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?