Morality As A Bottom-Up Process

I just finished listening to a very interesting social psychology lecture. Fortunately, I am able to embed it so I will post it up for all of you here on my site as well.  The professor is Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Virginia.


I very much enjoyed his discussion on the various taboos and “sacred” values held by modern liberals.  I have noticed three of these “taboos” myself but the other two were new to me.  The five sacred taboos Dr. Haidt mentions are 1) Race Differences, 2) Sex Differences, 3) Blaming The Victim, 4) Stereotype Accuracy, and 5) Nativism. Afterwards he gave an excellent example illustrating how they work.

Has social psychology become a Tribal Moral Community since the 1960s? Are we a community that is bound together by liberal values and then blind to any ideas or findings that threaten our sacred values? I believe the answer is yes, and I’ll make 3 points to support that claim.

1) We have taboos and danger zones.

First, we have taboos and danger zones. We social psychologists are normally so good at challenging each other’s causal theories. If someone describes a phenomenon and then proposes a causal explanation, the rest of us will automatically generate 5 alternative causal explanations, along with 5 control conditions needed to rule out those alternatives. Except when any of these issues are in play. These issues turn on the force field, constrain our thinking, and deprive us of our ability to think of the full range of alternative hypotheses. It’s too dangerous for me to work through examples. I’ll just refer you to Larry Summers’ famous musings about why men are overrepresented in math and science departments at the nation’s top universities.

As on one of his 3 hypotheses, he noted that there is a sex difference in the standard deviation of IQ scores between men and women. He didn’t say that men are smarter. He didn’t say that men have higher IQs. He just noted the well known fact that the variance of male scores is larger, which means that there are more men at the very bottom, and at the very top. Might that contribute to the underrepresentation of women at the very top levels of science? If you’re standing outside the force field it’s a good hypothesis, certainly worth exploring. But if you’re inside the force field, it is not a permissible hypothesis. It is sacrilege. It blames the victims, rather than the powerful. The ensuing outrage led ultimately to his resignation as president of Harvard. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely.


As for myself, I’m a member of the minority he speaks of throughout the lecture.  Though I’m not a social psychologist, I am socially liberal yet fiscally conservative.  Any of you who have read my posts on economics have probably gathered that already.  I don’t really fit well into any of the common political molds.

Take the recent financial crisis.  Most in academia hold a Keynesian perspective toward the economy.  I’ve read several Keynesian textbooks, most notably Paul Sameulson’s Economics textbook, and while I generally agree with their perspectives in microeconomics, when it comes to macroeconomics and the business cycle, I’ve never been convinced by their arguments, no matter how many of their books I read.  Also, considering they were unable to notice the housing bubble forming, and the greatest recession since the Great Depression caught them all by surprise, I think their theories are missing something very critical.  While I don’t agree with the Austrian school of thought completely, when it comes to their conception of money and the business cycle, I think they’re closer to the truth than those with a more Keynesian perspective.

Our society and economy have been built by complex bottom-up process, similar to biological evolution by natural selection.   It didn’t develop from a designed top-down process – it grew organically.  It’s messy and complicated, just as biological bodies are.  The economy is beyond simple aggregate supply/demand calculations, economic indicators are too vague to be of any real planning value, and I don’t believe anyone is smart enough to design out the direction of the economy.  I don’t always like how the free market distributes the resources, and I sympathize with their desire for distributive justice, but I seem to have a lot less faith in planning than most liberals do.  There’s too many factors which the planners couldn’t possibly think of and know about.   The Austrian school views the economy in this way and I think that’s what attracts me to it the most.

“Social theory begins with … the discovery that there exist orderly structures which are the product of the action of many men but are not the result of human design.”

– Nobel laureate economist Friedrich Hayek


Just recently I was reading some of Friedrich Hayek’s books, and underlying everything he writes you find the idea that societies and their economies are built by bottom-up processes.  They are not designed from the top-down and therefore many of our traditions, moral codes, and various ways of life can be difficult to understand at times.  The knowledge as to “why” they exist is spread throughout the individuals of the society, and no single person understands how it all ties together.  Many of us take part in events which include strange traditions which we don’t understand.  Many of society’s values and moral sentiments are similar in that they may not make sense to an individual person trying to think about them rationally.  They may have good reasons behind them yet no single person is conscious of them all, or they may have served a past purpose which isn’t of any use now.  Either way, the main point is that these traditions and moral values, regardless of how they may appear to us rationally, are the necessary by-product of the growth of a free society by bottom-up processes.  If you believe in freedom, you have to in some sense accept them, or a least tolerate them.  Many of the themes which I find in Hayek’s work sound very similar in theme to what I find in Richard Dawkins books, like Climbing Mount Improbable.  Take this quotation for example:

“The unwillingness to tolerate or respect any social forces which are not recognizable as the product of intelligent design, which is so important a cause of the present desire for comprehensive economic planning, is indeed only one aspect of a more general movement. We meet the same tendency in the field of morals and conventions, in the desire to substitute an artificial for the existing languages, and in the whole modern attitude toward processes which govern the growth of knowledge. The belief that only a synthetic system of morals, an artificial language, or even an artificial society can be justified in an age of science, as well as the increasing unwillingness to bow before any moral rules whose utility is not rationally demonstrated, or to conform with conventions whose rationale is not known, are all manifestations of the same basic view which wants all social activity to be recognizably part of a single coherent plan. They are the results of that same rationalistic “individualism” which wants to see in everything the product of conscious individual reason. They are certainly not, however, a result of true individualism and may even make the working of a free and truly individualistic system difficult or impossible.  Indeed, the great lesson which the individualist philosophy teaches us on this score is that, while it may not be difficult to destroy the spontaneous formations which are the indispensable bases of a free civilization, it may be beyond our power deliberately to reconstruct such a civilization once these foundations are destroyed.”

– Friedrich Hayek, Individualism: True and False

Compare the similarities to what Richard Dawkins says in his book Climbing Mount Improbable:

It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn’t work. You don’t need to be a mathematician or physicist to calculate that an eye or a haemoglobin molecule would take from here to infinity to self-assemble by sheer higgledy-piggledy luck. Far from being a difficulty peculiar to Darwinism, the astronomic improbability of eyes and knees, enzymes and elbow joints and the other living wonders is precisely the problem that any theory of life must solve, and that Darwinism uniquely does solve. It solves it by breaking the improbability up into small, manageable parts, smearing out the luck needed, going round the back of Mount Improbable and crawling up the gentle slopes, inch by million-year inch. Only God would essay the mad task of leaping up the precipice in a single bound. And if we postulate him as our cosmic designer we are left in exactly the same position as when we started. Any Designer capable of constructing the dazzling array of living things would have to be intelligent and complicated beyond all imagining. And complicated is just another word for improbable — and therefore demanding of explanation. A theologian who ripostes that his god is sublimely simple has (not very) neatly evaded the issue, for a sufficiently simple god, whatever other virtues he might have, would be too simple to be capable of designing a universe (to say nothing of forgiving sins, answering prayers, blessing unions, transubstantiating wine, and the many other achievements variously expected of him). You cannot have it both ways. Either your god is capable of designing worlds and doing all the other godlike things, in which case he needs an explanation in his own right. Or he is not, in which case he cannot provide an explanation. God should be seen by Fred Hoyle as the ultimate Boeing 747.

– Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable

I don’t think the building of our economy, society, and moral values is any different at all.  If any human being were asked to plan out an economy and society, with all of its accompanying laws, morals, and legal institutions, it’d be impossible.  To borrow Dawkins phrase, it would require a designer who is “intelligent and complicated beyond all imagining.  And complicated is just another word for improbable”.  That’s why I’m not a socialist and tend to lean toward the right on economic issues.

Another central theme of Hayek is that our system of money works because nobody has to understand the entire picture in order to take part in the economy.  That’s really an amazing thing when you think about it.  You can go to the store and spend the money you earn, and don’t have to worry about how the goods got there, how they were produced, and so on.  This has its downsides as well, such as if the clothing you’re buying was made in a Chinese sweatshop, and by buying it you’re supporting a rather nasty enterprise.  But anyways, I think there’s a big flaw in democracy because it doesn’t follow this principle.  As our society gets more and more complex, in order for us to vote correctly on issues, we need a deeper and deeper understanding of how it all ties together.  We drown in information and can’t decide on the correct plan of action.  I don’t know the solution to this, but what I do know is that every social system which we’ve successful built works because it does not require the individual to understand everything going on around them.  The viewpoint typically from the educated is for us all to be “well-rounded” and at least understand a little bit of everything.  It’s a nice sounding idea, but the more complex society becomes, the harder this sort of society is going to be to build.  We can keep blaming the stupid and uneducated for voting in the wrong politicians, and not understanding the issues, but I don’t feel it’s their fault.  As society gets ever more complicated, we’re all going to be falling into that category unless we somehow modify our brains so that it can process and store more information.  From an efficiency standpoint, having to have each person store practically all human knowledge in their head, we end up with a huge amount of redundant copies of information.   At that point, we have to ask what it even means to be an individual.  If in the future we have technology similar to the Matrix movies where knowledge, skills, and information can be “downloaded” into our brains, and we all know everything, and are skilled in just about everything, the individual is difficult to define.

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