Friday, May 04, 2012

Haidt And "Moral Dumbfounding": Still Not Right


1. When we reason morally, do we begin with conclusions and then use reason to rationalize?


To be more precise:

Sometimes...just like we do when we reason about anything else.

Consider cases of non-moral reasoning, and note how often we "rationalize" rather than genuinely reason. Consider the God dispute. Many people begin with their conclusion and then flail for reasons. Many, however, do try to reason toward a conclusion. I've spent years of my life doing this, and I'm not radically atypical. (In fact, there's no clean distinction between these two things, and what we get is a spectrum of possibilities. In all reasoning we take some things for granted and work toward others.) But the question "does God exist?" is a factual one, not a moral one. It's about the existence of something, not about whether something is right or wrong. Consider also "have humans contributed significantly to global warming?" That's a question with respect to which many people simply begin with a conclusion, yet it is not a moral question.

OTOH, with respect to moral questions, we often reason to conclusions. Abortion, for example, is something with respect to which many of us have tied to reason toward a sensible policy position. Typically, we ask ourselves whether women's rights over their bodies outweigh the fact that there are some respects in which fetuses resemble persons, and the fact that, if left on their natural trajectory, most will become persons. Consider also homosexuality. When, as a lad, I first became aware that there was such a thing, I had a powerful emotional aversion to the idea. But when I thought about it, none of the reasons that seemed to offer themselves in support of the aversion added up. Over several years of reasoning with myself, I--as it were--talked some sense into me, and the aversion went away. Again, not an atypical case.

So: contrary to what Haidt et. al. seem to claim there is no hard-and-fast asymmetry between the moral and non-moral cases. Maybe people more often rationalize rather than reason with respect to morality, but at best it's a difference in degree, not in kind.

As for roasted-chicken f*cking and consensual adult incest, these are cases way out on one end of the spectrum, best-cases for his position, not typical cases. As for consensual adult incest--brother-sister incest, to use Haidt's example--many people are just grossed out by it. Their only "reason" is ick. Personally, I don't think it's morally wrong, so it doesn't surprise me that people try to rationalize in that case. It's exactly what you'd predict even if you reject Haidt's position. It's just an ick case, people try to support an unsupportable position. Hilarity ensues. The same thing happens when you ask many people why they think that the world is 6,000 years old. Actually, I don't have a sister, so I think it's easier for me to be objective about the matter. OTOH, you might say that I don't understand the case well enough to grasp why ick is the right reaction. That I grant.

As for sex with roasted poultry: it's clearly not morally wrong. That is clearly just an ick case. And I'm sure that's what the people Haidt talked to meant. Normally, it's the experimenters in such cases who are the ones who are actually confused.

2. As for the more characteristic, political stuff in Haidt's view...  Well, he's just telling us what people tend to appeal to when they make a few moves toward trying to reason morally. It's of some psychological interest that conservatives appeal to "sanctity", but just keep in mind that this in no way means that such appeals are legitimate/defensible. How people actually think is not necessarily how they ought to think. Interesting--if true--that conservatives appeal to sanctity. That might tell us how to persuade them...but it doesn't tell us how we ought to reason morally. Just for the record.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home