Politics and purity make strange bedfellows.
Here I’m discussing how the moral foundation of Purity influences our political tendencies. This is the last of the five core moral foundations that I’ve been examining in this series. The others were Caring, Fairness, Loyalty and Authority.
The Purity or Sanctity foundation is defined as:
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).
Living in an elevated, noble way is a virtue. But being disgusted by immoral activities and contaminants (i.e. life in general) sounds more like a behavioural problem than a virtue. Who wants to spend their life writing letters to newspapers, complaining about other people and signing themselves “Disgusted from Oxfordshire”?
Imagining that your body is a temple is a fool’s errand. Humans are made out of dirt. Peel away the skin and you’ll find blood, guts and shit. Our bodies are covered in orifices that we insert things into or eject things from. We should all be rather used to disgusting behaviour, surely?
Those who feel a strong sense of disgust for drugs, prostitution, unusual sexual acts, body piercing, etc, etc often feel a strong urge to condemn and ban such behaviour. Is that appropriate? Or is it simply externalizing a personal issue and foisting it on others? Maybe the person who feels the disgust is the one who needs to change their attitude, not the one engaging in the “disgusting” act.
In other societies, acts that are considered indecent in the West are perfectly acceptable. Conversely, things that we think of as normal would raise an eyebrow in other parts of the world.
Disgust is something that we invent for ourselves. Nothing is disgusting to a baby – small children positively take delight in disgusting things. Yet adults find disgust in the choices of others.
“Nature knows no indecencies; man invents them.” – Mark Twain
By the way, I don’t revel in disgust. I’m quite repelled by a lot of things. I’m generally a squeamish person. But I recognize that this behaviour isn’t objective or universal or rational and that in order to live together we need to be tolerant of others.
You want to get a tattoo? Cool, just don’t make me watch. You don’t want to take a shower? Fine, just don’t stand so close. You wear contact lenses? Yuck, that is so gross!
Anyone here ever been born? Ew, how disgusting!
Conservatives are typically disgusted by all kinds of behaviour. It’s part of their make-up. But equally, liberals can feel visceral disgust for a hedge fund manager earning millions of dollars.
We need to get over ourselves. The private behaviour of others shouldn’t be our concern. What gives us the right to intrude into the lives of other people? We have no such right.
Perhaps ultimately, the purity/disgust moral foundation points us to something we should have known all along – that morality should never be a yardstick we use to condemn others, but a set of values that enable us to understand and question our own motives and to self-regulate our actions so that we do no harm.