The Hunter-Gatherer Shulchan Arukh

For many East African peoples, eating fish is taboo. In India, widows do not eat fish. In Fiji, pregnant women don’t eat fish. Jews eat only fish with fins and scales, preferably filleted and breaded with matza mehl.

For Yazidis, lettuce is taboo. Chines Buddhists don’t eat garlic. Jains refrain from eating onions. Mormons abstain from coffee and tea. Some North American tribes, mostly around Berkeley and Cambridge, will not eat food that has traveled great distances. I personally will not eat petcha (jellied calves’ feet), even if you call it galla and threaten me at gunpoint.

Muslims often marry first cousins. Catholics and North Indian Hindus regard it as incest. South Indian Hindus and some tribes in Fiji allow marriage between cross-cousins (children of a brother and a sister) but not parallel cousins (children of two brothers or of two sisters). For Jews and Protestants, marrying a first cousin is allowed, but nowadays it’s kind of weird. In 29 of these sovereign United States, marriage between first cousins is illegal, though it’s unclear if this prohibition applies to cousins of the same sex.

In some places and industries, deals are sealed with the signing of a contract, in others with a handshake. Sometimes the transaction isn’t complete until delivery is taken. Two gentiles in the diamond business close a deal by saying “mazal ubracha”.

Just about every society has rules about who holds the door, when to shake hands or bow, how far apart to stand during a conversation, how to determine status and how to address someone of a given status, how to inquire about someone’s welfare and how not to respond, when it’s okay to brandish a weapon and who gets to lead the rain dance.

Why so many damn rules? Why not just “no fighting, no biting”?

The simple answer is that our intuitive moral sense is inadequate because it’s usually too vague for practical purposes and it competes with all sorts of selfish inclinations that further muddy the waters. It’s good to have clear rules that settle the matter without much mental or emotional energy being required.

That’s true as far as it goes, but it leaves the key question unanswered. For all the astonishing variety of social norms one finds in the wild, one can’t help be even more astonished by the ubiquity of certain types of norms. Consider this brief description of the material covered in the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch (the 16th century code of law by R. Yosef Caro): “kinship ties, social norms of ownership, food taboos, and ritual practices”, corresponding to Even HaEzer, Choshen Mishpat, Yoreh Deah and Orach Chaim. Except that – maybe you saw this coming – that was actually a description, by the anthropologist Joseph Henrich, of the types of social norms found by anthropologists in the bush.

These types of norms are simply universal, though the specific norms themselves vary widely, as we saw above. Let’s consider the four types in a bit more detail (now using the standard order of the Jewish codes):

  • Ritual practices include communal prayer and observance of lifecycle events and periodic festivals, and are governed by rules defining the roles accorded to various members of the tribal hierarchy in such practices.
  • Food taboos constrain the types and combinations of foods that may be consumed, prescribe the means of preparing foods and define the requirements of sharing of different types of foods.
  • Kinship ties are governed by rules regarding which marriage relationships are permitted, who pays whom what when a marriage is contracted, how the family unit is defined, what the duties of each spouse are, what degree of fidelity is expected from each partner and what the rules of succession are for inheritance.
  • Social norms of ownership concern the rights and duties of ownership, the means of completing transactions, the definition and consequences of various torts and the disposition of public goods.

It is straightforward to see that these types of norms formalize each of the moral foundations we considered earlier (including those of which Heidi is less fond): sharing and other forms of fair play, duties to community and constraints on animal pleasures.

But why do all human societies have them? The short answer is that no society would survive for long without them. We’ll see in the next few posts how these types of norms collectively facilitate the kind of trust and cooperation without which a society is not viable.


2 thoughts on “The Hunter-Gatherer Shulchan Arukh

  1. I very much appreciate your entire set-up here and also the lines of your analysis thus far — the differentiation of different categories of moral thought as described by Haidt has been very useful and meaningful to me not least of all in solidifying my path deeper into Jewish life and Torah observance. But I’m hesitant about your expressed next step — showing that a narrower version of morality simply wouldn’t survive. I don’t think survival is a strong enough criterion — I don’t think either Heidi or Shimen would really accept survival as *the* arbiter of their moral universe. I do think survival has a moral valence and I think Shimen shares that sentiment, but I imagine Heidi would be willing to reject it — survival for survival’s sake is about the lowest of the low from Heidi’s perspective. I would imagine Shimen too would question the notion that survival is the absolute value. You said earlier that because you’re assessing different moralities it would be circular to try to use morality as the measure, but I don’t think that’s right. I think you need to find a way to bring the two opposing moralities head to head in direct argument over what is more true. I’m not really sure how but I think that’s the right way.


    1. Thank you, Itamar, for your thoughtful comment. I agree that viability is a low bar and I don’t think it’s the only conceivable criterion for choosing a moral universe. But I think I can make a convincing argument that Heidi’s moral universe must inevitably collapse on itself and I’m pretty sure that when you see it play out, you’ll find it powerful. I agree that it would be nice to grab the bull by the horns and just show that Heidi’s moral universe is wrong, but I don’t know how to do that without circularity.


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