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Phil Robertson & The Righteous Mind

As you no doubt know, A&E reinstated Phil Robertson. I’m writing a piece about it for a different website, and will link to it here once it appears. Last night, thinking about the whole situation, I returned to Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mindwhich has a lot to teach us about this controversy.

Haidt’s book is about how we arrive at moral conclusions. His general conclusion is not that we reason our way toward them, but that we generally follow our intuitions, and often create rationalizations for them after the fact. Haidt, a secular liberal, makes much of the fact that educated, upper-middle-class Americans are radical outliers on humanity’s moral spectrum. That is, the overwhelming majority of the world sees morality in a much more complex and intuitive way. To be clear, Haidt is not saying that the rest of the world is morally right, but only that educated Americans (like himself) should recognize that they live in a cognitive bubble — that is, that their moral views are not universally shared, nor are they the only rational ones available.

Haidt shows that Westerners are unlike the rest of the world in that we base our moral reasoning on the sanctity of the individual. The rest of the world bases its moral reasoning on the primacy of the collective. Our problem in the West is that we think our way of moral reasoning is, or should be, universal, when it is by no means clear that this is so. Here’s a key passage:

The ethic of autonomy is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences. People should be free to satisfy these wants, needs, and preferences as they see fit, and so societies develop moral concepts such as rights, liberty, and justice, which allow people to coexists peacefully without interfering too much in each other’s projects. This is the dominant ethic in individualistic societies. …

But as soon as you step outside of Western secular society, you hear people talking in two additional moral languages [that is, in addition to harm and fairness — RD]. The ethic of community is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members of larger entities such as families, teams, armies, companies, tribes, and nations. These larger entities are more than the sum of the people who compose them; they are real, they matter, and they must be protected. People have an obligation to play their assigned roles in these entities. Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation, and patriotism. In such societies, the Western insistence that people should design their own lives and pursue their own goals seems selfish and dangerous — a sure way to weaken the social fabric and destroy the institutions and collective entities upon which everyone depends.

The ethic of divinity is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, temporary vessels within which a divine soul has been implanted. People are not just animals with an extra serving of consciousness; they are children of God and should behave accordingly. The body is a temple, not  playground. Even if it does no harm and violates nobody’s rights when a man has sex with a chicken carcass, he still shouldn’t do it because it degrades him, dishonors his creator, and violates the sacred order of the universe. Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as sanctity and sin, purity and pollution, elevation and degradation. In such societies, the personal liberty of secular Western nations looks like libertinism, hedonism, and a celebration of humanity’s baser instincts.

To some people, the annual sadomasochist Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco [Warning! Highly NSFW photographs!] is a celebration of freedom. To others, it is a celebration of humanity’s baser instincts. It is very, very difficult for the two to understand each other.

The relationship to the Robertson controversy is obvious. Robertson, like most American conservatives, lives by the full spectrum of moral intuition, not just Harm and Fairness. From Haidt’s TED talk:

So, as you see, people care about harm and care issues. They give high endorsement of these sorts of statements all across the board, but as you also see, liberals care about it a little more than conservatives — the line slopes down. Same story for fairness. But look at the other three lines. For liberals, the scores are very low. Liberals are basically saying, “No, this is not morality. In-group, authority, purity — this stuff has nothing to do with morality. I reject it.”

But as people get more conservative, the values rise. We can say that liberals have a kind of a two-channel, or two-foundation morality. Conservatives have more of a five-foundation, or five-channel morality.

We find this in every country we look at. Here’s the data for 1,100 Canadians. I’ll just flip through a few other slides. The U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, East Asia and South Asia. Notice also that on all of these graphs,the slope is steeper on in-group, authority, purity. Which shows that within any country, the disagreement isn’t over harm and fairness.

Everybody — I mean, we debate over what’s fair — but everybody agrees that harm and fairness matter. Moral arguments within cultures are especially about issues of in-group, authority, purity.This effect is so robust that we find it no matter how we ask the question.

You can see why to conservatives, Robertson’s views on homosexuality, however coarsely stated, make perfect sense. Not only do they reflect an ethic of divinity, but they also reflect an ethic of community, in this sense: if we jettison the Bible as our source of sexual morality, the social fabric will come apart (or so the thinking goes).

This is not to say that Phil Robertson is right, but to show that his thinking is far from irrational, and in fact has much more in common with the way the majority of the human race reasons than the educated elites who direct American culture-making institutions (media, entertainment, academia, law) have. This should count for something.

In truth, few of us are wholly given over to autonomy-based morality, or wholly given over to community-based morality. There are people who would go to the Folsom Street Fair wearing nothing but a harness, but who would consider smoking and eating genetically-modified food to be a violation of their sense of the body’s purity. There are conservatives who reject sexual individualism as destructive of the community’s moral fabric, but who reserve the right to act as autonomous individuals when it comes to things like building a house that radically clashes with the neighborhood’s visual fabric, and ticks off the neighbors. We pick and choose all the time.

Re-reading that Haidt passage I quote above last night put my ongoing attempt to understand why my sister and I couldn’t get along in a certain light. Within the culture of my family, I was the liberal, so to speak, the one who insisted on autonomy, and she was the conservative who insisted on the primacy of duty to the community (i.e., the family). If I didn’t break free from them, I would be crushed, I thought; if I did break free from them without suffering sanction, thus establishing that such a break is possible, then the family’s most important values would be at risk, or so she must have thought.

We were both right, I think. But Ruthie wouldn’t bend in the least. This is our family tragedy.

I don’t know whether the irreconcilability of the two American cultures is a tragedy or not, but it does suggest that the conflict is irresolvable, without a willingness to compromise. As Haidt says, though, that’s not how the righteous mind thinks.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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