truth and care: on jonathan haidt’s moral dilemma

truth and care: on jonathan haidt’s moral dilemma October 7, 2016

Jonathan Haidt talk at SUNY New Paltz


Before I critique Jon’s talk (you can watch it here), I should mention that I’ve been a fan of his for years; it’s why I asked him to serve on the advisory board of my former journal The Evolutionary Review: Art, Science, Culture, which he was kind enough to do. And I’ve cited his scholarship on ‘the sacred’ in some of my recent essays (also, here) because I have an interest in ‘the sacred’ and sacred spaces.

Because I’m familiar with Haidt’s moral foundations theory, I anticipated that his talk on trigger warnings, safe spaces, and freedom of speech would revolve around the moral foundations of Care/harm and Liberty/oppression.* Instead, to my surprise, his argument against ‘victim culture’ relied on an oddly asymmetrical dichotomy which pitted truth against social justice. It’s hard to know if his call for a bifurcated academy was a heuristic device, a commentary on the way things are going, what he’d actually like, or some admixture, but whatever it was, I don’t think it’s the right set-up. Social justice isn’t up against ‘truth.’

For one, and some of my colleagues may be surprised by this, I agree with Giordana Grossi when, during the Q & A, she asked “Do you think it’s possible to actually have a search for truth without ideology (01:29:30)?”  In a 2005 essay of mine, I wrote about this very question: “Ideology and subjectivity can shape our epistemological framework; ideology and subjectivity color our assumptions and premises, our research methodology, and the way we interpret evidence and data.” This is not trivial; Haidt needed more of this perspective.

If we look at the issues he’s interested in (trigger warnings and safe spaces), what we’re really talking about is care. (One of his moral foundations.) Though care and social justice are related, of course.


Social Justice | truth
A slide from Haidt’s talk.


Carol Gilligan’s ‘ethics of care’ seems relevant. Her work on the gender differences of moral reasoning showed how Kohlberg’s view of women’s morality as ‘deficient’ was merely due to the framework he was using. In Gilligan’s moral theory, care is as valuable as justice and other universal virtues, such as ‘truth.’

Good professors and good institutions manage to integrate both modes, but some professors and institutions do emphasize one over the other. Even at the extremes, both have agentic dimensions: the ‘empathic’ model is more intimate (empower a student), while the ’systematizing’ model is often more toward-the-world (publish a paper — change policy).

It seems to me that since the ’60s and ’70s, we’ve been slowly moving away from a masculine/male/androcentric (pick your binary!) pedagogic model, toward a more feminine/female/gynocentric model; one where caring for others is valued as much as science or ‘truth.’

I’m sympathetic to both sides of the current issue, by the way. I think some of the actions taken regarding ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ — such as the one at the Hoftra debate that Haidt mentioned  — are extreme and sometimes infantilizing. [Update: it appears this trigger warning was not for the presidential debate but rather “for MTV’s Elect This campaign, which deals in sexual assault, race issues, and bias.” More info here.]

Image source: twitter
Image source: twitter

But the empathic move to care for our students’ emotional selves and unique responses is a beautiful one; the impulse to protect someone who has PTSD, a good thing. And I think the notion that oppressed classes of people sometimes feel fear in ways that those with power don’t and that responding to that genuine fear with empathy and concrete actions (such as safe spaces) is decent and humane.

Haidt told us about some Emory students who complained to their administration, demanding action be taken against Trump graffiti on campus. “We were afraid for our lives,” he told us they said. This made some laugh. I can understand that. But I also understand why, if one were black, Muslim, Mexican, an immigrant, etc!, it might have been scary to see this graffiti. There is individual variability — in nervous systems and experience. Platitudes about how we can’t know what it’s like to be inside someone else’s skin are all true.

A slide from Haidt's talk.
A slide from Haidt’s talk.

It  turns out the president of Emory had this to say: “During our conversation, they voiced their genuine concern and pain in the face of this perceived intimidation…. I cannot dismiss their expression of feelings and concern as motivated only by political preference or over-sensitivity.”  It’s warming to hear this. (See this Newsweek article for more. And note that only one student was quoted as saying he feared for his life.)

Finally, I grew up in NYC in the ’70s and ’80s. My daily life in junior high school (almost 40 years ago) involved getting touched and grabbed by the boys passing me in the hallway — both front and backside. I wasn’t alone in this. And we didn’t tell our parents about it — it was just the way things were. I loathed it with every fiber of my being, but I think the consensus with my friends today (when we look back on that period) is that our parents wouldn’t have had a clue about what to do about it. It was part of the culture. What could they have done? I’m glad the “PC” culture of the ’90s shifted our norms; glad kids now tell their parents about abuse and that the conditions have changed for them. I think the cultural shift toward care has raised the quality of life for a new generation.

But I’m sympathetic with Haidt’s wish for some collective psyche strengthening. I’m not a fan of over-protective university policies — and I don’t like it when speakers are disinvited just because students don’t like their views. That said, I respect that norms change (often in a ‘better angels of our nature’ direction) and that there will always be individual and generational differences. A position of intellectual and emotional openness is my prescription for the academic issues of our day. And we should probably stop talking generalities and look at the specifics of each case.

Just yesterday I received an email from a student that I think speaks to the importance of care, not only for student’s learning and their pursuit of truth and knowledge, but damn, for their lives. Below is an excerpt. (I’m teaching two Introductory Psychology sections for the first time in 11 years and am loving it.)

For once in my educational career, I have actually been interested in learning the material; and I mean actually learning it and trying to understand complex ideas rather than just memorizing something because I have to. . . . In the short time I’ve taken your course, it has helped me realize many things about myself, others and society in general, as well as confirm my interest in this field of study.

I have also never felt so comfortable speaking to a professor and class as I do when I come to yours. Never have I had a teacher/professor . . .  [engage with a class the way you do] . . . or really felt like the teacher/professor understands my generation. You understand why we are all so sensitive and anxious and you do everything you can to alleviate this feeling in your classroom.

Before I took your course I was a very negative person . . . but, after I started taking your course, I have realized that we as humans are not out for ourselves, as much as it may seem with all the issues going on in the world and that we as humans are happier when we do good things for other people.

I recently submitted a proposal to the college (SUNY New Paltz) for a new interdisciplinary department on campus, which in addition to its epistemic project would “promote the development of the individual’s wholeness.” It’s true that sometimes there’s a tension between truth and care (see Dan Dennett in Freedom Evolves) but there’s no need to segregate them — or us.

*Haidt did use Sanctity/degradation when he talked about sacred values, but the fact that some have made these groups sacred (while interesting and certainly a part of human nature to do) is not the point. These groups are sacred to the political left precisely because they’ve been found to need care and attention. See this essay of mine that talks a bit about this.


7 sacred groups
A slide from Haidt’s talk.


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