Sunday, November 28, 2010

We have seen that when unaffiliateds coalesce into a sort of non-community community, a narrative emerges according to which fairness is divine and the ethics of community and divinity are retrograde values that necessarily compromise fairness. Since this narrative does not grow organically from the full range of moral instincts but rather from their suppression, it might be more precise to refer to it as an ideology than as a narrative. Rather than emerging as a by-product of a code, this ideology invents a matching code. Let’s consider what such a code might look like.

In Sefer Kedushah, the Rambam divides “holiness” into two main categories: those related to restrictions on sex (beeos assuros) and those related to restrictions on food (maachalos assuros). That’s a convenient framework in which to consider the code of the unaffiliated.

Restrictions on sexual conduct such as bestiality, adultery, incest and homosexuality are common across cultures. For unaffiliateds, such restrictions can only be justified if they can somehow be translated into terms of fairness and avoidance of harm to others. Here’s an experiment you can try. Ask somebody if they regard incest as immoral. Because human beings are hard-wired to regard incest as immoral, they will say yes. Then ask them why it’s immoral. If they belong to any moral community in the world from Williamsburg to Tuvalu, they might mention God or the moral community they belong to or their internal moral compass, but in the end they will simply be communicating to you that they just know it’s wrong the same way they know the sky is blue. But if they subscribe to the faith of the unaffiliated, they will need to find some way to locate the problem in some harm that incest causes to others. So spin a yarn where such harm is precluded: full consent of both sides is given, precautions against pregnancy and disease have been taken, nobody will ever know about it. Try it (the experiment); it’s fun. (If you can’t be bothered, you can just read about the results of precisely that experiment here.)

I want to emphasize that what we are discussing here is not whether the state should be involved in regulating sexual conduct. That is a separate question that I intend to discuss later. The point here is that among the unaffiliated, sex is amoralized. This is the result, first of all, of an unwillingness to recognize the types of morality that are community-dependent. But when this unwillingness hardens into an ideology, the amoralization of sex serves a secondary purpose: it corrodes family life that serves as the most effective vehicle for creating communal bonds. In short, the traditional family structure is the best guarantor of the continuity of mesorah; weakening it undermines mesorah.

Now let’s consider restrictions on food. Here’s where something quite astonishing happens. As Mary Eberstadt points out, the very people who are licentious about sex have become puritanical about food, an example of the phenomenon Steven Pinker refers to as the Law of Conservation of Moralization. The consumption of meat, industrial breeding, genetically-enhanced produce, the use of pesticides, supersized portions, trans-fats and the transport of food have all been moralized by the unaffiliated. When I say they’ve been moralized, I mean specifically that unaffiliateds regard it as wrong for anyone to transgress in this area, not merely that they prefer to abstain.

Of course, it is not difficult to translate all these transgressions into the language of fairness. It’s enough to include animals under the fairness umbrella and to regard unhealthy activities as unfair to those who will have to bear the financial burden of other people’s inevitable poor health. But these explanations are hard to credit given that crème brulee hardly evokes the same moral reaction as a large Slurpee and AIDS is regarded as an affliction while obesity is regarded as an addiction. Something else is going on here.

One thing that sexual licentiousness and culinary puritanism have in common is that both are attempts to return to a state of nature. Both restrictions on sex and industrial processing of food are seen as products of civilization. Civilization is the product of the efforts of moral communities. Lack of affiliation with any such community engenders resentment of civilization as a whole and a hankering for a return to some mythical utopia that preceded it. In this imagined Eden, sex of any sort was guilt-free and food was eaten right off the tree, unprocessed.

But that’s not all. Those who belong to a community seek immortality by participating in a process that will outlive them and that they believe will lead to redemption. Unaffiliateds, though, must strive for immortality via what Christopher Lasch describes as “an arduous schedule of physical exercise and dietary controls designed to keep death at bay – to maintain themselves in a state of permanent youthfulness, eternally attractive and remarriagable”. As Woody Allen put it, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”

Looking ahead now, both the hankering for pre-civilization Edenic utopia and the quest for immortality through health obsession are plausible grounds for environmental alarmism in general. But there is a third plausible explanation for the unaffiliateds pre-occupation with the environment: environmentalism is an issue that requires global coordination. It thus necessarily shifts power away from individuals and communities. This shift will be the subject of my next post.


OpenID FuzzyFace said...

This article speaks to some research that seems relevant to your topic:

money quote: "If people believe they are being watched and judged by an omnipresent supernatural entity, they may be more willing to perform emotionally binding and costly rituals to signal commitment to a group. The same sense of being watched may also encourage people to be helpful to others—even when there is no obvious reproductive payoff. In other words: Science suggests that God—and His followers—hate free riders."

6:45 PM  
Anonymous Y. Ben-David said...

Ben-You were putting these articles once a week. This has stopped. I am in suspense waiting for the next one.
I recently heard of a Dr Judith Butler, ad Jewish professor of "Queer Studies" (that's their word for it, not mine) at UC Berkeley and she praised HAMAS and HIZBULLAH as "progressive, universalist and socialist" movements in which she believes there is some room for discussion with them regarding "non-violence". I am amazed how any "progressive" can feel attachment to such reactionary, violent and repressive movements, which particularly don't like "queers" and women, the groups Butler is most interested in "empowering". Your analysis of those who are "uncommitted" to community and who attach themselves to groups whose only real characteristics is that they hate Jews, Israel and the United States is interesting, and you promised to show how this group's thinking can lead to tyranny, which Dr Butler obviously feel sympathy for. I am looking forward to seeing this explained.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Just got slowed down by Chanuka vacation. I hope to post tomorrow.

11:47 PM  
Anonymous Shalom Dover said...

Prelapsarianism !! Woo-hoo! One of my favorite words, and not often that I get to use it.

Seriously, I have a feeling that this very legitimate philosophy (after all, G-d was for it, it was we humans who chose otherwise) of universalism leads many to aggressively and even violently oppose much that Judaism stands for – first and foremost the idea of a “chosen people”.

It may be surprising that the above-mentioned Dr. Butler is apparently ideologically sympathetic with child-murderers. Hopefully she wouldn’t sympathize with the murderers' actions. But ideologically they may be as closely related as John Lennon’s “Imagine” universalist peace manifesto is to Haman’s “yeshno am echad” genocidal manifesto.

12:24 AM  

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