A clever quiz question exposes an important ideological divide
Online quizzes that try to place you on a political spectrum are fun, but also frustrating. Biased and badly-worded questions can make it impossible to provide meaningful answers.
A new quiz is currently doing the rounds which does a pretty good job of avoiding these pitfalls. Tens of thousands of people have already had a go.
There’s been a lot of chat on social media too, mostly about Question 33 — which, like the rest, is a statement to which one may express agreement or disagreement. It is: “I would have sex with an attractive alien”.
If this was intended as an attention-grabber, then it certainly worked. Obviously, it’s a hypothetical question and, some might say, a silly one. And yet it’s really quite clever. It collapses, into one lurid scenario, an important ideological divide — between those who base their ethical judgements on liberal morality alone and those who still heed older, deeper moral instincts.
Liberal morality is primarily concerned with individual autonomy. Very crudely, it can be summed-up as: “if it makes you happy, and doesn’t hurt anyone else, then what’s the problem?” The immediate problem, of course, is that the desires of different individuals come into conflict — hence the philosophical effort to construct frameworks to adjudicate between competing claims. However, liberalism is also challenged by other systems of morality — whether political, traditional or religious — that hold to alternative or additional ethical standards.
The Moral Foundations theory developed by Jonathan Haidt and colleagues is all about this challenge. Their research shows how conservatives aren’t just motivated by the care and fairness concerns that are central to the liberal worldview, but also care about things like loyalty, authority and sanctity.
Which brings us back to Question 33. If one modifies the statement to read “I would have sex with an attractive animal”, the overwhelming majority of liberals and conservatives alike would be united in strong disagreement — and not just because they’re not themselves attracted to animals. Their yuck reaction would go much further — regarding bestiality as morally wrong regardless of sexual proclivity.
If they had to philosophically justify their revulsion, the liberals would probably say something about consent — animals being unable to give it. The conservatives, however, might point out that animals don’t consent to being killed and eaten; therefore, if eating meat is morally acceptable, then the taboo against bestiality must be based on something else — a moral imperative that goes beyond the issues of individual rights and autonomy.
This is why the question about the attractive alien is such a clever and revealing one. The alien is presumably sentient and therefore able to give his/her/its consent; but, like an animal, is of a different species — having sex with him/her/it would therefore cross a line. While liberals would regard discomfort with such transgression as irrelevant, or perhaps evidence of bigotry, conservatives would see it as both relevant and legitimate.
Some conservatives might argue that our yuck reactions are an important cultural or evolutionary phenomenon that we shouldn’t casually dismiss. Indeed, they may well serve an important purpose. Other conservatives look to metaphysical explanations — perhaps with reference to a divinely created order. Either way, it is clear that as individuals and societies human beings have moral instincts that liberalism has no good explanation for.
Opposition to sex with aliens may not be the most pressing of political issues, but there are other moral instincts — feelings of patriotism, for instance — where liberal disregard (and disrespect) have done great harm. To ignore — or suppress — things that our fellow humans really care about is to make ourselves aliens to one another. Albeit unattractive ones.