At a lawyers conference I attended recently, the conversation turned to “The Innocence of Muslims,” the offensive YouTube video that has sparked riots throughout the Muslim world. “Why do they react this way?” a partner at a major law firm asked, referring to Muslim societies. The idea that people would take such offense at an inept video, and blame American society in general rather than the individuals who produced the film, was incomprehensible to this American lawyer: “We would never react that way.” The other lawyers agreed.
This conversation came back to me this week as I read Jonathan Haidt’s very worthwhile new book, The Righteous Mind. Mostly, the book explores the different moral psychologies of American conservatives and liberals. (Haidt argues that the differences are largely innate — “pre-wired,” he says — thus confirming Iolanthe’s famous observation that “every boy and every gal/ That’s born into the world alive/Is either a little Liberal /Or else a little Conservative!”). One chapter, though, compares American moral intuitions with those of other societies. America, Haidt says, has what psychologists call a WEIRD culture — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. WEIRD cultures have a strong “ethic of autonomy”: they hold that “people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences” which, barring direct harm to others, should be fulfilled. In such cultures, as Jean Bethke Elshtain remarked at the annual Erasmus Lecture this week, “loyalty” principally means “being true to oneself.” The First Amendment reflects this ethic: it promotes the widest possible range of individual expression and advises offended listeners to avoid harm by turning away.
Largely through American influence, WEIRD values increasingly dominate international human rights discourse. This is ironic, because WEIRD cultures are global outliers — and America is the farthest outlier of all. Most of the world does not see autonomy as the most important value and does not privilege individual expression to the extent we do. Many cultures, Haidt says, have an “ethic of community” that sees people principally as members of collectives — families, tribes, and nations — with strong claims to loyalty. And many cultures have an “ethic of divinity,” which holds that people’s principal duty is to God, not themselves. “In such societies,” Haidt writes, “the personal liberty of secular Western nations” — including the unrestrained freedom of expression — “looks like libertinism, hedonism, and a celebration of humanity’s baser instincts.”
Haidt’s account explains much of the incomprehension on display at that lawyers conference. To someone in a WEIRD cultural environment — and the educated upper-middle class in America, Haidt claims, is the WEIRDest environment of all — it is very hard to understand how people could feel morally outraged by an inept video that insults divinity. It seems so counter-intuitive. The incomprehension works the other way, too. To someone in a non-WEIRD environment, it is very hard to understand how people could feel morally justified defending sacrilegious expression. Haidt’s account suggests that the differences between these cultures are going to be extremely difficult to negotiate. Intuitions are stubborn things.
Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.