Monday, October 25, 2010

If you’re like most people you probably find each of the following morally offensive: i)assaulting an innocent person, ii)mopping the floor with the national flag, iii)cannibalism. These examples correspond to three different flavors of moral instinct. (Before we get into the three flavors, a comment about dividing stuff into flavors: these things are pretty arbitrary. There are various methodologies for deciding whether two flavors of morality should be regarded as variations of the same flavor or two distinct flavors: do they share a single evolutionary explanation, do the same people worry about them, etc. But in the end it’s really a matter of expository convenience. Some list four moral flavors, others list five. I find it most convenient to list three.)

Here’s a reasonable definition of three moral flavors corresponding to the three examples above (taken from Rozin et al.):

1. [The ethics of Autonomy] Individual freedom/rights violations. In these cases an action is wrong because it directly hurts another person, or infringes upon his/her rights or freedoms as an individual. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like harm, rights, justice, freedom, fairness, individualism, and the importance of individual choice and liberty.

2. [The ethics of Community] Community/hierarchy violations. In these cases an action is wrong because a person fails to carry out his or her duties within a community, or to the social hierarchy within the community. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like duty, role-obligation, respect for authority, loyalty, group honor, interdependence, and the preservation of the community.

3. [The ethics of Divinity] Divinity/purity violations. In these cases a person disrespects the sacredness of God, or causes impurity or degradation to himself/herself, or to others. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like sin, the natural order of things, sanctity, and the protection of the soul or the world from degradation and spiritual defilement.

Before we go any further, let’s note one important distinction between the first flavor of morality and the other two. Unlike the first flavor, the latter two depend rather overtly on membership in some community. What Rozin calls “the ethics of community” is plainly incoherent without a community. But even what he calls “the ethics of divinity” (what we might call “mitzvot bein adam lemakom”) are community-dependent. The idea of restrictions on what can be eaten where and when and with whom and where and when one can have sex crosses cultures. But the specifics of these restrictions are community-dependent. In some cultures, people don’t eat pig flesh; in others, they don’t eat cow flesh. In some cultures, people marry their nieces; in others, they regard that as incest.

This distinction between what I’ll call universal morality (the first flavor) and community-based morality (the other two) will be crucial to the thesis that I’ll be developing in future posts.

So our first order of business now is to undermine the distinction I just claimed is crucial. In fact, the three flavors of morality are deeply intertwined. Those who don’t respect the rights of others generally are ultimately unlikely to honor more profound obligations to those with whom they share a familial or communal bond. Those who don’t honor communal obligations are unlikely to honor rules of self-restraint (limitations on food and sex) that are specific to their community. And, to close the cycle, those who don’t develop habits of self-restraint are unlikely to respect the rights of others. In this sense, the three flavors of morality are empirically dependent.

In fact, though, the flavors of morality are not only empirically interdependent, they are logically interdependent. What does it mean to harm another person? Suppose your neighbor is offended at the idea that you own a television and this genuinely causes him aggravation. Have you infringed upon his right as an individual to live in a television-free neighborhood? If you glibly deny that he has such a right, suppose that your neighbor likes to throw the occasional kiddish right below your window at which human flesh is served and his whole gang of cannibal friends come over after shul to whoop it up. (Apologies to those offended even by the thought experiment.) Has he infringed upon your right to a cannibalism-free zone?

The point is that it’s not possible to define harm or rights without recourse to community-based morality. If you try to escape that proposition by insisting that harm is simply subjective – whatever causes your neighbor grief is harm – you’ll have to dump your TV. If you want to define harm in some very limited way that excludes fuzzy subjective stuff, you’d better adjust to cannibalism under your window. In fact, what our instincts are telling us is that the definition of harm in universal morality really depends on quite how offensive something is according to community-based morality.

In short, the distinction between universal morality and community-based morality is a bit of an optical illusion. (But we’ll soon see that this optical illusion lies at the foundation of most modern theories concerning the legitimate exercise of state power.)

Now let’s get back to the question of the signs of disequilibrium that I promised I’d get to at the end of my previous post.

Like any other moral system, Judaism includes both universal morality and community-based morality. And, while the flavors of morality are mutually reinforcing, as we’ve just seen, they are also in tension. To take but the most obvious example, my loyalty to my compatriot might compete with my respect for the rights of a stranger with whom he is in conflict. (There is nothing paradoxical about the fact that the flavors of morality are at once mutually reinforcing and in tension; just think of a multiplicity of cafes in a gentrifying neighborhood.)

Now let’s recall a few ideas from previous posts. First, because Judaism is a process, different dialects tend to develop among sub-communities. Second, unlike in the case of language, the means through which the moral instincts of individual are aggregated into some consensus are themselves part of the process. This can lead to instability.

Now, imagine that within some community there develop subtle differences in the balance between universal aspects of Judaism and community-dependent aspects, some people shifting slightly one way and others shifting slightly the other way. (Indeed, it is not hard to imagine this. But for now, we’re talking theory. Let’s save the facts of our current situation for a later post.) The next step might be that those who tend to the community-dependent side feel threatened by what they perceive as the assimilationist tendencies of the universalists and downshift the weight they assign to these assimilationists in determining the communal consensus. Concomitantly, the universal side might be frightened by what they perceive to be the obscurantist tendencies of the other side and tend to discount their views in determining communal consensus.

It is not hard to see that because of this non-linearity, the variance can grow very quickly, leading to schism. But that’s not all. It is very likely that neither of the “dialects” that emerge from this schism will be sustainable. After all, if you are armed with two kinds of moral instincts, universal and community-dependent, and if these are inter-dependent (as we have seen), you are likely to find each of the extreme dialects running counter to your instincts. And if enough people feel that way, one of two things must happen. Either the system will self-correct and return to some equilibrium or it will disintegrate.

Under what conditions will it return to some equilibrium and can we do anything to create those conditions? That’s what this blog is about.

Monday, October 18, 2010

If I were to ask you to define halacha, even in the most general terms, you’d face the same difficulties as you would in trying to characterize a language such as English. Halacha varies from period to period and community to community. Naïve attempts to define halacha as what’s written in some canonical book fail for many reasons. Halacha pre-dates those books and in fact there is no book that perfectly captures even what any specific community thinks of as canonical halacha. Books such as the Mishna Berurah are canonical only because many people in particular communities have accepted them as canonical; but this very claim regards communal acceptance as more fundamental than the content of the Mishna Berurah. (I couldn’t have said that community standards are decisive because the Mishna Berurah said so. You’d immediately see that had things backwards, wouldn’t you?)

But we can easily understand halacha in all its instantiations as a process. As in the case of language, halacha develops through the interaction of expansion and aggregation. People, armed with some base of halachic knowledge, make moral judgments all the time. Some consensus regarding some matter becomes apparent and is incorporated into the base. And so on.

Just as we use some language instinct to guide the way we sub-consciously infer patterns in the English we hear and read, we use some moral instinct to guide the way we sub-consciously infer patterns in the halacha we learn. Just as the language instinct constrains the ways in which we can expand language but doesn’t strictly determine a particular one, so our moral sense constrains the ways in which we can expand halacha without determining a unique possible expansion. And just as the process of expansion and aggregation of language is fundamentally a social phenomenon and not a solitary one, so too the expansion and aggregation of halacha is a social phenomenon.

Now, I can feel your nagging discomfort already. How can I claim that the expansion of halacha requires a moral instinct? First of all, perhaps halacha could simply be generalized according to formal principles of inference, such as Occam’s razor, without resort to mushy instinctive moral principles that are not already inherent in the system? Second, how could moral instincts play any role in resolving questions of arid ritual?

The second question is based on a typically modern misunderstanding of the moral instinct that I will address in my next post. The first question is rather naïve. Just as language would be wildly under-determined from a finite example set without the constraints imposed by the hard-wiring of our brains, so too halacha would be wildly under-determined without moral instincts. Every time the gemara reads a mishna, a rishon reads a gemara, or an acharon reads a rishon, the scope of some previously-unconditional halacha is defined (a device known as an ukimta). These ukimtot are not inherent in the given material; they result from the interaction of the received halacha and the conclusion that the interpreter instinctively knows must be right. This instinct is the moral instinct (broadly construed, as we'll see in my next post).

There is, however, one basic difference between language as process and halacha as process and this difference leads to many others. The principles of aggregation are exogenous to language but endogenous to halacha. In other words, the rules of grammar say nothing about how consensus is formed with regard to linguistic expansion. But halacha has a great deal to say about whose intuitions carry more weight and whose carry less in forming consensus. Consequently, aggregation of halachic judgments entails more formalization than does aggregation of linguistic intuitions. Similarly, halacha itself places great value on continuity within halacha, while language itself is indifferent to the continuity of language.

In short, the expansion and aggregation of halacha are both performed much more consciously than the analogous linguistic phenomena. In this light, let’s look at the interaction of the two stages a bit more carefully. Individual moral judgments are instinctive, but they might easily be tainted by self-interest of various sorts. I don’t mean simply that people might over-ride their moral judgments, behaving according to other considerations while acknowledging that they are doing so. I mean that moral judgment itself can be murky due to interference by other considerations. The process of aggregating these individual judgments serves multiple purposes. First, it winnows out the effects of self-interest since these will inevitably vary from individual to individual, while the authentic moral core will not. Second, it renders collective judgments explicit so they can be preserved for future generations. Third, it founds morality on the basis of reason by identifying (or aspiring to identify) the nearest approximations of collective instinctive judgments that can be justified. (Not that it matters, but this bears on a classic dispute between the Scottish philosophers who said all moral judgments are instinctive and the French philosophers who said they were based on reason. Individual judgments are indeed instinctive, but collective ones are founded on reason.) On the other hand, as a conscious process, formalization itself can be corrupted by the self-interest of individuals or groups that are over-represented in the aggregation. We’ll get to this eventually.

Now we get to the point. Once we are dealing with a dynamic system in which the dynamics (rules of aggregation and formalization) are determined by the system itself, we are faced with questions about equilibria. In very crude terms, we might think of it this way. Suppose that the established content of halacha at some given time is sufficiently coherent that most people instinctively expand it in similar ways. It is therefore likely that the aggregation methods used by halacha at that time will credit that consensus. Thus, consensus is reached regarding most issues and halacha evolves in accord with it, creating a further basis amenable to reaching of consensus, and so on in a virtuous cycle. Then halacha is in a healthy equilibrium. But suppose now that the content of halacha at some given time is incoherent, so that there is great variance in the ways individuals expand it. This would likely lead to aggregation methods that concentrate weight on a minority of participants, increasing the variance further. This vicious cycle leads either to schism or total disintegration.

What might the whole halachic system look like if it were far from a good equilibrium? In the next few posts, I’ll try to answer this question from several perspectives. I will argue that the halacha, like any moral system, requires a code that balances different kinds of moral instincts, a narrative that allows practitioners to find meaning in the system, and criteria for determining who is a member of the community. Each of these works when halacha is near a good equilibrium and fails when it is not.

Monday, October 11, 2010

If you’re reading this, you presumably understand English. So suppose I asked you to characterize the English language, that is, to give me some way of determining if some text is English or not. Okay, that’s hard. So suppose I just asked you how you’d go about characterizing English in principle, without actually investing the huge effort to work out the details.

You might say, well, it’s English if words have particular meanings, if certain rules of syntax are obeyed and so on. But if some bloke in a brilliant jumper asked you for a fag, you might at least want to concede that a characterization of English might involve a family of variations, in each of which words have particular meanings, certain rules of syntax are obeyed and so on.

But even that would not quite be the most fruitful approach. Consider this:

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us, Ther was a duc that highte Theseus; Of Atthenes he was lord and governour, And in his tyme swich a conquerour, That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.

That used to be called English. And if the English speakers who spoke that way had tried to characterize English then in terms of static meanings and syntax, it’s not very likely that this would have made the cut:

Ayo, my pen and paper cause a chain reaction to get your brain relaxing, a zany acting maniac in action, a brainiac in fact son, you mainly lack attraction.

And in fact, if we were to try to characterize English now in some static way, it’s unlikely that our characterization would cover English a generation from now. The point of all this is that the only plausible way to include Chaucer and Eminem in our characterization of English is to define English as a process rather than as something static. There is some community of people who speak a common language and the two co-evolve. Language slowly changes as the community of speakers collectively makes small changes. The linguistic community changes as people migrate in or out of it. Chaucer and Eminem are both in because a continuous evolutionary process includes them both.

Let’s think about this process a bit. (But before I lose you, let me tell you where I’m headed with this. Halacha is also a process, very much like a natural language such as English.)

Each of us individually hears English spoken or sees it written and infers certain rules about syntax and semantics of English. Sometimes we are even taught explicit rules, though this is relatively rare. Most of the time, we don’t even make the rules explicit in our own minds; we just manage to absorb them well enough to use them. Now, the fact that children can manage to learn to speak grammatical English based only on hearing people speak it is quite astonishing. They are able to do this only because the human brain is hard-wired to prefer certain kinds of grammars, so these are the ones that exist. This is not to say that there is a unique possible grammar, an obviously false proposition given the variety of spoken languages in the world. Rather, the range of possible grammars is highly constrained. We might sum this up by saying that people have a language instinct.

So where’s the process? Well, people are creative with language. We invent neologisms, borrow words from other languages, use old words in new ways, push the boundaries of syntax and generally take whatever linguistic liberties are necessary to express new ideas or capture particular nuances. Most of our inventions die out as easily as they were born. But some spread and become part of the language. Thirty-five years ago nobody heard of the word “meme”; then it became a meme; now it’s just a word.

The crucial point is that a loop is closed. Once some incremental change has been sufficiently absorbed into the language, it becomes part of the base to which speakers relate when they further expand the language. So there is an ongoing process that looks something like this:

  1. each individual English speaker absorbs current English and instinctively pushes the envelope (call this “expansion”)
  2. when enough people push the envelope in the same direction, “current” English is re-defined (call this “aggregation”)
  3. back to 1

Of course, the steps don’t actually take place in neat sequential order. Both expansion and aggregation are happening all the time.

Now, with an eye towards our discussion of halacha, let’s make a few observations about this process.

First, changes to language are slow enough that, if you don’t take the long view, you can think of language as being static without the wrongness of that view confronting you too brutally. But, if Chaucer didn’t convince you, try reading Beowulf.

Second, aggregation works in two ways. One way is for many people to push the linguistic envelope in the same way without this change ever being noted in any formal way. It just happens. The other is for the change to be somehow made official by incorporation in some instrument of record. For example, twenty years ago I might have referred to memes only if I were talking to someone whom I had reason to believe hung out in the relevant neck of the woods. Now, anybody can look up its Wikipedia entry. To the extent that Wikipedia is official, “meme” has graduated to the lexical big leagues.

One of the consequences of all this is that English might evolve in different ways among different communities of English speakers. In the days before the Internet, geographically isolated communities were also linguistically isolated. They were somewhat immune to changes happening in the mainland and instead evolved on their own. They might even have developed “instruments of record” (dictionaries, grammar books, recognized experts, etc.) of their own, so that they began to think of mainland English as wrong, or at least odd. This sort of process can lead to two versions of English that are so different that we wouldn’t think of them as being the same language, just as we don’t think of, say, German and English as being the same language, despite their sharing a common ancestor.

Okay, I’ve spent an awful lot of time laying groundwork. Next time, we’ll talk about halacha. You can probably see the parallels already. The interesting part will be the differences.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

I'm returning to blogging, but in a different style. I'm intending to start a long series (twenty? thirty? fifty?) of (weekly?) posts taking a long view of religious –political issues. The end point of it all will be very concrete proposals about the interaction of religion and state in Israel (some of which will be obvious to the point of banality and others of which will be novel to the point of eccentricity).

These proposals are, however, just a device to help me to organize my thoughts. I hope to cover a fair amount of theory on the way there. Before we ask if and how a Jewish state is good for the Jews, we need to figure out what it means for anything to be good for the Jews. For this we need to deal with very fundamental questions concerning Judaism, specifically with regard to halacha, belief, morality and nationhood. We'll also need to deal with basic economic and political questions concerning the proper role of the state in organizing human affairs. (Foreshadowing: I hate the way I used the word "proper" in the previous sentence. When we get there, I'll be very clear about what I actually mean.)

My neighbor will remind me that oceans of ink and rainforests of paper have been spent (wasted?) on such grandiose topics and I'm probably biting off orders of magnitude more than I can chew. I concede his point. But I'm up for a good fight. What's the worst that can happen?

In order to prevent this discussion from degenerating into platitudinous claims about what is or isn't ethical or moral grandstanding or partisan political posturing, I'm committing myself to some ground rules in advance.

First, I will avoid naked normative claims. Rather than saying that X is right or wrong, I'll say that X will lead to some consequence that I'll stipulate is desirable or undesirable. (I understand that this just shifts the stipulation down one step, but it has the merit of preventing is-ought confusion. I won't be sneaking moral claims past you without sending up a flare.)

Second, despite the fact that I'll be discussing political philosophy and religion, I won't use any of the standard labels, like 'religious', 'secular', 'left', 'right', 'liberal', 'conservative', etc. Like most labels, these are often useful shorthands for referring to groups of people who share a variety of views regarding public affairs. Unfortunately, however, they straitjacket discussions by bundling views across issues that are not inherently determinative of one another. When we contrast liberals with conservatives, for example, we bundle views on security and welfare that are indeed empirically correlated, but we pay a price: we become blind to the possibility of decoupling these issues. In short, such labels invite stereotypical thinking; I want to pop open these packages and consider new ways of bundling their contents that might better capture our situation. In fact, while I'm avoiding labels, I'll try to avoid fancy jargon as well. (Yes, one person's fancy jargon is another person's indispensable every-day term; I'll try to be reasonable.) I have a special allergy to Frenchie jargon (which has nothing to do with using French terms but rather with the propensity to make absurdly general and vague claims about capitalized big stuff like Art and Science).

Third, I'll avoid appeals to authority. If I'm talking about the limits of state power, for example, it would be dumb not to refer to, say, Mill or to Rawls, who are identified with views that are central to pretty much all contemporary discussion of the topic. But, to the extent that I refer to their views, I'll take them out of the package and be clear about exactly which specific views I mean and I won't make any presumptions about their correctness. And if I cite somebody as a tanna demesaya, it isn't for the purpose of adding weight to my side of the scale, but rather to give credit to someone who stated my own view better than I can.

Finally, I won't preach to the choir. My intention is not to let off steam, but rather to persuade people who don't already share my views.

I hope you'll hold me to these commitments. I'm certainly going to take liberties with them, even as I uphold their necessity. (One of the views I'll defend is the importance of hypocrisy.) More generally, I hope you'll comment about anything I say that you think needs correction, amplification or deletion. I intend to respond to your comments (unless your name is Anonymous).