Moral Psychology: Shades of Gray

In Misfires of Moral Psychology, a post prompted by Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, I commented:

Haidt’s mistake is a common one: observe modern or relatively recent cultural formations and then uncritically project them back into the ancestral or evolutionary past. This mistake has other consequences, which are evident in what Haidt calls “innate” or evolutionary moral foundations:  “care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.” These “innate” concerns sound suspiciously modern; I suspect at least a few are products of post-Neolithic and Western societies.

Does anyone really think that the Patrick Henry binary of liberty/oppression is a universal moral concern? Or that for the past 50,000 years, humans everywhere have been so pressed by this binary that it amounts to an evolved moral disposition? During this same span of time, has everyone also evolved a Foucauldian sounding moral sense regarding authority/subversion?

Simply asking these kinds of historical and cross-cultural questions suggests that Haidt isn’t trafficking in evolved moral universals. This kind of naive evolutionary psychology often mistakes the current and local for the ancient and global.

In his recent review of Haidt’s book, John Gray understands this and more. I encourage you to read the whole but for those who don’t have time, these choice excerpts shouldn’t be missed:

Haidt’s account of the emergence of morality is disputed by other evolutionary psychologists, who argue that group selection is a part of Darwin’s inheritance that should be discarded. The debate has been heated and at times rancorous, an exercise in sectarian intellectual warfare of the kind that is so often fought in and around Darwinism. As is often the case, a larger issue has gone largely unexplored. In evolutionary theories of this kind, what exactly is it that is being explained?

Though they think their theories are universally applicable, evolutionary theorists commonly take their local conception of morality for granted. Books such as Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds, one of the more impressive of recent applications of Darwinism to ethics, assume that acting morally is a matter of following rules or principles having mainly to do with justice and the prevention of harm. This may seem self-evident to secular social scientists in American universities, but it hardly squares with how most human beings (or most Americans, for that matter) understand morality.

Haidt makes some sharp criticisms of naïve rationalism—the idea, found among the “new atheists” and others like them, that human life may someday be governed by science. But his claims for the usefulness of evolutionary psychology are hardly less naïve and rationalistic. Much of his book is an attempt to apply the findings of evolutionary psychology to the political gridlock that currently exists in the United States. The incongruity of the exercise should not go unnoticed. Whatever the causes of division in Washington, they have nothing to do with evolution. The phenomenon is much too recent for any evolutionary explanation to be remotely plausible. It is also too distinctively American to be explicable in the universal terms of evolutionary theory.

VAINLY INVOKING the universal laws of science to account for the accidents of history, Haidt has fallen into a classic confusion of categories. His analysis of American divisions, he tells us, is an application of “Moral Foundations Theory,” which identifies “the universal cognitive modules upon which cultures construct moral matrices.” But there is more than a hint of absurdity in Haidt’s pronouncements, and it is not because he is necessarily mistaken in his analysis of American politics. He may be right that American political divisions are currently correlated with attitudes to morality in the ways that he specifies. The absurdity comes from neglecting the historical contingencies that have produced the correlations he describes.

In the end, however, Haidt’s attempt to apply evolutionary psychology is yet one more example of the failures of scientism. There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party. Human beings are not amoebae that have somehow managed to turn themselves into clever primates. They are animals with a history, part of which consists of creating cultures that are widely divergent. Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism.

Like distinctions between right and left, typologies of liberalism and conservatism may apply in societies that are broadly similar. But the meaning that attaches to these terms differs radically according to historical circumstances, and in many contexts they have no meaning at all. Dissidents against the Soviet state were no more bound to be liberals than were the people who toppled Mubarak. Are the Salafists who are outflanking the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on the right or the left of politics? Were the market reformers who dismantled the Maoist economy (but not the state apparatus that enforced it) liberals or conservatives? Such questions are senseless, indeed ludicrous. They involve fitting polities and societies whose histories and present circumstances are profoundly different from ours and each other’s onto a map that was designed to chart the conflicts of a small number of closely related countries.

This is pretty harsh but it needed to be said. If evolutionary psychologists would seriously test their proposals historically and cross-culturally, these sorts of mistakes would be far less common.

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12 thoughts on “Moral Psychology: Shades of Gray

  1. Lillian Cannon

    This is another excellent post. Thank you for it. Honestly, too much is made of Haidt, likely because his ideas are easily digestible and politically provocative.

    The lack of interaction between the various divisions of the social sciences causes so much ridiculousness. I have written off much of EP as a simplistic appeal to authority to justify one’s own choices.

  2. J. A. Le Fevre

    Gray’s analysis is rather silly. If I may paraphrase his argument: Evolutionary Psychologists should never begin an exercise that has not already been completed. To borrow from evolution, Haidt has attempted to explain or describe the Donkey and the Elephant in terms of what he suggests are ancient human mental building blocks. Those same building blocks should likewise be applicable to feudal, Marxist or Sharia states or parties as well. One step at a time. Describing the Tea Party is not a failure to describe the Muslim Brotherhood.

  3. Cris Post author

    Thanks Lillian. I mostly agree with your assessment of EP, though I really like the quasi-EP stuff done on basic mammalian emotions by authors such as Jaak Panksepp, Antonio Damasio, etc. Their work seems spot on, and doesn’t try to say anything about modern cultural formations or social constructions.

    JA — I have no idea what you are attempting to say. I found that Gray’s analysis was good, if not incisive. He honed right in on the baseless assumptions and unjustified extensions. EP types routinely ignore history and contingency, either because they don’t know it or it’s too complicated for their overly simplified models.

  4. J. A. Le Fevre

    Let’s look at your closing comment: ‘If evolutionary psychologists would seriously test their proposals historically and cross-culturally . . .’
    That takes time, and he is just getting started. He is proposing an approach and testing it with a couple of examples. If the approach looks promising, he or others will likely continue. Insisting it be kept secret until all the work is done is silly.
    The sum of your clip from Gray is a rude rant that is disingenuous and wholly unsupported. To snipe at a few bits:
    JG: ‘Whatever the causes of division in Washington, they have nothing to do with evolution.
    JL: Without evolution, there would be no Washington. If you think culture is independent of evolution, try and demonstrate that. Haidt’s whole point was to tie (supposedly ancient) evolutionary features to modern Washington culture, and at another point in the rant, it was admitted that he had. Gray is contradicting himself.
    JG: ‘The phenomenon is much too recent for any evolutionary explanation to be remotely plausible.
    JL: When was it that evolution stopped? While Haidt may or may not have it right, we are still and will continue to be creatures of evolution. Again contradicting the admission of success with the Tea Party example.
    JG: ‘It is also too distinctively American to be explicable in the universal terms of evolutionary theory.
    JL: Evolution has been expanded to include diversification of (and within) species, if any have forgotten. There is no reason to expect anything different from evolving human culture.
    JG: ‘Vainly invoking the universal laws of science to account for the accidents of history
    JL: It’s only vain if he fails. Evolution runs by all manner of accidents if any have forgotten.
    JG: ‘There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party.
    JL: It’s a very direct line. That is why they are called ancestors.
    JG: ‘Human beings are not amoebae that have somehow managed to turn themselves into clever primates.
    JL: Actually, we call that process evolution – if you’re not selling creation, how do you think we got here?
    JG: ‘Like distinctions between right and left, typologies of liberalism and conservatism may apply in societies that are broadly similar. But the meaning that attaches to these terms differs radically according to historical circumstances
    JL: Yes, and hopefully, any who attempt to extend Haidt’s analysis to divergent cultures will be cleaver enough to recognize that.
    CH: ‘This is pretty harsh but it needed to be said.’
    No, just worthless venom. It’s just Grey throwing around insults he does not use properly. I do not care for Haidt’s choices of words (he could explain himself better), but I must accept the notion that we cannot escape evolution nor ourselves.

  5. Cris Post author

    Gray, like me, doesn’t think that the precepts and principles of evolutionary biology can simply be carried over to culture; they certainly don’t explain culture or history over the past 10,000 years. You’ve been around this blog long enough to know that I reject the idea that biological evolution can explain, in large or even sufficient part, most of culture or history over the past 10,000 years.

    Biology and society aren’t isomorphic; cultures are not organisms; “memes” aren’t genes. Biological evolutionary principles can be used analalogically to explain some very limited cultural-historical things but when extended beyond these it’s unwarranted inference and logical fallacy. The whole gene-culture co-evolution thing may work in simplified math equations, but it has little relevance to real life. The Wilsons (EO and David Sloan) may buy this sort of stuff, but I and most don’t. This quest for a unified explanatory system (“consilience”) is quixotic at best and specious at worst.

    I don’t find biological evolution very useful for explaining the complexities of culture or history; nor do any historians. While there is some level of ongoing biological evolution, and some basic things can be explicated in evolutionary terms (big things: disease vectors, immunity, epidemiology, lactase tolerance) (little things: the penchant for sex/porn), evolution has very limited explanatory or predictive power in modern settings.

    I could link about 10 posts I’ve done in the past year discussing this, but you’ve surely read (and perhaps forgotten) them. This post perhaps explains it best, or at least most succinctly. Until you can demonstrate or prove to me identity or equivalence between organisms (evolution) and cultures (history), the burden is not on me to show that evolution doesn’t explain culture. The burden is on you.

    Your insistence that there is a meaningful linkage between evolution on the one hand and contemporary American politics on the other is true, but it offers no insights, explanations, or predictions. It is akin to saying there is linkage between mineral iron and product car. This may be true in a sense, but that sense isn’t very interesting and it’s certainly not explanatory.

    Thus, I find Gray’s arguments warranted and convincing.

  6. J. A. Le Fevre

    Very quickly, more later: ‘Your insistence that there is a meaningful linkage between evolution on the one hand and contemporary American politics on the other is true’
    That was the point! Yes, we have different interests. We’ve known that. Evolution, as I noted above, proceeds with large measures of chance and accident. Biologists are continually finding totally unexpected and unpredictable new varieties. Some say it is best to approach it with a sense of wonder. Yes, we are extending this phenomenon to include culture, and wonder, not predictive power must dominate at this stage. Admittedly, I took a cheap shot at Gray, but wrapped around his own furry, his chain of errors made that just too easy to pass on.
    Back to EP: Patrick Henry’s binary was over two million years in practice (in favor of liberty) when adopted by the Neanderthals. This goes straight to the core of our primary disagreements these last months. While chimps (grudgingly) submit to the oppression of the alpha, homo opted for an independent, albeit short, life. Community being the adversary to liberty, early man chose independence and an often violent death by 30.
    An old man walks into a tea party wearing a new suit. Haidt announces that an old man has arrived while you are proclaiming the new suit. The thing new with Patrick Henry was the oratory framing the emotion. I see man’s choice of liberty decisive in our break from the chimp.

  7. Cris Post author

    If nothing else, I admire your persistent modern projections into the ancient evolutionary past. “Liberty,” an Enlightenment construct, was no more operative in the African evolutionary environment than Romanticism. If you find it useful or enjoyable to imagine such things, for which there is no archaeological or other evidence, that’s fine by me. Surely no hominins (whose descendants are the most social of highly social primates) ever chose a path that was independent of community or the group.

    All that aside, hominins and pre-chimps (which have been evolving this whole time too) last shared a common ancestor perhaps 7 million years ago. You are telling me that the decisive factor in this divergence was “liberty”? Honestly, I have no idea where you come up with this stuff.

  8. J. A. Le Fevre

    Actually, liberty was an unintended consequence of the decision to fashion weapons and eat more meat (If you would read what I sent first of the year). Liberty (actually non-submission to alpha authority and the resultant independence) was forced upon them by their acquired proficiency as predators.
    I had rather more written, but it just occurred to me to take a different tack trying to explain: Like Freud, EP is about emotions, pure and simple. Emotions derive from evolution. Emotions influence our decisions still today, 10,000 years after the Neolithic revolution. The language chosen by the EP purveyors leaves out the middleman in favor of evolution-speak, but scratch the surface and the whole exercise is about how evolution drove emotions and how those emotions now drive (and to what extent they drive) our modern decisions. It is an effort to remove the patient from the couch and replace him with an evolutionary model of a patient.
    There is nothing whatsoever modern in the emotional foundations for the concepts of liberty, any more than the only modern facet of any beast wishing to escape a zoo are the bars themselves.

  9. Cris Post author

    Let’s start with something data simple.

    When did hominins “decide” to “fashion weapons”? What is the evidence for this? When did it occur? How do we know these things were “weapons”?

    Similarly, when did hominins “decide” to eat more meat? My adviser is an acknowledged expert on hominin diet and he doesn’t know. Do you? How do you know? Hominin diet is extremely complicated, and uncertain.

  10. J. A. Le Fevre

    You’re wandering off on a tangent and I’m pretty sure you know all this, Cris, but if you insist:
    The so called Oldowan Stone Tool Industry dates from about 2.6 million years ago. I emphasize that common phrasing chosen by archeologists because of the large number of cutting tools and their blanks and flake waste found at sites. This was mature stone crafting technology. They were designed for cutting flesh. Developing such a complex and specialized industry requires time and dedication. Possibly millions of years. Oldowan tool discoveries (very similarly crafted blades) cover about a million years – these folks were not innovating quickly! No man nor beast could afford such investment if it were not paying off at dinner, and no one could attribute such focus to chance. They absolutely had to choose to do what they were doing. If you are holding one of these, you may call it a tool. If you are the one being cut, if sure feels like a weapon.

  11. Cris Post author

    Methodology isn’t a tangent. How we know what we think we know — and the kinds of inferences we can or cannot make, or the kinds of stories we can or cannot tell, is not a tangent. Because you like to tell stories, and these stories have an air of certainty or confidence about them, I am going to start asking questions which force you to justify or cite evidence for these stories. Let’s crawl before we walk and walk before we talk.

    Oldowan tools probably weren’t being used as weapons and aren’t experimentally efficient for cutting flesh. They were probably used to access marrow in bones. Most paleo people think that crude Oldowan tools were being used in scavenging, and perhaps in plant/vegetable processing. Oldowan or Mode I technology did not include blades. As archaeologists use the term “blades,” these did not appear until the Middle Paleolithic, perhaps 500,000 years ago at the earliest, in a few places at 250,000 years ago, and they finally became widespread during the Upper Paleolithic.

    You know those large, symmetrical, chipped bifaces that appeared about 1.8 mya and are known as Acheulian? These dominate and persist in the record for the next 1 million years. Archaeologists have done lots of experiments with Acheulian “handaxes” and they aren’t sure how they were being used. They weren’t being hafted and weren’t spearpoints. They aren’t effective when thrown. It isn’t immediately apparent or even obvious what their function was. They certainly don’t make for good “weapons.” They do cut flesh, however, and are also good for processing wood/vegetables. Their use wear indicates they were being used most often for the latter.

    It’s this kind of thing, knowing the archaeological record (and the historical) record, that we need to know before we start spinning stories about what hominins were thinking and how their minds were evolving.

  12. J. A. Le Fevre

    Data, without context, quickly comes to look like noise to me, so I do strive for a framework for the data, a narrative. Insisting ignorance is not very satisfying – glass half full and all. It is also tough to falsify a hypothesis you are not sufficiently brazen to put forward. Science is not about silently collecting more and more data, but in putting it all out there for challenge and review.
    Should one find him/herself sufficiently frightened or angry and had access to a chair, a chair could quickly become a weapon. I made the how-you-use-it distinction for weapon when introducing the sharpened stone as weapon suggestion.
    Chimps, as we know, live in a dominance hierarchy supported and enforced by near constant posturing, challenges and frequent fighting. The most primitive model in human history, as well known to the Enlightenment thinkers, was the egalitarian band, and such was their model for the appropriate human condition: Free from brutes and domination. Liberty was not to their thinking new, but natural and original. Under our curse of Darwin, the simplistic model of original liberty is no longer viable and it is appropriate to accept that it had a beginning. A logical milestone for investigating this beginning is the chimp/man common ancestor split. Accepting that there was a common ancestor requires that there was a subsequent split. Accepting as well that these were not carrots nor chrysanthemums with seeds born by bird or breeze, the split was the occasion of decision: Life in the forests or savannas, life on foot or in branches.

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