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Sam Brinton & Moral Foundations Theory

Reactions to sadomasochism advocate and Biden administration hire is a good example of Jonathan Haidt's ideas
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The philosopher Peter Boghossian and I are doing a public event together later this week in Budapest. It will be recorded and put on YouTube; I’ll post a link when it’s done. Peter and I were talking the other night about things we might discuss, and we agreed that it would be interesting to bring up the controversy over Sam Brinton, the LGBT activist and public sadomasochism enthusiast who was recently hired as a senior nuclear waste bureaucrat at the Department of Energy (Brinton has a nuclear engineering degree from MIT). I wrote about his case here and here last week.

(Note: if you are one of those liberals who have your nose out of joint because I am talking again about that Brinton freak, I advise you to look away if it’s going to trigger you. You know good and well that if you were reading a blog praising Brinton’s boldness in confronting bigots, you’d be thrilled. If you have something useful to say in criticism of what I write below, then I’ll publish it. But if all you intend to do is whine about conservatives like me criticizing Brinton, save your words, because I won’t post them.)

Peter’s general view, stated on Twitter, is that if Brinton’s kinky sex life doesn’t interfere with his job performance, people shouldn’t care about it. My view is that this kind of thing is rather a big deal. I talked about it at length in those previous posts, but in brief, I think Brinton should not have been hired in the first place because he is an in-your-face activist.

On his website (see one of my previous posts for the link), he talks about how he likes to wear women’s clothing into the workplace as a way to provoke people into having “conversations” about LGBT matters. To me, that is a classic sign of exhibitionism, and in the woke professional environment we now have to deal with, this amounts to bullying. Brinton is daring people to object, or to show the least discomfort, so he can “educate” them. According to his past testimony, he hates his fundagelical parents because they allegedly forced him to go to conversion therapy. Assuming that’s true — and there are questions about it — he is taking out his anger at his parents on everybody else. A figure like that is toxic in the workplace. If Brinton were a loud, aggressive fundamentalist Christian evangelist who bragged that he enjoyed provoking people into having conversations about their religious beliefs, he wouldn’t get hired by most places because he would constantly be stirring up trouble. I’m a conservative Christian and I wouldn’t hire such a person.

But Brinton happens to be an activist for a cause of which cultural and professional elites approve, so he not only gets a pass, his peacock strutting probably helps him out professionally.

Plus, I believe that Brinton’s sadomasochism is a sign of a sick mind. Remember (see the previous links), he engages in something kinksters call “pup play,” in which he is the sadistic “master” of masochistic men who behave like dogs. In one of the articles to which I linked, Brinton and his then-lover talked about how the lover doesn’t always like to stop pretending he is a dog when Brinton sodomizes him. Pseudo-bestiality, in other words. If they did this behind closed doors, it would be something that we would need to learn how to tolerate, as the cost for living in a free, pluralistic society. But Brinton parades his perversion openly, and demands that we approve. I think he’s a sicko.

More broadly, I believe that Brinton’s BDSM behavior ought to be sharply stigmatized, because it should be discouraged. Let me ask you this: if Brinton’s kink was “race play” — a BDSM category that revolves around racialized sexual humiliation — and he had a record as a public advocate for that, would he stand a microsecond’s chance of being hired as a senior manager at at federal agency, or anywhere? I just read an essay by a gay black man who was called a n*gger during sex with a white man who was engaged in this, and it left the black man feeling ashamed that he went along with it. He goes on in the essay — I won’t like to it here, but it’s on HuffPost if you’re interested — to say that “race play” is dehumanizing:

To understand the true nature of racism is to acknowledge that it isn’t just the act of doing mean things to people because they’re different. It’s a worldview in which anyone of another race is something less than human.

Well, yes. But you know what else is dehumanizing? A sexual fetish in which you pretend to be a dog, and enslave yourself to a “master” who has sex with you.

We have a strong interest as a society in keeping the most inhuman and destructive passions intrinsic to our nature suppressed. Did you know that there is a such thing as a Nazi fetish, and “Nazi play”? How would you feel about hiring Brinton if he were into that, and went public with it? Don’t we, as a society, have an interest in strongly discouraging people from taking sexual pleasure in their darkest fantasies? We can’t police people’s minds, of course, but we can and we should stigmatize their public expression of these fantasies. It is in society’s interest to make Nazism taboo. It is in society’s interest to make racial humiliation taboo. It is in society’s interest to make bestiality and pseudo-bestiality taboo. Yes, people will continue to do whatever they will do, but they will at least keep it hidden.

The point is this: those who claim that what someone does sexually, even if they publicize it, should have nothing to do with their employment status, don’t really mean it unless they also affirm race play and Nazi play. Do you really think a public Ku Klux fetishist or Nazi fetishist should not be judged unfit for employment because of their public kinks? What about someone whose kink was “pedophile play,” with consenting adults who play-act as children? Would that be too much?

My point is that I think the standard progressive claim that public expressions of sexual desire should not be stigmatized is empty and hypocritical, because almost nobody is willing to be consistent in permitting anything-goes — and that’s a good thing! Lines will be drawn; the only question is, where, and on what basis?

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations work is a helpful approach to understanding how we think about this stuff. Here is a basic explanation of the idea:

Moral Foundations Theory was created by a group of social and cultural psychologists (see us here) to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. In brief, the theory proposes that several innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The five foundations for which we think the evidence is best are:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

We think there are several other very good candidates for “foundationhood,” especially:

6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. We report some preliminary work on this potential foundation in this paper, on the psychology of libertarianism and liberty.

Haidt et al. found that in the West, liberals evaluate phenomena morally with the Care/Harm and the Fairness/Cheating criteria only. Conservatives, by contrast, use all five. (I don’t know about the sixth one, which has been added to the list since I last checked on Haidt’s work, but my guess is that both liberals and conservatives use it.) Haidt has said that this is why conservatives tend to understand the way liberals think while liberals don’t get how conservatives think.

If liberals only see 1, 2, and 6, then it’s easy to grasp why they rally behind Brinton. Yes, what he does strikes many people as weird, but his partners are consenting, and who is he harming? Besides, we need to be fair to him and let him express his identity. To force him to be closeted about his kink, which is at the core of his identity, is an offense against his individual liberty.

From a morally conservative point of view, though, what Brinton advocates for and symbolizes is profoundly degrading, and intends to subvert the social and moral order. His liberty to do what he wants to do has to be bounded by considerations of the common good (that is, our interest in maintaining a healthy, stable social order), and the fact that other people with whom he will share the workplace may feel offended and oppressed by his activism, given his previous statements that he dresses with sexual outrageousness for the sake of provoking. Don’t they get a say here? Does their desire to be free from what they consider to be a form of intimidation at work count for nothing? If Brinton came to work dressed like a normal person, and kept his activism and his kink to himself, that might be one thing — though I suppose the Bostock decision by SCOTUS would make it impossible for fire him for being kinky off-hours.

The key point is that sanctity/degradation and authority/subversion are at the heart of Sam Brinton’s public display and his activism. Per Haidt, liberals generally don’t see those things as at issue (and I would say if they do, they cheer for radicals like Brinton for scandalizing conservatives and subverting conservative sex-and-gender paradigms).

Now, you don’t have to share the moral foundations of conservatives, but you do have to understand that you share a society with us, as we do with you. Sam Brinton is intentionally provocative, and goes as far as he possibly can to exhibit his kinks. He knows that he is a subversive figure, and he has built a public profile on that. This is not about his being gay; most Americans, even conservative ones, have come to terms with that. There is a very big difference between simply having same-sex desires, and being an extreme kinkster like Brinton. If Brinton were one of the heterosexuals who engaged in this stuff, it would change nothing. This rather is about extremely deviant sexual behavior being normalized, even valorized.

Do we want to live in a society where this happens? I do not. Sam Brinton and his pup-players have the liberty to do what they like behind closed doors. But they and their allies want to shove it in everybody’s face, and demand that we approve. If I had my way, Brinton’s BDSM activism, including his going to college campuses to try to talk students into degrading themselves sexually in this way, would render him hard for normies to employ, for the same reason it would if he were a public advocate for BDSM “race play” and BDSM “Nazi play” — or if he were a member of the Ku Klux Klan. A decent society has to stigmatize some things, even if they are legal, to protect itself by discouraging people from giving in to their destructive passions.

Our problem is that the cultural left is in control of our institutions, in particular the narrative formation within and among institutions, and it operates only on a care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression basis, with implicit or explicit contempt for we for whom authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation are important moral foundations. This is why we can’t have nice things, at least not together.

By the way, my podcast partner Kale Zelden and I talk about Brinton and many other things on this week’s episode, just posted:

UPDATE: Very thoughtful letter from a reader:

As a longtime fan of Jonathan Haidt’s work, I’m glad you posted on Moral Foundations Theory.  I believe that while the moral axes identified by the theory are quite useful, the model’s use for understanding or predicting peoples’ discrete political persuasions (i.e., liberal, conservative, libertarian) will one day be seen as yet another erroneous social-psychological model unable to stand the test of time.  Contra to identifying some universal ideological dichotomy that is predicted by moral priorities, I think the model’s usefulness will ultimately rest on demonstrating how people adopt various moral stances out of convenience and personal or group benefit, and that the use of these moral axes can turn on a dime as circumstances dictate.

Recent events have blown up any conclusions about morality and political leanings that an honest reading of Haidt’s work would lead to.  If we take each moral axis at face value, what can we really say today about “conservatives respect and value authority as much as they care about fairness” while “liberals don’t care about authority, hierarchy, loyalty and sanctity”?  How many examples can I give you from recent times where liberals obediently follow the diktats of authority almost without question, while conservatives treat as conspiratorial any proclamation from on high?  And wasn’t the situation reversed just a couple years ago?  Have not the symbols of covid—masks, social distancing, vaccines—become icons of sanctity and purity dogmatically adhered to by the Left?  I could go on, but even your two most recent blog posts bookending the current one speak to this shift—the very leftist Justin Trudeau invoking authority and loyalty in a way not seen in Canada before, and the Canadian truckers, widely viewed as “conservative”, bucking the authority of law and loyalty to the state for reasons morally driven by fairness and care.

I’m not trying to hammer the left here.  If the Left was less able to understand the Right because, for a time, the Right operated from a broader base of moral impulses, might the opposite thing happen if the Right becomes less “morally diverse” than the Left?  Maybe the Left will come to understand the positions of the Right, while the Right caricatures the Left’s positions.

My point is simply this: these moral axes are universal to all humans, regardless of political leaning, and as such they are not predictive of said leanings over time.  We pick up and put down the various moral axes at our convenience, and none are inherent to a Left or Right worldview.  The moral axes we prioritize are driven by whatever happens to benefit us at a given moment, and are not some universal, genetic, ingrained characteristic.  It’s like this: if I feel like I’m a victim of the current system of power, I will prioritize fairness and seek sympathy through care and compassion, because that’s going to benefit me a lot more than appealing to the authority that stands in my way.  In fact, I’ll probably care very little if I step on the toes of authority and social convention if those things don’t profit me.  But if the tide turns and me and mine suddenly find ourselves in power, and are now the cultural and moral authorities, suddenly we’re going to find ourselves believing a lot more in the importance of authority and loyalty to our chosen dogma, never mind how we may have belittled such things before.  (Remember what kind of a person, ideologically, used to say ‘question authority’, and what kind of person actually does that today.) To me, this selfish dynamic is plainly evident in the rapid shift in which moral axes are adopted by both the political Right and Left.  Suddenly the Left is obsessed with “defending [the institution/authority of] democracy” (you may see this position shift yet again in late 2022), building fences around public buildings to cordon off and elevate authority, and utilizing said authority to investigate and control the lives of the masses, while the Right talks incessantly about giving the proverbial finger to authority and seceding, shrugging off the ‘impurity’ and ‘degradation’ of catching covid, or creating ‘Benedict Option’ communities, which are, after all, ways to skirt authority and operate apart from it.  Thus, the real determinant of whether or not moral authority is important to me is, “Does the authority support my preferences?”  The real determinant of whether “care/harm” matters is, “Do I care for the group of people in question?”  And so on and so forth.  It is not ingrained political ideology.

Anyway, my observations over the past couple of years around who holds what sacred and who appeals to what authority have led me to think quite a bit about Mr. Haidt’s work (and again, I respect, admire, and appreciate his work; I would say I am a ‘fan’ of it), so I thought you might find this perspective interesting.  I often wonder if Mr. Haidt has noticed the fluidity with which liberals and conservatives adopt and abandon the moral axes, and if he will update his thesis accordingly.  I do think Mr. Haidt’s work will be found to be fundamentally wrong in its predictive value (as it relates to correlating morality to political ideology), but right in terms of identifying moral axes that societies use as tools for leveraging position and power as circumstances allow.