Interview with Jonathan Haidt

This is a terrific article: The Believer – Interview with Jonathan Haidt

Haidt makes some thought-provoking points: the evolutionary origins of morality; why some people find some things repugnant and others not; the difference between moral pluralism and moral relativism; and other great stuff.

He also reminds us not to objectify people with whom we may not agree, and not to make too many assumptions (usually to our own detriment):

First, it would help if liberals understood conservatives better. If I have a mission in life, it is to convince people that everyone is morally motivated—everyone except for psychopaths. Everyone else is morally motivated. Liberals need to understand that conservatives are motivated by more than greed and hatred. And Americans and George Bush in particular need to understand that even terrorists are pursuing moral goods. One of the most psychologically stupid things anyone ever said is that the 9/11 terrorists did this because they hate our freedom. That’s just idiotic. Nobody says: “They’re free over there. I hate that. I want to kill them.” They did this because they hate us, they’re angry at us for many reasons, and terrorism and violence are “moral” actions, by which I don’t mean morally right, I mean morally motivated.

Some people will read Haidt and immediately dismiss him because they reject a scientific (i.e. evolutionarily based) point of view on matters of human morality and ethics. But whatever. That’d be too bad, because it actually gives some solid, rational reasons for the “left” to be a lot more tolerant and understanding of the “right.” (Even if they don’t agree.)

Author: Andrew Hinton

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6 thoughts on “Interview with Jonathan Haidt”

  1. It was a very interesting and thought provoking interview to be sure but I guess the whole premise of his experiment bothers me, and not because of his evolutionary take on moral reactions.

    The example of his experiment, the whole brother/sister thing. It presents a situation that may not actually be factual. Can a brother and sister have sex without any negative psycological impact? Even with two forms of birth control is that still 100% effective? He says that they do it once and never again. Can desire be flipped on and off like that? He assumes that sex has no emotional component.

    Basically he has set up an example to nulify all possible reasoned objections to what most would perceive as an immoral act. In that regard his work is significant and worthy of consideration.

    But then there is the blink factor. What if our moral judgements happen the same way rapid cognition happens. Throughout Malcolm Gladwell’s survey of rapid cognition we saw many examples of individual who could not rationally explain their judgements and yet those judgements were often accurate (with the exception of the “Warren Harding error”). Perhaps there is a relationship between rapid cognition and rapid moral response.

    Perhaps our motral education (formal as well as culturaly influenced) and our life experience informs a moral “blink” response?

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  3. I found myself wishing he had a different scenario. It ends up feeling sort of straw-man to me, as well.

    I see a lot of parallels with the Blink idea too. One thing that Gladwell pointed out, though, was that the blink response tended to be off base when fear was skewing people’s judgment, or when people were involved in things that were completely new to them (they had no tacit experience upon which to draw for an appropriate reflexive response). I wonder if the ‘digust’ factor is similar to ‘fear’ in this context?

    Fascinating stuff.

  4. It might be fear, but it also might be a response to a behavior that could lead to a threat to the survival of the species. In this regard I do see certain ‘moral’ judgements as being tied directly to biology. Incest is seen as a potential threat to the health and survival of the species and is evokes an immediate negative reaction.

    I also see that it is possible to overcome these biological moral blinks. Look at attitude towards homosexuality as an example. There was a time when procreation was key to survival. The larger the population of your tribe or clan then the more resouces you could muster. But our survival is not contingent on procreation and so we are learning a new reaction – a more tollerant reaction.

    This is where I find Haidt’s arguement to be at its weakest. Moral reactions are not universal and they can be learned and unlearned. Just because someone cannot articulate the why of a gut reaction does not mean that the reaction is completely without foundation.

    I guess I need to re-read the interview to make sure I understood exactly what he was trying to say because the more I think about it the holes in his logic seem to be getting bigger.

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