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.

18 thoughts on “Can this be right?

  1. I dunno, reflecting on my child-rearing practices. My idea was that you eat shit now in order to get the credentials you deed to live a good adult life. You do boring stuff in school, you avoid fun things that would get you into trouble–in short, you sacrifice your present for your future. I still think I’m right.

  2. Anne:

    If what you mean is that often there is no feminist ethical language or terminology to map experience, I agree.

    What is needed is a feminist Nietzsche, a feminist genealogy of morals to analyze and subvert our largely male ethical tradition, with the same irreverence, wit and iconoclastic questioning spirit with which Nietzsche writes.

  3. SW: I do think there is a lot of feminist work that comes at least close to that, though perhaps in a different voice (forgive irresistable pun).

  4. There’s lots of wonderful stuff on the epistemologies of ignorance, for example. Google or amazon could take you to it.

  5. In my remark I’m denying that the “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.” Maybe this is a gut-level intuition about the narrative conception of the good life–that we want to save the best for last. And I’m not claiming that this is rational and the idea that a good childhood is constituitively part of a good life. But my intuition is just that childhood is nothing more than preparation for adult happiness and success–you beat those kids up to get them to grind through their homework, push them through school, force them to do all the miserable grunt work (and until college school is miserable grunt work) that will get them the academic credentials it takes to have a good adult life–that is, an upper middle class life: good, interesting job with a reasonable income.

  6. Haidt does say later in the book that he was completely unaware at the time that he was fabricating. I’d love to know if others think they could in effect lie without being aware that it was a lie – i.e., something that they were clearly in a position to know was false and that they said to aid themselves. I know that lots of people claim no knowledge of things like this, of implicit biases, of very selfish motives, and so on.

    My original narrative may have misrepresented this.

    Rob, I agree. It’s a great book, I think, with lots to think about. I’m inclined to buy into some of the view at least, but it is a view that has been building, I think, for two or so decades.

  7. Harriet- While I agree that, say, letting kids do whatever they want or something like that is a bad idea, at least in the very large majority of cases, I think it’s a far thing from that perspective and what you’ve suggested, unless you’re just being colorful. At least, that wasn’t my experience of growing up at all. All parts of life contain bits of having to do things one doesn’t want to, but this sort of comparison of childhood with boot-camp seems both excessive and unnecessary. It’s certainly not universal, even among many well-adjusted and successful adults. Perhaps something like that is necessary to achieve the good you suggest in some cases, but it seems quite wrong to make a very strong generalization here, I think.

  8. I suppose it’s really about how frightened you are, how close you think the possible world is where you, or your kids, could end up having a perfectly awful life doing boring shit work. And I have always been scared shitless–for myself, and then for my children. I just got a referees report saying saying, among other things, really? do you really think it’s a nearby possibility–a state of affairs obtaining at a nearby possible world–that you could be a Walmart cashier? This referee was clearly a guy. I DO think that I escaped being a Walmart cashier, or at best a secretary, by the skin of my teeth. I lived in terror, and I was, and am, in terror for my kids. It seems to me that you have to fight for all you’re worth, sacrifice, and frankly step on other people, to avoid being stuck doing boring work, with your back to the wall and no room to maneuver. Maybe it’s irrational, since I’m tenured, but I’m scared, scared, scared: I never go through a checkout line without thinking how narrowly I escaped being trapped behind that counter, trapped in that tiny space, doing repetitious drudge work. I never forget that I could have as easily been our departmental secretary. I escaped by the skin of my teeth by pure dumb luck. And I am scared for my kids who, I feel, aren’t sufficiently terrified–don’t realize how hard they ahve to fight to avoid being stuck doing boring work.

  9. Well, I’ll say that both sounds like a pretty unpleasant way to go through life in itself, and an underestimation of what sort of lives might be descent or even highly rewarding ones. (There’s a lot of room between a check-out clerk and a philosophy professor, of course.) But, whatever it takes to move you through the day is fine with me, I guess.

  10. Harriet, I take that Anne’s point is not that we don’t ever make choices in our child-rearing for the sake of some larger end (of, say, producing people who are capable to adapting to difficult circumstances when they’re adults), but that many people make the choices they make in child-rearing because they care about the well-being of their children *now*, too, “not merely to build good adults.” I don’t have children myself, but this seems reasonable to me, both as I reflect on my experience of having been nurtured, and as I observe my friends who have children. They don’t want their children to be miserable, not only because such misery might have negative effects in adulthood, but because they actually value their children’s happiness. We needn’t think that our children should always have whatever they want, or never be disappointed, or not have to do hard work, in order to assent to this claim; we just need to agree that a happy childhood, however we understand that, is a good in itself. If this sentiment is widespread (and I think that it probably is, particularly among caregivers), It seems to me that Anne is right that this is an important experience to take seriously in the course of ethical reflection.

  11. Thanks, Erin, I wish I’d said that.

    Harriet, I was brought up to expect some man would pay my way, though I do sometimes think I could be one of those senior checkout people.

    Our son is not all that well, and, ironically, his being stuck in a boring job looks pretty good. Right now we’re researching what we’ll need to do to leave him with more than our savings, since our old age may knock a big hole in them. As far as I can figure out, protection for him is going to cost us possibly as much as 35K a year after taxes.

  12. Sorry–just flipping out because my daughter has decided to do a philosophy PhD–and I am scared. I tried with all my might to push all my kids into STEM fields but to no avail.

    I wasn’t brought up to expect a man to pay my way. It was made abundantly clear to me that I was unlikely to get married. So my mother pushed me endlessly to get an education degree or learn shorthand: if you were too ugly to get a man, the only options were teaching or secretarial work.

  13. Of course, my parents were worried sick that no one would want to marry me. They didn’t exactly have an eye for consistency.

Comments are closed.