Wilson, Haidt & Moral Psychology

A trek through the landscape of moral philosophy reveals an interesting bifurcation within the discipline. Undergrads learn about the history and traditional scope and methods of ethics — Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Smith, Nietzsche, Rawls — but at the graduate level, the positivist/continental dispute rears its head and in many programs, a holistic approach to the discipline collapses into academic factionalism or intellectual solipsism.
As such, contemporary moral philosophy remains bedeviled by its own internal hobgoblins such that applied moral philosophy exists as little more than an offshoot of some other discipline. The philosophers fight increasingly irrelevant battles — the positivists, about linguistic theory or higher-order mathematical logic; the continentals, about principles too abstract to apply to real-world problems — while “ethicists” in other disciplines merely dress up their ideology in moral terms. The bioethicists are notorious for this; they’re biologists first, and cloak their policy preferences in terms like “autonomy” or “justice” or “quality of life” that have astonishingly little relationship to the moral universe from which they purportedly originate.
As an ethicist, then, I’ve held a pessimistic outlook on the discipline. I agree with some prominent philosophers, like Alasdair MacIntyre, that part of the problem is that philosophy needs to get over positivism before it again will become relevant to ordinary people. Philosophers have boxed themselves into a series of dead ends; everyone knows it but too many have invested too much into their sub-sub-subspecialties for meaningful reform to occur anytime soon.
One possible exit strategery flows from … applied moral philosophy. Or rather, the import of some aspects of evolutionary biology into the realm of philosophy proper.
Consider the fascinating developments in evolutionary biology. I recall first encountering the subject with Jared Diamond’s Why Is Sex Fun? This short tome — assigned reading in an undergrad philosophy-of-science class — demonstrated the evolution in behavior related to advances in the biology of sexual reproduction. Following that, Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel identified causal factors in why some social groups dominated and others declined.
More recently, I’ve worked through E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. These books, as I read them, are correlated; Wilson outlines the long-term evolution of social behavior in humans and Haidt covers the territory of moral intuition and how pre-rational intuition leads to the group identities that function as partisanship’s precursor.
The upshot is this: While academic moral philosophy still follows trendy theories down various empty bunny holes, the social psychologists and evolutionary biologists have plausibly claimed that human moral behavior derives from the competition/altruism dynamic within groups and between groups.
Look at it this way: Our first sphere of interest is the local group — family, circle of friends, tribe, affinity group. Within this sphere, we compete for prominence and sometimes sacrifice personal goals for the good of the group. But when that sphere comes under attack, we band together to challenge the aggressor: Sometimes through overt conflict, but sometimes through engagement and compromise. By default, we identify with the local group and because of evolutionary pressure, we’re less likely to express sympathy for or understanding of The Other. The intellectual schema of inter-group disputes falls into the “me good, you bad” mindset that’s very difficult to eradicate even among otherwise educated folks.
People operate in overlapping spheres of group loyalties. We are members of families, clubs, cities, nation-states, religions, self-selected tribes (e.g., of minority groups), political affiliations, socioeconomic strata, etc. All of these memberships influence us; their overlaps force us to make choices among competing and contradictory expectations.
One logical outcome from this chaos of conflicting loyalties comes the sovereign self — the radical individual, common in Western European civilization, who selects and rank-orders his loyalties in a deliberate way. You see this trend clearly with people who self-identify first as a member of a specific group. When you meet someone new and ask, “So, tell me about yourself?” one clear hint comes from the first sentence. Does the person tell you his job? That she’s married? That he’s gay? That she’s a Christian? This ranking of competing group claims helps a person demonstrate a self-consistent personal ethics.
But cognates matter. Some identities conflict in fundamental ways; it’s hard to be a faithful Catholic, a center/right Republican, a practicing bisexual, a writer and a son of a socially conservative family … simultaneously. These identities conflict. Many elect to pick among these identities and downplay or shed others, often with a sense of viciousness for what’s downplayed. Just think of how many “recovering Catholics” or “former liberals” you’ve met. They haven’t “evolved” — they’ve merely rank-ordered their affiliations in a manner that produces the least psychic violence. (Others, myself included, maintain these affiliations but retreat to a form of relativism in which we acknowledge the conflicts but pretend that we’re above the fray.)
Thus does Haidt’s moral psychology bring a semblance of order from the theoretical chaos spawned by 20th-century philosophy. He seems to concur with Hume’s theory of moral sentiments; the interplay of Wilson’s and Diamond’s insights flesh out the how and the why of the evolutionary context.
When you see Republicans and Democrats unable to compromise, it’s not necessarily because they’re all just big fat meanie heads unwilling to share. The core beliefs in each group mean something to them, and just tossing group pieties aside to find compromise seems odd. If one party favors high taxes on the rich and the other party favors low taxes on the rich, a “solution” of medium taxes for the rich is incoherent for both sides. Similarly, people who support or oppose gay marriage want an absolute resolution; no one wants a scenario where half the gays can get married.
Politics used to be somewhat immune to this, inasmuch as the traditional passions in American life rarely affected party politics directly at the national level and across the board like they do now. But the divisions we see have always been there, just expressed in other forms (like religious bigotry, overt racism, and intolerance for gays, immigrants, etc.). As America moves ever-closer to a federal society instead of a federalist society, the pressures that used to vent along a hierarchy now can only vent from the top, with results as likely disastrous as they are eminently predictable.
The question for America, then, isn’t “what can we do to reduce partisan gridlock” but rather, “what can we do to manage gridlock more effectively.”
We could start by recognizing the import of moral psychology — in particular, by setting aside the psuedointellectual nonsense about “ideological echo chambers” or “false equivalence” and instead recognizing that group conflicts are the result of a successful society. We should embrace gridlock as a sign of healthy competition among various factions. The most dangerous societies are those with only one voice declaiming from the public square.
Some things do need resolution. (The Fiscal Cliff, for one.) This means that we need more skilled cat herders in politics and the media instead of elites whining that the cats refuse to be herded.
More than anything, though, we need to ensure that there are effective safety valves for intragroup disagreements at various social levels. This means more federalism, capitalism and diversity of thought. It means we need to resist the authoritarian tendencies of Right and Left and to accept that compromise isn’t always a virtue but squelching others is always a vice.
Human moral psychology evolved the way it did because it conferred real survival benefits. Although society is significantly more complex than it was in the days of hunter-gatherer tribes, those pre-rational skills we learned millennia ago remain relevant. If we try to suppress them for the sake of some golden ideal, we risk throwing the whole system into chaos.
[N.B. — Attributions or ellipical statements about any particular author are my reaction to that author’s work, and not necessarily that author’s explicit sentiment.]

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