Our search for a great living ethical philosopher has so far turned up empty. We're only at the early stages of the search, having recently examined the work of Alain De Botton and Sam Harris, both of them young trendy philosophers who swing in the TED set. But preliminary results have been worrying.
We like the aesthetic approach of Alain De Botton, who has bold, fanciful ideas about many things. However, a close look shows that artistry may be all he has. De Botton has written books (mostly to polite applause) on moral philosophy, but he appears to be too much of a wonderer, and not enough of a fighter, to make his name in the muscular field of ethical debate. De Botton clearly likes to dress himself up in a philosopher's antique clothes, but one senses that it's all some kind of fetching show. A great philosopher? Not yet.
The young atheist firebrand Sam Harris is refreshingly pugnacious and argumentative, and he can turn a sharp phrase. But he's also unimaginative and unperceptive. He has lately specialized in "rational" Koran-bashing, with the upturned chin of a brave sophomore who isn't going to pussyfoot around this. Reading Sam Harris's angry diatribes about fundamentalist Islam, or about religion in general, one can't help feeling that one understands more about human nature than Sam Harris does, and that Sam Harris ought to be listening to all of us instead of the other way around. A great living philosopher? In his dreams.
After these bruising early results, I decided to get away from the hip young TED familiars and focus next on some heavier weights. I've been reading up on Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Derek Parfit, Slavoj Zizek and Sarah Sawyer, and hope to cover them all soon. However, two separate links to the work of a Virginia author named Jonathan Haidt appeared in two of my favorite blogs, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish and the Maverick Philosopher, and caught my attention. As far as appearances go, Haidt is another trendy young TED-ish ethics guy. However, he is showing signs of a wider mind. Even though he wears the same clothes:
I'm only two chapters into Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, so I won't try to say much about him in my own words today. But many others have recently noticed Jonathan Haidt too, and I'd like to share a few pullquotes.
From Alan Miller's Wired interview earlier this year:
Haidt's studies bear out his message that for every one of us, however rational we think we are, intuition comes first, and strategic reasoning second. That is, we rationalise our gut instincts, rather than using reason to reach the best conclusion ... For Haidt, this is something that modern thinking has failed to recognise. "In America there was a long period where we were trying to teach kids critical thinking, and you never hear about it anymore because it didn't work," says Haidt.
Haidt sees our reasoning mind and intuition as a rider on top of an elephant, with the rider (reason) serving the elephant (intuition). But he doesn't necessarily see this as a flaw. "You need to learn how to get the rider and elephant to work together properly. Each have their separate skill, and if if you think that the rider is both in charge and deserves to rule, you're going to find yourself screwing up, and wondering why you keep screwing up. I think maturity and wisdom occur when someone gets good integration between the rider and the elephant -- and I picked an elephant rather than a horse because elephants are really big and really smart. If you see a trainer and an elephant working together it's a beautiful sight."
Here's Marc Parry in the Chronicle of Higher Education, also earlier this year:
Now Haidt wants to change how people think about the culture wars. He first plunged into political research out of frustration with John Kerry's failure to connect with voters in 2004. A partisan liberal, the University of Virginia professor hoped a better grasp of moral psychology could help Democrats sharpen their knives. But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that "conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals."
Haidt has been puncturing grandiose illusions about the moral differences between liberals and conservatives for a few years now (here he is at TED in 2008). I'm not completely sure if his moral/political message is radically new, but there is much potential in the way he delivers it. He has a wide imagination and is willing to reach far for a good metaphor. He also benefits from a sly sense of humor and a warmly understated style of debate. He can throw out a line like:
Sports is to war as pornography is to sex.
It's significant that this intuition-minded new ethical philosopher is a professor not of philosophy but of psychology. This perspective doesn't hurt, since many of the problems in the United States of America or Europe or anywhere in the world that appear to be economic problems, or spiritual problems, or moral problems turn out, once you examine them closely enough, to be grounded in psychological confusions.
Since this is the case, probably the single most important thing liberals and conservatives can do in 2012 is forgive each other. God knows, both sides have a lot to forgive.
I wonder if this message -- liberals and conservatives need to forgive each other -- is a good summary of Jonathan Haidt's ethical philosophy. I'll be reading more of his work and writing more about him here soon. Any other opinions on Jonathan Haidt out there you'd like to share?