Sunday, November 28, 2010


Johnathan Haidt and Jesse Graham went looking for moral criteria that are shared across cultures and probably are wired into babies, possibly primates.  This is what they found as explained on the vid:

In summary, there were five fundamental dimensions:

1.  Care for others, protecting them from harm.
2.  Fairness, justice in treating others equally.
3.  Loyalty to your group.
4.  Respect for tradition and legitimate authority.
5.  Purity in avoiding disgusting things.

That’s obvious -- not very interesting.  But then he starts throwing in loops and I could easily add some more.  One of the most helpful ideas is that “liberals” value care and fairness beyond the other three criteria.  But that “conservatives” value loyalty, respect and purity almost as much as the first two.  I will point out that the first two values are in the United States Constitution, while the others are seen in this country as mostly religious.  So though liberals might be comfortable as “unchurched,” the conservatives identify with their religious subgroup of the nation.  That is their group (even above nation), their authority, and their source of guidance for what is disgusting. 

Those who hold the first two values can tolerate -- even admire -- difference, innovation, and experiment.  Those who hang onto the last three values will see their very existence challenged if there are competing groups, innovative change, and social experiments.  They will be very much more worried about “disgusting” things, often defined sexually, or in terms of dirt or illness, or unrestrained behavior.  Haidt remarks amusingly that conservatives tend to obsess about “disgusting” sex, but for liberals what is “disgusting” is more likely to be food!  (Fat, sugar, bacteria.)  At this point Haidt includes “libertarians” in his kinds of political styles and finds them sometimes on one side and other times more on the other.

Later in a recent article, Haidt comes up with a new idea, speaking about what Tea Partyers “really want” as a kind of sub-category of conservatives. since its clear that though they say they want freedom, what they really want is what he calls Karma“The law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it's just a law of the universe, like gravity. . . Karma is not an exclusively Hindu idea. It combines the universal human desire that moral accounts should be balanced with a belief that, somehow or other, they will be balanced.”

But wait!   It’s nice to dress this up as Karma, a natural law that builds retribution into the universe.  But these guys are not willing to wait around for the universe to get to it.  They want THEIR thumb, not God’s thumb, on the scales.  Where is humility, much less compassion?  Where is the realization that morality is conditioned by culture and that a hanging crime in one time and place is only worth a fine and imprisonment in another?

American people who see change as loss are moving to a kind of law that privileges tribe above individual and counts love as nothing, because in that harsh place of its desert origin it is the only way to survive.  I call them “Old Testament” Christians, since they have only pretended to accept the teaching of Jesus.  In American citizens is a default position for those who feel endangered.

For some Islamic immigrants who have established a diaspora of their old ways in modern cities, ancient Abramic Sharia law is trying to preserve itself in the new setting, the “civilized Western world” where the good of the whole has come to be served by the justice system, safety nets and therapies so scorned by American conservatives.  The controversy is probably best accessed through YouTube where you can see videos of men trying to explain themselves.  (Sharia law does not value women or even children, except as possessions.)

Sharia law is being conditionally accepted in civil matters where ever there is a big enough immigrant community for them to have brought their own rules with them.  It relieves the English, German, American courts from trying to decipher what these people will accept as fair, thus getting lost in issues Westerners can’t understand, thus wasting resources.  The problem comes when Sharia law regarding felonies doles out death by stoning, honor killing by families, and amputation for thefts.  This is the old Code of Hammarabi,  “an eye for an eye,” deep in the cellar of Abramic religions.  This way of thinking has no use for liberal compassion or equality, regardless of what impulses might be inborn.  Within the community of Sharia believers, this law system might be accepted and protected, but in the larger world it is an atrocity and criminal almost to the level of terrorism.

The problem for nations is keeping order while preserving national identity -- not that of the immigrant, but that of the pre-existing establishment.  What seems like a convenient bureaucratic compromise at first can become internal revolution if it is allowed to stand.  Trying to identify the natural biological morality of every individual human is one way of arguing against Sharia or intolerant conservatism without pitting one religion against another, but I don’t think it is strong enough.  It will only work after several generations have grown up in the Western world, thus assimilating.  If some Americans are not assimilated to the new world, what hope for immigrants?

We had a problem something like this at the beginning of the history of our nation.  It’s still not resolved.  When immigrants arrived, there were already systems of governance in place, some drastic and others lenient, depending on the circumstances of each tribe.  The immigrants imposed their own harsh laws, hanging many suspected horse thieves and known Indians.  They overwhelmed the Native Americans.  Then there were systems invented in which reservation laws would handle civil matters or low level offenses in ways consistent with their own culture.

As assimilation has inevitably happened, many tribes have given some matters to the state to solve, often social services like divorce or child custody.  But the FBI has kept custody of the felony level crimes -- what used to be called the “ten major crimes” which now include more than that.  The idea was that these were so significant to the larger order that federal machinery was necessary to enforce them.  The trouble has been that the federal forces don’t much care about reservation felonies and preserve the unjustified conviction that the culture is so different that intervention in murder and arson doesn’t matter.  They are “other.”

This problem Haidt is addressing is much bigger than a schism between political parties.  It is a planetary assimilation and order-preserving problem.  Its resolution amounts to a religious conversion of the world’s population.  The real question is whether we can preserve the modern order-keeping on which our lives depend, or whether re-tribalizing will force itself back to the center.  It will take a long time.  There will be many casualties and some of them will be in our power grid, our communications, our tax codes, and our understanding of compassion and justice.  Karma will prevail in the end, but the universe may not agree with our own judgments.  And our thumbs may not be heavy enough.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

The definition of karma used here is fundamentally Old Testament, because the whole idea of fall/redemption (original sin was a doctrine defined and promoted by St. Augustine) is Abrahamic, not Hindu. In Hinduism, karma is not simple Hammurabic justice, so Haidt's use of the term is wrong, and reflects most Westerner's incomprehension of what karma really is, and what it means. In HInduism, and Buddhism, karma is far more subtle and complex; it's not simple retribution or reward, because it's tied to intent as well as outcome. Even bad people can do good things, for the wrong reasons, but that generates positive karma nonetheless. It's a balancing act, in which the equation is meant to balance in the end (which is liberation), not simple cause and effect.

The Tea Partyers have two problems: They are motivated by anger and not by social justice. Your analysis (and Haidt's) of them being motivated by the latter three dimensions as listed is, I think, right on target. But they have another problem: They are motivated by the Puritan principal of creating heaven on earth, now, rather than in the next life. So they're impatient. Which leads directly to their lack of humility and compassion. It's profoundly ironic how they call constantly on "God's law" and yet do not trust God to give them what they want.

In a profound way, the Tea Partyers want to enact their own particular variety of sharia law. You're quite right to point out that at its root it's the code of Hammurabi.