I’ve been reading Jonathan Haidt’s work over the years with an attitude that follows an unfortunate trajectory, downwards. At first, it was with interest — his ideas about moral intuition being defined by a kind of emotional response first with the intellectual response forming a veneer of rationalizations after the fact seems valid. But then he went off on this “moral foundations” stuff, where he identified different axes of motivations, like care vs. harm, and then the axes started proliferating, and pretty quickly it all became a lumpy mush without much utility. He’s succumbed to Labeling Disease, something that hits some psychologists hard, in which they observe that which they measure, stick a name on it, and try hard to reify it into existence, even if it has no correspondence to any substrate in the brain at all. Id, ego, superego, anyone?
Then he won a Templeton Prize, shredding most of his credibility. Lately he’s been wandering around in a fog of sincere open-mindedness, letting his brain sublimate into a kind of misty moral ambiguity that looks more like blithe nihilism than anything else.
And now he’s done an interview on Freakanomics, where glibness rules, and manages to be so vapid I’m completely turned off to the new book he’s flogging. He did manage to solidify my opinion of him, though…just not in a good way.
He’s got to earn that Templeton, first of all.
People who share sacred objects and then circle around them can then trust each other and function more effectively, particularly in intergroup competition. I believe this is in fact why we evolved to be religious. But the sacred thing at the center does not have to be a god. It can be a flag, a book, an ideal, or a social institution such as marriage or science. The New Atheists are mostly men of science, or men who claim to speak for science. But when you make science sacred and then claim to speak for it, something very unfortunate happens: you don’t just think your opponents are wrong, you think they are stupid, and you adopt an arrogant and dismissive tone. You’ve got science on your side, after all. (I argue in my book that the New Atheists get the science mostly wrong.) The religion/atheism debate is therefore particularly prone to straw men and smug declarations.
There is so much wrong with that paragraph — it’s like an artful collage of the dumbest statements made about atheism in the last decade. Let’s take them apart piece by piece.
First, define “sacred”. He’s using it as a synonym for any ideal, including secular ones: I’d say, for instance, that the American constitution has been an important rallying point for my country for a few centuries. It’s a good idea and expresses lofty sentiments well while also detailing the pragmatic work of operational government. It’s a good focus for effective functioning in other words; but I would say that at exactly the point where it starts getting treated as “sacred”, it’s utility becomes compromised and it becomes less effective as a tool for advancing the causes of the governed. I would also say that this is a strength of science, as well: it isn’t sacred at all! It’s a flexible process that works and emphasizes results, not the ritual of going through the motions (although some aspect of the formalisms of grant writing are verging on arcane theology, I think).
But that makes his statement about the New Atheists even more nonsensical. Not one of us, Dawkins or Stenger or Harris or Cornwell or any other individual with a career in science, claims to “speak for science”. How would you even go about doing that? Are we oracles now? All we can say is that we have some well-honed expectations of what is involved in making and supporting a scientific claim, and religion doesn’t meet the standard, ever. Is Haidt willing to step forward and claim that Christianity, for instance, is a reasonable and scientific perspective on how the world arose and how people interact with one another? I think not, unless he’s angling for another Templeton.
It’s true that I think some of my opponents are stupid, but not all; I think religion has recruited many of the great minds of history and harnessed many of them in futile endeavors to justify at great length the emotional and moral intuitions of deeply superstitious and wrong people. But I dare him to read anything by Ray Comfort or Sye Ten Bruggencate or random contributors to the letters page of small town American newspapers and not realize that you are dealing with people operating well above their competencies.
I love the comment that “the New Atheists get the science mostly wrong.” Oh, really? Which science, the stuff that says there is no evidence for a god’s existence on even the most general level, let alone in the detailed mythos of each cult? Be specific. But if you’re going to tell me I have to read the book to get any glimmerings of where New Atheism is going wrong on the science, forget it — I lost interest about 4 paragraphs ago.
Speaking of smugness, he discloses that he was a political liberal, but has become a centrist.
I have the personality traits, occupation, social network and lifestyle of a liberal. It was over-determined that I would be a liberal. But in 2005 I changed my research direction. I had previously studied how morality varied across nations. After a second Democratic challenger lost to George W. Bush, in part because they failed to make compelling moral arguments, I began to study left and right in the USA as though they were different cultures. Which they are. I tried to apply a cultural psychology framework to the research, meaning that I tried to understand each side from inside. I tried to get a feel for what each side held sacred, and for what values and virtues they were trying to implement in their political and economic programs. At first I disliked watching Fox News and reading National Review. But within a year, I began to see that the conservative vision of morality, history, and economics was just as coherent as the alternative liberal vision.
Once I lost my feelings of repulsion and anger toward conservatism I discovered a whole world of ideas I had never encountered. Some of them struck me as quite good, e.g., the value of institutions and traditions for creating moral order; the principle of federalism (which failed spectacularly on civil rights, but is valuable in most other cases); and the glorification of earned success while being critical of efforts to achieve equality of outcomes without attention to merit. I now hold the view that left and right are like Yin and Yang. As John Stuart Mill put it in 1859: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.”
OH WAIT: META ISSUE. Haidt is the guy who’s claim to fame is his investment in the emotionality of moral decisions…yet here he is, claiming to have shifted his entire stance by studying both sides of the political aisle. Where his research consisted of forcing himself to watch Fox News. Does anyone else see a problem with this? And doesn’t the fact that research can lead one to change that much mean his research has just been shot in the kneecaps?
I would also suggest that the conservative vision might be internally consistent (I’m one of those New Atheists who doesn’t exist, who agrees that there are intelligent people working in religion and politics for odious and irrational ends), but it also has to cohere with reality. Case in point: The Texas Board of Education. There’s a perfect example of conservatives struggling to make their beliefs consistent with the truth by lying and concealing the facts.
Then, when it’s time to get specific about what conservatives offer that liberals don’t, he fails spectacularly. Does he really think that liberals reject institutions and traditions? That broadly defined federalism is something liberals uniformly oppose? Or that they ignore merit in trying to achieve equality? He’s been watching way too much Fox News.
And I really detest the false equivalence of treating right and left as yin and yang — it only works in the sense that you could call thoughtful charity and murderous psychopathy yin and yang, too. There’s also a difference between a conscientious, cautious conservatism and the raving lunacy of the contemporary Republican version of conservatism: only a deluded moron or a particularly smug and oblivious upper middle class dilettante could possibly be moving to the right in the American political climate.
There’s the general issue that not all moral beliefs should be regarded as morally equivalent — there are a great many sincerely held beliefs built on error that lead to horrendous consequences — everything from belief in faith healing to decisions about environmental policy based on biblical precepts. Richard Dawkins wrote about this issue in The God Delusion:
Humphrey suggests that, as long as children are young, vulnerable and in need of protection, truly moral guardianship shows itself in an honest attempt to second-guess what they would choose for themselves if they were old enough to do so. He movingly quotes the example of a young Inca girl whose 500-year-old remains were found frozen in the mountains of Peru in 1995. The anthropologist who discovered her wrote that she had been the victim of a ritual sacrifice. By Humphrey’s account, a documentary film about this young ‘ice maiden’ was shown on American television. Viewers were invited
to marvel at the spiritual commitment of the Inca priests and to share with the girl on her last journey her pride and excitement at having been selected for the signal honour of being sacrificed. The message of the television programme was in effect that the practice of human sacrifice was in its own way a glorious cultural invention – another jewel in the crown of multiculturalism, if you like.
Humphrey is scandalized, and so am I.
Yet, how dare anyone even suggest this? How dare they invite us – in our sitting rooms, watching television – to feel uplifted by contemplating an act of ritual murder: the murder of a dependent child by a group of stupid, puffed up, superstitious, ignorant old men? How dare they invite us to find good for ourselves in contemplating an immoral action against someone else?
Again, the decent liberal reader may feel a twinge of unease. Immoral by our standards, certainly, and stupid, but what about Inca standards? Surely, to the Incas, the sacrifice was a moral act and far from stupid, sanctioned by all that they held sacred? The little girl was, no doubt, a loyal believer in the religion in which she was brought up. Who are we to use a word like ‘murder’, judging Inca priests by our own standards rather than theirs? Perhaps this girl was rapturously happy with her fate: perhaps she really believed she was going straight to everlasting paradise, warmed by the radiant company of the Sun God. Or perhaps – as seems far more likely – she screamed in terror.
Amazingly (to people like Haidt who may not have even read what he criticizes), Dawkins discusses this by pointing out that it’s a complex issue, that those Incan priests were not stupid or evil, but that they were operating under false assumptions. But ultimately, our moral foundations must be compatible with reality — and basing them on a deep belief that the Sun God must be propitiated is not reality.
And finally, Haidt moans about how there aren’t enough conservatives in academia.
My field – social psychology – is similar to most of the other social sciences, and to the humanities, in having hardly any conservatives within its ranks. Since I believe that left and right are like yin and yang, and that “morality binds and blinds,” this is a bad state of affairs. Science as an institution works well NOT because each scientist is an open-minded genius, immune to the confirmation bias. We’re normal people, and we each try to confirm our own theories. But the institution works well because there are so many others out there who have no vested interest in confirming our theories, and who are looking hard for disconfirming evidence. But when we study any issue related to the sacred values of the left – particularly issues related to race, prejudice, gender, or the psychology of conservatives – this dynamic of disconfirmation breaks down. Most people want to believe certain things (e.g., that stereotypes are caused by cognitive errors, rather than by observable differences among groups). There are no conservatives out there who can say that (in rare cases) the emperor has no clothes. Politically correct errors are tolerated; offensive truths are shunned.
Of course if he believes there’s no real difference between left and right, it’s a problem that the right is poorly represented in academia.
But what if there is a real difference, a difference of substance, in how left and right approach the evidence and how they respect the methods of science? I think the field of social psychology is suffering because they haven’t hired enough serial killers for their tenure line positions. They’d certainly do a good job of making psychologists question their assumptions about the importance of health, happiness, and security in human welfare, and also, someone would be around who could finally intimidate those prissy-pants on the Human Subjects Review Board. Should we complain about the deficiency, or should we recognize that some behaviors are antithetical to the cooperative and responsible pursuit of knowledge?
The problem isn’t that academia excludes conservatives. It’s that it is a rare conservative who doesn’t prioritize the moral foundations (to use Haidt’s own terms) of respect for authority and loyalty to the ingroup above breaking through conventions and assumptions to test the truth. Also, it’s the rare conservative who will accept a job with high admission requirements that also pays a pittance.
So I’m really unimpressed with Haidt. I wish him well, though, and hope he lands that cushy job as a commentator on Fox News and the National Review (I hear there’s an opening at the latter, now that Derbyshire has left.)