Not My Science of Morality

Notre Dame Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez mutters the obvious about the Edge Foundation conference and its consensus statement on the science of morality: Can a bunch of white guys, experimenting on inexperienced college students REALLY figure out how humans being make morality?

Her answer is an irritated “no.” I share her concerns and thank her for raising them. I also noticed that the signature of the only woman who presented at the conference, New York University’s Elizabeth Phelps, is missing from the census statement.

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8 Responses to Not My Science of Morality

  1. Darrell Icenogle says:

    Hmmm… That is surprisingly intemperate and sexist, Diane.

    You might also have noted that Elizabeth Phelps begins her own presentation with “My research is not in morality and moral reasoning… my research is in emotion.” In other words, she very possibly doesn’t feel qualified to endorse such a statement.

    The article written by Darcia Narvaez appears to be from the perspective of someone who neither watched/read the presentations or read further into the works of the signatory authors, because many of the concerns she raises were specifically addressed.

    The WEIRD bias (Western Educated Industrialized European Democratic) was addressed by several of the speakers, and Jonathan Haidt, who by your comment yesterday seems most offensive to you, does a great deal of cross-cultural work. When he uses college students, he admits to the non-representativeness of the sample. The Moral Foundations work, specifically, is based on a large, cross-cultural sample. The consensus statement signatories are cross-disciplinary, which to me is impressive.

    At this point, her attack is ad hominem, and by extension so is yours. It would have been better for her to take one or more of the consensus points and address them specifically. As it is, she stands suspect of simply having her own agenda challenged.

  2. dianesilver says:

    Here’s the problem with communicating via the web instead of face to face. If we were chatting, I could provide you with immediate feedback and you could do the same for me. Since we’re doing this online, it’s easy for us to misunderstand and pop off, so let’s take a deep breath and make certain we can hear each other. I have several responses to you comment.

    First, I think it’s my responsibility as the proprietor of a blog to post criticisms of any material that I promote on this blog. For that reason alone, I thought it was important to post another psychologist’s critique of the Edge Foundation conference. Narvaez isn’t a fringe figure. She’s a scientist who publishes in peer reviewed journals. Her critique should be heard.

    Also, when I first went to the Edge Conference website I noted the nearly total lack of diversity of its participants. The only diversity, in fact, is Elizabeth Phelps. I didn’t comment on that at the time because I was rushing to understand a field of science I previously knew nothing about.

    However, it is undeniable that the conference was limited in its participants, and therefore, runs the risk of providing a limited perspective. I don’t know why the conference was limited, and right now, I don’t care. (That’s an issue that may need to be discussed in the future, but not today.)

    Lack of diversity has scientific implications. This is such a key problem that Haidt discusses the necessity for diversity in his presentation, as you noted. And by the way, I loved his presentation about the WEIRD bias.

    I’m not saying that Edge purposely kept out scientists who are women or people of color. But the fact that the conference participants were so limited may well have constrained the perspective the conference presents. To state the fact that the conference reported on science performed by white males is not to be sexist. It’s merely to state a fact and to worry that this may be skewing its results.

    Personally, I celebrate anyone of any gender, any race, any ethnicity, any sexual orientation who studies and/or ponders issues of morality or goodness. I don’t see it as an attack on the conference participants or organizers to state their limitations.

    Also, I’m sorry you misunderstood my comment yesterday about Haidt’s work. I don’t find his work offensive at all. I find it challenging, uplifting and enormously helpful in my own search for goodness. Haidt enables me to begin the nearly impossible task of seeing through the eyes of people who are very different than I am. That’s delightful, not offensive!

    If you want to talk more about my response to Haidt’s work and to your comment on yesterday’s post, why don’t we take that conversation over to Another Person’s Goodness? (This comment of mine is already getting very, very long!)

    I agree with you that Narvaez’ post seems uninformed about some of the conference presentations. I also didn’t see how the points she arguments she made raised were contradicted by the conference’s consensus statement. That’s a point I made in a comment I posted on her blog. (I haven’t received a reply from her yet). However, I was rushing to post this morning and failed to make that point in my post. That turns out to have been not so smart on my part.

    You are also right that Phelps talked about how her research focused on emotion and not morality. She may well have felt that she was not in a position to sign the consensus statement, but neither Phelps nor the conference provide any explanation (that I could find ) about why some folks signed the statement and some didn’t. In my post, I attempted to merely state that I had noted the absence of her signature. I didn’t want to draw a conclusion because I have no information on why she didn’t sign. However, I can see how my post could have been misunderstood on that point.

    I also failed to make a note of how the Moral Foundations work is based on cross cultural information, although I did make that point in detail in yesterday’s Another Person’s Goodness post. Yet again, let me say that was my goof. It certainly didn’t help with clear communication.

    But I do remain concerned — just as Haidt is — about limited perspectives. As always, I welcome your comments, Darrell, and I am so pleased you challenge me.

    Take care.

  3. Diversity matters and you (and Narvaez) are right to raise it. While I often find interesting ideas presented by the Edge Foundation — material that makes me think — I cannot help but notice that the vast majority of their participants are white men. I happen to very much respect the thinking of many people whose ideas are found there — Stewart Brand and Freeman Dyson come immediately to mind — but they’re leaving out a large number of really bright people who have things to say on their many topics. I can’t figure out why they don’t do something about that.

  4. dianesilver says:

    I’m trying to do too many things at once, and of course, left typos in that previous post.

    Ah, that’s supposed to be: several responses to YOUR comment.

    Ah, that supposed to be : I also didn’t see how the arguments she raised…

  5. Darrell Icenogle says:

    I’m sorry if I misunderstood your intent. I took your tone from “Notre Dame Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez mutters the obvious about the Edge Foundation conference…” That sounds very much you agreed with her, and that you share her irritation.

    You’re right about there not being any statements about 1) how the conference participants were chosen, or 2) why Elizabeth Phelps alone among all the participants didn’t sign. Given her clear intent to set her field of work apart from the others, it would be surprising to me had she chosen to sign it.

    I have known John Brockman for almost 30 years, and was a nearly subscriber to The Edge. My experience is that he tries to get the brightest lights he can find to talk about any given subject, and I suspect that’s what he did in this case. The fact that a woman was invited whose work is only tangentially related to the topic makes me suspect that Brockman, too, was concerned with the lack of diversity and did the best he could.

    Thanks for your gracious response.

  6. dianesilver says:

    Just to clarify: I do share Narvaez’ irritation at the limited perspectives provided. I worry about how these kinds of limitations skew science. If Haidt’s ideas about WEIRD have any validity at all, then one might also suspect/worry/grind one’s teeth about any scientific endeavor that lacks diversity. I don’t know John Brockman and mean no disrespect to him. I would be shocked beyond words if it were, in fact, true that the brightest lights on moral psychology were limited to this one subset of humanity. He may not know the other researchers who are pioneering this field, but they may well exist. I look forward to hearing from them another day. As always, I send you the best.

  7. Darrell Icenogle says:

    If you do find brighter lights, I’m looking for them, so please share…


  8. Pingback: On the Passing of Philippa Foot | In Search of Goodness

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