Purity as Harm?

The area of moral psychology is exploding right now. Lots of this work is being done by Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia. You may recall George linking us all to a recent article by Haidt. You can find that piece and a lot more at Haidt’s UV website.

Haidt’s recent work is on moral foundations. Specifically, after considering cross-cultural and anthropological sources Haidt suggests that humans base their moral judgment on five moral criteria. That is, the reasons we offer for something being “wrong”, morally speaking, tend to fall into five distinct areas. According to Haidt these are the five moral foundations:

Harming others, failures of care/nurturance, or failures of protection are often cited as reasons for an act being “wrong.” Some virtues from this domain are kindness, caretaking, and compassion.

Inequalities or failures to reciprocate are often cited as evidence for something being “wrong.” Some virtues here are sharing, egalitarianism, and justice.

Failure to support, defend, and aid the group is often cited as evidence for “wrongness.” Virtues include loyalty, patriotism, and cooperation.

Failure to grant respect to culturally significant groups, institutions, or authority figures is often cause for sanction. Virtues include respect, duty, and obedience.

Anything that demeans, debases, or profanes human or religious dignity or sacredness is also a cause for sanction. Virtues include purity, dignity, and holiness.

The interesting observation Haidt makes about these domains is that conservatives and liberals differ in how they deploy the five moral criteria. Specifically, liberals use only the Harm/Care and the Fairness/Reciprocity foundations. That is, liberals will tend to only cry foul when someone is being harmed or when something is unfair/unjust.

By contrast, conservatives deploy all five foundations when they adjudicate between moral acts. This might make conservatives seem “more” moral, but it is more accurate to say that they have a greater range for moral offense. For example, an act might not lead to harm or injustice (making it fine for the liberal) but it might violate one of the other three domains for the conservative: Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity. All this implies that liberals and conservatives will systemically differ in how they feel about morality.

The perfect example is homosexuality. Here is how a liberal sees it:

Question: Is homosexuality a sin?

Harm/Care violation? No harm when the parties are consenting adults.

Fairness/Reciprocity violation? Yes, homosexual couples are being discriminated against.

Ingroup/Loyalty violation? Irrelevant.

Authority/Respect violation? Irrelevant.

Purity/Sanctity violation? Irrelevant.

Conclusion: The only immoral action that is involved with this issue is the unfair treatment of homosexuals.

By contrast, here is how the conservative looks at homosexuality:

Question: Is homosexuality a sin?

Harm/Care violation? No harm when the parties are consenting adults.

Fairness/Reciprocity violation? Yes, homosexual couples are being discriminated against.

Ingroup/Loyalty violation? No.

Authority/Respect violation? Yes. Failure to respect the commands of Scripture and the marriage tradition of Western culture.

Purity/Sanctity violation? Yes. Homosexuality is unnatural.

Conclusion: Although homosexual couples are being treated unfairly this is warranted by the fact that homosexuality is unnatural, sinful, and an undermining of the Western conception of marriage.

The take home point is that liberals and conservatives tend to talk past each other because they are playing by different rules. That is, three of the moral criteria deployed by conservatives are deemed irrelevant by liberals. For liberals the only moral criteria of any worth are harm and justice. The rest is superstition and dysfunctional tradition.

I want to reflect on a few different things.

First, how did this happen? Haidt makes it clear that the liberal focus on harm and justice is a relatively recent phenomenon in the human drama. Specifically, the liberal focus is the product of the Western Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, and still in most places unaffected by it, all five moral foundations were (or still are) in force. Only after the Enlightenment do we see morality narrowed to issues of harm and injustice.

So, my first question is: Has this development been a good thing? Has the moral movement of the Enlightenment been driven by divine or secular forces?

Although the example of homosexuality complicates things for some, the moral trajectory of the Enlightenment has, in the main, been a very good thing. It has ended slavery and emphasized the human dignity of all persons. Its egalitarian notions have benefited the poor and women. All these developments seem consistent with the gospel message.

But what are we to do with the three other moral foundations? Are they relevant? Should we heed them? Particularly if that foundation is found in the bible?

I’ve actually done some writing on this. In a recent paper of mine, I’ve suggested that one way of reading the moral trajectory of the New Testament is to see purity categories trumped by or folded into harm categories. That is, I’ve argued that purity categories are a form of harm. It is dehumanizing to consider another human being to be a pollutant or contaminant. And when these attributions do emerge we see all sorts of harm following, with genocide as the nadir. Thus, I’ve argued that in Jesus we see purity reconfigured. Specifically, impurity is defined as harming. To harm is to be contaminated. To care/love is to be pure. In this conflation the purity language remains but has been subsumed by the harm criteria. If this argument is accurate then perhaps the moral choices of liberals can be made consistent with Scripture.

I don’t know if this argument is correct. It is all food for thought. Your impressions on Haidt’s work, the liberal/conservative impasse, or my purity-as-harm paper?

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10 thoughts on “Purity as Harm?”

  1. I think your "liberals on homosexuality" side is assuming that we're talking to straight liberals who have never had gay or lesbian people in their social groups.

    I don't know if there have been studies done about gay and lesbian people's sense of linked fate (in the social psychology sense)--I'd guess it is quite high, at least among Christian gays and lesbians. So even among the most liberal Christian gays and lesbians you'd probably get

    Harm/Care violation? No harm when the parties are consenting adults.

    Fairness/Reciprocity violation? Yes, homosexual couples are being discriminated against.

    Ingroup/Loyalty violation? Yes, I cannot participate in any form of violence/cruelty toward my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

    I would actually say Yes to the Authority/Respect and Purity/Sanctity questions too--similarly, it depends on which authority you respect (God's or the hierarchy's), and what you consider to be sanctity (loving God and neighbor, or following the law that kills.)

    Your purity paper is great--I actually think the most interesting part of it isn't the opposition between purity and do-no-harm, but rather your raising of the question about whether our 'purity' norms are just a codification of a culturally (or individually) specific feeling of disgust.

    cheers! Heather

  2. "All these developments seem consistent with the gospel message."

    This post of yours reminds me of my transition from being conservative minded to being liberal minded. People accused me of "cherry-picking" through the scriptures, yet others said that "all scripture is interpreted through the life of Christ."

    But even my study of the life of Christ led me to more moral contentions. For example, I came to a place in my life where I couldn't support any sanctified use of death as a penalty. So I wondered: why did Jesus make death-as-a-penalty legitimate by taking our place on the cross? Or why can't everyone be free to take from the good God's heavenly home has to offer (even if they don't worship God)?

    The more I've become a liberal, the more I've found contention with the bible. Eventually, I told myself, "The bible isn't God. God trumps the bible," and sought God's revelation through liberal morals.

    Is this dichotomy (scripture vs. liberal) in my life necessary? Others tell me "No." But I have yet to come across a good explanation of why not. I'm an atheist now (I hope this doesn't project me as "one-of-them atheists" instead of "one-of-us human beings"), but I'm not done with the subject. Any insights?

  3. Heather,
    As I wrote the post I wondered the same thing. Perhaps even liberals use variants of the five foundations. At church this week I lead a discussion about Haidt's work and this was our conclusion: Perhaps the issue isn't if all five foundations are in play for liberals or conservatives (as you point out) but how we allow those moral criteria to trump (or not trump) each other. As far as I know, I don't think Haidt has looked at this trumping (moral prioritizing) issue.

    Hi Jerry,
    I think my moral trajectory has led me to similar conflicts with the bible, at least certain readings of the bible. To be honest, to leave religion for moral reasons seems, to me, a perfectly reasonable choice. My own choice has been to search the Christian tradition to find readings of scripture that support my evolving notions of God and The Good. For example, my discovery of Rene Girard has allowed me to completely overhaul my reading of the cross. Importantly, for me at least, this Girardian reading is consistent with my thoughts on purity-as-harm. That is, the death of Jesus saves us not as a purity sacrifice but as a means to stop scapegoating violence. In this reading the purity/holinees/cleasing language of the cross is reinterpreted by the moral lens of harm/violence/justice.

  4. Richard,

    It’s interesting that Haidt was the topic of a recent science blog so I have had a brief introduction to his writings. Haidt summarizes his view on morality by saying, “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.” Haidt seems to agree with your latest topic by suggesting that morals are meant for social life and not a rigorous set of principles given by God for God.
    As to your questions Richard, I think morality narrowed to issues of harm and injustice is a good thing and I think this was driven by secular forces. If it were divinely inspired then why would it have taken over 1400 years to transpire? Why wouldn’t harm and injustice issues become part of our morality immediately? Could it be that conditions weren’t right for this new mindset? Haidt’s above description of moral systems seems to suggest that they don’t spring up all the sudden but need many interrelating factors to thrive. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes to mind. It would be hard to even conceive of concepts like injustice when one is dominated by religious and secular overlords. Maybe conditions were right during the enlightenment that allowed such ideals to grow and flourish.
    As to the other three moral foundations I think we see signs of them becoming less relevant. Group loyalty and nationalism are outright dangerous in such a small world and can be used to evil ends by leaders who hide behind supposed virtues of duty and obedience. I’m not clear on purity/sanctity. I can see a need for hygiene to be conflated with holiness for health’s sake but it seems that ancient spin doctors manipulated the concept to their advantage, maybe for power or influence.
    To sum up, society has changed over the centuries and what was once acceptable is now anathema. Consider slavery and women’s rights. The Bible doesn’t speak against slavery or for women’s rights but we find those to be moral issues related to harm and injustice. I think it’s time to reassess the last three moral foundations and define what is good about them and what could be harmful and weigh their value based on that. Society changes and ebbs and flows. What was commonly acceptable is now unthinkable and what we accept today will become immoral tomorrow. For example, attempts to pass non war profiteering laws have been met with disgust at the thought of companies not making a profit. The concepts of financial success and affluence as being good and right are now prevalent in society at large and not just in wealthy circles. It seems that Jesus’ teachings on that subject will have to wait a while longer to catch on. I hope it doesn’t take another 1400 years for it to happen.
    Since morality is not God given but socially ingrained, believing or not believing in God does little to affect your moral principles. Take what you will from the scriptures and find inspiration and wisdom where you can. Don’t let people tell you that you have to believe in all kinds of myths to be moral. Some of these people are the worst for exhibiting proper morality. You can have a rational mind, believe in what is real and provable and be a moral person.
    I was raised a fundie and had to face the questions you are undoubtedly facing. I have come to similar conclusions as you. I don’t live in fear and guilt anymore, I appreciate life more than I did and live in the moment more often. I am more moral than I used to be because I am more truthful with myself and understand myself and others better. So, believe or not but nurture the good in any case. Richard’s blog is a good place to find thought provoking ideas about living a moral life.
    Rick T.

  5. I've been thinking about this a great deal this week, and I think that I've finally come to a conclusion about the liberal/conservative impasse.

    If the objective is to reach consensus, then yes, I think it's a lost cause, primarily because both sides believe, earnestly, that they are *right*. From a "liberal" perspective, it is *right* to dismiss the ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity factors. They have no meaning in an enlightened world, they're just excuses. From a "conservative" perspective, to dismiss these is to ignore a significant portion of the question of morality.

    The US has a terrible track record when it comes to trying to legislate morality. Even when we can reach a majority consensus about what *is* moral, we have no way to enforce it. Prohibition was a failure and we haven't yet succeeded in eradicating racism through any number of laws. Most of the time, we can't even agree on what is moral (impasse). Personally, I cannot imagine being so confident in my own convictions that I would even try to impose my construction of morality on anyone else, and it always baffles me somewhat when others try to force theirs on me. Perhaps it is this lack of conviction that makes me a little leery of all these kinds of questions, but I think it's actually a general frustration with allowing questions without answers to prevent us from answering questions that might have answers.

    To keep using your example: Why does it matter if homosexuality is a sin? The actual sin aspect of it seems to me to be something that is between God and the individual. There's a more immediate question in there somewhere. I would propose that the way past the 'impasse' is to ask what is the real question?

    The catalytic question might be: "Should same-sex marriages be recognized?" but even that breaks down into other questions. In my experience, there are actually two completely different arguments at play in that question.
    First, there's a question of what marriage really is-- is it primarily a religious institution, or is it a civil institution? Is there any such thing as the sanctity of marriage when two people can marry on a whim and divorce just as easily without so much as a nod to God? The question of gay marriage is certainly among the issues to this question, but there are other sides to it as well. Is a marriage between atheists a valid marriage? Is a marriage between two people of different religions who opted out of a religious ceremony altogether in order to avoid conflict? Is any marriage other than a Christian marriage valid? What about polygamy? What sort of age limits should apply? There are literally dozens of issues, the most emotionally charged of which is homosexuality at the moment, surrounding this question.

    Second, there's a question of what civil rights are being denied to homosexuals. Generally the things I've heard cited have been things like access to a partner's health insurance, the right to adopt children, legal rights generally extended to spouses, issues of next of kin, the right to make decisions on the partner's behalf regarding medical treatment, things of this nature. Once again, these are not questions that are unique to homosexuals, but they are general questions. In any of them, you can insert a common-law spouse or a very close friend and have the same discussion, only not as emotionally charged-- who has the right to health insurance, who has the right to adopt children, who has the right to make complicated medical decisions on an unconscious person's behalf.

    Generally, I've noticed that when conservatives and liberals are arguing about gay marriage, the conservative is talking about the first set of questions and the liberal is talking about the second set. Thus, it stands to reason that they never reach a consensus. Not only are they playing with a different deck of cards, they're playing different games.

    The answer to the impasse is to define the real questions at stake. If you leave the morality arguments for the coffee shop and focus on those questions which will bring about action, then you remove some of the emotional charge. People can talk much more rationally about who gets healthcare because most people who aren't extremists tend to think everyone should get it and the question is who pays for it. If you talk about what marriage means and who has the right to be married and what a couple gets out of it, then you have a much saner conversation.

    These are still issues that people can-- and do-- debate about, but they're not as likely to get jammed up in that moral impasse.

    I think that what to really take from this is an understanding of how different people frame morality so that at some point we can say 'you know what? We've entered into a discussion that is primarily a moral one, and I'm no more likely to change your mind than you are to change mine. Let's make sure that this moral impasse isn't preventing us from solving a problem that actually has a potential solution. Is the question here really whether or not homosexuality is a sin? Or are we getting stuck on that when we really need to be talking about something else?"


  6. Richard--thanks for passing it on. Helpful stuff.
    The only question I'd have in applying it straightforwardly to an issue like homosexuality and the Church is with the calling of the Church. Surely our calling is not to merely 'avoid moral harms'? This is a good start, but the 'trajectory of Scripture' (/the words of Jesus in his 2nd temple context) seems to call Christians to mediate the presence of God by embodying Kingdom values. And Kingdom values aren't liberal values, but are rather grounded in Scripture's narratives of Creation and re-Creation (Genesis 1, Isaiah 11, and so forth). At least, I think it's reasonable to think that this is what Jesus saw himself ushering in.

    In that light, I'd be tempted to argue that Christians might be called to foresake homosexual sex for the sake of the story we are communally called to tell, without necessarily then moving on to legislate against homosexual marriage in the public arena.

    The gist of my thought is that reducing Christian sexual morality to 'is it consensual?' and 'is it caring?' seems rather... unbiblical. (The caveat of course, is that both consensus and care are essential, no doubt, but that maybe there's MORE to it than that...)

    My two cents.

  7. Richard,

    A few quick thoughts:

    + I agree with you that the ego boundary is important in all of this. When people are outside their ego boundary the think of it as a protective barrier, but once they enter it they see that all it really is is an alienating barrier that alienates us from, to use your term, our own "real you" and the "real you" in each other.

    + When I was about 19 I became consumed with moving forward--inward--as fast and as far as I could. After about 2 years of doing this, one afternoon I was sitting on the couch looking into myself when, like a bolt out of the blue, I became conscious of a self's existence within me. Lots can be said about this, but here are two minor points: (1) In the weeks and months after that moment I noticed that it was one of those "not conscious of something, don't see it anywhere; become conscious of it, see it in a few to many places," e.g. Underhill's Practical Mysticism, Laing's Divided Self, and Varieties. (2) I'm fairly sure that, even though I had spent hundreds of hours looking into myself before that moment, the reason I didn't see that self before is that I had to become it to a sufficient degree before I could become conscious of its existence.

    + I think you were exactly right when you wrote "When we empathize with a person in need our altruistic motives increase." To me, when we are more our "real you" we naturally and inevitably relate to the "real you" in others, and treat them accordingly. But when we let ourselves drift from our "real you," such as was the case with the seminarians who stepped over the groaning man, trouble.

    + As I understand all of this, in the simplest terms, liberals don't like conservatives because liberals sense that conservatives want us all to become more alienated from the "real you" in ourselves and in each other, and conservatives don't like liberals because they sense that liberals want us to become who we truly are deep inside, which conservatives believe is ugly, immoral, and polluted.

    Kind regards,


  8. Rick,
    Hey, can I feel excited that atheists like my blog? :-) Truly, I find this a hopeful sign. I think fair minded Christians and atheists share lots in common. Luke Timothy Johnson makes this very observation in his book The Creed. He says that open-minded Christians have lots more in common with open-minded atheists than with conservative fundamentalists. I agree. (Of course, the fundamentalist probably thinks we are both going to hell. Oh well, at least we'll keep each other company.)

    Thanks for your thoughts and comments. When I think about the rise of liberal ethic is seems connected with the rise of democracy and the need to create peace and civility among a heterogeneous population. The conservative ethic is too particular to be of any use to America. There is just too much diversity among us. So I agree. Trying to legislate a conservative morality is doomed to failure. You can't make people be "good" at the point of a gun. I personally think Christians would do much better if they made this move in our culture: State your disagreement with the gay community while you walk in their marches to lobby for their rights. (And follow the march up with your vote.) In other words, I think Christians would look more Christian if they acted like Americans rather than thinking that Americans would be more Christian if they acted like Christians.

    True, non-harming is a negative ethic, the absence of harm. But, as Haidt noted, the liberal ethic also has a care and justice component. These are positive and culturally transformative and look a lot like the Jubilee and the New Creation.

    But I do see your point. In the class at church we wondered what the five foundations would look like when filtered through Christology.

    Thinking along with you, I tend to think that anything that erects a barrier/boundary (be that barrier psychological or physical) between Me and You is morally wrong. At the very least is sets up the sin situation at the root of the human problem.

  9. Richard,

    Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith (1957) defines faith in a way that makes it universal and then describes a universal human tendency to make faith "demonic" or "idolatrous."

    Tillich's thought is too subtle to allow for easy or accurate simplification, so excuse me for leaving those grand assertions unexplained. But here is the reason for bringing them up:

    Tillich believed that the core meaning of the cross is iconoclastic: "The criterion of the truth of faith...is that it implies an element of self-negation. ... Jesus could not have been the Christ without sacrificing himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ." (p. 97-98)

    That's a rather dark saying, but its implication, for Tillich at least, is that "...[the criterion of faith] does not accept any truth of faith as ultimate except the one that no man possesses it." (p. 98)

    In other words, the function of the cross is to break down idolatries and demonizations that human nature is prone to erecting.

    Tillich's work is interesting in this light and another for the present discussion: Dynamics of Faith can be viewed, I think, as a way of using Christian catagories for doing real social and psychological science (and the book is his answer--again, I think--for how Christianity plays a key role in a history of religions approach to faith).

    Well, much suggested and little said, but I am confident that you will find Tillich's work at least interesting, and probably helpful.


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