Jonathan Haidt and the question of authority
Posted: 26 February 2012 05:49 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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I just finished watching the Sam Harris followed <a href=“http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSR2ZhTJkAM&feature=BFa&list=PL1C406C40517A45B3&lf=context&c>Jonathan Haidt</a> and he directly addressed Haidt’s thesis.  This, believe it or not, has been something I have been specifically looking for for some time.  But I was surprised at Harris’ rejection of Haidt’s thesis (if i understood correctly).


When I speak to religious people they seem *extremely* susceptible to authority; both human in the form of religious leaders and in the form of God itself as a stern authoritative figure.  I think to us secularists this appears like laziness or just plain stupidity.  But isn’t there some evolutionary basis for thinking that people need to be responsive to authority?


Haidt asserts that this is not a left/liberal moral value and indeed it seems to often cause moral revulsion in the secular left.  I know it does in me.  But Haidt himself doesn’t advocate the very thing his thesis seems to suggest: adoption of an authoritative approach when communicating with the religious.  One of the things I think is particularly unique about Harris is that he’s actually is advocating that science *can* provide an authoritative picture of morality.  In other words, I actually wonder if Mr. Harris isn’t actually a practical application of Haidt’s prescription?  When I hear the common refrains from the scientific community it seems like the authoritative tone as well as the possibility of scientific prescriptions for morality causes the most strident opposition and I can’t help but to think that this is partly due to unconscious anti-authoritarianism; a reflexive revulsion to even the slightest moral certitude.


I myself am extremely anti-authoritarian and I find myself squirming even writing this.  But isn’t it something worth considering when thinking about how to communicate to religious people?  We on the secular left might find it extremely uncomfortable, but maybe this is precisely one of the reasons why we fail to successfully bridge the gap?  I submit this question with humility and without any special expertise, just something bouncing around in my head.

[ Edited: 27 February 2012 08:29 AM by Shrimptonmcclams]
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Posted: 02 March 2012 02:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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What exactly are you suggesting? That the secular left try bossing the religious right into submission using science as our big stick?
One of the problems with this approach is that it misrepresents the true nature of science. Surely science is the opposite of authoritarian - it is based on doubt rather than certainty, collaborative enquiry rather than established power.
Furthermore there is psychological evidence that demonstrates that the presentation of evidence does not to persuade people to change their dogmatically held opinions. They are more likely to double down and adopt an even more entrenched position than before.
We are more likely to have success by trying to find an area of common ground (an ethical concern perhaps) and then constructively presenting a secular left take on things. I think such a softly softly approach is usually the most effective in combating religious extremism. Although it may work best when combined with a more confrontational approach as well.
Good cop - bad cop and all that.

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Posted: 02 October 2012 07:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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The problem between both of you is, “What is authority?”

I just finished Haidt’s book - and it seems clear that Haidt fails to distinguish between different perceptions of authority. (and Harris was right to re-catalog Haidt’s extension of Schwaber’s ideas as different kinds of perception of harm).

In his studies, Haidt apparently asks people to rate their perceptions of “authority” rather than various narratives of how that “authority” was assigned. So if you ask whether you “believe authority ought to be questioned” you will get a very different answer if you instead ask whether one should “question the ideas of someone who won a Nobel prize within the field they are commenting on.” This is patently obvious, isn’t it? But Haidt’s analysis apparently doesn’t distinguish between these kinds of authority - so he finds that conservatives value authority while liberals don’t - all the while missing the fact that liberals and conservatives actually have different means by which they attribute authority to any source. If he, instead, measured equivalent concepts of authority, he would probably find much more similarity between liberals and conservatives.

What Haidt has reallly found, however, is a different in how liberals and conservatives formulate perceptions of harm - and how they create concepts of the 5 (or 6) fundamental values. Frankly, I think they all come back to just one value - harm - and we no doubt have an evolutionary sense of harm built in to our brains. But we have learn how violations of authority harm us, for instance - which is why we see developmental progress from childhood to adulthood along the spectrum of Haidt’s fundamental moral senses.

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