Liberals are from Vulcan; Conservatives are from Uranus

Will Wilkinson says Jonathan Haidt “posit[s] five psychological foundations of human moral sentiment, each with a distinct evolutionary history and function, which he labels harm, reciprocity, ingroup, hierarchy, and purity” and that conservatives have “broadband” moral reasoning (all five foundations resonate with them) and liberals “shortband” (they concentrate in harm and reciprocity).

This means when conservatives argue using appeals to “tradition” or “values,” liberals just don’t get it. As I said in a comment last year on a post about Haidt’s research:

The point of the quoted article is that people come at institutions from a variety of moral bases. Where liberals often concern themselves with social justice and individual rights, they misunderstand calls to hierarchy and tradition as a vieled power play by those with bad intentions. What’s the Matter with Kansas, for example.

Perhaps there’s nothing the matter with Kansas. Perhaps those people hold a fundamentally different moral basis.

Thus, “they’re not hearing me” and “they’re being unreasonable” result not from unsound reasoning but from a differences in logical starting points. In math, you’d expect theorems derived from one set of axioms to be different than those derived from another set. Sometimes those theorems directly contradict each other. We shouldn’t expect anything different from moral reasoning.

But Will (The Lesser) defends the minimalism of liberal moral reasoning by saying being disgusted isn’t a policy argument:

Is the narrower morality of liberalism a form of moral retardation or enlightenment? That’s a question that also breaks along ideological lines. “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder,” says the conservative Leon Kass, former head of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, in defense of what he calls “the wisdom of repugnance”—the moral authority of the digust-purity dimension of feeling. But the liberal philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her book Hiding from Humanity, argues that though emotions such as anger or fear sometimes embody reasons we can offer to others as legitimate justification for action, disgust is uniquely inarticulate, implying no real reason beyond itself, and so is unfit as a basis for persuasion and policy in an open, pluralistic society.

I really like that line by Leon Kass, “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

Anyway, Will is too quick to dismiss these conservative pillars of moral reasoning. Much of Haidt’s research shows that these conservative modes of moral reasoning are very old in the human species.

[T]here are two psychological systems [in academics], one about fairness/justice, and one about care and protection of the vulnerable. And if you look at the many books on the evolution of morality, most of them focus exclusively on those two systems, with long discussions of Robert Trivers’ reciprocal altruism (to explain fairness) and of kin altruism and/or attachment theory to explain why we don’t like to see suffering and often care for people who are not our children.

But if you try to apply this two-foundation morality to the rest of the world, you either fail or you become Procrustes. Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You can’t just dismiss this stuff as social convention. If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics, you’ve got to include the Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together.

You can argue that just because something has been around along time in human evolution, that doesn’t make it right. The appendix comes to mind. But might there be some value in the conservative virtues?

In contrast, Kass recognizes that while repugnance alone should not resolve policy disputes, it can be a quintessentially human way of experiencing a deep knowing that certain activities are just plain wrong:

Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted — though one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power to fully articulate it. Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest… or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or raping or murdering another human being? Would anybody’s failure to give full rational justification for his revulsion at those practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we are suspicious of those who think they can rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments only about the genetic risks of inbreeding.

This is a powerful truth about the wisdom of human nature that is not easily brushed aside by the disdainful condescension of those who think that raw intellectualism is the only legitimate method of moral analysis.

Allah Akbar

God is great!

Its becoming clear to me that this is one of the central precepts of Islam. Nothing is above God; he is perfect and there is no equal. I had a psuedo-conversation about Slavery and Islam with a Muslim the other day (I talked to him by piping Yoko through Google Talk).

Slavery must be ok because it says so in the Qur’an, he tells me.

Having had similar discussions about textual literalism with Christians before, I reasoned that “Oh, that’s just a stupid book” wasn’t going to be a compelling counter argument.

Instead, I replied: “So, the Qur’an is infallible.”


“But God has no equal, right?”

“Yes, of course.”

Hah. I knew I had him there…

“But if the Qur’an is infallible and God has no equal then they must be equal in perfection!”

To which he answered, after much deliberation with our intermediate, “Well, life is complicated.”

At this point, I did one of those literal LOLs.

In any case, a similar argument is made by Abu Daoud to defend the Christian Bible from Muslim accusations of corruption:

I start by explaining that tahriif [the idea that texts before the Qur’an, called injiil are corrupt] is very real and it is a significant problem. We say that God knows the heart of all men, and that he is all powerful–no Muslim will disagree. Then I explain that when the Jew knows the Torah and its commands, and he disobeys it, he has corrupted the Torah in his heart. Likewise the Christian who knows the commands of the injiil and disobeys it has corrupted the injiil. And finally, the Muslim who knows the commands of the Qur’an and disobeys it, is it not true that he has corrupted the Qur’an? The answer, in my experience, is always yes. Muslims are very aware that most Muslims aren’t very strict in their obedience.

In conclusion I usually ask, “Is Allah powerful or weak?” Powerful! “Is Allah wise or foolish?” Wise, the answer comes. “Yes my friend, and Allah is more powerful than the Jews and the Christians, and no one is capable of corrupting God’s words to his prophets! If anyone says that his words corrupted IN THE TEXT of the Torah and Gospel, he is a man who believes that God is neither wise nor powerful. But you see that corruption is in our hearts.”

(h/t DarwinCatholic)

Alms Watch 2007

So, maybe I should just rename by blog to “Greg Clark: Please be my adviser.” I mean seriously, what am I doing here, he already gave me a pass on my prelim exam.

It’s too bad everyone (and Clark, I think) is assuming Clark’s finding show genetic changes. Culture seems to me to be much more likely. Why haven’t we heard from the Anthropologists? Grant McCracken? Anybody, anybody? Shouldn’t they be telling us all their theories for how culture gets transmitted?

Alms Watch 2007

  • Farwell to Alms is reviewed at the NYT. Blog commentary here, here and here.
  • Borjas discusses a report that rich people are starting to have more kids… So let’s see, before 1800 they had more kids, there was a demographic transition so that more recently they had fewer kids and now there may be a trend back to more kids… phew, that’s a lot for a rationalizing model to explain
  • gnxp talks about peer groups and gene/environment interactions, “40% of unattributed component of variation of personality is due to our peer groups (10% is parents and 50% is genes).”
  • Jonathan discusses the much talked about study that showed social networks (aka “peer groups”?) determine what are acceptable weights. “What appears to be happening is that a person becoming obese most likely causes a change of norms about what counts as an appropriate body size. People come to think that it is okay to be bigger since those around them are bigger, and this sensibility spreads.”

UPDATE: Another response to the NYT piece over at scienceblogs.

Ok, I don’t want to be a Diamond fan, but…

Jared Diamond seems to irk everybody. I’ve had problems with him because, as a natural scientist, he assumes economics follows ecological rules. He’s a Malthusian (boo, hiss).

Apparently, historians and anthropologist don’t like him for a very different reason. The fact that he’s after the truth seems to get their goad. From the comments here:

…The idea that recovering an accurate history of Japanese-Korean origins will have an effect on contemporary politics is a real leap of faith…

Because politics has its own logic, a logic that is completely disassociated with reality? Facts play no part in political discourse? Really?

…I would be bit worried if the methods and conclusions of his research are taken up in the political sphere, as is what he seems to be suggesting in the essay I read. If understood without a critical eye, it can essentialize cultural difference and possibly provide justification for ethnic conflict…

The truth might be used for bad purposes. Therefore, we shouldn’t seek it. Right.

…the idea that revealing the truth about the prehistoric past will end Japan-Korea tensions – upon further reflection, this idea is so outlandish that I can’t really even believe that Diamond himself takes it seriously…

Wait. So everyone that wants to effect change through political process should pack up and go home? How exactly does one go about easing tensions between Japan and Korea? Have a wrestling match? Spitting contest? Oh, I know… get both sides to sit down and try to figure out what the hell Foucault was talking about! (It will at least keep ’em busy.)

And finally, from the body of the post comes my biggest complaint. It may be a complaint about the whole field of Japanese Anthropology, but I’ll just take the one small bite here. Here’s the quote:

The myth of racial homogeneity has been dismantled by Japan historians, most recently by Eiji Oguma in his A Genealogy of Japanese Self-Image, a translation of the 1995 discipline-defining work 『単一民族神話の起源―「日本人」の自画像の系譜』. This racism, which snugly fit with the emperor cult of seeing all Japanese subjects as having a common ancestor, is generally understood to have peaked during Japanese imperialism.

There are also frightening parallels in the history of Japanese fascism to the kind of environmental determinism used by Diamond. Take the example of Watsuji Tetsuro, who despite his engagement with Heidegger’s critique of ontology (or perhaps because of it), produced his 1936 work 『風土 人間学的考察』 (translated as Climate and Culture: A Philosophical Study). Some Japanese critics have interpreted this book as using the argument of environmental determinism to claim Japanese racial superiority: he writes that certain climatic factors lend themselves better to philosophical and ethical inquiry. And of course, the monsoon climate, with which the Japanese race nourished itself, allowed for the highest form of cultural development. Sounds pretty racist.

Now Diamond does not argue this. But he shares with Watsuji a basic methodology of relying on environmental factors as a way to typologize groups of people according to “race.”

The issue of the uniqueness of Japan is popular in Japanese scholarship. How is Japan “uniquely unique”? How isn’t it? Why is asking whether or not its unique missing the point and counterproductive? And so on and so forth.

One of the ways that Japan is seen to be unique is the supposed ethnic homogeneity of the people. All kinds of things are supposed to be a result of the “pure blood” of the Japanese people. Their ‘miraculous’ economic growth or their uncanny ability to get along to name a few.

The problem is that there isn’t an objective Japanese race, of course. The point about homogeneity is moot. But let’s say you could define a Japanese race… ummm… let’s say if you’re 99.999% genetically similar to Prime Minister Koizumi, then you’re Japanese. Even then, the fact is there are large groups of minorities (Korean, Chinese, Okinawan, Ainu, etc) on the Japanese archipelago and there’s many more Japanese speakers around the world. So Japanese ethnic homogeneity is a myth. Great.

Great, but so what! Does that mean we can’t talk about Japan or the Japanese people? I hope not. I consider myself a budding Japanese scholar. I’d be disappointed to find out that my subject doesn’t exist (or worse, it does, but I can’t talk about it).

I think many folks make the mistake of assuming that because there are fuzzy lines between social objects (e.g. race, nations, countries, political borders, languages, professions, institutions, histories, genders, social classes, generations, markets, games, cultures, individuals(!), etc), we can’t talk about them. Or worse… they counter an argument that uses one of the objects as a unit of analysis by saying that the unit of analysis doesn’t exist objectively. Well, duh!

The question is: do social scientists admit that their objects of study are “socially constructed” and then give up because they can’t be objectively studied? Or do they admit that they are social constructed and continue on, hoping to shed some light on the human condition? I vote for the latter and further, I hope that social scientist can expose so much truth about their subjects that that truth would be used for positive change in… gasp… the political process.

In other words, if Diamond says “the Japanese do X and here’s why”, he’s not saying that every person that may be considered Japanese or that might consider themselves Japanese (or however else you might define Japaneseness) does X. He is making a simplifying assumption to help explain a phenomenon that happens in and around many people that are considered or that consider themselves Japanese. This seems useful in a context where we talk about “Japanese Korean tensions.” (Did you notice how the word “Japanese” plays a prominent role in that phrase? Yeah, it might be useful to understand the social object behind that word.)

Of course I’m not saying that he’s right in the assertions he makes. In fact, I’ve said that he’s wrong. However, he’s wrong for the right reasons.