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?