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A story this week in the Washington Times by Emily Esfahani Smith provides a good overview of “happiness psychologist” Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind.

A few years ago, the Philanthropic Enterprise held a colloquium on the implications of the new positive psychology research for our understanding of philanthropy, which resulted in this volume of Conversations on Philanthropy.

Our early readings of Haidt’s work, and that of Martin Seligman, initiated a fascinating conversation that I believe we will be pursuing for some time to come. Especially since both Haidt and Seligman are increasingly exploring the implications of their research for the worlds of politics and policymaking. As Haidt put it in announcing his move from the University of Virginia to the NYU-Stern School of Business:

Stern has offered me the opportunity to build a new program looking at complex social systems. I’ll work with economists and other social scientists to figure out how to apply moral psychology to make businesses, nonprofits, cities, and other systems work more efficiently and ethically, without having to teach ethics to anyone.

There should be interesting intersections with our own considerations, as well as ample opportunity to think hard about navigating the line between “systems design” within an open systems framework and more constructivist approaches to social planning. We shall want to consider where the line is drawn between nudging people into “beneficial” choices and diminishing freedom and, perhaps with it, the cultural conditions that nurture moral reflection, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Locke’s timeless question, “Who Judge?” will remain pertinent for both policy and philanthropy.

But to return to Haidt’s emerging work on moral intuitions. As Smith describes Haidt’s recent account:

Six themes recur, in varying degrees, across most societies: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. . . . [Haidt] polled over 130,000 conservatives and liberals on moral issues and found that while conservatives rely on all six foundations equally in making moral judgments, liberals favor care, liberty, and fairness, and were often indifferent to concerns of sanctity, loyalty, and authority. Libertarians, relying primarily on the liberty foundation, had the smallest moral domain of all, which probably explains a great deal -- certainly Ayn Rand.

In continuing to make the case that our politics might grow more civil as we understand how to bridge our moral domains, Haidt may want to add the work of Edward Shils to his reading list. In The Virtue of Civility, Shils observes:

It has not been the substantive values sought by ideological politics which had done such damage. Rather it has been the rigidity, the exclusiveness, and the extremity with which particular values have been sought. There is nothing evil about loyalty to one’s community, national or ethnic or cultural, nor is there anything wicked in the appreciation of equality or the devotion to any particular ideal. What is so malign is the elevation of one value, such as equality or national or ethnic solidarity, to supremacy over all the others, and the insistence on its exclusive dominion in every sphere of life.

Civil politics therefore will have a better chance to obtain more enduring devotion among intellectuals if their proponents do not disavow all continuity whatsoever with the substantive values of ideological politics. Correspondingly, their chances for success will be enhanced if the prudence they extol is exercised in finding a just balance among the contending values rather than in merely seeking self-maintenance, which will degenerate into unprincipled opportunism. (“Ideology and Civility,” 58-9)

PRUDENCE?! Lest in looking at Haidt’s work we believe that our need for moral philosophy will give way to public administration by a new cadre of moral psychologists, we might consider a caution Shils offers us:

Differences of interest can usually be bargained over and fixed by contract, within the setting of a civil society. Differences of ideals usually cannot be reconciled, harmonized and made universally acceptable by a rational application of a clear criterion of the common good.

Of course, it would be very good if this could be done, but it is not likely. . . . This belief . . . assumes that there is a fundamental common interest which is inherent in society and which, once disclosed, will supervene over all other interests of the respective parties; it assumes rigorously persuasive rationality and relevant empirical knowledge of a high degree of precision and reliability. (“Civility and Civil Society,” 85)

If Haidt’s work will help us see our moral ideals in terms of moral intuitions, this may go a long way to help us recover some empathy for those whose politics and faith differ so greatly from our own. It will not dissolve the fundamental moral challenge for individuals to identify their own intuitions, ideals, and interests and to meet others in civil society to do the necessary discursive work of explaining who we are and negotiating our inevitably complex interests.

And we will probably need to settle for a procedural more than a substantive conception of “the common good” and “the public interest.”

4 thoughts on “Positive psychology and the public interest?”

  1. Lenore Ealy says:

    Interesting to see how this maps with Jacobs, David, but does this premise that analysis is most strong when it is reducible to a dyad finally leave us with a bi-polar politics? Is there possibility for pluralism, such that even in a two-party system we might get more fluid and shifting coalitions instead of the patterns of growing incivility precipitating farther-reaching system breakdowns and realignments, to start the cycle over again?

    One of the interesting things about Haidt’s work has been his growing attention to finding room for a “libertarian” third morality that aligns neither with modern liberalism nor modern conservatism along the lines of moral intuitions. It seems from the way I read his work that accounting for this position required him to move from 5 foundations to 6. Liberals primarily aligning with fairness and care; libertarians with liberty; and conservatives exhibiting moral resonance across all 6 intuitions. In Haidt’s terms as I understand them, conservatives seem to have the most complex moral lives, libertarians the least. The “care, liberty and fairness” triad you align with one of Jacobs’ syndromes would help explain the move of John Tomasi to build bridges between Hayek and Rawls.

    Interesting considerations here, as long as we can avoid drifting into physiological determinism. I don’t think Haidt wants to head that direction, since he says he is focused on communication among the sides and hopes the attention to our elephants might help our riders empathize better with one another. However, I’m not sure that depending so much on research into revulsion, which seems mostly a physiological response, will allow us to circumvent these problems. Is the inverse physiological response to revulsion attraction? There is more I need to understand about the research program underway.

  2. The liberal-conservative split in Haidt’s six themes, liberals (in the US sense) emphasize care, liberty, and fairness, while conservatives emphasize sanctity, loyalty, and authority, is essentially the same as Jane Jacobs’ two moral syndromes, the commercial syndrome and the guardian syndrome in Systems of Survival. She considers both to be valid and necessary, and then analyzes moral dysfunction and corruption as “monstrous hybrids” as when guardians put their loyalty and authority on the market (think Congress and K Street).
    Jacobs also exhibits more maturity of thought in boiling it down to two syndromes. All conceptual analysis and discrimination starts with a distinction between two things; “lists” of six or sixteen things just shows that one’s analysis is at best preliminary. [How’s that for a general statement?]

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