Politics and purity

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.

15 responses to “Politics and purity

  1. Superb, Steve … I even burst out laughing at one point. It reminded me of the time long ago when I was dating (yes) a Catholic priest. We often went to parties filled with other Priests and their boyfriends … and yet somehow the weirdness of it all never seem to reach them. They chattered on about B-I-G moral concepts, as if their carnal buddies weren’t sitting around the room with them. Away. Nice post … very nice.

    • “other Priests and their boyfriends” ????

      • Indeed … there were probably 8 – 10 Catholic Priests with their significant others. Being gay, you see the world as it really is … in the sense that you experience first hand (excuse the pun) the gay lawyers, dentists, policemen, fireman, politicians, etc.

  2. People haven’t changed. The tools available to out themselves or be outed have changed. Today, people post everything about themselves on social media and blogs. It doesn’t matter who they are. Quite entertaining, actually.

  3. “Liberals can feel visceral disgust for a hedge fund manager earning millions of dollars.” Okay, I know I wrote a post recently about the income inequity in the States and I used the illustration about how four U.S. hedge fund managers earned more in 2013 than all of the nearly 158,000 kindergarten teachers in the country. It’s not that I, a liberal, feel visceral disgust toward hedge fund managers. It’s the gross inequity that my post calls out that caused my “visceral” reaction. I don’t begrudge those who take advantage of the system to maximize their earnings as much as I begrudge the political and economic system that enables such income inequities to exist.

    That said, I do wholeheartedly agree agree with your closing statement about what morality should be.

    • Doobster, I promise I am not picking on you! But I do think it’s disgust that drives this very common reaction. Look at the language you used here – “gross inequity” and “take advantage of the system”. In your blog article you wrote, “These four hedge fund managers … made $5,000 a minute while taking a crap … $5,000 while having sex or masturbating.”

      We all tend to form an opinion very quickly based on our gut feelings, then rationalize this after the event. I’m not saying it is wrong to think like that – it is how our brains work – but we should be aware of it.

      Think of the Republican who is simply disgusted by homosexual acts but realises you can’t pass a law based on disgust. He or she must rationalize the disgust through ideas like “protecting marriage” or “against nature”.

      I will return to the hedge fund manager another time, since this is worth at least one blog article in its own right.

  4. stefankeys1997

    I think some people need to learn to mind their own business as long as their civil rights and liberties are not threatened.

  5. “We need to get over ouselves.” 🙂 That pretty much sums it up.

  6. Fan of Dickens

    Great closing sentence. I think it is also important to watch the language we use (and the choice of words others use) extremely carefully if we are going to follow our “set of values”. Some people can make you think they are right because they are clever with language. There is a brilliant book, “Unspeak”; have you read it? The analysis is centred around language which is used to close down an argument before it has even taken place; hence, to use your example, homophobes use phrases such as “protecting marriage” to hide what they really mean. Such a phrase is transparently absurd, but there are other phrases which have sneakily crept into our lexicon which could be unconsciously accepted. “Global warming”, for example, through political manipulation, has become “climate change”, which doesn’t sound nearly as scary. People mask their disgust with selective use of words and, even more worryingly, hide the truth with them.

  7. Pingback: American positions on moral issues and tensions between the moral foundations | SelfAwarePatterns

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