Mapping the Territory

So what are the main differences between Heidi’s world and Shimen’s world?

The first difference concerns the scope of morality. Heidi is extremely sensitive to treating people unfairly or generally causing others distress. In fact, as far as she is concerned, this is the main moral litmus test: no harm, no foul. On the other hand, Shimen (of whom I’ll speak in the present tense even though he is long gone) lives in a highly moralized world. What you eat, what you wear, whom you sleep with are all fraught with moral considerations, whether or not anyone else is adversely affected. Furthermore, Shimen feels morally bound by particular loyalty to the Jewish People, deference to its scholars and elders and reverence for institutions and objects sanctified by its traditions, even at the possible expense of others.

The second difference between Heidi and Shimen concerns the mechanisms through which communities determine and enforce the boundaries of the forbidden and the obligatory. For Heidi, the relevant community consists of citizens of the state, the mechanism for determining what may and may not be done is legislation and the method of enforcement is prosecution. For Shimen, the relevant community consists of those committed to halacha, the mechanism for determining what may and may not be done is community tradition and practice, occasionally codified and augmented by expert opinion, and the method of enforcement is social pressure. In short, Shimen lives mostly in a world of social norms driven from the bottom-up and Heidi lives mostly in a world of laws driven from the top-down.

The third difference concerns the relationship between beliefs about the world and social and moral commitments. Heidi strives to ascertain the truth through the study of science and history and to base her commitments on such truths as best she can. But Shimen’s social and moral commitments are primary and his most important beliefs about the world – his religious beliefs – follow from these commitments.

These three somewhat telegraphic claims will be discussed in gory detail in the next three (multi-post) sections of this series. In each I’ll begin with a primer on Shimen’s world — respectively, the substance of halacha, the mechanisms through which halacha develops and the nature and content of Jewish belief. This will be followed by a brief precis of Heidi’s reservations about this world and an analysis of the differing assumptions and motivations that underlie the disagreements between Heidi and Shimen. These parts of the analysis are meant to be non-judgmental and my writing will no doubt be characterized by admirable impartiality and rhetorical restraint, traits I hope to acquire between now and then.

But then I’ll take off the gloves. In each section, I’ll explain why every long-lived society that we know about is more like Shimen’s than like Heidi’s. In the first section, I’ll argue that societies need rich systems of social norms – including public rituals, food taboos, kinship rules, commercial exchange regulations – in order to cohere and survive. In the second section, I’ll argue that to remain viable, such systems of social norms must – like language – adapt to circumstances slowly and organically, not – like legislated law – through dramatic theory-driven revolutions. Finally, in the third section, I’ll argue that members of a society must genuinely believe that they are part of a meaningful directed project that will long outlive them to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to sustain that society.

In short, Heidi’s world is doomed.

Since my assumption is that my readers, whatever their religious sentiments, spend a fair amount of their time – like me – slumming in Heidi’s world, I will be mostly arguing on Heidi’s turf: classical and contemporary social science literature. The first section should take us on a tour through anthropology and cultural evolution (Richard Schweder, Joseph Henrich), moral psychology (Jonathan Haidt) and repeated games and economic signaling theory (Eric Posner). I hope to discuss topics ranging from trolley dilemmas to the persistence of Jew-hatred, without assuming much prior knowledge. The second section will be largely my take on conservative thought in the spirit of Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell. The topics considered should range from the evolution of language to the unintended consequences of social engineering. The third section will refer to some recent literature on the nature of (Jewish) religious belief – Howard Wettstein, Menachem Kellner (without the polemics) and Sam Fleischacker (without the gratuitous anti-Israel virtue signaling) – but mostly will be my own apikorsus (the good kind).

There are two potential pitfalls that I hope you’ll help me avoid. First, my intended claim is that Heidi’s world is not viable, not that it is morally inferior. Since morality is precisely the issue in dispute here, an argument against Heidi on grounds of morality would almost certainly be circular. Second, my case will be very weak if I turn Heidi into a parody; my hope is to point out the flaws in Heidi’s best case, not her lamest case.

So please do shout if I make circular arguments or if I ignore strong arguments that could be used on Heidi’s behalf. But please don’t object that Heidi’s or Shimen’s opinions aren’t more similar to your own. Heidi and Shimen are two specific individuals; they can serve as plausible representatives of a range of similar characters, but they can’t be avatars on which everybody gets to project their own views. (Only I get to do that…)

One thought on “Mapping the Territory

  1. Might I suggest that you eventually prescribe a path for Heidi to move toward Shimen’s lifestyle?

    You see, Shimen’s world is the one in which he was bred, and he probably never objectively considered another way of living. So, e.g., “he believes that he is part of a meaningful directed project that will long outlive him” by default, but not because he understands that “members of a society must genuinely believe this in order to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to sustain that society.”

    Heid, on the other hand, was taught or came to believe that “nature is indifferent to the survival of the human species” etc. You might convince her of the social necessity in finding meaning, but this in itself does not create meaning. Moreover, having come to this conclusion intellectually, she is likely repulsed by Shimen who never gave the matter much thought and finds it difficult to view herself as a member of Shimen’s community.


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