Sunday, August 28, 2016

Can I maintain the view that human flourishing is the exercise of practical wisdom whilst remaining a fan of the social intuitionist model of ethics?

If you want to understand individual human flourishing it is desirable to study the contributions of different academic disciplines. That is how I justify the eclectic approach adopted on this blog. That raises the possibility, however, that the views I find persuasive from different disciplines could sometimes be irreconcilable.

The above question arose because I am attracted to the view of individual human flourishing, as the exercise of practical wisdom within a teleological process. This view was presented by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen (hereafter referred to for brevity as D&D) in their recently published book, The Perfectionist Turn, which I have not long finished reading. The teleological (developmental) aspect was discussed briefly in my last post.

I have previously been persuaded that the social intuitionist model, presented by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, seems to pretty well fit known facts about moral reasoning. Haidt observes:
‘Moral reasoning is part of our lifelong struggle to win friends and influence people. That’s why I say that “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” You’ll misunderstand moral reasoning if you think about it as something people do by themselves in order to figure out the truth’ (p 49).

On first appearances, it does look as though it might be difficult to be a fan of both social intuitionism and D&D’s philosophical approach:
‘Succinctly stated, human flourishing is understood by us to mean “the exercise of one’s practical wisdom.” (p 33)
Practical wisdom, as understood in our account, is the central integrating virtue of a good human life’ (p 57).

However, Haidt also recognizes the role of practical wisdom. He uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant to discuss the relationship between moral reasoning and intuitions. The rider represents reason and the elephant represents intuition. As well as performing a public relations function in explaining and justifying the elephant’s actions, the rider can also help the elephant to reach its goals and avoid disaster because it can look further into the future and learn new skills.

As previously discussed on this blog, I think Haidt’s rider and elephant metaphor is much more realistic than Plato’s metaphor in which reason, the ‘human charioteer’, controls the dumb beasts of passion.

Haidt’s social intuitionist approach recognizes that the rider evolved to serve the elephant. It explains why people tend to have strong gut feelings about what is right or wrong, which they maintain even when they struggle to construct justifications for those feelings. Importantly, however, Haidt also recognizes that the rider is responsible for training the elephant. He suggests in his earlier book, The Happiness Hypothesis that ‘virtue resides in a well-trained elephant’:
The rider must take part in the training, but if moral instruction imparts only explicit knowledge (facts that the rider can state), it will have no effect on the elephant, and therefore little effect on behavior. Moral education must also impart tacit knowledge – skills of social perception and social emotion so finely tuned that one automatically feels the right thing in each situation, knows the right thing to do, and then wants to do it. Morality, for the ancients, was a kind of practical wisdom’ (p 160).

D&D argue that practical wisdom has three dimensions: the effective and excellent use of practical reason (the intellectual faculty used for guiding conduct); the development of character; and self-understanding. The authors view self-understanding as particularly important:
 ‘In sum, self-understanding is at the centre of practical wisdom because one’s self is, finally, the object of ethical reflection; and to reflect well is what it means to perfect one’s self’.

As D&D explain it, making norms of behaviour one’s own involves more than choosing to accept them. It involves self-realization – realization of their value given one’s own dispositions and circumstances, and the contribution they make to one’s own personal development.

How should we view Haidt’s moral foundation theory in the light of the role of practical wisdom in individual human flourishing? Haidt and his colleagues have identified moral foundations by connecting the adaptive challenges of life that evolutionary psychologists frequently wrote about to the virtues that are found in some form in many cultures.

They have identified 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.

Stemming from the preceding discussion about self-understanding, one point that could be made about moral foundation theory is that it might be useful for readers of this blog to do the test at, and reflect on the results. I was surprised by the results when I did the test a few years ago.

Finally, it seems to me that an important moral foundation is currently missing from the list. It is still universally (I hope) considered a virtue for individuals to accept responsibility for realizing their potential or, to use more ancient language, developing their own talents and abilities.   

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