I have just finished reading Jonathan Haidt’s new book Righteous Mind. I don’t think he left anything out. I think my kitchen sink was in there, with a Mr. Clean sparkle and shine to boot. Great book. Fabulous book.
As I have been since I first engaged Haidt’s work, I am just stuck on his Sanctity moral foundation and the theory that it is not being engaged much by those of the liberal moral viewpoint. This stuckness is walking hand in hand with my feeling that there is something wrong with the heavily-explored (and widely validated) theory that liberals feel less disgust. Haidt connects (correctly, I feel sure) disgust and sanctity via purity. When I review my own feelings, disgust feels like a primal, deep and extremely powerful basis for moral judgment. Rather than believing, as is widely posited, that conservatives feel disgust more strongly than liberals, it seems inescapable that, as human beings, liberals feel just as much disgust just about different things. I’m even going to make the prediction that it will some day be found that people who are more partisan experience more disgust, whatever their side of the aisle.
When I read the literature, I see that everyone is testing visceral disgust to a fairly similar range of stimuli: food impurity, sexual behavior. Things that I agree would disgust conservatives more. But what about sociomoral disgust? What about the revulsion a liberal person feels when someone makes a racist comment?
When the more partisan Democrats vent, I perceive they view Republicans with visceral disgust and conclude they are morally flawed and fundamentally evil people. Some partisan Democrats refuse to even read the writings of ideological “opponents,” a response I can’t help seeing as a concern over contamination. (They might, at some level, be wise to avoid reading the other viewpoint if they want to avoid developing sympathy for it—see note 1 below.)
I can’t help suspecting that there is real disgust for those of the liberal mind-set experience, but it is shifted to sociomoral disgust. This sort of disgust is something Jonathan Haidt might be addressing in his upcoming article “Nazis really are disgusting: Psychophysiological evidence for sociomoral disgust.” I can’t say for certain, as he lists it on his website but doesn’t offer it for reading. Sociomoral disgust seems very real to me, and important for balancing the discussion about moral differences between liberals and conservatives.
I did find this in Policing the Perimeter: Disgust and Purity in Democratic Debate by Rose McDermott and Peter Hatemi
Harris & Fiske (2006) found that individuals who are judged as both low warmth and low competence, such as drug addicts and homeless people, differentially elicited disgust. This work demonstrated greater activation in the insula and amygdala of subjects judging such individuals and less activation in the medial pre-frontal cortex (mPFC). This suggests that such individuals may be perceived as less human since judgment of disgusting objects similarly fails to activate the mPFC. (p. 15)
When I read “individuals who are judged as both low warmth and low competence, such as drug addicts and homeless people,” I can’t help thinking some people might consider Republicans and conservatives as low warmth and low competence. More broadly, though, this paper left me with the idea that since only conservatives experience disgust, they would engage in their politics with more vehemence. I just don’t think that is true, though I might know some liberals who would argue otherwise. Conservatives are more vehement on the topics that induce their disgust, I would agree. But it seems clear to me that liberals equal them in vehemence on the topics that induce their disgust.
I also feel real concern for the sense of superiority emanating from some popular reports on the conservative versus liberal differences. Reports of genetic difference end up sounding like conservatives are genetically inferior, throwbacks, less evolved. The “fact” that conservatives are less intelligent is widely circulated. These schadenfreude-evoking explorations fit too neatly with the liberal narrative of progress, with the investigators and their tribe neatly cast as the progress. The quote below is from a blog piece at the Guardian by Carol Jahme and was subtitled: What hope is there of rational debate if our political affiliations are biologically determined?
This new research suggests the rigidity and intolerance of right-wing people to nonconformity might be vehemently expressed because these people are obsessively intolerant of things they find different and aversive.
High scores in aversive behaviour also correlate with autistic spectrum disorders, narcissism and socio- and psychopathologies. People with a diagnosis along these lines also suffer increased perceptions of threat and sensations of disgust when compared to the average. More men than women exhibit these pathologies.
Toward the end of the piece, she offers these conclusions:
The research team hope that a greater social tolerance will emerge from public acceptance that our political outlook is in part biologically determined. Because if our individual cognitive and physiological systems mean we experience the world in fundamentally different ways, this helps to explain why people support different political parties when facing the same social problems.
But this research also suggests that when David Cameron and his ministers sit in the House of Commons and look over at the faces of the opposition they are more likely to experience a sense of threat and disgust than their political rivals do when looking back at them. It is going to be far harder for conservatives to bury the hatchet and cooperate for the good of the country than it is for the exasperated socialists on the other side of the chamber.
“The research team hope that a greater social tolerance will emerge from public acceptance that our political outlook is in part biologically determined.” Does it sound like Carol Jahme is responding to this information with greater tolerance? No. The conservatives are threatened and feel disgust; the liberals are “exasperated.” I am fully expecting someone to propose a pill to “cure” conservatism. Certainly there seems to be a longing to be able to train conservatives to be, um, not conservative, but rather tolerant and more open to new experience.
I don’t think the conflict is about Care: that liberals sacralize Caring and conservatives, while they care about Caring, don’t sacralize it or at least not as much. I think it is about Sanctity. I think it is because liberals sanctify different things than conservatives. If it is just about Care, then why does a student get reprimanded for carrying a book with a picture of someone in a KKK costume?
Many universities herd freshmen into sensitivity workshops that force them to confess to unconscious racism, and many more have speech codes (ruled unconstitutional whenever they have been challenged in court) that criminalize any opinion that may cause offense to a minority group. Some of the infractions for ‘racial harassment’ cross over into self-parody, as when a student at an Indiana university was convicted for reading a book on the defeat of the Ku Klux Klan because it featured a Klansman on the cover, and when a Brandeis professor was found guilty for mentioning the term wetback in a lecture on racism against Hispanics. (Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, p. 469)
Pinker lets them off the hook with a minimizing ‘self-parody’ judgment, but the level of unreasonableness violates almost anyone’s Fairness foundation. Haidt would say that racism has been sacralized. Sacralization without sanctification? I don’t know.
Haidt, by the way, doesn’t say that conservatism is a disease that should be cured, though his work is often cited by those who do get close to arguing that. He says we need each other, and illustrates ways in which liberals are yin to conservative (and libertarian) yang (Righteous Mind, p. 267-279). I agree with him on that wholeheartedly.
Conservatives seek to preserve, sometimes things that are worth preserving, sometimes not. Liberals seek to change, sometimes things that need changing, sometimes not. But one or the other is too much of a good thing. We need each other. Liberals can’t calibrate themselves. It must be worked out in committees that include conservatives. Conservatives can’t calibrate themselves either. Dissent is squashed. Both sides need to exist, with the entirety of their perspective intact, to argue it out. We need each other.
But back to the Sanctity foundation in Moral Foundation Theory.
6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
This definition is from the Moral Foundation theory website. I mean, I just see the liberal moral viewpoint all over the place. Wipe out “religious” and “notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way” sounds perfect for recycling, driving hybrids (or biking), buying recycled-paper products, gray water, and small footprint living in general. The body is a temple that should not be contaminated sounds like organic, locavore, and health cleanses. They would not much use overt sacred language, perhaps, but some, and I think the intent is there. Haidt also mentions sacralization of nature and health cleanses as falling under Sanctity (Righteous Mind, p. 145).
I think racist, misogynist, homophobic language (and people) mechanically, viscerally disgust liberals, though I have no proof of that, and Haidt does not (at this point) seem to see it that way. (I also think the labels “racist, misogynist and homophobe” are the liberal Loyalty version of “traitor and heretic,” but that is another issue.) But returning to the environment and sacralization of nature that Haidt does categorize under Sanctity, are those things minor for those of the liberal moral viewpoint? Not the ones I know.
The liberal moral viewpoint makes lifestyle choices centered around their sense of what is required to protect the environment and their own health, and they make dozens of decisions a day based on their concern for the environment. I think the liberals I know would invoke the Care foundation to describe their concerns about the environment, not Sanctity, but that this is a semantical issue showing their discomfort with words like “sanctity.” In fact, it seems to me nature is just seen as another victim (of humans). So why does this victim sacralization get to be under Sanctity and the others under Care? Because this is nature and the others involve people? What about animal-rights concerns? Haidt (rightly, to my way of thinking) firmly places liberal environmental concerns and liberal food purity concerns under Sanctity.
“The Sanctity foundation is used most heavily by the religious right, but it is also used on the spiritual left. You can see the foundation’s original impurity-avoidance function in New Age grocery stores, where you’ll find a variety of products that promise to cleanse you of “toxins.” And you’ll find the Sanctity foundation underlying some of the moral passions of the environmental movement. Many environmentalists revile industrialism, capitalism, and automobiles not just for the physical pollution they create but also for a more symbolic kind of pollution—a degradation of nature, and of humanity’s original nature, before it was corrupted by industrial capitalism.” Righteous Mind, p. 145.
That’s a good start, but I think it is part of the evidence that the Care foundation has been over-subscribed.
1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance. (Again, from the Moral Foundations Theory website.)
Could it be that the word “Sanctity” for one of the moral foundations is perhaps catching me up? The way Haidt uses the word “sacralized,” all kinds of things can be sacralized that don’t fit under the “Sanctity” heading. That feels confusing to me, and perhaps that is what is confusing me: a semantical distinction. Perhaps it would be more helpful for me to think more robustly about sacralization as a function of every moral system. Perhaps Haidt et al. should not use Sanctity as the name for that separate foundation. Perhaps the foundation should be called “Divinity” after all, after Shweder. But then that seems awkward and unsatisfying somehow, leaving Purity less emphasized.
I just keep going round and round on this.
In Righteous Mind, as he has elsewhere, Haidt argues that the liberal moral viewpoint doesn’t engage the “binding” foundations: Sanctity, Loyalty, Authority (Righteous Mind, p. 259). This failure to engage these foundations is one of the reasons, he believes, that liberals can’t “get” the conservative viewpoint, in fact they denigrate these moral foundations and see them as immoral. So what they end up “getting” is that conservatives are fundamentally immoral. But see, they believe they are immoral the way conservatives understand them. There I go again, I keep adding that part. I try to see it Haidt’s way, and then I always keep going.
Part of his argument in favor of this is that
In a study I did with Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than two thousand American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a ‘typical liberal’ would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a ‘typical conservative’ would respond… . The results were clear and consisten. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberal were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as ‘very liberal.’ The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with questions such as “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal’ or ‘Justice is the most important requirement for a society,’ liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree. (Righteous Mind, p. 259-260)
He goes on to explain how this means liberals don’t see how conservatives pursue the positive values of Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. I don’t know. It could mean liberals don’t understand how conservatives define Care and that they are repulsed by the conservative definitions of Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity.
Toward the end of the book, Haidt has a diagram with weak or thin lines for liberals attaching them to the binding foundations.
Liberals are often suspicious of appeals to loyalty, authority, and sanctity, although they don’t reject these intuitions in all cases (think of the sanctification of nature), so I drew those lines as thin, but still existing. Liberals have many specific values, but I think it’s helpful, for each group, to identify its most sacred value—the ‘third rail’ that will get you electrocuted if you touch it. For American liberals since the 1960s, I believe that the most sacred value is caring for victims of oppression. Anyone who blames such victims for their own problems or who displays or merely excuses prejudice against sacralized victim groups can expect a vehement tribal response. (Righteous Mind, p. 268)
He places victim sacralization under the Care foundation and says it is the most important moral foundation for liberals. For Libertarians, their most sacred value is liberty. That got its own foundation also, but that one makes sense to me. I don’t think restrictions to liberty evoke mechanical disgust. But I think Liberals do have disgust responses around victim sacralization that move it out of Care and into Sanctity.
When I tried to explain the conservative viewpoint on homosexual behavior with a friend, she felt revulsion and voluntarily described her sensation as disgust. I know, that is just one example of one self report, but what if victim sacralization is tied to the primal disgust response? Would that make it more correct to place it under the Sanctity heading? What if liberals do feel just as much disgust, but in response to moral questions related to sacralized victim groups and the desecration of nature? Sociomoral disgust, as mentioned above. What if they are, mechanically, viscerally, disgusted by racism and racist talk? Would that better explain the refusal to even read “tainted” authors like Charles Murray, and (once upon a time) E.O. Wilson? Herzog and Golden found that animal activists have a higher visceral disgust:
We found that animal activists were more prone to visceral disgust than members of groups that advocate the use of animals and individuals not aligned with animal-related causes.We also found that disgust sensitivity was positively correlated with proanimal welfare attitudes. In matters of morals, political conservatives are more concerned with purity than are liberals (Haidt & Graham, 2007). Consistent with this view, conservatives also tend to be disgust prone (Inbar, Pizarro, & Bloom, 2009). However, we found that animal activists—who as a group tend to be liberal—are also sensitive to disgust. In short, disgust is a moral emotion that can be associated with liberal as well as conservative causes. (Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 65, No. 3, 2009, pp. 485–498, Moral Emotions and Social Activism: The Case of Animal Rights, Harold A. Herzog∗ and Lauren L. Golden) (emphasis mine)
Every moral viewpoint has sacred objects, ideas, symbols, persons. Where these land in the moral foundations feels really nebulous with regards to the liberal moral viewpoint. Certainly liberals don’t have a weaker practice of sacralization, they feel as strongly about the desecration of things they have sacralized; they just downplay or even denigrate divinity.
Jonathan Haidt says, wisely I think, “Follow the sacredness.” But since those of the liberal moral viewpoint won’t use that sort of terminology, or at least not much, it has to be teased out and picked up by implication. Where a foundational key to the conservative moral viewpoint might be certainty, in the liberal moral viewpoint perhaps it could be plausible deniability or Pink Dandelion’s description of Liberal Quaker theology: the absolute perhaps. Where conservatives are energetic in articulating their moral foundations, liberals are perhaps a little more cagey. They may not feel a need to articulate it, and want to avoid the trap of certainty. They know it when they see it. And if you are one of them, you know it too.
And if you think, as I do, that one of the greatest unsolved mysteries is how people ever came together to form large cooperative societies, then you might take a special interest in the psychology of sacredness. Why do people so readily treat objects (flags, crosses), places (Mecca, a battlefield related to the birth of your nation), people (saints, heroes), and principles (liberty, fraternity, equality) as though they were of infinite value? Whatever its origins, the psychology of sacredness helps bind individuals into moral communities. When someone in a moral community desecrates one of the sacred pillars supporting the community, the reaction is sure to be swift, emotional, collective, and punitive. (Righteous Mind, p. 143)
If you moral matrix rests entirely on the Care and Fairness foundations, then it is hard to hear the sacred overtones in America’s unofficial motto: E pluribus unum (from many, one). By ‘sacred’ I mean the concept I introduced in the last chapter. It’s the ability to endow ideas, objects and events with infinite value, particularly those ideas, objects and events that bind a group together into a single entity. (Righteous Mind, p. 157)
Liberals have a psychology of sacredness. They sacralize objects (recycling), places (unspoiled nature), people (MLK) and principles (equality). They get binding sacred values; they have sacred pillars. They don’t talk about them that way, but that is how they function. As Haidt points out, they are deaf to any sacredness in the motto because they just don’t hold America sacred in much of any way, any more than they hold Christianity as sacred. I can’t help wondering if Liberals couldn’t be made to understand the conservative viewpoint better if what they did sacralize was set side by side with what Conservatives sacralize. Haidt did that in his book somewhat, suggesting mentally substituting a picture of MLK for the crucifix in urine of a controversial artwork to help those of the liberal viewpoint to access why that might be so distressing to someone.
But in the end, what I took away from this book was that what we need to talk about is what we agree on. Where we have our unity. Talking about difference, highlighting difference, is not the way to bind.
(Note 1) They might be right about that.
“Peter Singer has argued that over the course of history, people have enlarged the range of beings whose interests they value as they value their own. An interesting question is what inflated the empathy circle. And a good candidate is the expansion of literacy. Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point.” Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, P. 221.