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Asteroids, Moral Foundations Theory, The Partisan Divide

Jonathan Haidt’s Metaphors Sacrifice Completeness and Accuracy in Favor of Parsimony and Ideology, Part II: Taste Buds



This is Part II of a two-part essay in which I attempt to make the case that several of the metaphors Jonathan Haidt uses to help convey the lessons of his study of morality do more harm than good to his Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), to our understanding of the partisan divide, and potentially to our attempts to find methods to shrink the divide and to mitigate its deleterious effects.  

To recap, I understand the necessity and the power of metaphor in the communication of complex ideas. Haidt’s metaphor of the rider and the elephant is a brilliant conceptualization of the human brain.   But that power is a double-edged sword that can cut the wrong way if the metaphor is inaccurate or incomplete.  Haidt recognizes this, and objects to the over-valuation of parsimony in the pursuit of understanding human nature and behavior, saying “the gain in elegance is often purchased with a loss of descriptive completeness.”  

I understand the spirit and intent of Haidt’s metaphors of Yin/Yang, Asteroids, Taste Buds, and Cuisines.  I see the truths upon which they are based, and I believe that Haidt’s heart is in the right place and that his aspirations of shrinking the size of the divide and reducing the demonization that flows across it are worthwhile and important.  But I believe that those metaphors not only fail to convey the whole truth of the psychology behind the political divide, but also, individually and collectively, contradict some of Haidt’s scientific findings and therefore actively obfuscate our view of the whole truth.  I believe that they are examples of precisely the sort of parsimony to which Haidt objects.  In Part I I explained why I think this is true of Yin/Yang and Asteroids.  I explained the ways in which the parsimony of those metaphors works against MFT, against our understanding of human nature and behavior, and against Haidt’s aspirations.    In this part I’ll  explain why I think it’s also true of “Taste Buds,” and “Cuisines.”   

Here’s Haidt’s summary of those metaphors:

The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors. Secular Western moralities are like cuisines that try to activate just one or two of these receptors–either concerns about harm and suffering, or concerns about fairness and injustice. But people have so many other powerful moral intuitions, such as those related to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. I’ll explain where these six taste receptors come from, how they form the basis of the world’s many moral cuisines, and why politicians on the right have a built-in advantage when it comes to cooking meals that voters like. [The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, page xxi] 

My objection to these metaphors is this:  People don’t think with taste buds, but they do think with moral foundations.   This makes a huge difference in the interpretation of Haidt’s findings and in the selection of methods that might be put in place to help achieve Haidt’s aspirations.  The metaphors of taste buds and cuisines imply that morality is little more than a matter of personal preference and/or even just a matter of what a person grew up with and is accustomed to;  as if to say “Liberals like Mexican food, conservatives like Chinese food, what of it?  Can we all get along?”  It’s classic moral relativism, with its implication that things aren’t better or worse, just different.  And importantly, it does not follow from Haidt’s research and findings. 

Moral foundations are evolutionary adaptations that helped humans to survive and to thrive as we became The Social Animal that we are. They facilitate our capability, unique among all species on earth, to form into ultra-social groups (i.e., numbering in the hundreds, thousands, even millions) of unrelated individuals (i.e., non-kin, as opposed to all-kin, like bees, for example) who cooperate for their own benefit.  Since moral foundations are products of evolution it follows that they are threat detectors. They help us to perceive and to understand the dangers and benefits of the social environment in which we evolved and continue to live.  They’re core elements of fundamental human nature.  

Moral foundations are tools of subconscious and conscious cognition.  Intuition is an example of subconscious cognition.  It is an example of the “Fast” thinking described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Intuition happens automatically and instantaneously, resulting in our gut feelings of like or dislike, good or bad, better or worse, approach or avoid, fight or flee when we see things in the social or political world.  Conscious cognition is reason.  Human reason is Kahneman’s “Slow” thinking. Reason requires language, and the construction of rational arguments. Reason happens long after intuitions have been felt.  In The Righteous Mind Haidt explains that the evolved purpose of reason is to act as a press secretary on behalf of intuition.  Reason evolved to help us justify and defend our intuitions, and to help us try to persuade others that our own particular intuitions about something are the right ones.

The more foundations one employs, the more threats and benefits of the social world, and the more of human nature, one  intuitively and rationally understands.  Haidt’s findings show this to be true.  Six-foundation conservatives understand three-foundation liberals better than the other way around, and six-foundation conservatives understand human nature better than do liberals.  Moral foundations define not just personal preference, but the extent and the limits of our actual cognitive capacity to perceive, understand, and articulate the social world around us.  Correlation does not mean causation, but I’m confident that were studies to be conducted to test this idea the results would support it.  At any rate, this asymmetry between liberal and conservative moral systems, and between liberal and conservative understanding, are two of the main messages of the first eleven chapters of The Righteous Mind. 

The metaphors of moral foundations as taste buds and moralities as cuisines do not, and cannot, explain the asymmetry of understanding of one another and of human nature that exists between conservatives and liberals, but the notion that moral foundations are cognitive tools of the elephant and the rider can, and does.  

Like Yin/Yang and Asteroids, the metaphors of moral foundations as Taste Buds and moralities as Cuisines commit the sins of parsimony.  They’re based in truth, but they tell only a part of it; they contradict the science of some of MFT’s most important findings, and; they do so in favor of moral relativism.  All of those metaphors, individually and collectively, look to me like an ideologically liberal Procrustean bed Haidt is force-fitting his findings into.

As I said in Part I, 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, Asteroids, Taste Buds, and Cuisines, are not that diagnosis.  They’re band-aids on bullet wounds.  They treat the visible surface of the tensions and behaviors that occur across the political divide while ignoring the real damage that lies beneath.   

 

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