A former professed liberal psychologist has written a new book that aspires “to drain some vitriol from public debate and enable conversations across ideological divides” but in so doing his insight into the renewed argument on “nature vs. nurture” may offend some liberals
Dictionary.com defines intuition as a direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process. From a philosophical standpoint it is an immediate cognition of an object not inferred or determined by a previous cognition of the same object; a pure, untaught, noninferential knowledge.
Has “evolution etched into our brains like the taste buds on our tongues [some] psychological bases” that determine good and bad, right and wrong, as Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, theorizes? It’s an interesting concept and based on what little I have read on it, Haidt offers up some compelling arguments that make good food for thought. He thinks morality is predominantly intuitive but it’s not quite clear in Marc Perry’s account why this leads Haidt to feel that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”
Human nature may indeed consist of moral imperatives “etched into our brains” through evolution but evolution is a process and simply because some people retain a sense of morality based on mankind’s earliest conditions doesn’t mean that those feelings are confined to those narrower, original concepts. Reasoning comes from experiences and as the human condition changes those experiences broaden our understanding and allow us to see things outside the original box.
The more intellectual conservatives use reason to explain their so-called intuitive morality as opposed to the “grunt” conservative whose sense of morality is more a gut-level reaction – “I can’t explain it but I know it’s wrong”. Yet this was pretty much the path taken by liberal Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart on his ruling regarding a case about hard-core pornography. The subjective nature of hard-core porn is one of those issues that lacks clearly defined parameters and beyond what had to that point been attempted to describe it in the 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, Potter simply declared that “I know it when I see it”.
Haidt’s example of this phenomenon he calls “moral dumbfounding” has “a brother and sister named Julie and Mark who decide to make love while on vacation in France. She’s on the pill; he uses a condom.”
The experience brings them closer. But they decide not to do it again. Was it OK?
Most people immediately condemn the siblings and then search for explanations. The dangers of inbreeding. Emotional damage. But when the experimenter points out that no harm befalls Mark and Julie, subjects typically resort to an answer like, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.”
It seems to me that once reasoning is interjected that refutes their intuitive feelings about it, rather than consider it’s moral imperative is not necessarily a foregone conclusion, the grunts simply kick in their heals and defend its immorality because they “feel” it’s wrong. Is Haidt saying this alone is what makes up our human nature?
There are of course those legitimate feelings we have that come from a sense of doom and foreboding. The “flight or fight” reaction of humans as well as all other animals seems to be of this nature. But do conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals as a result of some intuitive capability we have or is it a learned response based on the culture they shared growing up? Haidt’s own life experiences seems to personify this complex notion.
Haidt seemed destined for the liberal tribe. He grew up in suburban New York as a secular Jew whose mother worshiped FDR. He attended Yale in an era when President Ronald Reagan was routinely mocked on campus. He relishes new adventures like interviewing Hindu priests and laypeople in India, a project that stripped away his hostility to faith and exposed him to a broader palate of moral concerns, such as community and divinity.
A partisan liberal, [Haidt] plunged into political research out of frustration with John Kerry’s failure to connect with voters in 2004. But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”
Now either Haidt was a closet centrist in the first place or his intellectual curiosity led to some reasoning that challenged his nurtured views as a liberal. A similar case can be made about David Brock but where his strong conservative upbringing and early conservative political energies shifted in the mid-1990’s, leading him to author the book, Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative and to found the very liberal media watch dog group, Media Matters for America. Brock’s transition seems to refute Haidt’s theory about one’s basis for morality. What it does suggest is that if there is an intuitive gene for morality it is not something that makes us more politically conservative.
One of the perspectives of Haidt’s I’m drawn to is his “social construction” view of morality
Haidt sees morality as a “social construction” that varies by time and place. We all live in a “web of shared meanings and values” that become our moral matrix, he writes, and these matrices form what Haidt, quoting the science-fiction writer William Gibson, likens to “a consensual hallucination.”
Haidt sees this social construct as something that is innate; somethings that is grafted onto “psychological systems that evolved to serve various needs, like caring for families and punishing cheaters.” But I have always viewed our means to interpret events and conditions around us as a result of our cultural filters. How we are raised to view things by listening to and mimicking our parents and other significant mentors is a learned response that is subconsciously assimilated into response modes as we develop.
Though it may be human nature to care for families and punish cheaters it is not a sense that can be defined in a narrow frame of reference. Our ability to think can expand on the earliest “innate” characteristics and those who choose to push the envelope may be viewed as more liberal but they are not necessarily less inclined to understand our programmed nature for acting on such traits.
Why is the practice of caring for families by less traditional roles where the wife always stays home and raises the kid more in line with our human nature? This innate instinct of “traditional family values” that conservatives tout is not immutable. The mere fact that our social and economic lives have changed so dramatically in the last century points out that the need to adapt is in conflict with what we have been comfortable with for those earlier millennia when social and economic life was pretty stagnate in comparison.
As for punishing cheaters, the methods used depends not on some innate sense of righteous justice but more by our innate attachment and relationship to individuals. Many anti-social behaviors that were once viewed as part of someone’s physiological makeup are now seen as mental health issues requiring therapy, not physical punishment or even ostracizing them from the group. But that doesn’t mean liberals are opposed to harsh penalties for some cheaters.
Where the liberal contingent in this country seeks stricter punishment for those cheaters in institutions too big to fail whose actions caused the economic collapse in 2008 and want many of them to spend some time in jail, conservatives appear less inclined in this direction while strongly advocating prison as a means of punishment for low income minorities who violate social taboos on drug use. Apparently it is only when those who we share some empathy with are charged with “cheating” behavior are we ambivalent on the severity of punishment.
Haidt does have his critics within his field and Parry’s article brings those to light but in all fairness to Haidt, this brief account of his theory more than likely doesn’t allow all the nuances that will be laid out in his upcoming book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon), scheduled to be released next month, giving him a stronger base to make his case. I think I will add this to my reading list to see if my comments here are insufficient or discover instead that Jonathan Haidt may be the victim of the stereo-type that says “If you’re not liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not conservative when you’re older, you have no brain.”
UPDATE: See a recent interview between Bill Moyer’s and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt here on Moyers and Company,
A BIG TIP OF THE HAT TO SHERRY OVER AT “A FEATHER ADRIFT” BLOG FOR TURNING ME ON TO THIS ARTICLE OF MARC PARRY’S