Getting beyond the conservative "Ick Factor"

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Jun 27, 2010 at 20:30


Toward a unifying approach to human ethics.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee stepped in it, big time, recently. First he explained that he's against gay marriage, at least partyly because of the "ick factor":  

"I do believe that God created male and female and intended for marriage to be the relationship of the two opposite sexes," Huckabee said in a recent New Yorker profile. "Male and female are biologically compatible to have a relationship. We can get into the ick factor, but the fact is two men in a relationship, two women in a relationship, biologically, that doesn't work the same."

Huckabee goes on to say that "some pretty startling studies" show that "monogamous marriage" is the way to end poverty.

Needless to say, Huckabee is wrong about poverty & marriage, too.  But let's stick to his "ick factor" thing for this diary.  Naturally, some folks found this insulting, to say the least.  So Huckabee naturally, being such a personal responsibility type of guy naturally looked around for someone else to blame.  How about the gay community itself?  And some fancy-pants intellectual?  Viola!  Or not so much:

When former Arkansas governor and presidential contender Mike Huckabee used the phrase "ick factor" in describing his opposition to gay marriage, news organizations jumped on the comment and Huckabee defended himself by attributing the phrase to the LGBT community.

In particular, he cited Chicago philosopher and professor Martha Nussbaum. "Nussbaum has often made reference to the 'ick factor' in her professional writings and is credited with applying the phrase to the GLBT community," Huckabee wrote.

But Nussbaum, in an email to Politico, said she has never used the phrase and demanded an apology from Huckabee.

"I have never used the phrase 'ick factor' in any of my three books dealing with the emotion of disgust, or in any articles," Nussbaum wrote.
She then went on to explain the philosophy behind the phrase she does use:

    I use the term "projective disgust" to characterize the disgust that many people feel when they imagine gay sex acts. What does that term mean, and to whom does it apply? The view I develop, on the basis of recent psychological research, is that projective disgust has its origin in a discomfort with one's own body and its messier animal aspects, including sexuality, and that, in a defense mechanism, disgust is then projected outward onto vulnerable groups who are characterized as hyperphysical and hypersexual. In this way, the uncomfortable people displace their discomfort onto others, who are then targeted for various forms of social discrimination.

    Thus the people to whom the term "projective disgust" applies are the insecure and emotionally stunted people who campaign against equal rights for gays and lesbians, not gays and lesbians themselves.

"Mr. Huckabee has gotten bad information about my work and has completely turned its meaning upside down, imputing to me a position (that gays and lesbians are disgusting) that I criticize as childish and morally deficient," she wrote. Huckabee "owes me a public apology," she added.

So, utterly and completely wrong, irresponsible, and totally misrepresenting the work the expert he cited.  All in all, compltely typical of a conservative politician.  So why write about it?

Well, it struck a nerve.  You see, I'd recently been reminded of Jonathan Haidt's work on liberal and conservative value systems, and it struck me as quite obvious that conservatives have a much bigger "ick factor" thing going on than liberals do.  According to Haidt, there are "five innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of 'intuitive ethics.'"  Conservatives draw on all five of them, while liberals focus on just two.  The "ick factor" fits very neatly into one of the five that liberals don't cotton to.

More precisely, Haidt says:

Paul Rosenberg :: Getting beyond the conservative "Ick Factor"
Moral Foundations Theory was created to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. In brief, the theory proposes that five innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of "intuitive ethics." Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The foundations are:

1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulate the theory in 2010 based on new data, we are likely to include several forms of fairness, and to emphasize proportionality, which is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."

4) Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundation underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

As Haidt describes "Purity/sanctity" it doesn't sound like a bad thing at all.  Staying away from contaminated food, or whatever.  How can that be a bad thing?  Maybe liberals are deficient somehow if they can't see that.

But as Nussbaum explains it, in terms of projective disgust, it seems very different--if not the exact opposite.  And so this got me to thinking.  Just a few weeks ago, Greta Christina wrote a piece, "Why Being Liberal Really Is Better Than Being Conservative", in which she relays an argument that liberal values are superior because they are universalizable:

I've been chewing over this question [of which values are superior] ever since I heard about this research. In other words, for at least a couple of years. And then, at an atheist conference I spoke at recently, the answer was dropped into my lap, so clearly and succinctly that I kicked myself for not having thought of it myself, by the conference's keynote speaker, philosopher and MacArthur genius Rebecca Goldstein. (From whom I am stealing this idea shamelessly. Hey, I'm an ethical person, with the good liberal value of fairness. When I steal an idea, I give credit.)

Here's the idea.

Fairness and harm are better values -- because they can be universalized.

Goldstein's argument is this. The basic philosophical underpinning of ethics (as opposed to its psychological and evolutionary underpinnings) are:

(a) the starting axiom that we, ourselves, matter;
and (b) the understanding that, if we step back from ourselves and view life from an outside perspective, we have to acknowledge that we don't, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else; that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves; and that any rules of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and all that. (Some version of the Golden Rule seems to exist in every society.)

In other words, the philosophical underpinning of ethics are that they ought to be applicable to everyone. They ought to be universalizable.

And liberal values -- fairness and harm -- are universalizable.

In fact, it's inherent in the very nature of these values that they are universalizable.

Fairness is the most obvious example of this. I mean, the whole freaking idea of fairness is that it be ought to be applied universally. Tit for tat. What's sauce for the goose is what's sauce for the gander. Yada, yada, yada. The whole idea of fairness is that everyone ought to be treated, not identically, but as if they matter equally.

And the value of harm, and the avoidance thereof, can easily be universalized as well. It can be applied to everybody. In fact, the history of the evolution of human ethics can be seen as the history of this principle being expanded to a wider and wider population: to people from other countries, to people of color, to women, etc. etc. etc. It can even be universalized further, and applied to non-humans. (It may well be that, in 200 years, people will look back on the way we treat animals with the same bewildered, "How on earth could they do that?" horror with which we now view slavery.) There's nothing in the principle of avoiding harm that prevents it from being applied to any creature with the capacity to experience suffering. It is an easily universalizable value.

Conservative values, on the other hand, are not universalizable.

Quite the contrary.

It is in the very nature of conservative values -- authority, loyalty, and purity -- that they are applied differently to different people. It is in the very nature of conservative values that some animals are, and ought to be, more equal than others.

Now, this is not a new argument to me, but the combination of encountering it again together with the example of Huckabee and Nusbaumm's rebuke all came together to produce a little epiphany, and that is this:

While all five values may be universal parts of biological heritage, only the liberal values are fully universalizable, which means that the (usually considered conservative) value of restraint should be applied to the conservative values as we mature into adulthood.  There is nothing wrong, inherently, in the fact that all five value systems are built into nature.  There are evolutionary reasons that this should be so.  But we do not live in anything like the conditions in which we evolved.  In particularly, we live in much larger population groups, and biological imperatives that were helpful on balance in small group settings can be quite harmful in larger societies.  For that reason, these motivations can be tolerated somewhat in small children, who live in a much more circumscribe social world, but they should deliberately de-emphasized as children grow up, and especially as they transition into adulthood.

To a certain extent, this is already somewhat natural.  I would not be surprised if it turns out that liberals and conservatives start off more similar in childhood, but that the balance shifts as liberal children grow older.  Whether this is so or not, I do know that children generally are more finicky eaters than grown ups are.  As you grow up, the "ick factor" response to a wide range foods simply disappears.  What's more, in-groups get re-defined to be increasingly large and inclusive, and the authority/respect relationship with ones parents and other adults becomes softened by one's own newly-achieved adult status.  Thus, there is a natural loosening that occurs in all three non-liberal domains, and hence it it is not at all strange or unprecedented to argue that this natural loosening ought to be extended significantly farther for the general welfare of our entire species and all of our societies.

In fact, Robert Fuller's concept of dignitarianism replacing rankism fits right into this perspective.  Rankism, you'll recall, is not the same as rank, or systems of authority, but is about their abuse.  To the extent that authority is earned, legitimate, helpful to society as a whole, and responsibly exercised, it is not a problem.  And that is precisely the model of how the conservative values can and should be responsibly restrained so that they are compatible both with human well-being and with the principle of universalization.

That, in a nutshell, is my little epiphany.  But I do have a feeling that it could grow into something truly comprehensive and viable.

What say you?


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I'm sure that I'm not the only one here... (4.00 / 1)
but I've had thoughts along these lines as well.

In my case, it had to do with the fact that the pro-choice paradigm accommodates the pro-life paradigm, at least on a personal level... e.g. if you live in a society where abortion is legal and readily available, you are free to not have one if you think it is wrong.  The reverse is not true at all, obviously.  The point at which they become incompatible is when someone decides that a fetus has rights exclusive of the mother... at that point no pro-choice paradigm can fit that in, you just have a sharp shift to, "Well, too bad you just have to deal with the fact that other people are going to do shit you don't approve of."

These types of observations occur precisely because of liberals' near-universal concern with truly and earnestly constructing a value system that works for as many people as possible, whereas conservatives seem to be much more concerned with making sure that everyone does what they demand.

In other words.  Yeah, I concur.


Authority Is Central For Conservatives (4.00 / 1)
Another way of saying this:

conservatives se conservatives seem to be much more concerned with making sure that everyone does what they demand.

But working out the intricacies takes some time and patience.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Yes... I suppose you are right. (0.00 / 0)
In any event, I enjoyed the article all the more because it sort of "went with" something I've been mulling over on my own.

Of course, you work in general here is excellent.  Kudos.


[ Parent ]
Not quite (4.00 / 1)
I believe that I have rights independent of other people, but that does not give me the right to drain the physical resources of another human being.

I probably have better things to do with my time than this.

[ Parent ]
I'm not sure what you are saying here. (4.00 / 1)
What I was getting at is that if you believe that the fetus has (legal) rights independent of the woman carrying it, then that complicates a pro-choice position.  Obviously, if you believe that a fetus should be afforded full legal status under the law, then abortion would violate those rights.

If you view a pregnant woman as have a set of additional rights/protections because she is pregnant then the pieces of the argument click together much more easily... e.g. a pregnant woman enjoys the right to choose to have an abortion, but she could also enjoy additional protections against assault.

For example, let's say that someone assaults a woman who is pregnant, and she miscarries as a result of the assault.  Assume that everyone agrees that this is a much more serious crime than an assault on the same woman if she were not pregnant.  So... if the fetus has legal status independent of the woman, it would make sense for the law to allow prosecution of two crimes... assault and manslaughter (or murder).  If the fetus does not enjoy full status, then it would make much more sense for there to be a different type of assault class, with stiffer penalties more in line with manslaughter penalties, for an assault on a pregnant woman which results in a miscarriage.

The outcome could be the same, in terms of sentencing... but it's the underlying rationale.  That's what I was getting at.  To a certain extent the pro-choice position is a superset of the pro-life position, i.e. you can be pro-choice and still think that abortion is wrong - you just don't have one.  Your choice would be to not get one.

That is just not true if you think of the fetus as a person (in the same way that a baby is a person).  In that case, the two positions are diametrically opposed... either pretty much fully excludes the other.


[ Parent ]
BTW I am not making an anti-abortion argument (0.00 / 0)
I was just talking about the question of how far could the pro-choice position accommodate an a "pro-life" point-of-view.  The answer, in my mind at least, is that we can accommodate that position as long as everyone can agree that an unborn child is legally distinct from one that hasn't been born.  The answer to the flip side of that question, how far can the "pro-life" position accommodate a pro-choice position is basically not at all.  It really is an anti-choice position in that most of the adherents don't believe that there should be a choice at all.

If you view an unborn child as essentially a baby that happens to be located inside a womb, especially if you take that characterization all the way to conception, then there is no middle ground.

In fact there isn't a lot of middle ground anyway... either you think women should have that choice or you don't.  A subset of thinking they should have a choice is basically what factors you think should go into that choice for you and those you have personal influence over.  


[ Parent ]
I dunno, Paul. (4.00 / 2)
I'm tripping and stumbling and banging my shins and scraping my elbows over 3) Ingroup/loyalty.  I'm reminding myself that your precise words were:
Conservatives draw on all five of them, while liberals focus on just two.

Emphasis on focus which does not suggest an absence of that system in those who self-identify as "liberal" [Though I got my doubts about some of 'em.  I remind myself, most things human lie along a continuum.]  Now that I got that out of the way...

With regard to the "ick factor," there is a very neat fit between Nussbaum's projective disgust and Haidt's 5) Purity/sanctity.  No argument here.  You made a great catch linking that all up.  

For me, one of those places that this linkage becomes manifest is featured in these purity balls and abstinence rings.  But, maybe that's my projective disgust coming to the fore.


According To Haidt (4.00 / 1)
Conservatives show roughly equal concern for all five domains, whereas liberals are much more concerned about  Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity.  It's not that liberals have no concern with these other domains, but their concern is at a much lower level.

That's what I meant when I used the term "focus".

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Purity/Sanctity (0.00 / 0)
Is also a focus of some Liberals. One is expected to have read certain tomes, while condemning others. To hold other views is often referred as insanity and/or stupidity, when the actual offense is to hold impure thoughts and entertain unblessed notions.

Perhaps such actions are not as egregious as some on the conservative end of the spectrum, but when it comes to party loyalty, or lack thereof, liberals and progressives can construct purity lists quite effectively. Most substantive disagreements I've seen on this site and others are pretty much based on such concerns. See PUMA and/or Obamabot for evidence. Partisanship. Dear Leaderism. But those get to #3 and #4, repsectively.

One of the more relevant liberal traits, IMHO, is that working to strengthen weaknesses, rather that exclusively exploiting strengths. Conservatives are quite different, minimizing (denying) weakness and pushing strengths (perceived, illusionary, or actual). I offer this comment in that context.

We all know about how caring and fair liberals yearn to become, or perhaps even have already manifest. The strengths are strengths. Progress requires consideration of the weaknesses. The rankism discussion is a start, but #3 and #4 are apparently difficult for humans, historically speaking.


"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


Raised Liberal (0.00 / 0)
I've seen some that have been raised to be liberal, but seem to take it in a conservative sort of way.  They have I'd call a conservative approach to life, but liberals are the tribe they belong to.

To some degree, that will always happen.  As long as we learn to identify such people, pull them away from the pure liberals and destroy them, we'll be ok.


[ Parent ]
Liberals ARE Affected By All Five Domains (0.00 / 0)
No question about it.  They are just much less affected by the last three than conservatives normally are.

Liberals form ingroups, too, for example.  But they're nowhere near as insanely fanatic and fixated on it as conservatives are.

My argument here is that the sort of balance that liberals have achieved is desirable and attainable in general.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Connections (0.00 / 0)
I actually thought this connection was made before.  It wouldn't surprise me if some previous writing implied this connection already, but it didn't click in the same way it did today.  Funny how the mind works.

I find the contrast between projection and universalization to be interesting.  Projection is a normal human trait, one vital for learning, actually.  We constantly project ourselves into what we witness others do.  

When we see a romantic kiss in a movie, for example, we automatically project ourselves into that scene and get a little vicarious pleasure, assuming one of the two is someone we'd like to kiss.  We can't get the same pleasure from watching our parents kiss or (in my case) a sister kiss her husband.  We can receive pleasure by appreciating a more universal aspect of such a kiss by being glad for the happiness of those we love.

I wonder if the chicken and egg are reversed when it comes to the five moral foundations.  The difference between liberals and conservatives isn't the different moral foundation; that is the result, not the effect.  The difference is projection versus universalization.

Sounds almost like a Kegan step, doesn't it?  I'm not quite seeing where the object/subject switch is, but universalization is like a three dimensional version of the one dimensional projection; a generalized version of the same thing.  


A Few Points (0.00 / 0)
(1) I think part of this was intuitively present from early on.  But this is much more articulated than my earlier thoughts--or those of anyone else's that I encountered.

(2) The question of causality--which comes first--is a very crucial one, but I'm not sure we've got enough worked out to answer it yet.  We're making progress, though.  In the meantime, it's definitely important to keep in mind that a full-fledged after-the-fact explanation need not be the same as a how-we-get-there explanation.

What "there" is and how we got "there" are two different sorts of question, and how they are inter-related to each other is a third sort of question.

(3) There is a very important difference between projective identification, which is what you're talking about here when you say, "We constantly project ourselves into what we witness others do," and projection proper, which is a defense mechanism concerned exclusively with uncomfortable experience.  This is not to say that the two are unrelated, but projective identification starts so early we might conceivably place it at birth, and it plays a significant role in ego-formation, whereas projection is an ego-defense mechanism, which only makes sense once there's an ego to defend.

(4) This takes me back to the issue of Kleinian positions--the paranoid-schizoid, in which projective identification functions rather futilely trying to cope with terrifying experiences, vs. the depressive, in which projective identification manages to forge a connection with the mother that gradually leads to the acceptance of good and bad, without feeling ones very existence threatened by the bad.  Perhaps it's these two modalities that lead toward either universalization, or its rejection.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Beyond politics (4.00 / 4)
If we generalize on the concept of liberal and conservative, as I gather you intended, it seems to me that the one major difference between them is that at some point liberals overcome the fear that accompanies the received wisdom all of us are taught as children, and learn to hold it up to scrutiny. Could it be as simple as that? Obviously not, but in reflecting on my own development, it seems to me that once you've thought one unthinkable thought, you can think others.

Whatever begins the process, it seems to me what comes next is an intersection of the rational and irrational in which one informs the other, and the boundaries between them seem not only penetrable, but mutually embracing.

Just one example which was meaningful to me: I was raised to abhor racism, and as best I could, I tried to live according to the principle that all human beings are created equal. It was, however, a purely rational and ethical decision to do so. People of other races still represented the other to me. It seemed to be part of the architecture of my consciousness, and try as I might, I couldn't reason a way around or through it. Then one day I remember hearing the phrase Black Is Beautiful for the umpteenth time, and I'm not sure what happened, but suddenly it didn't sound like a courageous assertion to me so much as a simple statement of something fundamental, something which until that day I'd never looked at, and therefore had never seen. Silly as it sounds now, it was a true Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment for me, one of many, and certainly not the least of them.

Whatever rules conservatives, Huckabee's ick factor, and his obliviousness to the fact that others don't share his fantasies, demonstrates conclusively to me that its orb and sceptre are fear, and that Huckabee isn't the only one still cowed by them. We can certainly tolerate a few Mike Huckabees, but it would be a sad day for human civilization if we had to go to war with them to preserve and defend what we've learned at such great cost not only to individuals, but to society as a whole.


Well, It Is Pretty Simple, In One Sense (4.00 / 1)
Lakoff's parental model makes it pretty clear.  The Strict Father model assumes a dangerous world, dominated by threats.  Fear shapes that world and that worldview.  The Nurturant Parent model assumes a good world, one we have evolved to live well in.  There are dangers in it, to be sure, but it is not fundamentally structured by dangers--or worse yet, by fears that far exceed the dangers they refer to.

But that big picture still needs a whole lot more fleshing out.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Greed/short sightedness (0.00 / 0)
Any list leaving off greed from conservative virtues is incomplete.

Purity/sancity (0.00 / 0)
Purity/sanctity is a false construct. It exists as a "moral foundation" only artificially; in terms of morality, it's a theoretical construct. It's ideological, not real.


Actually, It's Based On Cross-Cultural Research (0.00 / 0)
Good old empiricism.  Nothing like it.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
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