Saturday, December 1, 2012
Nagel on Haidt 2: The Taste for Justice
A second issue raised in Nagel’s review of Haidt (see previous post) is involves the familiar tension between explaining the evolutionary origins of the moral mind and taking morality seriously.
[Haidt] urges liberals to respect the varying parochial moralities and religions that they are accustomed to deride as backward or intolerant, and to acknowledge their genuine moral character. However, Haidt insists that he is not a relativist. He has moral views of his own, and presumably this means that he believes that they are true, or at least more likely to be true than the alternatives. But what does it mean, in the light of Haidt’s evolutionary perspective, to believe such a thing, and what grounds might he have for believing it?
What he says is that his descriptive theory of the six types of moral response and their group-preserving function works well “as an adjunct” to normative theories, “particularly those that have often had difficulty seeing groups and social facts.” He himself favors what he calls a “Durkheimian utilitarianism…
Haidt’s Durkheimian utilitarianism reduces the values of loyalty, authority, and sanctity to a purely instrumental role. Religion, patriotism, and sexual taboos, for example, have no validity or value in themselves, according to this view; they are merely useful in creating bonds that allow collective achievement of the greatest total good, which utilitarians identify with the satisfaction of individual interests. But can such values and practices as loyalty and authority serve this function if they are seen as purely instrumental? Can they even exist?
In practice, Nagel’s objection to “purely instrumental” interpretations of sanctions doesn’t amount to much. The familiar practice of having a witness or an incoming officer swear an oath on a Bible (or a Koran) has an obviously instrumental role. One hopes that the person taking the oath will be motivated by a fear of the invisible powers invested in the object and so will keep the oath. A believing Muslim or Christian can understand the strategy and can recognize that it depends on mere belief and so would work even if the invisible powers are fictitious. Does that make it more difficult, let alone impossible, for them to persevere in their beliefs? No. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that Allah isn’t out to get you.
“What does it mean, in the light of Haidt’s evolutionary perspective, to believe” that one’s moral views are true? Whatever it means, it surely matters to the believer. Moral consciousness involves a craving. We want to believe that what is right is really right, in some fundamental sense. What would satisfy that craving?
This question is evident in the second book of Plato’s Republic. Glaucon challenges Socrates by presenting a merely instrumental account of justice, one which he ascribes to most people. The ideal situation would be like this: I could do injustice to anyone as I please but no one could be unjust to me. The worst situation would be if others could be unjust to me but I had to be just to them. Law abiding citizens value justice only as an acceptable mean between the two situations. They realize that in a dog eat dog world, they won’t be the top dog. Adiemantus argues that people do not value justice but only the reputation for justice. Both want Socrates to show them that justice is something more than that. Their moral sense involves a deep craving for satisfaction that is not afforded by these instrumental accounts of justice.
Socrates responds with a very lengthy defense of justice. To be very brief, he argues that the soul is more important than the body and that justice is an essential ingredient in the healthy soul. The soul is tripartite. When the intelligence rules the passions and the passions rule the appetites, the soul is well ordered. The man with the well-ordered soul lives the best possible life. No fruit of injustice would be worth more than the justice upon which his psychological integrity depends.
I happen to think that Socrates’ account of justice is correct. However, the question is why does it satisfy the craving of his spirited interlocutors? The answer is that the just man is triumphant. Regardless of who wins the election or rakes in the cash, it is the just man who wins the contest. Socrates is the hero of his own story because he cannot be defeated, not even if he is put on trial and executed. It is that that satisfies the craving of his young interlocutors to see justice vindicated. They want to see the just man win first prize and not merely second place. Socrates gratifies their instinctual civic piety.
Perhaps that is the standard that any account of justice must meet if indeed it is to satisfy the longing that Nagel articulates above. Justice must be victorious or, at the very least, it must be more deserving of victory than injustice in a heroic sense. It must be both beautiful and good. Contrary to what Nagel seems to think, an evolutionary account of the origins of morality points in that direction.