The Iceberg Theory of Judgment

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I just finished reading Ian Morris’ Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels. It is well worth reading.

Morris’ thesis is that human values evolve based on a society’s ability to harness energy. Over human history, there have been three major eras of energy extracting ability – foraging, farming, and industry – and, according to Morris, each of these eras eventually selected the values that were best suited for the predominant mode of energy extraction.

Whether or not value changes were tied to modes of energy extraction, his argument that there have been three major eras of human values is supported by others, including Robin Hanson.

When you combine the “three value eras” theory, with Jonathan Haidt’s theory of the biological underpinnings of morality, with Kling’s “three axis” framework, with Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, you can begin to build what I’ll call the Iceberg Theory of Judgement.

I’m just trying to sort this theory out, so much is probably wrong (or not novel) about the Iceberg Theory of Judgement. But anyways, here goes.

As the picture above shows (and as common knowledge now holds), most of an iceberg is underwater.

You can’t see it.

So too with the drivers of our judgements.

The Iceberg that Exists Under the Water: Biology, Culture, Schema

Biology 

Haidt gives us a biological framework. According to him, humans are hardwired to make judgements on specific moral issues: harm, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and purity (Haidt notes that more moral foundations might be discovered). However, due to biological differences, some of us react more strongly to certain foundations than others. For example, conservatives tend to place more value on authority, while liberals place more value on fairness.

When you judge something, you are doing so based on your individual expression of our biological moral foundations – foundations which have been selected for over the history of humanity.

Culture

Your biology then interacts with the culture of the day. If Morris is correct, there have been three major human cultures, each of which was driven by the predominant mode of energy extraction. One could come up with other theories of why these cultures became dominant. One could also argue that these three cultures are too broad, that they mask too much real variation. This might be true. But, at any point, some culture exists, and your biology interacts with this external environment, and this creates your values.

When you judge something, you are doing so based on the values produced by the interaction of your biology and the culture of your time.

Schema

Kling’s Three Axis model gives a schema that explains how our current biology and culture interacts to produce filters by which we understand the world. Kling’s axis include: a civilization-barbariansim axis, a oppressor-oppressed axis, and a freedom-coersion axis. Broadly speaking, in our day conservatives see the world through the civilization-barbarianism axis, liberals through the oppressor-oppressed axis, and libertarians through the freedom-coersion axis.

When you judge something, you are doing so based on a schema that organizes the values that are born from your biological and cultural underpinnings.

The Iceberg that Exists Above the Water: What You Feel, What You Think 

What You Feel 

Once you process something through your schema, you get an emotion. Most of the time, we simply act on this emotion, using what Kahneman calls “System 1” thinking. While some might call this subconscious decision making, I put this type of thinking “above the water” because you are aware that you are feeling the emotion (whereas you are not naturally aware of your biology, culture, and schema).

When you judge something, you usually acting on an emotion that is produced by an idea being run through your schema, which organizes the values that are born from your biological and cultural underpinnings.

What You Think

In times of maximum deliberation and reflection, you use what Kahneman calls “System 2” thinking, which, in its purest form, bypasses both your schema and your emotions.

Of course, you are still making a judgement, and this judgement will be grounded in your biological and cultural context, but all shortcuts (schema, emotion) will be eliminated.

When you judge something with maximum reflection, you produce a judgement that is highly congruent to the fundamental values that have been produced by the interaction of your biology and the culture of your time.

In Sum

When you are judging someone, you are likely judging them because you emotionally reject the values produced by the interaction of their biology and culture.

In moments of maximum reflection, you are judging them because you have analytically determined that you reject the values produced by the interaction of their biology and their culture.

This is not to say that your moral judgements are of no use.

Rather, it’s to say that the sources of your judgement and the object of your derision are both born from the same fundamental process – most of which exists under the water line.

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