haidt & soft core materialism

As an addendum to yesterday’s post re: David Brooks’ column about what I called (tongue in cheek) soft-core materialism, this from Jonathan Haidt (an author Brooks mentions) in Edge.

Haidt compares morality through the study of developmental psychology–i.e. Lawerence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan–and what he sees as the new scientific approach to the question.

Haidt (my emphasis):

So in the 1990s I was thinking about the role of emotion in moral judgment, I was reading Damasio, De Waal, and Bargh, and I was getting very excited by the synergy and consilience across disciplines. I wrote a review article called “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail,” which was published in 2001, a month after Josh Greene’s enormously influential Science article. Greene used fMRI to show that emotional responses in the brain, not abstract principles of philosophy, explain why people think various forms of the “trolley problem” (in which you have to choose between killing one person or letting five die) are morally different.

The Rational Tail is Kohlberg and Gilligan.  The Dog who does the real wagging here is emotion honed through evolution is the real driver of our choices/views about morality and then we create abstract philosophical and psychological theories to retroactively justify these emotion-based decisions.

But returning to the part I italicized and highlighted, particularly this line “emotional responses in the brain.”  Since when is emotion located in the brain?  What we know is that emotions have brain pattern correlations so that when you experience an emotion there is a signature brain pattern that corresponds to that emotion.

Correlations being the key word.  Who said a correlation is a cause?  Perhaps it is just as easily an effect.  Or something (as I believe) which co-arises.

So the point about Kohlberg and Gilligan (& Crew) might still have validity–i.e. its retroactive–but it hasn’t moved from emotion-in-the-brain versus abstract philosophy-in-the-mind.  It’s abstract philosophy in the mind with its own brain correlations compared to emotional response having both a consciousness and material (brain pattern) signature.  The consciousness of the emotion may in fact be prior to linguistic formulation or mental construction.

But even in that later case, the developmental psychological tradition is part of another experiential moment of the same basic moral continuum–it might not be telling us about the “cause” of the initial response but it is telling us about the way in which the human constructs meaning. Both of which would then be part of a seamless unfolding of the whole moral response.

Something that like, a more integral moral study, would I think find consilience (in Haidt’s terminology) with something like Blink from Malcolm Gladwell. The moral evolutionary emotion-based response mechanism being something of his blink unconsciousness (which is not the Freudian repressed unconscious).  But as Gladwell points out–something Haidt and Marc Hauser underemphasize imo–is that both this unconscious intelligence and conscious rational (“abstract philosophical” reasoning) are necessities in our world.  If for no other reason that evolution has selected for both in our species.


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