Saturday, April 7, 2012

Haidt and Virtue Ethics

We're concluding a discussion about Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

There are some aspects of the book which I find a little irrelevant. He spends several chapters arguing a technical point in evolutionary theory, namely whether evolutionary selection at the level of groups can exist. Most scientists since the 1970s believe that groups don't have any evolutionary significance, because the math does not work. Selection and competition of individuals within the group will overwhelm any traits which benefit the group as a whole. However Haidt argues sometimes major transitions take place in evolution - from unicellular to multicellular life, for example- at which point it makes sense to talk about larger entities evolving.

I'm still skeptical, or so recent articles in Scientific American suggest.

And it does not necessarily affect his argument that evolutionary change can happen sufficiently fast for us to have innate moral foundations in our psychology, even if we have been living in modern societies for ten thousand years at most, a mere blink in historical time. I've been persuaded on that score by Gregory Clark's book, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the Western World)(see a short nyt review here).

In the end, Haidt concludes:

If you take home one souvenir from this part of the tour, may I suggest that it be a suspicion of moral monists. Beware of anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places—particularly if that morality is founded upon a single moral foundation. Human societies are complex; their needs and challenges are variable.

The fact we have six different moral foundations means focusing on any one of them to the exclusion of the others is likely to lead to problems, or so Haidt believes. In particular, systems like Kant or Bentham's ethics try to reduce morality to a single metric and blind us to the complexity of our actual choices.

This is perhaps the great challenge. I've long thought the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin had the best insight into morality, arguing that some of the best things in life and highest principles do not entail each other, are not in harmony, and in fact actually conflict. Trying to achieve a single utopia where all the virtues shine is a recipe for bloodsoaked disaster. (I must look up that exact quote, which is one of my all-time favorites and biggest influences.)


And Haidt cites Berlin at the end of his book as well:

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrestled throughout his career with the problem of the world’s moral diversity

But interestingly Haidt says (without further explanation) that he thinks virtue ethics is the way to go.

I personally think that virtue ethics is the normative framework that fits human nature most closely.

I increasingly feel that virtue ethics is the way forward as well, even more so than the acknowledgement of pluralism in Berlin.

So overall, I find a great deal of congruence between how I see things and Haidt's book. But it's a starting point. He provides more evidence that collective action problems matter, and a lot of our partisan and practical political problems arise because often we don't even see there are collective action probems to solve.

Our social technologies are fraying. Society and the economy are evolving, and we need to adapt.




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