Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Voting and Morals

Jonathan Haidt asks and attempts to answer "What Makes People Vote Republican?," which is a good question. I'm not so sure about his answer, which comes down to the conservatives-are-from-moral-Mars, liberals-are-from-moral-Venus thesis behind YourMorals.org, which I've taken before, but more and more consider to be an exercise in question-begging. I don't deny that self-identified conservatives place a greater emphasis on purity, loyalty and authority than do liberals, but I deny that this emphasis qualifies as genuine moral thinking. I rather think it constitutes a distortion of moral thinking: it's the kind of squawking that conservatives characteristically do and then label as morality.

But clearly I'm struggling to come to a strong view of the matter. But if you want to read a reply to Haidt that really can't find its voice, try Sam Harris:

Haidt appears to consider it an intellectual virtue to adopt, uncritically, the moral categories of his subjects. But where is it written that everything that people do or decide in the name of "morality" deserves to be considered part its subject matter? A majority of Americans believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of the ancient world (as well as accurate prophecies of the future). Many millions of Americans also believe that a principal cause of cancer is "repressed anger." Happily, we do not allow these opinions to anchor us when it comes time to have serious discussions about history and oncology.

Much of humanity is clearly wrong about morality—just as much of humanity is wrong about physics, biology, history, and everything else worth understanding. If, as I believe, morality is a system of thinking about (and maximizing) the well being of conscious creatures like ourselves, many people's moral concerns are frankly immoral.

Does forcing women and girls to wear burqas make a positive contribution to human well-being? Does it make happier boys and girls? More compassionate men? More confident and contented women? Does it make for better relationships between men and women, between boys and their mothers, or between girls and their fathers? I would bet my life that the answer to each of these questions is "no." So, I think, would many scientists. And yet, most scientists have been trained to think that such judgments are mere expressions of cultural bias. Very few of us seem willing to admit that simple, moral truths increasingly fall within the purview of our scientific worldview. I am confident that this period of reticence will soon come to an end.

Unless human well-being is perfectly random, or equally compatible with any events in the world or state of the brain, there will be scientific truths to be known about it. These truths will, inevitably, force us to draw clear distinctions between ways of thinking and living, judging some to better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less moral.
Why can't Sam Harris just come out with what he believes?

Last but not least, it's hard to deny the reply of Roger Schank to the same question:
It is all very nice to come up with complex analyses of what is going on. As is often the case, the real answer is quite simple. Most people can't think very well. They were taught not to think by religion and by a school system that teaches that knowledge of state capitals and quadratic equations is what education is all about and that well reasoned argument and original ideas will not help on a multiple choice test.
The Republican party is a machine that mass-produces suckers. It does so, in part, by giving people who don't think and don't want to think cognitive shortcuts for avoiding thinking. It supplies a set of catch-phrases and frames by which to label this shortcut-taking as "values voting."

Case in point: being happily led into chanting "drill, baby, drill" on the floor of your national convention, in prime time, as broadcast on nearly every channel. The political party that does this is indeed from another planet, morally and otherwise, but let's not insult Mars.

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