On Haidt

So C4 awhile back called out integral thinkers to put their two cents on another round of the New Atheist dustup. This one comes from Jonathan Haidt, himself an atheist in Edge. It’s an excellent article in many ways. Michael Shermer agrees. Shermer at least is honest that even if religion were expunged, human violence would still be rampant. That religion is used as a tool for violence.

Haidt’s argument flows from his own work on sociobiological morality. He credits E.O. Wilson (and Antonio D’Amasio) for radically altering moral discourse. I have no problem with doing neuroscientific brain scans on morality or ask what are the selective forces at work, adaptive features of morality (for I think materiality is inherent in all occasions). Obviously I do not agree with Haidt that the work of Carol Gilligan and Lawrence Kohlberg on moral development is simply the tail that is wagging due to the dog (“the real thing”)–evolutionary naturalistic moral renderings.

But that being the case, here are Haidt’s four points on morality:

  1. Intuitive primacy but not dictatorship.
  2. Moral thinking is for social doing.
  3. Morality binds and builds.
  4. Morality is about more than harm and fairness

Haidt then shows how Dawkins and Harris, for example, are promoting moral discourse not scientific analysis. They are promoting a position. They exhibit all four of his moral predictors. He rightly criticizes them both for not following their own supposedly scientific analysis. Namely that if religion has shown itself to be so longstanding, so universal a human trait, it must have (from an evolutionary pov) an adaptive value.

What Haidt, in his way, is doing is giving (a partial) genealogy of their belief system. Asking how their beliefs function in terms of moral discourse. This is where we get down to the nub of the issue.If both religious and atheist discourse can be seen in terms of adaptation (both as subsets of adaptive moral/social thinking-doing), then science itself, as has often been pointed out, can not determine which is in fact better.

Sam Harris’ response is that Haidt never addresses the main issue (in Harris’ mind):  namely that religion allows irrational/mythic discourse.  Which may or may not be true, but is not the point of Haidt’s study.  Harris has never understood the intersubjective-the way of genealogy so far as I can tell.

Haidt’s work is incapable of arguing which genealogies are better or worse.  I think a developmental view is necessary for that—Harris’ counterpoint at least gets that right, although he himself assumes his own stance, without any recognition of how he got there.

This is the point with sociobiological, evolutionary psychology/linguistics, etc.  If as a Steven Pinker notes, attitudes like competition, exploitation, and violence are written into our genes as are kinds of co-operation, self-sacrifice, bonding, then how do we determine (via gene theory alone) which is better?

If, as in this view, genes exist only to propagate themselves (“selfish” as they are), then clearly what we label moral and immoral actions in history have furthered gene propagation.

Again, I’m not saying their work is wrong, their methodology is flawed.  I’m talking about the interpretation, the theoretical overlay and its materialist metaphysics.

I believe we can say better or worse, good or bad.  But not from the viewpoint of adaptation only–understood in the biological sense.  It’s no good having moral discourse as if our bodies and their biological agendas were not at play.  This insight is a great gift from the evolutionary psychology stream.  But if all we have is adaptation, then whatever is adaptive–even if some thinkers work mightily to reject this reading of their work, e.g. Pinker–it could be argued is to be done.  Nietzsche’s ghost is haunting that previous sentence.

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Published in: on October 2, 2007 at 8:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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