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Conflating Morality and Disgust is Immoral: Haidt and the Happiness Hypothesis

Liberals, says Haidt, don’t understand morality. They think it’s only about fairness, something he thinks operates between individuals. Conservatives see the bigger picture, the social glue that makes people behave themselves. That depends on loyalty, respect for authority, and purity. That “broader view” of morality which is not “limited” to notions of fairness, is ingrained, and goes back through evolutionary time. He knows this because he spent some time in India.

I kid you not. Okay, I kid you slightly. He studied other cultures once he returned. He is now a professor at the University of Virginia and researches moral psychology.

I have so many problems with his views, I hardly know where to start.

  • 1) If he wants to imply that morality is genetic, something that evolved like standing upright, then he needs to look at entities that change over evolutionary time, like species, not ones that change depending on the stories people tell, like cultures.
  • 2) He has conflated religion, morality, and disgust without even realizing it, apparently. This is like confusing heterosexual relationships with good parenting. Heterosexuality is not unrelated to parenting. Good parenting can include heterosexuals. But the two are separate issues, and mixing them leads to neither good relationships nor good parenting.
  • 3) He seems oblivious to the role of power in social relations. This is mindboggling. It would be like ignoring this:

    BBC picture of Banksy art in Los Angeles: elephant painted like pink chintz in a pink chintz living room

I’ll go over my reasons for vehemently objecting to Haidt. In fact, I hope to beat his points to death. And I’ll also explain why I feel that strongly.

Starting with the biological angle, my first problem is that he didn’t start with it. His research has been reported as “Is the Golden Rule right in our DNA?” (Huh? Huh? Is it? Huh?) But the discussion is all about Western and non-Western cultures.

There is, at this point, a wealth of research on moral sense in animals and on the neurobiology of it. Frans deWaal produced some of the first work that made it into general public consciousness. The usual meme had been that nature was red in tooth and claw, the fittest survived, the law of the jungle was brutal, and the only thing saving us was a thin veneer of civilization. DeWaal wrote “Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals” and it came as a big surprise to people that chimpanzees showed behavior that looked a lot like altruism, kindness, and resentment of unfairness.

Recently, Sarah Brosnan wrote a paper on her own and previous work on the reactions to perceived inequity among many different animal species (e.g. pdf no longer available, abstract 2011, Front. Neurosci. 2011). Short version: social animals with reasonable-sized brains have expectations of equity and become angry when they’re not met. Ravens even enforce rules in situations that don’t directly involve the enforcing bird. They don’t seem to like seeing injustice, let alone suffering from it.

The supposedly counterintuitive result is so widespread that scientists have started looking at the neurobiology of the behavior. (For instance, here, a neurobiological commentary on Brosnan’s article, but only an abstract is available online.)

If fairness behavior is genetic, then think about the fact that the closest common ancestor of us and ravens is somewhere back in the Triassic with the tetrapods, over 250 million years ago. That’s some extreme hard-wiring there. An alternative explanation is that social animals have to have rules, or the groups disintegrate. And the rules which work over evolutionary time are what we humans call “fair.” Any other kind of social animal doesn’t last long enough to be noticed. Both explanations may be right. It doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition.

Haidt, too, has noticed that morality may be encoded right in the genes, put there because it helps us to survive. But since his definition goes beyond mere fairness, he’s arguing well beyond any biological data. Without biology, he can’t say anything about genetics if he wants to be intellectually honest.

So what is he saying when he starts bringing disgust and religion into it? From the NYTimes article:

Dr. Haidt came to recognize the importance of religion by a roundabout route. “I first found divinity in disgust,” he writes in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis.”

The emotion of disgust probably evolved when people became meat eaters and had to learn which foods might be contaminated with bacteria, a problem not presented by plant foods. Disgust was then extended to many other categories, he argues, to people who were unclean, to unacceptable sexual practices and to a wide class of bodily functions and behaviors that were seen as separating humans from animals.

“Imagine visiting a town,” Dr. Haidt writes, “where people wear no clothes, never bathe, have sex ‘doggie style’ in public, and eat raw meat by biting off pieces directly from the carcass.”

He sees the disgust evoked by such a scene as allied to notions of physical and religious purity. Purity is, in his view, a moral system that promotes the goals of controlling selfish desires and acting in a religiously approved way.

Notions of disgust and purity are widespread outside Western cultures. “Educated liberals are the only group to say, ‘I find that disgusting but that doesn’t make it wrong,’ ” Dr. Haidt said.

Here again, it’s hard to know where to start in picking apart his mass of mixed ideas. First, can you even talk about disgust and morality in the same breath? Are they related? Or is this like putting together a fish and a bicycle and hoping for the best?

Morality is rules telling us how to live together, ideally in the most satisfactory way for all concerned.

Disgust isn’t a rule. It’s a feeling. Its biological roots are in self-preservation, as even Haidt has gathered. (Although if he thinks plant foods don’t rot, his refrigerator is in much better order than mine.) Disgust is nature’s way of keeping us away from potential causes of disease. When faced with something disgusting, we’re repelled and the impulse is to get the hell away.

In contrast, even at the simple level of gut reflexes the response to unfairness is different. The first reaction to inequity isn’t to hold one’s breath and escape. It’s to get in there and teach the perp a lesson, if possible, or seethe with resentment if not.

Anger and disgust only become mixed together when there’s an interpersonal dimension, when there’s humiliation involved. Smearing someone with feces is a serious insult, and is certainly immoral. But it’s the smearing that’s immoral, not the feces. Humiliation is the province of morality. The thing being used to make the humiliation is not.

There’s further complication because disgust isn’t only biological. Infants are primed to learn about the dangers of their environment from caregivers, and they learn which dangers are flagged with disgust before they can talk. The repulsion may not be genetic, but it’s buried about as far down as any other hard wiring. Since it’s learned, it could be anything, any story a culture wants to tell. It doesn’t have to make sense or be compatible with other stories.

The crucial element, though, gets back to the fact that disgust is a feeling, whether learned or not. And the crucial thing about feelings is that another person’s are never directly knowable. If you tell me you like strawberry ice cream, there is no point me saying, “No, you don’t.” Your nerve endings don’t go to my brain. As I’ve said elsewhere, since someone, say me, has no direct knowledge of anyone else’s feelings, such as yours, I can’t tell you what you’re feeling. It’s a logical impossibility for me to know what I’m talking about.

Since there’s no objective peg, outside the person involved, there’s also no way to resolve contradictions. … Actually, that’s not true. There is. It involves killing everyone who disagrees. … So let me rephrase that to say there is no non-violent way to resolve contradictions, no way that allows the society to keep functioning usefully.

Individuals who find themselves seeing two incompatible points of view may have to figure out a resolution to keep their heads from exploding. But societies have a much easier solution. They can decide not to deal with it.

It is unnecessary for a society to resolve incompatible tastes. It is more than unnecessary; it’s a total waste of energy. All the group needs to do is to decide that tastes differ, and to stay out of each other’s hair. That’s all. For a whole society, this is not a moral problem. It’s a simple matter of privacy.

Feelings of disgust are not morality, and confusing them leads to more than academic logical paradoxes. Imagine if Haidt didn’t live under laws invented by educated liberals who could distinguish the two. The lizard part of my brain, for instance, is pretty disgusted with him, and would probably consider it appropriate to give him low quality oxygen tanks and send him to an asteroid. Then we’d have the impossible task of figuring out whose feelings to live by, and how to quell the inevitable yes-no shouting or shooting match that results.

If you keep the distinction straight, however, feelings of disgust require nothing more than sensible anti-bacterial measures or effective privacy rules.

Haidt, of course, doesn’t stop at making a macedoine of disgust and morality. He makes a real pig’s breakfast out of it by tipping religion onto the pile.

It’s a fact that people will bring religion in to justify just about anything. It’s perfect for the purpose. You can’t see it, touch it, or smell it. There’s no objective argument that anyone can make about a subjective experience, and it’s the ultimate authority for those who believe it. So, naturally, the aversion Person A has to eating uncooked fish, or whatever, has been decreed since the beginning of time by the angels of the Almighty.

However, just because people make dumb and huge mistakes, doesn’t mean a professor of moral psychology has to follow suit. They may confuse religion and disgust, but he doesn’t have to.

Religion is yet a third category, unrelated to the other two. It’s an individual experience of relationship to something beyond measurable reality. There are all kinds of things in that class, such as love, beauty, and joy. They exist for some people, not for others, and, like anything else which can only be experienced, there is no point telling anyone else what they see.

You cannot tell someone who’s in love that they aren’t, or someone who doesn’t believe in God that they do. You can’t tell someone what they are experiencing because you cannot know that. This seems to be a very difficult concept. In one recent example, Dawkins made a stir by telling people who did believe in God that they were all wrong. To begin with, he can’t know whether someone else experiences the divine or not. But in his case, there’s also a further problem. He makes it clear he’s an atheist. Since God is not part of his experience, he’s just said he knows nothing about it. So he’s doubly unqualified to tell someone else what they’re feeling on the subject. The brilliant geneticist fell into a logical trap that apparently he can’t even see.

The problem with experiences beyond measurable reality is the same as the one with less exalted feelings. Without objective criteria to decide between incompatible visions, the only solution on a social level is for people to stay out of each other’s way.

Separating beliefs and state is not just a nice thing to do if you can. It’s not something you can avoid if everyone will just sit down and be reasonable about their beliefs. (That last is a common theme among kindly people who feel it would solve the abortion issue, for instance.) Moral rules have to apply to everyone, not just reasonable people. The rules can’t be optional. So they have to work when people refuse to be reasonable … i.e. most of the time. And the ONLY way to equitably accommodate different beliefs is to keep them from interfering with each other. In other words, by separating beliefs and state.

By suggesting, as Haidt does, that it’s valid to mix fairness, cultural concepts of ickiness, and religion, he’s promoting a recipe for disaster. Anybody who has cracked open one single history book knows that’s not a hypothetical statement. It has enormous costs as people fight to the death about religion or “tradition.” Helping people to stay confused, giving them a professorial and scientific stamp of approval to stay confused, is much worse than mere ignorance. That’s aiding and abetting some of the worst crimes people commit against each other.

It’s probably becoming pretty clear why I’m so worked up about Haidt’s misconceptions, but there’s more.

In his discussion of systems of morality, he says nothing about power. He talks about disgust, how this is bound up with feelings of okay and not-okay, and therefore becomes part of the religious strictures on how to live, and how religious laws about staying pure keep people away from disgusting behaviors.

Nowhere in the popular reports on his work did I see a hint about how useful “purity” laws are for keeping whole classes of people down. The Dalit in Hinduism are supposed to have their own vicious class of cooties. This nastiness is then a good reason why they shouldn’t own land or be paid properly for their work. Women have a lifelong fight on their hands to stay pure. The wrong sorts of dealings with men cause impurity, but, even though women apparently catch this condition from men, oddly enough men themselves aren’t usually considered impure. And so on.

Ignoring how well some of this so-called morality serves powerful interests is more than just an oversight. It’s the crucial element in promoting social injustice.

Think about it. Might doesn’t make right in the stories of any culture. Only the dregs of society admire plain old thuggery. That’s pretty much why they’re dregs. So the only way to maintain power based on nothing but force is either to pretend it’s based on something else, like divine right, or to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Ignoring power relationships is the easiest way to maintain them in these days when “because I said so” carries no weight. Examples large and small are everywhere. High profile male progressive bloggers can’t see why a lack of female bloggers in their rarefied group might be indicative of sexism. (Kevin Drum, to his credit, actually raised the question on his A-list blog.) Tony Snow, before he was spokesflack at the White House, said that racism was no big deal anymore. So no need to look into evidence of racism, even when it was staring him in the face. Rapes are barely reported, except as bundled statistics, yet over one in six women suffers this hate crime in her lifetime, and every single female makes daily adjustments and pays a financial price because of the threat. But it’s ignored as a structural issue, and so the structure that keeps women quiet stays in place.

The pattern is so consistent that an Ignore-It index could be used as a rule of thumb. The inequities in which people have the greatest stake are the ones they insist merit no attention.

And that’s my hugest problem with Haidt. He may think he’s talking about morality, but by conflating fair rules with feelings and beliefs, and by pretending the mix doesn’t serve the powerful, he’s enabling some of the worst immorality on earth.

Technorati tags: morality, Haidt, immoral, conservatives, fairness, liberals, disgust, religion

Crossposted at Shakesville