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.

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