The Purity Foundation’s Global Influence

May 22nd, 2010 by Jonathan Haidt

The purity foundation is the hardest one of our five foundations of morality for most secular Westerners to understand. It is also the best one to examine when you find yourself puzzled by the odd things that people and nations do, particularly if those things involve sexuality or sanctity. For example, I was reading the New York Times yesterday and was struck by fact that there were three major purity stories in the international section:

18 Orgies Later, Chinese Swinger Gets Prison Bed

Gay Couple in Malawi Get Maximum Sentence of 14 Years in Prison

Pakistan Widens Online Ban to Include YouTube

All of these actions seem absurd and outrageous from either a utilitarian point of view or a human rights point of view, because none of the actions being punished had harmed anyone. I don’t want to defend any of the three repressive actions; I too think the authorities were wrong in each case. I just want to point out that in all three stories the authorities are either directly motivated by concerns about purity/sanctity, or else they are responding to political pressures from citizens or factions that are motivated by purity/sanctity concerns. (The deepest analysis of purity/sanctity is found in Richard Shweder’s discussion of the “ethics of divinity” in this article.)

We have a paper under review in which we examine which moral foundations underlie people’s attitudes about a broad range of political issues, from flag burning to cloning to gay marriage. The big surprise in our data was that people’s scores on the purity foundation were excellent predictors, above and beyond self-ratings of politics, for many of these issues — and not just the ones that related to sexuality. Purity is emerging as the “magic foundation” — the one that exerts a pervasive but often unrecognized influence on moral and political judgment and behavior. The paper is titled:

The Ties that Bind: How Five Moral Concerns Organize and Explain Political Attitudes

The lead author is Sena Koleva. You can find a copy of the manuscript on this page, publication IIe. If you read it, it might help you understand the international section of your newspaper, just as it helps you understand culture-war issues in your own nation.

—Jon Haidt

Posted in disgust, moral foundations, news commentary, political behavior, purity, Purity/Sanctity/Disgust, yourmorals.orgNo Comments »

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