Liberal Purity

Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, implores all of us, but especially liberals, to try to expand our moral intuitions to include dimensions they might not have before. He categorizes the six relevant axes as: Care/Harm, Fairness/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion and Sanctity/degradation, and has found in his research that the last three don’t really resonate with liberals.

I wrote last time about what it might be like to try to make those qualities more morally relevant, and in thinking and reading about it (for instance my wonderful comments section), some weaknesses in Haidt’s theory have come to light. For instance, it seems that liberals do have glands for loyalty, authority and sanctity, though they take a different form than they do in conservative thought. And secondly, in my view, it is where liberals have these senses activated that their politics are worst. It is a very good thing to understand where others are coming from, but it is also a good thing to not assume that the most understanding view is the correct one.

Examples of Liberal Purity

  • Leah Libresco has discussed the way the Effective Altruism movement “can feel more like a “purity” decision than other modes of thought people have used to date”, in exactly Haidt’s sense. For those not familiar, Effective Altruism is a movement of people dedicated to doing the most good they can with their charitable dollars, and sometimes their whole lives. From a utilitarian standpoint, what that ends up meaning is that there is a maximally good thing you could be doing, and everything else is not that. In fact, utilitarianism itself, generally associated with liberalism because of its universalism (and to be fair to Haidt, its anti-authoritarianism and anti-tribalism), is generally going to lead to a purity ethic, since things are not just good, they are quantifiably good, and other things are usually better.
  • Environmentalism, similarly, advances “clean energy”, and speaks of coal companies not only as evil, but as disgusting, contrasting the pristine atmosphere with the black fumes belching from smokestacks.

Clean eating sadly doesn’t seem to involve a lot of cheesecake

  • Lefty spiritualism tends to make great use of the purity ethic; there is much talk of cleansing one’s self of toxins, and raw and non-meat foods are spoken of as cleaner than their alternatives (think “clean eating”). This is sometimes as narrowly applied to kale and quinoa, and sometimes as broad as not eating fast food or processed food. In either case, the higher, cleaner, greener things are purer than dirty, fatty, mass-produced food.
  • As in all political disputes, liberals speak of their opponents not only as wrong, but as disgusting. Bigotry and prejudice are dirty, and they tar anyone accused of them. This is by no means limited to liberals, but it certainly does not pass them by.

Perhaps in contradiction with Haidt’s hope that in understanding the moral foundations of one’s political opponents, we will all come a little closer together, it seems to me that these purity-based progressive communities come under some of the most fire from conservatives. Spiritualism and environmentalism are soundly mocked, and it might be precisely because they make use of the purity ethic. It’s one thing if liberals just don’t get the need for purity (they fail to recognize the decay of the social fabric, they have no respect for the sanctity of human life, etc.), but it might be all the worse if they claim to understand, only to get it drastically wrong. Heresy and false idols are sometimes worse than atheism.

One of the weaknesses of the purity ethic, as this showcases, is that it doesn’t allow much room for pluralism or diversity, since any step away from the highest and holiest is wrong and bad. It’s telling, for instance, that effective altruists may not want to be seen the way described above. And I wouldn’t either. The purity-based ideologies in liberalism are some of those I’m most embarrassed to see on my team. I think environmentalism is great, but if you sacralize the environment, it becomes impossible to make even beneficial trade-offs for other valuable things, like economic development that improves and saves lives. Environmentalism is at its best when it emphasizes the people hurt by climate change and polluted resources (care/harm), not when it makes you a disgusting person for not driving a Prius. Purity is a blinding force, making it harder, not easier, to compromise (as Haidt himself says, morality “binds and blinds.” Haidt wants liberals to understand purity, but when they do, they tend (as all humans do) to see themselves at the top of the scale and others, like conservatives, at the bottom. I think I’d prefer less purity-based thinking rather than more.

(Certainly, it is valuable to understand the sanctity ethic to be able to empathize and steelman and model other people’s minds better. But that might not be worth going so far as to weave that ethics further into our politcs).

The problem is, if you don’t sacralize anything, and everything is up for discussion, it’s much harder to form extremely cohesive, effective units. Haidt found, for instance, that religious experiments in communal living were about 6 times more effective than secular ones, even when the secular cause was based around shared ideas and beliefs. Furthermore, the more sacrifice was asked for (body modifications, rejection of material goods), the more successful the group, a phenomenon easily seen in fraternity hazing rituals and larger and larger fur caps in Satmar Jewish communities.

It’s still bad, but it does seem to work. Community building is a bizarre art.

Many liberals I know have long been aware of this fact, and as a result have a deep respect for the religious left and fervent moral thinkers of all stripes. Atheists, humanists and rationalists have long been involved in moral communities which approach sacralization of some virtues, from the Ethical Culture society, to humanism itself and to newer approaches, like Solstice. Powerful political communities can take on this flavor all on their own, as anyone who’s sung “We Shall Overcome” at a political rally can attest. But they do largely see their sacred virtues as slightly less ultimate and unquestionable than their more orthodox counterparts.

Nonetheless, these expressions of human community and morality are beautiful and important. Insofar as these are expressions of purity (they aren’t much) or sanctity (this a bit more), this axis has been part of the liberal framework for centuries, and it should continue to be. Making morality concrete and surrounding one’s self with people who ferociously fight for the things you find important is exactly the way to become a more active moral agent, and to become the kind of person you want to be. Hopefully, these approaches can be compromises between the disaffected abstractions that fail to invigorate and inspire and the hyper-self-righteous purity rhetoric that pushes groups apart and undermines our ability to empathize with others and universalize our morality.

Any more “purity” than that, and the benefits of understanding stop being worth it.

Sprouting New Moral Foundations

There are a lot of important ideas in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which I just finished reading. He makes a descriptively compelling case for how WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) most of the readers of his book are, myself included, and how we should take our own moral intuitions with a grain of salt, knowing how different they are from those of people in most of the world.

In light of this, it is valuable for all of us to question our moral intuitions and understand those of others, so you know why other people think and act the way they do. This seems especially true given Haidt’s finding that liberals are worse at answering questions like conservatives than the reverse (that is, they are worse at ideological turing tests). And why is this?

Haidt’s research has found that humans tend to think about morality on six axes (from Wikipedia):

  1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions (He has also referred to this dimension as Proportionality.)
  3. Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
  5. Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
  6. Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)

Except that apparently, liberals care primarily about the first three, seeing 4-6 as morally less relevant, where conservatives care about all six. You can see where you fall at

These are my results. Probably not surprising.

These are my results. Probably not surprising.

I certainly fall into the pattern for liberals – whether something disgusts me isn’t relevant to how I judge it morally, at least when my System 2 is doing the evaluating. And it’s even worse than that; as a utilitarian, I’m really choosing to focus on care/harm and forget all the rest. Now, utilitarians have a long history of skirting that issue by simply saying that we care about 2-6 insofar as other people care about them. If degrading what is sacred to others makes people less happy, then, huzzah, we also care about sanctity. And even if disrespect for medical ethics makes sense in one particular case, such as using medical professionals ostensibly giving vaccines in Pakistan to sniff out Osama bin Laden, we can claim to take a longer view, noting that people may no longer trust those handing out vaccines.

That’s one of the primary strengths of utilitarianism; much like rationalism, it can simply absorb critiques and adapt to “care” about whatever other people seem to care about. On the whole, this is great, and utilitarians can learn a great deal from Haidt’s findings. It’s much easier to make people happy (or satisfy their preferences, or make them live better lives) if you know what those things mean. We ought to note that people like living in moral communities, where some things are held sacred, and some people are held as authority figures, even if those axes don’t mean a lot to some of us personally. As a plus, the research indicates that people behave better and give more to charity when they inhabit communities like this, since they are surrounded by people keeping them accountable to their professed values.

But none of this is the same as actually understanding what it would be like to feel that a standard of purity, or loyalty, or authority is a viscerally important ethical fact. What would that feel like?

My first instinct with regard to is to say it would feel like letting all of your lowest, instinctive feelings come through. Elevating the glimmer of disapproval I’ve had when I see women dressed “overly” sexily, or “too young” to an actual ethical consideration. Letting myself wholly disapprove of people when I feel that sense of disappointment that they don’t agree with all the liberal positions I thought they did. Hell, even chastising people for consuming too much low art: too much tv, not enough books; too many romance novels, not enough Jonathan Haidt. (It’s important to note that all of these would entirely condemn me as well). Even more grotesquely, it could start to look like The Gag Reflex, an article arguing for the value of letting our “natural” disgust at gay sex inform our moral sense about it. (Descriptively, several studies indicate that some significant portion of anti-gay attitudes are related to disgust). Sure, there are steelmen of these ideas, but these aren’t moral positions I want to get anywhere near.

Attempt 1:

But to really try, I might venture to say that there’s something beautiful or comforting about a natural order (whether from religion or from a secular teleology), which promises stability and contentment, if everything is in its place. Depending on what that order consists of, I might be comfortable with being concerned that my own actions or those of others are disrupting such an order. Conservatives do a lot of this, especially with regard to sexual morality, but I can imagine utilitarians and economically minded people thinking the same way about everyone working in a field where their comparative advantage lies. If we were really committed to the kind of world where everyone did what they do best and contributed the most, seeing someone do something where they weren’t would seem kind of…low, kind of missing the point of what you’re supposed to do with your life. How’s that for sanctity?

Attempt 2:

Or if you really believe, in a secular virtue ethical kind of way, that people seem to be happier and more fulfilled when they take steps to interact with other people around important issues, or spend time with nature, rather than watch Netflix or spend the day indoors? Or even the question of doing something active (blogging, exercising, reading) over something passive (sleeping, watching tv); I don’t hold by this, but I could imagine what it would be like to want to push people to the “higher” things over the “lower” things.

Attempt 3:

If you’re in an Effective Altruism community, you might think that most of the focus is on Care/Harm, since you’re trying to help the most people with your money. However, Leah Libresco has pointed out that features of that world harken closely to the purity axis, since every part of your life now becomes up for critique as “the best thing you could be doing with your time and money” or “not the best thing you could be doing with your time and money.” We could extend that further; if I lived in a community where everyone committed as much money and time as they could to saving lives, and someone didn’t, they wouldn’t just be impure; they’d be disloyal: to their cause, to their community, and to the global poor that this community has claimed as their sort-of-in-group.

Part of the philosophy is how people tend to do philosophy and charitable giving incorrectly.

Attempt 4:

In some of the best examples of moral communities the liberal world has to offer, communities of political activists and secular/humanist groups, respecting authority could mean that it’s important to give your president or humanist minister the benefit of the doubt, and questioning what they want us to do on Sundays, whether it’s go to a march in Ferguson or go to a blood drive, would be undermining the very moral communities that research has shown us are so important. There are so few strong secular or progressive moral communities, someone might say, it would be such a shame to divide this one by not letting the duly selected leader do their best.

I have the podium! Listen to me!

It is easy for people on the left side of the political spectrum to find issues with every example I’ve constructed. It would be awful to coerce people into choosing jobs that made them unhappy just because it’s what they’re best at. There are dozens of reasons, including issues surrounding physical and mental disability, why it would be terrible to stigmatize “passive” activities and elevate “active” ones. And few of us would want to be in a secular community where people shushed us for questioning the leader; that attitude is why so many left religion in the first place. I’ll examine examples like these in the next piece.

But these are, for me, examples that at least make it plausible that Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity could be ethically relevant in my life. If you agree that it’s important to understand where other people are coming from and why they think the way they do, what worlds would activate the moral axes that you usually dismiss? What features do they have? What can we learn from them?