Can this be right?

In last week’s Stone, Gary Gutting discusses Haidt’s new book on our righteous minds. There’s something that strikes me as questionable about a lot of what he says, even though I don’t really work in ethics. I’d love to hear what others think.

Some background: Haidt thinks our capacity to reason evolved as a capacity to convince others. We are not truth-seekers so much as power seekers, though in groups we can get an emergent and very powerful rationality. What this is going to mean is that our moral thinking is much more a matter of rationalized gut instinct (heavily culturally influenced) than anything else.

In the case mentioned by Gutting below, Haidt recounts working at home when his wife interrupts him to say exasperatedly that he should not put his dirty dishes where she prepares the baby’s food. Haidt replies instantly that he didn’t have time to put them anywhere else since the elderly dog needed to go out as soon as he was finished.

The truth is that he put the dishes down and the dog needed to go out, but there was a good time gap between the two. He misrepresented the situation to get her to think he was not to be blamed.

Now Gutting says:

Haidt doesn’t take such philosophers seriously, I suspect, because they don’t proceed like empirical scientists, testing their ideas through experiments. He’s right — and many philosophers agree — that ethicists should take account of the recent explosion in sophisticated experimental work on morality. But it’s important to realize that Haidt’s own discussion requires him to move beyond empirical studies and in the direction of traditional philosophy.

One way Haidt does this is by confirming experimental results with real-life experiences. For example, he tells how, while he was writing an account of experiments showing how people put forward obviously bad arguments to support their intuitions, he himself did that very thing in an argument with his wife. Much of the force of Haidt’s case depends on such concrete examples (and as a fascinated reader, I found myself frequently supplying them from my own experience). Without such examples, we would well question the relevance of simplified and controlled laboratory experiments to the complexities of unmanaged real life. Haidt is convincing largely because his experiments resonate so well with what we find in our pre-scientific experience.

What could be wrong with this? One thing is that we should be puzzled by this “our”. And I think it is puzzling on two counts. On the one hand, the example is one I at least cannot relate to at all for perhaps telling reasons. On the other hand, there seem to be some serious questions to raise about what is going on when one’s own categories of ordinary experience match up very well with those of the theoretician, as Gutting’s do with Haidt’s. These are points I’ll return to below.

Another problem is that it is far from clear that very good experimental psychological research does get confirmed by our views about our ordinary experience. As the authors of the Invisible Gorilla say:

We all believe that we are capable of seeing what’s in front of us, of accurately remembering important events from our past, of understanding the limits of our knowledge, of properly determining cause and effect. But these intuitive beliefs are often mistaken ones that mask critically important limitations on our cognitive abilities. . . . As we go through life, we often act as though we know how our minds work and why we behave the way we do. It is surprising how often we really have no clue.

At the least then, Gutting’s view of the relation between philosophy and experimental psychology is controversial.

Now back to the two-fold query about who the “our” is. I must stress that Haidt cites an example and gives absolutely no reason for us to think that it is typical of his life. Still, I have to say that I am tired of hearing men illustrate points by telling stories of how they subverted their wives’ concerned about nutrition, health, safety or similar things. Furthermore, though I am certainly no stranger to trying to find excuses, prevaricating over something that is in fact a concern of my partner’s about our child’s welfare is not something I can relate to well. It doesn’t build the sort of relationship that in general I strive to have with people I’m close to. (Please see my comment #9.)

I assume that I’m not alone in what I just said, and I’m not just trading stories about personal psychology. Rather, I’m raising a question about agreements.

There’s a second and, I think, more serious point. I’ve probably recalled in previous posts saying at a fairly large philosophy meeting that I thought the quality of a childhood was not to be judged just in terms of its effects on the adulthood; rather, a good childhood was constitutively part of a good life. All the guys – there were mostly guys – agreed that I was just being irrational, despite my saying that probably around 50% of the human race were not just nurturing people through a childhood merely to build good adults. The next day I woke up to the NY Times’ reviews of Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, and really for the first time was able to have a cluster of concepts that provided some unity to a large segment of my experience. (This is not to say that I think Gilligan is unproblematic; rather, she was looking at morality in a way that used concepts for which my experience was, at it were, ready and waiting.)

I think we are here at the problems of hermeneutical injustice, as Miranda Fricker has framed it. From Lorraine Code, commenting on and quoting Fricker: “Thus in Thus in societies ordered according to hierarchical structures of power and privilege (i.e. in most known societies), the idea is that unequal power relations

can skew shared hermeneutical resources so that the powerful tend to have appropriate understandings of their experiences ready to draw on … whereas the powerless are more likely to find themselves having some social experiences through a glass darkly … [with] at best ill-fitting meanings to draw on in the effort to render [their experiences] intelligible. (148)”

I cannot describe the number of times cognitive neuroscience has enabled me to bring into more general discourse thoughts that are largely relegated to the (relatively) outsider literature of feminist philosophy.