Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Frans de Waal

To quickly follow up on my last post: I don't want to give the impression that Frans de Waal is not an important thinker on topics like culture, society and morality. He is. I almost always take something valuable away from an encounter with de Waal. But I am also sometimes puzzled by how de Waal positions his own work.

I was reading an interesting interview with de Waal here, which is what got me thinking about him and digressing about him below. I highly recommend reading this interview and other work by de Waal, because I think he far too often gets misconstrued as some sort of sentimentalist Margaret Mead II, which he is not at all. He is hard headed about things and pretty instructive about the heavy ideological valence of a lot of recent discussion around the topic of human nature and evolution.

Also while doing some quick research on this topic I stumbled upon Letters from Le Vrai, which seems pre-occupied with many of the same topics I've been on about recently. Also well worth reading.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

More on Morality

Don't want to wear this topic completely out, but there was quite an interesting piece on this in the New York Times recently.

In a series of recent articles and a book, “The Happiness Hypothesis,” Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia, has been constructing a broad evolutionary view of morality that traces its connections both to religion and to politics.

Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) began his research career by probing the emotion of disgust. Testing people’s reactions to situations like that of a hungry family that cooked and ate its pet dog after it had become roadkill, he explored the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding — when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why.

Dumbfounding led him to view morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.

The emotional responses of moral intuition occur instantaneously — they are primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world. Moral judgment, on the other hand, comes later, as the conscious mind develops a plausible rationalization for the decision already arrived at through moral intuition.

Moral dumbfounding, in Dr. Haidt’s view, occurs when moral judgment fails to come up with a convincing explanation for what moral intuition has decided.

Now, this part of the article seems to me to be pretty elemental--that there are "deep brain" elements to moralistic judgment has been observed by literature through the ages. The conflict between moral intuition and our sense of justice and or different elements of our moral intuition is basic to Greek tragedy, I'd say. So this isn't anything new. Not even the ineffability.

And, as usual with evolutionary psychology (which this is, in large part) the immediate cover sought for being accused of merely repeating commonplaces is to invent an enemy: "Psychologists and philosophers have long taken a far too narrow view of morality, [Haidt] believes, because they have focused on the rider and largely ignored the elephant."

Why Haidt's interesting re-imagining of this old idea requires strawmen, I don't know. There may be some psychologists and philosophers who have concentrated on the "rider," but I think for some very good reasons--they were interested precisely in talking about/reforming the volitional element of morality. The tendency to blame prior scholars and commentators for not having written the same book as you is both tiresome and disingenuous.

Frans de Waal does much the same when he constantly speaks as if his work is most important in that it challenges human self-importance. But who are the great apostles of human self-importance? Are they worthy opponents? Do they read Frans de Waal? Will they know they've been challenged? Is there no better way to present your work than by imagining idiots somewhere who would be absolutely opposed to its findings?

De Waal, for instance, almost always figures his work in this way:

I've argued that many of what philosophers call moral sentiments can be seen in other species. In chimpanzees and other animals, you see examples of sympathy, empathy, reciprocity, a willingness to follow social rules. Dogs are a good example of a species that have and obey social rules; that's why we like them so much, even though they're large carnivores.

But, the point that humans and animals are not as easy to categorically/morally distinguish as was once thought is by now an old point (though still worth making). What's really new about de Waal's work is the fact that he shows that animal society and even animal culture are important, and that these overlaying systems probably considerably complicate the interpretation of animal behavior.

In other words, the research model of evolutionary psychology--to explain human behavior by arguing direct links to evolutionary forces of early human development--is probably deeply flawed. Some crucial elements in our "environment"--society and culture--predate our species' early development.

But de Waal, apparently, would rather attack faceless "humanists" than fellow scientists.

But, anyhow, on to what I find to be the more interesting stuff in Haidt's article:

[Haidt] identified five components of morality that were common to most cultures. Some concerned the protection of individuals, others the ties that bind a group together.

Of the moral systems that protect individuals, one is concerned with preventing harm to the person and the other with reciprocity and fairness. Less familiar are the three systems that promote behaviors developed for strengthening the group. These are loyalty to the in-group, respect for authority and hierarchy, and a sense of purity or sanctity.

The five moral systems, in Dr. Haidt’s view, are innate psychological mechanisms that predispose children to absorb certain virtues. Because these virtues are learned, morality may vary widely from culture to culture, while maintaining its central role of restraining selfishness. In Western societies, the focus is on protecting individuals by insisting that everyone be treated fairly. Creativity is high, but society is less orderly. In many other societies, selfishness is suppressed “through practices, rituals and stories that help a person play a cooperative role in a larger social entity,” Dr. Haidt said.

I'm not altogether sure Haidt has the categories completely right--I'm not sure for instance that the sense of purity is really so basic and visceral as he seems to imply, but this is a much more interesting take-off point for discussions of the use and future of religion than, say, pointing out that a great many religious proposition are probably false.

There is a portion of Haidts's article that deals with liberal/conservative issues that I think largely recapitulates--perhaps codifies--longstanding observations about our political instincts. One flaw with the political stuff is that it is largely based on what people say they value, not what they demonstrate they value. But, again, Haidt's refiguring and reviving of the argument is worthy of some thought.

Haidt's point of view on both politics and religion takes in individual human psychology, social relations and structures and evolution.

On the other hand, I think we [and Haidt] ought to recognize that he is giving an up-to-date form to a discussion that Freud contributed pretty heavily to about 80 years ago (Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents). Haidt's point of view is less colored than Freud's by the romantic obsession with the struggle of the individual within society, but he seems to be taking up the same conversation.

A little less Oedipalism would be nice from our contemporary scientific thinkers--it tends to distract from the real contributions being made.