A few days ago I wrote a post about the origins and nature of morality where I talked a bit about the Moral Foundations Theory. The 5 + 1 moral foundations are care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, with liberty/oppression as a potential sixth. Jonathan Haidt, one of the progenitors of Moral Foundations Theory, says in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion that WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) cultures tend to rate care/harm and fairness/cheating high while downplaying, or even ignoring, the others (except perhaps liberty/oppression, if we include it). In his book, Haidt defends the other three of the main five foundations. But it has me wondering if abandoning them, primarily sanctity, is a good thing or not.
Warning: this post contains images of shirtless people. This is done to prove some points. If seeing nipples offends you, then actually you’re probably the sort of person who ought to read this post. But consider yourself warned.
What is Sanctity/Purity?
In Moral Foundations Theory, the words sanctity and purity are sometimes used interchangeably. They are certainly closely related concepts, but I think the distinction is important.
Sanctity is a word that means sacred or holy. This is raising the emotional or moral value of an object, animal, person, ritual, or norm above and beyond its aesthetic value or functional utility. It is (mentally) imbuing something with a worthiness for reverence or exaltation beyond what its formal or material makeup would otherwise merit. Many cultures will consider trees, mountains, rivers, or other geographical features to be sacred, thereby requiring certain rules, prohibitions/duties, or rituals to be observed in relation to those things. Different kinds of animals are also often revered or given sacred status. In western societies we still hold some things sacred, such as graves or certain buildings (e.g., very old buildings or places of worship), or certain documents (e.g., the Declaration of Independence), or symbols (e.g., flags), or art. We sacralize things in ways we often don’t even realize, such as when we consider something to have sentimental value (i.e., we know it doesn’t have any practical value, but we still want to keep it because it is meaningful in some unspoken way). People can often have a visceral reaction to witnessing books being burned, even if the books are nothing but tripe and are taking up space, because something about a book has a sense of sanctity. Even the January 6, 2021 riots on the Capitol here in the U.S. is viewed as particularly egregious, since there is something sacred about the Capitol building. The point being, sanctity isn’t a purely spiritual or religious sentiment, though those are domains where it often shows up and is given a lot of weight.
Purity means clean, but often in a way invoking something deep, visceral, or spiritual. I can say, for instance, that someone is unclean and mean simply that they’ve gotten dirty, perhaps from doing manual labor all day at work. But I can also call someone unclean and have it mean something very different, like the person is tainted, or that their very “essence” or “soul” has been sullied in some way, or perhaps even that they are literally cursed. Many cultures and religions have purification rituals that may or may not actually wash physical dirt off from someone, but are meant to purify things or people on a more spiritual or essential level. Yet, the word spiritual can be somewhat misleading, because even people who aren’t particularly spiritual can often have this concept of purity. For instance, a person could have their toothbrush used to clean a dirty toilet, but even if they power washed it, soaked it in 70% ethanol for a week (switching out the liquid twice a day), and then ran it through an autoclave three times (assuming a toothbrush could survive such a treatment), they would still feel some sense that the toothbrush is tainted or unclean. It would still somehow contain some “essence” of dirtiness from its use in cleaning the toilet.
I think it’s also illustrative that Moral Foundations Theory uses degradation as the opposite end of the spectrum from purity/sanctity, as opposed to something like profane or sullied. Degradation is more like a process than a state of being, and in this context is usually something that applies only to humans. Certainly objects can be de-graded, such as adding base metals to precious metals (debasement) or any other kind of devaluation. But we usually wouldn’t say something like “that tree is degraded” or “those dogs are degrading themselves.” It is humans that can degrade themselves (often, for instance, by acting like animals). Haidt, in his book Righteous Minds, talks about survey questions he asked for a research project. I actually discussed one in my post What is Morality:
…if two siblings had sex, the male using a condom and the female being on birth control so that the chances of conceiving an inbred child was for all intents and purposes zero percent, a lot of people would think of this as immoral even if they couldn’t articulate why.
Another he mentions in Righteous Minds is the question of whether it is okay for a man to buy a whole chicken at the store, take it home, and in the privacy of his own home (and perhaps even with a condom) use it as a sex toy before cooking and eating it without anyone else ever knowing. Again, as with the two siblings, Haidt says that people have a difficult time coming up with reasons why this is wrong, yet everyone has an intuitive sense that it’s wrong. Haidt says this is likely because people find it degrading. Having sex with a raw chicken is in some way degrading oneself, bringing oneself low or tarnishing their dignity.
Haidt also mentions that WEIRD people, such as the undergraduate college students often used as subjects in such studies, will often accept that the above two acts (safe, consensual incest and private sex acts with raw chicken) are permissible, even if the subject being surveyed personally finds it gross. They justify this by looking at these situations only through the care/harm lens and see that nobody is being harmed in these acts, so there is nothing morally wrong with it. Less-WEIRD people, however, often think such things are self-evidently wrong: that even asking “why is it wrong” is an absurd question, like asking why a boulder is made out of rock.
As I said above, even WEIRD people still have some semblance of sanctity/purity in their moral repertoire. The fact that the WEIRD subject still thinks having sex with raw chicken is gross hints at at least a residual amount of sanctity/purity lingering in their moral intuitions. It’s difficult to find someone who is completely devoid of any inhibitions against degrading themselves. The Jackass movies are popular because of the spectacle of people willing to degrade themselves to such a degree, yet even the Jackass crew have lines they won’t cross.
The question then becomes: what level of sanctity/purity is the right amount? This is sort of a tricky question because the answer someone comes to is going to depend on how highly they already rank sanctity/purity among their moral foundations. Just to lay my own biases out in the open, I tend to rate sanctity/purity extremely low, which you can see here. The reason this is tricky is because someone like me is going to judge sanctity/purity through the lenses of the other moral foundations, such as care/harm or fairness/cheating. Yet, that’s pretty much exactly what I’m about to do, so keep my biases in mind as we proceed.
Should Sanctity/Purity be a High Priority Moral Foundation?
The lack of sanctity/purity as a moral foundation is often blamed for the untrammeled exploitation of the environment by capitalism. If people held nature to be sacred, rather than as resources to be used, we wouldn’t find ourselves in the environmental crises that we do. If we could find some balance, the thinking goes, we could live in harmony with nature.
Yet, sanctity has its own problems with the natural world. One particular example that comes to my mind is the use of rhinoceros horn in traditional medicine. Sanctity/purity as a moral foundation has little to no basis in what is actually natural, since it is by its own nature a valuation of things above and beyond what is actually true of those things. This means it is a sort of magical thinking, with the rhinoceros horn being a case-in-point, since the horn does not actually contain any of the properties it is purported to have in its use for traditional medicine.
Another instance of this is the Ganges River, which is considered extremely sacred by Hindu people. It is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Now, much of this pollution does come from agricultural and industrial runoff, but the sacredness of the river still draws people to it despite the fact that it’s actually very harmful. Further, the sorts of rituals people use the river for also add to its pollution:
Even love is killing the river. As the Ganges is a holy place, people come here by the millions to bathe, thereby cleansing themselves of sin. As well as bathing, people make offerings of food and flowers, which are frequently deposited into the water in small cardboard boxes or on bits of plastic. Every day, tens of thousands of flowers are carefully placed into the river in this manner and left to drift downstream. This might seem benign enough, but many of these flowers have been treated with chemicals to keep them bright and fresh for longer. When those flowers enter the water, the chemicals leach out.
Hindus also consider the banks of the Ganges to be one of the most auspicious places to die and be cremated. After cremation, the remains are placed into the river and left to float downstream. Some bodies, such as those of young children, are never even cremated and instead are just wrapped in white cloth and sent on their way. In Varanasi, the holiest city along the banks of the Ganges, it’s estimated that 40,000 bodies are cremated every year. Scientists have discovered ‘super bacteria’ living in the waters that are resistant to most forms of commonly used antibiotics.
The point being that ranking sanctity/purity high as a moral foundation can also lead to harmful outcomes.
Another issue with sanctity/purity is that it can be extremely arbitrary. Think of how women, for instance, are often sacralized by religions, such that in some Islamic countries they are forced by law to cover themselves. Even in WEIRD societies, there is a bizarre double standard that says that seeing men’s nipples is fine but seeing women’s nipples is somehow taboo. This latter case is obviously not as extreme as the former, and doesn’t cause as much harm, but the sanctity/purity moral foundation is still what underlies this arbitrary cultural norm.
Very religious people are often the ones who rate sanctity/purity very high. This double standard between men and women is a holdover of religious mores. This focus on sanctity/purity is also why the religious are often critics of homosexuality and transgender people, since they view homosexual relationships as degrading and gender affirming medical interventions as profaning a person’s bodily temple by defying God. Yet, what would a religious person think of the following image?
The right-side image above is of famous male-to-female transsexual porn star Bailey Jay (the left side is some dude from a stock image). Someone who doesn’t think that gender affirming medical interventions do anything to alter a person’s sex in any way should have only as much problem with the right-side image as they do with the left-side image. Don’t take me to mean that I think transsexual women are exactly equal to biological women in their femaleness, but there are biological reasons to view transgender women not simply as men (at the very least). My point here is that if you disagree that there is any important distinction between a male-to-female transsexual person and a cisgender male, then seeing the nipples of the two people in the above picture should have exactly equal moral valence.
This exercise, as I said, is to demonstrate that sanctity/purity is an inconsistent, even arbitrary moral intuition. Sure, there is arbitrariness, irrationality, and cognitive dissonances involved in the care/harm and fairness/cheating moral foundations as well, but that is mostly due to imperfect adherence and knowledge of harm reduction and fairness increasing behaviors and policies, not an in-principle infeasibility. Indeed, ethical philosophy is the human attempt (however futile it might ultimately be in practice) to make those kinds of morality as consistent and rational as possible. Such a project is vastly more difficult, if not impossible, to do when it comes to sanctity/purity.
Another issue that sanctity/purity has a problem with is that one person’s sacred is another person’s profane. Haidt brings up the art piece Piss Christ (and we could use other controversial art pieces as examples as well), which is a crucifix submerged in urine, as something degraded. But is this “objectively degraded”? What if someone thinks Piss Christ is sacred? Certainly a Satanist might find it sacred, but I could even see how a Christian might think so (e.g., maybe it represents Jesus being submerged in the sin of all humankind while he takes on humanity’s sins in order for humans to be forgiven). The point is, there is no objective criteria for sanctity. What if tomorrow an entire major religion decides, for instance, that the Island of Manhattan is sacred and that all the buildings and people living on it degrade and profane the island? (Something sort of resembling this latter case is occurring in the Palestine/Israel region). Or that fossil fuels are sacred, and so drilling them out of the ground and burning them is degraded? In what way can such things be adjudicated? How can we decide that one person’s sacred objects ought to be preserved while another person’s sacred objects are just too useful for us to leave alone? With care/harm and fairness/cheating there are certainly arguments around the periphery, but if we bracket our sanctity, the vast majority of people know intuitively when something is an instance of harm or unfairness, even if they might not know how to articulate an abstract principle that’s being violated. In other words, when it comes to care and fairness (probably more with care than fairness) it is much less arbitrary and people can actually come to agreements. This is, for instance, the argument that Sam Harris makes in his book The Moral Landscape.
A place where I think Haidt makes an interesting point is in how sanctity/degradation is the moral foundation to be used when we judge certain things to be morally low. He uses the example of rampant consumerism. From the ethic of autonomy (as he calls it, which is essentially just the care/harm and fairness/cheating moral foundations) there is no way to criticize someone whose only life goal is to make money and buy expensive items in order to show off to other people. I would disagree with this example, since there are arguments to be made that such rampant consumerism doesn’t actually make a person happy in any meaningful way, or even an argument that it causes harm to others (whether they suffer some negative psychological effect from the person’s showiness, or that the goods being consumed were made with less than ethical means, such as slave labor or sweat shops), but I will concede his point that on the face of it, there is no good argument to say a person ought not devote themselves to rampant consumerism.
A better example of what Haidt is getting at, I think, is this: if all that matters, ethically speaking, is having as many pleasurable subjective states as possible (and minimizing unpleasurable subjective states), then what argument can be made against someone hooking themselves up to a Nozickian Experience Machine? I’ve talked about this in other posts, but the Experience Machine thought experiment goes like this:
What matters other than how people’s experiences feel “from the inside”? Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience that you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because of the few moments of distress between the moment you’ve decided and the moment you’re plugged. What’s a few moments of distress compared to a lifetime of bliss (if that’s what you choose), and why feel any distress at all if your decision is the best one?
In the same vein, in the book Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy by David J. Chalmers, he argues that virtual reality is real in all ways important to us. He goes through several definitions of what we mean by saying that something is real, but one he didn’t cover was sanctity. I said in my review:
Or perhaps reality has some kind of sacred property, such that there is something metaphysically and intrinsically superior about the real than the simulated. This is likely what a theist would argue, that the real has been imbued (by God, or gods, or spirits of some kind) with some (perhaps divine) property that gives it an ontological or moral value above and beyond just what material it is made out of or what its function is.
My point being that without some appeal to the sacred, it becomes difficult to argue that non-simulated reality is intrinsically better than being in a simulation or Experience Machine. If care and fairness are all we care about, then hooking as many people as possible up to an Experience Machine would be practically a moral imperative. It’s similar to the thought experiment in AI that if you programmed a superintelligent AI to “maximize pleasure and minimize suffering” that a solution it might come to is hooking everyone in the world up to electrodes that perpetually stimulate the pleasure centers of their brain, rendering all humans comatose pleasure-experiencers. Similarly, sanctity is required to make a decent argument against Dave Benatar’s anti-natalism argument. The point being, although I think sanctity/purity rates lower (and ought to rate lower) on our moral priorities, it does still have its place.
The Enlightenment and the rise of liberal values de-emphasizes sanctity/purity in particular because liberalism inaugurated a humanistic approach to morality. Sanctity is, at its core, an anti-humanist moral foundation, because it elevates certain (often arbitrary) objects, creatures, rituals, and norms as being higher, more important, or of greater moral value than human well-being. There are certainly arguments to be made that loyalty and authority are still important (at least in certain domains of life), but sanctity/purity is, in my estimation, the moral foundation with the lowest priority. That’s not to say it has no importance, as our last case above indicates. It would be hypocritical of me to say otherwise, because I do not completely degrade myself, and I still have an intuitive sense of purity and uncleanliness about many things, in particular the importance of the truth over maximization of pleasurable subjective states. A certain amount of sanctity/purity is unavoidable and can surely be healthy and conducive to a functioning society, but there are many domains where it is inapplicable and ought to be done away with.