Haidt’s research leads him to posit five psychological foundations of human moral sentiment, each with a distinct evolutionary history and function, which he labels harm, reciprocity, ingroup, hierarchy, and purity. While the five foundations are universal, cultures build upon each to varying degrees. Imagine five adjustable slides on a stereo equalizer that can be turned up or down to produce different balances of sound. An equalizer preset like “Show Tunes” will turn down the bass and “Hip Hop” will turn it up, but neither turn it off. Similarly, societies modulate the dimension of moral emotions differently, creating a distinctive cultural profile of moral feeling, judgment, and justification. If you’re a sharia devotee ready to stone adulterers and slaughter infidels, you have purity and ingroup pushed up to eleven. PETA members, who vibrate to the pain of other species, have turned ingroup way down and harm way up.Rather than recommend that liberals fake religiosity, he offers a different suggestion:
Democrats can try to appeal to religious American voters by giving some ground in the culture wars. But it seems unlikely they will find an effective balance. There is no point conceding stuff too trivial to really matter, such as school prayer, and comically pretending to be moved by the pure and the foul. And there is even less point in nominating religiously convincing candidates who really do believe embryos have the spark of divinity, that gay is gross, etc. Socialized health care isn’t worth it.
Democrats should play to their own moral-emotional strengths, not apologize for not having different ones. Haidt’s early research on moralized disgust shows that its cultural manifestations vary. The Japanese apparently find it disgusting to fail their station and its duties. And here at home, formerly “repulsive” practices, such as interracial marriage, have become mere curiosities.
Democrats shouldn’t cater to and reinforce sensibilities that both hurt people and hurt the Democrats’ prospects. Religious doctrine and religious feeling can and have been trimmed and shaped over time to accommodate the full plurality of liberal society. Illiberal patterns of feeling bolstered by religious sentiments, like disgust for homosexuality, can be broken through slow desensitization, or a shift in the way the culture recruits that dimension of the moral sense. In dynamic commercial societies, this happens whether we want it to or not. But we have something to say about how it happens. The culture war is worth fighting, one episode of Will & Grace at a time, if that’s what it takes.
Liberals must understand the profundity to others of feelings that are weak in them, but shouldn’t pretend to feel what they don’t. They can lead as well as follow. And it remains true that all Americans, conservative and liberal alike, are wide awake to the liberal emotional dimensions of harm and reciprocity. The American culture war is about how thoroughly the liberal sentiments will be allowed to dominate. If a thoroughly liberal society is worth having, liberals will have to spot the points of conflict between the liberal and illiberal dimensions of the moral sense, drive in the wedge, and pull out all the rhetorical stops—including playing on feelings of quasi-religious elevation and indignant moral disgust—to make Americans feel the moral primacy of harm, autonomy, and rights. When the pattern of feeling is in place, the argument is easy to accept.
I find Wilkinson's reasoning to be sounder than Matt Nisbet's and Michael Shermer's.