Saturday, June 16, 2012

Does moral foundations theory support the concept of rational irrationality?

I think it does. And I think an understanding of why it does sheds some further light on the difficulty that democratic governments have in dealing with complex economic issues. So, if you don't already know about moral foundations theory and rational irrationality, you might be about to learn something worth knowing.

Jonathan Haidt explains moral foundations theory in ‘The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion’, 2012.  His basic idea is that the virtues that are found in many cultures are related to adaptive challenges of social life that have been identified by evolutionary psychologists. While moral foundations are innate, they are expressed in differing ways and to differing extents in different cultures and by different political groups. Policy concerns of different political groups can be explained to a large extent in terms of the moral mentality of their members.

The concept of rational irrationality was developed by Bryan Caplan in ‘The Myth of the Rational Voter’, 2007. Caplan provides evidence that the views of voters on economic issues differ substantially from those of economists. He attributes this to irrationality. He argues that people actually have a demand for irrationality – that many have an almost religious attachment to irrational beliefs and tend to cling to them until the cost becomes too high. In the political arena an ongoing attachment to irrationality is a predictable response because the cost of clinging to irrational political beliefs is low. There is a miniscule probability that the vote of any individual will be decisive in changing the result of an election. For the individual, voting is likely choosing from a menu and getting the same dish whatever you order.

bookjacketMy reaction on this blog a few years ago was that I didn’t think ‘rational irrationality’ would provide as good an explanation of voter behaviour as some less extreme concepts, such as ‘bounded rationality’ used by Douglass North. My views have changed, however, since I started thinking seriously about moral foundations theory.

The idea of linking moral foundations theory and rational irrationality is not original. Christian Galgano, an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, has published an article entitled: ‘The Righteous Mind of the Irrational Voter: Why good people choose bad policies’, ‘The Oculus’, 10(1). Christian develops what he refers to as a Haidt-Caplan model to explain why voters are rationally irrational. I think he deserves high praise for linking these ideas.

I am not sure how pleased Jon Haidt would be that one of the messages people are taking from his book is that moral concerns lead people to cling to irrational policy positions. He wants readers to understand that we are all deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings tend to drive our political reasoning. His aim is that this understanding should help us all to recognize that our political opponents are good people whose beliefs flow from genuine moral concerns. I agree that that is desirable, but is unlikely by itself to result in better public policies.

So, how do moral concerns lead people to hold on to irrational political beliefs? First, as already noted, there is no incentive for individuals to go beyond sloppy intuitive thinking when their individual views are unlikely to be decisive in changing government policy. Second, as Jon Haidt argues, identification with groups tends to blind people to the wisdom of people outside those groups. Third, even when individuals expect to be held to account for their beliefs, this does not necessarily lead them to dispense with irrational beliefs. In this context, Haidt refers to research by Phil Tetlock about the effects of asking people to justify their beliefs to an audience. As might be expected, this makes individuals think more systematically, but often in a one-sided attempt to rationalize their existing views. They give a more even-handed consideration to alternative points of view only if they do not know the views of the audience and believe that it is well informed and interested in accuracy.

What does moral foundations theory suggest about potential sources of rational irrationality? Haidt identifies six moral foundations:
·         Care/harm makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need.
·         Fairness/cheating is concerned with reciprocity. It makes us sensitive to issues relating to trustworthiness, opportunism and punishment.
·         Loyalty/betrayal makes us sensitive to group interests.
·         Authority/subversion makes us sensitive to issues relating to rank and status.
·         Liberty/oppression makes people notice and resent signs of attempted domination by bullies and tyrants.
·         Sanctity/degradation evolved to help us meet the challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites. It makes it possible to invest objects with irrational and extreme values, which in turn helps to bind groups together.

Irrational beliefs about sanctity seem to me play a large role in public opinion about economic policy in Australia. The collection of poll results posted by Possum Comitatus on Crikey a few days ago provides some good examples. For instance, the percentage of the population opposed to privatisation of Telstra, Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank still far exceeds the percentage in favour, many years after these ‘icons’ were sold. There also seems to be massive opposition to sale of Australian farm land to foreign companies.

What basis do I have to say that such positions are irrational? My only basis (apart from my disagreement with them) is that they are probably contrary to majority expert opinion. Furthermore, in my view, if you put a random sample of people in a situation where they were given the information they need to make informed decisions and ask them to justify their beliefs to an audience whom they could assume to be unbiased and interested in accuracy, then I think many of them would be likely to change their minds.

The main problem I have with moral foundations theory as presented by Jon Haidt is that it doesn’t seem to provide a basis for judging any particular moral feeling to be superior to any other. What basis do we have to say that it is silly for people to cling collectively to a set of irrational beliefs that is impoverishing them? What basis do we have to say that the sense of self-transcendence that a person might feel while engaging in meditation is superior to that which some other person might feel while taking part in a lynch mob? Haidt clearly doesn’t think all moral sentiments are equal, but there is nothing in his model that requires him to give calm philosophical reasoning a higher status than unprocessed emotions.

In my view, while social intuitionism tells us a great deal about morality, we should not disregard the importance of reason and rationality. In Steven Pinker’s discussion of these issues in ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ (pp 622 -642) he comes out in favour of Alan Fiske’s taxonomy which allows for a rational-legal  mode of social legitimation – a system of norms that is worked out by reason (utilitarianism plays an important role) and implemented by formal rules. Pinker argues that rational-legal reasoning can enable us to strategically deploy moral intuitions in benign ways.

The question that remains to be considered further is how we can employ our reasoning to deal more effectively with the problem of rational irrationality.

Postscript 1:
I have been having second thoughts about my statement that there is nothing in Haidt’s model that would cause him to give calm philosophical reasoning a higher status than unprocessed emotion. This might be an accurate statement, but it probably isn’t appropriate to criticize social psychology on the grounds that it doesn’t help people to make ethical judgements. I imagine that moral foundations theory might provide fairly accurate predictions of how different people would rank different self-transcendence experiences in terms of moral considerations. It also predicts that people are unlikely to cling to irrational beliefs that impoverish them when they have adequate incentives to seek the truth.

However, it seems to me that the role played by reason and rationality is sufficiently important for it to be recognized separately. Perhaps the evolutionary challenges faced in human evolution caused greater respect to be given to those who had a coherent set of moral intuitions, beliefs and behaviours (practical wisdom). There might be reproductive advantages in displaying practical wisdom (the virtue of prudence). In addition, tribes whose leaders showed greater practical wisdom might have adopted superior norms that would have given them an advantage in the struggle for survival. The story still remains essentially Humean or Hayekian, rather than a story about humans consciously constructing the building blocks of human progress.

Postscript 2:
I have also had further thoughts on the circumstances under which beliefs about sanctity could be said to be irrational.  The concept of irrationality seems to apply in relation to beliefs rather than personal values. For example, it might be possible for an individual to value a state-owned enterprise as a national icon without holding any irrational beliefs about it. 
However, Jon Haidt’s studies suggest that our values are likely to have a strong impact on our beliefs. People who view a state owned enterprise as a national icon would be more likely to hold irrational beliefs about what might happen if the enterprise is privatized. For example, they might over-estimate the potential for the enterprise to disappear once privatized, and under-estimate the potential net economic benefits arising from sale of the enterprise.

Some implications of moral foundations theory for social cooperation are discussed in a later post.


Thomas said...

Nice post. As soon as I finished Haidt, I went to the shelf to reread Caplan. I'm surprised that Caplan's blog does not connect Haidt's book (which Haidt sent to Caplan in galley form for comment) to rational irrationality.

"[Haight's] aim is that this understanding should help us all to recognize that our political opponents are good people whose beliefs flow from genuine moral concerns. I agree that that is desirable, but is unlikely by itself to result in better public policies." Haidt's original goal may be difficult enough, as shown by the response to his book from some on the left who much prefer the old model of left=kind and reasonable, right=neanderthal racist monster. While his insight on it's own Haidt's insight won't lead to better policy, it might point in directions for constitutional changes. Or maybe not.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Thomas

As I see it, if we can get people to acknowledge that their political opponents are ethical people who are worth talking to, then that is a step towards discussion of the possible consequences of policy options.