Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Decivilization And The End of Holiness

Warning: this rather unplanned and incoherent post threatens to prove unusually long and take a winding path through very treacherous waters! It was also assembled in haste, and I apologize in advance for lameness and errors... A couple of tenuously connected things got me stirred up this weekend. The first occurred at my folks' house, where my dad was watching a History Channel show about the changes in architecture that followed the fall of Rome. It was explained that, after Rome fell, the barbarians slew so many people that there was hardly anyone left who knew how to build great structures, like the aqueducts and the Colosseum, and with time the knowledge was forgotten. This is why you don't find many ruins of great buildings dated from this era in Western Europe. I cringed. The second was a visit to a website I had seen once before, which had been updated with even loonier material than on my previous visit, which can be found here. In short, it is a post titled "What Makes People Vote Republican?" on a website written by University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt in which he describes his studies attempting to determine, psychologically, what differentiates "conservatives" from "liberals," particularly with respect to issues of morality. I'll share some of the opening to give you the gist of the article, but you really should read it yourself:
What makes people vote Republican? Why in particular do working class and rural Americans usually vote for pro-business Republicans when their economic interests would seem better served by Democratic policies? We psychologists have been examining the origins of ideology ever since Hitler sent us Germany's best psychologists, and we long ago reported that strict parenting and a variety of personal insecurities work together to turn people against liberalism, diversity, and progress. But now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives, we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer "moral clarity"—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world... But with pleasure comes seduction, and with righteous pleasure comes seduction wearing a halo. Our diagnosis explains away Republican successes while convincing us and our fellow liberals that we hold the moral high ground. Our diagnosis tells us that we have nothing to learn from other ideologies, and it blinds us to what I think is one of the main reasons that so many Americans voted Republican over the last 30 years: they honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats. To see what Democrats have been missing, it helps to take off the halo, step back for a moment, and think about what morality really is.
His methodology seems mostly inclined towards asking folks of varying political leanings profound moral questions like:
For example, what do you think about a woman who can't find any rags in her house so she cuts up an old American flag and uses the pieces to clean her toilet, in private? Or how about a family whose dog is killed by a car, so they dismember the body and cook it for dinner?
I have seen his work actually complimented by religious conservatives on other sites, notably Eternity Road where I first encountered it, as his conclusions tend towards "hey, these religious-conservative types have some insights on things that maybe we liberals ought to pay attention to." However, I have to respectfully disagree, particularly after reading a bit further. Both encounters saddened me, and made me think about the impending doom of our own civilization. I happened to read commentary along a similar vein on, which further cemented the idea in my mind. Inspired by Dr. Haidt's morality quizzes, I thought I'd make my case in the form of an exam. First, some reading comprehension. Here is a significant article for your perusal. Warning: it is quite graphic, and may be difficult for some to read. You need not read it thoroughly, just to get the gist of what is going on is sufficient. There will be a battery of three questions to test your comprehension when you get back. Go ahead, I'll wait. Finished? OK. Question 1: Why were the South Africans setting people on fire? a) The people being burned had committed grievous crimes against others. b) The attacks were politically motivated. The victims belonged to an opposition party. c) Mobs formed spontaneously when the national soccer team lost, and went on a rampage looking for an outlet for their frustrations. d) The victims were immigrants looking for jobs, and the South Africans saw them as competition. Basically, it was an act of xenophobia. Question 2: Why did the burning victims leave their native Zimbabwe? a) The scenery in South Africa is better. b) They were tourists. c) Zimbabwe is so old fashioned. South Africa is the hip place to be. d) Zimbabwe is run by a democratically elected, murderous brute named Robert Mugabe. The economy there is in shambles, the government violent and hopelessly corrupt, and people are fleeing the country looking for work and to escape the misery and brutality. In both cases, the answer is d). Now that you understand the basics of the situation, here is the crucial question. Question 3: Why doesn't sub-Saharan Africa have a successful space program? a) A lack of natural resources. b) Apartheid. c) They have burned to death all the people who knew anything about spaceflight, and no longer have the knowledge for a successful space program. Other than that, they'd be golden. d) Their societies have staggering social problems, particularly with respect to violence, corruption, and basic interpersonal ethics. In short, they simply haven't achieved a level of civilization that would support the requisite division of labor, economy, and technology that would be needed for a successful space program. Answers a) & b) are incorrect. If you answered c), you might have a future hosting a show on the History Channel, educating America's couch potatoes. But if you subscribe to rational thought, hopefully your answer was something along the lines of d). Folks, the fall of Rome was marked by staggering, staggering levels of violence and chaos that would make pretty much anything going on today pale in comparison. It lasted for centuries. Nobody builds or does large-scale, fantastic anything in the midst of large-scale, fantastic slaughter. Lesson: basic social ethics is critically important to human achievement. You'd think that'd be obvious, but it is amazing how frequently it is overlooked. Now, for my critique of Dr. Haidt's work. Hopefully, you've read his basic premise. I'll go directly to the questions this time. Rate each of the following from 1-7, 1 being completely disagree, and 7 being completely agree. 1) It is morally acceptable for me to privately raise my own children to eat their food off the floor next to the dog bowl without utensils, so long as the floor is exceptionally clean and that it is certain that they will not get sick or otherwise be physically harmed. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 2) It is morally acceptable for me to have my children color in pictures of violent images of people being killed, so long as I am very clear that actually doing such things is not acceptable. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 3) No harm, moral or otherwise would come to a child raised in such a way. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Finally, a few true or false questions: (T/F) Harm is the sole determinant of the morality of an action, and the human ability to perceive the harmfulness of an act is perfect. (T/F) Behavior is to be judged purely in terms of its outcome, and the physical cause-and-effect of the universe is so fully understood by all human beings that all outcomes can be determined beforehand. Therefore, all behaviors may be pre-judged moral or immoral by considering their effects in advance. Because this is a psychology exam, no questions or answers should be judged right or wrong. They should simply be pondered ponderously. My biggest beef with all of this isn't so much what the good Doctor has to say, though I will disagree with that in good time. It is the fact that this is what passes for high-level inquiry in the field of psychology. Have we truly fallen this far? It is as if Dr. Haidt, in possession of a Ph.D. in psychology, is under the impression that human beings are indistinguishable from robots. He finds this uncanny, bizarre notion possessed by conservatives that symbolically or ritually repulsive behavior ought not to be undertaken to be, simply, illogical, and yet so very fascinating, like some kind of strange alien mating ritual. He wonders at the way they might actually think that human behavior might contain, dare I say it, not completely rational undercurrents, that engaging in such behavior might actually have results that may not be obvious at this time. They might affect the way a person "sees things," or the way they "think about the world." It may even be possible, however unlikely, that human beings may not possess infinite control over themselves. Who knows? This might have (gasp!) tremendous ramifications! But no, clearly this cannot be the answer:
This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation... The second conclusion was that the moral domain varies across cultures. Turiel's description of morality as being about justice, rights, and human welfare worked perfectly for the college students I interviewed at Penn, but it simply did not capture the moral concerns of the less elite groups—the working-class people in both countries who were more likely to justify their judgments with talk about respect, duty, and family roles... Drawing on Shweder's ideas, I would say that the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.
His strange concoction of a theory, rambling and incoherent as it is, still manages to somehow stumble onto the beginnings of an inkling of notions that wiser men than he have known in far more depth for upwards of three millenia. Yet they are so new to him that he can't contain his excitement. Is this the breakthrough research conducted in the modern university, most likely at taxpayer expense? And with all this new insight, he still fails, completely, to realize that for the most part he is not even talking about morality at all! You'd think he do the slightest, tiniest bit of research into the actual belief systems he claims to be intent on studying. Most of what he is talking about is actually only a tangentially related concept called holiness. Holiness is, to put it most simply, being or acting in one's proper "place." Thus it is not immoral to eat off the floor like an animal, it is unholy, as this is not behavior fit for a human. To do so is to to violate one's holiness, and is an act of defilement. But it is not necessarily wrong. Treating an American flag like garbage is to violate its holiness. Eating the family dog is to violate its holiness. And making a habit of violating holiness eventually has its consequences! Sadly, it appears the closest any of his "subjects" got to explaining this to him was the one who said "Your dog is family, and you just don't eat family." Most people have trouble distinguishing between the two concepts, even those that are nominally religious. I hope that, someday, given the opportunity, you'll be able to explain why you shouldn't eat the family dog at least as well as he did. You'd think this would be easy... This is what we have sunk to. The brightest among us cannot even understand very simple, ancient concepts. We hand out Ph.D.'s in psychology to people who clearly don't know the first thing about how the mind works. Even us religious folks do not know holiness when we see or hear about it. How can we hope to explain it to folks like Dr. Dense? At one time, we knew this. At one time, the law was The Law, and it was treated with the respect it deserved, not changed on a whim. Now, it is a means to an end. It's holiness has been violated, nobody cares about it, nobody could possibly follow it if they tried for its endless complexity, and, unsurprisingly, it doesn't work very well. At one time, it was well known that government was corrupt and to be feared. Now we have treated it as holy, and it has grown out of all proportions. It threatens to ruin us. At one time, money was gold. We understood the threat of Isaiah, when he said "Thy silver has become dross." We knew it had consequences. Now money is paper, printed at will by the government. Look what has happened. Guess what's to come. The list goes on, and on, and on. You can check up on it by perusing the magazine rack at your local grocery store's check-out counter. Or on TV. Or any other number of places. My friends, you are witnessing the advanced stages of decivilization. Students of history ought to know how it ends. Unless they watch the History Channel. Is it any wonder we are in such trouble?

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