JSWagner, a reader of this blog, made a fair and well reasoned comment to the post in which I observed that Opennes Is Not A Moral Foundation. He said that I can be judgmental, and that there’s sometimes a negative tone to my writing about ideas I don’t agree with. He said that I “castigated” the idea of openness. Here is his comment:
Regarding my use of the word castigate- that is a strong word, but I think an accurate one to use when characterizing your oft-expressed attitude about the behavior of those who use less moral foundations, and, now, those who display openness to new experience. We tend to be hesitant to say other moral viewpoints are wrong, bad, or evil, preferring to be kinder or more ‘correct’, when those negative words can provide a simple, accurate way to describe how a different set of morals feels to us- not just different in a neutral way, but as a violation of moral views we essentially hold to be objective truth. This is why I recoil a bit from Dr. Haidt’s metaphor of tastes when discussing morals, which can make them seem like preferences, or imply that one set of tastes is as valid as another. But being moral is more fundamental than that: morals define our judgment about right and wrong. Even if we can intellectually acknowledge that our moral view isn’t necessarily objective or accurate, it doesn’t change a moral outlook’s purpose of providing our own foundational framework for good and bad in our life. In my opinion, you are quite judgmental- negative, castigatory- about those who use less moral foundations. And I think that’s ok. That judgement fuels your efforts to extend the breadth of our moral outlook, and is a product of your strong moral views.
If I may, I’d like to use this as an opportunity to opine further on my judgmentalism.
This is a just blog. It’s kind of a poor man’s written equivalent of a vanity album a garage band might make. It’s my own occasional Op Ed. It’s “my two cents” in the discussion relating moral foundations to current and historical events. I try to describe how my brain connects the dots among many of Haidt’s ideas and between his ideas and the real world.
I may be wrong about everything I say here. For example, at some point in the future Haidt may indeed add Openness to his list of moral foundations. If he does then in that sense I will have been “proved” wrong. But, in my own humble opinion, I think my argument has merit, and Openness is indeed not a Moral Foundation.
At any rate, I’m just a guy who likes to read about, think about, and talk about this stuff as a hobby. None of it has anything to do with my profession. (Keeping this blog separate from my proffesion is a partial explanation, by the way, of why I write under a pseudonym). I am not a social scientist or a statistician or in politics or in any field that could be remotely tied to these topics. I’m an amateur hobbyist, nothing more.
So please consider practically everything I say in this blog to be prefaced with something like, “I may be totally wrong about this, and I’m certainly not as well read as maybe I should be, and I definitely have not done any formal studies or research, but the way I see it is……”
But with that said, Mr. Wagner is correct. I am judgmental. It comes from being human. We’re all wired to be that way. This fact is one of Haidt’s key findings. It’s part of being The Social Animal that David Brooks describes in his book by that title. Haidt has described how gossip – being judgmental – is one of the key glues that holds societies together. So in that sense, yes, I am “judgmental.” To say that any human is not judgmental is to deny human nature.
The real question, then, is whether I am fair and honest in the things I say, and whether I’m a jerk in the way I go about saying them. To that I say this: I try. I may not be perfect, I may fail in the attempt, but I try very hard to offer fair, well reasoned arguments for my positions. I try very hard to avoid ad hominem attacks. I try very hard to avoid name calling and direct or indirect insults. Along the way I may step on a “sacred value” of one person or another, or to say it more mildly I may just rub them the wrong way. What I see as calling a spade a spade, others may see as crossing the line into the realm of insults or “castigating.” The line is in different places for different people. It is literally impossible to be on the “correct” side of it every single time with every single person.
I agree with Mr. Wagner’s sentiment about Haidt’s metaphor of tastes. I’ll describe the metaphor I prefer in a minute, but first a little background.
Moral foundations are some of the core elements of fundamental human nature, instilled in us over half a billion years of natural selection so that humans can create “Moral systems [of] interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, page 270)
Of course, nothing is black and white. Nothing fits an “ideal” definition in a pure way, but even Haidt says that for the sake of discussion the generalizations of liberalism and conservatism are very good first-order descriptions of the two primary world views, or “visions” that exist in the Western world today. Thomas Sowell describes those visions quite well in his book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles Haidt recommends Sowell’s book to those who want to learn more about the differences between liberals and conservatives.
The description of the metaphor I prefer to Haidt’s is this:
1) Moral foundations are the color receptors of the moral eye. The more color receptors one employs the more of the building block of human nature one perceives.
2) Moral foundations are the intuitive senses of the elephant. They work together to create the elephant’s “gut feel;” its instantaneous, automatic-process reaction of like or dislike, approach or avoid, fight or flee that results from half a billion years of evolution.
3) Moral foundations are the tools of the controlled-process cognition of the rider. They are the hammer, saw, pliers, screw driver, et al, which the rider uses to process and understand what it perceives – to make sense of the social world around it – and to construct its reasoned arguments of persuasion. Remember, reason evolved to serve the elephant. Reason is for winning arguments, it is not for finding the truth (but under rare circumstances it can be used to work toward the truth.) Only the tools associated with the intuitive senses of the elephant are available to the rider, and in the same proportions.
In other words, Moral Foundations define the the scope, the limits, of one’s perception, understanding, and prescriptions of and for human nature and the social world.
Moral Foundations define our moral “vision” in every sense of the word.
Haidt and other social scientists – but mostly Haidt, in my opinion – have provided for us a Rosetta Stone for understanding how evolution has shaped human nature. David Brooks used it to tell the story, in very accessible terms, of The Social Animal that we humans have evolved to become.
Here’s where my judgmentalism starts to come into play.
I honestly, truly believe that the more moral foundations one employs the better understanding one has of human nature and of the social world. And since the social world is the one in which we humans live, I believe that the more foundations one employs the better grasp one has on reality, and the real-life consequences of our social constructs and interactions.
Successful societies are literally not possible without “all the tools in the tool box” of moral foundations. Throughout all of human history every attempt to build a society on something other than an equal balance of all the foundations has failed, sometimes horribly, genocidally so. Even small societies like communes fail much more frequently and much sooner when they are built on some subset of moral foundations –usually leaving out the binding foundations – than when they are built on all of them.
We humans are wired to be torn between our individual desires to be autonomous, independent creatures and our need to “suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible” for our own mutual benefit and survival. The former sentiment – the desire for independent autonomy – comes mostly from what Haidt callse the “individualizing” foundations of care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression. He calls them “individualizing” because, by definition, they mostly focus on the individual. The latter sentiment – regulating self-interest to make cooperative societies possible – comes mostly from the binding foundations of loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Human nature is a constant tug of war between the individualizing foundations and the binding ones. Human society is, and always has been, a struggle to find the right balance point between the two. History, events, advances in scientific and social thought, and technology constantly upset the balance, and we constantly struggle with each other to right it.
Throughout all of human history the societies which have succeeded the most, and which have offered the greatest quality of life to the greatest number of people have been the societies which found the best balance among all of the foundations, and especially between the individualizing foundations and the binding ones. Societies fail when the balance is upset and one or more moral foundations is allowed to dominate the others.
The vast majority of the societies that have failed throughout human history have been based on the liberal world view; Sowell’s “unconstrained” vision, which is focused almost entirely on the individualizing foundations and essentiall eshews the binding ones (and thus the possibility of regulatign self-interest to make cooperative societies possible). It is a vision that rests on, among other things, rationality, and “reason,” and the idea that society, and even human nature, can be “managed” to create a new man. Examples are the French Revolution, communist Russia and China, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany; all of which were collectivist movements which attempted to proactively fashion a new type of society, a new man, based on some variation of the “unconstrained vision” of what human nature should be.
But there is an exception. There is one society which was, at its creation, firmly grounded in all of the moral foundations; on a real and true understanding of human nature; on an innate understanding of the necessity for “check and balance” among all of the moral foundations if the society is to have any hope of long term survival; where “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
The founders of that society, based on their firm, realistic “vision” of all of the moral foundations, realized that the enemy of liberty is power, and that it was the natural tendency of us “groupish” humans to form into groups and attempt to concentrate power and “circle the wagons” to protect each group’s sacred values. They also realized that when that happens, the liberty of the minority, of those without power, could be crushed, and so:
The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. (Federalist 51)
This country, The United States of America, was founded on this firm and realistic “vision” of fundamental human nature; on Sowell’s “Constrained Vision.” This society, precisely because it was founded on principles of balance among all the foundations, and specifically between the individualizing foundations and the binding foundations, became the greatest society the planet has ever seen, offering the highest quality of life, the most security, that has ever been achieved in the history of mankind. It was no accident that the civilization which was able to achieve such greatness was founded on the concept of balancing all of the moral foundations.
But the concept of Gemeinschaft and Gesellshaft is also part of human nature, and it too applies. At some point, the quality of life afforded by the all-foundation Constrained Vision became part of everyday life. It became taken for granted; the new normal; the baseline by which life in general was measured. And it afforded the luxury for the people within the society to relax their focus on the binding foundations and concentrate on the individualizing ones.
Further, because of our values of politeness and respect toward one another and openness “We tend to be hesitant to say other moral viewpoints are wrong, bad, or evil, preferring to be kinder or more ‘correct’, when those negative words can provide a simple, accurate way to describe how a different set of morals feels to us- not just different in a neutral way, but as a violation of moral views we essentially hold to be objective truth.” We give the benefit of the doubt. We try to be civil, and let everyone have their say. We try not to offend each others sensibilities. We try to let “reason” rule the day.
And in this way the unbalanced, color-blind Unconstrained Vision of liberalism (in all aspects of the metaphor of “vision” I described above) gradually began to take hold, and tilt the balance society toward the left.
And naturally, because as Haidt describes this too is part of human nature, this tilt to the left violated many of the sacred values of the full-spectrum grasp of human nature of the Constrained Vision upon which this society was founded, and the people who subscribe to that vision “circled the wagons” and pulled even harder to their side. In a way, it was almost inevitable, this sorting out along ideological lines that is currently happening in this country, and indeed in the entire western world.
The all-foundation, experience-based, conceptual-minded, community-focused, full moral spectrum, reality-sensing, Constrained “Vision” of conservatism is right. It is correct. It is not only the best, but probably the only – as proven by the events of human history, including the combined financial crises of the current day – vision upon which a successful society can be built. The partial-foundation, reason-based, literal-minded, individual-focused, morally color-blind, reality-challenged, Unconstrained “Vision” of liberalism is wrong. And in fact, human history shows that policies, practices, and institutions that result from it tend to do more harm than good.
So, if calling a spade a spade means that I am judgmental, then yes, I am most certainly judgmental.