Ron Lindsay has an interesting post on Jonathan Haidt and his insistence on the importance of “sanctity” as a foundation of morality, which is something I’ve been disputing for more than five years.

In arguing for the importance of sanctity, Haidt relies heavily on the reactions of individuals in other, non-Western cultures to conduct they consider degrading and violative of various taboos, such as a woman eating a meal with men. Haidt maintains, with some justification, that these reactions show that conventional morality in many cultures includes prohibitions based on sanctified custom and a sense or revulsion as opposed to any reasoning about the harm caused.

Yes, but he does it by pointing to the people who end up on the top of those cultures instead of those on the bottom, which is both incomplete and drastically anti-egalitarian. 

He suggests we suppose we grow up as a Brahmin in Bhubaneswar (pp. 228-9).

Every day of your life you have to respect the invisible lines separating pure from profane spaces, and you have to keep track of people’s fluctuating levels of purity before you can touch them or take anything from their hands…Hinduism structures your social space through a caste system based on the purity and pollution of various occupations…The experience of meaningfulness just happens…In contrast, think about the last empty ritual you took part in.

Wrong contrast, bub. In contrast, think about someone in that situation who is not a Brahmin! Think about being one of the people whose ‘fluctuating levels of purity’ the Brahmin ‘has to’ keep track of, or one of the people whose pollution is inborn and permanent – then drool about the experience of meaningfulness. Think about being a dalit or a woman or both and then talk crap about meaningfulness versus empty rituals.

That’s me five years ago, but I would say the same thing today. It’s almost like arguing that extreme inequality of wealth is a great thing, because imagine yourself as Bill Gates.

Back to Ron’s post.

Why am I spending time on this issue? Principally because I’m concerned with how Haidt’s claims can provide cover for those religious dogmatists who use the importance of the “sacred” as justification for enforcing taboos—taboos that often serve to perpetuate oppression and subordination of one class of humans by another. Perhaps the most prevalent taboos are those dealing with women, many of which preclude women from being treated as the equals of men and stigmatize them as dirty, contaminated beings.

Exactly. I think Haidt has another rhapsodic passage somewhere – but I haven’t been able to find it – about eating with a bunch of men while the women were off in the back of the house somewhere, and it had the same clueless “oh isn’t this special” note while it completely ignored the people who get the short stick. (Anybody recognize that? Know where it is?)

I don’t deny that taboos have played a large role in the history of human morality. They can simplify matters, allow for the easy transmission of norms from generation to generation, and, especially for humans who are not accustomed to reason about moral issues, they remove the burden of thinking. Beginning with the Enlightenment, however, many in the West began to question blind adherence to various customs, including customs that were supported by religious authority. Throughout his book, Haidt warns the reader not to equate the morality of WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) cultures with morality in general. As factual matter, he’s correct that WEIRD morality is not shared by everyone in the world, and it is advisable to bear this in mind when dealing with other cultures. But, unlike Haidt, I don’t think this implies that “liberals” are overlooking a key foundation of morality when they don’t think in terms of what’s sacred and instead confine their moral reasoning largely to questions of fairness and harm. They’re not overlooking the sacred; they’ve outgrown it.

And that’s a good thing. Concern for sanctity and purity doesn’t make things better. Pakistan is “the land of the pure” – how’s that working out?


  1. Robert (SeraphymC) says

    When someone uses the phrase “remove the burden of thinking” as a positve, well it gets hard to take them seriously.

  2. eric says

    I’m not familiar with Haidt’s writing, but isn’t he just making a type of naturalistic (is/ought) fallacy here? Societies do regularly proscribe actions they find disgusting. As an observation, I think that’s somewhat uncontroversial. But “they do proscribe…” does not imply “they ought to proscribe…”

  3. Didaktylos says

    The trouble with making a virtue out of a necessity is that it tends to remain classed as a virtue long after it ceases to be a necessity.

  4. smrnda says

    The assertion that with sanctity you have ‘more dimensions’ to morality, as if that was a good thing, is a pretty idiotic premise. It’s best to make do with no more than is necessary. If there was any wisdom behind taboos, they would stand up to rational scrutiny, and if not, they ought to be abandoned.

    Haidt seems to be engaging in typical orientalism here – he’s got some odd fascination with this exotic ‘other’ where purity taboos are still in full force, but he sees these from a privileged vantage point so he can imagine that they have all these benefits whereas, in reality, these taboos make life miserable for lots of people. To me, he’s just another person trying to argue that rationalism and progress can’t possibly be more enlightened than tradition, all the while supplying zero evidence for this claim aside from his rhapsodic effusive prose on the topic.

  5. marcus says

    …it had the same clueless “oh isn’t this special” note while it completely ignored the people who get the short stick. (Anybody recognize that? Know where it is?)” I think it might still be stuck up his butt.

  6. says

    Could we make equality sacred? I feel it is.

    Can we vote at the annual taboo convention, or does that spoil the fun of inviolability?

    My understanding is that sanctity and such evolved (long ago) from food health memes. Which explains “leaves a bad taste,” “makes me ill (as if food poisoned),” and why most of the examples chosen involve nourishment.

    @Robert #1 [re: burden of thinking]
    We need cognitive shortcuts for efficiency; they just need to be subject to constant criticism and update (see Didaktylos #3).

  7. nualle says

    It kinda infuriates me how so much of the left seems taken in by Haidt. Not only do worshipful articles on him pop up on Alternet every so often, but Bill Moyers’ treatment of him this past February was unseemingly deferential.

    At about 43 minutes in (the topic starts at about 31 min), Haidt defended the “Let him die!” jeering in the audience of a Republican presidential primary debate by saying, “They want a world in which karma functions.” And Moyers let it slide by without any hint of objection.

    It’s supposed to be moral that bloodyminded conservatives, on the basis of their just world delusion, get to arrange the real world so as to harm people? Nuts to that! Apocalypticism in religion is, IMO, a last-ditch punt toward justice in the world but that doesn’t make it true, nor legislating on its basis moral. Grr.

  8. Dave says

    So he takes bog-standard anthropological observations, and decides we all need to erect elaborately meaningless patterns of distinction in our lives? Well fuck him, he has an H in his name, and everyone knows that Those People are Stupid.

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