Tag: cynicism

Book Review: The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt

Is it better to be truly just, or merely to seem so? This is the question put to Socrates by Glaucon in The Republic. Jonathan Haidt, in his book, “The Righteous Mind”, counts Glaucon among the cynics for putting this challenge to Socrates. But Haidt is missing a subtle and very powerful nuance in Plato’s story. Socrates had just finished embarrassing Thrasymachus for his weak defense of cynical egoism. Glaucon and Adeimantus were certainly entertained, but they were not satisfied with Socrates. They sought much stronger reasons for accepting the conclusion that true justice is preferable to appearance, because they did not want to merely seem to agree with Socrates. They really wanted to believe that genuine justice was better, and giving Socrates the strongest possible objection that could be mustered is the only way an honest man (if he is honest with himself) can do this.

Socrates’ initial response to Glaucon was not the description of the ideal state that the story has become famous for. Rather, it was a likening of the soul to the body. Repeated abuses and illnesses corrupt and degrade the health of the body over time, until at some point it is no longer possible to experience vigor and vitality. Likewise, says Socrates, repeated vices and injustices committed in pursuit of wealth or power or honor will eventually render the soul so degraded and corrupt that it will no longer be capable of achieving eudaemonia (aka ‘contentment’, ‘happiness’, or ‘flourishing’). This is the fate of the man who pursues a life of politics, without first tending to his soul.

Haidt seems almost proud of his “Glauconian cynicism” – a socio-biological view in which he believes he can show that, regardless of which is better, seeming just is what we humans actually seek. Haidt claims explicitly and confidently not to be offering an argument for what ought to be, only what is. But the enthusiasm with which he reports this supposed scientific fact suggests that he also thinks that what is, just is what ought to be. But this is precisely the challenge posed to Socrates by Glaucon: it certainly is true that many people (perhaps even most) are cynical and self-serving. So, why oughtn’t they be? Haidt’s response to this recurring implicit question seems to be to just keep reasserting the fact, in ever more sophisticated and complex ways.

Near the end of the book, in spite of already offering an explicit refusal to address the problem of normative ethics, Haidt tosses off a flippant endorsement of Utilitarianism as if this view has already settled the normative question, or simply to signal to the reader that the question just isn’t interesting enough to bother investigating. But this has profound implications for how seriously one can take some of the claims he makes in this book. The tension between what is and what ought to be plagues this book, and any reader eager for insight into the gap between descriptive and normative ethics will find it profoundly frustrating.

The Basic Theory, and It’s Problems

Haidt’s basic theory of the “Righteous Mind” comes down to two hypotheses. First, that the human brain has evolved for both “tribal” and “hive” social structures. To put it in his terms, “we are 90% chimp, and 10% bee”, and a special “hive switch” in the brain is flipped, when conditions are ideal, that suppress our self-interested “groups” psychology, and make us more altruistically “hive-ish”. It’s not quite clear what sort of mechanism this “switch” is, what causes it to flip, and how it gets reset. But he offers a lot of anecdotes from his research that describe evidence suggesting its presence.

The second, and much more complex portion of the theory, is his six-dimensional model of moral psychology. His system is powerfully reminiscent of David Hume’s own four-pole system of moral emotions (Pride-vs-Humility / Love-vs-Hate). But there is one extremely significant difference. Hume’s theory was one meant to describe morality as a system of “passions” (special kinds of emotions). These passions derive from a natural propensity for pleasure, and a natural aversion to pain (he presages the Utilitarians in this respect). What’s more, moral judgments are not reasoned, but felt. Morality, for Hume, just is emotions expressed. Haidt’s theory, on the other hand, describes six dimensions of values, not emotions: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. Haidt says that all human beings have this six-dimensional system built-in as a consequence of thousands of years of socio-biological evolution. He argues that the “sensitivity level” at which each of these is not permanently fixed, but is set to “defaults” at birth, and adjusted over a lifespan by experience. How, precisely, this happens and by what mechanism, is a bit murky, but again, he offers loads of anecdotal examples (and data from his studies) to show how each of these dimensions is expressed by individuals.

A few questions and objections arose for me, about these two hypotheses, as I read through the book, that never seemed to get a satisfactory answer. First, on the six aspects: are they like adjuster knobs on a sound board? Or, are they merely barometer needles reporting varying pressure levels set by environmental impacts on a biological system? If the former, then surely there are “optimal” positions for each of these knobs (even if only circumstantially optimal)? In that case, then there is indeed an opening for a normative ethical theory, describing these optimums. However, if the latter is true, then it is hard to understand how there could be any such thing as an “ought” at all, much less a system prescribing them. Haidt is constantly nudging up to the edge of this Humean is-ought cliff, and retreating from it just when things start to get interesting.

Second, Haidt never quite explicitly acknowledges that he’s describing a system of values, rather than a moral psychology. One might object that a system of values could be said to be a variety of moral psychology, but I would reply that by the time we get to values, we’re already one layer above fundamental psychology. Why these six, and not others? Indeed, in the book, Haidt explicitly acknowledges that some early reviewers of the book objected to the lack of “equality” as a value on his list of “aspects”. If “liberty” counts as a foundational psychological value, then why not “equality”? It has just as long a history, after all. More importantly, to talk of values at all, you’re once again in flirting in the realm of the normative. I would have to look more closely at the research he used to back this section of the book, but how do we know he didn’t just happen to find the set of six values that he and his team were particularly focused on already? That is a normative selection process: “these values are more important than those”.

Third, returning to the “hive switch”, Haidt emphasizes the “dangers” of too much hive-ishness or too much groupishness. But he never quite explains how there could be any such thing as a “right amount” of either, in the absence of a normative theory. Without any idea of what an ideal amount of either would look like, why would the horror of the Hobbesian anarchy or Stalinist oppression even count as “bad”? Lower primates seem perfectly satisfied with brutal inter-tribal conflict, and ants are obliviously willing to destroy themselves en masse for the sake of colony and queen. What’s worse, is that there’s no clear explanation for how the “hive switch” and the six-dimensional moral psychology fit together. Do certain knob settings produce hives instead of tribes? Do others produce tribes instead of hives? What are the right tension levels between the two modes? If the knob settings do influence this, how do we know what those should be? None of this is discussed in the book, except in passionate warnings to beware of extremes. A laudable sentiment, but so what?

Lastly, while Frans de Waal is largely an asset to Haidt’s book, there is one key notion from de Waal that highlights the primary problem with Haidt’s “Glauconian moral matrix”; de Waal captured it in a rather pithy phrase: Veneer Theory. In his book, “Primates and Philosophers”, de Waal uses the phrase to criticize Huxley and Dawkins for uncritically accepting a view of human nature that is Hobbesian without providing an explanation for how a self-serving egoist gets to altruism all on his own. Haidt’s book suffers from a similar problem. Though he does a great job of bridging the gap between egoist and “group-altruist”, what he fails to do is explain how the “Glauconian cynic” becomes a genuinely caring being. Haidt has concocted his own variety of Veneer Theory by redefining it as a complex inter-subjective social delusion that we all agree to participate in. He takes this as an answer to the problem of a “veneer” layer. But it only makes his own set of theories seem like a Rube Goldberg machine. Haidt makes a strong case for the biological and psychological reality of moral experience as a genuine phenomenon. But this works directly against the idea that we merely wish to appear to care, or to be virtuous. Why layer a “moral matrix” on top of a perfectly reasonable explanation of genuine moral emotions? More to the point, why would evolution tolerate such an expensive and convoluted cognitive load, such as layers of delusion, on top of the already demanding task of navigating the social world in real time? Even more curiously, why would we count the primitive primate morality of chimps and bonobos as “actual” or “genuine”, while regarding our own as a mere matrix-like delusion?

Final Thoughts

Anyone who has read the entirety of The Republic has to come to terms with a powerful dissonance in Plato’s tale. Either Socrates truly misunderstood human nature (perhaps he confused it with his own psychological projections), or he didn’t actually believe what he was saying. Some philosophers argue for the latter theory: that the ideal state was ideal intentionally. Socrates was never going to convince the Athenians to drive all the old folks out of the city in order to start afresh, or convince the educated classes to surrender their private property holdings to the commons, or convince them to put their women and children into a breeding commune to be tended by specially bred and trained guardians. He must have known that. What was really going on here? Remember that the tale was written by Plato, long after Socrates’ execution. Plato was engaging in his own bit of cynical rhetoric, grounded in bitterness. He wanted to demonstrate the utter impossibility of the larger task: convincing men to love virtue for its own sake; to be just, rather than simply to appear just. He had given up on the possibility, and the Republic was his way of showing this. It is hard to blame him, on one level. He’d watched these people destroy his master and teacher; a man for whom Plato had given up a promising life as a poet, in order to follow him in philosophy. Haidt, on the other hand, embraces his cynicism with zeal, because he believes the data tells him he must, and he refuses to even entertain the possibility that we might just be better than that. In effect, he takes Plato’s implicit condemnation of man and turns it into a simple matter-of-fact. But recasting the condemnation as mere description doesn’t change the moral reality; it just hides it behind a veil of cynicism.

Ayn Rand Is Still The Boogeyman

The following quote is from a discussion of Plato’s dialogue “The Republic”, from this course on Coursera. The professor, a Dr. Meyer, is explaining the interactions early in the book between Glaucon, Adeimantus, Socrates, and Thrasymachus, wherein the group is debating the subject of whether it is more advantageous to be a just or an unjust man. Dr. Meyer, in this quote, is attempting to compare the vulgar egoism of Thrasymachus to Ayn Rand’s Virtue Of Selfishness, in a throw-away line clearly intended to virtue-signal, and intimidate younger students:

“…They want some sort of justification for their belief that it is better to lead a life of justice than one of injustice. We might say, in the vocabulary of the Meno, that they have a most true belief that justice is good. But without an explanation of the reason, the sort that ties down a true belief they don’t know that this is the case. And under the pressure of questioning from skeptics like Thrasymachus, they’re vulnerable to having their true beliefs wander away. We might compare this to the situation of many young people today, who have been raised by their parents and their communities to value generosity and altruism. But then they pick up the writings of Ayn Rand, which extol the virtues of selfishness. And then they’re tempted to abandon the ethical values in which they’ve been raised. Glaucon and Adeimantus are unimpressed with the usual sorts of reasons that their parents or their communities give them to recommend justice.”

If I were being entirely cheeky, I might ask if Dr. Meyer was accusing Ayn Rand of corrupting the youth.

As someone who has actually read The Virtue Of Selfishness, Philosophy: Who Needs It, The Objectivist Ethics, and Peikoff’s Objectivism, I always find these sanctimonious little jabs simultaneously hilarious, and tiresome.

Hilarious, because it’s clear from comments like these (and I’ve seen hundreds), that Dr. Meyer has only read the title, and wishes to dance a straw-man around in front of us. Tiresome, because I’m constantly finding myself in a situation of defending a philosopher with whom I don’t even share much agreement. Even Hannah Arendt doesn’t get this kind of petty hatred anymore.

It’s a little disappointing, too. This particular class is all about making a careful, close reading of Plato, in order to understand exactly what it is he’s trying to say. Whether or not we agree with his conception of ideas, or with his conclusions about the ideal state or the ideal man, we’re supposed to be able to address them as Plato intended (or as close as we can get to a reasonable interpretation). As Dr. Meyer points out, this is the “principle of charity”.

Why is it that this principle never applies to Ayn Rand? Is it because she’s not a “real” philosopher? Well, then why even bring her up? Just leave her lie, along with the Robert Pirsigs of the world. Is it because her arguments really are as horrible as Dr. Meyer says? Well, then, since Dr. Meyer is raising the comparison to Thrasymacus, it should be an easy matter to actually include a few fair quotes, to show how this is true. Is doing that a distraction from the class? Then again, why even bring her up at all?

To anyone reading this, I would highly recommend you actually go read The Virtue Of Selfishness. Don’t do it because I tell you it’s all true, or great, or wonderful (there’s plenty there to criticize). Do it, precisely because it’s a well argued position you’re not going to find in academia. Put yourself in Socrates’ shoes, and explain to Rand exactly why she’s wrong. It will, at the very least, strengthen your capacity to reason critically, and will give you the ammunition you need to properly argue with criticisms of concepts like egoism, altruism, sacrifice, and the value of self.

As it turns out, The Virtue Of Selfishness can easily be found online, right here. If you do take the time to read it, you’ll find that nowhere in it, does Rand defend Thrasymachus’ cynical opportunism, and moral confusion. In fact, she likely would have counted Thrasymachus among the very people she is condemning in this essay.

Now, you could take her to task for her conception of “rational self-interest”, and how exactly it is to be maintained. Or, you could demand she fully justify her position that “The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But his right to do so is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life…”. Or, you could speculate what she would say about Frans de Waal’s research (the principle of reciprocal altruism). And there is much to say, on the topic of contemporary egoism, as a philosophy.

But to do this, would be to engage her directly on her moral theory. And that would take some effort, to actually read her, and to apply the same principle of charity to her, that we do to Plato.

What’s truly unfortunate about the ignorant dismissals, is the loss of an incredibly valuable opportunity to really see Plato in stark contrast.

Rand was no fan of Plato (she labeled him a mystic). However, if you compare The Republic to Atlas Shrugged, there are innumerable similarities. Just a couple examples: The ideal man, with a soul that is well tempered by a harmonious balance of virtues constituting true justice, in the form of John Galt; The “city of the virtuous” that Socrates constructed with Glaucon and Adeimantus, in the form of Galt’s Gulch.

Looking more closely at the early books of The Republic, what you can immediately see, is that Rand is looking for a third way between Thrasymachus and Socrates.

Thrasymachus says: justice is (that is to say, the standard of justice is) that which benefits oneself.

Socrates replies: No, justice is what benefits another, when that benefit is education.

Rand is arguing with both of them, in The Virtue Of Selfishness, saying instead: The standard of justice is not who is the beneficiary, but rather, something else entirely. It is the intrinsic worth of mans life ‘qua man’, by virtue of his unique capacity for reason. That an action must benefit the actor, is necessary for justice, she says, but it is not sufficient. The action itself must be guided by a principle of reason, since reason as it manifests itself in man, is the standard (in her view).

This, to me, is absolutely fascinating. Because Socrates himself agrees that man is in some way exceptional to animal, by virtue of his capacity to reason (as In Republic). It is this faculty that provides him with access to the true form of the good, and with the capacity to recall it (as in Meno), and in doing so, perfecting it in preparation for its next iteration (as in Apology, and Phaedo).

So, Rand’s view is actually incredibly similar to Plato’s. But her task, as she saw it, was to bring the discussion back to earth, back to reality, and out of the realm of imaginary things like “true forms”. And her solution, such as it is, was an attempt to establish the value of the individual, as such, in the fact of rational consciousness.

Now, any follower of Hume might want to ask Rand, “How is it, exactly, that you get from an arbitrary fact about human consciousness, to his moral worth?” This is something Rand never quite answers in a satisfying way (at least, not for me). And it’s been stuck in my craw since I first read The Objectivist Ethics. One could argue that Plato had the easier job, since all he had to do was to refer to his theology, but Rand had to find some anchor in physical reality. But, this is all a subject for another post.

The point I’m trying to make here, is that reading this book will actually enrich your view of the dialogues, not diminish it. It will give you a modern voice that argues with Plato constantly (and quite forcefully), and will give you an opportunity to clarify your own thinking about the dialogues.

And this is why I get so angry, when I hear instructors – authority figures – attempting to ward students away from that opportunity.

Because what is the cost, in doing this? We reinforce the incurious, the prejudiced, and the cynical impulses in students, rather than inspiring the opposite. That is the cost. And it is an enormous cost.

In other words, we create precisely the world that Plato was railing against, in the dialogues.