Tuesday, August 14, 2012

taste receptors of the moral mind...,

edge | Well, if we were to write a history of moral philosophy, I think the next chapter would be called, "Attack of the Systemizers." Most of you know that autism is a spectrum. It's not a discrete condition. And Simon Baron-Cohen tells us that we should think about it as two dimensions. There's systemizing and empathizing. So, systemizing is the drive to analyze the variables in a system, and to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of a system. Empathizing is the drive to identify another person's emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with appropriate emotion.

So, if you place these two dimensions, you make a 2x2 space, you get four quadrants. And, autism and Asperger's are, let's call it the bottom right corner of the bottom right quadrant. That is, very high on systemizing, very low on empathizing. People down there have sort of the odd behaviors and the mind-blindness that we know as autism or Asperger's.

The two major ethical systems that define Western philosophy were developed by men who either had Asperger's, or were pretty darn close. For Jeremy Bentham, the principal founder of utilitarianism, the case is quite strong. According to an article titled "Asperger's Syndrome and the Eccentricity and Genius of Jeremy Bentham," published in the Journal of Bentham Studies, (Laughter), Bentham fit the criteria quite well. I'll just give a single account of his character from John Stuart Mill, who wrote, "In many of the most natural and strongest feelings of human nature, he had no sympathy. For many of its graver experiences, he was altogether cut off. And the faculty by which one mind understands a mind different from itself, and throws itself into the feelings of that other mind was denied him by his deficiency of imagination."

For Immanuel Kant, the case is not quite so clear. He also was a loner who loved routine, feared change, focused on his few interests, to the exclusion of all else. And, according to one psychiatrist, Michael Fitzgerald, who diagnoses Asperger's in historical figures and shows how it contributed to their genius, Fitzgerald thinks that Kant would be diagnosed with Asperger's. I think the case is not nearly so clear. I think Kant did have better social skills, more ability to empathize. So I wouldn't say that Kant had Asperger's, but I think it's safe to say that he was about as high as could possibly be on systemizing, while still being rather low on empathizing, although not the absolute zero that Bentham was.

Now, what I'm doing here, yes, it is a kind of an ad hominem argument. I'm not saying that their ethical theories are any less valid normatively because of these men's unusual mental makeup. That would be the wrong kind of ad hominem argument. But I do think that, if we're doing history in particular, we're trying to understand, why did philosophy and then psychology, why did we make what I'm characterizing as a wrong turn? I think personality becomes relevant.

And, I think what happened is that, we had these two ultra-systemizers, in the late 18th and early 19th century. These two ultra-systemizers, during the early phases of the Industrial Revolution, when Western society was getting WEIRDer, and we were in general shifting towards more systemized and more analytical thought. You had these two hyper-systemized theories, and especially people in philosophy just went for it, for the next 200 years, it seems. All it is is, you know, utility, no. Deontology. You know, rights, harm.

And so, you get this very narrow battle of two different systemized groups, and virtue ethics--which fit very well with The Enlightenment Project; you didn't need God for virtue ethics at all--virtue ethics should have survived quite well. But it kind of drops out. And I think personality factors are relevant.

Because philosophy went this way, into hyper-systemizing, and because moral psychology in the 20th century followed them, referring to Kant and other moral philosophers, I think we ended up violating the two giant warning flags that I talked about, from these two BBS articles. We took WEIRD morality to be representative of human morality, and we've placed way too much emphasis on reasoning, treating it as though it was capable of independently seeking out moral truth.

I've been arguing for the last few years that we've got to expand our conception of the moral domain, that it includes multiple moral foundations, not just sugar and salt, and not just harm and fairness, but a lot more as well. So, with Craig Joseph and Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, I've developed a theory called Moral Foundations Theory, which draws heavily on the anthropological insights of Richard Shweder.

Down here, I've just listed a very brief summary of it. That the five most important taste receptors of the moral mind are the following…care/harm, fairness/cheating, group loyalty and betrayal, authority and subversion, sanctity and degradation. And that moral systems are like cuisines that are constructed from local elements to please these receptors.

So, I'm proposing, we're proposing, that these are the five best candidates for being the taste receptors of the moral mind. They're not the only five. There's a lot more. So much of our evolutionary heritage, of our perceptual abilities, of our language ability, so much goes into giving us moral concerns, the moral judgments that we have. But I think this is a good starting point. I think it's one that Hume would approve of. It uses the same metaphor that he used, the metaphor of taste.