Status and Purity: Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

I was delighted to see two of my intellectual fixations—the taste for status and the taste for purity—bundled together in the New York Times.

The urge to achieve social distinction is evident worldwide, even among people for whom prominence is neither accessible nor desirable. In rural Hindu villages in India, for instance, widows are expected to be perpetual mourners, austere in their habits, appetites and dress; even so, they often jockey for position, said Richard A. Shweder, an anthropologist in the department of comparative human development at the University of Chicago.

“Many compete for who is most pure,” Dr. Shweder said. “They say, ‘I don’t eat fish, I don’t eat eggs, I don’t even walk into someone’s house who has eaten meat.’ It’s a natural kind of social comparison.”

Awesome. I have a longish essay forthcoming in the Center for Independent Studies’ Policy magazine about the politics of relative position and status competition. One of my main points is that there is an indefinite number of culturally mediated dimensions of status competition, and competition on some dimensions is beneficial or benign, making it impossible to draw determinate policy implications out of the simple fact that we’re motivated by status. Competition for purity among mourning windows strikes me as benign.

And I recently wrote a piece for Reason laying out why Democrats should stop listening to George Lakoff and start listening to Jonathan Haidt, who has done fascinating work on the psychology of purity and disgust, based in part on the work of Shweder.

I think status competition on moral dimensions can be a good thing, as long as the relavant moral emotions and principles are good. But I think it can also be distorting. I’d guess that some Islamist terrorism is motivated by status competition on Haidt’s ingroup and purity dimensions of moral emotion. But this also accounts in part for very successful church charity drives. The way innate dispositions are mediated by culture is almost the whole ballgame.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center