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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Haidt Crimes: In Defense of the New Atheism

What follows is a review and somewhat heated criticism of the essay, "Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion", by Jonathan Haidt, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia.

Those accused of the "misunderstanding" mentioned in its title are the "new atheists" (though this fact does not become clear until about two-thirds of the way through Haidt's rather lengthy exposition.) The basic idea is that the new atheists are too morally motivated (i.e., too emotional) to adhere to the scientific principles they exhalt.

Interestingly, Haidt isn't out to criticize atheism. He is a self-professed atheist. What he is after is a more tolorant view of religion. His main point (which he doesn't state until the very end of the essay) is that we should regard "every longstanding ideology and way of life" as having some "moral wisdom" to impart. Bizarrely, everything written up until the explicit statement of that "main point" indicates that the main point of the essay was to extoll the virtues of Haidt's "four pillars of moral psychology", and use them as artillery against the new atheists.

But let's say Haidt is sincere, and his main point really is just about "every longstanding ideology and way of life" having some moral wisdom to impart. If his criticism of the new atheists was ultimately to make this point, then he must think the new atheists have collectively failed to recognize the fact that religions have, through the ages, helped shape the moral lives of their members. Yet there is no evidence of this oversight in the new atheist literature.

Clearly religions have provided moral guidance throughout the ages. The issue raised by the new atheists is not whether religions offer "moral wisdom." It's whether they do it particularly well, and whether the benefits so accrued outweigh the damages. But Haidt doesn't address that point. He is much more interested in promoting his view of moral psychology, and using it to criticize the new atheists.

As I will argue, Haidt fails miserably both in his attempts to promote a cogent view of moral psychology, as well as in his attempts to criticize the new atheists. And when I say "miserably," I mean miserably.

Haidt's criticism of the new atheists is part of a broader criticism of liberal secularism in general. He claims that religious conservatives are morally richer, having five equally robust ways of thinking morally, while liberal secularists place their moral emphasis on only two ways of thinking. Religious conservatives thus somewhat de-emphasize the liberal secularist modes of moral thinking (which Haidt calls "justice/fairness" and "harm/suffering"), and add healthy portions of "ingroup/loyalty", "authority/respect" and "purity/sanctity."

The liberal mindset creates what Haidt calls "contractual morality", which focuses on individual rights. Religious conservatives, on the other hand, have "beehive morality", which focuses on the good of the community. For Haidt, this explains why religious conservatives tend to want to do things like: protect the authoritative status of the Bible, donate blood, give time and money to charities, maintain patriarchal social structures, ostracize homosexuals, and so on. These tendencies are apparently moral in ways liberals simply cannot understand, because liberals lack the required tools of moral thinking. Perhaps various hate crimes are also moral, yet simply beyond the understanding of the limited liberal mindset.

It is obvious that Haidt doesn't support hate crimes. Indeed, he makes it clear that he is not advocating anything even indirectly related to religious conservatism. He is a liberal secularist through and through. But he is also a pluralist, and he thinks that society benefits from having both liberal secularists and religious conservatives.

Like most liberal secularists who criticize the intolerant rationalism found in the new atheist movement, Haidt maintains a deeply hypocritical philosophy. Rather than advocate conversion to the morally superior religious conservatism, Haidt supports the view that liberal secularists can learn "moral wisdom" from the opposition. It's not that we should become religious conservatives. We should just become more like them. And that is said without even a hint of irony.

A little irony would at least make the lack of reason easier to digest. Consider this portion of Haidt's argument:

"Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You can't just dismiss this stuff as social convention."

First of all, what's wrong with calling something a "social convention"? Social conventions are the learned rules and procedures which define people's roles and responsibilities in society. Social conventions are the stuff morality is made of, be they the product of rational thinking, intution, or instinct (and, of course, they are most likely to be a combination of all three).

Haidt suggests that we cannot have moral attitudes towards social conventions. I simply cannot see the sense in that.

Secondly, "social convention" or not, Haidt insists that the moral thinking of liberal secularists cannot explain certain cultural attitudes towards menstruation, food, sex or personal respect. Why we should think there is a lack of explanation here, I have no idea.

For whatever reason, Haidt has concluded that issues of suffering and fairness are not all there is when it comes to moral thinking. Haidt thus criticizes Sam Harris' definition of "morality" for focusing only on suffering and happiness, and offers the following alternative:

"Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible."

I personally don't like Haidt's proposed definition, as it is overly verbose and complex, and relies on a rather vague notion of selfishness. Why not just say, morality is the system of rules which regulate our notions of right? Isn't that enough?

Ok, I need to just rant for a minute.

Apparently, respecting authority is only something religious conservatives really care about. And caring about the purity of food, the cleanliness of our bodies, or the integrity of institutions, such as the scientific peer-review process--these are not values that would be understandable to a liberal secularist. And being loyal to a cause, or to friends and family--those things are just for religious conservatives.

Really, it's hard to imagine how Haidt has rationalized this view of moral psychology. Is there any indication of different psychological mechanisms here, each responsible for the regulation of different moral principles?

Is there any evidence that liberal secularists have two separate mechanisms responsible for their moralizing, one for harm and care, and the other for justice and fairness?

Or, does the evidence merely suggest that religious conservatives tend to value certain things over others, like blind loyalty to the church, or blind respect for religious authority, or blind adherence to an arbitrary set of religious rules?

It's not that religious conservatives have more moral wheels to spin. It's that they have different values--values which tend to rely on the protection of their ideals from rational scrutiny. If there is a specific psychological mechanism at work there, it is called denial.

If Haidt has touched on a truth here, it is the far-from-revelatory fact that liberal secularists tend to value individual freedom (perhaps occasionally to an irrational extreme), while religious conservatives emphasize the importance of tradition (often to an irrational extreme). That's why we call them "liberals" and "conservatives."

What distinguishes liberal secularists is not the abandonment of community or tradition, but rather their critical attitudes towards community and tradition. In fact, that critical attitude is often taken in the name of community and tradition. It is precisely the religious conservatives' inability to view their own moral fabric from a critical perspective that makes the new atheists so frustrated with them.

Maybe the new atheists and the religious conservatives don't have fundamentally different moral ways of thinking. Maybe it's just that the new atheists want to open up all ways of thinking to critical investigation, and the religious conservatives don't. It's not individual freedom vs. the integrity of the community, as Haidt would have it. It's a debate between accountability and dogma.

Ok, I had to get that off my chest. Sorry.

Now let's back up a few steps. There's a blatant absurdity underlying Haidt's conclusions about morality, and I sort of glossed over it earlier.

Haidt's entire argument revolves around his supposed ability to recognize and appreciate the "moral wisdom" of religious conservatism, and he is apparently able to do this as a liberal secularist. So, either Haidt is not your everyday liberal secularist (perhaps he has super-liberal powers), or liberal secularists are perfectly capable of understanding and appreciating the "moral wisdom" inherent in religious conservatism. But if that is true (and Haidt must admit it is true, or he wouldn't be advocating recognition of those pearls of wisdom), then why should we believe that the morality of religious conservatism is peculiar to their structure of moral thinking, and not understandable to the mind of a liberal secularist?

There is a contradiction here, and it undermines Haidt's entire argument. Haidt wants to claim that the religious conservatives are morally superior to the liberal secularists. Yet, he is evaluating the behavior of religious conservatives as a liberal secularist. By his own reasoning, any of his judgments about the value of religious conservatism must be judgments made through his particular moral lens. That is, the value he sees in religious conservatism must be understandable from the vantage point of a liberal secularist. If his mindset gives particular weight to the harm/care and justice/fairness ways of thinking, and thus makes it hard to appreciate the sorts of things that make religious conservatism so valuable, then how can Haidt appreciate them?

If Haidt doesn't need the religious conservative mindset to appreciate what religious conservatism might have to offer, then nobody does. And if nobody does, then there is no sense in claiming that the morality of religious conservatism involves different mechanisms of moral thinking.

This is the sort of conundrum you get into when you try to justify moral relativism.

I've so far only barely touched on Haidt's criticism of the new atheists. The bit about Sam Harris' definition was one of four criticisms. I will get to the other three, but first I need to delve deeper into the problems with Haidt's view of morality.

After reading and getting frustrated with Haidt's poorly-reasoned essay, I found an interesting interview with Haidt in The Believer. The interviewer, also a professor in psychology, forced Haidt to make some telling claims.

When Haidt described himself as a pluralist, and not a moral relativist, the interviewer asked him to explain the difference. Haidt could not.

When asked whether or not his entire theory of morality was an attempt to justify his own irrational moral intuitions, Haidt was unable to defend his position, which is the "pillar of moral psychology" that says most moral thinking is the rationalizing of pre-existing, intuitive moral judgments. Moral judgments are like aesthetic ones, Haidt says: we can rarely if ever be sure exactly why we made them; except that, with aesthetic judgments, we normally don't require a justification.

What Haidt overlooks is the reason we require a justification for moral decisions. The reason is that, if we didn't require a justification for them, they wouldn't be moral decisions in the first place. We regard decisions as moral (or immoral) precisely because we require a justification for them. Morality wouldn't exist if it weren't for our need to justify our behavior.

Haidt's misunderstanding of morality goes deeper than that. He also misunderstands the fact that the most fundamental moral principles apply to all rational agents, and not just human beings. A rational agent can only be defined as such if it can be required to justify certain aspects of its behavior, and so will have to rely on some moral principles to facilitate that process. This is what it means to be a rational agent. Thus, all rational agents can recognize other rational agents--not by their physiology or chemistry, but by their ability to justify and require justifications. There is an objective, universal moral fabric which defines all moral thinking, precisely because morality is not only based on the specifics of our physiology and chemistry, but is defined by the formal (and that means functional) properties of rational agency.

This realization is what allowed Kant to define the Categorical Imperative--that we should accept as moral only those rules which can be regarded as universally valid--as well as his universal moral principle that requires us to respect the status of all rational agents as moral individuals, and not merely as means to ends.

Of course, the specifics of our bodies and circumstances determine how we make moral decisions, and what particular behaviors we regard as moral or immoral; but the overarching principles which we use to understand and guide our moral judgments--these are not so limited. Sure, we often rationalize our instincts, and we sometimes find ourselves unable to give good reasons for our decisions. That does not justify Haidt's "pillar" that says our moral reasoning amounts to little more than post-hoc justifications for judgments already made.

To reduce all morality to a process of irrational justification is to wholly misunderstand both morality and rationality. Indeed, if all notions of "right" were a matter of post-hoc justification, then we would hardly be able to have anything like the sort of scientific integrity Haidt clearly respects.

In order to save science from his brand of relativism, Haidt's own misunderstanding of morality leads him to create a false dichotomy between scientific rationality and "normal moral thinking." What many scientists and moral philosophers today would suggest, however, is that science itself is a highly moral enterprise. Scientific thinking is regarded as one of the most , if not the most, morally upright ways of thinking there is. Furthermore, philosophers of science are quick to explain that scientific thinking is not in any way opposed to normal, everyday thinking, but rather has its roots in everyday rationality. So why oppose "scientific thinking" to "normal moral thinking?"

The answer: Haidt wants to uphold the rationality of science without reducing it to the rationalizing of everyday life. For Haidt, everyday morality is only a matter of rationalizing, and not rationality. This is woefully mistaken.

Haidt says most people (though he suggests that liberals tend to be an exception to this rule) tend to advocate moral judgments without being able to rationally justify them. The fact that conservatives, in particular, tend to be dumbfounded by their inability to justify their moral judgments only indicates that they are in denial: they tend to regard morality as something you're not meant to question too rigorously, and simultaneously believe that their moral beliefs are totally justifiable. When they're confronted with their inability to justify their moral precepts, they get rather uncomfortable. This doesn't happen to liberals so much, and I imagine it happens even less to atheists.

Again, Haidt's evidence supports the view that religious conservatives don't want to subject their moral principles to critical investigation; it does not support the view that religious conservatives have different types of morality, or that morality in general is mostly a post-hoc affair.

Haidt's misunderstanding of the relationship between science and morality leads him to say some remarkable things, such as:

But because the new atheists talk so much about the virtues of science and our shared commitment to reason and evidence, I think it's appropriate to hold them to a higher standard than their opponents. Do these new atheist books model the scientific mind at its best? Or do they reveal normal human beings acting on the basis of their normal moral psychology?

What higher standard is Haidt talking about? Should atheists be more intellectually honest, because they are committed to intellectual honesty? That's kind of like saying, "theives don't really bother so much about the laws regulating private ownership, so we shouldn't hold them accountable when they break those laws." Either we are committed to intellectual integrity, or we are not. There is no sense in holding anybody to a lesser standard when it comes to that, unless we want to adopt that lesser standard for ourselves--and I take it Haidt agrees that we do not.

But, says Haidt, the new atheists haven't been doing good science. According to Haidt, they tend to rationalize their positions, instead of reasoning for them with valid arguments and evidence. He thus accuses the new atheists of doing little more than erecting and knocking down straw men. He lists three.

Straw Man #1: The new atheists regard religious beliefs as factual statements about the world. Considering the attempts of religious persons to limit and manipulate our scientific research and education on the basis of their religious beliefs, it is quite hard to see what justifies Haidt's claim that this is a straw man. Haidt says that "anthropologists and sociologists who study religion stress the role of ritual and community much more than of factual beliefs about the creation of the world or life after death." So the factual beliefs haven't been "stressed" by the researchers. Therefore we should ignore them. Here's a factual statement: many of the rituals and communities that define religious institutions are effectively working to undermine our scientific integrity with their statements about the world. We have a moral obligation to do something about it.

Straw Man #2: The new atheists assume believers take their texts literally. Believers often do refer to their texts as the literal word of God, but atheists know that not all believers do this.

Straw Man #3: The new atheists all have reviewed the scientific evidence and have concluded that religion is a byproduct of natural selection, and not an adaptation. First of all, even if this were true, it wouldn't be an example of a straw man. It's just a claim that the new atheists haven't been open enough to the possibility that religion is an adaptation. Why does Haidt call this a straw man?

In any case, as a criticism of the new atheists, this third "straw man" is somewhat unfair and inaccurate. The new atheists have generally maintained an open-mind about the possible evolutionary origins of religion. Some, like Daniel Dennett, have suggested elaborate evolutionary explanations which are not simply by-product models. Others, like Richard Dawkins, have strongly advocated the by-product view, but have also allowed for the scientific possibility of alternatives. I've yet to see any atheist, new or old, unwilling to fairly weigh the evidence for religion as an adaptation.

So, as far as the straw man thing goes, I think Haidt is way off the mark.

Haidt's final two criticisms are explicitly directed to Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

Haidt criticizes Dawkins directly for his "kind of religious orthodoxy" in rejecting group selection outright as an explanation for religion. Yet, Dawkins doesn't outright reject group selection. Rather, he expresses a degree of skepticism about the extent to which group selection has played a role in the origins of religion. He questions group selection as a valuable explanatory principle, and he gives good reasons.

Haidt does not even bother to make a case for group selection in this essay; he merely makes rather vague references to other people's work. He thus gives little reason to second-guess Richard Dawkins' skeptical attitude towards the theory.

But this is all beside the point. Haidt isn't criticizing Dawkins for taking a skeptical attitude; instead, he is wrongly accusing Dawkins of dismissing the very possibility of group selection out of hand. One wonders what irrational judgment Haidt was trying to justify with that one.

Haidt's final criticism is leveled at Daniel Dennett, who has written that "certainly no reliable survey has yet been done" which contradicts the claim that "atheists and agnostics are more respectful of the law, more sensitive to the needs of others, or more ethical than religious people." To prove Dennett wrong, Haidt alludes to studies which allegedly show that religious individuals donate more to both secular and religious charities, and donate more blood. How reliable are these studies? We cannot say, because Haidt doesn't cite them. But according to Haidt they are well-known and accepted. (I remember one study, which was done in Canada, and it led to more questions than answers in my mind. )

Now, even if we accept that such studies have been done all over the world, and that their conclusions are reliable, it is still irrelevant to Dennett's point. Dennett didn't say anything about giving to charity or donating blood. He was talking explicitly about respecting the law, being sensitive to other people's needs, and being ethical. Giving to charity and donating blood do not require that one be more respectful of the law, more sensitive to other people's needs, or more ethical. They only require that one have incentive to give to charity or donate blood. And many religious leaders and institutions do provide such an incentive: fear of eternal damnation.

Perhaps we should find more secular incentives to give to trustworthy and important charities, and to donate blood; but are these universal ethical obligations? Probably not. They're decidedly not the end-all-be-all of ethical uprightness.

While Haidt and Dennett might disagree about the reliability or significance of whatever studies Haidt was talking about, and while they might disagree about there being an ethical responsibility to support charities and donate blood, we must closely consider Haidt's argument against Dennett. He is saying that, because Dennett made a mistake in interpreting the research (though it isn't at all clear that Dennett made such a mistake), Dennett was rationalizing, creating a post-hoc justification for a moral position he had made prior to any sort of rational analysis. That strikes me as something of an insult. And it's not even a substantiated insult.

Haidt's criticism of the new atheists is thus not only unreasonable and absurd--it is downright offensive.

So where does that leave us?

Are the new atheists capable of error? Of course. Is it possible that religious conservatives can do good things? Of course. Is it possible that religion itself has positive influences on society? Of course.

Does any of this count as a criticism of the new atheists? Not in the least.

Does Haidt demonstrate a better understanding of morality or religion than the new atheists? Not at all. In fact, Haidt demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of morality and rationality, and he fails to even attemp to present a detailed view of what religion is. For an article on the "misunderstanding" of religion, you'd think he would've spent a significant portion of his essay talking about religion. Yet, Haidt barely talks about religion at all.

If anything, Haidt's moralizing is likely to foster hypocrisy and confusion, not lucidity. Word of advice to Professor Haidt: before you bash people over the head with your ideas again, spend a bit more time analyzing them first.