To borrow a metaphor from the philosopher of science Ronald Giere, theories are like maps: the test of a map lies not in arbitrarily checking random points but in whether people find it useful to get somewhere. (From Overcoming Physics Envy, by Kevin A . Clarke and David M. Primo, published 3/30/2012 in the New York Times.)
I have found Moral Foundations Theory profoundly helpful in “getting me somewhere” in understanding some of the conflicts I have found myself, quite unexpectedly, engaged in. I am grateful for this book and this discussion. Jonathan Haidt, even when not promoting a book, seems laudably generous with his time and knowledge, and at the moment he seems everywhere at once.
I am finding myself troubled by a couple of things, and some of it comes up somewhat in the very long discussion between Haidt and Robert Wright I link to above. Haidt uses the term “sacralization” quite a bit to describe all manner of objects and people that groups elevate to help bind themselves, and then the phrase “follow the sacredness” which I find useful, is also prevalent. But then the liberal moral viewpoint is described, broadly, as not engaging the Sanctity, Loyalty or Authority foundations. Though the book treats it a bit more subtly, by connecting the liberal moral viewpoint to Sanctity, Loyalty and Authority with “thin” lines, when discussing Moral Foundation Theory, the generalization comes up repeatedly that liberals don’t engage these foundations and conservatives do. I find it very problematic differentiating the liberal moral viewpoint (and the brain that holds it) as unique in not engaging the moral foundations that are regularly described as essentially maladaptive: racist, homophobic, xenophobic, tribal, and the source of violence. If those of the liberal viewpoint could begin to see how they do engage these foundations, they might begin to understand reality as others experience it.
I find this creating a special case for the liberal viewpoint problematic for all three “binding” foundations, but I will focus on the Sanctity foundation. In the discussions using sacralization, and sacredness, the argument seems to be that the liberal moral viewpoint sacralizes primarily via the Care/Harm foundation. I agree that this is how they would be most comfortable framing it for themselves. But if we are talking about “underlying psychological foundations” which I think we are, why would they not engage the Sanctity foundation to actually sacralize, or once something was sacralized?
Robert Wright tries to tease something of this out with the discussion toward the end that resolves to a distinction between theistic versus secular religion. But if one is talking secular religion, how is it that it essentially doesn’t engage the Sanctity foundation? Or how is it that people with the liberal moral viewpoint didn’t get that particular piece of the psychological foundation, but still sacralize and circle around sacralized objects and people? The terms that keep coming to mind, that seem to me to signal Sanctity, are accusations of “heresy” and then “shunning” that have regularly occurred in liberal moral communities, like academia.
Haidt’s “morality binds and blinds” seems to me to explain the lack of outward acknowledgement of sanctity by the liberal moral viewpoint: it has been determined that the conservative use of sanctity is immoral, and therefore those of the liberal viewpoint have blinded themselves to the ways they engage this moral foundation. In particular, many of the liberal viewpoint view organized religion and religiosity as at least problematic and probably fundamentally immoral, so anything that would seem to tie them to that would be repulsive.
But there are things those of the liberal moral viewpoint can’t discuss, heresies, and things that if discussed result in someone being ostracized, shunning. I have seen liberals refuse to read a book and trying to make sure others didn’t, using language that brought to mind the idea that they might be contaminated by the idea. It seems to me these things should, functionally, be part of the Sanctity foundation, even if what is considered sacred is so very different. The Righteous Mind mentions purity issues around food and “cleanses,” as well as nature sanctification, that some of the liberal moral viewpoint engage, as qualifying as a “thin” application by liberals of Sanctity foundation within this theory. If there is secular and theistic religion, why isn’t there equivalent secular and theistic Sanctity?
I think the disgust mechanism is ideal for setting boundaries around Sanctity as a moral foundation. Elsewhere, Haidt, Rozen and MacCauley have done a thorough job defending sociomoral disgust as “real” disgust, and equating disgust with “the emotion elicited by violations of the ethics of divinity, the guardian of the sanctity of the soul as well as purity of the body.” Poetical and seeming to make my argument for me, but not. It is pretty clear Haidt does not see the disgust liberals experience as invoking the Sanctity foundation. Liberals get a pass on the moral foundations of Sanctity, Loyalty and Authority. Only the fuddy-duddy conservatives play in those tainted pool.
This delineation contributes to a concept that seems to be spreading that those who hold the liberal moral viewpoint are actually more genetically evolved, and hence superior, to those who hold the conservative moral viewpoint. For William Saletan’s review of The Righteous Mind, he closes with: “Our taste for sanctity or authority, like our taste for sugar, could turn out to be a dangerous relic. But Haidt is right that we must learn what we have been, even if our nature is to transcend it.” Perhaps I am paranoid, but I can’t help seeing that, since liberals are seemingly free of a taste for sanctity or authority, then conservatives and conservatism are the “dangerous relic” and a moral viewpoint that must be transcended. I can easily see liberals holding that belief. It would suit their heroic ideal of progressivism perfectly. Unfortunately, what I think Haidt is tryingto argue in his book is that liberals are the yin to conservatives’ yang. Saletan doesn’t seem to get there.
Similarly, some members of the press (with more than a little schadenfreude) continue to report that conservatives experience more disgust, and bemoan the impossibilities of them negotiating with the liberals they find so disgusting. It is a grave error to exclude sociomoral disgust from discussions of disgust. It leaves the layperson with the impression that conservatives experience disgust and liberals do not, when what conservatives experience is more core disgust (as Haidt, Rozin and MacCauley term it), but both conservatives and liberals have plenty of moral disgust. But it is also old news.
“People who are sensitive to one type of disgust are not necessarily sensitive to another,” he said. For example, he [Joshua Tybur of VU University in Amsterdam] said, earlier claims that political conservatives (self-identified) were more sensitive than liberals to disgust were overly general. Research that he and his colleagues did suggested that conservatives were more disgusted by sexual topics, but were similar to liberals in the domains of disease avoidance and moral judgment. (‘Survival’s Ick Factor,’ James Gorman, New York Times, 1/23/2012)
Distinctions like negative and positive liberty, fairness as proportionality versus equality, and other adjustments that have developed Moral Foundation Theory, are important in accurately describing the differing moral viewpoints. I think there are such distinctions to be discovered in the Sanctity, Loyalty and Authority Foundations, once they are looked at a little differently.
And in the end, it seems to me, much of the culture wars come down to concern about who is going to be shunned (or who is disgusting) and everyone trying to make sure it is not them.