Sunday, February 26, 2017

Moral Psychology - Some Thoughts

The idea that the mind is a blank slate at birth is a right. Developmental psychology has shown that kids come into the world with some knowledge about the physical and social worlds, and programmed to make it really easy for them to learn certain things and hard to learn others. The brain scientist Gary Marcus says, "The initial organization of the brain does not depend that much on experience. Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises. Built-in doesn't mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience." OK, so what's on the first draft of the moral mind? Jonathan Hiadt and Craig Joseph,  found five foundations of morality from a literature review that they did.

The first one is harm/care. All mammals have a lot of neural and hormonal programming that makes them  really bond with others, care for others, feel compassion for others, especially the weak and vulnerable. It also gives them  very strong feelings about those who cause harm.

The second foundation is fairness/reciprocity. This is a foundation of  many religions.

The third foundation is in-group/loyalty. You do find groups in the animal kingdom.  Among humans you find very large groups of people who are able to cooperate, join together into groups, but also  fight other groups.

The fourth foundation is authority/respect. Here you see submissive gestures from two members of very closely related species. But authority in humans is not only based on power and brutality also based on love and regard for certain services rendered when they are helpless and need those services.

The fifth foundation is purity/sanctity.  It's about any kind of ideology, any kind of idea that tells you that you can attain virtue by controlling what you do with your body, by controlling what you put into your body.

What is the difference between liberals and conservatives? Jonathan Hiadt believes that these are the five best candidates for what's written on the first draft of the moral mind. If there really are five systems at work in the mind — five sources of intuitions and emotions — then we can think of the moral mind as being like one of those audio equalizers that has five channels, where  a different setting can be made on every channel.

For  harm and care issues as well as fairness issues, liberals very committed. We can say that liberals have a kind of a two-channel, or two-foundation morality. Conservatives have more of a five-foundation, or five-channel morality. Conservative are more committed to  in-group, authority, purity. Moral arguments within cultures are especially about issues of in-group, authority, purity among liberals and conservatives.

The arguments can be explained based  on an idea. In the beginning all is ordered, all is beautiful, all the people and animals are doing what they're supposed to be doing, where they're supposed to be. But then, we know, things change based on  individual preferences. We get every person doing whatever he wants, and the resulting disorder starts hurting more people. Cooperation may decay from reasonably good, down to close to zero. The liberal thought became too extreme, the social cause was neglected too long by too many people, and therefore conservatives have to step in and bring more social or moral controls. Initially there will be arguments and then small fights etc. as the change process progresses.

Liberals also have very noble motives when they drive for change and individual liberty.  Traditional authority, traditional morality can be quite repressive, and restrictive to those at the bottom, to women, to people that don't fit in. So liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.  So once you see this — once you see that liberals and conservatives both have something to contribute, that they form a balance on change versus stability.

In an argument or dispute, everybody thinks they are right. A lot of the problems we have to solve are problems that require us to change other people. And if you want to change other people, a much better way to do it is to first understand who we are — understand our moral psychology, understand that we all think we're right — and then step out, even if it's just for a moment, step out.  And if you do that, that's the essential move to cultivate moral humility, to get yourself out of this self-righteousness, which is the normal human condition. Think about the Dalai Lama. Think about the enormous moral authority of the Dalai Lama — and it comes from his moral humility.

There has to be a passionate commitment to the truth or to reason out what is appropriate for the moment. Let thought in the society change from liberal to conservative - from conservative to liberal as appropriate. You also change your side as per need.

Abridged from a Ted Talk.
Jonathan Haidt: The moral roots of liberals and conservatives

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