Conservative Morality in Benghazi

September 13, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The nice thing about having several principles in your moral toolkit is that you have more ways to justify acts that some other people might find unsupportable – things like torture and assassination.

Jonathan Haidt has become famous for saying that liberals have a narrower set of moral principles than do conservatives.  Liberals base moral judgments on just two principles:
  • Harm / Care
  • Fairness / Reciprocity
Conservatives consider those but also include
  •  Ingroup/ Loyalty
  •  Authority/ Respect
  •  Purity/ Sanctity
With those principles at the forefront, conservatives eagerly cheered their support for the Bush-Cheney policy of torture. (See my earlier posts here and here.)  Those same principles also seem to underlie the attacks at Benghazi and the support for those attacks.  

First reports from Libya assumed that the killers were motivated by anger over a video that made fun of Mohammed the Prophet. Now it appears the attack was not so spontaneous.
Officials said it was possible that an organized group had either been waiting for an opportunity to exploit like the protests over the video or perhaps even generated the protests as a cover for their attack. [NYT]
Whatever their motivations, the assassins apparently knew that the bloodshed would get popular support, support based on conservative morality. The attack epitomized loyalty to the ingroup (Islam). The video was an act of grave disrespect, so avenging it upheld the authority of the faith.  The video was also violation of rules of purity surrounding the sacred elements of Islam. According to principles in the conservative moral toolkit, avenging the American-made video by killing Americans was a very moral act.

Western observers often characterize the angry Muslims as “medieval.” If Libya and other countries were modern, goes this reasoning, these medieval reactions – the fatwas and the assassinations of cartoonists, homosexuals, rape victims, and others – would be confined to a retrograde fringe.  But the social bases of this morality span a slightly broader period than the dark ages. Conservative morality seems to be an aspect of agricultural society – going back 10-15,000 years. In the hundreds of thousands of years before then, hunter-gatherers placed less emphasis purity, authority, and loyalty. These conservative principles also have a diminished role in “modern,” i.e., industrial, societies of the last 300 years. 

But the overlap of economy and morality is far from perfect.  Even in a thoroughly industrial or even post-industrial society, segments of the population may support torture or the blanket exclusion of outsiders (currently Muslims). As Haidt’s studies – done mostly in the US – show, medieval morality can hang on long after the economic basis of society has changed. 

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