Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Earth, Air, Fire and Water

We humans have an analytical side. We like to break things into more elementary parts and see what we can build out of them. The atomic theory of matter seems to have been conceived at least 2500 years before it achieved real success, but that success is now overwhelming. The crucial detail was getting the atoms right. Earth, air, fire and water were a cute attempt, but they didn’t work out. Jonathan Haidt has sought for the atoms that constitute our moral intuitions, as he calls them, and builds his characters out of some that he thinks he has found in The Righteous Mind.

As with matter, the strategy would seem to make sense. He makes a good case that our moral and political opinions are indeed built on a foundation of moral intuitions – I would probably call them instincts – beyond the normal reach of logic. So if I accept that step of his logic, my next question is what do I think of his atoms? It’s hard to criticize his approach. He and colleagues travelled the world, asking a set of questions about morality – sometimes strange questions – and then asked people why they believed what they believed about it. A physicist might think of his questions as the psychological equivalent of the particle collision experiments that we use to probe the nature of matter.

As much as I admire the method, my first look at the results left me dissatisfied. He comes up with the following elements: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Are we looking at protons and electrons here, or fire, air, et. al? My doubts stem from the fact that I want his elements to fit into a coherent evolutionary psychology theory of human nature that makes sense. The first three elements look rather primary to me, the latter three, not so much. So is that a wise intuition or merely an ignorant prejudice on my part. TBD, or at least, reconsidered, after I’ve read more of his book.

At the moment, I have in mind what look to me like more fundamental moral particles: us and them.