Bryan Caplan  

Liberal Puritanism

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In the comments, Jason Malloy points out that Jon Haidt recently added a battery of questions to test liberal puritanism.  Here's Haidt's explanation:

At Yourmorals.org we have always found that scores on the Purity/sanctity foundation are higher on the political right than on the left. Conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, live in a more sacralized world. Liberals, particularly secular scientifically-minded liberals, live in a more materialist, un-magical world.

Yet there are enough hints of "liberal purity" scattered about that we at Yourmorals are actively trying to measure it... It can be seen in the liberal tendency to moralize food and eating, beyond its nutritive/material aspects. (See this fabulous essay by Mary Eberstadt comparing the way the left moralizes food and the right moralizes sex). It can be seen in the way the left treats environmental issues and the natural world as something sacred, to be cared for above and beyond its consequences for human - or even animal--welfare.
The punchline is excellent: "Can anyone understand Avatar who lacks all intuitions of purity/sanctity?"


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Franklin Harris writes:

So, you're saying it's not "Avatar"; it's me?

Marcus writes:

Avatar is the left's version of 'The Passion of the Christ'.

Contemplationist writes:

Except that the Na'vi win the conflict

david writes:

A dissenting opinion at The New Republic:

Start with food. As any social historian can tell you, the notion that the American middle-classes in the 1950s considered food purely a matter of personal choice is simply wrong. Yes, Americans ate many things that we now consider unhealthy and harmful to the environment. But a glance through any middle-class magazine of the period immediately reveals a not-so-unfamiliar emphasis on healthy diets, and a strong differentiation between beneficial foods and bad. What has changed is not that people have become judgmental where they previously were not, so much as the content of their judgments. In the 1950's, red meat was considered healthy, as were high-fat dairy products. Even cigarettes were routinely advertised as promoting vitality ("nothing soothes the throat better!").

Certainly, middle-class Americans today are more judgmental about food, but not in the way that Eberstadt suggests. She sometimes seems to forget that for almost everyone, calling a chocolate milkshake "sinful" is, well, a joke. I live in a community full of Whole Foods-shopping, Prius- and Volvo-driving, MoveOn.org-donating liberals, and I have never heard anyone describe a cheeseburger, even a McDonald's cheeseburger, with anywhere near the fierce moral condemnation routinely unleashed on homosexuality 50 years ago. For all but a small minority of fervent environmentalists and vegans, current food obsessions are less a matter of moralism than of narcissism. [...]

Steve Roth writes:

Ask and ye shall receive.

My interlocutors will perhaps be surprised to know that I scored a 1.0 on Liberal Purity, compared to Libs' 2.7 and Cons' 2.1.

I'm disappointed that they're testing "Authenticity" rather than "Honesty."

"You should tell the truth" is a pretty solid universal, seems to me. Would like to see how it interacts, and who values it more.

zeljka buturovic writes:

it is not obvious to me that liberals' worship of the environment is related to purity to a significant extent.

as i mentioned previously, i think liberals are less likely to admit they care about purity or authority. conservatives are more comfortable saying 'it's because the bible says so' than are liberals saying 'it's because my liberal friends says so' even if these play comparable causal roles in their beliefs.

haidt's questions might get around this to the extent they don't ask about causes (the second section). but to the same extent, the question of the causes of environmental beliefs remains unclear.

in my opinion, liberals and conservatives have different perceptions of 'marginal humans' such as fetuses and animals. for example, i found a correlation of around .4 between ideology and a belief that 'humans are animals'.

Ak Mike writes:

zeljka - I admit I have not reviewed the Haidt materials; but it sure looks to me as though environmentalism has a strong purity component. The emphasis on wilderness, and particularly on "unspoiled wilderness" (for example, the no-new-roads policy in national forests at the end of the Clinton administration) seems almost like an analogue of virginity.

hacs writes:

'The punchline is excellent: "Can anyone understand Avatar who lacks all intuitions of purity/sanctity?"'

Of course.

The bad guys are quasi-Neanderthals (I will call them Reps). They have an old-fashioned business: the extraction of a mineral of high value (unobtanium, diamonds, oil, etc.) in a distant land (Pandora, Africa, Middle East, etc.) populated by anthropomorphic beings of great wisdom and no technology (the nature provides everything they need). The primitivism of Reps is visible: the gigantism of their work equipment, their shortsighted goals, their dependence on a private army, and their disdain by the recommendations and results of the group of scientists who they believe manipulate. The contempt for science is obvious in the scene where Dr. Grace is ridiculed when she tries to warn them about the existence of something of a much greater value (new "green" technologies) in the forest. In short, the Reps are weak, reactionary, ignorant and stupid, as they must be in that kind of movie. Obviously, the Na'vi beings are blue (perhaps, the antithesis of red beings) and Pandora has floating islands (perhaps, the antithesis of the real Universe).

Whatever...

B.B. writes:

It is more than just food and sex.

Environmentalism is the Left's religion.

The Salem-1692-style hysteria of global warming is an example of purity/sanctity: emitting GHG is for secular liberals what sodomy is from religious conservatives, an unnatural and vile act.

If the Left is worried about species extinction, why? Are the arguments strictly utilitarian (which puts species preservation on a cost-benefit basis), or do they reflect sanctity (beyond calculus)?

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