Since Heidi disagrees with Shimen regarding the substance of morality, it is no surprise that she also disagrees with him about the basis on which ethical and public policy questions should be decided, who should be making such decisions, and how they should be enforced.
First of all, Heidi rejects Shimen’s obedience to tradition when modernity presents better solutions to problems solved sub-optimally by tradition. Policy is best left to experts who master the latest research on the matters at hand. If we wish to avoid harmful foods, the modern study of nutrition offers much more efficient ways of doing so than the rules given in an ancient Torah. If we wish to regulate family life (and it isn’t clear to Heidi that we should), psychologists and sex therapists can tell us how to best realize the human capacity for love and sexual fulfillment. If we wish to protect workers’ rights, arcane Sabbath laws can’t hold a candle to the knowledge amassed by labor lawyers, social workers and economists about the most efficient means to prevent human exploitation. One can multiply such examples by the number of laws in the Shulchan Aruch. The principle is the same each time: reason, not tradition, is the key to a flourishing society.
To be sure, Shimen does leave a role for experts – specifically, rabbis – in resolving certain personal and social dilemmas according to the letter and spirit of halacha. This is small solace to Heidi: these rabbis may know halacha, but what do they know about modern science, about history, about psychology and sociology? What tools do they have at their disposal that might help them respond sensibly and sensitively to those with serious personal problems and what relevant knowledge do they have that would permit them to shape public policy in any reasonably effective way? As far as Heidi can tell, the vast majority of rabbis are both deficient in the relevant bodies of knowledge and so socially inexperienced and naïve that they can be easily manipulated by hangers-on and sycophants with agendas that are transparent to everyone but the rabbis themselves.
Reasoning by experts is, as Heidi sees it, to be preferred not only to tradition but to the half-baked intuitions of non-experts. Shimen, on the other hand, readily agrees that his determination of what is right is shaped by the moral intuitions of those committed to Jewish tradition. But for Heidi, if there’s any worse guide to the healthy functioning of society than tradition, it surely must be intuition. As the psychologist Daniel Kahaneman and Amos Tversky demonstrated in a long series of experiments, intuition is hopelessly sub-optimal for making decisions about anything, let alone moral questions. For example, our intuitive preferences between competing lotteries don’t maximize expected winnings and actually depend, quite absurdly, on how the choices are framed and other irrelevancies. In fact, our errors are systematic – we find patterns in randomness, we give more weight to the most salient evidence than to the most relevant evidence, we cling to our prior beliefs even in the face of strong contrary evidence and so on. Such biases were presumably useful in the early days of human development, when snap decisions, even if only crude ones, were better than nothing. But, Heidi argues, many of the problems we face in modern societies can be better solved using the tools of logic and probability than relying on crude intuitions.
In fact, many of our cognitive biases bear directly on moral decisions: we make snap judgments about people based on largely irrelevant physical characteristics, we ascribe negative personality traits to people who don’t share our opinions (even when we know that they were assigned that opinion as part of a debating exercise), we ascribe our own successes to skill and our failures to luck, we judge out-group members harshly even when the definition of our group is random, such as fans of some sports teams or members of a summer camp color-war team. (In some cases, this is justified: Yankee fans are genuinely insufferable.) Heidi is convinced that if, instead of following their misleading intuitions about such matters, Shimen and Jews like him would take a deep breath and reason about their loyalties, they would surely treat outsiders more fairly.
Heidi’s preference is for the decisions that drive public policy to be made by the best and the brightest rather than by tradition and intuition. But she differs from Shimen on an even more fundamental point. Who shall be responsible for implementing the policies determined by experts to be best? It looks to Heidi as if in Shimen’s world there is no institution at all that assumes this responsibility. No central body legislates, resolves disagreements regarding proper practice or enforces the law.
In the very first recorded halachic dispute 2100 years ago, five consecutive generations of rabbis failed to agree on the procedure for bringing certain sacrifices on festivals. From that point on, the entire corpus of halachic literature is, as every novice student of halacha knows, an unending series of disputes. What is the proper blessing before eating chocolate? What time should one light Chanukah candles? Should synagogue dues be determined by family size or income? Can cooked food be put on a hot plate on Shabbat? What is the minimum age for a rabbinic judge? Is a brain-dead person with a beating heart considered dead? Does halacha recognize intellectual property rights? Ask a rabbi any of these questions and thousands more like them and the inevitable answer will be “it’s a machlokes”, that is, a matter of rabbinic dispute. This is not (only) because rabbis are particularly argumentative, but rather because halacha lacks a mechanism for resolving disputes, at least for the past 2000 or so years. There is no central body for legislating halacha or for enforcing it.
To Heidi, all this is a sign of a lack of seriousness. Heidi prefers to divide social norms into two types: those that are legislated and enforced and those that are simply not obligatory. But, it seems to her, all social norms in Shimen’s world fail to fit into either category. They are all neither legislated nor enforced and yet somehow regarded as obligatory.
Heidi regards this as a double failure. First, as we saw in previous posts, halacha regards as obligatory constraints and duties in areas that should, in Heidi’s view, be left to personal discretion. Second, and more significantly, halacha fails to adequately address issues that are, for Heidi, essential to the functioning of society.
Let’s stipulate that there are many issues, like criminal law, that Shimen concedes are beyond the capacity of current halacha to deal with. In this regard, halacha is self-evidently not self-contained and takes for granted the presence of an exogenous power that deals with matters beyond its scope. This isn’t what bothers Heidi. Rather, what bothers her is the attitude of Shimen and friends who wish to handle at the communal level certain issues that Heidi believes must be addressed by the state.
Compare, for example, how the problem of poverty is addressed by individual and community charity, on the one hand, and the state welfare system, on the other hand. Halacha requires individuals to set aside 10% of their income for charity but doesn’t specify to whom it should be given. What guarantee is there that all poor people will receive sufficient charity? What grounds are there for supposing that everyone will meet their obligations in the absence of any sanctions? Who will take care of those who belong to poor communities or to no community at all? For Heidi, these are serious defects that can be remedied by having the state redistribute wealth by collecting taxes at the threat of imprisonment and doling out entitlements such as welfare, free health care and unemployment benefits. The state can further advance the cause of social justice through regulation, including rent control, anti-discrimination laws and labor laws, all favored by Heidi as means through which the powerful and wealthy are prevented from exploiting the weak and poor.
Heidi is convinced that it is an ethical failing of Shimen and his friends that their moral world ends at the boundaries of their narrow community. It is a mystery to her that after all the suffering they have seen, they remain almost entirely indifferent to the astonishing ability of the welfare state, guided by the best and brightest experts in the social sciences, to engineer a more perfect society.
In the following posts, we’ll consider whether Heidi’s claims about how Shimen’s community operates are factually correct (spoiler: mostly yes) and whether her optimistic view of the ability of experts and bureaucrats to engineer a more perfect society holds water (take a guess).