Three Moral Flavors

Rather than recite and evaluate the whole litany of Heidi’s objections to Shimen’s way of life, let’s try to draw out the overarching principle. This will require a very simple taxonomy of mitzvot (commandments).

The wise son in the Passover haggada, based on Deuteronomy 6:20, inquires about three kinds of commandments: testimony (עדות), decrees (חוקים) and rules (משפטים). The differences among these three can be summarized as follows:

  • “Rules” are those commandments that order human society by regulating social interaction in a way that encourages fairness and cooperation. These are generally roughly similar across societies that might be very different from one another in other respects.
  • “Decrees” are commandments that restrain or mandate human activity in ways that might seem arbitrary, at least in the specifics.
  • “Testimonies” are commandments that manifest the special duty of the Jews to bear testimony to God’s dominion on earth; these commandments include overtly symbolic acts like Sabbath observance, but also entail loyalty to the Jewish people who collectively bear this special duty and extra respect for the people, objects and institutions that most saliently represent it.

Many passages in the Torah refer only to “rules” and “decrees” and the commentators define them roughly as we have; “testimonies” are in some respects intermediate to the other two.

Another well-known division of commandments distinguishes those that entail duties to God (בין אדם למקום) and duties to other people (בין אדם לחברו). The distinction is drawn for a technical purpose: atonement for violations of duties to other people requires asking their forgiveness. Roughly speaking, duties to God correspond to what we have called “decrees” and duties to other people correspond to what we have called “rules”. Furthermore, Nachmanides and others have noted that the commandment to honor one’s parents is typical of an intermediate category: respect for hierarchy within the community, especially for the bearers of tradition. It is a bit of a stretch to link this third category to what we have called “testimonies”, but not completely artificial.

If we wish to reconcile these two taxonomies and maybe clean up the definitions a bit, we can look to some important contemporary work in anthropology. The anthropologist Richard Shweder interviewed 600 subjects in a variety of communities in India and the United States. He summarizes his findings with the observation that there are three distinct moral foundations that one finds, in varying proportions, across human societies – and three types of concomitant violations. Here are the descriptions of the three types as summarized here:

  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.

This categorization captures the core of the somewhat homiletical taxonomies we saw above: autonomy=rules=obligations to individuals; community=testimonies=obligations to social hierarchy; divinity=decrees=obligations to God. For simplicity, I’ll refer to these moral categories as fairness, loyalty and restraint and to their violations as harm, disrespect and degradation, respectively. It is interesting to note that the three major sins which, according to the Rabbis of the Talmud, must be avoided even at the cost of one’s life – murder, idolatry and incest – are simply the extreme cases of these three types of violations.

Here is where the plot thickens. Shweder’s student, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, has elicited the opinions of many thousands of people all over the world regarding a set of moral dilemmas based loosely on the earlier Shweder interviews. He presented them with stories involving stealing a desperately-needed drug, consensual incest, eating the family pet, mopping the floor with the national flag,… you get the idea.

Haidt’s key conclusion is this: there are two kinds of people in the world. Members of more traditional communities tend to assign approximately equal importance to all three moral foundations. (Haidt sub-divides Shweder’s foundations to obtain five or six higher-resolution foundations, but this is not relevant to the key point.) But educated Westerners with progressive political views tend to assign great importance to the first foundation, fairness, and very limited importance to the other two, loyalty and restraint.

To be sure, nobody likes the idea of a family gathering to dine on their recently-deceased chihuahua. But self-labeled progressives among Haidt’s respondents regarded this as a violation of social convention (“that’s not what we do around here but, so long as no one was harmed, what others do is their business”), while self-labeled conservatives regarded it as a moral violation that degrades human beings, even if no harm is done to anyone. Haidt found the same difference for stories involving harmless taboo violations of respect for hierarchy and sacrosanct symbols.

How well does this difference between progressives and conservatives explain Heidi’s rejection of Shimen’s Judaism? That will be the subject of the next post.


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