The horrific terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebo and a Jewish shop in January provoked a remarkable and notable response from the people of Paris and the wider French population, in towns and cities all across France, as they took to the streets in their millions to express their condemnation and revulsion (ordinary common or garden morality rather than Haidtian morality) at the attacks. Also evident in their response was a determination to re-state some values which at some important level are considered sacred in France – liberty and freedom of speech and expression.
That second dynamic is interesting as it mimics the professed motivation of the killers of the journalists – that Charlie Hebo’s satire had insulted the Prophet Mohammed in a literally sacrilegious way.
Of the several moral foundations which Haidt identifies Sanctity is the one which appears to play the least in the politics of developed countries. A notable exception to this notion of sanctification might be the national flags of countries which is illustrated by the practice of flag burning, actually the almost total absence of flag burning. Burn your nation’s flag in public and you almost certainly risk assault and arrest. The sanctification of the national flag and its roots in our moralised psychologies where it appears to enjoy its own separate foundation (Sanctity) and as such appears to justify some exceptions to the scope of our freedom of expression. (If you are burning your countries Flag some may congratulate you but they are likely to be like you, at the far end of moralised anti-authoritarianism). In developing countries and states based on explicit religious objectives – Israel, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan for example the moral foundation of sanctity is overtly expressed in law and constitution.
The glorious response to the attacks in France saw the reassertion of the Republic’s values of liberty, equality and fraternity or in Haidtian moral foundations theory terms, Freedom, Fairness and In-Group loyalty. Haidt believes that these values can be held so dearly that they can be sacralised in themselves and that was evident in the commentary and the mass demonstrations. The re-assertion of Liberty (freedom) was particularly marked in the public reaction.
Some commentators expressed disquiet though about whether the terms of Charlie Hebo’s satire had crossed the line into racism and Islamophobia. If that was the case the transgression can only take place under the cover of the sacred. The Moral Foundations of our reasoning can have perverse outcomes and not just in militant Islam.