Sunday, November 29, 2009

Beyond The Happiness Hypothesis: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

In monitoring the hits this blog gets I’ve noticed that my review of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom has been getting the most visitors, particularly in the most recent couple of months. While I’m not sure why this is happening I’m glad that it is. I have found Haidt’s book interesting and thought-provoking. He is working on his next book: The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. It is scheduled to be published in 2011 by Pantheon Books.

To give you an idea of what it will cover here is a part of the book proposal.

This book will be a friendly slap in the face to liberals and atheists, delivered by a liberal atheist who desperately wants his peers to wise up, drop their self-righteousness, and understand the moralities of conservatives and of religious groups. The central idea of the book is simple but its implications are far-reaching:

Liberals and atheists generally do not understand the breadth of human morality. They think morality is about decreasing harm and increasing justice and autonomy. But for most of the world, morality is primarily about binding people into cohesive communities with strong institutions and collective goals.

The book is based upon my empirical research in moral psychology. I have discovered that there are five innate psychological systems upon which cultures build their moral systems. The first two are Harm/care (involving compassion and nurturance), and Fairness/reciprocity (involving concepts of justice, which generate rights and autonomy). These two psychological systems account for nearly all research in moral psychology, and they provide most of the psychology needed to explain the long history of liberal moral theory in which society is a human creation, a social contract entered into by individuals for their mutual benefit and protection.

But there are three other foundations of morality used by conservative and religious communities, foundations that liberals generally reject as causes of immorality. One is the Ingroup/loyalty foundation, which gives people the strong feeling that being a committed and trustworthy group member is more important than maximizing overall utility. When conservatives say “my country, right or wrong,” liberals say “dissent is patriotic.” Another is the Authority/respect foundation, which motivates conservatives to defend hierarchical social structures in which authorities (such as teachers, parents, and the police) have a duty to establish the order and stability that is necessary for everyone’s benefit. Liberals, in contrast, instinctively “question authority” and often equate it with oppression. The last of the five foundations is Purity/sanctity, which underlies religious conceptions of persons as having a divine soul housed in a body that is disturbingly animal-like. Moral systems built on this foundation urge people to cultivate their higher, spiritual nature and to shun carnal pleasures and petty concerns. Many Christians believe that their bodies are temples, on loan from God. But for secular liberals, people have full deed and title to their own bodies and can adorn them, pierce them, drug them, and stimulate them however they please. Most culture-war issues are really battles over the legitimacy of the Ingroup, Authority, and Purity foundations.

Objectivists probably would disagree with Haidt’s discussion of and homage to conservative moral foundations and would agree more with the liberal advocacy of autonomy. After all autonomy is at the individualist root of Objectivist philosophy. Nonetheless, I believe Objectivists would benefit by seriously considering Haidt’s thoughts on this. Personally, I’m looking forward to the release of his The Righteous Mind.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Signature in the Cell -- Comments

Anyone familiar with Objectivism knows that Rand was an atheist. While Rand didn’t write specifically on intelligent design (ID) I’m sure she would have dismissed this argument because of its support for a supernatural being. Although I know it’s blasphemous (to use a religious term) to give any credence to the intelligent design argument I believe we need to test of our beliefs and principles by facing the best arguments of opposing viewpoints. Thus I recommend seriously reading books like Michael Behe’s Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, William Dembski’s The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities (Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction and Decision Theory), Anthony Flew’s There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind and Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design.

Behe’s book started the current resurgence in the intelligent design argument by introducing the idea of irreducible complexity that is displayed in various components of living organisms. Behe contends that evolutionary processes as envisioned by Darwin cannot explain the development of this complexity. Dembski’s approach is more philosophical, offering a scheme for identifying the causes of events as the result of natural law, chance or design. Flew touches on a number of factors that lead him to abandon his life-long atheism.

While I won’t discuss Dembski’s or Flew’s approaches here I do want to take a second to discuss how Behe uses a mousetrap to illustrate irreducible complexity. Even though it is a relatively simple device the mouse trap won’t work until its pieces are assembled in the right order and in the right configuration, making it irreducibly complex. Behe shows how many of life’s features such as the bacteria flagellum, the blood clotting mechanism or the chemistry of vision are much more complicated than a mouse trap. Behe contends that the development of these complex mechanisms could not have evolved by a step-by-step process because the components will not work until they are fully assembled.

Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design takes a different approach by focusing on the special characteristics of DNA. I have provided some key quotes below but I want to mention that I recently learned of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s pick of Meyer’s book as Book of the Year for Times On Line (The Times Literary Supplement). Nagel is primarily known as for his work in ethics and surely is not noted for being a mystic.

As Nagel says:

Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.

Here are selections from various parts of Meyer’s book which summarize his case.

The theory of intelligent design holds that there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause – that is, by the conscious choice of a rational agent – rather than by an undirected process. Either life arose as the result of purely undirected processes, or a guiding intelligence played a role. Advocates of intelligent design argue for the latter option based on the evidence from the natural world. The theory does not challenge the idea of evolution defined as change over time or even common ancestry, but it does dispute the Darwinian idea that the cause of all biological change is wholly blind and undirected. Even so, the theory is not based on biblical doctrine. Intelligent design is an inference from scientific evidence, not deduction from religious authority.

The design inference defined here does not constitute an argument from ignorance. Instead, it constitutes an “inference to the best explanation” based upon our best available knowledge. … an inference to the best explanation does not assert the adequacy of one causal explanation. Instead, it asserts the superior explanatory power of a proposed cause based upon its proven – it’s known – causal adequacy and based upon a lack of demonstrated efficacy among the competing proposed causes. … The inference to design, therefore, depends on present knowledge of the demonstrated causal powers of material entities and processes (inadequate) and intelligence (adequate). It no more constitutes an argument from ignorance than any other well-grounded inference in geology, archaeology or paleontology – where present knowledge of cause-and-effect relationships guides the inferences that scientists make about the causes of events in the past.

Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Premise Two: Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Conclusion: Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the information in the cell.

Intelligent design constitutes the best explanation of a particular feature of life because of what we know about the cause-and-effect structure of the world – specifically, because of what we know about what it takes to produce large amounts of specified information.

I’ve provided these quotes to give a flavor of Meyer’s argument. It's impossible to do justice to his 624 page book here. Based on my reading of Meyer, Behe, Dembski and Flew I have concluded they are not whim worshippers or raging subjectivists. Yes, they are making an argument for a belief in God or at least some kind of unknown intelligence that is responsible for the design of life, a conclusion with which we might ultimately disagree. However, to be fair, these authors craft arguments, marshal facts to support them, anticipate objections, and try to address them. I’m not saying the ID argument is irrefutable. Unfortunately the “refutations” I’ve seen in books or on the ‘net are heavy on sarcasm and ad hominem but are light on true objective analysis.

My point is that Objectivists and others who summarily reject ID arguments do not do them justice but, more importantly, also lose an opportunity to truly check and test their own premises.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ken Wilber’s All Quadrant All Levels, Spiral Dynamics and Objectivism

As you'd expect by the title and nature of this blog I am influenced by Ayn Rand. However Ken Wilber has also influenced my thinking. If you're not familiar with Wilber the best way I can describe his thinking is systematic Buddhism. I'm sure Rand and her more ardent fans would dismiss Wilber as he is a self-described mystic and therefore is automatically not worth considering. I obviously disagree. Even if you don't accept his fundamental spiritual philosophy I believe we can benefit from the cornerstone of Wilber's thinking: his All Quadrants All Levels (AQAL) model.

The AQAL model does not tell us what to think but instead offers a template for interpreting the world. It's difficult to put the diagram into this blog so I'll try to describe it. Imagine a box broken into quadrants. The upper left quadrant represents our individual internal world, the world inside our consciousness. Corresponding to this upper left quadrant is the upper right: our external behavior, what people see that results from our thinking and feeling. The lower left quadrant represents our collective interior world of cultural aspects: the world of social mores, politics, and etc. The lower right quadrant covers our social world, how we relate to one another (friendships, family, work, etc.) (Note: Wilber and his colleagues probably would take issue with how I've described the quadrants. This is my take on the AQAL model.) The one word description of each quadrant, starting with the upper left, is intentional, behavioral, cultural and social.

Wilber proposes that each quadrant adheres to its own version of truth. For the interior individual truth is being truthful (or objective?): for the exterior individual, truth: for cultural, justness; and for social, functional fitness.

Wilber contends that most philosophies and ideologies latch onto one of these quadrants then claim their truth applies to everything. Hence, Marxism, which explains everything in terms of means of production and class warfare, expands a lower right quadrant conclusion to apply to the other three. Or, behaviorism which looks at consciousness from the outside ultimately says that the internal world of consciousness can be reduced merely to external behavior.

Wilber contends that each "ism" identifies a kernel of truth but makes the fatal mistake of saying their kernel is the whole cob! As Wilber likes to say no one is so brilliant that they're 100% wrong. Wilber calls his overall approach "integral" because the AQAL model integrates the four basic dimensions of human experience. Anyone in Wilber's camp are identified as Integral Thinkers.

Not being a static model AQAL incorporates the idea of evolution as well so that people and cultures can develop through these quadrants in an ascending spiral. In fact, Wilber eventually incorporated another model called Spiral Dynamics which uses colors to designate different stages of development in our consciousness. I figure some Objectivists blanch at this New Age sounding jargon but I believe both the AQAL and Spiral Dynamics (SD) models have some validity and explanatory power. I encourage anyone interested in exploring these ideas to check out these web sites.

If I may digress here is what I mean by explanatory power of SD. But first a little background. The SD model uses colors to describe each stage of evolutionary development. I want to focus on three of the most recent stages: Blue, Orange and Green. Or. as Stephen McIntosh another Integral author calls them, traditional, modern and postmodern. By traditional (or Blue) we refer to those who value law and order, the market as a governing and disciplining device, belief in God-given rights, religion providing moral order, etc. Blue represents the traditional Republican or conservative.

Orange applies to the Enlightenment mentality: individualism, achievement-oriented, free market as an expression of individuality, reason and science, order is inherent within nature, not imposed by God. Obviously, many libertarians and Objectivists fall into Orange.

Green describes the modern liberal with their belief in egalitarianism, anti-hierarchy, freedom of expression and a concern with the have-nots.

As you can see Blue and Green are more collective oriented while Orange favors the individual. I think it also becomes clear why there is a constant tension in the alliance of traditional Blue conservatives and the modern Orange libertarians and Objectivists. What little common ground they share is constantly threatened by their fundamentally different worldviews. They share a common antipathy for the modern liberal.

You might balk at the idea that in the SD model Green liberals are deemed as more evolved in this scheme. I share this reservation to a degree but ultimately agree for reasons I won't cover now. Wilber too doesn't say that the Green stage is the be-all and end-all. In fact he refers to this level as the "mean Green meme" and wrote a novel titled "Boomeritis" (referring to the excesses of the Green stage) because, despite their kumbaya message, the Greens judge people in other levels just as harshly as conservatives and Objectivists, deny any validity of the earlier stages (thereby undercutting the foundation upon which their stage depends -- which postmodernism carried to the extreme) and suppress debate through political correctness. Worse, they prevent further development beyond Green to what Wilber calls the "second tier" of thinking that incorporates the healthiest parts of the previous levels while jettisoning the unhealthy. Just like every other stage, Green believes they are the most advanced stage of consciousness.

In any case there is a LOT more to AQAL and SD than I can cover or do justice to here. I encourage anyone interested in checking out Wilber's books and the related web sites. I feel I have benefited from their ideas and believe you would too.

Monday, April 27, 2009

From the same star: reflections on our common roots

When I visited my mother recently she played an album, Vom selben Stern (From the same star), by a German group called Ich + Ich. While it has some catchy tunes, I especially like the title song for the thought behind it: that we’re all made from the same ashes of a former star, that we all share a common heritage going back much further than whether we evolved from apes. This idea has intrigued me for years. The chemicals that we are made of couldn’t have come from the cloud of gases that formed the Sun because the heavier elements like carbon, iron, oxygen, and etc. form only within stars that are much older. I’m sure I’m not doing this justice but stars go through cycles. Once they burn up most of their hydrogen the star collapses because the pressure exerted by the fusion reactions decreases, allowing the star’s gravity to temporarily win the battle. As the star collapses the pressure in the interior increases until it is high enough to start a self-sustaining fusion reaction of the heavier elements. This process continues until the star runs out of fuel. For smaller stars like ours it eventually turns into a cinder called a dwarf star. For a large star which generates larger gravitational pressure it can actually turn into a nova. The catastrophic increase in pressure tears the star asunder, spewing out the heavy elements that formed in its interior. Billions of years ago a star died, releasing it elements which were then captured by the Sun’s gravity to form the earth and the other planets. (See this entry on stellar evolution.)

This means we’re made of remnants of a star that died billions of years ago. In addition the earth is in a narrow band from the Sun in which the temperature is just right: much closer and the water would boil away, much further away and the water would freeze. (Some call this the Goldilocks Effect.)

I find this fascinating and amazing. Whether earth, life and consciousness are the result of design or of accidental clumping of chemicals the bottom line is the same: the staggering complexity of life and the formation of consciousness is a miracle.

I think if we kept this in mind we might look at life and our fellow humans a bit differently. I’m not saying that we’re a meaningless speck floating in the cosmos. On the contrary, we’re incredibly, marvelously complex creations with the capacity for self-reflection. I’m also not saying that we should accept people regardless of their beliefs and their actions. What I am saying is that we start with the premise that all of us are miracles and share this common incredible history.

When I see Objectivists smugly dismissing religious beliefs or arguments about Intelligent Design they take the easy cases: the fundamentalists who argue from pure faith. I believe Objectivists need to acknowledge that some religious people are driven by a deep dissatisfaction for the explanation of how stardust self-assembled into life. I’m sure some religious folks are motivated by whim worship, as Rand would have put it. However, from my own experience many have concluded there is a God based on what they believe is evidence, not blind faith. At the very least I feel we need to acknowledge -- and even have awe for -- the amazingly complexity of life.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Talent is Overrated Review

This topic doesn't directly relate to Objectivism but I found it interesting nonetheless. Most of believe some people “have it” and some people don’t. What the people “have” is talent. Gobs and gobs of talent that allows them to be world class level competitors. People like Tiger Woods or Alex Rodriquez. CEOs like GE’s Jack Welch. Many of us believe that these people come into this world equipped with talent that allows them to beat the competition and that we who don’t have it will never be able to reach these lofty heights of achievement.

Geoff Colvin disputes this in Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. He claims that the top performers in sports, business, the arts and other areas share something in common: the use of “deliberate practice.”

  • The gifts possessed by the best performers are not at all what we think they are.
  • Even the general abilities … are not what we think.
  • The factor that seems to explain the most about great performance is something the researchers call deliberate practice.
  • Most organizations are terrible at applying the principles of great performance.

What is deliberate practice? The elements are, as Colvin explains.

It is actively designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help. Identify elements that need to be improved then work intently on them. It can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally; … and it isn’t much fun. … We insistently seek out what we’re not good at. Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over.

Speaking personally, I heard about the concept of deliberate practice in my research on soccer coaching in which I stumbled upon an article on the subject. I applied the concept to tennis, my sport of choice. By working diligently on my weaknesses (primarily the serve) I have been able to transform my serve from a liability into a weapon.

Colvin also addresses another misconception. We’ve heard many times that we with repetition we’ll get to the point where we don’t have to think what we’re doing. While it is true we can automatize complicated movements to the point where we no longer have to consciously guiding these movements. In fact, we can thwart smooth performance by thinking too much. However Colvin shows that:

Great performers never allow themselves to reach the automatic, arrested development stage in their chose field. … Ultimately the performance is always conscious and controlled, not automatic.

In other words, top performers maintain a constant awareness of whether their actions are producing desired results. When these results don’t occur, they modify what they are doing to improve their results and use this input to refine the design of their deliberate practice.

In addition to being constantly aware of what they are doing, top performers perceive more. How?

  • They understand the significance of indicators that average performers don’t even notice.
  • They look further ahead.
  • They know more from seeing less.
  • They make finer discriminations than average performers.

And top performers “had more knowledge about their field.” They “have better organized and consolidated their knowledge, enabling them to approach problems in fundamentally different and more useful ways.”

In addition to explaining how top performers use deliberate practice to distance themselves from their competitors Colvin shows how we can use the same principles in our own lives.

They approach the job with more specific goals and strategies, since their previous experience was essentially a test of specific goals and strategies; and they’re more likely to believe in their own efficacy because their detailed analysis of their own performance is more effective than the vague, unfocused analysis of average performers. Thus their well-founded belief in their own effectiveness helps give them the crucial motivation to press on, powering a self-reinforcing cycle.

Finally, Colvin explores the role of two kinds of drive: intrinsic and extrinsic. According to his research creative people focus on the task (How can I solve this problem?) and not on themselves (What will solving this problem do for me?). This is an example of intrinsic motivation, being driven from within. Extrinsic motivation on the other hand depends on outside factors like rewards or penalties.

Does Colvin argue that extrinsic motivation plays no role? No.

Extrinsic motivators that reinforce intrinsic motivation could work quite effectively. Like what? Recognition that confirms competence turned out to be effective. … ‘constructive, nonthreatening, and work-focused rather than person-focused,’ in Amabile’s words. That is, feedback that helped a person do what he or she felt compelled to do was effective.”

Feedback from coaches and teachers focused on the task and doing it better.

Lastly Colvin reveals that the majority of childhood prodigies don’t grow up to be top performers and that top performers are rarely child prodigies. This gives us hope for improving how we perform. “[B]y understanding how a few become great, anyone can become better.”

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Success Trap

The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living is one of my favorite "self-help" books. (Reviewed here on November 6, 2008.) After reading it I signed up for the newsletter issued by Russ Harris. The latest one contains some interesting comments on the "success trap."

The “Success” Trap 
What does the word “success” mean to you? When you hear “She is very successful” or “He’s made a success of himself” what does that conjure up for you? Our society generally defines success in terms of achieving goals: fame, wealth, status, respect; a big house, a luxury car, a prestigious job, a huge salary. When people achieve these things, our society tends to label them as “successful”. But if we buy into this popular notion of success, we set ourselves up for a lot of unnecessary suffering. 
How so? Well, this view of success inevitably pulls us into the goal-focused life - always striving to achieve the next goal: more money, larger house, better neighborhood, smarter clothes, slimmer body, bigger muscles, whiter teeth etc. And the illusion is, “When I achieve this, then I will finally be successful”. And of course, the corollary of that is “When I am successful, I will be happy.” The problem is: a) we may never achieve those goals, or they may be a long way off – which leads to chronic frustration and disappointment; and b) even if we do achieve them, they will not give us lasting happiness; usually they give us a brief moment of pleasure, satisfaction, joy – and then, we are focusing on the next goal. 
Furthermore, if you buy into this notion of success, it will put you under tremendous pressure - because you have to keep on achieving and achieving to maintain it. As long as you keep achieving those goals, then you are successful - ‘a winner’, ‘a high-achiever’. But if you stop achieving, then you are no longer successful; you are a ‘has-been’, or ‘a failure’ or ‘a loser’. It is this popular notion of success that leads to the widespread issue of “fragile self-esteem”. Fragile self-esteem is very common in high-performing professionals. These high-achievers often develop a strong positive self-image based on their performance. So as long as they perform well, they have high self-esteem. But as soon as their performance drops, their self-esteem comes tumbling down: from ‘winner’ to ‘loser’, from ‘high-achiever’ to ‘failure’. 

In The Happiness Trap, I suggested an alternative definition of success: success means living by your values. If we redefine success in this way, it makes life so much easier – because in any moment, we can act on our values – even though our goals may be a long way off. Suppose you want to change career and become a cardiac surgeon – well, you are looking at a minimum of ten years of your life before you can achieve this goal. That’s a long time. But suppose the core value underlying that goal is to help others. Well, you can act on that value over and over and over, all day, every day for the rest of your life – even if you never become a cardiac surgeon. 

By the conventional notion of success, Martin Luther King was not successful: he did not achieve his goal of equal rights for people of all skin colors. And yet – we remember, admire and respect him. Why? Because he stood for something: he lived by his values! And when living by our values becomes the definition of success, it means we can be instantly successful right now. All we need to do is act on our values. From this perspective, the mother who gives up her career to act on her values around nurturing and supporting her children is far more successful than the CEO who earns millions but completely neglects his values around being there for his kids. 

Albert Einstein put it this way: ‘Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.’ 

And Helen Keller put it like this: ‘I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.’ 

So next time your mind is beating you up for not being successful enough, try saying ‘Thanks mind!’ And then ask yourself ‘What’s a tiny little thing I can do right now, that’s consistent with my values?’ Then go ahead, and do it. And therein lies the secret of ‘instant success’. 

Friday, March 6, 2009

Clash of Liberals, Conservatives and Libertarians: A Different View

I’m mentioned Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis as one of my favorite books. He has written a thought provoking artile titled Obama’s moral majority. Haidt, a self-avowed political liberal, does something you rarely see on either side of the fence: admit the other side has some merit. In his article Haidt offers Obama advice on bridging the divide between Left and Right. He makes the following point:

First idea: use all five moral senses. A scientific consensus is emerging that human moral psychology was shaped by multiple evolutionary forces and that our minds therefore detect many—sometimes conflicting—properties of social situations. The two best studied moral senses pertain to harm (including our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness (including anger at injustice). You can travel the world but you won't find a human culture that doesn't notice and care about harm and fairness.

Political conservatives in the US, Britain and many other nations value three additional sets of moral concerns. Like liberals, they care about harm and fairness, but they care more than liberals about loyalty to the in-group (which political party cares most about flags and borders?), authority (which side demands respect for parents and teachers?) and spiritual purity (which side most wants to restrict homosexuality and drug use?). It's as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning. (My research colleagues and I have not just plucked these "senses" from the air; they emerged from a review of both evolutionary and anthropological theory, and were tested in internet surveys, face-to-face interviews and even in the decoding of religious sermons.)

This hypothesis doesn't mean that liberals are wrong or defective, but it does mean that they often have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa. Liberals tend to relate most moral issues to potential harms and injustices. They therefore can't understand why anyone—including the majority of Americans—would oppose gay marriage, for example, because legalising gay marriage would hurt nobody and end an injustice. Arguments about the sanctity of marriage or the authority of tradition sound like empty words sent out to cover irrational homophobia. But the culture war is not primarily a disagreement about what's harmful or fair; it is better described as a battle between two visions of the ideal society, one that is designed to appeal to two moral senses, the other designed to appeal to five.

Personally, I believe Haidt (and others) project too much hope in Obama’s ability to transcend party political lines. Based on what I’ve seen he has abandoned his message of hope and has resorted to more traditional party line politics.

I also believe there is another plausible theroy to expplain the differences in how conservatives, liberals and libertarians look at the world ethically. In reading Ken Wilber I became aware of Spiral Dynamics, a model for classifying worldviews based on stages of mental and spiritual evolution. Just as humans as a species have evolved over time, individual humans evolve through stages as they mature. Spiral Dynamics stems from the research conducted by Clare W. Graves, a professor of psychology who originally developed a model based on his research. Don Beck and Chris Cowan expanded on Graves’ work and added colors as a shorthand way to identify the different stages of evolution, which is explained in their book, Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change.

The Spiral Dynamics model has 8 colors divided into two “tiers” but I’d like to focus on three colors that are contiguous with each other: blue, orange and green. Blue (also called “Traditional” by Stephen McIntosh) feels there is a Higher Power (typically God) that punishes evil and rewards the good. Blue values stability and order which is accomplished by obeying higher authorities and their rules. Traditional Republicans and conservatives are Blue.

Orange (or “Modern”) emphasize the individual and feel succesful living consists of competing to achieve results. They believe the free market best rewards individuals for their efforts. Libertarians and Objectivists typify Orange. They often form an uneasy alliance with Blue Republicans who also support the free market, sometimes reluctantly because of its inherent appeal to self-interest. Traditionalists support the market because it disciplines businessmen and individuals to pursue not just their own personal interests but “the public interest”. While Blue cherish tradition Orange values individual achievement and freedom. (Ayn Rand is an archetypical Orange which probably partially explains her antipathy for traditional conservatives.)

Green (“Postmodern”) believe humans find love and purpose through affiliation and sharing. Green is more egalitarian, relativistic and collectivist. They also oppose the hierarchies, believing that there are no “higher” or “lower” levels. As a result Green look down on Blue and Orange as inferior. All three levels look at each other as if they’re from another world. In a sense they are: different worldviews each with its own value system. Wilber has written about the “Mean Green Meme” because it reduces morality to one dimension. Or as Haidt writes, they strip out two of the 5 moral dimensions and discard the rest. A healthy Green integrates the best aspects of Blue and Orange.

For more description of the various colors see

I know this system might sound a bit New Agey but as I have read and apply this model I believe it has some merit. I think it does help expplain why we see liberals, conservatives and libertarians constrantly talking past each other without making headway. As Ken Wilber would say, Green is not superior to Blue or Orange. A healthy Green honors and incorporates the healthy aspects of Blue (the objective need for rules such as law and order, traditions, etc.) and Orange (individualism, reason, self-interest). There is much more than I can cover here. I encourage anyone interested to the links provided above as well as the work of Ken Wilber. (See also Wilber’s original piece on his quadrants model, which I hope to discuss here in a future entry.)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Examples of thinking objectively

I’ve provided suggestions in earlier posts about thinking objectively. Here are two more examples or resources. The first is a web page that features a series of debates on various topics in many different subjects, not politics. It is Intelligence Squared.

The other isn’t so much a resource as an example: Camille Paglia. She also writes a regular column on If you’re not familiar with Camille she is University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and a feisty author who, according to Wikipedia, “is an intellectual of many seeming contradictions: an atheist who respects religion and a classicist who champions art both high and low, with a view that human nature has an inherently dangerous Dionysian aspect, especially the wilder, darker sides of human sexuality. She favors a curriculum grounded in comparative religion, art history and the literary canon, with a greater emphasis on facts in the teaching of history. She came to public attention in 1990, with the publication of her first book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.”

To me the inability to pigeonhole Paglia into neat political or ideological cubbies suggests that she thinks independently and maybe objectively as well. I say this because Paglia is willing to give credit, where she thinks it is due, to those on the other side of the political fence from her rather than dismissing opposing viewpoints with a knee jerk reaction that is all too typical and prevalent on both sides. Even when I don’t agree with Paglia I nonetheless love reading her entertaining, vivid writing style. I wish I were half the writer she is. Check her out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Folk Concept of Happiness

Early in The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being, the author Daniel W. Haybron makes a comment about folk concepts of happiness.

For the most part, folk concepts gain currency and persist because they denote matters of broad and lasting concern. They have been vetted in the crucible of many people’s experience, and we use them because, in some sense, they work for us. One reason they work for us is that human beings are extraordinarily discerning intuitive distinction makers; on a continual basis, we instinctively and implicitly respond to a vast array of important distinctions, most of which we cannot even begin to make explicit. Consider how richly any normal person is attuned to the countless non-verbal cues offered by her conversational partners. Think of how often one person will sense something wrong or inappropriate with another’s behavior or demeanor without being able to say just what it is. And as any ethics instructor knows, people’s sensitivity to values far outstrips their ability to articulate them.

I quote this because I believe folk concepts get short shrift in Objectivist literature. (I think there also is a strong distrust for implicit distinctions.) While Haybron doesn’t elaborate on other folk concepts I think they would include common sense, fairness, and the importance of valuing family and friendships in addition to career goals.

This is not to say that all folk concepts and traditions are healthy or life affirming. While I’m no expert on the subject or on folk concepts in different cultures I’m sure we could find plenty of examples that thwart happiness and well-being. However this doesn’t mean we can chuck all folk concepts as worthless or harmful.

The Pursuit of Unhappiness

A lot of my reading centers on well-being and living a good life. In this vein I just started reading The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being, by Daniel W. Haybron. He makes a distinction between the approach the ancient Greeks took toward happiness and well-being versus that of the Enlightenment that I have not encountered before. I feel it is worth highlighting this difference before finishing the book. I plan to write a review after reading it. Below are several key quotes from early in the book. (Note these quotes are not contiguous.)

The ancients apparently took it as a given that individuals are not, in general, authorities about their own welfare. Quite opposite: most ancient philosophers followed Socrates’ lead in distinguishing ‘the many’ and ‘the wise,’ with the former and much larger class being, basically dolts. Aristotle notoriously maintained that some of us are so ill-fitted for self-governance that we are better off enslaved, with masters to look after us.

The spirit of modernity is rather different. Inspired by Enlightenment optimism about the individual’s powers of reason and self-government, modern liberals tend to believe in one or another form of the sovereignty or authority of the individual in matters of personal welfare: by and large, people know what’s best for them, and tend to act rationally in the promotion of their interests.

But what if it turns out that people don’t have this kind of authority? What if they frequently and predictably make serious mistakes about what matters in life, act irrationally, or otherwise err in ways that undercut their prospects for well-being? What if, as a result, they tend to botch their lives at an alarmingly high rate, in many cases being unwitting pursuers of unhappiness?

The central thesis of this book is that people probably do not enjoy a high degree of authority or competence in matters of personal welfare.

I’m sure the rest of The Pursuit of Unhappiness will flesh out the empirical case for Haybron’s thesis. I’ve read other books that report results of various studies which reveal the inability of the average person to recognize the effects of genetics, temperament, and subjectivity on decision-making. To me these findings don’t prove it is impossible to be objective, just that it’s work. Sometimes it’s hard work!

In any case, I’ll write more on this interesting book when I’ve finished it. Wanted to throw out these quotes as thought provokers.