Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Haidt on Taboos

So, with Rav Aharon’s mandate to approach the Humanities from a religious perspective, let’s take a look at the book “The Righteous Mind”, by Social Psychologist, Jonathan Haidt.

Chapter 1: Where does Morality come from?

The first chapter of the book “Where does Morality come from?” deals with that self-same question. Haidt describes how the Psychology Academia came to reject the Nativist and Empiricist models for Moral Development(Nature vs. Nurture) in favor of the Rationalist approach i.e. that children learn Morality by themselves through trial and error, expanding on the basic principal that “harm is wrong”. He brings Psychologists Elliot Turiel and Lawrence Kohlberg as epitomizing this viewpoint.

This approach initially did not sit well with Haidt because it seemed “too cerebral” a description of children’s experience of morality. He also points out that, while this thesis could explain moral development in Liberal Western societies, it doesn’t work as well in other cultures. He brings “purity laws” such as the Torah prohibition on eating “Shratzim”, as a counter-example to the idea that all morality stems from harm.

Haidt concludes the chapter describing his own research on how people respond to the question of right or wrong with regard to hypothetical “Harmless Taboo Violations” i.e. A family’s dog was killed so they decided to cook it and eat it, siblings commit incest but use birth control, a man commits bestiality with a dead animal, etc. While upper class Western subjects tend to see these cases merely as the violation of a subjective social convention, lower class subjects in the third world tend to identify them as moral violations. As such, Haidt concludes that the Rationalist model is does not sufficiently explain the evidence and a new model is needed.

Food Taboos and Harm

I would like to take a look at Haidt’s point about Kashrut laws. Is it true that such taboos are not about harm?

Mitzvot have two aspects: on one hand they have a Taam, a rationale behind the commandment, on the other hand they are “Decrees of the King” and must be followed regardless of the reasoning.

Haidt’s statement about food taboos is clearly directed towards this first aspect. The reason behind food taboos is open for debate, but it doesn’t seem to be because of harm(some claim that kashrut is because of health reasons, but the support for this thesis is rather tenuous. For a good discussion of the reasons behind Kashrut, see Rav Meir Soloveichik's article "Locusts, Giraffes, and the Meaning of Kashrut".) If, however, we look at the second aspect to mitzvoth, that they are the King’s commandment, then they do take on an element of harm. To violate these taboos is to disobey our father in Heaven, thus harming our relationship with him and desecrating his name in the world.

That said, Haidt’s point holds. Food Taboos are not only about harm, they also have other reasons behind them. Personally, I would have liked to see data on how responses to Haidt’s “Harmless Taboo Violations” correlate to the religiosity of his subjects. Perhaps the different results in countries/socioeconomic status could be explained by the religiosity of his subjects. If so, then his results doesn’t really tell us much about developmental psychology, they merely tells us that religion effects our moral sense, which is seemingly a truism. Then again, perhaps it's a truism that, as Haidt himself suggests, Liberal Western academics really need to be reminded of. That said, it could be that Haidt is starting out his book with a bit of a straw-man to build credibility. We'll see in subsequent chapters...