Leaving Sanctity Behind

August 17, 2012

Jonathan Haidt, in his recent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, claims that “sanctity” is one of the six foundations of moral psychology. Central to his claim is his argument that we find some actions abhorrent, yet we cannot explain how they harm anyone. According to Haidt, we regard these actions as immoral because they violate our sense of the sacred. We find them disgusting, degrading.

I think Haidt’s analysis is flawed. Unfortunately, his claim also lends credence to the taboo mentality still embraced by many religious dogmatists.

Haidt’s book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of moral behavior; it’s informative and insightful, and many of his claims are firmly grounded in empirical research.

However, Haidt’s insistence that “sanctity” is one of the indispensable foundations of our moral psychology is not adequately supported by his research: there are other ways to interpret the data he provides. In arguing for the importance of sanctity, Haidt relies heavily on the reactions of individuals in other, non-Western cultures to conduct they consider degrading and violative of various taboos, such as a woman eating a meal with men. Haidt maintains, with some justification, that these reactions show that conventional morality in many cultures includes prohibitions based on sanctified custom and a sense or revulsion as opposed to any reasoning about the harm caused.

In most Western cultures, the importance of sanctity has diminished, but Haidt insists it remains a foundation for morality, although one not often acknowledged by “liberals.” Haidt’s key example, which supposedly shows the continuing importance of sanctity even in the contemporary West, is the bizarre case of Armin Meiwes, the German computer technician who advertised for a person who would consent to be killed and then eaten. Meiwes found such a willing participant, a man named Bernd Brandes, and followed through on his plan; that is, he killed Brandes, cooked him, and consumed him.

Haidt argues that assuming Brandes was competent, no one was harmed by Meiwes’s actions, yet most everyone finds his conduct not only revolting but also highly immoral. According to Haidt, this demonstrates that morality cannot be limited to treating people fairly and preventing harm. Instead, it must incorporate a sense of the sacred: “Meiwes and Brandes caused no harm to anyone in a direct, material, or utilitarian way. But they desecrated several of the bedrock moral principles of Western society, such as … that the human body is more than just a walking slab of meat.”

Haidt’s argument could be summarized as follows: 1) Being able to provide an explanation why an action is harmful is a necessary condition for an action being considered harmful; 2) so if an action is almost universally condemned as immoral; 3) yet no one can articulate the harm caused by this action; then the action must be considered immoral for some reason other than the harm it causes. But even if we grant that this reasoning is valid, his argument is not sound because, as applied to the Meiwes case, his third premise is incorrect and his first premise is dubious.

Let’s take the first premise, that is, the implications of the inability of most people to explain why a particular action is harmful, in this case, the inability to explain how a consensual killing followed by cannibalism harms anyone. As Haidt’s research confirms, many people cannot explain how the action of Meiwes and Brandes harms anyone. But our moral judgment often outruns our ability to explain the factors behind our moral judgment. Not every person can explain his moral reasoning clearly, and few can do so on all occasions. A novel situation (and I think the Meiwes case presents something out of the ordinary) may pose special problems.  We have the word “dumbstruck” in our vocabulary for a reason. So I don’t think the inability to explain why an action is harmful necessarily implies we don’t really consider the action harmful (or that the action isn’t harmful).

In any event, if we give some thought to it, we may be able to specify the harm caused by Meiwes. Indeed, if we look at this case from the proper perspective, the answer becomes clear. In fact, Haidt has already alluded to the appropriate explanation by saying that we don’t want people regarding other humans as a “walking slab of meat.” The harm in this case is not any harm done to Brandes, who consented to Meiwes’s actions. Rather, the harm is the corrosive effect on the attitudes of others, especially if Meiwes were to go unpunished. Morality is not merely a matter of knowing what’s right and wrong. For moral institutions to be effective, people have to be disposed to act in certain ways. If many of us were to begin to think of other humans as nothing more than meat, this attitude would almost surely manifest itself in ways detrimental to the welfare of the community. Given Haidt’s own emphasis on moral psychology, it’s puzzling that he does not seem to consider a change in attitude that causes us to lose respect for our fellow humans as harmful—especially as history provides examples of what happens when people are regarded as a source of food, soap, or lampshades.

We can think of other examples where we would condemn actions even though the participants directly involved are arguably unharmed and are carrying out the action voluntarily. We would still prohibit slavery even if a person were to agree to become another’s slave voluntarily for financial reasons. We don’t want to allow a practice that threatens core moral principles (the dignity and autonomy of all individuals) and the moral fabric of society.

Why am I spending time on this issue? Principally because I’m concerned with how Haidt’s claims can provide cover for those religious dogmatists who use the importance of the “sacred” as justification for enforcing taboos—taboos that often serve to perpetuate oppression and subordination of one class of humans by another. Perhaps the most prevalent taboos are those dealing with women, many of which preclude women from being treated as the equals of men and stigmatize them as dirty, contaminated beings.

To get a sense of what I’m talking about, consider this discussion of whether a menstruating woman can touch the Koran. This discussion is from an Islamic web site that specializes in instructing the faithful on the various actions they must take or refrain from undertaking, all based on the sanctity of their proposed actions. Fatwa after mind-numbing fatwa, the imam tells his followers that a woman may not ride in a car with a male friend, that certain occupations are foreclosed to womenthat a menstruating woman cannot enter a mosque, that women cannot wear shoes that look like men’s shoes, and on and on.

I don’t deny that taboos have played a large role in the history of human morality. They can simplify matters, allow for the easy transmission of norms from generation to generation, and, especially for humans who are not accustomed to reason about moral issues, they remove the burden of thinking. Beginning with the Enlightenment, however, many in the West began to question blind adherence to various customs, including customs that were supported by religious authority. Throughout his book, Haidt warns the reader not to equate the morality of WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) cultures with morality in general. As factual matter, he’s correct that WEIRD morality is not shared by everyone in the world, and it is advisable to bear this in mind when dealing with other cultures. But, unlike Haidt, I don’t think this implies that “liberals” are overlooking a key foundation of morality when they don’t think in terms of what’s sacred and instead confine their moral reasoning largely to questions of fairness and harm. They’re not overlooking the sacred; they’ve outgrown it.

Comments:

#1 Ophelia Benson on Friday August 17, 2012 at 11:45am

Does consent really rule out harm to the consenting party? I don’t think the fact that Brandes consented really means Meiwes didn’t harm him. It means Brandes was complicit in the harm, but not really that he wasn’t harmed…does it?

As you say, people can’t consent to being enslaved; can they really consent to being murdered? Helped to commit suicide, under carefully spelled out conditions, yes, but murdered?

Sati might be the best comparison. The idea is that it’s “voluntary,” but opponents of sati don’t consider that a justification. No, sorry, you can’t “consent” to being burned alive on your husband’s pyre.

#2 Ronald A. Lindsay on Friday August 17, 2012 at 3:05pm

I granted Haidt the point about Brandt not being harmed himself because I wanted to consider whether we could still speak of an action being harmful even if the persons directly involved are not harmed.

Sati actually underscores my point about harmful consequences of actions that, at least for argument sake, might not harm the persons directly involved. Hypothetically, one might imagine a situation in which a spouse was so distraught and emotionally empty after the death of her/his spouse that life wasn’t worth living. But having a custom or practice like sati which creates an expectation that a widow will kill herself is obviously harmful. Among other things, a widow may be pressured by others to kill herself or she may have internalized the society’s norm so that she feels guilty about staying alive. It’s advisable not to let a practice like this ever get a foothold, so obviously the right thing to do is to ban it completely.

In any event, notions of “sanctity” are not helpful in addressing the issue.

#3 Rick Miller (Guest) on Saturday August 18, 2012 at 4:22pm

Your argument is based on what appears to be a predisposed acceptance that human life is somehow sacred or special, and to those of us who do not think so, the argument becomes an exercise in futility. After all, there is no evidence that human life is sacred by any definition of the term, even after it’s design by the human mind.

Morality to one can become obscenity to another. What is immoral to one may be moral to another. If there are too many humans on the planet, then it stands to reason that their numbers be limited - by whatever means necessary. Viruses alone can’t fight their way past our curious intellect for too long.

#4 Rick Miller (Guest) on Saturday August 18, 2012 at 4:30pm

To Benson:

Yes, you can consent to being burned alive. Perhaps YOU can’t, but that does not negate the possibility of someone else wholly consenting to being burned alive.

Buddhist monks immolate occasionally, and the fuel and spark are supplied by the same hand. How would a lack of consent explain such an act?

Some people are also victimized by indoctrination - to the point where they willingly do harmful things to themselves in an effort to please a god they cannot prove exists. And we’re worried about what is moral and immoral?

Some Hindu women may willingly commit themselves to sati, an idea hatched in the mind of an ancient man (most likely) and sanctified, codified, and dogmatized by later human minds. She may be totally convinced that such an act is necessary and commit to it willingly - which entails “consent”.

#5 Ronald A. Lindsay on Sunday August 19, 2012 at 6:20am

@Rick Miller Thanks for your comment, but I am perplexed by your claim that my argument is based on the assumption that human life is “sacred or special,” as the principal point of my post is that we do not need “sanctity” as a moral category.  In other words, considerations about what is sacred should not play a significant role in our moral reasoning.
 
I take a pragmatic view of morality and view its objectives from that perspective.  From that perspective, there is a very strong presumption that killing someone else is wrong because if we are to live together, trust one another, and cooperate, we need to refrain from killing each other.  I would think that this is obvious and one need not make use of the “sanctity” of human life or any similar notion to arrive at this conclusion.

#6 Ophelia Benson on Sunday August 19, 2012 at 9:15am

I don’t think “consent” to sati is a meaningful idea. Sati is an idea “sanctified, codified, and dogmatized by later human minds,” which means it carries a lot of social pressure with it. Consider the fact that sati is for women only. Why do men never “consent” to being burned alive when their wives die? Because that’s not the custom, and they’re not subordinate. “Consent” in that situation is hardly free.

#7 Brian F. Wood (Guest) on Sunday August 19, 2012 at 9:46am

Let’s say I’m terminally ill, no hope, and I want my neighbor to kill me and eat me (I’m both in pain and very green—I don’t think my protein should be wasted). 

Who’d be harmed?  Who’d be harmed by the example? If my neighbor weren’t prosecuted, who’d be harmed?

#8 Emily Pluckrose (Guest) on Sunday August 19, 2012 at 10:43am

Taking out of the equation the possibility of a certain individual not being able to explain clearly their thinking, the concept of societal sanctity that you have summarised must definitely be dispelled. If we, as a society, cannot justify why something is considered harmful, there must be no taboo.

I don’t mean to repeat you, as I believe this is your conclusion. A concept of sanctity gives people the means to justify anything, with no explanation; which religions have always and do currently take advantage of. Only I don’t think you have given the right examples to explain yourself. Both the examples - of voluntarily being eaten and voluntary slavery - are in the same vein, toward the same proof: they may be voluntary, but were they to become common they would be dangerous practices. This does not disprove Haidt’s argument about the validity of sanctity. What about examples which after all wouldn’t be detrimental to society? An example of a case that really doesn’t damage anyone would better serve, if what you want to do is to disprove Haidt’s argument about sanctity, rather than just correct his bad example.

One such case would be siblings falling in love, and wishing to live together, sleep together and have children like any other couple. There is still a strong prejudice in society against any such relationship, without any valid argument against it.

The only harm such a relationship could conceivably cause is to a child the couple might have, where the chances of genetic abnormalities would be higher than in a normal couple. But would one prevent an unrelated couple, where one (or both) of the two had a genetic condition or the possibility of passing down a dormant genetic condition, from having children, when they know the risks? No: we would leave that decision to the couple.

Yet most people, myself included, find the idea of siblings having a sexual relationship weird and abhorrent. All we can say though, is that ‘it’s just wrong’, which is not an valid argument. It’s what we used to say about gay couples, before we realised how absurdly unfair that is. The circumstance of siblings falling in love is much less common than that of two people of the same sex falling in love. But hypothetically, and, of course in practice, siblings falling in love should be treated as no more ‘wrong’ than any other healthy, loving relationship.

My point is that Haidt’s argument is not flawed because consensual cannibalism or slavery or self-immolation on your husbands pyre are damaging to society; but because unjustified concepts of ‘sanctity’ damage individuals who do not conform to societal norms or customs. They have damaged women, gay people, and are now damaging innocent sibling-couples; however few such couples there may be.

#9 SusanW (Guest) on Sunday August 19, 2012 at 11:14am

Sexual behavior overlaps so many of Haidt’s dimensions of morality it is difficult to assign a gut reaction to just one of them.
 
We might be able to narrow the discussion down to just Sanctity (with a bit of Loyalty thrown in) if we find a non-sexual gut trigger.
Let’s try this instead: Just as ‘the’ flag is a powerful and sacred symbol of identity to many Americans, perhaps secular liberals do have a strong sanctity dimension stemming from a sense of membership in the human tribe.
 
Sacred objects would include archaeological sites and early artifacts. I felt an emotional tolerance toward the invasion of Afghanistan because the Taliban had smashed ancient statues of Buddha, for which I felt residual hostility.

The Iraq invasion felt different. My objections to it were many, but crystalized around the resultant looting and vandalism at the Baghdad museum.

Some of the earliest human writing was lost in that moment after having survived for ten thousand years.

How do we feels about that?

#10 SusanW (Guest) on Sunday August 19, 2012 at 1:01pm

Just to respond to a different point in the essay above re Haidt’s assertion that “Meiwes and Brandes caused no harm to anyone in a direct, material, or utilitarian way” and RAL’s response that “The harm in this case is not any harm done to Brandes, who consented to Meiwes’s actions. Rather, the harm is the corrosive effect on the attitudes of others, ”
RAL offers the circular arguement that tolerating consentual killing and cannibalism is wrong because toleration fails to discourage others from treating fellow humans as “walking slabs of meat”. It does not explain why others should be discouraged from this behavior.
The answer seems obvious to me: Brandes was mentally ill in a way that left him vulnerable, like a child or an incapacitated person. Whether he was happy to be killed is not the point. Other humans who became aware of his condition had an obligation to get him to help so he could recover. There is no hope of recovery from being butchered.
If we really want to examine the sanctity dimension we should try to avoid examples of harm to the living. That is a different dimension…
Thanks!

#11 SusanWatson (Guest) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 at 9:26am

Intellectually, I agree with Brian Wood when the ‘victim’ both consents and is terminally ill. I was surprised and profoundly disappointed in myself when I was unable to keep my promise to help my mother end her sufferring. I had promised her in good faith, but when the time came I just could NOT do it. It has been a few years, but I still relive daily the experience of sitting beside her in the palliative care ward week after week on that horribly long, slow journey of pain.
 
There is some switch inside that I had not known was there. When we think that secular liberals don’t use those other three dimensions, including the Sacred, I think he reflects our conscious beliefs. I am here, however, to testify that they may be burried deep, but they do exist in each of us.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.