A Dispatch from A Front

I just attended the Advancing Ethical Research Conference of the group, Public Responsibility in Medicine & Research (“PRIM+R,” or “PRIMER,” because they make the “and” symbol look like a rounded “E”). Saturday’s plenary address was by Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Virginia. His topic: “The Intuitive Foundations of Morality (Or, Why some Research is Offensive to Some People).” Key points:
1) His introducer noted Dr. Haidt’s forthcoming book, The Righteous Mind, with the comment that Dr. Haidt research had discovered that all people are deeply flawed, morally. (I made a mental note that he should be congratulated for “discovering” original sin.)
2) Dr. Haidt described himself as an intuitionist but definitely not a cognitivist, having been thoroughly convinced by David Hume that “reason is the slave of the passions.” He described reason as the “rider” on the back of an “elephant” (emotions). (Essay assignment: compare and contrast with Plato’s chariot allegory in the Phaedrus.)
3) He identified 6 basic moral values: care (vs harm), fairness (vs cheating), liberty (vs oppression), loyalty (vs betrayal), authority (vs subversion), and sanctity (vs degradation). These, to him, are analogous to flavors, and the ability to regard them, in the moral sense, is analogous to different taste regions on the tongue. He spent considerable effort applying this to contemporary American politics. Liberals, he argues, value care far above all else, with fairness and liberty a strong but distinct second and third. Conservatives esteem care highly, but less than fairness and liberty. However the other three—loyalty, authority, and sanctity—are also highly valued by conservatives, but disregarded by self-described liberals. This leaves the liberal “moral sense” akin to being able to taste only sugar.
4) Esteem for sanctity, more than self-described conservatism, correlates in his research with some people’s “repugnance” at things that [allow me to interject] ought to be repugnant (though I don’t think he’d go that far).
5) Although the received wisdom is that contemporary bioethics is “autonomy on steroids” (my phrase, not his), as it were, IRB’s actually Invert the priority of the Belmont principles by making beneficience paramount. Top of the list of the IRB’s charge is to ensure that research risks to subjects are minimized and reasonable compared to the likely benefits. Informed consent is critical but comes after that. (Justice, in the form of equitable selection of subjects, may be third but is charging hard on the outside.) Note that there are no Belmont counterparts to loyalty, authority, or sanctity.
6) By a show of hands, about 40% of his audience was “liberal” and about a third of that number “conservative”—“the most conservative audience” he has spoken to.
It seems to me that Dr. Haidt really wants to be a moral realist and not an emotivist. But he appears not to allow that pre-rational commitments might be anything other than emotional. I am reminded of J. Budziszewski’s rejoinder that “naturalist” natural law fails; I prefer his appeal to “deep conscience” as the source of our moral intuitions (if I read him correctly). Also, Haidt’s “scientific” approach seems artificial to me (think: Postman’s Technopoly) and his categories thin alongside the biblical language of sin, righteousness, etc. (I couldn’t help also thinking of Paul Ricoeur’s The Symbolism of Evil.) But I want to read The Righteous Mind and I hope Dr. Haidt will have the chance to engage some conservative audiences.

Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
  Subscribe  
Notify of