Sunday, December 22, 2013

Haidt, Gilligan, Karma and Schadenfreude

To continue with my criticisms of Jonathan Haidt, he argues that conservatives who would let the uninsured die are not lacking in morality, but basing their morality on karma rather than harm avoidance.  The uninsured have behaved irresponsibly in not getting health insurance and should suffer the consequences.  For government to come to their rescue is evil because it subverts the laws of karma.  Elsewhere, Haidt has expressed some misgivings about karma-based morality, not because it lacks compassion but because -- well, I am not clear why, but I suspect because he considers it factually inaccurate.  It simply is not true that everyone gets what they deserve and deserves what they get, and a morality based on factual inaccuracy tends to lead in bad directions.

To explain my problem with a karma-based morality, I am going to start on a rather remote and unrelated subject -- Carol Gilligan's book, In a Different Voice (which I admit to not having read).  Gilligan was challenging the common psychological view of the day that women were trapped in an immature, care-based system of values that men outgrew in adopting a more mature and superior justice-based system.  Her goal was to argue for the superiority, or at least the equality, of a feminine care-based system.  Her methodology, on the other hand, was dubious.  It consisted (as I understand it) of reading interviews with a 9-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl about their morality and values and analyzing them to see how the boy was expressing an ethic of justice and the girl and ethic of care that was just as good, if not better.  There are some obvious flaws here.  One boy and one girl are hardly a large enough to offer any sort of statistical validity.  Does anyone seriously believe that all males will give the same answers (at least in substance, if not word-for-word) as Jason and all females the same answers as Amy?  And their answers are often fairly subtle and nuanced, requiring a good deal of parsing to come up with the simple dichotomy in ethics that Gilligan claims to find.  A better interpretation might be that an ethic of justice and an ethic of care are not simple dichotomies, but alternative approaches that people might apply in different situations, or even blend.  (And, of course, Haidt would say that offering only these two ethics shows liberal bias by leaving out the "binding foundations" of loyalty, authority, and purity).

When challenged on this, Gilligan said that her goal was not to offer actual evidence that this dichotomy existed, but to vindicate the ethic of care as just as good as the ethic of justice.  The best example I know that offers actual, statistically valid evidence of such a dichotomy, I recommend this study.  In the study, 16 men and 16 women, with their brains wired to an MRI saw a fair player receive a painful electric shock and a cheater receive such a shock.  In both men and women, the compassion and empathy sections responded to seeing a fair player in pain.  When a cheat received pain, the compassion sections of women's brains still responded, but in men, the pleasure centers lit up.  Now that is real evidence of the difference between an ethic of care and an ethic of justice.  It is typically reported from a somewhat female viewpoint -- men show schadenfreude; women don't.  But a more male alternative is certainly possible -- women are just to soft to inflict punishment when it is needed.

In any event, I am not really prepared to favor one ethic over the other here.  Society must punish offenders to enforce proper behavior, but we should not lose compassion, even for bad people.  But the main reason I am reluctant to criticize the men here is that they witnessed the cheating and knew that the offender was getting what he deserved.  And that is where I see them as different from a Tea Party, karma-based morality -- a morality based on karma automatically assumes that anyone who suffers deserved to suffer. Schadenfreude is not special response to people whose suffering is known to be deserved, but an automatic response to anyone suffering unless their innocence can be proven.  This may be a morality, but I certainly would not consider it a good one.

Or let us put it differently.  Republicans regularly denounce Obamacare and do their best to prevent people from getting coverage under it.  They offer a variety of reasons for opposing it, but one thing they never argue is that they see having a large number of uninsured as a positive good.  Nor do I expect the governor of Tennessee to call a press conference any time soon to boast that, while Kentucky saw its number of uninsured fall by half (or a third or whatever), Tennessee was able to hold the line and sharply limit the number of people getting insurance so that their number only fell slightly.  Nor do I expect Governor Rick Perry of Texas to call a press conference any time soon boasting how proud he is that Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the country, and that while he couldn't keep people from getting insurance under Obamacare altogether, by refusing the Medicaid expansion at least he was able to keep those lazy slobs below the poverty line from benefiting.

I think it is fair to ask why not, since this would seem the logic of karmic morality.  I suppose some conservatives might say that the politically correct liberal media censure them and prevent them from speaking their minds.  But I think this is just another way of saying that they are ashamed to utter such opinions because they are not acceptable in our society.  And I am inclined to believe that such shame is an implied recognition that such views really are not moral.

Finally, let me cite some more personal incidents to illustrate my point.  My my grandmother wrote memoirs of my grandfather, she recounted an apocryphal tale about his two grandmothers in southern Germany.  According to this story, when the town of Toul was captured in the Franco-Prussian War, church bells rang to announce the event and both women ran out into the streets to see what had happened.  Hearing that Toul had fallen, one of them said that she hoped she wasn't hurt.  The other, upon hearing that Toul had surrendered, which in the local dialect also meant vomited, said that it served her right for eating too much.  I am skeptical of this story because it reminds me of an equally apocryphal American story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  According that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, one listener supposedly said that the way she dresses, she was probably asking for it.  It is the difference between one whose automatic assumption on hearing of someone's misfortune is to react with sympathy, and one whose automatic reaction without knowing any details is to rejoice that someone suffered the consequences of a bad decision.  You might consider it the difference between innocent until proven guilty and guilty until proven innocent.  Or between a care-based morality and a karma-based morality.  I will accept Haidt's word that really it is not the difference between morality and immorality, but between two different moralities.  But I am not willing to accept that the two moralities are equally good.

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