Bryan Caplan  

My Comments for Haidt

David Friedman on Nordhaus and... An Early Stanley Fish Moment...
Jonathan Haidt kindly let me read an earlier version of The Righteous Mind last June.  Here are the comments I sent him.  I haven't seen the final version, so perhaps he revised the book in response.

Hey Jonathan, I finally finished the first eight chapters.  What an incredible work of scholarship.  Amazing.

My two big comments:

1. Empirically, there's just one big problem: You're too quick to accept liberal and conservative rhetoric about their "massive disagreements" when your own data show that these differences are only marginal.  At least in data I'm familiar with, only about 6% of Americans *total* describe themselves as "very liberal" or "very conservative."  And even their belief gaps average around 1 point on a 1-5 scale.  If you focus on the merely liberal and the merely conservative, the differences are quite small.

From an abstract philosophical point of view, American liberals and conservatives are all nationalists first, and social democrats second. The only thing "extreme" about the liberal-conservative divide is the animus they bear each other despite their fundamental agreement, as I argue in this post.

American liberals and conservatives are no more fundamentally opposed than Catholics and Protestants.  There are marginal disagreements in both cases.  And both sides blow them all out of proportion to condemn the other side as the Antichrist.

2. I studied philosophy for years before I became interested in psychology.  And frankly, it's hard to imagine any moral objectivist taking Kohlberg's project seriously.  Moral agreement is a red herring.  There's massive disagreement around the world on the origins of the universe and life, too.  But there's no need to deny the reality of disagreement to maintain that one theory about the origins of the universe and life is true and the rest are wrong.

If you want more details on moral objectivism as philosophers conceive it, check out this excellent early essay by U Colorado phil prof Michael Huemer.  This essay later became his book, Ethical Intuitionism.

All the evidence you present on the fallibility of moral judgment is important.  But it's one thing to say, "People's moral judgment is biased in many ways," and another to deny that moral truth exists.  It's easy to scoff at the idea of "moral truth," but consider: Does anyone imagine that the evidence on self-enhancement bias undermines the view that some people are better at various tasks than others?

In any case, great work.

COMMENTS (6 to date)
aretae writes:


Re: moral truth.

Even a cursory evolutionary analysis suggests both positives and negatives about moral truth. suggests that we as humans are evolved with a moral faculty that you, Dr. Huemer, and David Friedman advocate.

However, it also suggests strongly that the evolved ethics are evolved towards survival goals. While you're a disciple of Huemer, I'm much more a fan of David Schmidtz's approach to ethics (here or here). I consider his to be the correct way to run a Randian meta-ethics.

Also, If one takes "ethics" as an evolved (game-theoretic correct) response (what else could it be) to the short-time horizon limitations of the rational mind.
My understanding of the game theory says that such a faculty should encourage (roughly) tit-for-two-tats play coupled with sporadic punisher behavior for long-term (in-tribe) interactions... while it should encourage prisoners dilemma defecting behavior against short-term, one-off, (out-tribe) interactions.

Universal human moral intuition is very easy to believe. That the intuition is doing more than showing a tribal rule-egoist long-term correct play...that's highly suspect.

Brandon Berg writes:

Also, it seems plausible to me that the differences he does find are due at least in part to bias introduced by the specific qusetions asked. Here's the questionnaire.

On the care/harm axis, there are four questions that are abstract and at least ostensibly ideologically neutral, but two that relate specifically to left-wing conceptions of care/harm, i.e. the one about harming a defenseless animal, and the one about whether it's always wrong to kill a human being (death penalty). There are no corresponding questions dealing with right-wing conceptions of care/harm, such as, say, harming a fetus.

On the fairness/reciprocity axis, there's a question about inheritance. On the loyalty axis, there are two questions about loyalty to one's country, but no questions about, say, crossing a picket line. On the authority axis, there are questions about conforming to tradition, gender roles, and a soldier disobeying his commanding officer. The purity axis has questions about God and chastity.

Most of the questions are abstract, but on each axis there are one to three questions that touch on more concrete issues, and they're all tilted to one side or the other.

Did Haidt address this concern in his book?

Evan writes:


Universal human moral intuition is very easy to believe. That the intuition is doing more than showing a tribal rule-egoist long-term correct play...that's highly suspect.

You're mistaking the reason moral beliefs evolved for the moral beliefs themselves. Humans are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers.

Evolution didn't fill our subconscious minds with game theory. That would be maladaptive, because any other person or tribe we cooperated with would realize we were cooperating with them for cold, calculated reasons and would betray them the instant the numbers began to change. Not very good for trust, hence not very good at fostering cooperation.

So instead evolution programmed us to care about others and want to do good as an end in itself. That makes us more trustworthy to the people we cooperated with because they know we care about them for their own sake, not for game theoretic reasons.

Today we execute the adaptation of morality for its own sake, the same way we eat delicious food for its flavor rather than nutrition, and have sex for pleasure rather than reproduction.

mike shupp writes:

An excellent post! I suggest you add it to the list of Enduring Econlog Entries.

And I retract many of my thoughts upon those dire occasions where I've grumbled about expressing my difference of opinion by jumping up and down upon your recumbent body while wearing hobnailed boots. Your perspective is better than mine.

aretae writes:


I disagree with roughly none of what you say. I've said it myself historically...and must apologize for the lack of precision in my original comment.

However...that doesn't get us anywhere in making moral intuitionism compelling, rather than descriptive.

Bryan's line: some people are better at various tasks...relegates moral sense to equivalent to taste.

I happen to be a super-taster, and have stronger sensory reactions to sweet/sour/bitter/salty/meaty than most. You may happen to have finely evolved insticts that naturally identify tribal models of unfairness far better than I do. And? I see absolutely zero prescriptive value there.

ThomasL writes:

If morality is culturally relative, so that what is moral in one culture may be immoral in another, the practice of morality for any individual is measured to how they conform to their culture's peculiar definition of what morality is at the time they are alive. Likewise immorality results from violating my culture's particular moral code at this time.

I think most proponents of a culturally relative view of morality would agree with that so long as we confine morality to statements like "don't steal" or "tell the truth" and similarly non-controversial claims. But what if my culture's morality says, "he's not a man, he's a slave" or "kill him, he's a Jew."

Inside cultural moral relativism, it is precisely the enslavers of the blacks and the killers of the Jews that are the heroes; they are the moral actors, because they obey their culture's values. It is the person that tries to free the slave or protect the Jew that is the immoral monster. You can keep this going with an almost endless string of examples from the ill-use of women to murder, human sacrifice, cannibalism, and genocide. In all of these cases the cultural relativist would need to maintain that the perpetrators of these acts are moral and those that oppose them are immoral.

The is so absurd it is hard to believe anyone would long maintain it.

It also 'begs the question' that morality is a 'choice' by assuming that every culture's chosen morality is equal entitled to the claim of being morality. Morality is a choice because people have chosen different values and those values are equal moral because morality is a choice. The conclusion is assumed within the premise.

An example might help, as we are so used to relativism that it almost seems normal. There are many different opinions of what kind of afterlife exists, if any. That however, is not proof that many different afterlives actually exist, nor, more to the point, that if I intend to argue that the afterlife is a choice of the mind (ie, relative), can I maintain that my proposition is proved by the many choices of afterlife people have made, since to do so assumes my conclusion that the afterlife is a choice. The same thing applies to multiple definitions of morality.

It is much easier to establish logically that there is either an objective morality, or no such thing as morality, than that there can be a subjective morality that somehow still 'binds.'

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top