Exposing sacred arguments

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt gave a talk in February arguing that the social psychology field was a “moral community” by virtue of its political liberalism, and that this was compromising its ability to do good science. I want to use one piece of his argument as a jumping off point to discuss what I see as one of the biggest obstacles to productive public discussion. Haidt:

Sacredness is a central and subtle concept in sociology and anthropology, but we can get a simple working definition of it from Phil Tetlock [a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania]. Tetlock defines a sacred values as “any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance …” If something is a sacred value, you can’t make utilitarian tradeoffs; you can’t think in a utilitarian way. You can’t sell a little piece of it for a lot of money, for example. Sacredness precludes tradeoffs. When sacred values are threatened, we turn into “intuitive theologians.” That is, we use our reasoning not to find the truth, but to find ways to defend what we hold sacred…

…Sacralizing distorts thinking. These distortions are easy for outsiders to see, but they are invisible to those inside the force field.

For the most part there’s nothing wrong with sacredness, per se. The problem arises when the sacred principle is challenged by someone outside the moral community. As Haidt notes, the result is that reasoning comes to the aid of justifying a principle, and that leads to sloppy arguments. If your commitment to the principle of nonviolence is challenged, for instance, you may start arguing about the ineffectiveness of military interventions. But what’s really driving that argument isn’t the facts; it’s the desire to defend a principle that in your moral vision really doesn’t even need defending. If you’re a pacifist, that’s fine. What’s not fine is marshalling weak arguments when a sacred view is challenged.

Now in practice my guess is that few things are held as entirely sacred, but many things are held nearly sacred. By that I mean that for most people, few beliefs are beyond any tradeoffs, but quite a few principles are sacred enough to require an exceptionally high bar be cleared before they’re willing to start trading it away.

There’s been some good back-and-forth in the libertarian blogosphere recently on the extent to which policy differences between liberals and libertarians are caused by different opinions on empirical matters, versus different values or principles. Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy is thinking along the same lines as I am, writing:

Within political philosophy, many scholars are either pure utilitarian consequentialists (thinkers who believe that we are justified in doing whatever it takes to maximize happiness) or pure deontologists (people who argue that we must respect certain rights absolutely, regardless of consequences)… Outside philosophy departments, however, few people endorse either of these positions.

So sacredness in practice is probably a matter of extent. But that does nothing to detract from its importance in public debate. If someone is arguing in favor of a principle they hold sacred I want to know. If you’ve written an op-ed detailing all the reasons military intervention in Libya would be ill-advised, the fact that you’re a pacifist – that nonviolence is a sacred principle for you – is extremely relevant.

I see the identification of sacredness as a crucial challenge in the public sphere, and therefore a crucial challenge within media. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s lots of talk about the importance of transparency in the brave new world of online media, and I’m in favor of that. But transparency means a lot of things (again, as I’ve discussed before). It’s easy to say “I’m a liberal, I generally favor x, y and z and am a fan of these thinkers or politicians. I voted for so-and-so for president.” That’s one kind of transparency. But it’s a very thin transparency. I’d love to see some media experiments that go further and try to identify sacred principles. Let’s play around with ways of telling me the author is a pacifist.

This is a hard problem because most of us have a rough time identifying what we consider sacred. As Haidt notes, it’s often something that is obvious only outsiders. And once extents are thrown into the mix things get even messier. In a way the blogosphere offers a really rudimentary partial fix just by removing word/page limits. When there’s no limit to length you can talk endlessly about the principles behind the authors, as the libertarian discussion makes clear. But I think we can do better. I don’t have many good specifics on how just yet, but it’s something I think about. Ideas?