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.


Blogger ADDeRabbi said...

Better: "his whole gang of cannibal friends come over after shul to have a ball."

BTW, really enjoying this series.
And sorry to hear about the wife's aunt (cousin?). Condolences.

5:50 AM  
OpenID aiwac said...

Hmmm...interesting. So far, so interesting.

Still, I'm holding out when you go from theory to practice, where the real land-mines lie.

The devil, as they say, is in the details...

3:01 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Great aunt. Thanks.

We'll get there soon enough.

9:03 PM  
Anonymous Shalom Dover said...

Great post, I'm very interested to see where you go with it.

My question is, do the examples you bring realy demonstrate that the flavors are intertwined.

I'd wager that your empirical observation is correct: someone who doesn't respect others' individual rights is more likely to also fail to respect communal obligations. However, this could simply be because many people follow rules (of all flavors) largely due to pressure from society.

I know that when we see this in real life it’s fun to say “those cannibals – it always turns out that they have no sense of morality when it comes to bein adam lechaveiro, either”. (Try it, it really is fun to say – and using the word “cannibals” makes it even better, because now your chiloni friends won’t realize that you’re talking about them… Kidding! I know you wouldn’t really have chiloni friends. )

But a cannibal's decisions to commit transgressions, of all flavors, are probably based primarily on calculations such as the likelihood that he would be caught, the expected severity of the punishment, psychological group pressure, etc., etc. His own moral proclivities might play such an insignificant part in his decisions that it would appear he assigns equal weight to all flavors.

And the example illustrating the logical interdependence also seems problematic. Yes, someone who believes in the individual rights/liberties flavor might be offended by a cannibals' kiddish in his backyard, so that it would appear that he is demonstrating a belief the community-based morality of a "cannibalism-free" neighborhood. But really he is offended by cannibalism in general, and the heightened objections when it's in his back yard are due merely to his heightened awareness of the offense.

Sorry that was so long. Gotta go - this is making me hungry.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Terry N. said...

Fun reading for conference calls - much thanks.
I presume that you will eventually discuss in detail the inverse relationship of communication generally, first, of course, in the printing press, and now with broad and instantaneous communication, as it applies to your base case of "language" (highly accelerated expansion) versus the halachic system (highly increased formalization and redaction, limitations on decentralized (local) legitimacy, etc.).
Looking forward.

10:13 PM  
Blogger perpetuallyPerplexed said...

I'm afraid I'm not convinced of your claim that "the three flavors of morality are deeply intertwined". Although you have dug up a scenario in which there might be an overlap between universal and community-based morality, I still don't see how turning on my bedroom light on Shabbos constitutes a violation of a universal moral. I find it even more strange that, correct me if I'm wrong, you are using this interdependency as an answer to the objection of "how could moral instincts play any role in resolving questions of arid ritual" (previous post).

Also, I really don't get how you are able to stretch "the ethics of community" to include "the ethics of divinity". While it might be true that if I am a member of Brooklyn's Torah-Observant community, I probably don't eat pork; I don't think the latter is due to the former; instead, I would say that my divine/spiritual orientation is responsible for my practice of keeping kosher rather than my address or the shul I daven in; as a matter of fact, I probably wound up in this community because of the mutual religious attitudes I have in common with my neighbors.

I suspect the root of all these obscurities is your tendency to hide behind cryptic phrases. I would really appreciate this blog more if you made an effort אפצוטייטשען מער.

Finally, do these postings mean we won't get anymore 'fun' posts??

6:25 AM  

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