Wednesday, July 04, 2007


by Thomas Riggins

Jonathan Haidt, of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, has an important article in the May 18, 2007 issue of Science ("The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology." Since we live in a time of rampant amorality (to say nothing of immorality) in government and civil society, I think a review of this article for Political Affairs will further advance a study of the role of Marxist thinking in our times.

Haidt tells us that, contrary to the view that human social behavior is basically the result of self interested motives, recent scientific research reveals this is not the case and that we have "social motivations beyond direct self-interest."

Thirty years ago the two dominant psychological paradigms were ethical behaviorism and cognitive-developmental theory [CDT]. In other words, ethical systems arrived at by reward and punishment or by learning and understanding. E.O. Wilson, the article says, thought these two paradigms would conflate and be subsumed under sociobiology.

It didn't quite work out that way as behaviorism faded away and CDT turned towards philosophy and education rather than sociobiology. However, Wilson is given credit for getting the "big picture right." This is because at the present time, for the last fifteen years or so, scientists have been combining CDT with research on the emotions and developing a new synthesis based on evolution, CDT and neuroscience.

Three main principles are being put forth, Haidt will recommend a fourth, which constitute this new synthesis. I intend to go into each of these principles, following Haidt's exposition, to determine what may be relevant as regards contemporary Marxism.

The First Principle Haidt labels "Intuitive Primacy (but Not Dictatorship)."
What this entails is the view that the human brain has, underlying its cognitive. system an ancient "affective system" that was formed throughout the eons of our evolutionary development.

So when faced with a situation calling for action, the brain is first set in motion by the affective system and this system pushes us into action, the cognitive system kicks in later to justify and carry out the behavior stimulated by the affective system. Freud would say the id stimulates the ego.

The reason this is not a dictatorship is because of the super ego, or in modern terms, the cognitive system can have a feed back influence on the affective system. This means humans are not simply machines carrying out automatically genetically instinctive behavior.

Evolutionary psychology mostly holds, according to the author, that human morality rests on an inherited emotional foundation (empathy, resentment at "non reciprocators", attachment to relatives and allies, among others). This foundation was laid down in the common ancestor from whom we and the chimp split to go our separate ways around six million years ago.

On top of this affective system, about 100,000 years ago, when modern humans developed, our species evolved the ability to use language and, as a result, to develop conscious moral reasoning abilities. It is, Haidt says, implausible that the neural mechanisms that control human judgment and behavior were suddenly rewired to hand control of the organism over to this new deliberative faculty." But if one believes in "punctuated evolution"-- i.e., rapid adaptation and change, it may not be so implausible as Haidt maintains.

In any case, Haidt bases his thought on the "Social Intuitions Model." Simply put, this divides a moral judgment into two parts. When Mencius sees a child about to fall into a well, he automatically reaches out to catch him (part one-- the affective reaction, the moral intuition, mother chimp grabs baby about to fall). Then Mencius writes a book about the innate goodness of humans and how this ethical truth can be used to elaborate the philosophy of Confucius (part two-- moral reasoning "conscious mental activity... to reach a moral judgment or decision", mother chimp and baby go back to eating bananas).

These affective responses push us towards an action "but do not absolutely force." Haidt says there are three ways to foil the immediate affective response, or at least retrospectively condemn or aprobate it. First, reasoning; second, reframe the situation from "a new angle"; three, talk to people and get their take on the action and reformulate your opinion.

This section is not too bad, as long as it is confined to thinking that the preconditions for human morality have evolutionary roots in our primate past.

At the present time there is no data (outside the lab) as to which of these three methods is the most used, if any. But we can ask; "What role is reasoning fit to play."

This leads us to Principle Two: (Moral) Thinking is for (Social) Doing. Unfortunately, this second principle of the "new moral synthesis" runs off the track of science and becomes a mere ideological prop for monopoly capitalism. Reason seems only fit to play the role assigned to it by the Bush White House.

Haidt says psychologists used to view people as "intuitive scientists" trying to find out what reality is like. But, it seems, in "the past 15 years" we find that "many researchers" have turned to William James and his pragmatic view that "thinking is for doing." For James, thinking was not for finding the "truth" but for attaining your "goal." This view, Haidt says, is that "moral reasoning is like that of a lawyer or politician seeking whatever is useful, whether or not it is true."

But, evolution allows us to adapt to a real environment, I think, not an imagined one that would be more useful than what is actually out there. Any species evolving along the lines of James theory of "thinking is for doing" would soon have become extinct. (Although with global warming and the way we make our own reality, this might very well be the case with us in the not too distant future-- extinction, I mean.)

Haidt tells us its always useful to justify your actions and since all societies gossip there are three life rules we have to learn: 1) "be careful what you do" [this seems a bit trite]; 2) since what people think you did is more important than what you did "you'd better be able to frame your actions in a positive light."

This is not how moral "reasoning" operates. This is how people who have no strong moral education and are morally defective operate. The evidence Haidt gives is garnered from people "when brain damage or surgery creates bizarre behaviors or beliefs." Hardly the norm.

He concludes: "Moral reasoning is often like the press secretary for a secretive administration-- constantly generating the most persuasive arguments it can muster for policies whose true origins and goals are unknown." The trouble is that sooner or later the truth does come out and you pay the price, James and his pragmatist views notwithstanding. It should be noted as well, that the "true origins and goals" of the policies are known to the press secretary as by most of the press to whom he is lying.

True moral reasoning, in the sense discussed under Principle One, which has as its goal modifying behavior, has to be conducted along the lines of the scientist trying to discover the real state of affairs, not just what may be useful in the short run. Eventually reality will out.

The third life rule in the gossip society (which all societies are said to be) is: "Be prepared for other people's attempts to deceive and manipulate you." This may be good advice for people living under capitalism but it is hardly true for "all societies." There are many cooperative and trusting societies, especially in the world of what are now called "indigenous peoples" or in preliterate cultures.

I just don't think it is warranted to conclude, as Haidt does, the "new cognitive machinery" of our species was shaped by a "reputation-obsessed community." In fact it developed in small bands of people who lived in simple cooperative communities until the time of the agricultural revolution in the Neolithic. Only with the evolution of complex class societies did the gossipy reputation obsessed world that we are now familiar with begin to develop. By then our cognitive gear was fairly well developed, including our moral sense and reasoning.

Morality based on empathy, rejection of unfairness (exploitation), and human solidarity (at least on the level of kith and kin) has been characteristic of our species when not overlaid by class struggle and class interest. Marxism is, as a matter of fact, a philosophy seeking to institute the original universal human solidarity of pre-class times, but on a more productive industrial level. I conclude that Principle Two needs revamping.

Lets look at Principle Three: "Morality Binds and Builds." This is a very speculative section concerning hypothetical "altruism" genes which may or may not have evolved as a result of kin selection or actions towards non kin which help kin to survive.

The problem is to explain what appears to be cooperative behavior with strangers that won't be met again and "sacrifice" for "large groups of nonkin". I'm thinking, perhaps, of young soldiers who sacrifice themselves in Iraq for the shareholders of large American oil companies or for the careers of generals and politicians they will never meet or know.

Haidt says people writing on evolutionary morality can't explain this "extraordinary" behavior by the processes of kin selection and reciprocal atruism mentioned above. Therefore, I'm afraid, ad hoc hypothesis have to be resorted to and one such is called "indirect reciprocity" whereby your reputation is bettered by cooperation and sacrifice for strangers [especially if you tell everyone how great you are for doing so in case there are no witnesses.]

This section is not very well scientifically grounded. It is full of speculations about genes "that may have evolved" and with analogies between the behavior of humans and ants. I think the problem here is too much of a commitment on the part of people involved with evolutionary morality to find a genetic explanation for all the higher based behavior of humans and their moral and cultural behavior. With a prior commitment to a biological explanation, one is tempted to force the empirical evidence into the Procrustean bed of theory or fudge the empirical evidence altogether. This third principle is as problematic as the second.

Let us look now at Haidt's Principle Four. "Morality is About More Than Harm and Fairness." Haidt tells us that almost every "research program in moral psychology" selects out two topics- harm and fairness. He thinks this is a particularly Western concern with other cultures expressing other concerns, of which there are basically five that all cultures deal with. They are 1) fairness, 2) harm, 3) loyalty, 4) respect and obedience, and 5)
bodily and spiritual purity. Heidt says these are "five psychological foundations, each with a separate evolutionary origin" on which moral communities are built. He implies that these five areas have biological, ie., genetic, roots. This all very like Mencius and his four shoots, the Four Beginnings, that prove the innate nature of humanity is good.

Since the genetic origin of these five "shoots" is highly dubious and rests on insufficient data, when compared to historical and cultural explanations, it does not seem to me that the "new synthesis in moral psychology" will withstand a rigorous scientific testing procedure. Haidt himself admits that "morality may be as much a product of cultural evolution as genetic evolution," and I suspect, from evidence already on hand from Marxist social analysis and well as non-Marxist philosophical and anthropological investigations, that cultural evolution will be found to explain the lion's share of the origin and development of human morality.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

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