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So, traditional authoritarian morality changed its tune. Drinking and drugs aren’t morally wrong, exactly — they’re bad for you. Extra-marital sex and homosexuality aren’t evil — they threaten the fabric of society. Rock and Roll isn’t Satanic — hip-hop encourages violence. See the difference? What were formerly authority-based claims about purity turned into pseudo-empirical claims about danger.
The trouble is, those claims are false. As we’re seeing now in Colorado, the sky doesn’t fall when people smoke pot. Nor do heterosexuals stop making babies because gays get married. Sure, the jury is still out on the long-term effects of these social changes. But when you smoke pot, or get to know your gay relative, you can see for yourself that the scolds are wrong. Worse than that — they look stupid.
The popular moral intuitionist Jonathan Haidt has proposed several emotive/instinctual bases for morality. Some of these are familiar to all of us: promoting care over harm, fairness over cheating, liberty over oppression. Other moral foundations, Haidt has claimed, are more specifically conservative: loyalty, authority, and purity.
Haidt argued that liberals need to learn all six moral languages if they are to be effective political communicators. But the shifts in public morality suggest that, in fact, some of those languages may be spoken less and less. Instead of viewing all six moral bases as equivalent, maybe some of them are stages we’re meant to outgrow.
In shifting from claims of authority and purity to those of avoiding harm, moral conservatives already declared defeat. They took a risk that traditional purity values would also happen to be beneficial, harm-avoiding ones. But the jig, increasingly, is up.
This, I think, is one reason reproductive freedom remains a moral outlier. Lots of Americans believe that someone is harmed when a woman has an abortion: the fetus. Many more believe that fetus has a “soul” implanted in it at conception. Pot smoking, cohabitating, and being gay are, at least on their face, victimless actions. Of course, persistent sexism and misogyny are also crucial factors, but pro-choice advocates have yet to succeed in depicting abortion as similarly victimless.
Recourses to traditional values seem less and less appealing when it comes to victimless — indeed, arguably beneficial — actions. Maybe that’s because fewer and fewer people believe in the Source of those values. Or maybe it’s because their proponents have been disingenuous about why they hold them.
At the end of the day, conservatives’ real motivation isn’t marijuana addiction or promoting child-centric family units: it’s God. And while it is sincerely frightening when it looks like that particular God isn’t watching over us after all — and religious conservatives are sincerely frightened — there is a word for the slow process of critical analysis, moral reflection, and introspection that takes Its place. It’s called growing up.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.