Moral universalism and relativism

From the archive, a debate between Sam Harris and Jonathan Chait. The link has their video debate. Following are some of my comments thereon:

This should be good. Haidt wrote an apology for conservatism in The Righteous Mind, basically framing values in their language and then judging liberals by that framing. Chris Hedges ripped him a new assholon in this post, and spiral dynamicist Bruce Gibb gave it a developmental review here. Since Harris is a moral developmentalist (and pluralist) it will be interested to see how he approaches this regressive.

Listening to the first 15 minutes I am struck by his use of right and wrong. Too often developmentalists like the Lingam say that while there are higher and better levels of morality, each level is fine for its time and place. But each level has a right and wrong, or healthy and pathological, so each level is not fine in itself. And a point the Lingam made, and with which I agree, is that the level of social moral contract and/or law should be from the highest available level, so that even healthy expressions of a lower moral level are not acceptable. As but one example, in some cultures it might be a healthy expression to differentiate the skill sets of men and women, and relegate women to the role of child-rearing and exclude them from business. The pathological version is that it’s ok to beat a wife if she looks at another man. But in morally more developed countries even the healthy version is overridden and women can work and succeed in business, or science, or whatever.

I’m also reminded of Ray Harris’ essay “Left, right or just plain wrong.” And the follow-up essay, “Thoughts toward an integral political economy.” They are still the high moral standard to which integralists should aspire.

 Ah, at 29:20 he brings in basing our values on ‘realism.’ Haidt keeps saying what if conservatives are ‘happier’ then we must assume it is the better value system. Harris replies: “Actually having our beliefs track reality, however loosely, is better in the long run than being delusional.”


At around 40:00 he supports that a better moral response is one that takes account of all humanity instead of one’s ethnic group. That is also an answer to Haidt, where conservatives only support their own group’s value of religious belief and/or the social Darwinism of takers versus makers. Or in kennlingus, post-conventional morality is better and it doesn’t include conventional morality.

At around 42:00 he got a question about judging distribution of wealth by merit or by everyone deserves the same amount. Harris didn’t have a good answer. My answer is that nowhere is that a reality in our US system, i.e., no one has ever argues for it, even progressives. Giving food stamps or welfare to those down on their luck is not giving them the same amount as one who works, even at minimum wage. Social programs are at a fraction of minimum wage. And increasing the minimum wage is in no way giving those workers an equitable distribution, just a wage on which they can purchase necessities of life. The argument on merit still applies, i.e, those with more demanding jobs, and with sufficient performance proficiency, earn more. On the other end, there has to be some ratio of top to bottom because being open at the top is what we have, and it leads inevitably to such income inequality that has direct relations to degrading the equal ‘oppportunity’ (not result) for everyone else.

 At 47:00 he gives an argument similar to my ‘best level’ thesis, that we need laws and institutions that hold us to our higher angels even when we don’t feel that way. That is the rationale for taxes, that we must give so much for the social good whether we want to or not.

I sent an email to Haidt, since it seemed he was saying that conservatives were happier. And therefore by Harris’ moral definition of right and wrong based on ‘flourishing’ conservatives were right. I won’t quote from Haidt’s email because he did not give me permission to do so, but the gist of it was that he agreed with the above, citing polls from Gallup analyzed by Arthur Brooks.

He didn’t provide links to that evidence so I searched and found Brooks’ NYT article. This article by David Frum noted that Brook’s criteria for happiness was basically a rich, older, religious, married, white person, which demographic just happens to be more on the conservative side.

I also asked him about statistics (like here and here) that find those countries with the more democratic socialist policies (aka liberal) are the happiest? And how that squares with his claim. He just responded that cross-country comparisons are tricky, which isn’t a response. The first linked article is a direct response to Brooks by Jeffrey Sachs, but on a different Brooks article than the above referenced. Therein Sachs cites the World Happiness Report (WHR), which surveyed people from several countries, including the US. Of course the criteria for ‘happiness’ was quite different than Brooks’ and Haidt’s conservative worldview picture, based more on the following:

“Economic prosperity that is broadly shared, very low poverty, low unemployment, social fairness, lower health care costs than in the United States, longer vacation times, guaranteed maternity and paternity leave, better pre-school and many more benefits that make people happy, and help them to raise happier and healthier children. In short, happier places are happier because they combine economic prosperity with social trust, a sense of equality, leisure as well as work, and good and honest governance.”

Or as Harris responded below, “actually having our beliefs track reality, however loosely, is better in the long run than being delusional.” Also when Harris noted that a better moral definition of flourishing includes everyone regardless of race, income, religious affiliation or marital status. That is, a more postconventional moral stance that goes beyond our in-group, as reflected in the criteria of the WHR.

The second link is to a Forbes article, not exactly a liberal bastion. Therein he uses research from the Legatum Institute, which uses 89 variables like economy, entrepreneurship, governance, education, health, safety, personal freedom and social capital. As in the WHR the results are pretty much the same, with Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden in the top. And what do they have in common? “They are all borderline socialist states, with generous welfare benefits and lots of redistribution of wealth. Yet they don’t let that socialism cross the line into autocracy.” Not exactly conservative values, eh?

I forgot the link to Frum’s article.

Looking over Brooks’ NYT piece it’s obvious how conservatives define their own happiness: married, religious, belief in free enterprise and that if you work hard enough you can overcome all odds. Brooks realizes that this can be interpreted as the ‘ignorance is bliss’ syndrome, anticipating critiques like Harris who says their religions don’t track reality. And believing in equal opportunity in today’s rampant inequality and declining middle class is certainly not based in fact. As are the statistics that nearly 2/3 of marriage end in divorce. I guess one can rationalize they are happy by a denial of the facts around them as a defense mechanism, but only in regressive ideology can this be interpreted as ‘right.’ Liberals tend to face facts, and these days facts are rather depressing.

 And Haidt is confusing worldcentric ‘flourishing’ for all with a rationalized ‘happiness’ for one’s own ethnocentric group. For some “happiness is a warm gun,” for others like the Wolf of Wall Street ripping people off for his own gain. And for religious folks like the pope, railing against trickle-down economics and for equal opportunity. As Harris said, there are realistic peaks and valleys in the moral landscape, where some moral views are better than others. And the progressive is better than the regressive.

In this Tori Amos song part of the meaning is responding to mothers that willingly offer up their daughters’ genitals for mutilation as some form of religious duty. I suppose they are both ‘happy’ that they are fulfilling they duty to god or whatever so I suppose they are ‘right’ in Haidt’s eyes? And if we get upset or are ‘unhappy’ about such barbarity then we are wrong?

Here’s one of Harris’ written responses to Haidt. A few excerpts with which I agree follow. The first sounds like the kennlingus notion that every view has some truth, i.e., is appropriate to its ‘level.’ He quotes Haidt:

“Every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing.”

Harris responds:

“Anyone feeling nostalgic for the ‘wisdom’ of the Aztecs? Rest assured, there’s nothing like the superstitious murder of innocent men, women, and children to ‘suppress selfishness’ and convey a shared sense of purpose. Of course, the Aztecs weren’t the only culture to have discovered human flourishing’ at its most sanguinary and psychotic. […] Numerous other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.

“What would Haidt have us think about these venerable traditions of pious ignorance and senseless butchery? Is there some wisdom in these cults of human sacrifice that we should now honor? Must we take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Or might we want to eat that baby instead? Indeed, many of these societies regularly terminated their rituals of sacred murder with a cannibal feast. Is my own revulsion at these practices a sign that I view these distant cultures with the blinkered gaze of a colonialist? Shall we just reserve judgment until more of the facts are in? When does scientific detachment become perverse? When might it be suicidal?”

Also note from Haidt’s bio that he’s into ‘positive psychology,’ another of those magical thinking paradigms divorced from reality. That says a lot. On the other hand, Harris has been an avid proponent of mystical states, noting that they provide a different kind of happiness not tied to the contingencies of our lives. See this video, for example. This is the side of him about which many atheists froth rabid.

The following from Harris’ response to critics might be useful:

“My model of the moral landscape does allow for multiple peaks — many different modes of flourishing, admitting of irreconcilable goals. […] Such disagreements do not land us back in moral relativism, however: because there will be right and wrong ways to move toward one peak or the other; there will be many more low spots on the moral landscape than peaks (i.e. truly wrong answers to moral questions); and for all but the loftiest goals and the most disparate forms of conscious experience, moral disagreements will not be between sides of equal merit. Which is to say that for most moral controversies, we need not agree to disagree; rather, we should do our best to determine which side is actually right.”

And this excerpt which takes account of some embodied human universals as basis for morality:

“In any case, I suspect that radically disjoint peaks are unlikely to exist for human beings. We are far too similar to one another to be that different. If we each could sample all possible states of human experience, and were endowed with perfect memories so that we could sort our preferences, I think we would converge on similar judgments of what is good, what is better, and what is best. Differences of opinion might still be possible, and would themselves be explicable in terms of differences at the level of our brains.”

I’m not sure what he means by ‘brains.’ Is it individual differences based on personal history in addition to general differences from within one’s culture and/or religion? That would make some sense. In the link on mystical states he noted that they would be a candidate for peaks of experience that might be linked to moral peaks. And he noted such states are elicited from a variety of meditative or contemplative traditions. So it’s possible that he’s inferring that based on our brain neurophysiology this would 1) provide some similarity to these states across traditions and/or cultures and 2) at the same time allow for not only traditional and/or cultural differences but also individual differences of personal history?

William questioned Harris on the evo-devo of religions in my blog. I wrote another blog post called “the prerational basis of morality” as further response to William. Therein is a link to William’s original comments in a post on Harris and Haidt.

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About theurj

Also known as theurj. I've contributed some essays to Integral World and co-founded Open Integral blog, now defunct. I continue to participate in Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality forum.
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