Philosophy Weekend: Jonathan Haidt Makes Some Sense

Our search for a great living ethical philosopher has so far turned up empty. We’re only at the early stages of the search, having recently examined the work of Alain De Botton and Sam Harris, both of them young trendy philosophers who swing in the TED set. But preliminary results have been worrying.

We like the aesthetic approach of Alain De Botton, who has bold, fanciful ideas about many things. However, a close look shows that artistry may be all he has. De Botton has written books (mostly to polite applause) on moral philosophy, but he appears to be too much of a wonderer, and not enough of a fighter, to make his name in the muscular field of ethical debate. De Botton clearly likes to dress himself up in a philosopher’s antique clothes, but one senses that it’s all some kind of fetching show. A great philosopher? Not yet.

The young atheist firebrand Sam Harris is refreshingly pugnacious and argumentative, and he can turn a sharp phrase. But he’s also unimaginative and unperceptive. He has lately specialized in “rational” Koran-bashing, with the upturned chin of a brave sophomore who isn’t going to pussyfoot around this. Reading Sam Harris’s angry diatribes about fundamentalist Islam, or about religion in general, one can’t help feeling that one understands more about human nature than Sam Harris does, and that Sam Harris ought to be listening to all of us instead of the other way around. A great living philosopher? In his dreams.

After these bruising early results, I decided to get away from the hip young TED familiars and focus next on some heavier weights. I’ve been reading up on Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Derek Parfit, Slavoj Zizek and Sarah Sawyer, and hope to cover them all soon. However, two separate links to the work of a Virginia author named Jonathan Haidt appeared in two of my favorite blogs, Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish and the Maverick Philosopher, and caught my attention. As far as appearances go, Haidt is another trendy young TED-ish ethics guy. However, he is showing signs of a wider mind. Even though he wears the same clothes:

I’m only two chapters into Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, so I won’t try to say much about him in my own words today. But many others have recently noticed Jonathan Haidt too, and I’d like to share a few pullquotes.

From Alan Miller’s Wired interview earlier this year:

Haidt’s studies bear out his message that for every one of us, however rational we think we are, intuition comes first, and strategic reasoning second. That is, we rationalise our gut instincts, rather than using reason to reach the best conclusion … For Haidt, this is something that modern thinking has failed to recognise. “In America there was a long period where we were trying to teach kids critical thinking, and you never hear about it anymore because it didn’t work,” says Haidt.

Haidt sees our reasoning mind and intuition as a rider on top of an elephant, with the rider (reason) serving the elephant (intuition). But he doesn’t necessarily see this as a flaw. “You need to learn how to get the rider and elephant to work together properly. Each have their separate skill, and if if you think that the rider is both in charge and deserves to rule, you’re going to find yourself screwing up, and wondering why you keep screwing up. I think maturity and wisdom occur when someone gets good integration between the rider and the elephant — and I picked an elephant rather than a horse because elephants are really big and really smart. If you see a trainer and an elephant working together it’s a beautiful sight.”

Here’s Marc Parry in the Chronicle of Higher Education, also earlier this year:

Now Haidt wants to change how people think about the culture wars. He first plunged into political research out of frustration with John Kerry’s failure to connect with voters in 2004. A partisan liberal, the University of Virginia professor hoped a better grasp of moral psychology could help Democrats sharpen their knives. But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”

Haidt has been puncturing grandiose illusions about the moral differences between liberals and conservatives for a few years now (here he is at TED in 2008). I’m not completely sure if his moral/political message is radically new, but there is much potential in the way he delivers it. He has a wide imagination and is willing to reach far for a good metaphor. He also benefits from a sly sense of humor and a warmly understated style of debate. He can throw out a line like:

Sports is to war as pornography is to sex.

It’s significant that this intuition-minded new ethical philosopher is a professor not of philosophy but of psychology. This perspective doesn’t hurt, since many of the problems in the United States of America or Europe or anywhere in the world that appear to be economic problems, or spiritual problems, or moral problems turn out, once you examine them closely enough, to be grounded in psychological confusions.

Since this is the case, probably the single most important thing liberals and conservatives can do in 2012 is forgive each other. God knows, both sides have a lot to forgive.

I wonder if this message — liberals and conservatives need to forgive each other — is a good summary of Jonathan Haidt’s ethical philosophy. I’ll be reading more of his work and writing more about him here soon. Any other opinions on Jonathan Haidt out there you’d like to share?

11 Responses

  1. Yeah. I got an opinion.
    Yeah. I got an opinion.  These buffoons are charlatans.  They are sophisticated conmen, urbane good looking, packaged and sold well.  They are Britney Spears to music, but with less integrity.  

    Harris is even worse.  He has moved in to neofascism and has succeeded in actually diminishing our freedoms with his partners in crime.  

    Levi, your post about your coworker was much more deep, nuanced, broad, telling and interesting than any of your posts about these empty suit attention whores.

  2. Correct me if I’m wrong, but
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I strongly sense these folks are not merely filling a gap but desperately attempting to close an abyss that has divided us not only politically but in all other subjects to boot. Duality is a powerful vice in the wrong hands and should never be used to further our divide. But I’m sure that is debatable, too.

  3. Levi, maybe this is in part
    Levi, maybe this is in part about the difference between philosopher versus philosophe (French Enlightenment style, like Voltaire and Diderot, that write in a more conversational and less “rigorous” manner than, say, Kant or Hume). This distinction may also apply to contemporary philosophical writing… Long live the philosophes:).

  4. TKG, I understand where
    TKG, I understand where you’re coming from. While I am nowhere near as negative about these guys as you are, I do wonder if some or all of them pay more attention to the packaging than to the messaging.

    But, I will continue to pay attention to “pop philosophers” here on this blog. Why? Because they start public conversations. They keep the ball of current philosophy in play. Believe me, I’d rather be reading Nietzsche and James and Plato — it’d certainly be my natural inclination to ignore the latest trendy crop and stick with my favorites. But I’m not writing Philosophy Weekend only for myself — I’m writing for readers, and I feel a responsibility to look beyond my comfort zone and pay attention to the newer names that others are recommending, so that I can make sure I am writing the best articles here that I can.

    Claudia, yeah, I do think that Alain De Botton is a “philosophe”, and this seems to be working out fine for him. I still think it’s funny, though, that his latest book on religion presents the same radically new idea that Felix Adler came up with in 1877!

  5. Bill, I had some trouble with
    Bill, I had some trouble with that sports/pornography analogy myself when I first heard it — mainly because it flooded my brain with noisy objections based on the fact that I generally love sports and harbor some negative connotations about pornography.

    But, let’s put the negative connotations of “pornography” aside, and let’s also put aside the fact that most of us love sports. Then, what Haidt is saying is that sports is an abstraction of war in the same way that pornography is an abstraction of sex. Maybe there’s something to this. I wouldn’t say I agree, but I think it’s worth considering.

  6. Levi, if I like De Botton
    Levi, if I like De Botton it’s partly because I think he’s an antidote to all the so-called “theoretic” bullshit that I encountered in the arts and humanities in the American academia. Sokal got it right in “Fashionable Nonsense”. I never imagined that Comp Lit and French Studies would be filled with so many implausible theories written in an incomprehensible jargon (I call it “scholarshit” as opposed to scholarship). Nor that it would entail so many pointless and miniscule debates: the modern equivalent of how many angels can fit on the tip of a needle. At least one can understand what the philosophes are saying and they’re discussing important human issues. TKG I can sympathize with your point about how these contemporary philosophes have become a part of the mass media machine; however, in my opinion, their counterparts in the academia (at least in literary studies) are far worse.

  7. Dear Levi,
    While I enjoy your

    Dear Levi,

    While I enjoy your posts about the “pop” philosophers and I have seen their TED talks and enjoy those too…I’d like to see you get a little more personal. Writing about things that are close to you….maybe delve into some Buddhist philosophers? I dunno, just an idea. cheers.

  8. I’m always happy to hear
    I’m always happy to hear ideas and feedback, Catalyst, thanks.

    But, I have to say: debating liberal vs. conservative politics for the future of the USA feels very, very personal to me right now. If you ever get in a barroom debate with me over politics, you’ll find out how much I take it to heart! With that said … yes, it probably wouldn’t hurt for me to delve into Buddhist philosophers more often too.

  9. No one would ever accuse de
    No one would ever accuse de botton of being good looking.

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