Friday, October 19, 2018

My discussion w/Mark Johnson, co-author Philosophy in the Flesh

Continuing this post, here's my email discussion with Mark Johnson, co-author of Philosophy in the Flesh, which he said I could share. The last part is on Haidt's work.

Me: I'm reading your book [Morality for Humans] and have some questions. You noted that moral deliberation is a capacity that goes beyond conditioned, intuitive responses. You described the process of this sort of deliberation. You even go so far as to say that within a wide, reflective equilibrium we can achieve broader, more comprehensive perspectives where we can value some behaviors as better than others. Granted there is no ultimate perspective for a universal valuation, nevertheless it seems that there is a developmental trajectory to this process.

So why do you not frame morality this way like Kohlberg, for example, as higher (broader, more comprehensive perspectives) over lower forms or morality like self indulgence or blind inculcation into something like slavery or wage slavery? It seems you sort of do this when going through the basic categories of morality, from biological homeostasis to interpersonal relations to social interactions and institutions to meaning, growth and self cultivation. This seems to coincided with Maslow's hierarchy of needs and Kohberg's moral stages.

Again, I take your point against reasoning from fixed stages to specific moral circumstances, but you certainly noted per above that wide, reflective equilibrium takes into consideration perspectives not considered from less inclusive perspectives, which apparently requires considerable training to develop.

Dr. Johnson: It has been pointed out to me before that some of what I'm saying agrees with Maslow's view. Not citing him is mostly due to my minimal knowledge of his position. I do agree that there are general hierarchies of needs, but I don't see them as necessarily providing a hierarchy of fixed values. ascending from lower to higher. Maybe that's Maslow's view, too -- I just haven't studied him. A neuroscientist with whom I'm currently working, how Maslow account meshes with the view we're developing.

I'm more knowledgeable about Kohlberg, and I differ from him more dramatically. I agree that it is important to seek the broadest, most inclusive perspective one can. However, as I interpret Kohlberg, he thought there was a clear hierarchy of levels or stages of moral development, and that moral growth involves movement up to the fifth stage, which is a sort of Kantian universalist position. I have been convinced by Owen Flanagan's argument in Varieties of Moral Personality, that (1) most people don't actually make such a progression, (2) that most of us exhibit some combination of two or more of these stages, and (most importantly) (3) that in some contexts it might be the case that a perspective from one of the "earlier" stages is quite appropriate for addressing what's going on in a particular morally problematic situation. The way I see it, Kohlberg is too wedded to a Kantian notion of pure practical reason. As I said in the book, I have other concerns, such as his limiting his survey to boys, and some of his assumptions about the nature of reason and emotion. Crucially, I think that Dewey's view of achieving the broadest relevant perspective (a broad reflective equilibrium) never amounts to a universal point of view, because such a perspective is not possible for creatures like us.

So, I would most likely benefit from delving into Maslow more, and I thank you for mentioning him.

Me: Thanks for responding. I'm not suggesting that we accept any fixed stages a la Kohlberg or otherwise. As you said below and in the book, we as humans contain and operate from all of the values that Kohlberg breaks down into stages depending on context. And that a broad, reflective equilibrium requires it.

However in further reading the book you make a strong case for the immorality of moral fundamentalism because, for one reason, it does not engage in moral deliberation. So in that sense the latter is a developmental achievement better than fundamentalism. There is a developmental trajectory to the process. Granted moral deliberation, while providing a broader, more comprehensive position, also accepts it is not final or fixed while open to further development. But it is a developmental improvement nonetheless. And that's what I'm getting at: a developmental progression to morals, cognition, whatever.

Dr. Johnson: Ah, I see what you are getting at. Yes, I'm affirming a developmental progression toward a "better", more comprehensive, more sensitive, more reflective, and more empathic engagement. But, following Dewey, I'm arguing that there is no single, absolute, "right" perspective given in advance of our moral deliberation, which is why such imaginative rehearsal has to be more like creating a work of art than following rules or seeking some pre-given universalizable end or purpose. The forward movement, the opening out, the enriching, and the deepening of our moral understanding is an ongoing process without a pre-given purposiveness to validate it.

Me: There are a number of people I network with who would like to read this discussion? May I share it?

Yes, so like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we need to satisfy sufficiently the one below before the one above can manifest, all the way to self actualization. Such a hierarchy doesn't necessarily have to be rigid structures based on false reasoning (as Lakoff calls it). And it doesn't necessarily need to presuppose that a 'higher' need subsumes or eliminates our lower needs, as they still continue to function. I find it similar to how in your own hierarchy of needs biological homeostasis is a required prerequisite before we can develop to meaning and self cultivation, very similar to Maslow. And as you noted and with which I agree, there is no need for any pre-given, universal truths to ground such hierarchies.

Now I have another question. You appreciate Haidt's work for his accurate portrayals of our intuitive, fast moral systems. Yet Haidt supports the conservative worldview which indisputably is highly immoral in your sense in that they indeed exemplify a fundamentalism attached to unmediated absolute foundations (like God)  and they don't practice the sort of developmental moral deliberation you promote. Their very milieu thinks of such practice as elitism and shuns it, instead favoring the authoritarian figures (national leader and God) and going along with whatever he says. I realize Haidt doesn't explicitly promote this, but his work does seem to implicitly go along with it. I'm far from the only one that noticed that.

Dr. Johnson: Yes, it would be fine to share this.

I think you are right about Haidt. I hope it's clear that what I find most useful in his work is his indication of the 6 or so moral frames that he develops (e.g., fairness; nurturance; authority; liberty, etc.). I use these to reveal characteristic dimensions of moral systems around the world and across history, and I think it's helpful to see how different cultures will have different priorities (e.g., for how those dimensions are sometimes hierarchically ordered and how some of their "parts", or key notions, are interpreted).

However, I disagree with Haidt's analysis of traditional conservative vs. more liberal perspectives. I think he's wrong to claim that conservatives use all 6 (or whatever the current number is) whereas progressives don't use them all, which, according to Haidt, is one explanation for why liberal views haven't held up. So, I strongly disagree with that part of his project. Also, I am not surprised that, since the time he left Virginia for the School of Management in New York, he's become much more conservative in his views. That's too bad, because it is not required by some of the earlier good work he did. He came to Eugene a few years back and gave a talk mostly about his earlier ideas of the six frames, and his social intuitionist views, but then at the end he switched over and started claiming that capitalism is the answer to our pressing moral, social, and political problems on a global scale. Wow, that made me want to get off the S.S. Haidt as it was sailing into Port Capitalism.

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