Well my next post has been a long time coming, but I’ve been busy elsewhere. And that’s probably a lie, or a post-hoc justification.
I mentioned last time Haidt’s four moral intuitions, or the four elements around which moral intuitions converge. They are: avoidance of suffering (the do no harm principle); reciprocity and fairness; hierarchy, respect and duty; and purity and pollution. He also argues that the first two elements are essential to liberal thinking, whereas the last two are much less important to liberals, by and large. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to emphasise all four elements, and in this sense ‘have a richer moral life’, though it might be better, especially from a liberal perspective, to argue that they merely have a more regulated one.
Haidt very much associates these intuitions with our evolutionary development. Our minds have developed to give us negative feelings and a need for avoidance when we witness people who cheat or are cruel to others, and positive feelings when we witness heroic or charitable acts, just as our tongues are equipped with receptors which cause us to avoid or embrace certain taste sensations. Our desire to bond with and associate with people who give us these positive feelings is socially adaptive. As an ultra-social species, social co-operation was an adaptive imperative for us. As Haidt says, ‘we are the descendants of the successful co-operators’.
In looking at the philosophical implications for his position, Haidt uses a distinction of the philosopher David Wiggins, between anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric truths. Moral relativism is thus avoided by claiming that our moral intuitions, just like our aesthetic intuitions, may be true by virtue of what we are – what defines us as human beings. And we are defined by evolution. Thus, a male will define a beautiful female in terms of ‘the promise of happiness’ for him. The most evolutionarily fit will fulfill such a promise. Symmetry, unblemishedness, youthful vigour, proper proportion, these are things which can be measured objectively, pretty well, and they will result in a general agreement that Halle Berry is more beautiful than the fat woman down the road. This is an anthropocentric truth – not a truth by agreement, but a truth by virtue of human nature. And the same thing goes for our moral intuitions, though, as Haidt points out with his liberal-conservative distinction, there is room here for moral pluralism.
Of course there are many questions here worth asking, such as why purity and pollution are so much more important to some people, or some cultures, than to others, and where such differences leave the notion of anthropocentric truth. It also raises, for me, the question of what constitutes a non-anthropocentric truth (these are concepts new to me), considering the anthropocentric frame within which we must consider our universe.
Heavy stuff, so I’ll leave it there for now. I do like the quote from Max Weber though, which Haidt uses, and which I’ll paraphrase in a less gendered way: ‘Humans are animals suspended in webs of significance that they themselves have spun.’