A recent account of moral sentiments, proposed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012), has attracted attention for its explanation of the difference between progressives and traditionalists.
According to the account, moral judgments typically have to do with six dimensions of concern: care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, liberty versus oppression, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, and sanctity versus degradation. Surveys show that progressives, by and large, are concerned with the care, fairness, and liberty dimensions, while traditionalists are concerned with all six. So it appears that the “culture wars” have to do with the moral status of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Traditionally minded people accept them as morally important, while their more progressive fellows do not.
But why the difference? It appears, although Haidt’s concerns lie elsewhere, that the difference lines up with the opposition between the modern tendency to view man as radically free and the world as technological, and the traditional, classical, and religious view of man as social, and the world as pervaded by intrinsic meanings, natural ways of functioning, and natural ends.
The difference is a difference in basic understandings of man, society, and the world. Progressives tend to think of the world as a sort of blank slate that is meaningless in itself. On that view man becomes the creator of values, society becomes a system set up to bring about whatever goals people want it to serve, and it seems most sensible to design the system to help people attain whatever purposes they have, without playing favorites or interfering more than necessary with what they want to do.
So the progressive view makes care, fairness, and liberty seem the right basic standards, with “care” understood from the standpoint of the concerns of the person cared for. Authority, loyalty, and sanctity interfere with people doing and getting what they want, so on such a view they make no sense as standards. They seem dangerous, since they give an advantage to those in charge of the system, who in the absence of a higher good shared with others can be expected to use the advantage for their private ends. So it’s not surprising that “question authority” has been an axiom for progressives, rebellion a virtue, and transgression a desirable form of liberation.
In contrast, traditionalists view society and morality as natural rather than constructed. Since man is naturally social, society and morality are necessary to the world he inhabits and needed to make him what he truly is. That world is considered good in itself as well as productive of good, and to act socially and morally is to realize one’s own nature by participating in it. So the loyalty and authority that create a social world and make us part of it are natural to man and necessary for a good life.
The attitude toward sanctity is perhaps the greatest distinction between the two approaches. The practical necessity of loyalty and authority for a stable and functional social order leads progressives to accept them somewhat, at least as subordinate principles, but sanctity seems entirely baseless to them. What function can it play if man is radically free and the world is understood technologically? Further, purity is an aspect of sanctity, and to say A is pure is to say not-A is impure. That makes sanctity and purity, on a progressive view, look very much like high-toned rationalizations for atavistic exclusionary impulses.
For traditionalists, in contrast, sanctity plays a necessary role as a principle of reverence for the moral and cosmic order toward which social practices and institutions must orient themselves if they are to be worthy of humanity. Sanctity tells us that some concerns trump questions of advantage. If we reject that, everything becomes a matter of usefulness—to ourselves first of all. On that view we will either reject personal sacrifice as a possible obligation, which every society must rely on in times of stress, or accept it even though there are no transcendent concerns in play that make it reasonable to do so. So we will deny either our social or our rational nature.
But what is the relation between these various dimensions of moral concern and the truth or falsity of moral judgments? Haidt himself treats moral judgments as a matter of feeling, with rational justifications tacked on afterwards. Still, the question of truth is unavoidable for a rational being, so we must deal with it.
Moral judgments normally have two aspects: the moral feelings that lie behind them and give them their immediate practical force, and the view of the world that makes those feelings seem appropriate and gives them reflective justification. The latter is if anything more fundamental. Both aspects are present in all areas of moral concern, with regard to sanctity and degradation as much as care and harm.
When people speak of sexual purity, for example, many people today view that as simply an emotional or aesthetic concern, or perhaps a matter of arbitrary religious dogma. That view leads progressives, with their utilitarian and rights-oriented understanding of morality, to dismiss the issue as not moral at all. Traditionalists of course disagree. They consider sexual purity part of personal sanctity, but somewhat surprisingly rarely refer to it when offering reflective justifications for traditional sexual morality. They are far more likely to refer to teleology, to specific consequences of sexual misconduct or the moral need for actions to align with the normal and beneficial functioning of the system of human life as a whole.
In fact, the purity-based and teleological perspectives are closely connected. Traditionalists tend to understand the world organically, by reference to systems that function in a way that brings about particular states of affairs. A philosophical way of describing their view is to say that they rely heavily on formal and final cause, where the word “cause” is understood broadly to mean “explanatory principle.” Formal cause is the arrangement of features that makes a system the kind of system it is, while final cause is the state of affairs the system tends to bring about. Thus, the formal cause of a bicycle is the assemblage of design features that make it a bicycle, while the final cause is availability of fast and efficient man-powered transportation.
Formal cause is easier to recognize immediately and intuitively—we look at a bicycle and see it’s a bicycle. Further, it has aesthetic qualities that give rise to ideals of purity. Thus, the fixed-gear bicycle seems a purer design than the 12-speed, let alone the motorized bicycle or the bicycle with training wheels, because it realizes the fundamental conception of a bicycle more simply, directly, and cleanly.
Final cause, the state of affairs the system brings about through its functioning, is easier to discuss analytically. We can talk about what it is, whether it’s a good thing, what interferes with it, how it relates to other goals, and so on. With those points in mind, it’s not surprising that for traditionalists’ immediate reactions to sexual immorality have to do with purity or formal cause, while arguments are almost always based on final cause, or considerations relating to function and intrinsic goal. The same is true with regard to almost any moral issue: our immediate reaction to dishonesty is that it’s a sort of stain or violation, but when we discuss what’s wrong with it we are more likely to talk about its effect on the system of human life.
The modern technological outlook rejects a view of the world as a complex of functional systems serving implicit goods in favor of one based on consciously chosen goals and immediate mechanical causation. One consequence is that progressives, who tend toward that outlook, don’t understand formal cause and purity. The idea simply makes no sense to them except as a childish “eww, gross” sort of thing. (It’s worth noting, however, that they aren’t consistent on the point. They are likely, for example, to consider inclusiveness a sacred cause, Matthew Shepard a holy martyr, racists, sexists, and homophobes unclean and disgusting, and so on.)
So it seems that which understanding of morality is better depends on which understanding of reality is more adequate: one that wants to rely exclusively on immediate mechanical causation or one that places more emphasis on functional systems with implicit goals. That question, though, must be left for another discussion.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared August 07, 2014 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above is “The Denial of Peter” painted by Caravaggio in 1610.