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Taste Buds, Yin/Yang and Other Metaphors


The power of metaphor is a double edged sword that can cut the wrong way if it is inaccurate or incomplete. There is some truth in the metaphors of Yin/Yang, Asteroids, Taste Buds, and Cuisines that Jonathan Haidt uses to illustrate and promote his Moral Foundations Theory, but it’s not the whole truth because those metaphors do not convey all the functions of the moral foundations, so the metaphors hurt his Moral Foundations Theory more than they help it. 

The metaphors of moral foundations as Taste Buds and moralities as Cuisines imply that morality is little more than personal preference, as if to say “liberals like Chinese cuisine, conservatives like Mexican, can we all get along?” But the functions of moral foundations clearly entail much more than that. People don’t think with taste buds, but the rider and the elephant do think with moral foundations. Moral foundations structure the space of moral intuition and reasoning and thus represent not just the personal preferences but more importantly the actual moral cognitive capacities of the rider and of the elephant.  As Haidt said in an interview of him by Krista Tippett at On Being, moral foundations define the limits and the extent of the moral matrix; the closed epistemic system beyond which a person cannot think. (1)   

The metaphor that liberal and conservative thought are related as Yin and Yang, and its corollary metaphor Asteroids, by which the threats to society perceived by each side are considered to be equally real and equally threatening to all of us, strongly and unmistakably imply moral and cognitive relativism between the two sides, and moral and cognitive symmetry of understanding of human nature.   But Haidt’s own studies show that this is not the case; that in fact, conservatives, who intuit and reason with all the foundations, have a better grasp of human nature and of liberals than liberals, who intuit and reason with only half the foundations, and of those mostly just care, have of human nature and conservatives. 

Proper treatment of a problem requires proper diagnosis of its cause. If the problem is the political divide and the demonization that flows across, then Taste Buds, Cuisines, Ying/Yang, and Asteroids are not an incorrect diagnosis.  While there is some truth behind those metaphors, they fail to tell the whole story of the science of the first eleven chapters of The Righteous Mind, and thus they obfuscate rather than clarify our understanding of the true nature of the partisan divide, and therefore do more harm than good to Moral Foundations Theory and the insights and prescriptions it offers..       

I suggest that a metaphor that better captures the psychological function of moral foundations than Taste Buds is that of Moral Vision, in every sense of the word vision: perception, understanding, and imagination of, and for, the social world; what it is, and what it can be.  

I suggest that a metaphor that better captures what’s really going on in the psychological and social dynamic that exists between liberal and conservative thought and action than Yin/Yang and Asteroids is that of Flatland/Spaceland 

The metaphors of Flatland/Spaceland and Moral Vision, accurately convey the message of the science of The Righteous Mind, and as such they also accurately describe a large reason that liberalism and conservatism are Coming Apart. They even hint at concrete steps that might be taken to shrink the divide, reduce the demonization that flows across it, and develop future leaders and policy makers who have a truer grasp of human nature than is currently the case.  

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(1) Portion of transcript from interview:

Dr. Haidt: The matrix is a consensual hallucination. And that’s kind of cool. And you know, the internet, and all that stuff. But, um, it was just the perfect metaphor for the moral world that we live in. It defines what’s true and what’s not true. Um, it is a closed epistemic world. What I mean by that is, it has within it everything it needs to prove itself. And it has within it defenses against any possible argument that could be thrown at it. Um, it’s impossible to see the defects in your own moral matrix, so again…
Ms. Tippett: So it becomes impossible to think beyond.
Dr. Haidt: Exactly.

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A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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