Like Will Wilkinson I found John Gray’s review of Jonathan Haidt’s, The Righteous Mind, entertaining if not particularly enlightening.

This is not my main point but I can’t help to note that Gray seems to think little of Haidt’s philosophical sophistication, yet in that same review pens paragraphs such as this

In his diary recording the persecution he suffered in Nazi Germany, Victor Klemperer reports on tradesmen and neighbors occasionally slipping him and his wife food and chocolate. Against the background of pervasive hatred and cruelty that Klemperer experienced, these fitful expressions of kindness must qualify as moral behavior. But they are in no sense “groupish.” Quite the contrary: they show people setting aside group identities for the sake of human sympathy. Those who helped Klemperer and his wife were violating the group-centered racist morality of Nazism—along with the morality that had in the past sanctioned persecution of Jews—in order to show concern for individuals. In effect, they were choosing between good and bad moralities.

Taken as a whole, these eloquent words don’t quite fall to the level of nonsense, but its certainly far from clear what meaningful statement Gray is making here and it does of course smack of appeal to emotion.

The larger point, however, is that I don’t see any fundamental tension between the work that Haidt is doing and moral philosophy. Gray writes

IT IS RATHER LATE in his argument that Haidt offers anything like a definition of morality, but when he does it is avowedly functionalist: “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” Haidt recognizes that this is an entirely descriptive definition. He acknowledges that, if it were applied normatively, “it would give high marks to fascist and communist societies as well as to cults, so long as they achieved high levels of social cooperation by creating a shared social order.”

That is an implication of Haidt’s analysis about which he should be seriously concerned. But Haidt seems not to grasp the depth of the difficulties that he faces. There is a slippage from “is” to “ought” in nearly all evolutionary theorizing, with arguments about natural behavior sliding into claims about the human good. It may be true—though any account of how precisely this occurred can at present be little more than speculation—that much of what we see as morality evolved in a process of natural selection. That does not mean that the results must be benign. Freud tried to develop a view of human nature in terms of which morality could be better understood; but he accepted that much that comes naturally to humans—such as sexual predation and other types of violence—had to be repressed in the interests of a civilized life. Civilization sometimes requires the repression of natural human traits, including some that may be sanctioned by prevailing moral codes. The moralities that have emerged by natural selection have no overriding authority.

It is quite true that no description of the evolution of human morality tells us what we “ought” to do, but such descriptions in general and Haidt’s work in particular are incredibly useful to the moral philosopher.

For example, a significant chunk of moral philosophy could be understood as an attempt to divine what the following sentence is all about:

Sally said that eating meat is morally wrong, but I disagree.

Assuming that Sally did in fact utter the words “eating meat is morally wrong” what, if anything, am I disagreeing with?

Without diving too deep, let’s just say it is far from clear. However, Haidt is potentially offering us a clear first step.

According to Haidt I can understand that sentence as the following:

Sally said that eating meat violates either the principle of care, fairness, loyalty, respect, sanctity or liberty, but I disagree.

Importantly, if Haidt is right then my view of morality, projectivist anti-realism is seriously called into question. Indeed, taking Haidt seriously enough is grounds for accepting a full throated moral-realism.

So, I am deeply interested in the potential success of Haidt’s project.

Where I am confused by Haidt is his suggestion that of the six foundational values, conservatives see all six, libertarians see four and liberals only three.

Why should this be?

Are we suggesting that liberalism for example is a form of color-blindness; that liberals simply lack the cones to see three of the foundational moral values?

If this is the case are we to understand the growth of liberalism over time as the rapid spread of a genetic mutation? Is it the result of some sort of nutritional deficiency or environmental pollutant?

Moreover, it really seems like people are able to become more liberal or conservative as a result of primarily mental experiences. What is that all about?

Now I want to be clear that I am open to these possibilities. I am just not sure if that’s what Haidt means because he seems to suggest that through experience and intermingling liberals and conservatives can learn to put aside their differences.

However, doesn’t this suggest that liberals can in fact see all six foundational values?

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