Monday, September 17, 2007

Maturity, Enlightenment, and Liberalism

Somewhere between the time of Kant’s ‘Was ist Aufklärung?’ and today, something happened to the link between liberalism and enlightenment. I’m not quite sure what this was, but I’m not too happy with it. Here is my best estimation.

Let me be upfront about my position. I do not consider myself to be a liberal. I am sensitive to critiques of liberalism leveled by feminism, certain versions of Marxism, critical theory and post-modernism. That said, I am not anti-liberal. Frankly, I don’t know how to label myself, mainly because I have to admit that in the end, I have no coherent set of political beliefs or attitudes. Take that for what it’s worth.

But I do get frustrated with liberals. Mainly this is because I think that they often fail to make as strong a case for their own position as they should. Moreover, I think that they misunderstand their own theory. As someone who does no work professionally in the field of political philosophy, this is probably a stupid claim to make. So be it. At the very least, I am quite sure that non-academic liberals mis-represent what is best about their own position.

There is a certain story told about the meaning and theory of liberalism that finds expression in Berlin’s essay on the two freedoms. Given the complexity of human life, especially in modern, variegated societies, any commensurability between conflicting conceptions of the good is highly unlikely. We are wise, therefore, to cease striving for such commensurability and instead work towards constructing rule-sets and procedures that allow different individuals amassed in a single society to pursue each their own conception of the good so long as interference with others pursuing their own projects is kept at the absolute minimum commensurate with the maintenance of society.

This finds idea finds its most systematic and sophisticated expression in Rawl’s theory of justice. Rawlsian liberalism is defined by a neutral framework for arbitration consistent with a base level of a redistributive welfare state. Conflicting agents resort to the adjudicative powers of the state in the case of noncriminal conflict. Criminal conduct is defined as conduct that violates the rules-set of this framework. For instance, the state allows me to open a large Walmart franchise that puts your papa’s small frame-shop out of business, but it penalizes me if my Walmart pollutes the local water supply. Justice defined by compliance with accepted rule-sets is said to be procedural, rather than substantive.

Rawlsian liberalism pretends that it does not promote any particular vision or understanding of the good life over any other. It promotes tolerance and choice, but these are supposed to be abstract principles requisite for following the rules, and therefore are not values particular to any particular or parochial vision of the good life. This of course has opened Rawlsian liberalism to communitarian and similarly argued critiques to the effect that in fact liberalism does promote particular, parochial visions of the good, despite its pretensions otherwise.

These charges are of course correct. Liberalism is not in fact neutral as to how individuals ought to conduct and understand their lives. But this is not necessarily a problem. My own reading is that liberalism, especially in the Anglophone countries, took its own rhetoric about proceduralism and neutrality too seriously. It adheres to neutrality to the point of performative contradiction. It has also convinced itself—without, it might be said, much argument—that promoting some version of what Berlin called ‘positive freedom’ will ineluctably, and despite the best of intentions, lead to authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and eventually, to some sort of nasty Gulag.

One reason for this development in liberal thinking was the loss of any obvious connection between liberalism and enlightenment. I would advise liberals to reclaim this connection.

Of course, there is some lip-service to enlightenment and progress in some liberal circles, but it is as an historical, societal predicate. Modern liberal societies are ‘enlightened’ or ‘progressive,’ but individuals are not. I would oppose this view to the Kantian, more continental versions of liberalism. For Kant, ‘enlightenment’, appled only in a derivative sense to societies as a whole. At bottom and essentially it was an individual predicate. Enlightenment is:

“the exiting of individuals from their self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without the assistance of another. Immaturity is self-imposed when the cause is not any lack in understanding, but in lacking the decision and courage to use it without the assistance of another”

In other words, enlightenment is a positive value and a criterion for distinguishing good people from not so good people. A liberal of Kant’s kind escapes hypocrisy by denying neutrality: one should be tolerant, one should respect autonomy, and one should strive for intellectual maturity--and if one does this, one is a better person, on the whole.

A liberalism at the helm of enlightenment would not be embarrassed by this idea. It would for instance proudly argue that anyone emerging from the American education system should no longer believe that homosexuality is wrong or a perversion or unnatural; nor would anyone any longer believe that the earth is 6000 years old; but nor would anyone simply accept what an anthropologist or sociobiologist told them were the scientific pronouncements about human morality and community; science, like all other human accomplishments, would have to meet the bar of ‘self understanding.’ It would have self-conscious and assertive goal of producing citizens who sought self-consciously a place and role for themselves in society, and who could, hopefully, articulate why they were pursuing that goal. Liberalism in this Kantian, enlightenment sense would be based around a definite positive good, the good of maturity.

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The Problem with Moral Psychology

Anyone could write this post, and what I’m going to say is nothing new to any student of philosophy, but it is for all that an important point and a little repetition can’t hurt.

I’m talking about this article, which enlists some of the current insights of moral psychology into the cause of urging civility upon the ‘New Atheists.’ Moral psychology—as far as I can tell—is the study of people’s moral motivations and understandings. The author—Johnahtan Haidt—argues that the field has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. Previously the discipline had been dominated by Kohlberg and Gilligan, both of whom placed the focus of moral psychology on overt or conscious reasoning processes—for Kohlberg, reasoning about justice and fair treatment, for Gilligan, deliberating about care. Now, however, moral psychologists are much more likely to investigate the motivations behind our moral behavior by looking at the brain, at our evolutionary prehistory, and at our evolutionary cousins.

Haidt summarizes the results of this change with four principles: first, intuition precedes cognition. Most of our decisions and beliefs are made in an affective flash, which overt deliberation then justifies post hoc. Hence, the reasons people verbalize as being the motivations for their actions, decisions or beliefs are mostly just the detritus of nonconscious processes. Second, moral thinking is not Truth- or Right-Tracking, but rather has the purpose of social doing, and has survived because it is socially useful. Third, moral thinking functions to define and preserve group identity, and hence collective action. Finally, moral thinking is about more than justice (Kohlberg; Kant) and harm (Gilligan; Mill), but is about also at least loyalty, authority, and purity.

So far, so good. I have no problem with any of this; in fact, I find interdisciplinary adventurism, when done with sophistication and conscientiously, completely commendable.

But then there are passages like this--from someone who ought to know better:

“[The new approach focuses] on the emotive centers of the brain as biological adaptations. Wilson even said that these emotive centers give us moral intuitions, which the moral philosophers then justify while pretending that they are intuiting truths that are independent of the contingencies of our evolved minds.”

Or again: “Josh Greene has a paper in press where he uses neuroscientific evidence to reinterpret Kantian deontological philosophy as a sophisticated post-hoc justification of our gut feelings about rights and respect for other individuals.”

Or: “Greene used fMRI to show that emotional responses in the brain, not abstract principles of philosophy, explain why people think various forms of the "trolley problem" (in which you have to choose between killing one person or letting five die) are morally different.”

Passages like these—with clauses impugning moral philosophers as mere ‘pretenders,’ as outdated and nonscientific, as too abstract—are not necessary. They suggest a belief that moral psychology, rather than complementing moral philosophy, is about to replace it. And that is just silly.

Let me make some obvious points. First off, moral philosophers are not just ‘pretending’ that moral truths are independent of the contingency of our evolved minds. There is good reason to think that they are so, just like every other sort of truth. No doubt humans have a tendency to anthropmorphize, and when this results in thinking that the weather is really out to get you, you are making a mistake. But to reduce all of our moral intuitions and theories to irrelevant expiations of our psychological hang-ups is surely just as much of a mistake. Humans are amazing creatures, and the fact that we can construct theories about not only nature but about how we ought to treat one another is a feature that deserves serious scientific investigation. But this fact gets us nowhere in deciding whether these theories are in fact true or not.

Secondly, there are many reasons to be suspicious of Kant’s moral philosophy, but to dismiss it as ‘a sophisticated post hoc justification of our gut feelings’ is certainly not one of them. By this reasoning, Einstein’s relativity theory could be read as ‘sophisticated post hoc justification’ of his ‘gut reaction’ against the stifling atmosphere of Viennean academic physics. This might even be true, but it is hardly of any importance to relativity theory. Just so for Kant.

Finally, ‘why’ people think and act the way they do can be answered in any number of ways, and to think that moral psychology has discovered the ‘true’ why is not only wildly plausible, but wrong. Socrates realized this more than two thousand years ago when he realized that, in a certain sense, ‘why’ he was in jail about to be executed was because of his flesh and bones, but according to another ‘why,’ these flesh and bones were absolutely irrelevant. This is among the oldest and most-tried distinctions in all of philosophy, and it has stuck around so long I presume because it is probably correct. And of course it is likely that we have certain phylogenetically inbred moral tendencies, or at least psychological tendencies that inform our moral deliberations and theories. But this is much like we have more of a tendency to group dots together when they are arranged vertically rather than horizontally, or we have tendency to see the two lines of the Müller-Lyon illusion as being of unequal length. But what does any of this have to do with morality? To make the analogy, certainly the Müller-Lyon illusion has a lot to suggest about how we happen to perceive the world, but it has nothing to say about whether the two lines are in fact equal or not. Similarly, moral psychology might have a lot to say about why there is a tendency to override our attitudes towards justice when dealing with strangers or foreigners, but it has little or nothing to say about how we ought to treat foreigners.

Oh, in case you are still wondering what any of this has to do with the new atheists: Haidt argues that the ‘new atheists’—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens—while decrying the atavistic and violent behaviors and passions that religious belief both underwrites and perpetuates, in fact display the same sort of Pleistocene moral sentiments and strategies that everyone else, including the religious among us, exhibit. Haidt is surely right about this, but I’m not sure what the point is: is Haidt arguing that Harris, Dawkins, and company are really sort of religious after all? Or is he just pointing out the obvious, which is that they rely upon the same neurological and anthropological architecture as that which underlies their ostensible opponents? Hence, because of this, there really is no difference between the two positions? The failure of Haidt I think to say anything of substance, really, in this debate is just one illustration about the failure of moral psychology in general to say anything substantive about morality itself.

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