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Sam Harris’ TED video and the danger of liberal atheist moral absolutism

A fellow graduate student recently shared the below Sam Harris TED video with me and I was quite surprised at the premise of the talk. In it, Sam Harris gives a spirited defense of moral absolutism, the idea that there are objective truths about what we should and should not value. Below is the video.

Harris correctly observes that “the only people who seem to generally agree with me (Harris) and who think that there are right or wrong answers to moral questions are religious demagogues, of one form or another, and of course they think there are right and wrong answers to moral questions because they got these answers from a voice in a whirlwind, not because they made an intelligent analysis of the conditions of human and animal well-being…the demagogues are right about one thing, we need a universal conception of moral values.”

His conception of morality is remarkably close to the construct of moral absolutism vs. moral relativism, measured on the YourMorals.org site using agreement to statements like “Different types of moralities cannot be compared as to ‘rightness’” with agreement indicating more absolutism and disagreement indicating relativism. Harris also states that “It is possible for whole cultures to care about the wrong things….that reliably lead to human suffering.” The graphs I show below show that he is correct that moral absolutism among these groups does lead to human suffering…but it also leads to suffering when moral absolutism is supported by liberals and atheists.

Harris then spends much of the rest of the talk detailing how terrible things occur as a result of cultures that do not share his values. I am generally liberal and likely agree with Harris’ values, specifically the idea that morality is mostly about promoting the well-being of people. However, I do not believe that my values should be the values of other people as well. I have two main counters to this idea:

- Even the most liberal person can be made to consider ideas of morality outside of the idea of the greatest well-being possible.  For example, liberals believe in equity too, such that some people deserve more well-being than others. Jon Haidt’s brother-sister incest dilemma confounds both liberals and conservatives meaning that there is a universal ability to moralize disgust, even if it is less developed in some than others. Harm and well-being are not the only considerations.

- Moral absolutism generally leads to more human suffering, not less, as people fight great wars to enforce their vision of morality on others.  Consider the below 2 graphs of yourmorals data relating moral relativism, the opposite of absolutism, and attitudes toward war.

Moral Absolutism relates to Support for War across Religions

Moral Absolutism is related to Support for War - Across Political Groups

Moral absolutism is not just dangerous for the groups that Harris dislikes, but also for the liberal and atheist groups that he likely subscribes to as the slope of the regression line is negative in all cases, indicating that moral absolutism is positively related to support for war for liberals and conservatives, atheists and christians.

It may be easier to think of groups that cause wars out of excessive group orientation (e.g. Hutus vs. Tutsis) or excessive authoritarianism (e.g. Nazis)…but there are also groups that caused harm out of excessive concern for others’ well-being (e.g. The Weather Underground) or out of an excessive desire for social equality (e.g. the communist Khmer Rouge). Moral absolutism, believing that you are more right about morality than others, can be thought of as the first step toward hypermoralism, harming others in support of your moral principles. Human beings are already good at believing that our moral system is superior, with war sometimes as the consequence….instead or narrowing our conceptions of morality, we should be working to expand our moral imaginations.

- Ravi Iyer

What the positive psychology approach can learn from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided

As a liberal social psychologist who has helped create a science of positive psychology course at the University of Southern California, I could not help but be interested in Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Bright-Sided, which states how the positive psychology approach (in academia, business, health, and economics) has undermined America.  First, I would think we would have a lot in common given her unabashedly liberal bent and my generally liberal orientation.  The fact that an intelligent liberal person would be so upset by one of my primary chosen areas of research, and that enough others agree with her that a book got published, bears noting.  As well, one area that I’ve always been interested in researching is the idea of expanding our moral imagination.  Along the lines of Robert Wright’s idea that confrontational zero-sum situations lead to more misery in the world, it seems important that I practice what I hope to eventually preach and attempt to actually learn something from her book, rather than dismiss it.  For those of you who haven’t read the book, here is an entertaining interview that summarizes many points.

 

 

There are some definite points to agree upon in her interview and the book.  She was clearly negatively impacted by those who somewhat forcefully put forth the opinion that she should adopt the positive psychology approach given her cancer diagnosis.  ”The failure to think positively can weigh on a cancer patient like a second disease,” she writes (p.43).  Some people believe that there is a connection between having a positive attitude and cancer outcomes and Ehrenreich goes on to dispute this.  A review of the literature on health and happiness is beyond the scope of this post and really should be beyond the scope of her book, let alone the few pages she devotes to serious study of it.  She is a journalist not a scholar and she touches on only a brief part of this immense literature, with a lack of depth that would never work in a scholarly setting.  Her book does not have the kind of literature review that really can get at complexities and she seems to have relied on “a list of articles…compiled for me by Seligman” rather than doing her own in-depth research.  She ignores a large literature on stress as having no relationship to happiness research and intermixes research on the effects of feeling happy on cancer vs. other health outcomes.  People who study cancer and positive illusions agree that “there is no evidence that positive illusions can cure cancer,” but that is not the only health-happiness relationship worth studying.  Ehrenreich herself writes on p. 162 “The evidence that positive emotions can protect against coronary heart disease seems sturdier, although I am not in a position to evaluate it.”  It certainly is more complex than “being positive”=”being healthy”.  But the health-happiness relationship is also not as simplistically non-existent as she represents in her media interviews, and she is possibly doing harm to others by representing the research as simplistically (the very charge she levels at others).

That being said, positive psychologists and those they inspire likely were doing harm to her and others like her.  On page 42 of her book (my hardcover edition), she writes that “without question there is a problem when positive thinking fails and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment.  Then the patient can only blame herself.”  This is an important point that advocates of positivity should note.  It may work for some people, but it doesn’t work for everyone and if someone wants to be grumpy because they have cancer, they should feel supported in those feelings, not attacked.  As Ehrenreich puts it, “She took it personally.”  A more complex reading of the psychology literature would lead Ehrenreich and positive psychologists to the conclusion that acceptance of feelings (e.g. meditation) is important.  Perhaps some of the error lies in the idea that “positive psychology” is a separate discipline from psychology when in reality, there are no clear distinctions.

The fact that Ehrenreich is able to caricature positive psychology as “be positive” is unfortunate. It would be easy to place the blame on Ehrenreich for failing to dig much deeper than the works cited by Martin Seligman, who has his own detractors in academia.  But it is certainly true that positive psychology would do well to examine the ways that it can get it’s findings out without being so easy to caricature.  How was Ehrenreich so easily able to dismiss the robust research on stress and health?  Perhaps because positive psychology overly focuses on activated emotions such as joy rather than deactivated emotions such as contentment?  Or perhaps positive psychology needs to incorporate previous research on stress and not pretend that it is a completely new discipline?

Ehrenreich seems to have a particular concern about synthetic happiness vs. real happiness, feeling as she states in her interview with Stewart, “I never believe delusion is ok.”  In the personal realm, I have to side with positive psychologists as the evidence is overwhelming that circumstances matter less than we think in terms of our own happiness.  Human beings get used to things and those that don’t are who we call clinically depressed.  Dan Gilbert puts in best in this video:

 However, even if synthetic happiness is the same as real happiness, there are kernels of wisdom in Ehrenreich’s criticism.  Believing that one can synthesize money is different from changing one’s perspective toward money (e.g. being grateful for the comforts we have) and some new age interpretations of positivity are a bit ahead of the curve of what can be called science.  It is true that people are attracted to happy people, wanting to be around them in business environments, which likely leads to a link between happiness and wealth.  Ehrenreich acknowledges this, but calls this a bias that needs to be corrected.  That seems more like an opinion, as I think it’s reasonable for many to prefer the company of happy people, both in dating and in the workplace.  However, I can see how those who are naturally less positive might feel discriminated against or even feel like something is wrong with them as a result.

Positive psychology and spirituality is not for everybody.  Ehrenreich admits to being an atheist in her book (p.17 – “atheists pray in their foxholes”).  I, on the other hand, often attend a new age church where the preacher was actually in The Secret.  Still, I have always been uncomfortable with the idea that people use spiritual principles to manifest wealth, as many at my church believe, and instead choose to interpret wealth as meaning the inner wealth that we all have.  Getting off the treadmill which says we constantly need more money is the key to wealth, not having more stuff.  That’s my opinion, but  I don’t feel particularly upset that others around me might feel something different.  If you watch Stewart’s interview, you’ll notice that he tries to frame positivity similarly saying that if it works for other people, why does Ehrenreich have a problem with it?  Ehrenreich doesn’t give an inch.  The anger she feels for her cancer experience is palpable (and legible in her book).  Isn’t it just as wrong to try to force everyone to be ‘realistic’ (put in quotes as one person’s realism is another person’s delusion) as it is to force everyone to be positive?  I often write about moral confabulation in this blog and I would hypothesize that Ehrenreich’s moral outrage about positivity is somewhat more about her personal feelings than her research.  I say that not to dismiss her book, which gives voice to a very real sentiment shared by many, but rather to point out a very real hazard of the phenomenon of studying happiness.  Specifically, it can wound people when forced upon them and cause a great deal of psychological reactance.  Advocates of the science of studying happiness and the positive psychology approach to health maintenance would benefit from reading her book and learning about her perspective.  It’s not the only perspective, but it’s an important one to listen to.