gray gives Haidt credit for overcoming the recently voguish "primitive type of rationalism" that so often ignores the strength and value of our irrational or extra-rational nature; he acknowledges that the conscious mind is like a rider on a strong, beautiful animal.  Still, he faults Haidt for his emphasis on group morality:
Understanding morality as a group phenomenon neglects the fact that human groups are complex, historically shifting, and internally conflicted. Tribes and nations are not natural kinds of things like genes and blood types. They are historical constructions whose existence depends on human recognition. Human beings rarely, if ever, belong to only one group. One of the tasks of morality is to arbitrate the clashing loyalties that regularly arise from the many group identities that human beings possess. In some cases, morality may lead people to put aside group loyalties altogether.
Gray also argues that Haidt's functionalist definition of morality leaves him in a number of unresolved difficulties:
There is a slippage from “is” to “ought” in nearly all evolutionary theorizing, with arguments about natural behavior sliding into claims about the human good. It may be true—though any account of how precisely this occurred can at present be little more than speculation—that much of what we see as morality evolved in a process of natural selection. That does not mean that the results must be benign.
Gray cautions against Haidt's naive confidence that evolutionary psychology can resolve the conflict between utilitarianism and pluralism:
Issues such as abortion and gay marriage are not bitterly disputed because legislators have failed to apply a utilitarian calculus. They are bitterly disputed because a substantial part of the population rejects utilitarian ethics. . . . .  Haidt appears not to grasp the importance of the fact that intuitionism and utilitarianism are rivals, and not only in moral philosophy. They are also at odds in practice. Making public policies on a basis of utilitarian reasoning requires a high degree of convergence, not diversity, in moral intuitions. Such policies will not be accepted as legitimate if they violate deep-seated and widely held intuitions regarding, for example, sexuality and the sanctity of human life. . . .  Once again seemingly unaware of the depth of the problems he is addressing, Haidt tells us that such conflicts will not arise, or else they will be soon overcome, as long as people are brought together in the right way.
A good review should either warn you not to waste your time, or inspire you to acquire the book and spend time ploughing through it. This review is tipping me toward the investment of time and effort.


Grim said...

This strikes me as the core of the critique:

A shift of meaning occurs when “morality” is used as a theoretical category in a putative scientific discipline. In everyday parlance, “morality” is a term heavily freighted with value: to call something moral is to distinguish it from things that are immoral or amoral, or to which moral judgments simply do not apply. When “morality” features as a theoretical category, this prescriptive element falls away. When “morality” becomes a term of art in a supposedly scientific discipline, there is no longer any difference between good and bad moralities.

The point here is that, when we begin talking about "morality" as a kind of slot to be filled by anthropology or evolution, we're stuck with whatever we find in that slot. This group has such-and-such values put there; that group has this other set of values.

When he speaks of 'slipping to ought from is' he is citing David Hume's objection to this problem: Hume held that you cannot go from 'is' to 'ought.' (I think Hume is entirely mistaken about this; if you are going to get an 'ought,' it can only be from the things that exist, and it only refers to the problems that occur within the realm of existence. But that's a long argument to the side: generally, Hume's concept is accepted.)

The whole point of morality, Gray is arguing, is about how we judge competing claims -- to include group loyalties, honor, shame, harm to others we love, harm to others we don't love, harm to others we hate (these three kinds of harm usually have very different moral statuses, but not always -- think of the Quakers), truth, humanity and cosmopolitanism, and so forth. If we adopt a view of morality that is scientific, we lose the ability to make value judgments between these things: there is no scientific basis for doing so.

In other words, Gray argues that we need a wholly separate way of determining "ought," rather than a better description of what "is."

Ron Krumpos said...

Jonathan Haidt's new book is so broad in its scope that I can only comment on one aspect: the relationship between conscience and morality. He says that political (secular) and religious views of morality frequently divide people. Many of us may have both in intuitive and learned behavior. In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, "the greatest achievement in life," is a chapter called "Duel of the dual." Here are four paragraphs from it:

The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned."

The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion lists some interesting historical observations on the word. Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not. The moral dilemma is when these two views conflict.

Elise said...

I'm about halfway through the earlier Haidt book, The Happiness Philosophy. I can see the flaws in this book but it is nevertheless a fascinating book and well worth the time and effort. His analogy of the elephant and the rider to explain the difficulty "will" has in directing behavior is by itself worth the price of admission.

It sounds like his new book is much the same: flawed but worthwhile.

Cass said...

His analogy of the elephant and the rider to explain the difficulty "will" has in directing behavior is by itself worth the price of admission.

I agree, Elise.

I don't think I've ever read a book that presents any sort of unified theory that solves all our moral problems. In this, Haidt's work is no exception.

What I find remarkable about both books is that, while maintaining that most people are far less rational and objective than we like to think we are, he actually managed to do what he argues (in both books) is extremely difficult: step outside his own narrow frame of reference and emotional reactions to achieve some understanding of how other people think.

You have to do this, to some extent, to have a strong marriage but then you have powerful incentives egging you on. In politics or religion there is no such powerful reward system in place (and several powerful incentives pushing you in the other direction). His understanding of conservatism and religion is still tinged by some remnant of his progressive belief system, but it would be weird if that weren't the case.

The goal isn't conversion, but some degree of understanding and respect, mixed in with a healthy amount of skepticism wrt our own ineffable rectitude. I think he achieves that nicely.

Dov Henis said...

Decide Humanity: Scientism, Or Natural Selection

Humanity Must Decide: Scientism Or Natural Selection

Scientism: A doctrine and method characteristic of scientists, and the proposition that scientific doctrine and methods of studying natural sciences should be used in all areas of investigation and in conduct of politics-social-cultural-civil affairs in pursuit of an efficient practical, as fair as possible, civics framework.

Natural Selection: All mass formats, inanimate and animate, follow natural selection, i.e. intake of energy or their energy taken in by other mass formats.
All politics, local, national and international, are about evolutionary biology, about Darwinian evolution, about survival, about obtaining and maintaining and distributing energy.

Religion: is a virtual factor-component in human’s natural selection. Its target-function is to preserve-proliferate specific cultural phenotypes.
Natural selection-religion are compatible with technology-capitalism but are obviously incompatible with science-scientism, that targets preservation-proliferation of the genotype.
Science-scientism is an obvious threat to the survival of a cultural phenotype.

Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
Universe-Energy-Mass-Life Compilation
For A Scientism Culture