Arnold Kling  

Another Must-Read

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We are only half way through March, and I think I already have come across more must-read books than in all of 2011. I am about 2/3 of the way through Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, which makes the must-read category with room to spare. I could write extensively about it, and perhaps I will. Two quick takes:

1. Haidt discusses the tension between group selection and individual selection. Group selection means that tribal loyalty will be selected for. However, the tendency to go overboard in sacrificing for your tribe will be selected against. So, when Bryan disdains any tribal loyalty, his role in the evolutionary drama is one of a free rider. Members of his tribe believe that he is trying to free ride on their tribal loyalty in the inevitable conflict with an enemy tribe. If they are correct, then a tribe full of Bryans would be slaughtered. If Bryan is right, then their xenophobia is hurting themselves.

2. My one objection to Haidt's analysis is his claim that liberals have weak "receptors" for moral foundations of authority or group loyalty. If he surveys people using questions that jerk a conservatives' chain (desecration of the flag, for example), then when liberals do not respond, it does not mean that they lack chains you can jerk. I would recommend that Haidt try the following:

a) Enter a conversational group of liberals. Inject into the conversation a statement like, "Did anyone hear the interesting story that was on Fox News the other day? They were saying that...." and then see if the reaction has no group-loyalty foundation.

b) At a convention of liberal academics (the MLA, or the American Sociological Association), interrupt the Presidential address as follows: "Excuse me, but I'm a colleague of Bo Swerdlup's--we are both adjunct faculty at Idaho State--and what you are proposing is completely inconsistent with his work. How do you plan to deal with the discrepancy?" Keep pressing the issue. See if the reaction in the room has no authority-hierarchy foundation.


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Evan writes:
So, when Bryan disdains any tribal loyalty, his role in the evolutionary drama is one of a free rider. Members of his tribe believe that he is trying to free ride on their tribal loyalty in the inevitable conflict with an enemy tribe. If they are correct, then a tribe full of Bryans would be slaughtered. If Bryan is right, then their xenophobia is hurting themselves.
Based on this post of his, I think Bryan might claim that he is arguing for tribal loyalty, it's just that the tribe he's arguing we should be loyal to (humanity) is much, much bigger than the tribe that other people think we should be loyal to (nation/race/culture). He isn't arguing "I don't respect the rights of anyone, even people who are in my tribe." He's arguing "I respect the rights of everyone, even if they're not in my tribe."

To use the evolutionary Stone Age tribe metaphor, a Stone Age Bryan would be arguing that you should respect the rights and interests of everyone in your tribal village, regardless of whether they're close family or distant family. His nationalist opponents would be the ones arguing that you should only respect the rights of your immediate family and that asking them to respect the rights of a whole village is asking too much of them.

Fast forward to the era when city states are forming. That era's Bryans are arguing you should respect the rights of everyone in the city, regardless of whether or not you're in your tribe. That era's version of his opponents are claiming that asking people to respect the rights of everyone in a whole city is asking too much. Next thing you know, you'll be asking people to respect the rights of everyone in a whole nation, and everyone knows that's ridiculous!

Someone who's a defector on one level of organization might be a cooperator on the next level.

Saturos writes:

Evan, I think you're right.

I would really, really love to see someone try point 2 (b).

Steve Roth writes:

""Did anyone hear the interesting story that was on Fox News the other day? They were saying that...." and then see if the reaction has no group-loyalty foundation."

You're assuming that the predictably negative response would be the result of group loyalty, when it might rather be displaying an aversion to misrepresentation and false "truthiness."

Try this:

Enter a conversational group of scientists. Inject into the conversation a statement like, "Did anyone hear the interesting story about alien abductions at Roswell the other day? They were saying that...."

(Feel free to substitute alternative authorship looniness among Shakespeare scholars, or denialism among climate scientists.)

Is the predictably negative reaction a result of "tribal loyalty"?

So, is the best way to pull left-wingers' chains to refer to patently, obviously misrepresentative and biased reporting?

This related directly to my suggestion of an important missing "realm" from Haidt's work: truth-telling. It's clearly universal moral realm that is unexplored therein.

I have suggested that conservatives may be greater truth-tellers in private exchanges (though I'm not confident in that), while being willing to abjure truth-telling in favor of other values (i.e. tribal loyalty) in public discourse.

http://www.asymptosis.com/is-honesty-a-conservative-moral-value.html

http://www.asymptosis.com/do-moral-intuitions-change-in-different-situations.html

Ken B writes:

I am reading it and endorse Arnold's enthusiasm. I hope he will write more on the book too.

I have caveats. I am not sold on all the 'survey-science' he relies on in places. I am very much not sold on group selection. But it's an excellent book.

ThomasL writes:

I have a question for those that have read it (my reading list is fairly well stocked at the moment, so it may be awhile before I get to it).

I understand he talks at length about the interaction between intuition and reason in forming moral judgments. Particularly that intuition most often precedes reason in moral matters, and reason can be (always is?) the post-judgment rationalization of the intuitive conclusion.

Assuming that is right, what is his take on what morality is?

One might write a book on the different mental, intuitive, and emotional processes that have lead to great discoveries in scientific knowledge. How some things have been carefully and arduously teased out, while others have been realized in flashes of inspiration, dreams, and "Eureka!" moments.

However, you would not be saying that the thing discovered was a different thing because of the way it was discovered. Whether I formed the judgment that sunlight was a composite in a moment of inspiration or by careful study, one would not take the description of my mind's path to that judgment as a description of what light is, but of my mind's understanding of what light is. This is a movement from without to within, from essence to mental apprehension. Being precedes understanding.

In morality one might take the same view and one might not. If morality is taken as something essentially real, then it is a tale of discovery just as with the light. But one might also approach it from a Cartesian perspective, a movement from the mind outward rather than from essence inward. If that were the case, my judgment of morality, by whatever process, is not a story of discovery but of creation. Understanding precedes being.

The first path is metaphysical, and holds at least a hope of substantial agreement. The second does not, because there is no objective reality by which the moral judgment of any mind could be critiqued.

Which direction does he take as a foundation?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Arnold -
On the Fox News point, how would you differentiate group loyalty from simple experience with and personal reaction to the quality of Fox News?

Maybe I'm misunderstanding your point, but you seem to be saying liberals don't like Fox News because "that's part of being a part of the liberal group". That doesn't seem right to me - but whether it's right or not, that doesn't seem like something you can test for simply by asking that question.

Arnold Kling writes:

@Thomas L,

Great question. I do not think he wants to commit to an answer. He mostly writes as if survival value is the ultimate good, but he recognizes that it is problematic to believe this explicitly.

He also tends to view morality as culturally subjective, as opposed to objective. That is, something may be moral as far as one group is concerned, but immoral as far as another group is concerned. Thus it is not something like scientific truth.

@others re Fox News.

I assume that most liberals could not give a data-driven explanation for why Fox News is not a valid source of news. That is, they could not produce a statistical analysis of Fox News falsehoods compared with falsehoods in their preferred media. They would not give the person who brings up a Fox News story any opportunity to explain why that particular story might be credible. Instead, they would harshly judge the person. And that would reflect tribal loyalty instincts.

Name Withheld for Good Reason writes:

The comments above on Fox News have already proved Kling's point. The responses show typical elitist contempt. There has been serious academic work on press bias that has suggested that Fox is no more biased to the right than the major networks or the NY Times are to the left. But liberals know that in heaping contempt on it they burnish their group credentials.

John Thacker writes:

I believe that this recent survey by Pew is relevant. It says that liberals are considerably more likely than moderates or conservatives to block or unfriend people on social media for posting statements or comments with which they disagree.

That implies to me a fairly high amount of tribal loyalty and lack of openness.

There is cocooning in general; people at the extremes of the ideological spectrum are actually more likely to say that their friends always agree with them than people in the middle.

Steve Sailer writes:

"Fast forward to the era when city states are forming. That era's Bryans are arguing you should respect the rights of everyone in the city, regardless of whether or not you're in your tribe. That era's version of his opponents are claiming that asking people to respect the rights of everyone in a whole city is asking too much. Next thing you know, you'll be asking people to respect the rights of everyone in a whole nation, and everyone knows that's ridiculous!"


One thing is for certain: there is no stopping them; the ants will soon be here. And I for one welcome our new insect overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted economics professor, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.

Steve Sailer writes:

Right, I think liberals are increasingly coalescing as a class with a strong urge to purge heretics.

Steve Sailer writes:

" I think I already have come across more must-read books than in all of 2011"

I thought 2011 was a pretty decent year for books, so I'm looking forward to your list of new must-read books.

Steve Roth writes:

"I assume that most liberals could not give a data-driven explanation for why Fox News is not a valid source of news."

Certainly true. As with most human judgments, people generally hold up their thumbs and squint. Who's got time (except for us bloggers)?

But a review of the (numerical) research on the subject would bear them out in spades.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fox_News_Channel_controversies

The key exception being the Groseclose study, which among other flaws uses the (I'm sure you'll agree) questionable benchmark of congresspeople as the measure of factuality and accuracy.

So yes: liberals might reject even something valid from Fox News based on this documented and consistent history of misrepresentation and bias. (And yes, some will do it just based on tribal loyalty.)

But you gotta ask: at what point do you stop giving a someone you know to be a serial liar the benefit of the doubt, and just refuse to listen?

Life is short, we've each only got two thumbs.


John Thacker writes:

Steve Roth:

So you're saying that the study that finds the opposite conclusion is obviously biased, but studies that use similar arbitrary methods to determine "opinion" are not biased? Interesting.

The results seem rather equivocal. And they certainly seem to be about political bias, not being a "serial liar." The tests of political knowledge seem to put viewers in a similar category with other cable news viewers, lower than that of radio listeners and newspaper readers of all varieties.

If we're talking about "serial liars," I suppose you don't listen to CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS?

Can you point to a FOX News lie that's as bad as:
CNN and Time's Operation Tailwind report,
Dateline NBC blowing up a truck fuel tank,
CBS's report on obviously fake Bush National Guard memos,
CBS 60 Minutes's Audi "Unintended Acceleration" piece,
ABC Primetime Live's Food Lion hit piece?

John Thacker writes:

Today's NPR retraction on This American Life also sounds like something where the story was "too good to check" because it fit various (ideological, in some ways) preconceptions. Bias can certainly do that. Is Fox News really so much worse, or merely has a different ideological bias?

Seth writes:

"...how would you differentiate group loyalty from simple experience with and personal reaction to the quality of Fox News?" -Daniel Kuehn

By simply asking them about their experience. In most cases when I've done this the response is, "I've never watched it."

In the few cases where they have watched some, it's been a very small sample size of its programming that was cherry-picked for them on Youtube, and often not from the news programming, but the opinion programming.

I have watched some, not a lot, of Fox News. I don't prefer it, mainly because the commercials signal to me that I'm not the average Fox News viewer.

@Arnold - That is one of the best examples of letting your opponents make your point for you that I've seen in a long time. Very entertaining.

Brandon Berg writes:

Perhaps a better example of left-wing loyalty is crossing a picket line.

I have a similar objection on the sanctity/degradation value. While conservatives tend to think of a lot of moral violations concerning sex a degrading, while liberals often don't, you do have a lot of "purity" based liberal moral thinking about wilderness areas and genetically modified food.

In fact, there is a lot of liberal ick factor in the current talk about "pink slime," i.e. a processed beef product treated with ammonia for food safety reasons. Lots of moral talk about how wrong it is to serve food in schools using this kind of meat, based on the icky sentiment some people feel when you say "pink slime," not scientific study or even as much as an anecdote about actual harms suffered by consumers.

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