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Lately I have much been enjoying the blog Slate Star Codex, which treads in sparkling prose much of the same rationality, ethics, cognitive science, &c ground that Less Wrong has gotten bad about stomping into dittoheady mud lately. By which I mean it's actually good and stuff. One recent post sparked off some recollections from, of all things, phonology.

"But, Meredith," I hear you say, "what could the study of how sounds are composed into syllables in different languages have to do with whether people are inherently pretty decent or inherently pretty awful and just want to be seen as nice?" Well, I last cracked a phonology text lo these ten and a half years ago -- you will find posts about it on this very blog if you look back that far -- so I may be off about some of the details, and the field has doubtless moved on despite my inattention. (I welcome correction from practicing linguists [q_pheevr? kirinqueen?], more attentive students, &c.) But here goes.

One of the common underpinnings of the various phonological theories that I studied in undergrad and grad school1 is the notion that every syllable, word, &c that is spoken has an underlying representation2 -- i.e., a mental representation of a sequence of sounds to be produced, some abstractable piece of input for one of the state machines on the composed chain that leads from brain to vocal tract. The output of this state machine is (presumably) the sequence(s) of nerve impulses that make your vocal tract do the necessary to make the sounds you wanted to say -- but the sounds articulated (the surface representation) will vary predictably from the underlying representation. The job of a phonologist is to characterise languages in terms of these transformations, ideally in the most compact (or, as both linguists and computer scientists prefer to say, elegant) way possible.

Here's a concrete (and classic) example: English pluralization. The regular plural affix in English is -s, and in cases such as cat → cat-s or top → top-s, indeed the phoneme produced in the surface representation is /s/. But what about dog → dog-s, pronounced /dɔgz/? Or toy → toy-s, pronounced /tɔɪz? You get the picture. So this sort of thing got formalised in the 4th century BC for Sanskrit, but the West only got round to working it out starting in the mid-20th century after lots and lots of descriptive work from people like the Grimm brothers (yes, really). The theoretical frameworks of the '60s and '70s (of which the several I learned about, and have mostly forgotten, grew out of the work of Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle) were all fairly rule-oriented in the way that writing software is rule-oriented, and they all aimed to give linguists the ability to produce a complete description of the rules necessary to produce all underlying → surface transformations for whatever language they happened to be studying.

By now you may very well be saying, "Where do these underlying representations come from, anyway?" I know I am; it's kind of amazing how much clarity one loses about a field of study when one hasn't touched it in a decade. That said, the Chomskyan family of theories has often been criticised for coming up with "just-so stories" about what goes on between brain and vocal tract (the work of Steven Pinker notwithstanding; let's just say there is a lot of ground still to cover), so it's a good thing we're segueing to optimality theory now3. Optimality theory, which came on the scene in 1991, still relies on this notion of underlying representation, but it posits that instead of a however-intricate-it-needs-to-be spiderweb of rules to describe every little edge case of how pronunciation rules interact together for a given language to map a single input to a single output, there's a ranked set of constraints which, applied against the set of all possible candidate surface representations available at the time (which could, in principle, be any old bullshit your brain decides to come up with -- we are talking about a massively parallel computer here), selects a "least-bad" candidate which is then vocalized. The set is the same for all languages, but the ranking differs from language to language. So now language acquisition (you learn the constraint ranking for the language you're learning) and linguistic typology (linear edit distance between constraint rankings), oh and also phonology, fall out of one theory, albeit one that still needs some empirical validation.

So now let's talk about ethics.

Part of doing computer security is being able to think like the bad guy. It is a useful thing, when operating as a defender4, to be able to think like an adversary, to conceive of attacks you would never yourself perform, while coming up with your defense strategies. Put another way, out of all the possible constraints on things it is possible to do with a Turing machine, developers tend to have one typology of rankings ("who would ever ask our database for anything other than what our application asks for?") and attackers a very different one. But a defender who can't adopt the attacker mindset for the purposes of risk assessment cannot be an effective defender, even if the options the defender considers during risk assessments are ones that they would never do independently. Furthermore, if the defender's model of "the attacker mindset" (in the analogy we're constructing here, the "attacker constraint ranking" that the defender uses as a temporary replacement for their own constraint ranking) doesn't comport with what attackers do, the defender won't be very effective either. So not only do you have to be able to think like a bad guy, you have to be able to do it well. A lot of people have cognitive dissonance over this (e.g., as Rob Graham points out, a particular prosecutor, judge and jury in New Jersey). I don't, but then, that's why I'm a computer security researcher.

But it goes beyond that. As you might expect of someone who thrashed Rob Graham so hard in a Cards Against Humanity game that he wrote a blog post around it, I possess a deep capacity for being a terrible person and I am totally okay with this. There have been times in the past when I have done terrible things that have hurt people. Hell, there are times today when I do terrible things that hurt people, like buy goods made in shitty working conditions, although really I have been doing my best to minimize the amount of direct personal harm I inflict on people. What I've noticed, through introspection and discussion and so on, is that by and large, the harm I bring about is through ignorance or inattention rather than intent; having realised this, my gut response has been to try to be more mindful and less of a fuckup, thereby decreasing the extent to which my fuckups inconvenience anyone else. So one could say, as one example, that I raised the rank of the constraint "be conscientious with other people's things", and that while my brain might produce the idea "juggle your housemate's coffee cups," it would fall hors du combat early on in processing due to its violation of this highly ranked constraint. However, nothing prevents me from altering my constraint ordering in a different situation where it's appropriate to do so -- like changing politeness registers for whatever culture I'm in, or taking all the filters off and optimizing for balls-out hilarious evil in a Cards against Humanity game. When it is contextually appropriate and safe to be horrible, I can be a son of a bitch with the best of them, which is fun because being good at things is usually fun. (And by "safe" I mean "nobody gets hurt", which is usually the case in a Cards Against Humanity game apart from your illusions about how your friends spend their spare time being shattered.)

Really I guess this isn't so different from Kant's notion of the categorical imperative, but with lots of them and a ranked-choice ordering. And I also see, off in the distance, something that might be a parallel with Jonathan Haidt's moral foundations research, or which might just be an oncoming train. But it could be interesting to, say, design scenarios that require people to make moral-dilemma decisions quickly and look at the correlations between their choices and their scores along those axes.

Anyway, I'm not sure this gets us fundamentally any closer to answering whether humans are inherently good-seeking or good-appearance-seeking, because obviously there's no objective way to evaluate what constraint ranking a person is using, or whether a person is telling you the truth about their self-reporting of the constraint ranking they're using, or even whether they're right about their self-reporting. But it has been of practical use to me, in the sense that I don't feel any particular cognitive dissonance (e.g., revulsion) when my brain suggests particularly horrific or vile responses to stimuli; when I have the time to think about it, at least, if these things register at all they register as "considered and rejected," as a neat little monadic package. I suspect that it's also an instance of the "I made it but that doesn't mean it's part of me" distinction that I have also found of considerable utility in the last year and change, but that is another topic for another time.

1The University of Houston and the University of Iowa were both Chomskyan programs when I went through them; I learned a little about head-driven phrase structure grammar but that was about it as far as exposure to other theoretical frameworks. I know all the cool kids do statistical everything these days; I work for the world leader in the field, turning research code into production code, so I don't actually get all that much theory these days, and also I work in natural language understanding rather than speech recognition anyway. But these are details.

2I always got the feeling the whole underlying-representation thing had to do with historical similarities, especially since when you study a whole bunch of languages all in one family (which I got to do, for a lot of different families), it quickly becomes clear that a lot of the phonological parallels in languages like, say, Dutch and English are predictable because it's the same word, just said differently. But I don't remember any of my profs or any of the books or papers I read explicitly coming out and saying that. Maybe it's obvious? I don't know. It seems kind of simplistic now that I lay it out like that. My memory is kind of shit sometimes.

3Is that your lampshade?

4My research actually operates a level up from this, focusing on hardening software in rigorous ways, because I don't like having to do the same thing over and over again.

Comments

( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
rjgrady
Jun. 9th, 2013 06:36 pm (UTC)
I'm skeptical of Haidt's premises. While I think it's true that our morality stems in part from our evolutionary heritage, I think part of it directly counters it. I think much of our morality actually derives from the capacity for rationality. It is not clear rationality is a clear evolutionary advantage. However, if something appears to be rational, it's difficult to escape the consequences implied by that idea.
moof
Jun. 9th, 2013 10:38 pm (UTC)
I suspect part of it comes back to the old canard of the comparison of who's more "good": a person who thinks only good thoughts, or someone who thinks tons of evil thoughts but only acts on the "good" ones.

Personally, I find "evil" to usually be annoying, distasteful, inefficient overall, and banal. Regardless - without perfect knowledge of past, present, and future (not to mention infinite processing capacity) it's impossible to get everything right all the time. Choosing what metrics and scales to use are also a fun topic in and of themselves. But hey, I'm a sperg - my impetuses (impetices?) are notably different from the general populace anyway.
maradydd
Jun. 9th, 2013 11:26 pm (UTC)
Low-content reply right now because I am tired and will get to real content after I have slept: oh hey, other people use the label "sperg" for themselves too, neat! I have become pretty fond of it in the last year. Someone called thequux a sperglord and I was like "that is awesome, henceforth let's be the Sperglords of Brussels."
whswhs
Jun. 13th, 2013 05:12 am (UTC)
I think that impetus, like apparatus, may belong to that peculiar Latin declension whose nominative singular and plural are the same.
moof
Jun. 14th, 2013 01:05 am (UTC)
According to wiktionary, m fourth declension, and nom plural is impetūs.
whswhs
Jun. 14th, 2013 05:18 am (UTC)
I think that's the one for apparatus too. Of course in Latin one ends in a short vowel and one in a long, but that difference doesn't come through into the English forms, because English doesn't really have a systematic long/short difference.
maradydd
Jun. 13th, 2013 09:37 pm (UTC)
OK, real reply now!

It sounds like you and I have fairly compatible notions of goodness, where the Platonic form is "getting everything right all the time" and the practical realisation usually closer to "not fucking up too badly most of the time, and taking the initiative to unfuck whatever does get fucked up."

I agree that the canard is a canard, but apparently it still bothers people with some frequency (fairly high among rationalists, it would seem, from all the discussion). I'm really trying to advance the argument here that since being able to model the behaviour of a bad actor is not merely neutrally not-evil, but advantageous -- after all, we all have to deal with bad actors in our lives from time to time, and being able to anticipate their moves means we can avoid them -- it's not really necessary to feel revulsion when confronted with some horrible idea your brain comes up with or across, such as "if people do nice things mostly for selfish reasons like signaling or self-signaling, that means there's no such thing as goodness." You can model it just as you would an adversary (or, you know, however you model other people): is it actually the case that X → Y? What does it imply if people do nice things mostly for selfish reasons?

I'm not bothered by considering these implications, because clearly it's possible to at least asymptotically approach the practical realisation of the notion of goodness I described above even if people do nice things mostly for selfish reasons. But, well, that's consequentialism for you I suppose.
rjgrady
Jun. 14th, 2013 06:52 am (UTC)
For some reason, the first thing that springs to mind is the counseling work I did with a child molester. He had never been arrested or formally confronted in any way, so I was part of a thin line of counseling professionals and a psychiatrist keeping him on track. Clearly, focusing on feelings of revulsion would not help me address his behavior. One of my classmates, in our weekly discussion group, asked me how I could work with him. I said, "Well, it must really suck to be him. I feel sorry for him." I find it useful to sort between emotions like anger, compassion, disgust, and so forth. Rarely do the emotions themselves actually compete, but there is always competition between gestalts. "I am happy" usually means, "I have identified happiness as my primary emotion, and I react to my other emotions in the light of happiness." So, really, if you want to stop someone from being a sex offender, you really have to have a willingness to understand why they do what they do. There is a fear of contagion. It's not entirely irrational, either; each of us has numerous unknown components to our minds, and it is a given, I think, that each of us has some unacknowledge, un-accessed capacity to be a sex offender. But most of that fear evaporates within the realization: irrespective of my limitations as an organism, I have rational capacities and I define my experience based on my choices. The acknowledgement of something does not require to me to identify that something as salient to my moral heuristics. To put it simply, most people are not in danger of becoming child molesters because they don't want to molest children.

Children naturally understand the difference between examination of something and choosing it. When children play pirates and make each other walk the plank, they don't have any real fear of becoming violent criminals, although undoubtedly some children who play pirates really have that capacity. Can I say that curiosity is the most powerful of all human intellectual abilities?
maradydd
Jun. 14th, 2013 09:29 am (UTC)
I've seen a couple of AMA threads on Reddit from pedophiles. A frequent theme is that the person knows that they are sexually attracted to children, but has developed numerous behavioural strategies to avoid opportunities to express this attraction, because they recognise that they can exercise rational choice about their actions. They do want to molest children, and they know it, thus they know that they are in danger of becoming a child molester (or reoffending), so because they don't want to be someone who actually does molest children, they proactively try to limit the danger. Invariably they also sound incredibly lonely, which is sad, because I think they're making the best they possibly can of a truly bad situation and people shouldn't have to feel isolated because of that. But the fear of contagion is certainly strong with respect to this sort of thing.

Curiosity is indeed incredibly powerful. It's probably my favourite intellectual tool, too.
morbid_curious
Jun. 10th, 2013 03:09 am (UTC)
While I don't work in security and I've never been in that kind of specialist role, some people's risk-oblviousness scares me. It definitely helps to be able to frame vulnerabilities - in code or elsewhere - in the context of your company's liability, so that management types can understand the business priority in fixing them. Thankfully fellow software engineers are more likely to go "good catch!" and work to fix it, but not all.

I spend one night a week rehearsing socially negative scenarios with some of my friends, where we pretend to be a bunch of criminals in a near-future setting who get paid to do a variety of highly illegal and often morally questionable things. But then, that's a tabletop Shadowrun game for you. That experience has been immensely useful for a number of socially positive, real-life projects I've worked on that required unconventional decision making and contingency planning, though.
maradydd
Jun. 13th, 2013 09:44 pm (UTC)
I have found myself missing gaming more and more lately. Not sure what to do about that, alas. Shadowrun was a favourite back in high school. I hear there have been a couple new additions since then.

Vampire LARP was not only a crash course in unconventional decision-making and contingency planning, it was also an experimental platform for learning how to interact with people. That's probably a post in and of itself.
morbid_curious
Jun. 14th, 2013 01:18 am (UTC)
Vampire the Masquerade taught me a lot about acting and character-based improvisation. (And, incidentally, about not letting in-game and IRL tensions bleed into each other like some people seemed to.) LARPing in general taught me a lot about scenario design. I'm told from higher up the food chain that trying to explain a LARP to Red Cross Emergency Response bosses was Interesting, but I gather that the responders got something good out of training with us. They now have a pool of makeup- and prosthetic-friendly volunteers they can call on for future exercises, too.
jsl32
Jun. 10th, 2013 04:07 am (UTC)
The Mormons are a useful topic for analysis here.
maradydd
Jun. 13th, 2013 09:08 pm (UTC)
Mind expanding on that? I do not know a whole lot about Mormons apart from having dated one in high school.
jsl32
Jun. 18th, 2013 07:44 pm (UTC)
wow, i totally forgot i commented on this!

Mormons culturally are really good at diverting, redirecting and subverting a lot of antisocial and power-seeking impulses in ways that both produce and maintain multigenerationally a functional community structure.

However, part of that is that it's embedded within the culture to be good appearance seeking. It is even explicitly stated by individual Mormons. They are a culture that said 'It's fine to be open about the fact that we just want to look good, we can worry about whether it's actually good some other time' and set up their institutions accordingly.

This is not working out over the long-term, but it held up for multiple generations and several revisions of the religion tangled up with the culture.
maradydd
Jul. 8th, 2013 05:21 pm (UTC)
This may be a high-latency conversation, but I'd like to dig into this a little more.

It's clearly counterfactual to say that people aren't in some way good- or at least neutral-appearance-seeking; certainly no one wants to be hated, for instance. (Which is part of why it can be awfully difficult to be Mormon if you're, for instance, trans; for a friend of mine who grew up Mormon in Utah and is now in the Bay Area, it certainly was.) This means that it's foolish to try to build a culture that doesn't acknowledge that good-appearance-seeking impulses exist. It's interesting to hear that Mormonism confronts that directly; I'm going to have to look into this, especially if people are writing in detail about the ways in which it's not working out over the long term. How did it break down?
kirinqueen
Jun. 10th, 2013 10:21 pm (UTC)
That is my understanding of the latest theory in phonology as well--but I haven't studied/used it in some years, either.
whswhs
Jun. 13th, 2013 05:10 am (UTC)
Haidt's moral foundations are kind of interesting, but I think he misses a couple of things I would want to look at:

He originally had five: (avoidance of) harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity. He later added a sixth, liberty, to fit in libertarians, who tend to ignore the last three and have nonstandard interpretations of the first two. But all the libertarians I've met tend to go fairly quickly to a different frame, property—and property, "whose dog is it?" actually does seem to be a fairly basic human moral category.

His interpretation of purity focuses on sexual propriety and impropriety. But there have been lots of other ways to understand impurity—for example, in many societies, eating the wrong thing makes you impure, or drinking it (Jesus makes a point of saying it's not what goes into your mouth that makes you unclean, but what comes out of it). And it strikes me that in our society, a different subject entirely evokes the sense of uncleanness or impurity, often in a powerful way. Consider that one of the common nineteenth-century words for "masturbation" was "pollution". . . .
maradydd
Jun. 13th, 2013 09:08 pm (UTC)
I was under the impression that the purity axis also included dietary restrictions, menstrual taboos, the Hawaiian kapu system, &c. Does Haidt explicitly exclude that? I didn't think he was; the three purity-related questions on part 1 of the 30-item inventory are "Whether or not someone violated standards of purity and decency," "Whether or not someone did something disgusting," and "Whether or not someone acted in a way that God would approve of," and on part 2 they're "People should not do things that are disgusting, even if no one is harmed," "I would call some acts wrong on the grounds that they are unnatural," and "Chastity is an important and valuable virtue." While all of these can certainly be interpreted with respect to sexual propriety or impropriety, they're certainly broad enough to cover every purity-related custom I've been able to think of so far.

I'm also unhappy with the way he expanded the framework, though for slightly different reasons than yours; I get that he's doing empirical research to determine whether there's statistical support for the new axes that they're considering, but his whole description of how they decided what axis to pursue left me rather dissatisfied from a data-mining perspective.
whswhs
Jun. 13th, 2013 11:00 pm (UTC)
If so, that's a bit better. I don't recall seeing that larger version, and the accounts of it I've read (including some of his) seem to only name sexual conduct as a focus, but I may have missed the fuller accounts.

However, the more specific point I have in mind is that he does not consider green concerns as driven by a purity ethos, and to me that looks like a really strong theme in environmentalism—by no means all of it, but when, for example, you have people saying that a Pigovian pollution tax is morally unacceptable because it amounts to accepts some pollution as tolerable and simply reducing it, when it should be banned entirely, that looks to me like fear of impurity/pollution rather than rational assessment of harm/risk. I think that perhaps Haidt is so accustomed to thinking that liberals are rational and conservatives are emotional that he doesn't recognize emotion when it's over their on his side, even though his analytical framework is quite capable of identifying it.
maradydd
Jun. 14th, 2013 08:21 am (UTC)
The inventory used to be 41 questions, but apparently they threw out 10 that weren't contributing well to measurement and made some other changes. Maybe you only saw the 20-question version? (They prefer the 30-question one, apparently.)

I absolutely agree that purity is a strong driver for many greens (see below), and this actually dovetails with some research I'm doing later this summer. I'd love to get your input on it, actually -- mind if I drop you an email about it? (It may be a few days, as my parents are visiting through Saturday and so I'm not spending a huge amount of time online right now.)
whswhs
Jun. 14th, 2013 12:14 pm (UTC)
Holding off for a week or two would be good, actually. We're moving in three days, we'll be offline during the move, and we'll come by on line with a new Internet provider and new addresses. I'll put you on my list of people to let know when I have them.

I'll also have more time and more brain for the subject after we recover from the move. It's an interesting topic to me; I've proposed it as a panel for a local sf convention, in fact. . . .
maradydd
Jul. 8th, 2013 05:23 pm (UTC)
Which con, incidentally? It's looking like I'll be in California in late August, maybe into part of September (complicated reasons). This will probably include a visit to thequux's parents in Rancho Palos Verdes.
rjgrady
Jun. 14th, 2013 06:55 am (UTC)
In the case of purity taboos, generally speaking, the person with moral objections believes that a polluter is harming themselves. But greens and prudes are alike in that they object so some actions on the grounds they are "unnatural," so I intuitively think Haidt's axes must be incorrect.
maradydd
Jun. 14th, 2013 08:11 am (UTC)
I'm not sure I follow your argument here. Are you saying that "eating GMO food is unnatural, people shouldn't do it" and "buttsex is unnatural, people shouldn't do it" are fundamentally different assertions because one is an environmentalist line and the other is prudish? Or are you saying that the green who says "nuclear fission is harmful, we shouldn't use it to generate energy" has a different motivation than the one who says "nuclear fission is unnatural, we shouldn't use it to generate energy"?

I disagree with the former, but agree with the latter; there, the first bit is a harm/care argument and the second is a purity one. Of course in real life, people often have more than one motivation for things and indeed sometimes they have conflicting ones, but at least when I've debated the nuclear power example, harm/care and purity cooperate very, very well. Let's suppose you're explaining the thorium fuel cycle to a group of Greenpeace members. All of them love the environment and want it to be healthy. Some of them believe very strongly that all nuclear energy is unnatural (purity) and some of them also believe that the environmental movement is doomed without solidarity (loyalty). Let's also suppose that you are always 100% successful at convincing people that thorium reactors are harmless.

What happens when you give your talk?

Well, we stipulated that your explanation satisfies everyone along the harm/care axis, so that's not relevant. Some members who don't have strong purity beliefs about nuclear energy may even arrive at the idea that the most moral course of action would be to start building fair-construction-trade, cruelty-free thorium reactors as fast as we can, to provide cheap energy that will eliminate fossil fuel consumption and facilitate wildly ambitious environmental rehabilitation projects. (Then somebody invokes Jevons' paradox and the low-purity group sits down to have a long think about outcomes.)

The high-purity members of the audience find your conclusions, and those of the low-purity members, horrifying. They don't care whether it's uranium, thorium, or unobtainium; if it comes from the nucleus of an atom, it's "dirty" energy as far as they're concerned, contrasted with "clean" sources like wind and solar. Then the high-loyalty members of the audience speak up, chiding the low-purity members for disregarding the wisdom of the environmental movement, endangering its solidarity, and upsetting the high-purity members. (This last usually gets phrased like a harm/care argument -- "Look at Gisella over there, she's so hurt by what you said" -- but fundamentally I see it as a loyalty argument aimed at people who care more about harm/care than loyalty, designed to silence "seditious" people by guilt-tripping them.)

What I'm trying to get at here is, I don't think that taboos and other moral beliefs are necessarily limited to just a single moral axis (and I don't think Haidt does either). Does that speak to your intuition at all, or does it go further (e.g. "no, he's still wrong about thus-and-such axis)?
rjgrady
Jun. 14th, 2013 09:03 am (UTC)
I would say that "eating GMO food is unnatural, people shouldn't do it" and "buttsex is unnatural, people shouldn't do it" are closely related in that they both relate to purity and both can involve an aversion based on the vague idea that something bad will happen to you if you do. The GMO food thing may involve scientific beliefs or ecological beliefs, and the buttsex thing might involve theological beliefs or sociological beliefs.

I agree that moral beliefs are not necessarily limited to a single moral axis. But Haidt seems to think that we are going to respond to a certain threshold of discomfort, based on the value axes he has lain out. But I do not think that if you implanted the same factual knowledge of GMO food and buttsex to a random collection of organics and family-focused types that they would dissolve to the same conclusions based on a unitary purity axes. I think that in addition to purity and sanctity-based ethics, and even accounting for authority, people respond differently to moral decisions that affect relationships (such as marriage and planetary ecology) versus things that represent direct harm, indirect harm, or purely sanctity.

While Haidt may have found some interesting clusters, I think the resulting model is weak. I suspect strongly that the clustering he finds result in large part from how he chose to test for his axes. You could alter the results by creating items like, "Eating genetically-modified organisms pollutes the body with toxins" and "the government should be given the power to stop people from harming the environment" to reflect sanctity and authority despite stemming from a stereotypic "liberal" viewpoint. In fact, left-right politics are often mirrors. I suspect that identification with a group stems not from style but from specific cultural context, and the clustering of people with, for instance, rationally-based values systems reflects people's relationship with that context.

So, I would say for instance that a cluster of behaviors related to anal sex and gay marriage probably reflect a cultural system that stigmatizes homosexuality, treats sex as dangerous, equates gender with power and sexual roles, etc. Haidt has consciously, it seems, attacked the questions of critical theory. That is probably the result of Haidt's own acculturation. But his work seems markedly absent concepts of systems theory, which seems less a matter of orientation than of Haidt's lack of facility in cybernetics and systems. Haidt's theory, for instance, posits stable, evolutionary based ethics, when his own research identifies that people evince a range of behavior and attitudes, and such a values system is naturally an aggregate of the values of all the individuals who make up the human race. Not only does the population vary along those axes... but those axes reflect the composition of the population. Haidt doesn't seem to be able to say what he is measuring except descriptively. "People are like this" might be true, "people should be like this" is an opinion, "morality reflects what people are thinking and not what can be thought," is a philosophical bridge too far for me. I would note also that the behavior/attitude divide and the tendency of humans toward bias introduce a lot of chaos into the human decision-making process that in his system is "variance from error." But in fact reflects the structure of human decision-making.
whswhs
Jun. 14th, 2013 12:41 pm (UTC)
This kind of oversimplification about "authority" goes a long way back in the empirical social sciences, actually—at least to Adorno et al.'s The Authoritarian Personality, in which opposition to socialism, economic regulation, or welfare is taken to be "authoritarian" and support for or acceptance of them is taken to be non- or anti-authoritarian. I think it's not a particularly arcane point that one could just as well read wanting people to be free to make their own economic decisions and to own property to make those decisions about as anti-authoritarian, and the idea that the government is entitled to come in and supervise all the small dealings of businesses and property owners as authoritarian. It's practically diagnostic of libertarians that we find that construction intuitively obvious and are a bit baffled that anyone thinks markets are authoritarian or central planning is nonauthoritarian. I'm not arguing that this is necessarily correct, but that "authority" can be on either side of the conventional spectrum depending on your conceptual model.

(At least Haidt's research involves looking into how libertarians think as a distinctive group!)

A friend of mine in the early 1970s summed up a common libertarian schema: anarchism is far right, followed by classical liberalism, followed by the welfare state, followed by democratic socialism, followed by fascism, followed by communism. (Or maybe he put fascism in between the welfare state and democratic socialism; it's been a while.) I think that's a bit simplified, but the underlying axis is intuitive (to me!): how much of the economy is controlled by a centralized command structure, that is, by the state giving orders and other people obeying them.

One might interpret Adorno's model as a result of importing European cultural assumptions to American society uncritically, and not seeing that the older American values of the 1940s (and to a smaller degree now) embodied a sense of property ownership and enterprise as conferring independence of authority. But I suspect it's also that Adorno simply did not see a problem with people being told what they had to do—so long as the orders were voted on by a majority: his vision of "authoritarianism" included the authority of the dictator or the elite, but not the authority of the crowd or the mass. That is, his social contract was Rousseauian rather than Lockean, to such a degree that he didn't even conceive of an alternative.
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