WEIRD Values

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 First Things’s 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 Read more

Thanks to Barak Richman and Dan Crane

Thanks to Barak Richman and Dan Crane for participating in our first online debate at CLR Forum, “Are Conservative Rabbis a Cartel?” You can follow the posts by scrolling to the “Debates” category over on the right. We’re very grateful for the thoughtful and fun exchange. Come back soon!

Inazu on the Future of Religious Liberty

John D. Inazu (Washington University School of Law) has posted The Four Freedoms and the Future of Religious Liberty. The abstract follows.

The First Amendment’s rights of speech, press, religion, and assembly were once “interwoven” but distinct. Together, these freedoms advanced a pluralist skepticism of state orthodoxy that protected religious and other forms of liberty. The connections among these rights were evident at the Framing. They were also prominent during the 1930s and 1940s, when legal and political rhetoric recognized the “preferred position” of the “Four Freedoms.” We have lost sight of the Four Freedoms, supplanting their unified distinctiveness with an undifferentiated free speech framework driven by unsatisfying concepts like content neutrality and public forum analysis. It did not have to be this way, and it may not be too late to change course. This Article seeks to renew the pluralist emphasis once represented by the Four Freedoms.

The consequences of losing the pluralist vision are nowhere more evident than in the diminishing constitutional protections for religious groups, which are paradigmatic of the expressive, dissenting, and culture-forming groups of civil society. The Four Freedoms remind us that the boundaries of religious liberty have never rested solely in the First Amendment’s free exercise clause — religious liberty is best strengthened by ensuring robust protections of more general forms of liberty. But the normative effort to reclaim pluralism is not without costs, and it confronts powerful objections from anti-discrimination norms pertaining to race, gender, and sexual orientation — objections that cannot go unanswered.

Pierret, “Religion and State in Syria”

This February, Cambridge University Press will publish Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama Under the Ba’th by Thomas Pierret (University of Edinburgh). The publisher’s description follows.

While Syria has been dominated since the 1960s by a determinedly secular regime, the 2011 uprising has raised many questions about the role of Islam in the country’s politics. This book demonstrates that with the eradication of the Muslim Brothers after the failed insurrection of 1982, Sunni men of religion became the only voice of the Islamic trend in the country. Through educational programs, charitable foundations and their deft handling of tribal and merchant networks, they took advantage of popular disaffection with secular ideologies to increase their influence over society. In recent years, with the Islamic resurgence, the Alawi-dominated Ba’thist regime was compelled to bring the clergy into the political fold. This relationship was exposed in 2011 by the division of the Sunni clergy between regime supporters, bystanders and opponents. This book affords a new perspective on Syrian society as it stands at the crossroads of political and social fragmentation.