August 25, 2014

Liberal vs. conservative flavors of purity as a moral intuition

As summarized by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, the basic difference between the moral intuitions of liberals and conservatives is that the moral lobes of liberals light up in response to the factors of harm / care and fairness / justice, with much weaker responses to authority / hierarchy, in-group / community / loyalty, and purity / taboo. Conservative brains respond about equally to all five of these factors, and the largest split with liberals is over the factor of purity.

This shows up today in debates over whether something disgusting like gay butt-sex ought to be condoned or condemned. "Just because it's yucky doesn't mean we should condemn, punish, or quarantine it," says the liberal. "We find things yucky for a reason," the conservative replies: "it's Mother Nature's way of guiding us toward the healthy and wholesome, and away from the diseased and infectious."

But as Haidt and others have observed, liberals do have strongly puritanical intuitions about some things. Look at how obsessive they are about food taboos — any type of food that is not organic, that is genetically modified, that has too much fat, too much sugar, too much sodium, gluten, dairy, peanuts, or high-fructose corn syrup. They are also the type to compulsively use hand sanitizers, napalm for their kitchen countertops, and other extreme forms of hygiene.

An earlier post extended this puzzle to looking at racial differences in disgust and morality between East Asians and Europeans (and Middle Easterners). Overall, East Asians don't show as much revulsion toward as wide a variety of stimuli as Europeans do, and they are more permissive of and more likely to consume what Europeans would consider the most vile of cultural garbage — eating raw squid, watching a cartoon squid rape a 10 year-old girl, buying used panties from vending machines, and so on and so forth. This is why East Asia has not exported a moral code like Europe and the Middle East has.

At the same time, Asians follow more elaborate behaviors to ensure hygiene, such as wearing different pairs of shoes in different rooms of the house, so as to not transfer pollution from a dirtier room to a cleaner room.

What underlies the apparent exceptions is the scope of focus: liberals and Asians restrict purity concerns to the personal, while conservatives and Europeans extend it farther out into the communal. The OCD mindset and habits of the hygiene freaks is fundamentally isolating, sensing everything outside of the self as a threat. The "how dare they?" mindset and habits of standard-bearers is pro-social, attempting to maintain the purity of people, places, things, symbols, and roles against the desecration which would corrode communal identity.

Notice that liberals don't care if some random school doesn't serve organic food in the cafeteria — it's only the schools that their own children attend that matter, and even then they'll give up and pack a separate organic lunch without launching a broader campaign. Only the tiniest fraction of delusional crusaders feel like non-organic school lunch is a travesty that requires correction across the entire school system. Ditto for their OCD routines in the bathroom and kitchen — what do they care about what you do in your bathroom and your kitchen, provided you and they remain apart?

For liberals, everyone is entitled to their own set of hygiene routines and food taboos, and no norms are held for larger groups than the individual (or at most a nuclear household), let alone are they enforced by the larger-group members. Occasionally, a band of do-gooder mommies whose children attend the same school will cooperate to establish and enforce their organic salad bar ways at the school, but again this is uncommon even for liberals.

Conservatives don't act according to the norm of "I'll let you do what you want, if you leave me to do what I want." What if that means I raise the American flag each morning outside my house, while every morning you burn a new American flag in your driveway? What if some bunch of attention junkies on Halloween want to go out in public dressed up as "slutty nuns"? What happens when some of us in the neighborhood want to preserve the mini-golf course where families have been playing and bonding for decades, while others want it replaced by yet another chunk of condos with throwaway trendoid shops at street level ("mixed-use development")?

Conservative-minded folks sanctify these things — whether they are symbolic like the flag, role-based like "nun in the Church," or tangible like the mini-golf course — because they bind us to others in a community at a point in time, connect us back to those who held these things as part of their group identity, too, and will continue to link future generations to us and our predecessors.

This is also why fans of a sports team don't want the name or mascot changed — both are central to the totem with which they all identify, and altering them would sever ties to the past. Changing the team's location is almost as bad, although uprooting an intact totem is not as sacrilegious as adulterating its name and form willy-nilly.

When the focus on purity could go either way, the conservative will sense the threat to communal cohesion, while the liberal senses the threat to individual health. Alcoholism, substance abuse, sleeping around, disgusting sex acts — liberals see more and more harm being done to the individual, and the need for others to care for them until they're better. Hence their solutions follow the model of self-focused therapy. (That is, when they are not "tolerant of" i.e. callous toward others descending into degradation, although in fairness that is more of a libertarian than a liberal inclination.)

Conservatives see the pollution of the individual in these cases, but they also see how this person's decay will weaken the bonds of everyone who is connected to them. And not only in the sense of actively threatening to harm others, e.g. a drunk who begins beating his wife. Even a non-violent, apathetic drunk will weaken the bond between him and his wife, and therefore between his family and the others in the community. The video game addict isn't just "wasting his life" — which he certainly is — he's one less anchor for social ties that run throughout the community.

The end-point of a liberal-guided society is the insectoid hive found in East Asia, where each little drone in each little cell follows their OCD rituals to maintain individual cleanliness (and indirectly, public cleanliness), and where junkies are sent off to heal themselves at video game addiction camp. But also where nothing is held sacred or taboo, and so where everything is in a constant state of flux, no two drones identifying with each other, and none of them feeling securely rooted in the past.

White folks are never going to become that atomized and soulless, but normal people need to point out where the liberal path would ultimately take us, to guard against the Panglossian assurances of how great it'll be when everyone tolerates everyone else's lifestyle choices, or the fallback agnosticism about how we can't know what the effects will be unless we try it. (Hey, I know, let's eat random wild berries — we won't know which are poisonous until we swallow a bucketful.)

They might lazily object about "OMG, seriously? Slippery slope arguments in 2014, really?" But normal folks don't want to take even one more step in the insectoid direction. We've already gone down that path far enough. Pointing to the examples of East Asian societies would instead serve as a reminder of what we need to be moving away from.


  1. I was assigned a roommate from Hong Kong my freshman year in college. She had been to boarding school in America for high school.

    When we met, she spent the entire duration of our first conversation wiping down the bed frame, desk, bookshelf, dresser, and closet with a small hand towel.

    She had a housedress consisting of a loose top and loose pants. She would change into it upon entering the room. She would wear the housedress when going to the cafeteria to get food to bring back into the room, but other than that, she would change out of her housedress whenever she left the room. If it was cold, she would also put on a Kimono type jacket. She had slippers that she wore when in the room.

    My roommate would usually eat in the room, which made the room smell. Of course, she would dispose of the tray promptly as soon as she was done because she was neat.

    She would listen to music with headphones, but when she didn't have headphones on, she played the same small number (four maybe) of Chinese pop songs. One of them sounded like a Chinese language version of an American song.

    She had a blue imac and spent a lot of time at her computer texting her best friend in Hong Kong wearing her headphones.

  2. I think this is the first time you've made liberals sound better than they actually are. I notice a lot more "how dare they?" from them, and intolerance of the idea that benighted provincials might act in a way disapproved of by goodthinking bien pensants. I recognize we don't currently live in a dystopian world where anything non-organic is purged, but that's because organic is just a niche obsession right now. Jay Rosen, who is a liberal, has the useful conception of a "sphere of consensus", surrounded by a "sphere of legitimate debate", and outside that the "sphere of deviance". Gay marriage was once in the middle sphere, folks are now rather explicit that opposition is now considered deviance and grounds for firing in the Brendan Eich case. Photographers are not allowed to decline to photograph gay marriages either. That's not a "laissez faire" attitude.

  3. I used "how dare they?" in a purity context, not as a general reaction. Of course libs use that phrase, but it's not coming from disgust -- more like anger. Matters of purity for them don't rise to the level of "how dare they?" because they don't really care if others are pure, only themselves.

    Cons use "how dare they?" in a disgusted confusion when they open a book of nursery rhymes to read their children, and discover that they've been Bowdlerized by the PC censors so that the little dears won't have their ears and souls raped by morbid material. No matter if it desecrates an enduring tradition.

  4. "She had a blue imac and spent a lot of time at her computer texting her best friend in Hong Kong wearing her headphones."

    And despite all those OCD hygiene rituals, did she try to convince her friends that they shouldn't watch tentacle rape porn, shouldn't eat fried bugs, shouldn't turn their brains into mush by plugging into the internet and video games for 20 hours a day?

    Nah, perfectly wholesome way to live life, as long as the underside of your bed rail has been thoroughly disinfected before going to sleep.

  5. Why would her friends do any of those activities?

  6. Johnny Caustic8/26/14, 3:58 AM

    Seems that the comparison of liberals to East Asians can be at best only partly correct, given East Asians' reputation for valuing the collective over the individual. Perhaps the Asians uphold the in-group/community and authority axes, like the conservatives, but aren't feeling the purity/taboo axis?

  7. Hey, what does "Aki no kure" mean? I can't find a decent translation anywhere.

  8. Don't farmers have poor immune systems, becaus they didn't evolve around large animals(who tend to carry diseases)? And if its true that liberals are descended from farmers, this could explain why they are more obsessed with healthy eating and cleanliness.

  9. "Perhaps the Asians uphold the in-group/community and authority axes, like the conservatives, but aren't feeling the purity/taboo axis?"

    Hard to say, but remember that historically Asian farmers were ruled by pastoralist overlords. As "Face to Face" pointed out, ,modern day Asian men, lacking strong authority, have lapsed into addiction.("South Korean dies playing Starcraft", etc.)

  10. Sounds doubtful, Curtis, since many farmers raise livestock as well. Even primitive ones can raise pigs. And the higher population densities resulting from farming will also result in more disease.

    This blog used to be called "Dusk in Autumn". That's a hint on the url.

  11. Well, it seems you are correct. I looked it up, and Ammish farmers, for instance, are believed to have higher resistance to allergies. Yet, its still possible that farmers have weaker stomachs.

  12. Chinese people are pretty bad about eating in front of you. It doesn't embarrass them.

    The worst example of this was when I went to a certain Hong Kong FOB's house. I knew her non-Chinese husband through work, and he had invited several of his co-workers to his house. Some time after the meal, after we were all seated in the living room talking, the Chinese lady took another helping of food and just started eating nonchalantly.

    Once, I was working on a project with an ABC. He just brought out a plate with a full meal on it. He told me that he had missed dinner. He just ate it as we worked. It smelled.

    Another time, I worked on a project with a Vietnamese FOB girl and a second person. She brought out a huuuge muffin and a drink and nibbled and sipped as we worked.

    In college, I had a roommate from Hong Kong would eat maybe a meal a day in our room. Our desks faced opposite walls, so if I were in the room while she was eating, her back would be turned towards me, but still. It smelled.

    In college, I remember an incident where I was sitting in a small beautiful study room and a FOB Chinese girl was seated next to me. She then started noisily eating a packaged Chinese meal while staring at her notes. It smelled.

  13. I was thinking about a couple of other incidents at work involving people eating at their desks in the cubicle farm (noisy, smelly).

    Maybe this is a serious dividing line.

    Were you told that you had to eat at the table and only at the noble? Not in your bedroom or in the living room or in the car?

    If you had guests, were you told that you had to offer food to everybody before eating?

    Did you have to show up on time for dinner every day?

    At my college, the only time I lived in an institutional setting, each dorm had its own meal hours and the meal times were long (one and a half hours).

    You didn't have to show up at meals or show up at a certain time.

    Some people would eat in front of the tv in the common room.

  14. "Perhaps the Asians uphold the in-group/community and authority axes, like the conservatives, but aren't feeling the purity/taboo axis?"

    Something like that. They're what we'd look like if liberals gained enough power that they became hardened authoritarians. They react to norm violations with anger rather than disgust, again an emotion they don't appear to feel very strongly.

    "Aki no kure" means "dusk in autumn."

  15. "Chinese people are pretty bad about eating in front of you. It doesn't embarrass them."

    It's not just eating when you're not, it's how gross their open-mouth sloshing sounds, and how oblivious they are about it. No sense of disgust.

  16. as, do you ever challenge people about this stuff if it annoys you that much?

  17. "as, do you ever challenge people about this stuff if it annoys you that much?"

    No, I didn't. When I was in my late teens and early 20s I would just stare or move away or withdraw or do something along those lines.

    I'm only a little bit better now (early 30s).

  18. Would also explain why so many East Asians vote for Democrats these days.

  19. "OMG, seriously? Slippery slope arguments in 2014, really?"

    The slippery slopes were true. In 2023 we have liberals defending the monstrosity that is the transgender movement backed by big pharma castrating young children and mutilating female genitals and injecting harmful drugs into people, not to mention sending convicted male rapists into women's prisons because of transgender self-ID, allowing men to cheat their way into women's sports and take positions away from women, and allowing sexualized drag queens to expose themselves in public in libraries and schools.


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