Give Me the Spirit of Living Things As They Return to Clay

Posted by Sappho on May 5th, 2014 filed in Books, Environment, Moral Philosophy, Queries


My brothers and sister and I are planning to get together in Maine soon to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday. Mom’s already 80, but the celebration’s been delayed till a couple of months after her birthday so that the brother who’s in the Foreign Service can make it. So we’re still exchanging planning emails. We’ve already picked the date selected the place (not Mom’s house, but another place where we can rent cabins, to make it more special for Mom), and my sister has made a deposit. As we make our various travel arrangements, the discussion turned to what people’s food restrictions are. Just one of my nieces has a clear health related reason for food restrictions (Crohn’s disease), but there’s still a patchwork of other food restrictions. I’m semi-vegetarian (was ovo-lacto-vegetarian for ten years when I was younger, and still avoid red meat since my husband talked me into allowing fish and poultry into my diet). One brother relates that his daughter is technically an ovo-lacto-vegetarian, while he’s pescatarian (vegetarian plus fish), and his son’s an omnivore. The sister whose daughter has Crohn’s disease writes, “I am very wary of GMOs and certain foods need to be organic.” On this, Pescatarian Brother agrees (“GMO food is the DDT of our age … if anyone wants my opinion.”)

I thought of this exchange as I read the first chapter of Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Moral Mind. This proved to be an easier read than I thought. If my scientifically minded, formal philosophy hating mother ever decides to change her initial impression that it sounds “too heavy” for her, she’ll probably breeze through it as I did, since the philosophy side (a few passing references to general forms of moral philosophy like utilitarianism, deontology, and, in the footnotes, virtue ethics) is gone over quickly, the meat of the book being in relating various psychology experiments. These, in turn, are told in a style full of vivid examples, metaphors, and with summaries at the end of each chapter so you can’t miss the main points.

These main points, about the different moral foundations (first conceived by Haidt as five moral foundations and modified to six by the time he wrote the book), you may have already read about in the various reviews of the book. So rather than summarize the book, I’m going to go through it chapter by chapter, and just pull out which points happened to strike me in each chapter, as I was reading it.

In Chapter 1, I’m struck by Haidt’s remarks on one moral foundation in particular, the one Haidt calls sanctity. He sees the lack of use of this foundation as one of the big gulfs between WEIRD people (people from Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic countries) and the rest of the world.

Nowhere was this thinning more apparent than in our lack of rules about what the anthropologists call “purity” and “pollution.” Contrast us with the Hua of New Guinea, who have developed elaborate networks of food taboos that govern what men and women may eat….

But the part that caught my eye was the part where Haidt suggested that even Westerners, and even Western liberals, have their own form of the sanctity/purity foundation.

And why do so many Westerners, even secular ones, continue to see choices about food and sex as being heavily loaded with moral significance? Liberals sometimes say that religious conservatives are sexual prudes for whom anything other than missionary-position intercourse within marriage is a sin. But conservatives can just as well make fun of liberal struggles to choose a balanced breakfast – balanced among moral concerns about free-range eggs, fair-trade coffee, naturalness, and a variety of toxins, some of which (such as genetically modified corn and soybeans) pose a greater threat spiritually than biologically.

Clearly, Haidt is talking about my world, here. Though I live in Orange County, California (“Orange fucking County” to Harvey Milk in the movie Milk, when he explains where the signatures for an anti-gay ballot measure that would get few signatures in San Francisco will come from), I, my siblings, my friends at my Quaker meeting, and the college coop friends that I’m in touch with on Facebook are all liberal, and so I’m surrounded by the concerns Haidt describes. My siblings and I didn’t get our various diet restrictions from our mother:

“And I eat anything (and everything).
Except OATMEAL.

is her contribution to the email thread. We picked them up from our friends. I was converted to ovo-lacto-vegetarianism by a friend in high school and lived in a vegetarian coop in college; my remaining semi-vegetarianism goes back to those days. At potlucks at my Quaker meeting, some dishes are often marked as vegetarian for those among us who care. Before meeting for worship, one Friend offers me a card showing which fish are more or less ecological to eat; I decline the card only because I already have it from another source. After meeting for worship, another Friend announces the imminent arrival of an order of fair trade olive oil, which she buys for those in the meeting, collecting from each only the cost of the bottles ordered (she isn’t making a dime of profit for her effort here).

I realize, too, as I read this, that at a larger level he’s talking about the ways in which liberal concern for the environment can reflect, not just concerns about harm, but also an overarching sense of sanctity in nature. I remember an old Peter, Paul, and Mary song, “Power

Just give me the warm power of the sun
Give me the steady flow of a waterfall
Give me the spirit of living things as they return to clay

Just give me the restless power of the wind
Give me the comforting glow of a wood fire
But please take all of your atomic poison power away

Doesn’t “Give me the spirit of living things as they return to clay” invoke a sense of awe and sacredness in nature?

As I reflect on this song, I pull from my mailbox an urgent message from Robert Redford, urging me to act on the proposed Pebble Mine, “the worst corporate assault on America’s natural heritage that no one’s ever heard of.”

Tens of millions of salmon course through this unspoiled Eden, feeding not just an abundance of bears, whales, seals, and eagles but also the Alaskan Native communities that have thrived here for thousands of years.

So, it Haidt’s Sanctity foundation really at work, here? More broadly, do those of us who hold the truncated version of Haidt’s six dimensions of morality, the one in which we value his Care, Fairness, and Liberty foundaions much, much more than we value his Loyalty, Hierarchy, and Sanctity foundations, still resonate to the other three foundations sometimes more than we might realize?

I’ve gone through the tests at YourMorals.org. Years ago, using an email account where I can’t seem to receive the link the site says it has emailed to reset my long forgotten password, I took the test with the “harmless taboo violations” that Haidt uses to illustrate his point. (More recently, I’ve made a new account and taken a different set of surveys there.) I remember my reaction to the dilemma with which he opens Chapter 1, a story about a family who, after their pet dog is run over by a car, decide to cook and eat the flesh. Unlike, apparently, most of the educated people in Haidt’s surveys, I was willing to say that the family was morally wrong in eating the dog. My argument for making my choice was that if we accept people eating cherished pet dogs just because they feel like it, it changes their feelings for their pets, in the long run, even if they only eat pets who are already dead, and that change is a bad thing. I expect it’s that kind of reaction that gave me a somewhat higher sanctity score than the average liberal in his survey (but still lower than the average conservative, as I just couldn’t, in general, bring myself to judge the harmless taboo violations as being the same degree wrong, for the most part, as things that actually directly involved harm). So I suppose there’s a sense in which I have to allow that I’m acting on all six of his foundations. But how far?

My weakest dimension, according to multiple surveys at the YourMorals.org site, is Authority/Hierarchy. In a lot of ways, Hierarchy feels more a source of evil to me than a source of morality; I’m quicker to see it as a source of oppression and constraint than as a source of wisdom. But is that all I see? If I see Authority disrespected for a reason I consider unjust, I can be quick to defend it. Dis my President because he orders drone strikes, and I can listen willingly, but if you say anything that makes me suspect you’re dissing him because he’s black, well, Hail to the Chief! And there are some kinds of respect for authority that seem good and wise to me. Isn’t regarding peer reviewed evidence, particularly evidence that’s widely replicated and that survives multiple levels of review, as of more value than less informed opinions, a form of honoring Authority?

Back to Sanctity and the environment: In what ways is our environmentalism driven by a form of the sanctity foundation? Well, if you’re a secular sort of person who disagrees with the particular environmental concern being advanced, one who thinks it’s factually wrong, then it can seem sanctity driven in the negative (for an atheist) sense. Note how Haidt describes genetically modified corn and soybeans as things that “pose a greater threat spiritually than biologically,” and compare this German version of the Daily Show mocking the Energiewende, Germany’s decision to shift away from nuclear power. See how the show uses religious clothing and language to suggest that turning away from nuclear power at a time when climate change is the biggest environmental threat is a really dumb idea.

And I agree with them here. When the Peter, Paul, and Mary song “Power” warns of the dangers of nuclear power,

We are only now beginning to see
How delicate the balance of nature can be
The limits of her ways have been defined
And we’ve crossed that line

the words are a much better fit for the threat posed by carbon emissions from coal plants than they are for the dangers (real, but much smaller than those posed by coal) from nuclear power plants. To the extent that our concern for the environment is driven by our Sanctity foundation, we could, perhaps, be reacting emotionally to what seems to unbalance Mother Earth, rather than heeding the scientific evidence on what’s actually harmful or not.

Still, the liberal environmentalist version of Sanctity feels different to me, both more individualist (note how specific my family’s diet restrictions are, varying even within each nuclear family) than more tradition bound rules, and more determined to tie concerns to discussions about what’s actually harmful or not.

As I was reflecting on Haidt’s Sanctity foundation, specifically as it relates to how we frame our concern for the environment, I went to meeting for worship yesterday. As we always do on the first Sunday of the month, someone read the Advices and Queries for the month during meeting for worship, and we had a brief period afterwards to reflect on them. This month’s advices and queries are on Harmony with Creation. Here, since we are after all a faith community, the appeal to sanctity is explicit. But so, too, is the deep concern about care and harm.

God is revealed in all Creation. We humans belong to the whole interdependent community of life on earth. Rejoice in the beauty, complexity, and mystery of creation, with gratitude to be part of its unfolding. Take time to learn how this community of life is organized and how it interacts. Live according to principles of right relationship and right action within this larger whole.

Be aware of the influence humans have on the health and viability of life on earth. Call attention to what fosters or harms earth’s exquisite beauty, balances and interdependencies. Guided by Spirit, work to translate this understanding into ways of living that reflect our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.

In what ways do I express gratitude for the wondrous expressions of life on Earth?

Do I consider the damage I might do to the Earth’s vulnerable systems in choices I make of what I do, what I buy, and how I spend my time?

In our witness for the global environment, are we careful to consider justice and the well-being of the world’s poorest people?

Does our way of life threaten the viability of life on Earth?



2 Responses to “Give Me the Spirit of Living Things As They Return to Clay”

  1. Marian Neudel Says:

    I do occasionally read conservatives claiming that the teaching of environmentalism in elementary school violates the First Amendment prohibition on the establishment of religion. And it’s hard to argue with them. One can take the position that it’s general morality, or maybe ethics, in the same way that the celebration of Thanksgiving tends to be. I have trouble deciding whether having a national morality would be the same thing as having a national religion. It’s a difficult question.

    I have read one of Haidt’s articles, and I think he misses one crucial distinction. For liberals, loyalty and hierarchy are relative values, only as good as whatever or whoever one is loyal to or puts at the top of the hierarchy. Whereas we see kindness and fairness as absolute, owed to everybody. Conservatives not only see loyalty and hierarchy as absolute (this is fairly obvious), THEY SEE KINDNESS AND FAIRNESS AS RELATIVE, no better than whatever or whoever one is being kind or fair to. In fact, this is their main gripe against liberals–that we try to be kind/fair to the Wrong People.

  2. Lynn Gazis-Sax (Sappho) Says:

    I found that my score for how far I valued the Loyalty foundation jumped wildly back and forth, depending on what questionnaire I was answering (I was planning to say a bit about that in my next post in the series).

    On one survey, I’d see the loyalty questions framed in a way such that I could think of a ton of reasons that I might, in some circumstances, not approve of loyalty. No, I’m not one for “my country, right or wrong,” unless it’s “to work to change it when it’s wrong.” And yes, I think the Unabomber’s brother did a good thing in turning him in, so family loyalty isn’t absolute, either.

    But there was one survey where the site asked how much money you’d take to do something, and considered that you held something as sacred if you wouldn’t take any price for it. And for that one, while of course I tended to get high scores for seeing the Care/Harm questions as ones where I wouldn’t do the harmful thing at any price, I also gave the same answers to the loyalty questions. Because, hell, no, I’m not going to renounce my US citizenship *because someone wrote me a big fat check to do so*. I’d feel like a scumbag doing that. And it’s not as if I need the money that desperately. To me, that feels like a completely different thing than, say, becoming an ex-pat because you moved for a job or a relationship, and gradually reaching a point where you’re willing to apply for citizenship in the new country.

    On fairness, Haidt does have some good stuff, later in the book, about how he came to realize that, while liberals and conservatives both say they value fairness highly, the two groups mean very different things by the word. At one point, he argues, I think plausibly, that the Tea Party’s central unifying point is not, despite what some argue on their behalf, freedom, but fairness – fairness as the Tea Party construes fairness, which of course is not at all fairness as you and I construe fairness. You and I, being liberal, place a lot more value on “make sure everybody gets a certain basic respect” type fairness, while the Tea Party places more value on “make sure free riders aren’t taking advantage of me” type fairness.

    He winds up treating kindness as perhaps the one value we basically share, but still, if all the other foundations are weighted differently, can the way we construe kindness, and the place we find for it, wind up looking just the same?