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.
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.