Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Toxic Combination of Group Loyalty and Purity

To continue with Haidt, I see another problem with his insistence that the Tea Party (or whoever) does not lack morality but simply follows a different morality.  I have already discussed what I see as the danger of the justice-as-karma view -- it tends to encourage people to automatically see other people's misfortunes as deserved and thereby promote schadenfreude.

My other problem rests somewhere between the group loyalty foundation and the purity/sanctity foundation. Although I cannot find the link, somewhere Haidt explains that conservative opposition to closing the Guantanamo prison stems from a loyalty-based morality -- the need to protect America from outside dangers, while the liberal desire to close it is based on the narrow-minded liberal focus on compassion as the sole good.  I see several problems here.  One which I have discussed before is that too often focusing on group loyalty can mean excluding some people from a circle of compassion.  Furthermore, while wanting people in GTMO to be treated humanely is a matter of compassion, wanting their innocence or guilt to be fairly determined and the innocent to be freed is a matter of justice, either by liberal or conservative sights. That many conservatives are opposed even to that might be taken as a sign of putting group loyalty ahead of universal justice.  Or it might be taken as driven by simple fear.  But I have long considered Haidt mistaken in assuming that the four moral foundations can be neatly separated anyhow.  And I think a lot of what is going on here implicates another foundation -- purity/sanctity.

Haidt gives as an example of the purity foundation at work people's aversion to getting a medically safe, disease-free blood transfusion from a child molester.  Speaking as a liberal, this seems silly to me.  The child molester's crimes are not somehow dissolved in his blood, and receiving a transfusion from him will not convey any sort of moral taint with it.  But at least a child molester is a moral offender.  My initial reaction to the purity/sanctity foundation was that I was willing accept it and admit it into public discourse so long as it did not actually harm anyone.  But looking back, that is a naive reaction.  Any system of morality must necessarily include penalties against transgressors, in other words, it must hurt people who violate morality, or it has no teeth.  So I will change it to saying I can accept purity/sanctity so long as it penalizes people only for what they do and not for who they are.  Because I do think a dark side of purity/sanctity that Haidt ignores is its ability to combine with group loyalty to stigmatize certain people as inherently impure, regardless of their actions.

To understand what I mean, let us start with a relatively harmless example: Pamela Geller's crusade against halal meat.  Geller wants halal meat labeled so people won't accidentally eat it.  Geller tries to express her hostility to halal meat in harm/care terms -- she calls halal slaughter cruel because it requires cutting the animal's throat and bleeding it out.  Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, she says find it offensive to eat such meat.  Jews are spared because they eat only kosher.  Of course, there is one little problem here.  Kosher slaughter and halal slaughter are the same.  Yet Geller endorses kosher meat.  So much for the harm/care explanation.  More realistically, some Christians fear eating halal food because it has been sacrificed to an idol, which clearly implicates the whole matter of purity/sanctity.  Well, for what it is worth, St. Paul thought such scruples were unnecessary, but that Christians should respect even needless scruples in others.  As an outsider, I will simply sit on the sidelines and say that if other people have such scruples, we should respect and not mock them, even if we do not understand them.  But I suspect what is going on here is something deeper.  I suspect that what Geller and her followers really believe is the Muslims are impure people and that their acceptance of  certain meat by definition defiles it.  I have a problem with that.  And no, it is no good to say that many Muslims regard non-Muslims as impure and see contact with non-Muslims as inherently defiling, so why not return tit for tat.  This is part of the whole outlook that assumes we should make other people's worst behavior our guide.  If you regard halal meat as tainted because it is sacrificed to an idol, fine. I may not understand it, but I will respect it.  If you regard halal meat as tainted because tainted people eat it, then it becomes a problem.

Of course, there are a lot of more harmful examples.  Haidt may have come to accept the legitimacy of the values of group loyalty, authority, and purity in India, but India has one of the most complex systems of the whole toxicity of seeing some people as impure -- the caste system and untouchability.  Our old system of segregation in the South was part of the same toxic mix of group loyalty and purity, with a touch of appeal to tradition.  And anyone reading of the persecution of Ryan White, a hemophilic boy who contracted HIV from tainted blood products in the 1980's comes away with the impression that there was not just fear of disease at stake, but that people seemed to believe that the HIV virus carried a contagious moral taint that exposure might cause moral as well as physical contamination.

And I cannot escape the conclusion that fear of closing the GTMO prison, of transferring prisoners even to super-max prisons in the US, or trying them in the regular US justice system is driven by something more than fear of escape or terrorist acts.  It is fear that the purity of the US soil or the US justice system will be tainted with the presence of foreign terror suspects, and that mere individual innocence does not keep suspects from being polluting.  Something similar, I suspect, is at work at conservative outrage at the thought of extending any rights of US citizens to foreigners.  They see those rights as sacred badges of citizenship that are degraded when extended beyond our borders.

Haidt may assure us that this is not immorality, but merely a different morality, and I will take his word for it.  But contrary to what some people believe, liberals are not complete moral relativists.  And I have no difficulty in saying that this is an inferior morality.

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