Taste Buds of the Righteous Mind

Ok, so it turns out that I lied. I’ve been reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and not annotating as I progress. As much as I want to, I’ve got competing interests that prevail. I find there’s a lot I want to comment on, but I also wish to continue reading this and other things. And then there’s sleep. Damn it!

I like Haidt’s style and approach, BUT… and there it is. I am waiting for the sword of Damocles to fall, for the other shoe to drop. I have found a few things to be disconcerting, and I am waiting to exclaim at some pint, “See, I told you so.”

As I haven’t commented on the previous chapter, yet I hope to, I’ll keep my commentary short. I have a general feeling that as much as he understands the need to remain objective (as a subject with a POV), I can’t help but to feel that he is encasing his data points in an anecdotal wrapper, which in turn shapes his narrative into something a lot less universal than he may think. This is very much his journey and his story, but I am still interested in seeing how it plays out.

He establishes a story to create an analogy between taste receptors—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savoury (also called umami)—and moral receptors.

I’ll develop the analogy that the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors. In this analogy, morality is like cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes.

Johnathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, Ch. 6. Taste Buds of the Righteous Mind

His basic premise is that a typical human essentially has taste and moral receptors. Having these receptors doesn’t mean we all have the same ‘tastes’ and like the same food, but it means we have in-built propensities. And some things just don’t mix.

Haidt sets the table with a history, citing Plato in passing, and shining lights on Bentham, Kant, and Hume. Haidt and I are both partial to Hume. I’ve never been a fan of Bentham’s Utilitarianism, and I just can’t Kant.

Haidt borrows from Baron-Cohen (hailed as “Ali G’s smarter cousin”, thanks to being first-cousin of the comic actor Sacha), using an adaptation of his Systemiser-Empathiser matrix.

Haidt’s Systemiser-Empathiser Matrix.

The two axes depict systemising on the X-axis and empathy on the Y-axis. The point he makes (notably anticipating ad hominem charges) is that Bentham would likely be labelled on the autism spectrum as having Asperger’s Syndrome these days and Kant fared only slightly better. Hume, on the other hand—and though not plotted—, would have exhibited more empathy than these other blokes. And empathy had theretofore been mostly absent with moral philosophy to date—notwithstanding Hume. I can only imagine that Haidt would situate himself in the favourable green box.

I wondered whether Baron-Cohen’s original version used isocurves or some such, so I found his original paper that depicted the plane space as shown below.

Children’s Empathy Quotient and Systemising Quotient Matrix

A cursory review of the study of boys and girls with and without autism spectrum diagnoses was interesting but way off-topic, so I return to complete this chapter summary.

For Benthem, everything boiled down to utility, and Kant, with his categorical imperative, followed a deontological path searching for a universal law, an objective morality, centred on justice. Bentham used maths whilst Kant opted for logic.

Haidt prefers Hume, but this is advanced by Shweder. Here he doubles down on the receptor analogy but wants to avoid creating just-so stories, acknowledging how easy it is to fall into this trap. He borrows the idea of modularity from cognitive anthropologists Sperber and Hirschfeld and establishes in-built genetic mechanisms, citing examples of fear of snakes (capability: snake detecting) and human facial recognition. Then he distinguishes between the evolution by natural selection and that of a more dominant cultural adaptation once it manifests.

Harking back to the taste buds, he reiterates that just because we all have the same moral receptors, it doesn’t follow that we’ll share the same moral code.

He presents a summary of his Moral Foundations Theory, which I’ll abridge even further here. He posits 6 dimensions:

  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation
  • Liberty/oppression

For each of these, he constructs a description and an evolutionary narrative.

And then he summarises the chapter as follows.

The second principle of moral psychology is: There’s more to morality than harm and fairness. In this chapter I began to say exactly what more there is:

  • Morality is like taste in many ways—an analogy made long ago by Hume and Mencius.
  • Deontology and utilitarianism are “one-receptor” moralities that are likely to appeal most strongly to people who are high on systemizing and low on empathizing.
  • Hume’s pluralist, sentimentalist, and naturalist approach to ethics is more promising than utilitarianism or deontology for modern moral psychology. As a first step in resuming Hume’s project, we should try to identify the taste receptors of the righteous mind.
  • Modularity can help us think about innate receptors, and how they produce a variety of initial perceptions that get developed in culturally variable ways.
  • Five good candidates for being taste receptors of the righteous mind are care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

What I like about Haidt is that he admits that all of morality is fully constructed and humans have receptors that are just waiting for something to plug into them. I believe his prceconceived notions will play a part in connecting these. I am also concerned with the possible limitations of his ordered pairs—care-harm and so on.

In closing, I am still leery that in spite of claiming ‘in psychology our goal is descriptive‘, he will presently be sharing his prescription.

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