This is the tenth in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.
This posting concerns a presentation made by Jonathan Haidt, Jonathan Haidt, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. When I first listened to Haidt’s presentation I found a lot there that I wanted to comment on – too much to fit into the format for this series. Fortunately, many ideas Haidt presented also showed up in a New York Times article this week, “The Moral Instinct,” giving me an opportunity outside of the conference to report on those elements.
Particularly, Haidt gave three propositions about morality that he more-or-less asserted were beyond dispute:
(1) Morality is a natural phenomenon that can and should be studied by the methods of science.
(2) Much of morality is innate (“structured in advance of experience”)
(3) Much of that structured by kin selection (the ethic of care) and reciprocal justice (the ethic of justice/fairness).
And, as it turns out, while I agree with the first one, I entirely disagree with the second, and substantially disagree with the third. I hold that the idea of an innate morality is a contradiction – like round squares. Our innate dispositions can either be justified by some outside standard (in which case morality rests entirely with the outside justification, not with the innate disposition), or it cannot be justified by appeal to an outside standard (meaning that our innate position is nothing more than a desire to do things that harm others for no good reason and to feel good about it – in other words, it is not morality).
In presenting his case for intuitionism, Haidt quotes David Hume
We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (David Hume, 1739)
I happen to agree with this statement. I have said many times that we cannot reason about ends, we can only reason about means. However, every passion (or desire) not only identifies an end, but it is a means to the fulfillment (or to thwarting) other desires. So, we are not prohibited from applying reason to ‘the passions’ to determine which conflict with other passions and which are in harmony with them. Those other passions give us reason to promote some passions and inhibit others.
This leads to a conclusion that Hume himself endorsed, that the quality of a virtue is determined by the degree to which it is pleasing or useful to self or others. Or, in other words, a desire is good to the degree that it tends to fulfill the desires – either directly (pleasing) or indirectly (useful) – of self or others.
This does not at all lead to Haidt’s intuitionism.
Heidt wants to replace ‘passions’ with ‘intuitions’. Whereas I replace ‘passions’ with ‘desires’. The difference between a ‘desire’ and an ‘intuition’ is that an ‘intuition’ imbeds a proposition that has a truth value. A desire imbeds a proposition that the agent wishes to make true. A moral intuition that killing the people in the next village and taking their property implies support for the proposition that it is morally permissible to kill the people in the next village and take their property. A desire to kill the people in the next village and take their property does not support any moral conclusion.
How does Haidt defend his intuition? He does so by noting all sorts of situations in which he can demonstrate that what people are in fact doing is ‘justifying their intuitions’ – cases in which the moral judgment comes first, and the reasons for adopting them come afterwards as ‘rationalizations’ for the moral position.
I do not see why we cannot come up with a system of religious intuitionism the same way. You take a religious statement that somebody accepts, you demonstrate that there is absolutely no justification for that belief, you force the person into a position where they say, “I cannot disagree with you rationally; yet, I know that God exists and that is all there is to it.” Now, all we need is for Haidt to come along and state that these fundamental religious propositions that cannot be defended by reason are our ‘religious intuitions’ – a knowledge of God that is written directly into the mind (presumably by God himself).
Consider your response to be if some theist were to defend those fundamental propositions of theism that he cannot demonstrate to be true – propositions that command him to do harm to others – on the basis of some ‘religious intuition’ by which he can simply know that those religious propositions are true without proof . . . without evidence . . . without justification, claiming that ‘justifications’ when they occur are merely ad hoc.
This gives us a reduction ad absurdum of the form of reasoning that Haidt is trying to use in defense of moral intuitionism. The type of evidence that Haidt is providing does not justify believing in the types of entities that his theory postulates – moral intuitions (in the first case), or religious intuitions (in the second).
In addition, a researcher may be able to find example after example of cases where subjects are inclined to (for example) use the logical fallacy of ‘affirming the consequent’. He may be able to take brain scans of people committing the fallacy of affirming the consequent and see just what parts of the brain are involved. It may be the case that a theory that includes affirming the consequent is the best theory for explaining and predicting the behavior of test subjects. Yet, with all of this, ‘affirming the consequent’ is still a fallacy. It remains a fallacy no matter how often it is used or how well researchers do in predicting its use.
Haidt’s research, which he claims shows that people reliably engage in a pattern where moral intuition leads to judgment which leads to ‘reasoning’ (or coming up with fallacious claims based on false premises in support of the judgment), can never support the conclusion that passion or sentiment alone can actually justify a moral judgment (a conclusion that others may be legitimately harmed).
In fact, this is a problem with a great deal of moral reasoning. Agents tend to jump far too quickly from a desire to inflict certain types of harm to the conclusion that they are morally justified in doing so. They ‘justify’ this leap by stating that God wrote those moral rules directly into their brain. But God, in this sense, is just an invention that allows one to act on one’s desires without guilt. Moral intuitionism works the same way. By calling an impulse to act in ways harmful to others a ‘moral intuition’ rather than a ‘desire’, one can pretend that the actions that the desire motivates the agent to perform are justified.