In Search of Liberal Purity

February 22nd, 2010 by Jonathan Haidt

At Yourmorals.org we have always found that scores on the Purity/sanctity foundation are higher on the political right than on the left. Conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, live in a more sacralized world. Liberals, particularly secular scientifically-minded liberals, live in a more materialist, un-magical world.

Yet there are enough hints of “liberal purity” scattered about that we at Yourmorals are actively trying to measure it. (You might want to take our survey, here, before you read any further. You’ll have to register or sign in along the way). It can be seen in the liberal tendency to moralize food and eating, beyond its nutritive/material aspects. (See this fabulous essay by Mary Eberstadt comparing the way the left moralizes food and the right moralizes sex). It can be seen in the way the left treats environmental issues and the natural world as something sacred, to be cared for above and beyond its consequences for human – or even animal—welfare. So how do we define purity/sanctity in a way that can capture the purity concerns of both left and right?

Consider this famous quote from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience:

Religion “consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”

So as long as you act as though there is an unseen order which imposes moral obligations and limitations on human actions above and beyond the consequences that those actions have for other people (or perhaps animals), then we are in the realm of religion or quasi-religion, and potentially in the realm of sanctity and sacred order.

Now consider this famous quote from Leon Kass, widely considered to be a conservative bioethicist (but who in fact is a complex, non-religious intellectual who believes that religions contain useful wisdom):

Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder. [from "The Wisdom of Repugnance," reprinted here]

Kass’s argument is that our feelings of disgust toward cloning and other biomedical technologies should be attended to. They may not be decisive, but disgust is often a warning, a useful brake on the otherwise headlong rush into any sort of technology whose benefits (in a purely utilitarian calculation) outweigh its costs. Kass is an eloquent spokesman for the Purity/sanctity foundation as it is used on the right, even for those who don’t believe in God.

But now consider this quote, from E. O. Wilson:

We descend farther from heaven’s air if we forget how much the natural world means to us.

Might this be the key to understanding how the Left understands environmental issues in part using the Purity/sanctity foundation? Might nature and the natural world provide the “unseen order” that can act as a brake on capitalism, greed, and the headlong rush into consumerism, self-indulgence, and waste that has offended many liberals since the days of Thoreau at Walden pond? See the movie Avatar, to see the ultimate liberal moral fantasy about “Eywa,” the god of nature, actually defeating the evil corporate plunderers (and the U.S. Marines as well). And see this essay by Ross Douthat, on the pantheism of Avatar.

Can anyone understand Avatar who lacks all intuitions of purity/sanctity?

–Jon Haidt

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19 Responses to “In Search of Liberal Purity”

  1. Ravi says:

    My personal opinion is that much liberal purity arises out of empathy and/or motivated reasoning rather than out of spirituality. We empathize not just with polar bears and owls, but even with trees and plants. We empathize with how animals are killed in producing meat or how they are raised.

    Empathy often ends up being in opposition to productivity concerns (e.g. my quals paper) and so if you are on that side of things, you’re naturally going to form a more cohesive worldview that includes a motivated opinion that corporations are bad and the problem with the world is over-production. Personally, I think that’s a tactical error for liberals as there is not a perfect correlation between production and harming the environment.

    Which is not to say that spirituality doesn’t play a part…but I would say that it is a separate dimension that can can be perhaps co-opted in favor of other emotions. People use religion to justify a lot of things, both liberal and conservative. I’m not sure if spirituality by itself can be made either liberal or conservative…though I can see the connection between feeling like one is a part of something bigger and connecting to nature.

  2. Steve Roth says:

    “Can anyone understand Avatar who lacks all intuitions of purity/sanctity?”

    Yes. I (devoted liberal and conservationist with a LibPur score of 1.0) understand it as a brilliantly Machiavellian vehicle to extract cash from those souls who embrace that intuition.

  3. Brian Caplan has a list of questions that you should be asking, and suggests that if you asked them, you would find that liberals have just as much concern for authority (observe the quasi religious worship of the Obamessiah) and sacredness (Whether anthropogenic global warming is true or false, people defending it tend to argue that we are hurting the earth, and the earth will wrathfully punish us, a spiritual argument very thinly disguised as a scientific argument.)

  4. The unseen order of nature includes human nature. The unseen order of nature is innate in all of nature, distributed equally. Human nature can have no balance without the moment-to-moment instinctive comprehension and recognition of the unseen order in all experience. This is the root of complete mental and emotional stability as well as moral and ethical certitude.

  5. Katharine says:

    “Whether anthropogenic global warming is true or false, people defending it tend to argue that we are hurting the earth, and the earth will wrathfully punish us, a spiritual argument very thinly disguised as a scientific argument.”

    Except that it’s not a spiritual argument, if you understand climatology. It’s just a ‘wrathful punishment’ because it happens to affect human civilization negatively.

  6. [...] are deluded!”; “this is the great cause of our era!”; “the environment is sacred!”–that are likely far more important for most advocates than a cool calculation of [...]

  7. Stephen Messenger says:

    It seems to me that Kass and Wilson are both talking about the same thing: A feeling of disgust toward things that in some way violate a sense of the natural world. Kass’s natural world is that of biology. Wilson’s natural world is that of ecology.

  8. [...] Haidt himself, by contrast, nails it again: [C]onservative groups (e.g., the military, Evangelical Christians) are better at circling around sacred values than are liberals. But the correlations are not huge, especially for loyalty. Liberals do it too. We have long been searching for liberal purity, which we think is best seen in matters related to the environment. See here: http://www.yourmorals.org/blog/2010/02/in-search-of-liberal-purity/ [...]

  9. [...] “In Search of Liberal Purity,” Feb 22, 2010, by Jonathan Haidt. [...]

  10. [...] particular stores because of her  ”food ethics.”  Afterward, I searched for and found an article by Jonathan Haidt that lightly skewed the puffery of this form of moral Purity, him saying in the article that, [...]

  11. [...] purity and sanctity than do liberals. This may be so, but it’s pretty clear that liberals are not immune from concerns about purity and sanctity. While conservatives moralize about the purity and sanctity of sex and reproduction, liberals fret [...]

  12. [...] purity and sanctity than do liberals. This may be so, but it’s pretty clear that liberals are not immune from concerns about purity and sanctity. While conservatives moralize about the purity and sanctity of sex and reproduction, liberals fret [...]

  13. [...] purity and sanctity than do liberals. This may be so, but it’s pretty clear that liberals are not immune from concerns about purity and sanctity. While conservatives moralize about the purity and sanctity of sex and reproduction, liberals fret [...]

  14. [...] is about sex for conservatives and eating/food purity for liberals.  See Haidt’s “In Search of Liberal Purity” [...]

  15. [...] Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wouldn’t be surprised, though. He’s done the research and found that there is a prevalent “liberal tendency to moralize food and eating, beyond its nutritive/material aspects.” He explains that “[w]hile the political right may moralize sex, the political left is doing it with food. Food is becoming extremely moralized nowadays, and a lot of it is ideas about purity, about what you’re willing to touch, or put into your body.” And Mary Eberstadt explains that mainstream culture now treats “eating as a way of life” much as religious rules used to function and that underneath specific food choices – vegan, organic, no-GMOs – is the effort to define food as governed not by taste but by universal moral law. [...]

  16. [...] common assertion that they, unlike conservatives, are realists who only care about concrete harm, actually do care about purity. It can be seen in the liberal tendency to moralize food and eating, beyond its nutritive/material [...]

  17. [...] were later revised: Haidt added concerns of freedom to account for libertarians, and wrote a blog post about the possible existence of liberal concerns for [...]

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