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.