Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Moral Bi-polarity of Christ

boycott eggs this easter!, originally uploaded by arimoore.

Just back from my trip to Portland, Oregon, I am flush with curiosity about the psychological and ethical universes underlying and driving alternative lifestyles, such as those tacitly expressed in the Vegan flier above. So... I am most pleased to find an article in Miller-McCune profiling the work of research psychologist Jonathan Haidt very useful and categorically insightful in differentiating the distinct moral motivations of American liberals and conservatives. Jonathan's work reveals that the (often) distinct value systems of conservatives and liberals spring from their differing emphasis paid to five moral priorities. Please read the article for a fuller treatment, but, as defined in the article, these are:

1) Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.

2) Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.

3) In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.

4) Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for
human life.

5) Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.

Not surprisingly, liberals tend to hold the first two as values "to take to the mat" (and even have hostile reactions to the last "authoritarian" three), while conservatives emphasize the essential importance of the last three and regard the first two as secondary pursuits that, in essential cases, may be disregarded (witness the fact that 62% of Evangelicals are ok with the use of torture to pursue group threats).

In the Vegan flier above, I note that the "Harm/Care" (no. 1) value is clearly at play and is the evangelical hook ....But also notice that underlying tones of a "Purity/Sanctity" sensibility (no. 5) are subtly also at play...not just in the invocation of Christ-values but the categorization of food as being pure or impure. Haidt's insights thus helps me to map a curious dual moral motivation that may be underlying Veganism (especially in the activist variety - as examplified in the work above). This actually helps me understand the near-religious aspects of Veganism, in distinction from run of the mill vegetarianism.

Unlike Haidt, I don't believe that simply understanding each other's diverse moral priorities will remove the heated rhetoric exchanged in political clashes between the Right and Left, but they might make us more apt to listen to each other with greater lucidity and, at the very least (as he is probably correct to point out), help us not talk so much past one another. As well, Haidt's well defined and lucid five-fold barometer shows us why some of us that comprise the "Evengelical Left" or the "Emergent Church" feel like such odd fellows within Evangelicalism. In fact, I believe Haidt's work reveals why we have "emergents" at all. I believe the fundamental motivation driving the "Emergent Movement" in the Evangelical Church is in fact this very mismatch between Emergents' underlying moral emphasis on Justice/Fairness over our majority brethren's priorities regarding "in group loyalty"...who - rightly or wrongly - fearfully point to the continuing relevance of Evangelicalism not just as a political movement but as a cultural and religious one. We in the Left, perhaps, underestimate the threat that our personal absolution to remove conservative politics from the docket of Kingdom pursuits may have on the continuing existance of Evangelicalism. In placing indulgent emphasis on, for example, urbanism and environmentalism (and veganism, underground cultures, et al)... are we shafting our Gospel?

How interesting that our theologies or politics may be colored by our location on these five moral slides. I reflect here that Christ was all over the map on the five slides. On the one hand, Christ was a revolutionary Rabbi who argued vigorously for justice and demanded loyalty beyond one's filial and cultural attachments. On the other hand, he was an irrepressible moralist who also demanded purity, and vigorously attacked the sin of divorce (because, yes, Christ did define that as a sin) and all the interior pollution formed from our social and interior lusts -- our morals of convenience (aka moral relativism). I reflect here that, in fact, Christ married the two "Left/Right" poles by bringing above all an allegiance to the Kingdom of God to the forefront. So with Christ, your "in-group" purity could comprise the love and justice you extended toward Others (that is why he had an ill regard of a man's capricious "right to divorce" ). Allegiance to Kingdom-hood is a moral allegiance.

Christ's Sermon on the Mount describes Christ's moral left/right "bi-polarity". In the Sermon, Jesus created a unified moral foundation whose wellspring actually comprised a robust and cohesive account of the vigorous moral demands of Torah, which he encapsulated in the simplified ethic "Do unto others as you would have done unto you." Such a narrow ethic...and such a narrow road. Surely, no more unified and demanding moral charge has ever been laid.

Will we have the courage to apply it? Have we ever? Cheers to the "simple-hearted"...


Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure about this. I hear conservatives talking about justice, fairness and equal exchange a whole lot more than I hear liberals talk about it. Liberals in the USA are, after all, the ones who are perfectly comfortable with "wealth redistribution" while Conservatives champion a "flat tax". Liberals favor affirmative action, Conservatives want an equal playing field for all. Those are just two simple examples, but I could talk all day about the ways in which Conservatives see themselves as focused very much on fairness and justice.

I think the problem is, we need two different words for justice. We need one to describe the kind that is supposed to be blind, holding a pair of scales. That is the kind that Conservatives treasure. But we need a totally different word to talk about the kinds of "social inequities" which Liberals do not try to make equal, but try to eliminate the prevailing injustice of.

I think it has a lot more to do with communalism vs. individualism. Liberals look at socio-economics and see "the haves" and "the have nots" and they believe that justice means taking from "the haves" and giving it to "the have nots". Conservatives look at socio-economics and they want to see this one guy, who's worked his way up from nothing to become one of "the haves" and they see some other guy who's done nothing to stop being one of "the have nots" and they think its unjust to take from the hard worker and give it to the loafer. Now, of course there are exceptions, they will agree, but that's just the point. You can't make broad, sweeping policy without having laws that punish some unfairly (with higher tax burdens even if you aren't The Man keeping people down) and profit others unfairly (cyclical welfare families, deadbeats, loafers, &c).

I think to say that Conservatives are not particularly interested in justice is to completely misunderstand what American conservatives are really all about.

Daniel said...

Yeah, I'm also a bit dubious of Haidt's categories. Certainly abortion is one huge example where conservatives justify their position almost entirely on harm/benefit grounds. I also find it hard to tease these categories apart.

But I do like your "bi-polarlity" take on the example of Jesus. You're totally right that he acted in ways that seemed to deliberately break out of any moral system you would try to impose on him. Certainly the pharisees couldn't fit him into their closed system, and I don't know if I would do much better. It really forces humility, wisdom of experience, and careful listening for God's will all along the way. A formula would have been nice though :)

Eric Orozco said...

Fair enough Jhimm...I agree completely that our approach to justice largely depends on our approach to the social contract, whether we value the communal good over the individual right or put primacy on the right of the individual. Left and Right slant one way or the other, but, by and large, both conservatives and liberals in America attach a moral importance to "justice and fairness" (that is because we are Americans, though we disagree on the understanding of what "just" governance looks like). I'm sure Haidt's way of teasing these moral categories is a bit more nuanced and surveyed than the article or myself are presenting.

It is interesting that "fairness" is posited by conservatives as an egalitarian value - everyone has the same shot, regardless of race and grace. Seems a tough argument to make vis a vis reality. My Emergent friends would jump all over you on this one. How do conservatives ignore the issue of white privilege?

Not every one will fall into Haidt's broader Left/Right split neatly. His are merely observed statistical majorities. It doesn't mean that one value is absent in one political camp among many members. I mention Emergents (who are often conflicted between conservativism and liberalism) as being prime examples of odd fellows within the majority, and I also know, like Daniel, many conservative Catholics and Evangelicals whose motivations stem from the first category, which influences their passionate pro-life activism (my Dad, a Carter Democrat turned Republican, being one of these).

Market Urbanism said...

This is an interesting topic. I think the left/right spectrum is too simplistic. I prefer the 2d Nolan Chart.

Based on the 5 priorities, I have more in common with liberals, as I completely reject #3, #4, #5...

But, I doubt I'd agree with most liberals about what is "harm" / "fair"...