Thursday, 5 September 2013

Purity Disgusts Me

or, Are My Results the Right Ones?

A Moral Foundations Theory post

After I took the Moral Foundations Theory test and got my results, I was tempted to feel pretty smug about those results. Of course I scored the way I did; the Moral Foundations I prefer are the better ones. (Confession: I succumbed to that temptation for a while.) As much as I talk about listening to conservative viewpoints openly, I admit that I have a very hard time practicing what I preach. Most conservatism strikes me as misguided (say, conservative economic policy) and some of it strikes me as horrible (anti-homosexuality rhetoric and policy). It takes a lot of effort to think about conservatism more charitably, but I can do it: I remind myself that I was once more conservative than I am, and I look to conservative thinkers who I respect (Eve Tushnet, for instance, whose opinions on homosexuality I would find pretty repellent were she not homosexual herself). Opposing same-sex marriage isn't always evil, I can convince myself to recognize; it's just misguided and uncharitable. Given my emotional investment in being leftist, seeing that my results were a slight exaggeration of the typical liberal results was something of a triumph for me; I had been worried that my conservative roots might show.

Eventually I remembered to try to think about the Moral Foundations from a conservative point of view. (In general, trying to think from another point of view is a skill/virture I want to develop.) And what struck me is this: conservative-me would argue that liberals were in the wrong here because all of the Moral Foundations are important. Morality is best understood as the maximization of all of the Foundations (or virtues, we'd be well off to call them). Unless you develop, follow, cherish all six of them, you have a stunted morality. Conservative-me doesn't hold purity higher than freedom or care, after all; conservative-me holds purity alongside freedom and care. Moreover, I talked in the last post of this series about how the different Foundations might shape each other or influence how we interpret the other Foundations. So conservative-me would say that conservative-me understands freedom, and understands care, and understands fairness, better than a liberal/socialist-me, because conservative-me interprets those concepts in light of purity, loyalty, and respect. Freedom can only be truly achieved if purity is achieved as well, and vice-versa.

Now, I think Beck's posts at Experimental Theology about disgust show how concerns about purity warp the other concerns rather than inform them: when we are working with disgust (and disgust is the engine that drives purity), we can't think straight about the rest of it. We infrahumanize those we associate with disgust, and once we do that, we stop applying all of those other virtues to them. Disgust is something we need to fight against in ourselves, and we cannot wage that particular battle if we value purity. However, listening to conservative-me's little soapbox sermon did give me pause: am I missing out on something? Should I value loyalty more? Should I value respect/authority more? Is it possible that there's something to this purity thing which deserves my attention?

The trouble is that my response to purity (as a Moral Foundation) is disgust. I sometimes catching myself curl my lip when I read anti-homosexuality rhetoric; racism is awful anyway, but when it's tinged with concerns about purity, I start to feel revulsion towards that racism. (Lovecraft's fiction is a good example of racism that is preoccupied with purity. cf "The Shadow Over Innsmouth.") So it's really hard for me to think straight about this topic. However, Beck's research seems pretty spot-on from what I can tell, so I'm not too worried that my dismissal of purity as a Moral Foundation is unfounded (heh heh). That said, I cannot dismiss loyalty or respect/authority so easily. I wonder how you might resolve this problem: I'm back at meta-ethics again.

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