Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Can "Moral Foundations" Be Criticized?

You've probably heard about moral foundations theory, which is described in detail in Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind.  Simply put, this theory suggests that human moral judgments are points in a higher-dimensional space: we don't just evaluate actions or policies along a "good/bad" axis but along several different axes such as "care/harm", "fairness/cheating", "liberty/oppression", "purity/disgust", "authority/subversion" and so on.  These axes (okay, I know that a high-dimensional space does not come with a preferred coordinate system, but bear with me) are referred to as "moral foundations".

It's been suggested further that the cultural-ideological fissures evident at least in American society are tied to the relative weighting of these moral foundations: "progressives", it is said, prioritize the Care and  Fairness foundations almost exclusively, whereas "conservatives" give the other foundations equal weight with these two.  I find this helpful in terms of understanding the different ways in which people think.

There's been quite a bit of writing about how to use the ideas of moral foundations theory to engage people with the threat of climate change.  For example, it has been suggested that framing the issue in terms of pollution (thereby activating the "purity/disgust" foundation) is more likely to engage conservatives than arguing only in terms of intergenerational justice (the "fairness/cheating" foundation).  I don't know how successfully this strategy has been implemented (or indeed how ethical it is: what moral principles are involved when you use your knowledge of my moral foundations to persuade me to follow a policy of which you are convinced for other reasons?)

In this post, though, I'm wondering whether a particular choice of moral foundations can be criticized from a perspective of Christian ethics.  Specifically, Richard Beck's work (see his book Unclean, reviewed here) seems to me to involve a sustained critique of the Purity foundation on the basis of Jesus' saying, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice' " (Matthew 9:13).   Beck will have it that church life (and maybe moral life in general?) is always in danger of what he calls a "purity collapse", whereby the maintenance of purity boundaries becomes a priority which in fact leads to much deeper ethical offenses of oppression and victimization.  Beck seems willing to contemplate a drastic remedy for this danger - the complete abolition of the Purity category - but his preferred solution is to attend to the Eucharist as a "divinely constituted regulating ritual" within church life which pushes back against an excessive focus on Purity.

In other words, for Beck it seems that someone's "moral foundations" are not merely a matter of description; they can be critiqued from a gospel perspective, at least as regards the Purity axis.  (And, full disclosure,  I find myself going along with this critique: our urge to classify not just behaviors, but also people, as "clean" or "unclean" has, I believe, done a great deal of harm.)  But do the other axes admit similar "gospel critiques"? What would be the "divinely constituted regulating ritual" for the "fairness/cheating" foundation?  What would a "liberty collapse" look like?   I am not trying to ask frivolous questions here, and it may be that Beck's analysis is very specific to Purity.  I am just wondering these things because (as I mentioned above) it has been suggested that understanding moral foundations is a key to persuasion about important questions of sustainability.  And there is a lot riding on that.

EDIT:  I suppose there might be a different way of looking at the critique of the Purity axis; that Purity when used to categorize persons is Purity misapplied; but that there is nonetheless a correct application of this axis, and that is, in fact, to the desecration or preservation of our planetary home.  On this theory the whole apparatus of "purity and danger" (Mary Douglas) has been waiting for thousands of years until the crisis of the climate provides its ultimate meaning.  I am thinking of that rather disquieting passage in Voyage to Venus where C.S.Lewis' Ransom discovers in himself "a torrent of perfectly unmixed and lawful hatred".... "The joy came from finding at last what hatred was made for.  As a boy with an axe rejoices on finding a tree (really? Take that, George Washington), or a boy with a box of colored chalks rejoices on finding a pile of perfectly white paper, so he rejoiced in the perfect congruity between his emotion and its object."  

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