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“It’s not just about ‘am I hurting you and treating you fairly'”

by Greg Krehbiel on 27 October 2017

This interview with Jonathan Haidt is worth your time.

I particularly liked this quote.

[W]hen I entered the field in 1987, it was dominated by people who were pretty far left. And so morality was basically defined as altruism. And it was especially altruism towards poor victims. So ideally, helping poor kids in Africa, that is the best thing you could possibly do. So all the research was about compassion and about fairness and justice, and that’s it. And when I took a course in cultural psychology from a wonderful anthropologist named Alan Fiske, and we read all these books about these ethnographies of morality in other cultures — and people care a lot about food and food taboos and menstruating women and the body and all these things that I had read 15 years before in the Old Testament. And I realized: Oh, my God, almost every culture on earth has this very broad conception of morality, in which it’s not just about “Am I hurting you and treating you fairly?” …

And the interesting puzzle, which is now being solved, is, how did the West get so weird? And by “weird” — I’m not using that as an insult. WEIRD stands for “western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.” When ever you have a society that has those five attributes, the moral domain shrinks down, individualism rises up, people get more analytical — there’s a massive set of changes that happen.

2017-10-27  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 10

  1. Robin R.
    27 October 2017 @ 2:19 pm

    It seems to be a grotesque display of anthropoligism: “Because this is how human beings almost everywhere have been doing things for untold millenia, this is how we should continue doing things.” Many a logical fallacy is very widespread and very natural.

  2. Robin R.
    27 October 2017 @ 2:23 pm


  3. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    27 October 2017 @ 2:27 pm

    Since nobody on that page actually says what you’re quoting, can you point to an actual passage from the page that implies what you’re saying?

  4. Robin R.
    27 October 2017 @ 2:38 pm

    “… build up the relationships between the people that you want to do the talking, because we engage in reasoning not to figure out the truth but for social purposes, to show our team that we’re good team players.” My paraphrase: Use reasoning to show you’re a team player because that is how people use reason.

  5. Robin R.
    27 October 2017 @ 2:39 pm

    The rest of the interview strongly implies the evolutionary angle on this point.

  6. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    27 October 2017 @ 2:44 pm

    The context of that remark is how can people be more effective in persuading people on the other side. It’s a tactical suggestion.

    E.g., If the left wants to persuade the right about issue X, one possibly effective tactic is to have a general talk about how issue X affects national security.

    It’s not “we’ve always been this way so we should always continue to be this way.” It’s “we’re this way, so if you want to be effective, do this.”

  7. Robin R.
    27 October 2017 @ 2:50 pm

    If you’re right, it is not really about reasoning (which is the concern of logic), but rather about persuasion (which is the concern of rhetoric). Those are two very different matter. But he specifically says, “we engage in reasoning not to figure out the truth”. But maybe he’s just sloppy. Or I am too precise or pedantic – or something.

  8. Robin R.
    27 October 2017 @ 2:51 pm

    *two very different matters

  9. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    27 October 2017 @ 2:58 pm

    I understood those things in different contexts.

    The “we engage in reasoning …” quote means two things. First, people come to conclusions first, emotionally, then “engage in reasoning” to come up with post-hoc excuses for what they have already decided to believe, and Second, they “engage in reasoning” publicly as virtue signaling.

    He’s not recommending it. He’s saying that’s what we do.

    The other part of the quote, about building up the relationships, addresses the first part — the emotions that actually cause people to change minds.

    So if I were to rephrase the whole thing, I would say it like this.

    We don’t persuade people with reason because the way people actually come to decisions is through their emotions. If you want to persuade them, you have to learn which emotions to tug on. People only use reason after the fact — either to justify their opinions to themselves, or to virtue signal to their group.

  10. Robin R.
    27 October 2017 @ 3:10 pm

    The “we engage in reasoning” part, as you understand it, is definitely wrong. I know of clear-cut examples of people coming to conclusions without being swayed by their emotion or virtue signaling. Those things do happen, but they definitely do not describe all reasoning or, I’d venture to say, even most of it. In a culture of poorly educated people it of course happens a lot, but people should simply be better educated, especially in reasoning. Moreover, as a good Aristotelian, I think that knowing the truth is indeed the purpose of reasoning. The rest concerns rhetoric. It has of course long been known that you need to get people to warm up to you in order to persuade them.