Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Axes of Righteousness

    Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, argued that the human moral faculty is built around five axes. He gave them names like “Care/Harm”—that is, caring about others is at one end of this axis, harming them at the other. Another axis is “Fairness/Cheating” with fairness at the positive end and cheating at the negative. Later Haidt added a sixth axis. Haidt and his colleagues worked up a Moral Foundations Questionnaire they could give to test subjects, to see where they placed on each axis.

    Well, one of these basic axes—Haidt actually calls them “foundations”—is “Sanctity/Degradation.” Haidt argues from the case of the German guy who advertised on the internet for someone willing to be killed, cooked, and eaten by him. [German cannibal tells of fantasy, BBC, December 3, 2003] He got hundreds of responses, interviewed likely applicants, made a selection, then killed and ate the guy—all on video, to prove the thing was totally consensual.

    So, Haidt asks, did anyone do anything wrong there? Your answer tells us where you are on the Sanctity/Degradation axis.
A particularly interesting tidbit from the latest episode of Radio Derb in print — John Derbyshire On Why Educrats Can’t Handle Black Affirmative Action Babies. The Derb uses this last axis in his analysis:

    It happens that I read Haidt’s book shortly after my own public shaming in April, 2012. Reading about those questionnaire scores, I was shaking my head at the book. It seemed to me that liberals are not so much light on regard for Sanctity, they just attach it to different objects.

    To blacks, for example. The late Larry Auster said that blacks are sacred objects in the modern West. He was right. To say negative things about blacks, or to be thought to have negative thoughts about them, is a blasphemy.

    It’s like someone in 13th-century Europe speaking ill of the Virgin Mary. The reaction is just the same. You have violated a sacred object.


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Blogger Enbrethiliel said...


The Sanctity/Degradation scale is interesting. Care/Hurt and Fairness/Cheating are pretty intuitive, but very few people these days think of sanctity as a moral issue. I daresay that most moderns would say that sanctity is just a construction.

And yet it totally comes into play anyway. When the abortion debate can be boiled down to "Right to Choose" vs. "Right to Life", how can we say that we're not talking about what two different groups each find sacred? To some people, a woman's "right to choose" really is as precious as the unique life and soul of an unborn child. (Somewhere in a parallel universe, someone is writing: "To some people, a fetus really is as precious as an individual's autonomy over his or her own body." Or something like that. I'm not good at satirising myself.)

Then there's a fun recent example of a government ruling from Iceland: if you can prove that a boulder has been associated with faeries for over one hundred years, then the government will protect the boulder from construction projects. Yes, you read that right even if I spelled it in my usual affected way: faeries. Now, the worst that will ever happen is that highways will have to curve around boulders instead of going straight and that some architects will have to modify their designs to fit the landscape. Practically speaking, it's really not a big deal. But I will never forget the commenter under the news article about it who was absolutely disgusted that a modern secular government would do something like that. And whenever someone else left a whimsical comment about having been in nature and feeling as if they weren't alone, she responded directly to it, to call the other person "stupid." It seemed really excessive (if also entertaining); but it's much clearer now that I see that the woman's reaction was a moral one. To her, a belief in the supernatural is pure degradation. How dare any government countenance something so immoral!

Now that we know we have a moral issue on our hands, what is the proper response to people who violate what is sacred to us, when it's not sacred to them?

December 8, 2015 at 10:27 AM  
Blogger Iosue Andreas Sartorius said...

Your astute observation "that most moderns would say that sanctity is just a construction" reminds me of an irate supporter of "assisted suicide" I once came across arguing that there is no such thing as human dignity.

January 2, 2016 at 9:27 AM  

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