10 February 2015

On the moral basis of bangers and mash

This is not a rant about processed food! Bear with me...

For years, I have bemused dining companions in restaurants by ordering sausage and mash, when it was on the menu. I have explained that S. does not like sausages, and so we never have it at home. I have invariably been disappointed in the restaurant, because unlike that other great classic—fish and chips, which relatively upmarket places pride themselves in presenting in an "authentic" form—they can't resist messing with it, such as presenting venison sausages with "onion jam"...

It was when I was grumbling about a restaurant version recently, as one does, that S. revealed (after many years of the subject being off the agenda) that she quite liked sausage and mash—just not the "posh sausages" I insisted on buying and cooking (and I don't cook the potatoes long enough...)

We tested (well, I tested on her) several kinds of sausage.

My reference point was the "home-made" ones from Harry Ramsbottom's of Davenham, Cheshire of the late '50s-early '60s. Nowadays they would be called "Cumberland" (style)—then they were just his "best". There's no way of telling what the meat content was—it wasn't recorded in those days—but it was high, if fatty. I've never found any to quite match them, since the fat content would not be acceptable nowadays (despite this latest bit of revisionism), but premium brands do approximate to them.

So I started there. No. Then—I'm making this sound more systematic than it was—I tried smoked sausages; OK for her, and for me (minimax solution in game theory terms?) but that's all. Toulouse sausages? Chorizo? ... Broadly, if I liked them, she didn't, and vice versa. Eventually, I went to the sausage section of the supermarket and just picked up a brand name I recognised. Bingo!

For me, 90% meat content is what it's all about. A touch of seasoning and necessary binder, and that's it. I like the filler coarse ground.

S's preferred brand is 42% meat. The filler is homogenised gloop. Sorry!
...water, pork fat (10%), wheat, starch (potato,wheat), vegetable protein (pea,soya). Less than 2%....
It tastes perfectly acceptable. Of course. It is the sausage of her childhood and it is still going strong half-a-century on. You don't survive without something special.
(As far as I know, Ramsbottom's recipe died with him. His son became an accountant. [We were in the same class at secondary school])

I've just finished:
Haidt J (2013) The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion London; Penguin Books 
It's an excellent and thought-provoking read. One of its major arguments is that what we can in broad-brush terms call liberal and conservative moral positions are characterised by different sets of what Haidt calls “moral foundations”*.

The liberal position he traces back to John Stuart Mill (On Liberty, 1859) having its foundations in two principles;
1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
But interestingly he argues (based on empirical research introduced here) that more conservative positions embrace also at least three and probably four other foundations:
3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."
4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
and probably:
6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
He represents the traditions and their foundations thus:

(Images sourced from here)

This is only part of the argument, of course. But in getting to this formulation, Haidt discusses interestingly the default intellectual liberal assumption that conservatism is characterised by less commitment to moral foundations, whereas the research suggests that instead the conservative position embraces more dimensions. Haidt is open about how this realisation has challenged his own thinking.

What has that got to do with sausages? Well, perhaps it doesn't do always to be quite as patronising as even moderates foodies often are. Jamie?

* Some caveats are necessary here;
  • Haidt acknowledges that liberal and conservative mean different things in the USA from their meanings in Europe, so one has to be careful about generalising. 
  • And despite the apparent fit with political beliefs, he is insistent that it is moral positions he is addressing. He is not entirely consistent in keeping up the distinction.
  • And while I am mentioning the political angle, he does not discuss the authoritarianism dimension, although he makes quite a lot of libertarianism, which he tends to identify largely with liberalism, as understood over the pond. Although it is about politics (rather than the broader area of morals) see the two-factor model used by the Political Compass site for more on this.

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