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Postmormon Morality and Haidt’s Moral Foundations

March 8, 2013

I finally got around to posting my latest blog article at Wheat and Tares, If your morality is fragile, do handle with care….

fragile handle with care

Fragile handle with care

The basics of this post are that it was supposed to be a quick followup to my previous post at Wheat and Tares, which was a partial transcript of John Dehlin’s interview on Mormon Stories and A Thoughtful Faith. (This podcast episode drew a lot of discussion at Main Street Plaza, by the way.) The basics were simple: many folks suppose that when people leave the Mormon church, they become (or have the possibility of becoming) immoral. My response was such: 1) I don’t think that really happens, 2) there are some parts of Mormon morality that should be challenged, and 3) to the extent that some former Mormons legitimately do become immoral, this really says something about the way the LDS church teaches moral reasoning.

One of the comments made me think of something entirely different, however.

In the 12th comment, jmb275 wrote:

Yeah, to elaborate though a little, we’re not talking about the care/harm moral foundation, those are strongly enough imbued in society no faith crisis undoes that (plus most of us aren’t psychopaths). But if we’re talking about alcohol, or premarital sex, those are a different ballgame. Those fall under the sanctity/degradation moral foundation, and those are the first to go. Those have nothing to do with empathy but are based on tradition or “God’s will.” They’re still “moral values,” if you will, but under a faith crisis the importance of the sanctity/degradation moral foundation evaporates unless you work diligently to keep it together. (FYI, see Moral Foundations)

This really got me thinking. Although I suspect that Haidt’s moral foundations theory probably has some culture-bound issues (the mapping between American liberals and American conservatives probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to many folks around the world), I have to say that I fit closer to Haidt’s view of an American liberal — fairness and harm strike me as legitimate moral values, while the other foundations — especially sanctity/degradation seems of less importance…and doesn’t seem particularly “moral” to me at all!

Whenever I talk about Mormon morality, I (and many other folks) often make a clear delineation between issues like marital infidelity, murder or violence…and then other things like coffee, tea, non-monogamous or non-heteronormative (yet still consensual) relationships. The reason I do it is because to me, it seems clear that there is a difference — if we’re talking about moral issues, then I understand that murder, lying, cheating, stealing, and those things apply.

But drinking coffee or tea is not like these others, in my mind. These things don’t even register as morality items to me, so it bothers me that people will look at these things when they talk about ex-mormons “slackening” their morality.

…the issue that jmb pointed out is that perhaps the entire disagreement stems because I value different moral foundations than the other guy — whereas I see ritual issues of purity to be wholly irrelevant at worst, and a matter of proprietary or prudence (rather than morality) at best, I have to recognize that for others, these items are quite literally viewed as being along the other moral issues. When someone says sexual immorality (which can be under the “harm” foundation” but is usually phrased as a purity/degradation issue) is next to murder, to me this seems absurd…but for another person, this might seem intuitively true.

The question to consider is whether the leaving the church relates to a shift in the moral foundations one values — are the people who either a) chafe at Mormon moral rules to begin with or b) reevaluate morality after leaving just folks who tend to be on the “harm and fairness” side of the moral foundations typology?

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25 Comments
  1. I agree with you on not seeing these points as “moral” issues. I would categorize them more in terms of behaving responsibly than in terms of behaving ethically. On that note, I would add one more point about the Mormon teachings on sex and alcohol:

    On these issues, the CoJCoL-dS teaches total abstinence — for sex, draw the boundary of the danger zone at the neck, and for alcohol, don’t even test a single sip. But people raised Mormon figure out pretty easily that there’s no harm in crossing that line a little bit, and when they do, they’re left with no framework at all for deciding how far they want to go.

    It is particularly problematic with alcohol. I understand that predisposition to alcoholism is genetic, and having an alcoholic parent is a factor that makes conversion to Mormonism attractive (eg. “If only my family could be like that happy Mormon family where Mommy and Daddy don’t drink.”). So in Mormonism you have a population of people with a higher-than-average genetic propensity towards alcoholism, who have no cultural model for how to drink healthily in moderation.

    It’s a recipe for trouble, and the faithful will say, “See! If only you’d followed the rules and never tasted that first drink, you’d be fine!” But at the root, the problem is caused as much by Mormonism as it is by leaving Mormonism.

  2. “especially sanctity/degradation seems of less importance” Hence the expression “damn, dirty Hippies.”

    Before you get too far down this path of thinking, remember that Haidt’s examples of sanctity/degradation include a man buying and having sex with a chicken carcass before cooking and eating it, siblings having consensual yet fully protected sex, naked actors urinating and fornicating on a stage like animals, and a person drinking something with a sterile cockroach in it. Do you feel squeamish about any of those scenarios? Do you have a hard time explaining your squeamishness? If so, that’s the purity/degradation foundation at work.

    I’m not sure I agree that sex and WoW are truly related to the sanctity/degradation moral foundation. Your original OP pointed to one moral foundation in particular that is probably relevant: authority. When the person of authority no longer has authority, that reason evaporates. If Mormons are invested in the rules on the basis of authority or approval from authority, then yes, they will drop those prohibitions, rightly so if that is their only reason.

    A case could be made for sex and WoW to be related to the harm/care foundation, but as you point out, not in moderation (or consensual sex) – just the extremes. Buddhism does a good job teaching moral reasoning for these: do not be intoxicated and do not harm another person (through sexual domination or seduction or using another person for one’s own gratification). I believe what jmb is pointing out is that some people have developed feelings of shame with ingesting coffee, tea, alcohol or whatever – that they view those things as impurities. I just think it’s a stretch from a Haidt perspective. It’s more related to authority and possibly even tradition (which is ultimately respect for authority of the elders – those who’ve created the traditions).

    Great discussion.

  3. Just because those scenarios make people feel squeamish, that doesn’t mean it makes sense to categorize sanctity/degradation in terms of “morals”.

    Another example would be the following: In some cultures, the idea of eating shrimp is as disgusting as we see eating bugs. People in other cultures eat fried crickets — and there’s nothing wrong with it — even if it might gross you out like the example of drinking water with a with a sterile cockroach in it.

    Now suppose that we’re living in a world of scarce resources, and if people in the rich countries could convince themselves to eat fried crickets instead of meat, that might mean less starvation elsewhere. But the “sanctity/degradation” sentiment prevents the culture from trying it. How is that moral?

  4. Chanson – I’m explaining Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations referred to in the OP. These are his definitions and examples. There was a percentage of people who could be convinced to drink the drink. It’s not universal that every single person on the planet finds it repulsive. I believe about 20-30% were able to drink the cockroach drink, although they were initially repelled.

    His studies are to get to the bottom of how people define morality. He would say that there is no absolute morality because we all have different focus and tolerance across the six moral foundations, but there are moral “themes” that do speak to people across all cultures to varying levels: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

  5. For those who are interested, there are several different moral foundations surveys / quizzes at this site: http://www.yourmorals.org/

    These are for research purposes associated with the six moral foundations.

  6. (At times like this, I so wish I had comment numbering here instead of threaded comments)

    chanson (first comment):

    Interestingly enough, in the W&T discussion, Daniel Parkinson also had some discussion about seeing some things as more of an issue of “healthy living” than “morality”. I see your “responsible” as being similar — in fact, I remember writing a whiiile back about looking at things in terms of “prudence” in terms of “morality” (in which case, the main thing is that the response is going to be different. If someone does something I might find imprudent, then I don’t respond with [moral] outrage, but really with more of a “shake my head” response. And that’s if I even bat an eye.)

    I totally agree with your thoughts on moderation vs. abstinence, and also the point on people who already may be predisposed to certain things (e.g., alcoholism),

    hawkgrrrl (second comment)

    Before you get too far down this path of thinking, remember that Haidt’s examples of sanctity/degradation include a man buying and having sex with a chicken carcass before cooking and eating it, siblings having consensual yet fully protected sex, naked actors urinating and fornicating on a stage like animals, and a person drinking something with a sterile cockroach in it. Do you feel squeamish about any of those scenarios? Do you have a hard time explaining your squeamishness? If so, that’s the purity/degradation foundation at work.

    For me, I don’t feel squeamish about any of these except the sterile cockroach one…and that’s because I don’t know how you would sterilize a cockroach. (so, in retrospection, I guess the idea that my gut reaction is to think of cockroaches as being intrinsically and irredeemably unclean would probably be what Haidt is going for in describing this model.

    I’m not sure I agree that sex and WoW are truly related to the sanctity/degradation moral foundation. Your original OP pointed to one moral foundation in particular that is probably relevant: authority. When the person of authority no longer has authority, that reason evaporates. If Mormons are invested in the rules on the basis of authority or approval from authority, then yes, they will drop those prohibitions, rightly so if that is their only reason.

    A case could be made for sex and WoW to be related to the harm/care foundation, but as you point out, not in moderation (or consensual sex) – just the extremes.

    Responding somewhat in reverse order…I would say that in the same way the case can be made in the harm/care foundation, I think a case might be made in a purity/degradation model *at least for the law of chastity*…although I agree that the authority/subversion foundation also makes a lot of sense (even more).

    What I was thinking when I thought about sanctity/degradation is the rhetoric that people have relating to chastity and modesty in particular. So, girls can become “licked cupcakes”, “already chewed gum”, etc., On the guy front, the way most people talk about gay relationships is still to go immediately to their personal revulsion of gay sex (and to reduce the relationships to sex.) [of course, since women are not sexual beings (and y'all also don't fart), then lesbians don't register at all.]

    I definitely think that whether it is in the authority, tradition, or purity foundations, the point still works. If my understanding of Haidt is correct (and it probably is outdated…back when I listened to him and read up on him, there were only five moral foundations!), then the liberal/progressive package de-emphasizes every foundation except for harm/care and fairness. (welp, that means I probably need to re-take the “your morals” quiz…)

    chanson (comment 3):

    I see that Hawkgrrrl has already responded, so I defer mostly to her response, but my thoughts would be as thus:

    The cultural taboos and disinclinations against particular food items (regardless of the item’s actual healthiness/nutrition/etc.,) actually seems to me to be a great example of the moral foundation being employed. I mean, per my understanding of Haidt, there is nothing that says that the object of the foundation has to be “logical” as it were. Haidt is being more descriptive — when people develop moral rules, at least some folks take what they find disgusting and make rules about those.

    These rules often won’t make a great lot of sense for people who do not prioritize that same foundation, and they aren’t always cleanly explicable from another foundation. In other words, trying to retell cultural aversions to certain food items in terms of harm *might* work, but it also might not, because the aversions didn’t arise because of the harm/care foundation to begin with.

  7. Seth R. permalink

    I’ve made the point before that stuff like “no coffee” or “no steady dating in high school” or maybe even dress code issues – act as sort of a far-flung line of defense (to use an analogy from the old British Empire). You fight the battles way, waaaay…. out there – so you don’t have to fight them up close and personal.

    A teen couple that is worried about stuff like not dating steady isn’t having to worry about more serious stuff – like the emotional ruin that comes from uncommitted sex, or whether the birth control measures worked or not. A woman who is fussing around about something trivial like coffee isn’t debating about alcohol abuse, or gateway drugs. It’s not even on her radar.

    Even the dress code, debatabley – sets the bounds waaay out there so you don’t have to worry about other things. You can make a really strong case that it is PRECISELY the fact that Mormons’ worries are so superficial and trivial that is one of the culture’s biggest selling points.

    Sure, it may make us look petty – but it’s light years better than having the sort of worries a lot of the rest of society has.

    If ruining your life is the price of not looking petty – then by all means, may I remain an object of “contempt” the rest of my mortal life.

  8. Seth R. permalink

    Which is why I agree with the podcast they did on… I think it was Mormon Discussions… where they had a panel of ex-Mormons talking about how to leave the church without ruining your life and your family.

    They stated that when you leave, you should keep the behavioral restrictions – even the “trivial” ones – at least initially. This is so you don’t lose a sense of who you are at an emotionally vulnerable time. It’s also to prevent you from saying “screw it all – I’m free! Now… why am I married to this woman?” Or some nonsense like that (which – don’t kid yourself – people ARE prone to).

    The regulations can act like an anchor. And it’s certainly not hurting an awful lot in keeping them – if you do it right.

  9. Seth R. permalink

    Final point – I think jmb’s statement that extra-marital sex “isn’t about care/harm” but rather about sanctity/degradation is complete BS.

    Nothing has more potential for emotional harm of a person than sex.

  10. Seth,

    I’ve made the point before that stuff like “no coffee” or “no steady dating in high school” or maybe even dress code issues – act as sort of a far-flung line of defense (to use an analogy from the old British Empire). You fight the battles way, waaaay…. out there – so you don’t have to fight them up close and personal.

    I guess the issue here is that if you lose the battle from out here, that’s even more demoralizing (pardon the pun) than anything else.

    Even the dress code, debatabley – sets the bounds waaay out there so you don’t have to worry about other things. You can make a really strong case that it is PRECISELY the fact that Mormons’ worries are so superficial and trivial that is one of the culture’s biggest selling points.

    Could we say that a major selling point of Mormonism, then, is the extent to which it keeps members pre-occupied on something other than the functional reality of the rest of the society they live in?

    Which is why I agree with the podcast they did on… I think it was Mormon Discussions… where they had a panel of ex-Mormons talking about how to leave the church without ruining your life and your family.

    This definitely sounds like a Mormon Expressions podcast episode, I think.

    Final point – I think jmb’s statement that extra-marital sex “isn’t about care/harm” but rather about sanctity/degradation is complete BS.

    Nothing has more potential for emotional harm of a person than sex.

    I like hawkgrrrl’s response here on this point:

    A case could be made for sex and WoW to be related to the harm/care foundation, but as you point out, not in moderation (or consensual sex) – just the extremes.

    So, for example, i totally agree that extra-marital sex can be couched in terms of care/harm…in Mormonism, the discussion is generally not nuanced enough to actually make it about that in most cases.

    To the extent that these things have a potential for harm, I think there is more commonality on all sides — but the different approaches and responses suggest something else. For one side, if something has risk, then you mitigate the risk. For another side, if something has risk, then you cloister young folks away from it by “set[ting] the bounds waaay out there so you don’t have to worry about other things.”

  11. Seth R. permalink

    Andrew, if by “functional reality” you mean STDs, NICMO, passing out in random bathtubs, and all the rest –

    Sure, I’ll admit to not living in reality. With pleasure.

  12. Seth R. permalink

    And I don’t think there is any such thing as “in moderation” when it comes to sex.

    Nobody manages that – whatever they say to their friends.

  13. Seth,

    Andrew, if by “functional reality” you mean STDs, NICMO, passing out in random bathtubs, and all the rest -

    …uhhhhhh google for nicmo byu or ncmo byu.

    But anyway. It’s interesting that in a discussion just a few days back, you were heralding the extent to which religion is about engagement with reality. But now, you clarify that it’s not really about that — to the extent that reality actually does, yes, involve the risk of encountering bad stuff.

    I guess this also explains why many Mormons really can’t deal with people who *already* are in certain situations — it can try to keep people out of premarital relationships, but it can’t deal healthily with a girl who say, is pregnant and unwed. It can try to keep people away from tattoos, but can’t deal with the person who has a tattoo. it can try to keep people away from drugs, but can’t deal with the person who is addicted.

    This spills over into other things that most people would see as less charged. Mormonism can keep its LGBT youth away from relationships, away from transitioning, etc., but if someone is already in these situations, then all of a sudden, Mormonism has nothing much to say (other than, “Well, divorce your husband/get out of that relationship, stop ‘being confused” about gender identity”)

    like, forget “healing thyself.” Just don’t get sick in the first place!

  14. Haidt is being more descriptive — when people develop moral rules, at least some folks take what they find disgusting and make rules about those.

    Sure, and I think this point is one of the central conflicts of the “culture wars.” There are people who are defining their “morals” based on gut reactions like “eww, gross, gay sex!!!” and making laws accordingly. And there’s another camp that believes that that your conscience should be capable of overriding your gut on moral issues.

  15. chanson,

    Absolutely…I think Haidt focuses a lot on why the culture wars happen, why there seems to be irreconcilable differences…and I think this research is in part the result of his thinking about those issues.

    I do wonder what the difference between “gut” and “conscience” is. Like, I guess the thing about Haidt is that he puts those “gut reactions” as being part of the foundations to begin with. So, we might not prioritize those reactions (e.g., as you say “another camp…believes that your conscience should be capable of overriding your gut”) but that’s just part of the tension.

  16. Seth R. permalink

    Andrew, obviously the implication is that what the popular culture finds acceptable has become more than a little unreal.

  17. Seth R. permalink

    I’m willing to allow however that it very well may be the case the Mormon culture has a harder time dealing with people who are already in trouble.

    I wouldn’t place odds on how well they stack up to other communities in that respect however.

    And there is one response to dealing with people in trouble that I do not endorse:

    It’s the approach that says – “well, your troubles aren’t really troubles in the first place – so cheer up and start celebrating!”

  18. Seth,

    Andrew, obviously the implication is that what the popular culture finds acceptable has become more than a little unreal.

    Sure, I’ll buy that. But I’ll also buy that Mormon culture isn’t exactly much more “real.” What defines real anyway, then?

    And there is one response to dealing with people in trouble that I do not endorse:

    It’s the approach that says – “well, your troubles aren’t really troubles in the first place – so cheer up and start celebrating!”

    Well, one thing I was trying to do with my comment is point out that because of the Mormon approach to things, they really don’t have a good way of determining which things really are troubles and which things aren’t.

    So, STDs, duly noted. Passing out, duly noted.

    But a Mormon does not distinguish between passing out and the casual drink after work. The Mormon does not distinguish between STDs and a committed monogamous (but not heteronormative, or not conforming to gender roles in some way or another) relationship. So, the Mormon might be insulated from STDs (I guess…really, i think that keeping people so far away from these issues makes them horribly ignorant so that when they are “soaking” or whatever it is BYU students do to “not have sex”…they aren’t even doing it in any sort of safe manner), but they are also insulated from empathizing with the lived experiences of a wide variety of people — people who yes, do drink tea, coffee, alcohol, and aren’t addicted, alcoholic, etc., People who are gay and in relationships but who aren’t engaging in orgies every weekend.

  19. The Mormon does not distinguish between STDs and a committed monogamous (but not heteronormative, or not conforming to gender roles in some way or another) relationship.

    Note, also, that being a faithful Mormon on these issues doesn’t necessarily confer protection from STDs. You can absolutely be in a committed temple marriage (and assume that makes you safe) while your partner is sincerely trying (and occasionally slipping up and sincerely repenting, yet putting you at risk), whereas you might not be in the same situation if your partner had been taught a healthier model.

  20. 9 – Seth wrote that nothing has more potential for emotional harm than sex.

    I disagree. What about the emotional harm of watching a loved one be murdered? What about the emotional harm of divorcing an abuser or addict? What about the emotional harm of being abandoned by one’s parents?

    Life is unpredictable. Even the most faithful and devout will experience setbacks. Many young faithful mormons have discussed that after marriage, their spouse’s sex drive/issues surrounding sex is vastly different from their partner. If the couple had engaged in premarital sex, they might have discovered this. But instead, they must remain married, as it’s immoral to divorce.

  21. 20 Also, what do you mean by no moderation when it comes to sex (I’m specifically thinking of married couples).

    Moderation means very different things to different people.

  22. Seth R. permalink

    Well aerin, since I see ALL people who get married as being fundamentally different from each other, often in profound ways – I see marriage more as work to make it happen than an event of circumstantial compatibility.

    I think the other side ballyhoos compatibility waaay more than it deserves. Testing for compatibility certainly hasn’t seemed to help the divorce rate of the “try-before-you-buy” crowd. In fact, as I pointed out in another debate, the test-drive model actually seems to incentivize WORSE relationships, not better.

    As for the harm in sex compared to murder, or what have you. It’s just different, not necessarily worse. I don’t think you can quantify human experience accurately like that.

    Chanson, I think it’s thoroughly controversial whether open sexuality with sex-ed results in safer sexual behavior than abstinence-model cultures. But I doubt it does.

    And don’t even bother to bring up ANY third world countries as an example. Pretty much nothing they’re doing applies here. The poverty issue is simply too big to make comparisons.

    Andrew, I think some Mormons fail to make a distinction between universal evils (like alcoholism), and mere transgressions of covenant (having a single social drink at a cocktail party for a non-covenant individual). But I think it’s possible to overstate their prevalence in Mormon culture. My law school was part of a wider campus that was practically pickled in alcohol. But our class knew who the local class drunks were – and they were frowned on by a lot of people – not just the Mormons in class (there were 2 or 3 of us). One of my own friends was a very responsible drinker. I remember we went out to eat somewhere on a trip for a competition and he asked me if he could order a beer hesitantly, knowing I was Mormon.

    I thought that was certainly nice of him to do that – but I immediately reassured him that this was a matter of my own personal covenants. The only reason responsible drinking would be a “sin” for me was because of the promises I had made to God. Since he had not made those promises, I did not regard it as a sin. He nodded thoughtfully and then made the order. I was fine with it.

    And I know a lot of Mormons like this. Even very faithful ones.

    Sure, I had to explain to my ten year old daughter that the reason this was a sin was because of our covenants, and that alcohol is an addictive substance and it’s probably safer not to touch the stuff. But I think most Mormon adults get it, more or less. Especially those who live outside Utah/Southern Idaho.

  23. Seth,

    I think some Mormons fail to make a distinction between universal evils (like alcoholism), and mere transgressions of covenant (having a single social drink at a cocktail party for a non-covenant individual).

    Yet, the question is, to the extent that some Mormons do this, is it because of their Mormonism or in spite of it?

    Like, let’s say that this is a gross misinterpretation of Mormonism…but still, but for Mormonism, they wouldn’t have that gross misinterpretation. (See also: other issues like leader worship. I’m totally willing to buy that this is probably a misfiring…but people don’t get that way on their own. Their issue is not knowing when to ignore church rhetoric rather than not listening too closely.)

    But I think most Mormon adults get it, more or less. Especially those who live outside Utah/Southern Idaho.

    I think this is telling though. Mormons only really become able to appreciate non-Mormon reality when they are in areas where Mormonism cannot cloister away from non-Mormon cultures.

    Note, there is a related issue:

    The only reason responsible drinking would be a “sin” for me was because of the promises I had made to God. Since he had not made those promises, I did not regard it as a sin. He nodded thoughtfully and then made the order. I was fine with it.

    I think many Mormons wouldn’t make this chain. They probably would say agree with the first line…but for the second line, it would be more like, “You have not made these promises, but since the church is true, I think you should make these promises, or become worthy enough to be able to make these promises.”

  24. Seth R. permalink

    Yeah, but saying you should make these promises is on a different level of disapproval than is reserved for covenant breaking. The point is that a distinction is usually made – even in Utah.

    I don’t think this sort of conflation happens because of Mormon culture or in spite of it. It’s neither. It’s just the way people are. It’s also pretty evident to me that people tend to act more insular when they gather together in the same geographic area in demographic density. You see the same nonsense among radical liberals about 30 minutes from my house in Boulder, Colorado (or in Berkley, California, I suppose).

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