the joy of autonomy

March 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

There is the germ of something in this.  And it is churning here, too.

I’ve been thinking about satisfaction, about what makes us happy (and me in particular, I suppose).  My friend Mike Devin passed this along a little while back, and there is a giant nugget of truth in it, maybe because it narrows the question down to manageable size:

From Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

Autonomy is the effective ability to act on one’s voluntarism.  Voluntarism, in turn, is the (psychological) ability to distance oneself from one’s ends (commitments, loyalties, etc) to choose between them.  This requires a degree of independence, where that is understood as follows: if X is independent of Y, Y is not essential to X.  Putting all of that together, I would say that autonomy is the effective ability to act on a (psychological) ability to distance oneself from one’s ends (commitments, loyalties, etc) to choose between them, from which one must then be independent.

This is pretty complicated and it gets more complicated still since I think there are stronger and weaker forms of independence, voluntarism and autonomy.

To complicate it still further, I actually think that its rational autonomy that is the real value.  I would define rationality as the ability to evaluate available ends.*  So rational autonomy is the effective ability to act on a (psychological) ability to distance oneself from one’s ends (commitments, loyalties, etc) to evaluate and choose between them (one must be independent from them).

More Will Wilkinson

University of Virginia professor of psychology Jonathan Haidt is a pioneer in the scientific study of moral emotion and cognition. Haidt’s principal claim to fame is his “five foundations” theory of human morality. Imagine a graphic equalizer on a stereo with five separate settings that slide up and down. One setting determines our sensitivity to suffering and harm. One calibrates our sense of reciprocity and fairness. Another fixes our degree of in-group loyalty, and establishes how inclusively we draw the circle around those we consider one of “us”. Still another concerns our attitudes toward authority and the duties of our station. And then there is our “spiritual” sense of the sacred and the profane. Recently, Haidt has entertained the possibility of a sixth slide on the moral equalizer determining our attunement to matters of individual autonomy and freedom, but we’ll stick with just the five for now.

The elegant basic idea is that variation along a small number of universal dimensions of emotion and cognition can account for the entire stunning range of human morality. Afghani herdsmen and American animal rights activists surely disagree about a lot, morally speaking. But their respective cultures draw from the same fund of psychological resources to construct each of their deeply-felt, guiding moralities. We all have the same basic moral equalizer. We just differ in our settings.

Among Haidt’s most provocative findings is that American liberals and conservative differ systematically in the calibration of their moral equalizers. Liberals have harm and fairness (Haidt calls these the “individualizing foundations”) pushed way up and in-group, authority, and purity (the “binding foundations”) pushed way down. In contrast, conservatives have all the slides pushed up, though their individualizing settings are not set as high as are liberals’.

Haidt has tended to characterize conservative morality, resting on as it does on all five moral foundations, as more complex or in some sense full-bodied than liberal morality, which rests almost entirely on just the two individualizing foundations. Haidt argues that traditional moralities, like contemporary conservative morality, tended to have all the settings on the moral equalizer turned up relatively high, and he describes the process by which we have arrived at liberal morality, with everything but fairness and harm turned down, as “the great narrowing.”

Yet it’s not at all obvious that the “default” morality rests equally on all five foundations–that the default equalizer has all five settings at the same level. We can see liberalism, as Haidt seems to, as a deviation from the default that tunes down the binding dimensions of the human moral sensibility. But why not take liberalism as the default, and see conservatism as a deviation from the default that tunes up the binding dimensions? This possibility hadn’t even occurred to me until I read this paper [$$], forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, by Jennifer Cole Wright and Galen Baril, who find some evidence for a liberal default.

Here’s part of their conclusion (citations omitted):

Previous research on moral intuitions has revealed that while both liberals and conservatives value the individualizing foundations, conservatives also value—while liberals discount—the binding foundations. Our control group displayed this same pattern of responses. This study examined two alternative hypotheses for this difference—the first that liberals cognitively override and, the second, that conservatives cognitively enhance, their binding foundation responses. We employed self-regulation depletion and cognitive load tasks, both of which have been shown to compromise people’s ability to effortfully monitor and regulate automatic responses. In particular, we were interested in determining whether, when the ability to monitor/regulate their automatic moral responses was compromised (either by exhausting their cognitive resources or by distracting them), liberals would give more moral weight to the binding foundations or conservatives would give less. What we found was support for the latter: When cognitive resources were compromised, only the individualizing foundations (harm/fairness) were strongly responded to by participants, with the binding foundations (authority/in-group/purity) being de-prioritized by both liberals and conservatives. In short, contrary to Joseph et al.’s contention that the “…automatic moral reactions of liberals could be similar to those of conservatives”, we found that the automatic moral reactions of conservatives turned out to be more like those of liberals.

While only preliminary, these findings suggest that considerations of harm and fairness stand (as many have argued) at the core of human morality—for liberals and conservatives alike—and that rather than starting with an innate five-foundation moral “baseline”, which liberals then narrow down (“demoralize”) to two, we may start with a two-foundation moral baseline, which conservatives are then motivated to broaden (“moralize”) from there.

Wright and Baril argue, drawing on an array of evidence that conservatives are more averse to threat, instability, and uncertainty, that a sense of threat tends to activate the binding foundations, producing more conservative moralities. In the absence of a sense of threat, or when exhausted from the effort of keeping our conservative moral emotions inflamed, we default to the relatively effortless liberal, individualizing foundations.

This is interesting, but I’m not sold on the idea that the liberal setting on the moral equalizer is the default–that we are, as their title says, “all liberals at heart.” What it sounds to me Wright and Baril are saying is that the liberal setting is the one we tend toward when our defenses are down. That is, liberal morality is the morality of comfortable security. The question, then, is whether the default state of humanity is one in which our defenses are down–in which we’re comfortable and secure. I’d guess it’s not.

In any case, the idea that the binding foundations are primarily defensive and operate as sort of adaptation to a climate of uncertainty and threat is very illuminating and I think may help in my quest to join Haidt’s five-foundations theory with Ronald Inglehart’s postmodernization theory of value change. Here’s a useful summary of Inglehart’s postmodernization theory from Christian Welzel:

[I]f socioeconomic conditions improve fundamentally from one generation to the next, the younger generation that is growing up under the improved conditions will experience the satisfaction of its material needs. Material need-satisfaction will become the new generation’s formative experience so that its members take it for granted, opening their minds to higher-ordered concerns. Accordingly the new generation will feel the need of postmaterialistic achievements, placing more emphasis on environmental protection, meaning of life, and self-determination. The older generation will also experience more affluence but its formative experiences will leave on it a lasting imprint, such that the older generation continues to prioritize materialistic goals over postmaterialistic ones. Consequently,the affluence-driven value change from materialistic to postmaterialistic values will advance only as the older generation dies out.

According to Inglehart, individual modernity is reflected in postmaterialism. Postmaterialists have a post-economic preference structure in which concerns of the material living standard are replaced by lifestyle concerns about the ecological, cultural, and political quality of life.

In other words, as the threat of economic insecurity and its concomitant zero-sum conflict over resources recedes with the rise of material prosperity, the defensive binding foundations also recede, leaving the rising generation with a moral equalizer on which in-group, authority, and purity have never been turned up, making fairness and harm relatively more salient. Now, toss in Inglehart’s Maslovianism. As our material needs are met, higher-order needs of consciousness become more pressing. So, at the point in development in which a generation is struck by the “postmaterialist” impulse to seek meaning through moral activity, it finds itself with a historically relatively liberal morality preoccupied with distributive fairness, the reduction of suffering (and, I think, autonomy). In the quest for meaning-making, postmaterialist generations latch onto and refine these moral sensibilities, further raising their salience relative to the binding foundations. Haidt’s “great narrowing” follows from the “great cushioning” of rising prosperity. Of course, as soon as, say, a recession hits, the defensive binding foundations kick in a bit, and a bunch of us buy bald-eagle t-shirts and get mad at about immigrants stealing our jobs.

Wilinkson must be aware of studies like this one:

In reflex tests of 46 political partisans, psychologists found that conservatives were more likely than liberals to be shocked by sudden threats.

Accompanying the physiological differences were deep differences on hot-button political issues: military expansion, the Iraq war, gun control, capital punishment, the Patriot act, warrantless searches, foreign aid, abortion rights, gay marriage, premarital sex and pornography.

“People are experiencing the world, experiencing threat, differently,” said University of Nebraska political scientist John Hibbing. “We have very different physiological orientations.”


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