Author: moshekoppel

Saint Amber

Heidi’s world lacks tight-knit communities that generate social capital, a commitment to having children and a willingness to make sacrifices to defend against threats to its security. One might imagine, therefore, that the main threat to Heidi’s world is that it would slowly peter out. But it’s actually unlikely to play out that way.

Meet Heidi’s daughter, Amber. Amber is a student at Oberlin, majoring in colonial and environmental studies. Her father is not Jewish and she has no substantive connection to Judaism, other than an inherited right to begin remarks hostile to Judaism with the words “As a Jew…”. As a woman, especially one who has willed herself an amorphous sexual identity, she regards herself as persecuted by cis-gendered white men.

Amber doesn’t share with Heidi the memory of a genuine community, of a large and committed family, and of grandparents who can speak of genuine persecution. Heidi’s residual connection with a family and a community is sufficient for her. But Amber needs some other mission to give her life purpose. Amber is a social justice warrior.

Amber doesn’t share Heidi’s rather benign notions of fairness. Heidi believes, inter alia, that harmless activities that people do in the privacy of their own homes are nobody’s business. For Amber, this is entirely inadequate. Amber believes, for example, that everyone has a positive moral obligation to affirm the virtue of sexual activity that Heidi once regarded as taboo and that a failure to do so under certain circumstances should be prosecutable. Amber also believes that euthanasia and abortion should not only be legal but that they are good and that doctors should be obligated to perform them.

It turns out that once Heidi’s “live and let live” principle is deemed passé by the likes of Amber, the door is open to a broad regime of morally-charged dos and don’ts. Heidi’s rather vague aspiration to fashion a new moral world out what she imagines to be rational considerations leads inevitably to Amber’s moral world – a faux religion that makes traditional religion seem benign by comparison.

Let’s consider some of the Commandments in Amber’s religion.

First, whatever sexual taboos Amber has overcome have been sublimated into a bewildering array of food taboos. Amber won’t eat produce unless it’s organic, locally-grown, not genetically modified, and processed by union labor. She’s vegan and avoids trans-fats, nightshades and any dish that suggests cultural appropriation.

Following Heidi, Amber’s concern for the long-term future is focused not on the advancement or preservation of civilization but rather on the preservation of the natural environment. Her concern for the environment, which she regards as threatened by the encroachment of civilization, is fraught with religious symbolism. For Amber, recycling is a system of rituals and shrines (many of which are actually net negatives for the environment) and she regards those who question orthodox views on global warming as deniers or heretics, better condemned and avoided than reasoned with about the evidence. She dismisses out of hand potential solutions to global warming (such as nuclear power or sulfur dioxide pumping) that do not serve the higher purpose of curtailing the spiritual contamination of the world by technological advance.

If this sounds to you like me just crowing about Amber’s hypocrisy or lack of self-awareness, that is not my point. This is the point: developed religions like Judaism serve to subdue the instinct for idolatry and primitive religion, the kind that encourages superstition, self-debasement, seclusion of untouchables and human sacrifice. The process that we are witnessing as we move from Heidi to Amber is primitive religion reasserting itself in the absence of developed religion.

Specifically, Judaism facilitates expiation of sin through relatively harmless means – initially through animal sacrifices (admittedly, not harmless to the animals) and subsequently through private repentance (Hoshea 14:3). Christianity has its own methods, as do other religions, some more harmless than others.

When the communists suppressed developed religion, they reinvented aspects of primitive religion, including ritualized public confession of sins and self-flagellation, re-education in proper doctrine and, for those who failed the final exam, human sacrifice. Amber isn’t there yet, but the same untamed religious instincts appear to be at work. For Amber, the sin of contaminating Mother Earth with her carbon footprint can be easily expiated with symbolic offsets, but the sin of white privilege requires grueling public confessions. Holdouts must be publicly shamed and shunned and sent for diversity and sensitivity training. Amber regards even consensual sex between white men and women as a form of rape countenanced by the patriarchy, but chooses to overlook the rape of European women by Middle Eastern men as the inevitable cost of white guilt. Can actual human sacrifice be far behind?

In short, Heidi’s soft cosmopolitanism is less likely to slowly peter out than to be replaced by a radicalized version of itself that undercuts the very freedom that is at its core. Like some overly-enthusiastic baalei teshuva, Amber’s unacknowledged religious tendencies lack the nuance of more experienced and worldly-wise religiously-committed people like Shimen.

In fact, Shimen and the rest of the ex-Gerrer survivors have quite well-developed senses of irony, especially about religion. They aren’t nearly as earnest as the oppressed Amber of Oberlin. But I suppose they can afford it. After all, as Amber will eagerly tell you, they’ve lived the privileged lives of cis-gendered white men.

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In this post, we considered how too much freedom leads to a revolt against freedom. In the next post, we’ll see how too much equality leads to a revolt against equality.

Fair Heidi

We have seen that fairness, deferral of pleasure and expressions of group solidarity are all necessary for cooperation. But it is just as easy to see that these three are in tension with each other.

If my close compatriot is involved in an altercation with an outsider, loyalty and fairness might pull me in opposite directions. Furthermore, it is plain that requiring deferral of pleasure and conformity to social norms exacts a higher price from some people than for others; some people have idiosyncratic preferences. A sense of fairness inclines us to be solicitous of such preferences, while social norms regarding restraint and loyalty only work, in the ways we described earlier, if their violation is met with disapproval.

On the whole, Judaism tries to find a balance between fairness, on the one hand, and restraint and loyalty, on the other. But, inevitably, some Jews will pull more strongly in the direction of restraint and loyalty and others will pull more strongly in the direction of fairness. As I discovered in the encounter with which I began these essays, Heidi is firmly entrenched in the latter group.

Eventually I’ll get to the pathologies of super-particularistic Jews, but our subject for the moment is Heidi. To put it bluntly, Heidi’s attempt to downgrade restraint and loyalty in favor of some greatly generalized notion of fairness can’t work. Without restraint and loyalty, there can be no fairness. Fairness requires a low discount rate – that we value the future almost as much as we value the present; as we saw above, those who live for today are not reliable long-term partners. Fairness is only possible in a society that values virtue – qualities of character like courage, temperance, prudence and gratitude – that can only be cultivated by a rich system of social norms. Fairness must be rooted in a spirit of generosity that is first learned within the family. The circle of those with whom we interact with special generosity can be gradually expanded, but only if it remains anchored in kinship and shared norms. To love everybody is to love nobody.

Heidi speaks and comprehends only the language of rights. Despite an occasional atavistic pull in their direction, Jewish ethnic and religious solidarity are ideologically offensive to her. She’s also offended at the idea of a society promoting virtue. So long as my behavior doesn’t directly and visibly affect anyone else, Heidi is convinced this isn’t her business and it shouldn’t be any of your business (or, at least, so she says; much more on this in future posts).

It’s obvious that a society of Heidis is not a viable form of Judaism; Heidis have little interest in Jewish continuity. My point here is that it isn’t even a viable way of life. Heidi and her new friends share similar academic and professional backgrounds and, especially, political views. But these similarities are mostly defined by what they are not. Diversity, so central to Heidi’s world, is merely the absence of unifying qualities. Heidi’s crowd is not held together by kinship or ethnicity, or by a shared history, or by a rich system of social norms. It is held together merely by the disdain with which it regards all the shared qualities that it so manifestly lacks.

Shimen can walk into a Gerrer shtiebel anywhere in the world and find people who remember his family, who share friends and acquaintances with him, who speak his dialect, who know what he knows, who understand what he needs, who exchange just the right kinds of stories and jokes with him, who invite him into their homes as a matter of course, and who do business with him on the basis of a handshake and a nod. Heidi can walk into a progressive conclave and find people who share with her a passion for fair trade coffee and a fear of Republicans.

But limited social capital is a small part of the problem with Heidi’s world. Heidi is quite certain that she greatly values the future — that she has a very low discount rate – and she has her profound concern about global warming to prove it. But the rest of Heidi’s lifestyle suggests otherwise.

Like almost all her new friends, Heidi chose not to marry until she was near 40 and chose to have only one child. She regards the family structure that sustained most human societies for millennia as an option no more valid than any other; her admirable compassion for those for whom traditional family life is unsatisfying blinds her to the devastating long-term consequences of low birthrates and the breakdown of the family. What is seen and immediate is more important to Heidi than what is unseen and long-term.

Heidi is a pacifist. She doesn’t identify sufficiently with any country to wish to make sacrifices in its defense; she discounts alarm about evident threats to societies of which she is a member as paranoia and war-mongering. In the short term, her society can withstand military threats based on residual deterrence and the efforts of others, but in the long-term, her society will lack the force and spirit required to withstand the barbarians. Heidi favors economic policies that mitigate inequality in the very short-term, but distort incentives in ways that slow economic growth that would alleviate poverty in the long term. Heidi’s subversion of traditional norms regarding the inception and end of life alleviates distress in the short term, but cheapens life in the long-term.

Heidi’s high discount rate diminishes her society’s prospects and the dimness of these prospects further raise Heidi’s discount rate. Conversely, as Mary Eberstadt explains, religion makes us have more children and having children makes us more religious.

Note also that while Heidi’s society slouches towards oblivion, it isn’t the relatively wealthy and educated like Heidi who will be the first to bear the brunt of the decay. It’s the poor and uneducated who will suffer the most from the disintegration of families and religious communities, who will have the dimmest prospects in a slow-growing economy, and who will fight the wars that Heidi and her fellow social justice warriors won’t.

So, if the consequences of Heidi’s world’s high discount rate and lack of social capital are long-term, how does this play out? What pathologies can we detect already? To answer these questions, we need to meet Heidi’s revenge on humanity and God’s revenge on Heidi: her one and only daughter, Amber.

Morality and Cooperation for Geeks

A society is not viable without cooperation among its members.  We have seen that such cooperation requires adherence to social norms, including those the immediate purpose of which might not be obvious. Let’s make this point more forcefully by considering a formal model of human interaction that abstracts away everything but the barebones issues.

Imagine two spies, Gadi and Palti, working in tandem, who are captured and put in separate interrogation cells. They are each offered the same deal: if you rat out your buddy and he remains silent, you go free and he’ll go to jail for life and never be seen again (and bear in mind that your friend got the same offer). If you both rat, you both get long (but not life) prison sentences; if you both remain silent, you both get short prison sentences.

At first blush, that last part suggests to each of them that nobly remaining silent is the way to go: if they’re both silent, the outcome is better for both of them than if they both rat. But, thinking it through more carefully, Gadi realizes that, while he doesn’t know if Palti will rat or be silent, he – Gadi – is better off ratting either way: if Palti rats, Gadi better rat too or he’ll never be seen again; if Palti is silent, Gadi need only rat to be free as a bird. This reasoning is absolutely compelling; in fact, it’s so compelling that Palti comes to the same conclusion and the two of them have many years in a cell together to discuss whether ratting was the right choice.

We don’t need to be prisoners to face the Prisoners’ Dilemma, as it’s commonly called. The essential elements of the story are that two parties can either cooperate with each other (remaining silent in the case of the Prisoners’ Dilemma) or defect, that the parties must make their choices independently and simultaneously, and that the ordering of preferences for each party is:

<I defect, you cooperate>    is better than

<both cooperate>                  is better than

<both defect>                         is better than

<I cooperate, you defect>.

This comes up in many real-world situations. Buyer and Seller can benefit from a transaction, but each can profit more by cheating at the other’s expense. Two world powers can benefit from an agreement to avoid an arms race, but each can profit more by cheating. In all these cases, a rational player would cheat.

One can extend this reasoning to situations with more than two players. For example, if we all do light fishing in the communal lake, we all have lunch and a lake full of fish; if we all do heavy fishing in the lake, the fish will be depleted faster than they can reproduce and we all have lunch and supper but a dead lake. So, I figure to myself, either enough others will fish heavily to deplete the lake anyway, so I might as well live it up, or enough others will behave, so I can afford to live it up. The chances that my few extra flounders will tip the scales are negligible. Everybody else thinks the same thing and so much for the lake.

How do we get out of this dilemma? It’s apparent that we can because, for example, merchants do make deals all the time without cheating each other.

One possibility is that we are simply altruistic. We each have, as I have been arguing all along, an instinctive moral sense. So, I might not rat out my comrade simply because his well-being and freedom are important to me. This is quite true but, alas, we also have other instincts, and a careful analysis of human behavior suggests that, while altruism is common, it is far from an adequate explanation of observed human cooperation.

A more plausible explanation can easily be intuited by contemplating our friends, Buyer and Seller. It is true that Buyer can make extra profit by taking delivery and then not paying and Seller can make extra profit by shipping counterfeit merchandise. But how many times can they get away with this before nobody will do business with them? Buyers and sellers, who want to stay in business for the long term, care about their reputations; in fact, online market places make this explicit by enabling participants in a transaction to rate the other side. The Prisoners’ Dilemma is a one-shot event and hence not a fair representation of typical human interactions, which are ongoing.

To try to capture human interactions with a slightly more realistic model, let’s consider the case of repeated Prisoners’ Dilemmas: we play one round, the players’ choices are revealed and payouts are made, then we play the next round and the next and so on. Each player wants to maximize his payoff over time. What can we say about the behaviors of rational players in this scenario? Are they doomed to cheat as in the one-shot version? Note that, whereas in the one-shot version a player need to choose between two options (cooperate or defect), in the repeated version a player needs to choose from among many possible strategies: always cooperate, always defect, alternate between defecting and cooperating, defect if the other player defected in the previous round and otherwise cooperate, defect only if the other player defected in the previous two rounds, defect six times if the other player defected in the previous round, toss a coin, toss a biased coin, toss a coin if the other player defected in the previous round but otherwise cooperate… You get the idea.

Unlike the one-shot Prisoners’ Dilemma, there is no single strategy that offers a maximal payoff regardless of the other player’s behavior. If the players are limited to strategies that are blind to the other player’s past actions, then always defecting is indeed the optimal strategy. But a player can do better by being responsive to the other player’s past actions. Consider for example a strategy, called tit-for-tat, in which a player defects only if the other player defected in the previous round; in other words, he cooperates in the first round and mimics the other player forever after. If Gadi thinks that Palti is using this strategy, then under most circumstances, Gadi will maximize his own payoff by playing the same strategy (and the same is true from Palti’s perspective). Since tit-for-tat has this property, we say that it is an equilibrium strategy. The nice thing about this strategy is that if both players stick to it, they will cooperate forever.

Note that tit-for-tat is not the only equilibrium strategy. Always defecting is also an equilibrium strategy. So is cooperating until the other player defects and then defecting forever (“grim trigger”). There are many others. But at least cooperation is possible.

Did you notice that little “under most circumstances” I slipped in just before? Let’s get back to that. Assuming my opponent believes I’m playing tit-for-tat, under what circumstances will it actually be optimal for him to cooperate with me as long as I cooperate with him?

The answer is that it depends on how much he values future returns. Suppose Buyer and Seller make a transaction exactly once a day. Assuming no one cheats, each gets one unit of joy from the deal. If they keep this up for, say, a year they’ll each make 365 units of joy. But how much is that unit of joy that Seller is expecting to get a year from now worth to him today? Presumably less than one full unit: if Seller is a live-for-today kind of guy, it’s worth a lot less; if he’s a save-for-tomorrow kind of guy a little less. In the first case, we say that Seller has a high discount rate; in the second case, we say he has a low discount rate.

Here’s the punchline: if and only if Seller has a high discount rate, it might be worth it for him to cheat. It’s easy to see why: he’d rather make a quick buck at my expense today than to make more than that in the future, since he heavily discounts the future. A guy with a high discount rate is a guy you don’t want to do business with.

So, for long-term cooperation we need players with low discount rates who choose a tit-for-tat strategy. But, as legal scholar Eric Posner notes, there’s one more requirement. Let’s call people with discount rates low enough that it pays for them to cooperate the good types; the guys with the high discount rates are the bad types. It’s not enough for Seller to be a good type; he also needs to convince Buyer that he’s a good type so that Buyer will want to do business with him.

In the formal model, as Posner explains, there’s actually a way for Seller to persuade Buyer that he’s a good type and will deliver the goods. Let’s think about those 365 units of joy Buyer and Seller might each get if they do business together. If Seller is a bad type those 364 future units of joy are worth, say, 50 units of joy today; if he’s a good type, they might be worth 250 units of joy today. So, if and only if Seller is a good type, he can afford to give Buyer a gift worth 100 units today in anticipation of getting it back through future business. The gift signals to Buyer that Seller is a good type.

That’s the formal model. In real life, there are numerous ways that people signal that they’re good types. They dress and groom themselves in ways that suggest that they can afford to pay a price in money, time and effort to profit from long-term cooperation. They are polite, as formal as necessary, careful about table manners and generally make a display of their ability to control impulses. Of course, they do this not only in interactions with specific business associates but in interaction with their whole society. Different communities develop different sets of behaviors for this purpose. Members of a community need to demonstrate loyalty to the social norms that have evolved in this way in their community in order to convince others that they are good types who can be depended on to cooperate for the long-term.

In short, the requirements for cooperation in a community are tied to the three moral foundations we considered in previous posts: a preference for fairness (tit-for-tat), the ability to defer pleasure (low discount rates), and loyalty to the community’s traditions (signaling low discount rates).

Okay, this was a tough one. In the next few posts, I hope to repay your patience with some Heidi-baiting.

Free Kugel and Hot Shtreimels

It’s all well and good to talk in the abstract about the social capital that accrues from rituals, but how well do such claims hold up when we consider concrete examples? Take, for example, the chassidish custom of wearing a shtreimel (fur hat) on Shabbos and holidays and at family celebrations. Shimen and most of his friends in the Gerrer shtiebel abandoned their shtreimlech (that’s the proper pluralization) for reasons I’ll discuss down the line, but the greater mystery is why they and their ancestors – and some of their descendants – ever adopted the custom in the first place. To be sure, I am not interested here in the particular historical circumstances under which this specific custom was adopted (that is, which goyish or reformist decree needed to be defied at the time), but rather what, intended or unintended, social benefits such customs promote.

As any casual observer could hardly fail to note, a shtreimel is expensive, it isn’t very comfortable in the summer and it might attract unwanted attention on West End Avenue. All in all, it seems to be a rather costly quirk without much obvious payoff of the sort we discussed in the previous post.

In fact, viewed in broader anthropological context, a shtreimel in summer is a walk through the park. Some Shiite Muslims observe the holiday of Ashura by whipping themselves with blades on chains, some Australian aboriginal boys pass a bone through their urethras to, quite literally, mark their passage into manhood, participants in the Phuket Vegetarian Festival drive spikes through their cheeks and other soft tissue (as might I, if I were vegetarian), and bored youth all over the world cover their bodies in irremovable tattoos and pierce sensitive body parts. What’s this all about?

It’s actually pretty simple. Consider my dear friend, Free Rider, a bit of a schlemiel with poor financial prospects and no particular religious convictions. While wandering aimlessly through Boro Park, Free chances upon a chassidish wedding and, lo and behold, it looks like it’s open house for the after-dinner potato kugel. Free soon discovers that there’s a wedding in that particular congregation about five nights a week, there’s a kiddush on Shabbos, everybody is generous with charity and there are volunteer societies devoted to giving free loans, visiting the sick, matchmaking and providing free arbes (chickpeas) for sholom zochor celebrations. Free vaguely intuits that this system can only work if, on average, everybody in the congregation gives as much as they get, but he figures he’s just one person. Even if he contributes nothing, which is precisely his intention, how much kugel can he eat? Nobody will notice or care.

Unfortunately for the optimistic Mr. Rider, many others have thought similar thoughts and this particular congregation, as well as every other society on earth, would have long ago gone out of business had it been without means of smoking out Free Rider and his ilk. Every society requires that members, or wannabe members, signal that they’re serious about giving as much as they get and not just eating the kugel and running.

The trick of an effective signal for this purpose is that it must only be worth sending if you’re a good type, committed for the long haul. If anybody can send the signal, even Free Rider, then it wouldn’t be worth anything. Consider some roughly analogous situations. If you’ve opened a bank and want to signal potential depositors that you’re not running off to Brazil next week with their money, build a big marble building, since that kind of investment is only worthwhile if you intend to be in business for a long time. If you want to signal employers that you’re a productive worker, get a college degree; you might not learn anything relevant to the job or to anything at all, but you (presumably) couldn’t have gotten the degree without a modicum of intelligence and diligence. If you want to signal your fellow gang members that you’re not planning to grow up and go all middle-class on them, tattoo SATAN on your forehead; that’ll convincingly burn your bridges to bourgeois society. If you’re a peacock and want to convince the peahens that you’ve got what it takes, strut enough useless plumage to exhaust a lesser man.

Note that these signals work in different ways. The peacock’s plume simply can’t be mimicked by the unqualified. A college degree can be obtained by someone not especially bright or diligent, but it might require so much effort that it wouldn’t justify the investment. Tattoos work by burning bridges out of the gang, very much the way that not getting an education and not serving in the military burns bridges out of certain communities in Israel.

What all these signals have in common, though, is that they are costly. If they were cheap, Free Rider would mimic them. That shtreimel is persuasive only because it’s expensive, hot and marks you as an outsider in modern society. You’re going to have to consume a whole lot of free kugel before you recoup that investment, not to mention the cost of getting circumcised, learning Yinglish and possibly even having to eat petcha.

Note that, while I’ve portrayed these signals as barriers to entry for outsiders like Free Rider, they also work for veteran members of a community, who signal their ongoing commitment to each other, thus maintaining the group’s social capital. Signaling not only reflects commitment, but reinforces it; when I receive signals, my trust in the community is strengthened and when I send a signal, my investment in the community is increased. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that a study of 19th century communes, by anthropologist Richard Sosis, found that the longevity of a commune is positively correlated with the number of demands it makes of members.

Finally, I repeat an important disclaimer. I have claimed that many apparently bizarre social norms serve as signals that enable us to distinguish people we can trust from free riders. But this does not mean that this is the (sole) purpose of such norms or the reason we should observe them. Note, in particular, that peacocks don’t strut their plumes because they choose to signal their strength and virility; rather, the instinctive urge to strut plumes serves as such a signal and thus has certain advantages for fertility. Draw the appropriate analogies yourselves.

Signaling theory is actually more important for our general argument than might appear at first blush. To show why this is the case, I’ll devote the next post to a game-theoretic analysis of signaling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social Norms and Solidarity

One evening in 1941 a boatload of European refugees, including my father’s family, docked on the shores of Mogador in Morocco. The boat’s passengers were herded into a refugee camp; the only way out, they were told, would be for local families to come and take responsibility for them – presumably a mere theoretical possibility, since the passengers were unlikely to have any acquaintances there. By morning, not a single Jewish family remained in the camp and not a single non-Jewish family had left the camp.

What’s the secret to this kind of solidarity? One part of the answer, the part that concerns us now, is shared norms.

Solidarity, trust and cooperation, the stuff now often called social capital, is to a society what schnapps is to a farbrengen: without it, a society wouldn’t last long and it isn’t clear why it should. The generation of social capital among members of a society is possible only if shared norms align their expectations, habituate them to exercise self-control, instill in them a unity of purpose and incentivize them to transmit wisdom across generations. In short, social norms must encourage our prosocial instincts and discourage our selfish instincts. If you and I both know that we share a commitment to such norms, we can trust each other and cooperate in mutually advantageous ways.

Let’s see how the norms considered in the previous post – rituals, food taboos, kinship rules and exchange regulations – achieve these ends. I’ll follow the sequence of the Shulchan Arukh, but I’d like to ask the reader to try an exercise as we go through this: think about hunter-gatherers rather than observant Jews. Much less baggage.

Consider the public performance of rituals such as prayer, singing and dancing, communal ingestion of psychotropic substances, rites of passage, ostracisms, coronations, exorcisms and whatnot. Each such performance is carried out according to established rules governing who does what, where and when. Individuals sharing particularly powerful such experiences often feel an overwhelming sense of unity, a kind of melding into a single organism. (If you didn’t follow instructions and are still thinking Jewish rather than hunter-gatherer, I’m not talking about your typical weekday mincha here, for me a decidedly pedestrian experience, but maybe the end of Yom Kippur davening. If that doesn’t work for you, go with the psychotropic substances.)

Furthermore, younger participants in public rituals see that elders and wise men are accorded honor and understand implicitly whom they should take as role models. In this way, they learn to value experience and knowledge, and they understand that if they wish to obtain similar prestige, they should seek to acquire such experience and knowledge. They also internalize the tribe’s evolved division of ritualized responsibility and develop the qualities of character appropriate for best performing their respective roles. In addition, privately performed rituals, such as minor blessings or meditative activities, encourage mindfulness and introspection and, under special circumstances, can evoke a sense of awe and unity.

Food taboos (as well as rules of purity and contamination, on which I’m not elaborating here) serve the incidental purpose of reducing possibilities for eating or contacting toxins. Along with other constraints on consumption – ritualized slaughter of animals, blessings over food, feast-related ceremonies, sacrifices – they help cultivate the ability to defer pleasure and they draw attention to the differences between humans and animals. Rules regarding tithing and other obligatory food gifts build solidarity and trust and promote the internalization of a sense of mutual responsibility.

As for norms regarding kin relations, prohibitions on polyandry and rules regarding female fidelity in marriage reduce paternal uncertainty and thus encourage paternal responsibility. Limitations on polygamy prevent violence among males competing for scarce women. Institutionalized assortative mating, such as matching of promising scholars with wealthy brides, incentivizes scholarship and improves the gene pool. It is well understood that prohibitions on incest prevent defects associated with inbreeding, but in fact such prohibitions achieve much more. The fact that incest is not merely prohibited but a reprehensible taboo engenders intra-family trust by completely eliminating sexual tension within the family unit; this permits unthreatening intimacy between family members. (Are we okay so far? Here comes the grenade casually tossed into the room before I run for cover.) Analogously, only when homosexual acts are taboo can male cohorts – soldiers, yeshiva bachurim, hunters – interact with complete trust and even intimacy that is not undermined by sexual tension.

Now exchange regulations. Voluntary trades are beneficial for both sides of the transaction; a multitude of such transactions thus greatly benefit the entire society. But such commerce is only possible if buyers and sellers share an understanding of the rules of the game (when a transaction is complete, when and where delivery will take place, who is on the hook for defects, etc.) and can trust each other to carry out their respective parts of the deal. Norms of commerce manage expectations, create the necessary degree of trust and reduce transaction costs, to everybody’s benefit.

To summarize, all the types of social norms we have considered promote trust and cooperation, sometimes in subtle indirect ways. This is why they are so crucial for a society’s viability.

I want to add two important comments. First, the claim that certain types of norms have beneficial effects on the viability of a society is not the same as the claim that such viability is the purpose of the norms. Second, one can easily think of bizarre social norms in common practice that appear to have no benefit at all. These require further elaboration using some ideas from game theory. That will be the subject of my next post.

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.

Drawing the Battle Lines

Shimen might make kiddush on tears in Auschwitz, but he wouldn’t make kiddush on a stolen bottle of wine in Manhattan. He knows that under certain circumstances one can violate a prohibition in order to observe a positive commandment (such as wearing tzitzis made of shatnez), but it would never occur to him to that this principle would include violation of duties to other people. (His intuitions are shared by Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg – see Chasam Sofer on Succa 42a.) Shimen knows the difference between being frum (pious) and being a mensch.

Shimen might have never seen the comment of the 14th century sage, R. Asher ben Yechiel (“the Rosh”), on the Mishnah (Peah 1:1): “[Isaiah 3:10 reads:] ‘The righteous if good eat the fruits of their deeds.’ Are there righteous people who are not good? Rather one who is righteous to God and good to people will eat the fruits of their deeds. For God prefers deeds that also do good for people than those only between a person and his Creator.” But he knows this.

Shimen, like most Gerrer chassidim, didn’t linger long over the reading of the haftarah, but he perfectly understood the verses in the haftarah read before Tisha B’Av: “For what do I need your many animal sacrifices, God says. I have enough burnt offerings… Stop doing evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, defend the oppressed, do justice for the orphan, argue for the widow.”

So, Shimen does not regard the fairness foundation and the loyalty and restraint foundations as being exactly equal.

Likewise, Heidi shares Shimen’s revulsion at disrespect and degradation. She shares Shimen’s instinctive sense that incest, for example, is wrong. Similarly, she agrees that speaking ill of one’s deceased father, even if nobody is harmed by such speech, is wrong. She is as revolted by cannibalism as any conservative, even if the deceased has died naturally and willed his body for this purpose.

So, Heidi is not completely insensitive to the loyalty and restraint foundations.

In short, human nature does not distinguish between Shimen and Heidi; culture does. Relatively few moral judgments are common to all cultures. Torturing innocents and incest are extreme examples of moral violations that cut across cultures. Inchoate senses of fairness, loyalty and restraint are universal, but the precise definition of each is culture-dependent.

In Heidi’s culture, fairness is given much greater importance than loyalty and restraint. This is manifest in two ways.

The first becomes evident when, as Jonathan Haidt did, you present people with potted stories involving completely private and unreported acts of cannibalism or incest or using a stack of Bibles as a stepstool and ask not just if this is bad (everyone agrees it is), but rather why it’s bad. Conservatives like Shimen might say that the Torah forbids it or that it’s just wrong and requires no explanation. Progressives like Heidi, on the other hand, would struggle to find some way in which someone would be harmed: offended sensibilities, deformed babies, regrets, irreparable relationships. In Heidi’s culture causing harm or being unfair to others is a primary violation, while violations involving disrespect for community hierarchy, disloyalty to tribe, degradation or dissoluteness are merely derivative; rules for their avoidance when no harm is done are not self-justifying.

This leads directly to the second way in which fairness is privileged in Heidi’s culture. When two different moral foundations rub up against each other, fairness always wins. Thus, if homosexual acts are regarded as dissolute, as they were in Heidi’s culture until recently, while restrictions on such acts are seen as causing undue harm to homosexuals, the outcome is clear. The very idea of dissoluteness sounds archaic to Heidi. Similarly, if intermarriage is regarded as a betrayal of tribal loyalty, as it was in Heidi’s culture until recently, while restrictions on intermarriage are seen as intolerant, the resolution is obvious. The very idea of tribal loyalty sounds bizarre to Heidi.

On the other hand, for all that Shimen’s piety is accompanied by sympathy, taboos remain taboos. Restraint and loyalty are, for Shimen, self-justifying moral foundations and if the norms that manifest them in his culture sometimes cause harm to some individuals, this is sad but necessary.

The battle lines have thus been drawn, hopefully in a way that Heidi finds fair and accurate. In the next series of posts, I’ll explain why her position is untenable.