My colleague in the philosophy department here at UMM, Tamler Sommers, has a couple of interesting interviews online, one with Frans de Waal and another with Jonathan Haidt. de Waal is good — there’s some cool stuff in there about altruism and politics. Haidt … well, again, I find myself with mixed feelings about his work. The “social intuition” model, where people make emotional judgments and then makes intellectual rationalizations after the fact, sounds reasonable to me. But then, he goes on to make these arguments about “four pillars of morality” — harm, fairness, purity, and duty — that sound like intellectual rationalizations after the fact, too. He justifies some behaviors, such as female genital mutilation, because within a particular culture they may well be supported by a moral pillar like purity or duty, and suggests that people who lack those particular pillars (as many in the West do) cannot then criticize those behaviors.
I can almost see his point as an abstraction…but then he claims that some awful behaviors, like child slavery, cannot be justified, because they are only for personal monetary benefit. That seems arbitrary to me. What’s to stop someone from declaring that “monetary benefit” is a fifth moral pillar, and thereby remove slavery from academic criticism by people who lack that particular value? It’s like a game, where tagging a behavior with an emotional/moral label is sufficient to put it in a place of privilege. and whoever is in charge of defining the labels becomes the gatekeeper for what is right.
Sommers does a good job of grilling Haidt, and brings up this same issue. Haidt’s answers aren’t very satisfying. It amounts to saying that if the subjects of a practice, such as veiling, don’t complain about it, then it’s OK. It seems to ignore the fact that these individuals are imbedded in a culture that may provide some pervasive rewards and punishments to keep people in line — that these unpleasant practices have a context, and people may profess support for ugly practices not because they like them, but because they like to maintain the cultural framework that surrounds them.
I get the distinct feeling that Haidt is exhibiting an “academic intuition” model. He’s got a couple of ideas that are emotionally appealing to him, and there’s a fair bit of post hoc diddling to justify them … but the arguments don’t ring true to anyone who lacks his attachment to them.