Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Unnatural Acts and Unnatural Ingredients

or, What Kind of Pure?
A Moral Foundations Theory post

[EDIT 25 July 2012: I feel like this needs a caveat. I do not really believe that the distinction between natural and unnatural acts is a valid one. At best the distinction relies on an ontology that I consider to be erroneous; at worst it is incoherent. So when I talk about people calling acts unnatural, I am trying to mention those claims in the way of anthropology (that is, they are the subject of my consideration) rather than citation (that is, they are not claims I'm using to support my own). I'm not sure if anyone has been reading this differently, but I want to make it clear. But I should also note that I am a pescetarian/selective vegetarian now and I was one when I wrote this post.]

From the outset, I will cite my primary resource for these speculations: Richard Beck's book Unclean, which looks at the psychology of disgust and how it relates to Christian culture, theology, etc. I don't have the book to hand, so I can't block-quote a relevant section, but it deals with the underlying psychological mechanisms of disgust, and how we use disgust metaphors when talking/thinking about morality. One of Beck's claims (one that I think bears up under scrutiny) is that about the only domain in which the purity metaphor controls our conversation about morality is sexuality. Chastity is controlled by a logic of purity (and therefore disgust), but lying or consumerism are not.

Indeed, I noticed that a number of the questions which I suspect contribute to the purity and sanctity measure on the Moral Foundations test dovetailed with Beck's observations (as they would; Beck drew on the theory in his research). There was a question about chastity, there was a question about whether an act's "unnaturalness" was sufficient to make it immoral, and there was a question about whether feeling disgust about an act was an indication of its morality. There was another question about whether pleasing God is relevant to an act's moral status, but I'm going to deal with this concern elsewhere. According to Moral Foundations Theory, purity tends to be the most political conservative of all of the scores; it is here that there is the greatest discrepency between liberal and conservative participants (much to both groups' horror, I'm sure.) I wonder about this, though, because I see purity/disgust governing another ethical realm, one I generally consider more left-leaning, which I touched on in my post on authenticity: environmentalism.

Like last time, I have no systematic evidence for this but instead have a cluttered list of examples. If you've seen the movie Fern Gully, however, you might have some kind of idea: the environment is possessed of a certain purity which pollution (maliciously) defiles. While clear-cutting and poaching are foci of environmental activism, the ones I tend to think of are all concerned with introducing foreign substances into the environment (which is the basis of disgust, cf Unclean): oil spills, CO2 emissions, ground water contamination, garbage in the oceans. Landfills, floating garbage islands, smokestacks, filthy water pouring into rivers: these elicit disgust. For this reason, I think a lot of environmentalist activism, if not theory, operates with an implicit purity logic or rhetoric.

The word "unnatural," so often used these days to describe homosexual activity, comes to mind also in terms of the food we eat. People fear unnatural ingredients (despite the fact that this term has no clearly definable meaning) and unnatural foods (as in genetically modified foods); as far as I can tell, this fear has a viceral more than logical force. Many vegetarians express revulsion at the thought of eating meat, and lots of vegan activism relies on extremely disgusting images of slaughterhouses (which, you know, can hardly be photographed in a non-disgusting way). It makes sense that we would be particularly vulnerable to purity-thinking with regard to our food, because disgust's primary function is to prevent us from ingesting harmful substances.

I don't think either environmentalism, vegetarianism, or the organic food movement (only carbon-based foods!) are especially right-wing these days (though I'm skeptical that political orientations like right-wing or left-wing are historically consistent, and certainly there have been avowed reactionaries, like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein, who have been environmentalists). So there seem to be, at least in contemporary Western moral reasoning, two kinds of purity: sexual and biological. One of these is conservative and the other liberal.

I would really like to see empirical studies of this, because if I'm right, then purity/sanctity may not be a strictly conservative measure. Instead, the test's questions pick out a single kind of purity at the expense of another, skewing the results. Of course, we might want to say that sexual purity and biological purity are different moral foundations altogether, but 1) then biological purity should be represented in Moral Foundations Theory and 2) I am skeptical that they are very different, but are instead one moral foundation (purity/disgust) mobilized in different realms (sexual, ritual, environmental, dietary) like authenticty can be mobilized in different realms (truth-telling, existentialism, spontaneity, emotional self-expression).

If one moral foundation can be mobilized in different realms, though, this might call into question certain assumptions that Moral Foundations Theory makes, or at any rate certain assumptions that I made about Moral Foundations Theory and how we can use it, particularly to talk about politics.
I should also note that the description given of purity/sanctity does not really seem to reflect the concept, or at least not as elucidated by Beck. The quiz I took describes this measure as being about abstract religious or philosophical views about morality, which doesn't seem right at all. At the very least, things like utilitarianism and deontology, about as abstractly philosophical as you could get, are not well captured by the questions the quiz uses to detect purity/sanctity. Either that or I'm badly misunderstanding this measure, which I think is possible.

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