Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) and the science behind it are solid and defensible. They will become ever more so as he continues to refine and enhance it via the scientific community’s process of peer review and criticism. I’m a huge fan.
It’s because I’m a fan that I’m disappointed in the metaphors he’s chosen to communicate his theory. I believe they undermine his theory and in the long run harm it more than they help it.
Haidt opposes the pursuit of parsimony in the field of academic social psychology because it can produce oversimplifications that act as roadblocks on the path to a full understanding of the human mind. And yet, four of the metaphors he uses to describe MFT are precisely that.
Liberalism and conservatism as “Yin and Yang”, moral foundations as “taste buds” of the moral sense, moralities as “cuisines”, and threats common to everyone as “asteroids” that can create common ground, all have some basis in truth. But at the same time each of them represents such a small part of the overall picture of our righteous minds that they amount to parsimonious oversimplifications which, in the long run, threaten to do more harm than good to a complete appreciation of: 1) Moral Foundations Theory, 2) the phenomenon of the righteous mind, 3) the moralities of liberalism and conservatism, 4) the dynamic that exists between those moralities, and 5) the good that might come from a true understanding of all of them.
In this post I’ll be addressing the metaphor of Yin/Yang, and by extension its corollary, Asteroids. In Part 2 I’ll address the metaphors of moral foundations as taste buds and moralities as cuisines.
Here are two definitions of parsimony.
Parsimony: Adoption of the simplest assumption in the formulation of a theory or in the interpretation of data, especially in accordance with the rule of Ockham’s razor.
Principle (or law) of parsimony: The scientific principle that things are usually connected or behave in the simplest or most economical way, especially with reference to alternative evolutionary pathways. Compare with Occam’s Razor.
Here are two quotes from Haidt which illustrate his objections to parsimony:
Scientists value parsimony as well as explanatory adequacy. There is, however, an inherent tension between these two values. When we try to explain an aspect of human nature or behavior using only a single construct, the gain in elegance is often purchased with a loss of descriptive completeness. We risk imitating Procrustes, the mythical blacksmith who forced his guests to fit into an iron bed exactly, whether by stretching them out or by cutting off their legs. Einstein, in our opening quote, warns against this Procrustean over-valuation of parsimony. Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism
[For reference, here’s the opening quote by Einstein mentioned in the quote above:“The supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”]
I think psychology has been hobbled by a destructive pursuit of parsimony. I am opposed to the pursuit of parsimony. I think evolution didn’t give a damn about parsimony when it was creating human nature, and moral psychologists should not pursue it either. (Of course, if two theories are equally good, you should take the simpler, as Occam advised, but that doesn’t mean you should choose a more parsimonious theory over one with more explanatory adequacy). So I hope that other morality researchers will critique Moral Foundations Theory, show what we missed, or where we went wrong. [This View of Life – Profiles in Evolutionary Moral Psychology: Jonathan Haidt]
Haidt summarizes Yin/Yang as follows:
I suggested that liberals and conservatives are like yin and yang-both are “necessary elements of a healthy state of political life,” as John Stuart Mill put it. Liberals are experts in care; they are better able to see the victims of existing social arrangements, and they continually push us to update those arrangements and invent new ones. As Robert F. Kennedy said: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” I showed how this moral matrix leads liberals to make two points that are (in my opinion) profoundly important for the health of a society: (1) governments can and should restrain corporate superorganisms, and (2) some big problems really can be solved by regulation.
I explained how libertarians (who sacralize liberty) and social conservatives (who sacralize certain institutions and traditions) provide a crucial counterweight to the liberal reform movements that have been so influential in America and Europe since the early twentieth century. I said that libertarians are right that markets are miraculous (at least when their externalities and other failures can be addressed), and I said that social conservatives are right that you don’t usually help the bees by destroying the hive. [The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, pages 365-366, emphasis added.]
The Asteroids Club:
1. a unique non-debate on America’s biggest problems, which are hurtling toward us through space and time at an alarming rate of speed 2. a gathering convened by two people who disagree politically but are willing to mutually acknowledge that the other side may see some real threats more clearly than does one’s own side 3. offering more entertainment value than you can possibly have if you only talk to people you agree with 4. motto: “I’ll help you deflect your asteroid, if you help me deflect mine.
The Asteroids Club is a new approach to communicating about the civic problems that polarize – and paralyze – us. The concept grew out of the field of moral psychology, which tells us that people are more likely to find common ground when they unite to fight common threats. [AsteroidsClub.org]
I understand Haidt’s affinity for metaphors. It can be awfully difficult to convey complex concepts through data and logic alone. Those things don’t necessarily switch on the light bulb of insight and create the “Aha!” moment of realization the way a powerful metaphor can.
Haidt explains this in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom:
Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know. For example, it’s hard to think about life in general, but once you apply the metaphor “life is a journey,” the metaphor guides you to some conclusions: You should learn the terrain, pick a direction, find some good traveling companions, and enjoy the trip, because there may be nothing at the end of the road. [The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, page 2]
The necessity and the power of metaphor is clear. Haidt’s metaphor of the rider and the elephant is brilliant. It paints a complete and accurate picture of the sometimes oppositional modules of the human mind in just five words.
But that power is a double edged sword that can cut the wrong way if the metaphor paints a picture that is incomplete or inaccurate. In that event the metaphor can actually do more harm than good to the very idea it is meant to describe. The harm can be especially deep, even self defeating, if the metaphor sacrifices completeness or accuracy in favor of ideology.
Yin/Yang, along with its corollary metaphor, Asteroids, in my view, does all of these.
I understand the spirit and intent of Yin/Yang, and I see the kernel of truth in it, but it’s not the whole truth, it’s only one small piece of it. It is an example of what Haidt means when he says, “When we try to explain an aspect of human nature or behavior using only a single construct the gain in elegance is often purchased with a loss of descriptive completeness.” Haidt spends eleven chapters of The Righteous Mind summarizing mountains of scientific evidence and analytical thought developed across centuries through research, analysis, and debate among scores of individuals within the scientific and philosophical communities. Chief among that evidence is his own original research. And with that evidence he painstakingly assembles the rich, nuanced, complex, interrelated, and most of all emergent puzzle of the phenomena of our righteous minds, morality, ideology, liberalism, conservatism, and the nature of the dynamic that exists between them, only to throw all of it under the bus of parsimony in the twelfth and final chapter in favor of one small piece of that very large puzzle: that each side has insights the other may not have, such that the two sides are related like yin and yang, each an equal counterweight to the other, balancing one another in the Shiva/Vishnu fashion of John Stuart Mill’s notion that “a party of order and stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life”.
And that piece is ideological. The notion of symmetrical, Millian-style, Shiva/Vishnu balance between liberalism and conservatism – as if they’re at opposite ends of a horizontally balanced see-saw, or of a tug of war at stalemate – is straight out of the liberal matrix of moral relativism, where nothing is better or worse than anything else, just different, in an “Imagine there’s no countries,” “Can we all get along?” sort of way.
And it is inaccurate. The simple fact that different points of view offer different insights does not mean that those viewpoints are equally insightful or in any way balanced with one another. Indeed, Haidt’s own data shows that liberalism and conservatism are anything but balanced. Haidt finds that six-foundation conservatives as individuals – from David Hume and Edmund Burke to Jerry Z. Muller to Thomas Sowell – and conservatism in general as an ideology, have better insight into human nature and into political opponents than three-foundation liberals – from Jean Jacque Rousseau to Emanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg to John Stuart Mill – and the ideology of liberalism have of either. Yet equality of insight and a Millian-style Shiva/Vishnu symmetry between liberalism and conservatism is precisely what Haidt clearly and strongly implies through the metaphor of Yin/Yang.
And that inaccuracy denies the science of some of the central lessons of MFT that Haidt so carefully “tunes up” his readers’ minds to be open to in those eleven chapters. The scientific evidence that Haidt presents reveals that liberalism and conservatism are not symmetrical. As noted briefly above and at length in The Righteous Mind, they’re asymmetrical in practically every meaningful respect: in the number of foundations they employ; in their understanding of one another, and; in their innate grasp of human nature. But Yin/Yang implies just the opposite. Yin/Yang, almost by definition, imposes Procrustean symmetry upon asymmetrical things.
Yin/Yang not only maintains, but also fortifies and strengthens, the status quo of the “us vs. them” opposition that is a hallmark of the political divide. In The Righteous Mind Haidt says:
“Conservatives are “the party of order and stability,” in Mill’s formulation. They generally resist the changes implemented by the “part of progress or reform.” But to put things in those terms makes conservatives sound like fearful obstructionists, trying to hold back the hands of time and the “noble human aspirations” of the liberal progress narrative.” (p. 356, emphasis added)
But Yin/Yang does precisely that (and if Haidt objects to it then why does he do it?). If liberalism is like Yin and conservatism is like Yang then only the labels have changed, and the oppositional tug of war of the political divide continues apace. Yin/Yang does little to “drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness” out of politics. Rather, it plugs the drain.
By “plugs the drain” I mean “suppresses further inquiry” or “stifles further investigation.” Coming as it does in the final chapter of The Righteous Mind, and at the very end of many of Haidt’s talks, Yin/Yang tends to come across as a be-all, end-all, Q.E.D sort of final summing up of the truth about liberalism, conservatism, and the relationship between them as if it is settled science. In this way Yin/Yang then becomes a presupposition, a starting point, upon which subsequent thinking and conversation rest, as in “Given that liberalism and conservatism are like yin and yang, what might be an effective antidote for the poison of the partisan divide?” [Haidt’s answer:The Asteroids Club] Yin/Yang thus functions as a roadblock on the path of intellectual inquiry into a complete understanding of our righteous minds and of the political divide in much the same way cliches operate to shape and limit our thinking. As Jonah Goldberg relates in afterward to the paperback edition of his book The Tyranny of Cliches:
Deeply progressive assumptions about the nature of politics, life, history, the role of government, etc., are firmly embedded in our language. The assumptions masquerade as non-ideological common sense, homespun truisms, or even “science. What is passed off as no-ideological discourse on college campuses, mainstream journalism, and everyday conversation is often in fact deeply ideological.
This is why hammering on the fact that conservatives have soundbites and buzzphrases misses the point utterly. When a Republican denounces the “death tax” or celebrates “job creators,” no one is under the illusion that he is not coming from a conservative perspective, not least because Republicans tend to say things like “I’m a conservative.” But when we say things like “hindsight is 20/20” or “get on the right side of history,” the ideological algorithms are well camouflaged. This was a point made, in a more universal way, by George Orwell in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” He didn’t use the word cliche, but his point was the same. He argued that dead metaphors and stale idioms have the effect of trapping us in certain modes of thinking. “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems ablt to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” These phrases not only “will construct your sentenced for you,” Orwell added. They will “even think your thoughts for you” (pp 280-281)
Another way Yin/Yang plugs the drain is through allowing those who ask “Must I believe it?” when they hear that morality is about more than care and fairness with a firm “No,” justified by the us/them status quo that Yin/Yang promotes.
Haidt can legitimately argue that none of this is what he means; that Yin/Yang is not all inclusive descriptor of liberalism and conservatism; that there’s more to it than that; that he’s not a moral relativist. And, of course, anyone who has read his work closely will know that he’s right.
Too late. The damage is done. The most powerful “take away” message is the one that people read last in his book, or hear last in his talks. There’s a connection, I think, between the closing message of Yin/Yang and the fact that Haidt is sometimes pressed on the issue of moral relativism in the Q & A at the end of his talks.
Yin/Yang commits all the sins of parsimony. It paints only one small piece of a very large puzzle, and it leads to solutions (e.g., The Asteroids Club) based on only that piece. It contradicts and denies the science of some of MFT’s most important findings in favor of an ideological message. In so doing it obfuscates some of MFTs most groundbreaking lessons and messages, and undermines its potential for doing good.
Proper treatment of the disease of the widening political divide and the demonization that flows across it requires proper diagnosis of the symptoms of that disease. Yin/Yang is not that diagnosis.
Yin/Yang is a band-aid on a bullet wound. It treats the visible surface while ignoring the real damage that lies underneath.
It didn’t have to be this way. All along Haidt had at his fingertips a metaphor that is complete, is accurate, does not commit the sins of parsimony, and enhances rather than impairs the communication of MFT and its lessons.
1) Captures the true essence of liberalism, conservatism, and the dynamic between them based on Moral Foundations Theory.
2) Helps rather than hinders the communication of the single most important and powerful finding of Haidt’s life’s work; that morality is about more than care and fairness.
3) Clarifies rather than obfuscates the two primary lessons of that finding; that six-foundation conservatives understand three-foundation liberals better than liberals understand conservatives, and that; conservatives understand human nature better than do liberals.
4) Highlights rather than hides the common ground of the individualizing foundations that both sides share.
5) Transmits rather than restrains two of the most important messages of MFT that must be understood, embraced, and put to practical use by each side respectively if Haidt’s goals of reducing demonization and shrinking the partisan divide are to be realized.
a. The message to liberals: There’s more to morality than care and fairness; social capital matters.
b. The message to conservatives: There’s no part of liberalism that is not also part of conservatism.
Yin/Yang does none of these. In fact, it hides all of them. Yin/Yang is an oversimplification that sacrifices completeness and accuracy on the altar of parsimony and ideology. In the long run it hurts MFT and Haidt’s goals of reducing demonization and shrinking the partisan divide more than it helps.