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The Social Instinct - Are we humans, or are we ants?

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A few weeks ago, I started thinking about which animal society humans are most like. This isn't such an odd mode of thinking, I tell myself. There are many animal metaphors in language to describe human behaviour. 

"Birds of a feather flock together." 

"Breeding like rabbits."

"What's good for the hive is good for the bee."

Zoologists are taught to be careful not to anthropomorphise their subjects, but perhaps there is just as much danger of doing the reverse; to zoo-ologise the human in the quest to understand what our nature really is. As I'm not a zoologist or a biologist, my musings on this could only go so far. But browsing my local library I stumbled upon Nichola Raihani's new book The Social Instinct. It turns out that Raihani is a biologist who has actually thought a lot about our similarities with animals. 

To use an animal metaphor to explain human society might be to found an argument on a naturalistic fallacy, saying that any particular organisation of things is 'natural' because it already exists in nature, and we have little choice but to accept the way things are. However, Raihani manages to talk about the similarities between us without falling into this trap. There are many such similarities, and this is not surprising, given we share our genes with so many other animals, our traits, development and behaviours all find cognates in the natural world. 

Cleaner wrasse, for instance, are fish that make a living by cleaning the dead matter from other fish passing by on the reef. They apparently just as paranoid about bad customer reviews as the average small business manager, and will punish each other in order to make sure their partners don't nibble the client's flesh instead of the dead matter, you know, just once, as a treat. There are so many of these great animal anecdotes in this book, including some especially weird ones about the reproductive behaviour of spiders.  

Raihani is also concerned to point out the differences between us and animals. Firstly that we are so sexually egalitarian. Our closest cousins, the great apes, are in general much more polygynous (one male to several females) in their relationships; a much smaller proportion of males get to mate and father young than we do. This puts us much closer to bird couples when it comes to rearing young, but even that would be a misleading metaphor. Bird couples are often solely responsible for the survival of their young, while human children can rely on the support of the extended family and grandparents especially. It can also widen to include the whole community, and this is one reason that parents are so unperturbed by the concept of sending underdeveloped children to school to be cared for by near-strangers. 

It's important to point out these differences, seeing as the online 'manosphere' seems to be currently obsessed by the idea that 'women only want wealthy alpha males.' This kind of argument illustrates the point that animal metaphors are not just speculative, but real life discourses with political and social effects. Raihani treads very carefully in her section on the family but doesn't pull punches - at some level, our reproductive behaviour can be described as a conflict between genes. However, this conflict leads to co-operative behaviour as our genes act as if they seek to derive mutual survival benefits by playing nice. When it comes to everyday social relations, what the biology uncovers is actually a fairly banal fact-of-life: we want other people to like us, so we work to maintain our reputation as good co-operators, and we apparently relish the chance to punish the uncooperative, or bring down the boastful. Insisting on your alpha-hood among humans is thus more likely to earn a person haters than followers. 

Human societies are large and complex, unlike our closest cousins, and this has led some to compare us with social insects like ants and bees. Raihani explores the differences between us and hive-minded creatures as a recurring theme over the whole book. Like us, these insects form large social groups with a hierarchy and a division of labour, they are at times, fiercely territorial and are some species are in a state of constant war between colonies. Sometimes this metaphor is invoked when we have to get together and work on a common project, or defeat a common enemy. Whereas nation-states do have a very hivish vibe about them (something not lost on the makers of the film Antz), humans are importantly different from eusocial species.

A central idea of the book is the tension between individuals and their social groups. In eusocial species, Raihani makes the case that the individual ant or bee has become somewhat de-individualised. Much of the time, they are acting as if their individual genes don't matter, and that what they are reproducing is the hive itself. What makes this possible is a strong vertical solidarity; ants and bees are typically all sisters, and all the progeny of the queen. By being a 'worker' they are helping their genes through their sister's other offspring. Human societies are a much looser federation. Our ability to produce and care for our own offspring has been preserved, and thus the goal of our genes is more closely aligned with our individual bodies. Though hard work and sacrifice is often demanded of us by modern, industrialised, national societies, we operate on the basis that there must be something in it for us or our kids. 

Raihani devotes the last section of her book to explaining how such societies arose among humans, a species that evolved to live in much smaller bands of foragers, loosely dependent on each other, and fiercely egalitarian. Indeed, she makes a great defence of what others have called our 'egalitarian syndrome,' our sense that there is something unfair about others having more, whether praise, position or resources (Gavrilets, 2012). In this explanation, she doesn't tread much new ground and follows the argument that agriculture makes state society possible. Her own understanding of this is that agricultural families produce many more children and this ultimately leads to the domination of the fertile land by farmers. This leaves people with nowhere to run if the social conditions tip towards tyranny, meaning that despots can essentially domesticate the population and reap the surplus they produce. 

However, her model for deducing this leaves out some critical detail - why are resources not shared equally in agricultural societies? She assumes the existence of a leader of the community holding on to more, but this is a bit unsatisfying. Why do the others let him hang on to more, if they would not allow that in a forager band? I would add the conjecture of economist Paul Collier that this tipping towards hierarchy is hard to resist due to the potential for 'scale economies of violence' to emerge, in which a minority unproductive class, specialising in violence, can cream off the agricultural surplus to support their lifestyle.  Early Kings, argues Collier, were little more than thugs. 

One important question she does address is, why don't the workers rise up and use their superior numbers to overthrow the elite? While others have attempted to understand this with reference to culture, (which certainly does play a part), Raihani sees it mostly as a simple numbers game. Action against tyrants is an act of co-operation; it relies on people ready to come together for a common cause. But while we can often do that on a small scale, it often becomes quite difficult as the number of people required for action grows. This is because the more people involved in an endeavour, the less your individual contribution seems to matter, and possibly, the less you have to gain. If the punishments for rebellion are harsh enough, then often the disincentives outweigh the incentives on an individual level.

This is certainly the case when it comes to action on climate change, as Raihani goes on to discuss. We've all felt the futility of separating the paper and plastic for recycling in the knowledge that many people continue to contribute daily to carbon emissions on an industrial scale. She has no easy solutions, but follows the 'think global act local' school of thought that argues for building smaller local co-operative institutions and processes with an understanding of the systemic and global effects that action could have. There is more than a shade of pessimism in this, but Raihani is not a doomer. It's not too late to act. But failure is a relatively strong possibility. 

Ultimately, the book did not answer my question about the best animal metaphor for human society, because it showed quite clearly that humans behave in quite unique ways that make most such metaphors deceiving. We do share recognisable behaviours with animals, but we have taken sociality to vertiginously complex new forms. Consequently we face incredibly complex new challenges in which our individual motivations and social obligations are often at odds. Understanding what is happening to us demands probing beyond these neat comparisons to assess what is particular about humans, and this book serves as a great introduction to this endeavour. 


Gavrilets, S. (2012) ‘On the evolutionary origins of the egalitarian syndrome’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - PNAS, 109(35), pp. 14069–14074. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1201718109.

Raihani, N. (2021) The Social Instinct: How co-operation shaped the world, Penguin: London, UK

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The "Science" of Willpower

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Edited by Samuel George Gaze, Friday, 6 Jan 2023, 17:08

David Robson, journalist and "science author" has written a piece of prime pop psychology for BBC Worklife on the subject of willpower, arguing that 'mindset' can give you access to greater motivation, determination and ultimately, career success. 

This one: "The mindset that brings unlimited willpower."

The main argument is based on Veronika Job's 2010 study, 'Is It All in Your Head? Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation'. In this study, and in her subsequent research, she found that people's beliefs about willpower affect how well they perform on moderately demanding cognitive tasks. In short, believing that willpower is a depletable resource that you run out of if you try too hard makes you less likely to focus on a tough task. However, believing that willpower is a kind of muscle you can strengthen makes you more likely to focus, even when a task is tough. It also apparently correlates to less procrastination on revision, more avoiding sugary or fatty food, etc. Mindset gives you power. 

Like most of this self-help stuff, Robson's article left me a bit prickly. This is partly because, as a final year psychologist, I'm doing a study on the moralization of work and am well aware that it has a dark side, and partly because his conclusion clashes with my own experience of motivation. Surely there are times when "with all the will in the world," we just can't seem to make the better choice? I can't help but feeling that the mindset thing is just empty marketing talk that simply contributes to good book sales. But how can it even be argued against?

I looked into the Job's original 2010 study, (rather industriously I think you'll agree, at about 5 AM in the morning) to see if it had any glaring weaknesses. However, in general it seems to have been a very well conducted set of studies that provides support for the hypothesis. Taking just the first study, it's possible to argue that the causal arrow is wrong, that it is personality that informs belief, and eventually causes different results on ego-depletion tests. However the next study 'primes' the attitude in a random sample and still finds a result, showing that attitude is likely a causal factor. 

If I had to quibble, we could say that the ego-depletion tests used by Job are themselves unreliable measures (debatable) or maybe that the studied task itself is not spectacularly effortful. But more importantly what is the effect size? Job uses an 'odds ratio' to indicate the effect size of attitude on task performance, and in study 1 the 'OR' is 1.32. According to Chen, Cohen and Chen (2010) this is equivalent to a small effect size. And if we look at the descriptive statistics, we see that the actual difference in mistakes on the ego depletion task is at most a 6% extra probability, so yeah. In ironic capitals, SMALL. 

This might be enough to put grand claims about attitude's ability to increase willpower to one side. Yes, attitude towards willpower might contribute to people's level of effort on tasks, but it is a small constituent of such motivated attention - there are likely to be much more important factors: actual tiredness, calorie intake, level of stress, or of course, ADHD etc. I think that David Robson from the BBC has somewhat overstated our ability to think our way to motivation, but it is not good enough for me. I'm suspicious that something else is going on.

Willpower is a screwy concept. I'm not the first to say this. Brain and behaviour scientists Gross and Duckworth (2021) have also criticised the concept as having no useful meaning. Just the idea of 'will' alone is debatable, and has been debated by philosophers for centuries. Also implicit in the construction of the word is 'power' - a metaphor of a depletable resource that motivates activity just as long as it remains. The connected ideas of replenishing and re-energising follow directly from this. 

But where in the brain can we find the will? Where is willpower stored? What kind of energy is 'willpower' exactly? Is it a chemical? Electricity? Rising gas? G & D are correct that the concept leaves much to be desired. It is a biochemical model with no biochemical signature - like chakras or chi. Willpower is what we call a folk psychological concept; it is a theory about a mysterious substance inhabiting a person that describes their likelihood of getting a job done or not, relapsing into addiction, or washing behind their ears. 

It is likely for this reason that Veronika Job is studying not willpower itself, but beliefs about willpower. And it is also likely the reason that such beliefs do seem to have a causal effect on focus (albeit a small one). In Job's study, people use the folk psychological concept of willpower and apply it to themselves. Those who think it is depletable are also those who procrastinate studying for their finals, those who think it is a strengthening muscle apparently just rep through the pain. And this is the important point. In study 3 of the paper, the research shows that both believers in depletion theory and non-depletion theory got tired from the (admittedly minimal) task they were set by the experimenters and answered so on a survey. 

What I think we are seeing here is that the two groups have different discursive approaches to feelings of exhaustion, and this does show up in their levels of focus. When feeling task exhaustion, discursive resources could be coming into play at what Gross & Duckworth call the 'appraisal' stage. The appraisal of one group seems to be: "I'm tired, so I won't put too much energy into this," while the others is "I'm tired but I can push through." This has worrying implications: perhaps when 'pushing through' we are dealing with a theory of willpower in which people are failing to listen to their body, and further, accepting the governmentality of work schedules, deadlines, examinations and so forth, contributing to burnout and later medical issues, all in the service of capital accumulation.  However, it seems these implications have been missed. 

Perhaps this can be explained by our implicit moralization of effort, as studied by Celniker et al., (2022). According to this research, all effort is viewed in positive moral terms, so the suggestion that effort generates improving results plays to our ingrained cultural biases and is thus eagerly welcomed. Not only that, but given the pervasive discourses of choice and responsibility within liberalism, the idea that there is a secret trove of energy within us we can unlock to scale the ladder of success, taking control of our bodies and minds to advance our social goals, is a cause for the kind of celebration given to it in plaudit-winning popular psychology self-help books such as David Robson's Expectation Effect. 

His BBC article begins:

 "Many people believe willpower is fixed and finite. Yet powerful strategies exist that can help us increase it."

The main problem with this, as we've seen, is that willpower does not exist. According to Gross and Duckworth, on the road to controlling behaviours, there are many steps, and willpower is not one of them. Everything following from this first mistake is bad science. The risk is that people who genuinely struggle with self-control for various reasons are continually being told that their difficulties are a YOU problem, which, if efforts to overcome it through positive thinking don't work, might contribute to a further loss of self-esteem and depression. Gross and Duckworth argue that we should look at broader ways to aid self-control, like social support, medication for conditions like ADHD, and even legal changes. 

Alternatively, we could think of reducing the 'expectation effect' and making the barriers to a good life a little lower and more accessible by simply not demanding so much effort in the first place. In liberalism we are supposed to work hard and play hard, but where is the space for some quiet contemplation far from the madding crowd? We are supposed to supplement our hard work with protective amounts of exercise, avoid but also consume economy-boosting levels of junk food and media, all this while assiduously squirrelling away enough cash for retirement just above the poverty line. Even meditation has become a site for the moralization of effort. Instead of thinking about how we can put in more hours to get the life of our dreams, maybe we should listen to our body and just let a few harmless hours slip. 

In writing this, I expended a lot of effort. I was tired, and pushed through - largely because the idea of finishing it was far more attractive than going to bed. However, this had nothing to do with willpower, it had to do with attention. I simply can't turn my attention away from something as compelling as a nicely written article. The very thing you have read is a failure of self-regulation on a school night. And for this reason alone, I submit, the world of motivational psychobabble must move (as Duckworth and Gross say) beyond willpower. 

Celniker, J.B. et al. (2022) ‘The moralization of effort’, Journal of experimental psychology. General [Preprint]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0001259.

Chen, H., Cohen, P. and Chen, S. (2010) ‘How Big is a Big Odds Ratio? Interpreting the Magnitudes of Odds Ratios in Epidemiological Studies’, Communications in statistics. Simulation and computation, 39(4), pp. 860–864. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/03610911003650383.

Gross, J.J. and Duckworth, A.L. (2021) ‘Beyond willpower’, The Behavioral and brain sciences, 44, pp. e37–e37. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X20000722.

Job, V., Dweck, C.S. and Walton, G.M. (2010) ‘Ego Depletion—Is It All in Your Head? Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation’, Psychological science, 21(11), pp. 1686–1693. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797610384745.

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She's With Him - Discourse versus Moral Foundations of Politics

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Edited by Samuel George Gaze, Thursday, 22 Dec 2022, 19:16


Jayne Riew is a photographer and the wife of the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose Moral Foundation Theory I've written about in a series on this blog. It's almost certainly no coincidence that one of her recent photography projects, sheswithhim.com, deals with similar themes as Haidt. In this project she presents interviews with women who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 US election. Trump faced Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and the interview's focus seems to have been how these women, some self-described as feminists, justified voting against the first female candidate for a major US party in favour of Trump, who was caught bragging about his sexual misconduct with women to a journalist leading up to the election. 

Riew's work is an interesting case study for the application of moral foundations theory to politics, and also provides an opportunity to analyse the data with a more critical lens and concepts from discourse analysis. Do conservative moral foundations underlie the women's justifications, or can discourse analysis tell us more about how language is used to construct these political arguments? 

The first thing to notice about these interviews is that the answers come from a defensive position. The women seem to have been asked why 'as women' they voted against Clinton and for Trump. This fact frames their argument as a defence of their status as 'good women,' whatever society takes that to be. Posed this way, the question appears more like a challenge. How can a good woman have voted for Donald Trump (and against Hillary Clinton)? This implicates both their identity and their moral justifications. Since this is an oppositional question, it is also more easily understood as coming from a Democratic world-view. The women were not responding to a neutral, but to an imagined hostile Clinton voter - perhaps another woman. This somewhat informs the language and arguments they used in response. 

There are two main arguments the women draw on to justify their choice. The first is that Clinton was not a good candidate to vote for, and further, that the Democratic party was not a good choice either. They argue this in two ways. One is that Clinton and the Democrats were not competent and therefore not a 'rational' choice, and the second that they were morally wrong, and therefore no a 'moral' choice. Grievances include: Clinton's approach to Benghazi, her somewhat hypocritical feminism, the Democrats treatment of car manufacturers, the mishandling of the Flint water crisis, the lack of jobs, the apparent lack of immigration controls, and unfair taxation. These were presented both in moral and rational terms as reasons against the Democrats. 

The second argument used is quite different. They argue against what some of them call 'the left' or 'liberals' - the wider cultural movement associated with the Democratic party and Clinton voters. The women object to the power that these people have in the media and in academia, and to the way they treat the political opposition. It is this group that the women seem to be responding to in their question. They talk about the left as rigid, self-obsessed, lazy, belligerent and rude. Some of the women apparently cast their vote as a kind of protest against this phenomenon. Trump himself does not appear so much in the arguments of these women; they seem to be giving arguments to vote against Clinton, rather than arguments in favour of Trump. None of the women seem happy to defend his character, but it is excused. 

Can moral foundations theory make sense of these arguments? I tried to code some of their responses for moral foundations, but the process is actually quite difficult. Sometimes it is obvious when a person is using a moral argument: 

"The big corporations get away with everything. But small businesses are the backbone of this country!" 

This clearly falls into Haidt's 'fairness' foundation. The Democrats are being criticised for their support of monopoly capitalism which is impacting the interviewee's small business. She argues against this on the grounds that the economy should be fairer. 

On the other hand, sometimes it is far from obvious when a moral argument is being used:

"Just look at the Middle East. We take out flawed yet stable dictators, and then we’re surprised that someone worse fills the void? I am very critical of the way Hillary handled Libya." 

What kind of argument is this? Is it an argument from rationality, that Clinton was not good at handling the Libyan civil war? Or is it an argument from the moral foundation of care, that Democrats do not care about the Libyan people? Given the ambiguity of many passages in the interviews, it seems possible to imagine a moral foundation for much of what was said, and even then it is not clear when a statement falls into one foundation or another:

"A true feminist would not stand for such degrading behavior."

Is this a statement about the sanctity of womanhood, or an appeal for equal treatment on the basis of fairness? There is no reason it could not be both, but it serves to illustrate that there is a lot of room for interpretation in moral discourses. They do not always fit in neat boxes. 

Looking across all six interviews and trying to code for moral foundations, there is another interesting feature that provides a sticking point for Haidt's theory. The women drew variably from each of the foundations, but the overall picture was that there was an almost equal reliance on each of the foundations. Three women drew from fairness discourse, three from care, three from sanctity, three from loyalty, and three from liberty. Two drew from the fairness related 'proportionality' discourse (that you get what you deserve, not equality). It is somewhat predicted by Haidt's theory that conservative voters will draw from these categories equally - but for one problem. None of the women drew from the foundation of authority and subordination. There was no talk about the disobedience of children, the insubordination of employees, or lack of willingness to submit to military discipline. 

Perhaps this is because these women were drawing on arguments they thought the average 'liberal' would relate to. Perhaps this was because, as Haidt tries to show, independent voters lying somewhere between the parties have more mixed moral feelings than the extremes, and need not have drawn on the discourse of authority to make their case. Whatever the case, I think the broadness of the moral foundations and the variability of their use suggests that moral discourses are best understood as functional tools for doing things with words, rather than natural categories with defined parameters. 

Looking from the perspective of discourse, we can see that the women construct their arguments to defend themselves from accusations of being 'bad women.' They are reacting to a moralisation of their position which draws from a discourse of loyalty, or solidarity as a sisterhood. This in itself is interesting, since Haidt argues that liberals are less concerned about loyalty to the group. Yet here the argument is that female Trump voters are engaging in betrayal. To reject this subject position they try to construct themselves as good women within the prevailing discourses of womanhood.

" ...my husband and I do everything. We work hard."

"I’m also a feminist. My generation went through women’s lib together."

"My husband and I enjoy a nice life. We've raised five amazing children to adulthood."

  "As a legal immigrant who came for graduate school, then worked for free to get experience, struggled for years..."

A good woman is constructed as a hard worker, a law-abiding person, a wife, a mother, selfless, but also capable of advocating for herself according to her identity. These statements function to inoculate the women against this positioning on the basis of their vote. They present a counter-narrative arguing that 'good women can vote against Clinton.' These accounts also present a counter-narrative to the prevailing one about Trump's hostility to immigrants - some of these women highlight their migrant status, arguing that immigrants do not need to credit these claims of hostility. 

The women also draw on the moral discourse of care to explain their vote. Whereas Haidt characterises Democratic voters as more motivated by care, these Republican voters also draw on care discourses, and in this way critique the Democrats for showing a lack of care:

"...when Governor Snyder went to Washington to ask for help. I read the court proceedings. They made him beg for assistance and cross examined him. Families in Flint needed help."

"...we know a lot of small business owners who can't make ends meet and it's a direct result of Obamacare and taxation."

Certainly, care discourse can be variable and situational - it is a moralisation that all understand, and it can be appealed to in the interests of all kinds of social groups, from car manufacturers to migrant families. What is more important in discourse analysis is the function that care discourse is used for. Here it is used to communicate contempt for the Democratic party, while the record of the Republican party is not analysed, from which cases can surely also be taken . Moralisation is here acting simply as a stake inoculation for the speaker who does not necessarily have to show moral care in a consistent way. The vote could easily have been for unspoken reasons, or even for no particular reason at all. This problematizes Haidt's insistence that people have different moral personalities; the differences drawn upon might be artefacts of the discourses of each party in relation to each other. 

Reasons to vote against the Democrats are certainly not reasons to vote for the Republicans, but within the interpretative repertoire of these women, there really is no other alternative. The interviews indicate that Trump was successful in presenting himself as the anti-establishment candidate who represented the promise of a new and different politics. He was also able to act as a lightening rod for the women who felt threatened what they constructed as the hegemony of liberal discourses in the media and academia. 

"I also resented that when I opened the October issues of my fashion magazines, the editors all endorsed Clinton for president."

"Yale is the place where you go to have intellectual discussions, right? Where there's diversity and dynamism? Not really. Everyone is on the left..."

"In almost every social setting I find myself in I am insulted by arrogant people who assume that everyone agrees with their politics..."

The women construct their social world as filled with liberals, and they define themselves in opposition to this. The left is constructed as a threatening monolithic entity which supported Hillary Clinton and has no space for a critique of her, or the Democratic party. The interviewees insisted that they were being stereotyped, but also engaged in some stereotyping of their own, characterising the left as lazy, naive, and weak, all tinged with the language of moralisation. In doing so, they constructed themselves as the opposite, and their vote as proof of their character as 'good women'. They talk about themselves as independently minded, pro-women, courageous and hard-working, claiming the discursive high ground against the hordes of Democrat voters. From this we see the way that political and moral language is involved in the discursive construction of the self; their political stance defines their difference and uniqueness. Perhaps this is slightly ironic, given that defining the self in political terms is something of a critique of the left, to find a similar process occuring in Trump voters. 

The existence of this corpus of interviews itself should raise some questions. Riew herself voted Democrat, but it seems that this selection of interviews does contain an argument against certain aspects of the US culture war. Taken all together, these interviews seem to present the narrative that voters were responding to the country swinging "too far left" during the Obama years, whatever this is understood to mean. This is something that Haidt himself has made a particular point of arguing in interviews about the state of academia and politics. It has also become a common position for right-wing media to take in the years since the Trump vote, characterising itself as an insurgent movement to reinstall the 'moral majority' as cultural hegemons in the USA and beyond. What function this argument serves could be the subject of a different post.

A look at the moral discourses of politics in this blog shows they can be thoroughly relative. They are quite flexible enough to be used in many and various sites where power is contested; what terms such as care and fairness mean look very different through the eyes of people inhabiting different social identities, and are used variably to argue for diverse political outcomes. 

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Moral Foundations Theory as a Theory of Ethics

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Edited by Samuel George Gaze, Thursday, 22 Dec 2022, 18:50

In the last part of this blog, I look whether moral foundations theory makes any contributions to actual questions of morality and ethics, and if it is a valuable lens to examine ethical questions. Haidt himself is at pains to point out that MFT is a descriptive theory, not a normative one, that is we can't conclude anything about what is morally relevant from the description of what people's intuitions are about what is right or wrong. And this unwillingness to advance his theory as a moral philosophy is directly connected by Haidt to the realisation that taking moral discourses of sanctity, authority and loyalty (perhaps also tradition) as seriously as care and fairness seems to vindicate, if not the Nazis, but fascism as a moral system specially adapted for humanity. Perhaps this is why Haidt also developed a 'liberty/oppression' dimension that would counter the structuralist tendencies of his theory. 

However I think there are normative consequences implied in Moral Foundations Theory, just from the definition of morality as something that developed to help humans live in large social groups. Such a groupish sense of morality is necessary for us to be able to survive together, and so we should be wary of moral philosophies that downplay the foundations of sanctity, authority and loyalty, such as the utilitarian philosophies of Bentham and Mill. These theories tend to try to reduce morality to concern for harms to individuals, when the whole of morality is meant to protect the group from harms, even if it means the individual suffers in some cases. Following these more individualist moralities as 'liberals' wish to would result in the disintegration of society. 

I've tried to answer the question of whether or not this is a realistic fear or not in the section on the sociological theory - but to recap, it isn't that liberals have abandoned their moral foundations, or simply ignore questions of proportional fairness, sacred symbolism, loyalty or functional hierarchy, it is just that these discourses have different content, or are approached in a different way that gives a little more weight to the question of harm. The differences between the groups could very well be artefacts of the survey, social identity or of the groups different positions in the larger social system. There is no evidence that the particular content of liberal moral discourse is dangerous for society, because Haidt does not analyse the discourse. 

Instead, the psychologist Joshua Green has argued in his book Moral Tribes, that we are actually confronted with quite different moral questions than those answered by our hunter gatherer ancestors, and even different questions to those that were posed in 19th century democracies. We now have to consider not just how to co-operate with other individuals or families in a tribe or nation, but how to co-ordinate co-operation between different national groups or 'moral tribes.' We are faced with moral questions that result from globalisation, having the cheap labour of the global south produce our comfortable standard of living here, what and if anything can be done about it. Haidt's MFT is somewhat locked into groupishness, which doesn't give us much hope for future co-operation on peace and climate action. 

Even the core of moral intuitions theory leaves us with reasons to be pessimistic; if we cannot adjust our behaviour as a result of the information we have rationally gathered from our experience of the environment because we have intransigent intuitions, then we cannot alter the seemingly disastrous course we are taking towards ecological breakdown or nuclear war. It may be correct, as Haidt argues from Hume and cognitive psychology, that decisions become impossible if we do not feel any emotions behind them, but that does not take any force away from the necessity to rationally consider if the emotions we feel are serving us or not. It may be that to adapt to the moral challenges of our time, rationality is the tool we need to develop to correctly understand the threats and opportunities ahead. 

One way rationality can help I heard outlined briefly by social psychologist John Jost; which is that it helps us to weigh up which of our emotions are more important to us. Haidt's theory implies that each of the foundations could be equally important, however there is neither reason or evidence to show that this is the case. It may be that theories that reduce morality to preventing harm go a little too far, but it also may be the case that in order to overcome collective action problems like building human societies, members need to feel like they will be cared for more than being safe from moral disgust. The ability to care for those beyond the group maybe the moral foundation for a more cohesive global response to the challenges of climate breakdown and nuclear war. 

Jost also points to the arbitrariness of Haidt's moral foundations, something I understand as the lack of a necessary connection between a foundation and any particular form of behaviour. This presents a more philosophical problem with the concept of separate moral foundations; just pointing out the different flavours of morality doesn't give us examples for any of them of what right moral conduct would be. For example, in Judaism and Islam, it is unholy (not sacred) to eat pork, yet in China pork is seen as a cleaner meat than other kinds, while in the west, where eating pork has not been traditionally considered a moral issue, vegetarianism is now a moral debate about fairness and cruelty to animals. 

Consider the different ways that social distancing was talked about in public discourse during the COVID pandemic. On the one hand, failure to social distance could be constructed as uncaring, disloyal to the nation or community, dirty and deadly, unfair to others, disobedient or even oppressive (depriving someone's right to life). On the other hand, social distancing could be construed as uncaring (anti-social for families and friends), disloyal (to the church or the national character), unfair, weak, oppressive, and perhaps even disobedient to god or morally degrading to the human spirit. Moral discourse is tricky and certainly deserving of further study. 

My conclusion, to this section and the general argument of Moral Foundations Theory, is that social science cannot be complacent about human nature. Yes, undoubtedly we are animals on the inside, and much more of our life and behaviour is controlled by automatic processes that we barely understand. Further our social systems have their own logic which is often slippery and difficult to theorise about, if only because doing so can lead to changes in those very systems. As animals that are conscious of our surroundings, capable of integrating information to make changes to our world, we are a dynamic system that relies on our reason to at least shine a light on the way we are headed. We are now, as writer Yuval Harari argues, due to advances in biotechnology and AI, heading towards a moment in which we may even be able to ask the question "what should we want to want?" Undoubtedly the moral questions we are confronted with cannot be answered just with the blind instincts that evolution has equipped us with. 

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Moral Foundations Theory as a Theory of Political Science

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Given the reservations I have about Moral Foundations Theory, perhaps it might be too much to expect that I think it has anything interesting to say about political science. However, even though I believe Haidt is wrong about moral politics, I think it is wrong in an interesting way that sheds some light on what we do and don't know about the topic. 

Haidt's approach in Moral Foundations Theory implies that each foundation is a personality dimension on which individuals will find themselves, and further, that the strength of this feeling between individuals is likely normally distributed across the population. There is an average or median level of concern about care and harm, or sanctity, or liberty, and that is where most of the voters are. It seems logical to conclude from this that a political party wishing to gain power and a mandate has simply to strike at the median voter's strength of moral prejudices to take the biggest share of the vote and govern in the most democratic way. This, Haidt insists, is the problem with the US Democrats. They are just too left wing. Too liberal. They don't appeal to the median voter. The Republicans on the other hand, draw on all the moral foundations, and therefore appeal to the median voter more easily. 

The practical application of this theory is decidedly mixed at best. In the case of trying to take the whole population along by appealing to the middle voter, one recent example is the UK based "Independent Group for Change", members coming from each side of the political aisle, who decided the best way was straight down the middle - got ignored by voters. In the case of reaching across the aisle and grabbing swing voters, results are more encouraging, for instance the UK Labour Party's victory in the 1997 general election after following a more neoliberal line of messaging than the traditional pro-union platform. It remains to be seen whether this works in times of polarisation. Keir Starmer is certainly trying to reach across the aisle to people with 'concerns about immigration' and 'eco-terrorists,' however he seems to be alienating many Labour activists with his language. 

As I've argued in the section on MFT as a cognitive theory, we likely don't need a theory of distinct modules to understand the association between moral language and emotions. That doesn't mean Haidt hasn't discovered something interesting though, which is that different political factions draw on different discourses of morality to gain political support. Haidt argues this reflects a genetic personality difference in voters (amplified by their social environment and identity), but I think we should also consider the social context within which these different discourses work. The question is whether Haidt has discovered a 'universal' distinction (being true for all places and times) or a 'particular' distinction (referring to a particular place and time). For example, Haidt focuses on two extremes of a spectrum (later broadening to three distinct groups) - but it's almost certainly no coincidence that he does this in the context of the two-party system of US politics. Is this the result of there being essentially two extremes of political personality or is something else happening?

It's been argued by others (Ian Shapiro has an interesting series on modern politics on this) that a first-past-the-post political system almost inevitably results in a two party system, and of course, US politics is FPTP. Other systems can support larger alternative parties (such as the proportional representational system used in countries such as Germany and Spain). This means that in the US there are two main political identities; there are also people who have chosen one of them, and people who have not. Much of the research on social identity shows us that once we start identifying as part of a group, we are locked into the norms (including moral norms) of the group and this makes us sort of blind to the norms of the other. Research does show (Cohen, I think?) that people who identify as Democrats are less likely to endorse policies which are presented as Republican, and vice versa, but if those same policies are presented as Democratic, then they do support them. This leaves us with a dilemma. Do people hold moral and political beliefs because of their brains or identities? Haidt argues that, in this case, identity follows personality; our personalities suit us for different kinds of life and interests, and ultimately make one identity more appealing than another. 

However transferring this theory to UK politics we might see a different picture. In the UK the system is nominally FPTP but we only vote on local representatives, not for the presidency. Can we really say there are two extremes in British politics? If so what is different about the personalities of the Scottish voters who keep re-electing the Scottish National Party? Are they more progressive and liberal, or more nationalist and conservative? We could certainly test their attitudes, but likely the most important factor is going to be Scottish national identity, expressed in whatever moral terms necessary. There are also Green voters, who draw on discourses of care, but also of sanctity (in a completely different way than the northern Irish DUP). The point here is just that identity often does not follow personality, but can be made up of all kinds of competing factors such as geography, social class, parenthood, etc. 

This leads back to the more general critique I have of the theory, which is that the themes of the moral discourses don't have necessary connections with any particular political issues. It is easy to rationalise why liberals might care more about the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy than conservatives in terms of a personality theory; but there doesn't necessarily need to be a debate about the topic in the first place. This is not something that is a huge conservative concern in Britain, for example; and attitudes in the US were not always so polarised. It is not an argument between the eternal foundations of care and sanctity of life; it is merely an argument about abortion between two socially opposing forces that draws on the concepts of care and sanctity to make a case for each side. Focus on the issue has defined it and separated the sides, turning it into a political weapon to beat the others with. 

Instead of reflecting an underlying quality of human nature, it seems that these moral issues in political messaging are actually acting as forms of brand marketing; each party in the system must have a unique selling point that activates the emotions of the consumers (er, the voters). It feeds a social division more acute than that of the iPhone v Android, which people in the middle don't care about and unfortunately cannot seem to avoid. Going for the middle also doesn't work, because the middle is now apathetic and sees no hope of resolving the issue. On the other hand, this moral divide is likely also driven by media narratives. Moral messaging about political issues is universally filtered through some kind of mass media. Haidt could argue that different personalities are activated by different kinds of headlines, but perhaps there are more prosaic reasons that media outlets are able to define the terms of moral debate - "the medium is the message". It's perhaps a cliché argument, but getting your political news from newspapers, Facebook, news channels, YouTube or Twitter results in a completely different view of the world due to the material factors in the production of the news. 

As to what this all means, I can't go much further into detail, as I didn't study political science; however it seems quite an intractable problem of democracy that it can easily be dragged towards factionalism and away from the goal of utilitarian policy making. In terms of Moral Foundations Theory, it is far from settled that personality is the only, or even main factor in the structural problems of democracy. However, at least in raising the question MFT gives us reasons to further examine the moral discourses of politics. 

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Moral Foundations Theory as a Sociological Theory

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Edited by Samuel George Gaze, Monday, 21 Nov 2022, 23:07

In reading the Righteous Mind beyond its account of Haidt's development of the theory of moral intuitions, he begins to drift more into a polemic about the current state of US politics and what he believes can be done to improve it. Namely, he is talking about the polarisation of US politics into groups of liberals and conservatives, something he blames partly on the particular blindness and tone-deaf messaging of liberals to the moral values of conservatives. He believes that present day America, and some other western nations, are fundamentally divided by their moral attitudes and headed for disaster - perhaps civil war, certainly decline relative to other nations like China or Russia.  

The MFT sociological theory goes like this. There are six moral intuitions. They are innately evolved to provide large groups of humans with the social trust or cohesiveness to sustain the group itself. While the care/harm foundation underpins such social institutions as the family, the foundation of fairness discourages cheating individuals from ruining collective action, the foundation of authority allows us to work together in hierarchies, the foundation of loyalty encourages us to prioritise our group above others, and the foundation of sacredness helps us to maintain the institutions of religion that create bonding social capital, the boundaries of the group and the internal hygiene of the group. 

Without these, societies begin to lose trust and 'turn bad', Haidt argues. In so arguing he invokes the sociocentric view of humanity taken by sociologist Emile Durkheim; people do not exist as individuals, in order to survive, they must act for the good of the whole colony, and this sometimes means submitting to collective attitudes and expectations without being critical or individually pursuing a different course that may seem right to us. It is almost certainly true that social trust is necessary for the smooth functioning of social institutions, from the family, to the workplace, to hospitals and government. What we call loyalty and reciprocity are undoubtedly implicated in this trust, on some occasions deference or equality will be implicated. The foundation of sacredness might be implicated through whatever moral, religious or aesthetic resources are used to create the myth of a singular 'society' that is to be defended, and whose members one can trust as having the same ultimate co-operative interests. However, if we examine what Haidt might mean by societies becoming maladaptive, this sociological theory struggles to hold up. 

Of course, it is time to again invoke the Nazis, who are always referred to when we imagine what a 'bad society' might be. However, looking at the Nazis through the lens of Moral Foundations Theory, we see quite a different picture. Instead of being bad, the Nazis seem to have much that a so-called "morally developed society" might wish to emulate. White Christian Germans were told they could enjoy high levels of social trust through loyalty and reciprocal relationships between themselves, with a strong religious community that cared for in-group members united around sacred symbols of the race and fatherland. But this is clearly a morally repugnant conclusion - the Nazis are the embodiment of evil; the cause of the most deadly conflict in human history, murderers, torturers, capable of arbitrary cruelty on an industrial scale. It does not escape Haidt's notice that taken as a normative theory, MFT would likely vindicate Fascism, which is why he squeezes in a sixth moral foundation, liberty/oppression, and is so careful to point out it is not a normative theory, 

Not a normative theory, except of course, when it comes to assessing the plight of the contemporary USA. What Haidt seems to be concerned most about is the potential for violence between the liberal and conservative extremes of US politics. This would be bad, presumably because it would result in so much bodily harm to people; an ironically liberal foundation for concern. Haidt is essentially arguing that liberals are simply not able to understand conservative moral intuitions, and are thus dragging society left when it refuses to budge any further, and he infers, would likely be worse for doing so because it would undermine US social cohesion, its future as a nation, and its defence against threats. This could be categorised by Haidt's own lights as a conservative concern. Being too focused on preventing harm or providing equality, he argues, means that a society becomes too individualist, and will thus fail to reproduce itself. However, there is no historic evidence presented for this claim. This picture is almost pure rhetoric. 

Haidt takes the research that shows differences in the stated and implicit attitudes of current US liberals and conservatives and comes to the conclusion that liberals alone could not maintain a cohesive society because they do not care enough about proportional fairness, the sanctity of the group, or even long-term loyalty. If we think about this for more than two minutes, it stops making sense. Do liberals actually not care about proportional fairness? For instance, do they think that universities should give everyone first class honours no matter what work they do? When it comes to loyalty, are liberals more likely to cheat on their spouse, abandon their children, or sell state secrets to foreign powers? When it comes to sacredness, are liberals any less clean than conservatives, any less committed to the 'purity' of soul or virtue? Any less respectful of the buildings and symbols of what they believe to be good in society? It's worth noting that in Haidt's own research he found that it isn't that Liberals lack the other moral foundations, but that they are able to critique their value in specific cases. 

And of course it must be this way. It seems to escape Haidt that if he believes that liberals and conservatives are two different social groups, then it stands to reason that they would use the same mechanisms of policing loyalty, sacred boundaries, advocating for their respective authorities and caring for other members of their group. Anyone who has been on twitter knows that liberals are just as passionate about this as conservatives. Both groups draw on these different discourses of morality to maintain their sense of group identity, and thus it is unlikely that liberals actually care less about sanctity and loyalty. It is just that the two groups differ in the content of what they think is morally relevant.

What we are left with is the possibility that the so-called WEIRD moral imagination of liberals, so distinct from conservatives, maybe an artefact of the surveys and experiments used to measure those foundations in the first place. Let's take an example. One question that assesses the dimension of sanctity is this: "How relevant to morality is it whether or not someone acted in a way that God would approve of?" The question assumes that belief in God is a necessary condition for the moral emotion of sanctity, and thus weights the whole dimension away from atheists and towards (Christian) believers. This would clearly impact on measurements of liberal populations in the US, who are far more likely to identify as atheist or agnostics. The questionnaire also hinges on the definition of what is "moral" - and not simply sociable; again in the case of sanctity, a liberal definition of what is moral might not include handwashing after the toilet, but it would almost certainly be understood as a sociable behaviour, and a generally good thing to do, underpinned by the same emotion (disgust) as the proposed sanctity foundation. 

This is one criticism that can easily be levelled at MFT as a sociological theory, that it simply reifies the concerns and divisions of contemporary US society and makes them appear universal - the questionnaire itself seems particularly primed to find differences between supporters of the different US political factions, instead of trying to work out what they may have in common. In so doing, it lays the blame squarely at the feet of liberals and their inability to compromise, ironic, given a similar inability to compromise on the part of US conservatives. I'll discuss the implications of this when it comes to Haidt's proposed use of MFT in political messaging and action in the next instalment of the blog. Then I'll move on to what, if anything, the theory has to contribute to moral philosophy. 

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Moral Foundations Theory as an Evolutionary Psychological Theory

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One of Haidt's early concerns in the development of Moral Foundations Theory is to explain how the moral intuitions evolved. He argues that moral intuitions are innate, and in so doing feels the need to provide an evolutionary story for their existence. For instance in regards to the care/harm foundation, he argues that the emotions involved in looking after infant children through their development are the basis for the evolution of a cognitive module programmed to react to perceived sources of harm that is passed genetically through the population. These emotions provide an advantage through preserving offspring and thus the future of the species. A mother who feels no emotion to spur care for her child will not likely be a successful mother given the long development of human children. 

If we ignore the critique of the modular theory above, the evolution of caring for infants must be one of the least controversial evolutionary psychological theories. Mammals have quite vulnerable young, and in order to be a successful mammal species, parents must be motivated to care for them. In social mammals, where caring for others is expanded to kin and clan members, that is an arguably helpful adaptation for a species in terms of keeping more breeding pairs and children alive. Humans have been very successful as a species in comparison with related species like Neanderthals or Homo Florensis; Haidt and others believe this is because humans are capable of large scale-cooperation. This co-operation is theorised to have been supported by our ability to maintain trust through pro-social behaviour. I feel that I am in no way well-read enough on the topic to be able to say whether this is correct or not, and I am not going to critique this aspect of the theory. 

Instead, I want to focus on what Haidt says about moral matrices and group selection. Group selection has been furiously debated in evolutionary biology. Briefly, it is the hypothesis that some traits are selected for at the level of the group, and that groups which can more successfully fill the world with their offspring than other groups will eventually come to dominate other groups. Whether this is true or not is not really my concern; my concern is that Haidt implicates moral foundations in the success or failure of a social group to reproduce. He does this not only to explain the survival of Homo Sapiens over Homo Neandethalensis, but also to explain the dominance of different cultural groups over others. Perhaps if you are strong on Haidt's liberal foundations, you begin to see the problematic implications of such a theory that "more morally developed cultures" are destined to dominate others. However, I think the real problem with this is that there is very little evidence provided for such a claim. 

The one concrete example Haidt gives in The Righteous Mind is that of the cohesion of the Greek warriors under the command of Macedonian king Alexander the Great, who were able to defeat the much larger forces of the Persian Empire. This is the one human v human example of group selection that he references in the book, however he does not cite any historian to back up his implied claim that the Macedonian armies had a more developed innate moral sense that led to cohesiveness in battle. A simple Google search turns up an article that cites Alexander's own tactical genius as the key difference between the Greeks and Persians. There is no suggestion that the Persian "immortals" were a less cohesive fighting force. Furthermore, the defeat of the Persian army did not result in the selection of "Greek people" over the Persians. They were a small occupying army that eventually splintered into rival factions; Alexander took a Persian bride, we can safely imagine that the genes of "the Persians" survived the occupation.

In case it could be argued that this was actually an illustration of the necessity of moral emotions (the Greeks could not have succeeded without them); let's take a look at another case, the colonization of America, for an example of how they are neither sufficient or necessary. This is a clear case in which one group comes to dominate another group, but it is far from clear that "developed moral intuitions" were the cause, or even that the oppressed group has been selected against. The brutal colonisation by Europeans of the Americas occurred over centuries and resulted in a massive depopulation of the indigenous occupants of the land.  But when we think of the cause of such domination, do we think of it as the destiny of moral development? Instead it seems an insult to morality; the conquest by a more numerous people with an abundance of technological and material advantages of another people hardly makes a good case study for the potency of moral emotions. In reality, the Europeans could do this because settled agriculture had been developed in Europe for millennia and intensified to produce a huge population. When they arrived in the Americas with guns and smallpox, they simply overran indigenous communities who subsisted on broadly less "land-efficient" methods.  It could be argued that their moral sense had to be aligned with co-operation on their mode of production, but which came first? Furthermore, indigenous communities and their genes survived this deadly exchange, making up the broader moral community of the present day Americas. 

However, we could move evolutionary thinking from the level of biological to cultural formations such as certain regimes or empires, and ask whether their moral foundations make them adaptive and likely to survive in a population or not. One example might be the Nazi regime, whose ethics of obedience, sacrifice, purity and 'strength' led them to attempt colonization of the east. It could be argued that they had drifted too far into the conservative side of moral foundations, becoming blind to the others. For instance, the Nazis undervalued the importance of the ability to critique authority or ideas of the sanctity of the nation, and so didn't properly evaluate the risks of invading the USSR. This ultimately led the regime to its downfall (though the population of Germany itself was preserved). 

Perhaps this is making the mistake of treating a qualitative difference like a quantitative difference. Saying something like "the Nazis made errors because they were twenty points higher in authority orientation, leading to group think at the level of a society," rather than focusing on the actual content of the moral discourse: "the Nazis made errors because the criticism of Hitler was made discursively impossible in the moral discourse of Nazism." This starts to drift into the more general critique of MFT as an ethical theory; it is not enough to say we have certain moral foundations without specifying the content of the moral discourse. Can we really say whether a particular foundation is 'adaptive' without looking at the actual instances and behaviours that are considered morally relevant in that particular time and place? 

It's clear from these short examples that proposing "developed innate moral intuitions" as the cause for the victories and defeats of history is not well thought out. However, Haidt's real concern is that without a full suite of moral emotions his own present day US society will decline and fall. This is something I will examine more in depth in the next blog post about MFT as a sociological theory. 

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Moral Foundations as a Cognitive Psychological Theory

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Edited by Samuel George Gaze, Saturday, 12 Nov 2022, 13:20

Firstly, Haidt presents Moral Foundations Theory as a cognitive theory of moral attitudes. It proposes that there are brain modules attuned to different 'flavours' of morality. These spark automatic, intuitive and emotional responses to certain scenarios that we can express as attitudes. For example, if we think about the scenario of a person engaging in animal cruelty, this activates our care/harm module and we feel a wave of negative emotion. When asked for our attitude to a case of animal cruelty, the care/harm module prompts us to answer that we believe it is wrong, because it is associated with a negative emotion. 

This is the crucial difference between the MFT and other theories of moral development that stress the importance of being able to give reasons for moral attitudes. Instead, Haidt sides with the philosopher David Hume and holds that moral judgements come first of all from the emotions that scenarios elicit. He uses the idea of a moral dilemma to illustrate this; for instance, there is no harm we can reason involved in the case of a man who (disgust ahead) privately has intercourse with a chicken carcass before cooking it and eating it alone - yet it feels very, very wrong. This becomes a moral question because there are moral intuitions beyond the prevention of harm to sentient creatures - namely disgust, which Haidt links to the moral foundation of "sacredness." We can't explain why something is wrong, it just is. He calls this moral dumbfounding. 

The research that Haidt and others have done gives a very reasonable account of moral judgements, the key findings show that emotions are strongly implicated in such judgements. However, we are far from able to say that it is watertight as a cognitive theory. One objection is that Haidt's initial five modular foundations are arbitrary; further research led to Haidt's proposal of another foundation and a six-module theory. It is quite possible to imagine multiple different foundations, perhaps 'tradition/progress' or 'strength/weakness'. There is also the question of whether the modules can be defined in terms of how they are produced as emotions by the brain - the neuroscience of emotion is still being researched. Further, can we tell the difference between a moral emotion and an aesthetic one? Or even a regular emotion?

It is also not clear that MFT completely rules out the effect of moral reasoning from moral judgements. Haidt himself states that some students presented with the chicken dilemma above eventually conceded that there was nothing socially wrong with the actions of the man; his actions were not morally relevant. This might still be an unpalatable conclusion, and I agree, but it does show that reason can lead judgements to different conclusions, and produce a different social reality in which the man is not condemned for his actions. It might be enough to say, "that's disgusting, don't do that, it makes me feel sick." Joshua Green, an opposing moral psychologist gives another example: the famous nineteenth century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham struggled to produce reasons to condemn homosexuality, even though he "felt" that it must be wrong. Instead of continuing to do so in his discourses, he concluded that homosexuality was actually morally not relevant, and should be a private matter. This kind of reasoning, starting from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, eventually resulted in our contemporary sexually liberated society. 

Haidt's response would likely be to say: "not so fast." Emotions do not just change, they are genetically innate; though some of us can reason around our unreasoned objections to certain scenarios, there are just as many who will not, and who will insist that their emotions reveal moral truths. Indeed, Haidt argues that Bentham was a particularly unusual character because his moral compass was almost completely oriented around questions of avoiding harm and increasing happiness. Because Betham did not experience a full range of moral emotions, he was blind to the moral sentiments of others. In so arguing, Haidt expands MFT into the world of personality and individual differences, which he feels he can support given the wide individual differences of his survey respondents. People have different attitudes, and underlying these we can theorise a variable mix of moral emotions felt in different strengths. 

The data he provides do indeed show that across people and societies, moral attitudes can differ considerably. But does a modular cognitive theory explain the variation? Between people, we understand that genetics and environment both play a role in the way that people view the world and experience emotions. But are distinct modules necessary to explain why people experience emotions differently? One theory is that we can understand emotions as fixed action patterns evoked by certain stimuli. Early behaviourist research (on poor 'Little Albert') shows us that fear can become attached to almost any object given the correct conditions of development. I'm not sure that it is necessary to imagine a specific module for moral emotions, in the same way there is likely no specific module for being afraid of balloons (globophobia), the colour yellow (xanthophobia), or the fear of long words (Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia). 

The cognitive psychological theory of moral intuitions (that emotions spur moral reasoning) seems to be a genuinely useful contribution to understanding why we react so strongly to certain moral scenarios. However the modular cognitive theory of moral foundations is far from stable, if you'll pardon the pun. It could be argued that it is not a parsimonious theory, but multiplies entities unnecessarily; instead of modules, what we are perhaps left with are patterns of agreement and disagreement between people's moral attitudes, which I'd argue is intriguing enough to start with. In the next instalment, I'm going to look at MFT as an evolutionary psychological theory, and then go on to look at Haidt's extrapolation of the theory into the political, sociological and philosophical realms. 

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What is Moral Foundations Theory? - A Blog Series

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In preparation for my independent project, I've been reading US psychologist Jonathan Haidt's book, The Righteous Mind. The book is a popular science explanation of his theory of moral intuitions, often known as Moral Foundations Theory, which was also discussed in the developmental psychology section of DE200. In these blog posts, I'm not going to try to give an explanation of the MFT, but try to "critically examine" what it claims to explain, and what implications it has in broader social science. 

In these blog posts I'm also not going to do citations, but I will try to give credit to people for ideas I'm drawing from. And as an undergraduate writing this, I'm obviously going to be lacking specialist knowledge from certain areas. These are just musings I've had that I want to share. 

I'll post the blog in separate chapters over the next week or so. 

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How does social science differ from natural science?

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Edited by Samuel George Gaze, Saturday, 12 Nov 2022, 13:17

Thoughts from the Limitations of Social Research

By Marten Shipman, Professor of Education, Warwick University, 1981

"Science had once been seen as the progressive completion of the jigsaw puzzle that was to become a complete picture of the natural world... but in the twentieth century, science has come to be seen as interpretive, involving human explanation as well as collected facts."

Shipman's book is mostly talking to people who read about science rather than do science. But personally, I think we are all still influenced by the social representation of science as progress towards a "theory of everything." The problem with this approach becomes more acute as we turn the lens of science on ourselves.

"Social scientists have consistently opposed  the attempt to use [natural science methods] for looking at human action... The natural world is not made by humans. The social world is by contrast made and remade as people interact with each other."

Part of this remaking is the interaction of people with the discourses of science. Science is part of the construction of our social world, and it is necessary for us to be able to critique the way we use science to talk about it. Obviously in such a system, there can never be a closing point where all the meanings are fixed;  for a start, social science can't anticipate how it will affect the world it studies. 

"Social scientists cannot merely observe behaviour, they have to find out how individuals give meaning to and organise their interaction with others ."

This is why Rom Harre (2010) argued that the social sciences must use a different 'grammar' than the one used in natural sciences. Important detail is missed if a description does not involve the construction of goal-directed behaviour in people and the social construction of their interactions. 

"Theories are often explanations of the "if X, then Y, kind. In the natural sciences these usually take the form of laws. In social science there are no laws that hold across varied circumstances. But theories still aid explanation. It is likely that any relation will be stated in terms of probability: "if X then it is likely that Y.

The above points notwithstanding, it's not like the fact that social science theories cannot be treated as laws (though sometimes they are, especially in economics!) means that theories are of no value. At the very least, a theory is a simplification that shifts the conversation about a topic. Social constructionism itself is a theory that has prompted a lot of vigorous conversation and argument about identity that has changed society.

"Reliability in social science can often only be achieved at the cost of validity. Interpretation can be excluded by the rigid design of the investigation, but in doing so any relevance to everyday life is likely to be lost.

I must admit that I've never heard it put quite like this. The more attempts are made to control variables and produce generalisable results, the further away from reality it takes the conclusion. He puts it well: "The tension between generalising to approach the rigour of the natural sciences and trying to preserve natural human activity while observing them is inevitable in social science." 

"Many social scientists reject this approach [of objectivity.] For them, objectivity is apparent, not real. The social scientist imposes their own preconceptions, and these may bear little resemblance to the situation as conceived by those actually involved."

Is objectivity possible in social science? Based on my very limited three year study, I'm not convinced this question has been addressed properly. There are at least two ways of doing it: one, aim to be as objective as possible by not allowing commitments to theories to shape your interpretation of the data, (an approach that is easily criticised as performing objectivity rather than being objective,) or two, identify and admit your position on a topic and biases make up part of the research (easy to do in theory, but in practice leaves a lot of space for unreflexivity, or even dishonesty). 

Personally, I wonder if the point should be more about application than the abstract truth - saying from the outset what consumers of the study can expect to do with the information within.  For instance, in natural sciences, the results of a paper on friction mean you can expect what has been observed to affect every applied instance of friction. Whereas a paper on the construction of male identity in fitness spaces means you can expect to see these discourses in the gym, and perhaps we can critique it and imagine different ways to be. 

Thanks for reading! As an easter egg, I leave you with the most savage burn in the book:

"However much social scientists object to being categorised by the methods of the natural sciences, that is usually the basis of their claim when viewed by those who provide the money for research." 

Shipman, M.D. (1981) The limitations of social research. 2nd ed. London: Longman

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