Intro. [Recording date: December 29, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is December 29th, 2021, and my guest is Moshe Koppel of Bar-Ilan University. He's a mathematician, computer scientist, and founder of the Kohelet Policy Forum, which is an Israeli think-tank.
We're going to talk today about a Hayekian bottom-up evolution of morality versus alternatives, and whether there should be a role for tradition and thinking about how to live. We may also get into his efforts to create a Constitution for Israel, and whether that's a good idea--although I doubt we'll have time. But, that's one of Moshe's small side-projects.
We're going to base the conversation around his recent book, Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures, which is a Hayekian defense of religion as an emergent phenomenon.
I also want to alert listeners this episode may get into some adult themes.
I want to remind listeners to go to econtalk.org and vote for your favorite episodes of 2021.
Moshe, welcome to EconTalk.
Moshe Koppel: Hi, Russ. Pleasure to be here.
Russ Roberts: I want to start with a story to begin discussing social norms, which play a central role in your thinking. You write the following:
One evening in 1941, a boatload of European refugees, including my father's family, anchored on the shores of Casablanca, 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 only a theoretical possibility since the passengers were unlikely to have any acquaintances there willing to take them home.
What happened that night?
Moshe Koppel: What happened that night was that the Jewish community of Casablanca came to the port. They had caught wind of the situation. And by morning, all of the Jewish refugees on this boat had been taken in by local Moroccan Jews. And they took responsibility for them and set them up.
Russ Roberts: And those, of course, were strangers. They were part of a tribe that had a certain set of norms of loyalty and responsibility for each other. And most of us think that's probably a pretty good thing. What does that tell us about social norms and their power and importance?
Moshe Koppel: Well, you know, it's often objected that religious tradition--and the social norms that are part of religious tradition--are objectionable on certain grounds. You know, if it's just a matter of being fair: well, those are the kinds of norms that people generally like, but when the norms become either overly restrictive or tribal, people say, 'Well, I don't like that kind of norm. You're being unfair to other people.' Right? Tribalism is a bad thing. It reminds people of racism and other such things, which we all agree are horrible things.
So, tribalism gets a bad rap.
But, the fact of the matter is that tribalism is often a very good thing. It increases social capital within a particular group. So, if people share particular norms, they care about each other more. They become a family.
And, the fact that they're a family is actually a good thing. It means that they show particular deference to each other. They're willing to make a special effort for each other.
Yes, it's true there's inevitably going to be an in-group and an out-group; and people are going to be "less fair" to the out-group--"less fair" in quotes. They're going to show special love--but like, basically you should think of it as an extended family. You don't think it's objectionable that people have special love for their own family. Just think of this as an extended family.
Overall, since people can't love everybody--to love everybody is to love nobody--we should think of this as efficient, right? If you divide the world into small groups of people who share norms and thereby increased social capital within the group, everybody's better off if we do that.
Russ Roberts: Well, in theory, norms solve what economists call collective action problems--problems where something bad happens to you unexpectedly and you have no insurance. A tribe can insure you and take care of you under those circumstances. It leads to reductions in transaction costs, because as you point out in the book, many deals among tribe members get done with a handshake rather than the elaborate contractual legal requirements that are done between total strangers.
What we're going to talk about in a minute is where those norms come from and how they change. And, you make the case that it's important that they change slowly, which is very frustrating for some people.
But, I want to focus in on the point you're making about the insularity--or another negative world would be parochialism--of a tribe, or an in-group, or an extended family.
And, you said no one objects to having an extended family. I don't think that's the case--for better or worse. Peter Singer has argued, and many, many people agree with him, that when we think about how to be nice to other people, it's wrong to privilege your family. In fact, he famously confessed to helping his mother in an extravagant way, relative to what he might have done in, say, de-worming in Africa, because he loves his mother--presumably--and has a cultural, a deep, I don't know what you want to call it--human--tie to his mom.
And, Singer and others have argued those types of emotions are bad. We should rise above them, and we should not privilege our local community, not privilege our extended family, not privilege even our immediate family. Some people have--Singer has suggested throwing a birthday party for your child, spending $150, $200 on a outing at the bowling alley or the celebratory food: that's immoral because you could do so much more good with that $200. So, you should, at a minimum feel terrible about it, and it's not a good thing. How do you respond to that?
Moshe Koppel: Yeah. Okay. I think that actually is as bizarre as it sounds. First of all, the idea that we can overcome human nature, or a fundamental part of human nature, I think is absolutely absurd. If you make quixotic attempts to do that kind of thing, you're going to end up making things far, far worse. And, I want to talk about that a little bit down the line, not quite yet.
But, let's put that in context. Okay? In general, if you look at the kinds of social norms that people have in every society in the world--here I'm quoting the anthropologist, Joseph Henrich--they generally fall into four rough areas, right? There are rules about food and what you can eat, and there are rules about sex and whom you can have sex with and under what conditions and so forth. And, there are rituals, right? There are societal, communal rituals. And, there are rules of transaction and business and so forth, right?
So, you already mentioned rules of transaction. Everybody understands that you need that. You want to lower transaction costs. They're good for everybody. Those are most closely related to the moral foundation of fairness. And, even though not everything about transactions are about fairness, right? Hayek correctly points out that in order to be able to do business with people who are from societies very different than ours, what we actually need are just very formal rules that aren't obviously fair in some way. They're means of coordination, and so forth.
Now, if you look at these four categories, right? One of them is obviously tribal--the notion of rituals, right? There's no such thing as universal rituals, right? Rituals are inherently tied to a particular community. Okay? So, they are tribal, and most people--moderns, cosmopolitans--would say, 'Yeah, who needs them? Rituals are foolish.' Right?
And, the other ones, food and sex restrictions, well, they're inevitably arbitrary. Right? In one society, women don't eat fish. In another society, we only eat fish that have fins and scales. If you look around the world, almost every society has some kind of rule about who eats fish or what kind of fish we eat. Right? It's an amazing thing. Right? But, they're all different, right? So, they are also in a sense tribal, because these rules are inherently tribal.
Now the question is: All right, why do we need these rules? What are they for? What are they good for?
Russ Roberts: And, just to interject, the alternative view is: We needed these rules long ago. Jews don't eat pork. That was because there's parasites in pork if it's not cooked thoroughly. And so, therefore a lot of these food taboos, or sex taboos, we needed them in the past. We don't need them. Now they're outdated. And, they can be replaced by science or just what you enjoy. I mean, there's no reason to restrict yourself on food and sex--that argument goes. It's obviously just a personal choice.
Moshe Koppel: Right. So, what I want to argue is that these rituals and these restrictive rules actually have value down the line. They may not be obvious at this particular moment, and it may never be obvious why this particular rule is the rule that we ought to have. But, first of all, these rules do encourage pro-social instincts. Okay? And, we can get into the guts of how exactly they encourage pro-social instincts.
But, I mean, one of the obvious ones is that if you and I share some particular rules, and we know that we abide by them, that builds trust between us. Okay? But, maybe more obviously, if we learn to defer pleasure, we actually become better people. We are, in fact, going to be more fair to others--including others who are outside of our community, outside of our society, who don't share our norms--if we train ourselves to be the kind of people who are able to defer pleasure.
If there are certain arbitrary things that I don't eat, if there are certain arbitrary-sounding restrictions on sex and I'm committed to them and I'm able to abide by them, well, I develop the ability to defer pleasure. So, this too may have long-term advantages, not only for my society, for society at large.
Now, to be clear, I'm not claiming that I know exactly what the mechanisms are, but what I know is this: that if every society that we know that has survived for thousands of years--I'm not talking about communities that have popped up very recently, but all the societies we know that have been around for a long time--have evolved the same kinds of restrictions and tribalism, even though they're expressed differently in each society. Right? But, the fact is they all have rules about food. They all have rules about sex. They all have rituals. They all have rules for transactions and so forth, then my guess is that they've evolved for a good reason.
So, you could speculate on this. One example that I think is very nice, is Joseph Henrich in his book, The Secret of Our Success, talks about the Tucanoans in the Amazon. They eat cassava. Cassava is one of those root vegetables, something like sweet potato. You know those funny colored chips that you get, right? They're one of those. Anyway, they're also called yucca. Don't ask me why. And, he says that the Tucanoans have these very, very elaborate rituals for preparing cassava. They boil it, they grind it, they dry it. They do all kinds of things. It take days.
And, they didn't know why they do this. He asked them, 'Why do you do this?' 'Well, this is the way we do it. It's our tradition.' It seemed completely arbitrary.
Now the tragic ending of the story is that cassava was then brought across the ocean to West Africa, where they didn't bother with those rituals. They didn't have a tradition of those rituals. And, people started getting goiter, and leg paralysis, and so forth. And, it turned out that that was because of a certain poison that was found in the cassava root. At sufficiently low levels, the effect was never immediate. So, the Tucanoans couldn't possibly know that there was a connection between people 20 years later--after eating cassava their whole lives--were being affected by this, by cyanide poisoning [Edited per guest request--it's cyanide, not arsenic poisoning]. And, the West Africans, of course, didn't have this tradition and didn't know about it. But they were doing it for a reason.
I want to quote Hayek on this because he put it better than I could. Hayek says,
The cultural heritage into which man is born consists of a complex of practices or rules of conduct which are prevailed because they made a group of--[Koppel: he says men, I'll say people]--people successful but which were not adopted because it was known that they would bring about desired effects.
That's classic Hayek in one sentence, right?
The point is these kind of things evolve for a reason. So, I think that Singer is making a mistake when he says, 'You know what? Let's just figure it out. Let's just all be nice to everybody, not be deferential to anybody, not be deferential to traditions that seem arbitrary to us.' I think that's a mistake.
Russ Roberts: So, this argument, one version of it that has come up recently in the program a lot is the Chesterton Fence. So, Chesterton argued: You see a fence somewhere, it seems to be in the way of some useful paths. So, you tear it down, because it doesn't make sense to you, not thinking about there was a reason it was put there in the first place. And, the cassava root example is an even more challenging one because presumably you don't have a way of knowing why it's there. So, you can't say, 'Well, I did the research and we don't need the fence.' It's just that: 'This is what we do; it's what we've always done.'
And, I think for modern people, this is very difficult to accept your argument. We want to know why. We privilege reason over tradition. And, we've come to a point in human history in the West--certainly in America, less so in Israel where you and I live, but certainly in America and certainly in parts of Israel--where tradition is not only seen as 'Well, it's probably a good idea,' but actively a bad thing. Whether it's good or bad or not, certainly modern citizens of these societies that have turned against tradition are unmoored. They have to make this decisions about things that were, before, not decisions.
I'll pick a few. Until about 50 years ago, it was understood that of course you would get married and try to have children, and you would try to have a few children. Today, whether to get married or not is an interesting question. A lot of people decided not to, whether they have children. All the religious, family, cultural norms that ruled over those things are going away.
They're being replaced by other things, right? So, while food taboos of religion are being left by the wayside for many people, there are new food taboos. They're just not religious, in the sense of coming from one of the traditional religions.
They have a religious aspect, though, in that you show that you are a loyal member of the tribe by what you eat and how your food is prepared, or where it's coming from, or how it's grown, or who grows it. So, fair-trade organic coffee is better than other corporate coffee, say, that's grown in an exploited plantation--some quotes around some of those were words I'll leave out.
But, it seems to me, whether we agree with your argument or not, and most people I think are unpersuaded by the fact that, 'Oh, all societies have these rules.' Well, maybe they're wrong. All societies used to be racist. All societies used to be monarchies. I don't know if I want to use those evolved norm systems as attractive. We can do better than that. We can pick and choose.
So, discretion, rather than rules, would be the order of the day. And, 'I'm going to use my intelligence, I'm going to use the intelligence of people I respect, experts, and that's how I'm going to decide what to do. And that's how I'm going to decide what to eat, my sexual norms, and everything else along the way.' Including charities, as we've been talking about with respect to Peter Singer.
So, I think you have a tough row to hoe. You have a tough case to make, because for a modern person, your arguments are not compelling. And, in particular, I think we're in the middle of a big experiment. We're acquiring a lot of data--information, I would call it more than data--about the consequences of unmooring people from their norms. Well, anyway, you want to comment on any of that?
Moshe Koppel: Yeah. There's a lot to unpack there, Russ. You said a ton. But, let's take it one at a time. First of all, the cassava example is not very compelling for people who don't buy my argument. Let me tell you why it's not compelling. Okay? Because now we know that it's all about cyanide poisoning, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. We don't need these silly rituals. Yeah.
Moshe Koppel: So, the point is, we actually--well, there are ways of denaturing cassava, taking the cyanide out of it, right? And, making it perfectly fine for consumption. See, here's an example where--of course if you're a Tucanoan and you don't know much about modern chemistry. Right? Well, yeah. But, what about us? That would be dumb, right?
So, I completely agree that that is an absolutely not-compelling example. The point I was making was not, 'Hey, spend three days preparing your cassava.' Right? That would not be the right point. The point I was making is that societies have all kinds of traditions that they maintain for reasons that they don't always understand.
Now, we might know post-fact what the evolutionary advantage of what the Tucanoans were doing is. Okay? But, we don't always know. We might think we know. We might think that we know that it's not really important to distinguish between genders. That whole dichotomy, that's old stuff, but forget about it. We're past that, right? Now, my guess is, and I can't prove this. This might be an exception. But, it may turn out that the fact that societies have maintained the notion of gender dichotomy all over the world for thousands of years, actually there's a reason for it. Okay? It just could be.
Now, you raise the question of people having children or not having children, thinking the whole idea of starting families having children is maybe a little bit passé. But, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the next generation of people are going to be those who got their genes from people who thought that you should have children. Right?
Russ Roberts: That's the most compelling argument you've made, I think, and will make all day. That's going to be tough to disagree with.
Moshe Koppel: It's got to be hard to disagree with that. So, my guess is--I don't know if it's a matter of cultural evolution or genetic evolution, but either way, I'm guessing that the notion that we really don't have to bother having children: 'Let's just kind of have a good time and not bother with all that. It's a lot of responsibility'--it probably doesn't have much of a future.
Russ Roberts: Well, not literally in the sense of having or not having. But I think, as a general point, I do think that many of the traditions and responsibilities people have grown up with through most of human history, many of those are now put to the side.
Russ Roberts: But, I want to challenge you in a different way. If I accept your argument--and I'm very sympathetic to it so I'm doing my best to push back against you. If I accept your argument, how should I view the so-called woke culture that is so present on American college campuses and among, quote, "right-thinking people"--correct-thinking people? Isn't that just a new norm? And, one of the things you argue is that norms need to evolve slowly to do their job. What's wrong with a fast-changing norm?
So, again in America, and good chunks of the Western world, and it may spread elsewhere, things that were understood to be obviously true five years ago--I'll take freedom of speech just to pick an obvious one--that's now seen as bad. Before it was sacred on the college campuses. Now it's not just not as sacred: it's considered a weapon of oppression and so on. Those are not being legislated by governments, those new attitudes. They're just norms that are emerging, like the ones that you happen to like. Here's some ones--I know you pretty well, Moshe. I know you don't like those, I suspect. What's wrong with that? Isn't that just the next step in the evolution?
Moshe Koppel: I agree with you that it actually is the almost inevitable next step after secular cosmopolitanism.
Russ Roberts: I don't think I said that, but, okay.
Moshe Koppel: Yeah. Well, okay. Well, do you agree with it?
Russ Roberts: I don't know. I'm just making an empirical observation that one of the things that I think makes you uneasy and makes me uneasy--which, I'll use the death of free speech and open inquiry in American universities--is just a new norm. And, what's wrong with it? And, I know you don't like it. I don't like it either.
Moshe Koppel: Okay. Let me try this angle on you, Russ. Tell me if you buy it. Okay? Maybe what we ought to be learning from this is that tribalism and religion are just necessary. They're baked into human nature, and that if we try to overcome them, as liberals--who I love and respect in the United States and in Europe--have been doing for a few generations, that what's going to happen is not that the world is just going to become a more open and liberal place where secular cosmopolitanism rules. But, rather, because human nature is the way it is--attracted to religion and tribalism--that we are going to get cancel culture and the whole woke phenomenon as a kind of latter day religion and tribalism.
Maybe that's what it's all about. Maybe the idea that there are certain things that you can't say--that scientists are not allowed to discuss; there are certain hypotheses that are simply forbidden to raise at all, there are certain phrases that one isn't allowed to use, there are certain ideas that one isn't allowed to entertain--maybe all this is just the revenge of religion and tribalism.
Maybe all this is coming back, and that old-fashioned religion has had thousands of years to evolve and kind of find some equilibrium where we can manage to live with each other, more or less okay. And, things are kind of fairly reasonable. And they're giving way to an ersatz religion and an ersatz tribalism that all got put together over a period of a few years, that hasn't evolved that way, and that actually is really frightening, right? It's much more oppressive than the old-fashioned religion that we're accustomed to.
Russ Roberts: I guess it depends what year you're in. If you're in maybe Spain in 1491 or other times, we might think about old-time religion has some dark moments, which I know you'll concede. I'm not sure--I have not looked at the EconTalk Drinking Game lately. And, I think it's my personal version, which comes from listener Scott Ewine, who created the EconTalk Drinking Game. You can order--I don't know how many he has available right now, but I don't know if the Chesterton Fence is on it, but it's getting a lot of airplay recently in my mouth.
And then the one that I do tend to say a lot recently is to quote David Foster Wallace, who said 'Everybody worships.'
And, what you're saying is a version of that: that, as traditional religion, religions that have--you could argue, many would disagree, but you could argue--have, quote, "passed the test of time"--survived, therefore have shown some value at least to their adherents--that the new religion, this ersatz version, is deeply appealing. Right? If you think about this, quote, "new religion," it certainly has tribal aspects. It's got an us-versus-them aspect. It does have a lot of rituals and rules as to what is acceptable to be a member in good standing of the group, which is of course what much of religion is about, those rituals. And so, your argument there would be essentially: Because they're new, you need to be skeptical of them.
Russ Roberts: I think--yeah, go ahead.
Moshe Koppel: I have a question about this bingo thing, by the way, which I find fascinating.
Russ Roberts: Bingo?
Moshe Koppel: Do you have to say them, or can the guests say them?
Russ Roberts: Oh, the EconTalk Drinking Game?
Russ Roberts: You know, I'm not the commissioner. It's a bottom-up thing. I think people are free to--it was not my idea. I've signed a few of them, but it's not a fundraiser or anything, or particularly profitable for Scott who creates them. Scott, just a very talented woodworker and furniture maker, and he does a lot of other cool things too, besides listen to EconTalk. I think the rules are emergent. I don't think there's a commissioner who decides the rules. It's deep.
Moshe Koppel: So, let me just say then, that as Adam Smith pointed out, we don't just wish to be loved. We wish to be lovely. So, bottoms up, then.
Russ Roberts: That's for the American League. The American League's got the designated hitter--which I know, I think you're opposed to.
Moshe Koppel: You know, what I think: The National League is about to get the designated hitter. I think that's about to happen.
Russ Roberts: It's tested, gotten[?] to feel better about it. But it could be there's an American League version of the Drinking Game where--I have to say it--If the guest says it, it's not a drink. It's a splinter group, so to speak, as it were.
Moshe Koppel: But, by the way, I just want to go on record since you said I'm opposed to it. I am opposed to it. But, now that--the Mets have J.D. Davis who can actually hit but has no position. So, I've changed my view on that. I'm in favor of the designated hitter. I want J.D. in the lineup.
Russ Roberts: Well, that reminds us--now to get back to the concepts in your book. Why don't you talk about--I want you to talk about deontologists versus Kantians, which is--I think that's a good example. Because you're a person, you used to have a rule: DH [Designated Hitter] is evil. Now you've realized that the consequences of that are not so good for your particular team, the Mets. You can stick with this foolish example or you can broaden it to something else if you'd like.
Moshe Koppel: I may broaden it. I may broaden it, Russ, if that's okay with you. All right. You know what? Let me take a step back, and put that whole business of utilitarians and deontologists in context here. Okay?
Russ Roberts: Explain what they are, because most people don't know what they are and it's confusing.
Moshe Koppel: Of course. So, as I mentioned, one objection to traditionalism is on the substance: There are just norms that we don't like.
But, another one is on the methodology. The idea is that: 'Why should we be dragging these old traditions along if we can actually do things better? We can get experts to figure out the right way to do things. And, besides, what good are norms that we drag along from history, if they're not enforced and they're not legislated and we can't make them really work? They're not adapting right.' Okay? So, I want to address that point in general. And, I want to argue that social norms are actually more like language than they are like law. Law is a top-down phenomenon--law--what Hayek would call legislation.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah. I just got to correct that as--
Moshe Koppel: I knew. So, Hayek calls this legislation. I think most people think of it as law. I mean, the stuff that Congress does. Okay?
Russ Roberts: Top down, coercive stuff. Which works, in theory, so much better than just relying on people to do the right thing and social pressure and approbation and opprobrium.
Moshe Koppel: Right. So, I'm arguing, and I argue in my book, in defense of this kind of evolved tradition.
Now, the way this evolved tradition works is--my familiarity is with Jewish tradition, which works this way. Others from different religious traditions or whatever may have different experiences, and I'd be delighted to be instructed on this point. But, I'll draw on my own experience, right?
There are actually four important aspects to making this process evolve in a way that results in an adaptive system of social norms. And, one of them we discussed already, which is: The change has to be kind of slow. You don't want to change very dramatically. And, in that sense, traditionalism is conservative.
But, another one is that there's this kind of intuition that's based on accumulated tradition, and every now and then it gets codified. Right? So, there's this interaction between, 'Well, people will do what they do,' right? And, then experts are going to come and say, 'Well, let me try to freeze what tradition looks like at this point.' And, what they're freezing is essentially what people are doing. So, they're not so much establishing what the tradition is, as reflecting it. They're saying, 'Well, this is what people do.'
Another aspect of this evolving tradition is that it combines bottom-up aggregation with experts. So, sometimes experts get to say, 'No, no. That's not the way. You're wrong. You've kind of gone off the path.' But, most of the time, it's kind of a very much bottom-up aggregation of the collective view of things.
And, finally, and this is really crucial, is that this is done in a community of people who kind of share this tradition, rather than by the state with all of its coercive power. Okay?
So, you raised the issue of deontologists and Kantians and utilitarians and consequentialists. So, let me first say a bit about what those are for those who are maybe less familiar, and then explain why that's important for this discussion.
Okay. So, utilitarians, following ideas of Bentham and others, have this idea that: 'Well, what's the right thing to do? What's good? What is the definition of morality?' We want to maximize collective utility, right? Who exactly is the collective is kind of vague, but let's imagine that we have a defined society, and within that society, everybody has their utility function and we want to maximize the aggregate utility. Right?
Russ Roberts: Happiness, satisfaction, wellbeing.
Moshe Koppel: Whatever it is. If it sounds a little bit wonky, yeah it is wonky. It's a really wonky idea. Okay?
And, then you've got the deontologist, which is a really, really fancy word. Sometimes they're called Kantians, which the--maybe the standard example of deontology, which says: 'No, no, no, that's not the way it works. The way it works is there are certain hard and fast rules. I mean, it may be that you would actually lower the collective utility by following these rules, but you still have to follow these rules. There are hard and fast rules. We could argue about what those rules are, but there really ought be certain things that you just can't do.' Right?
Russ Roberts: Lie, murder, steal, cheat on your spouse. These are not things that you look at the cost/benefits. They're just right or wrong.
Moshe Koppel: They're just right or wrong. Exactly.
Now, what's beautiful about this is that each side of this argument thinks, 'I've got the formula.' Okay? 'We don't need moral intuition anymore.' You don't need to really kind of introspect, dig deep into yourself and think, 'What's really the right thing to do? What do I feel is the right thing to do?' Like Peter Singer, right? I mean, Peter: 'You may feel that, but that's just wrong. I'm going to tell you what you ought to be doing.' Right? 'You ought to be maximizing collective utility. And, if you're not doing that--if you're following your tradition or your gut--you're just off the path.' Right?
Now, that's true. But, that's the one thing that utilitarians and Kantians--deontologists--actually agree about. Right? They each agree that: 'No, no, forget your instincts. I've got the formula.' What they disagree about is what the formula is.
Now here's the beauty of it. How did they try to convince each other? Right? If I'm a utilitarian and I want to explain to a Kantian why he's completely off base, I say, 'Wait a minute. So, you've got this rule that says: No lying.' Right? Right? Categorical imperative--fancy word, fancy word. Right? But, 'Bottom line is, you're not allowed to lie.' And it's just, 'You're never allowed to lie. I don't care what the consequences are. They're just a rule.' Right? Okay. So--
Russ Roberts: Because if you don't have a rule against lying, lying will start to spread, and then you have a society of dishonest people you can't trust. That's the categorical imperative part. He argues you should think about: 'What would happen if this rule was held by everybody?' And, if the rule is: 'Lie only when it's really important,' then you're going to get a lot of lying and you're not going to like living in that society.
Moshe Koppel: That's right. That's the road to hell, right? That's the road to hell. So, no exception, slippery slope. This is what we're doing. Right?
Okay. So, the utilitarian says to the Kantian, says, 'Wait a minute, wait a minute.' Surely you don't think that if you've got Anne Frank up in your attic, and some Nazi knocks at the door and says, 'You have any Jews in this house? Are there any Jews hiding here? Because we want to take them off to concentration camp.' Right? So, surely you don't think that it would be immoral to lie under these circumstances. Right?
Now, think for a moment about how that argument works. It's: 'Surely you don't think that it would be wrong to lie.' Right? What is the utilitarian appealing to at that moment when he says, 'Surely you don't think?' Right? He is surely appealing to our moral intuition. Right? I mean, his argument ultimately is, 'You know in your gut that that is the wrong thing to do.' Right?
Now, it goes in both directions. What is the Kantian's response to the utilitarian? The Kantian says to the utilitarian, 'Oh yeah. Yeah. You think that all you to do is maximize the aggregate utility or happiness or whatever.' Right? Good stuff.
And, he says, 'Let me ask you something.' Supposing some guy is coming to visit his grandmother in the hospital. Right? And, it so happens that in that hospital, there are five people waiting for a transplant. One guy needs a heart, another needs a liver, another guy needs lungs. Right? And, here's this perfectly healthy guy who is an absolutely ideal donor. Right? Well, don't you think it is maximizing the public--the aggregate utility--if we would just harvest his organs, right? We'd be sacrificing one person and saving five. Right? So, surely you don't think that's the right thing to do. Surely. Right?
Now what is that surely appealing to? It is surely appealing to our moral instincts, to our intuitions about what's right and wrong.
So, the funny thing is that exactly the guys who think that they've got the formula and you don't need moral intuitions, the only way they have of explaining to us why they think that's true is by appealing to our moral intuitions.
Russ Roberts: That's a great point. Of course, at least to the possible--there are three options for the Kantians versus the utilitarians. One of them is right, or both of them are wrong. And, I think they're both wrong. But what does this have to do--I mean, I love that example. It's a great insight about moral intuition, and it's a great insight about why systems like those are both flawed. And, I think most of us agree that neither of those is appealing. Moral intuition says, 'Eh, there might be some gray area here where I'm not so comfortable with these rules.' But, what is the lesson there for social norms?
Moshe Koppel: Okay. So, let me now make the opposite point. Okay? What I was trying to say is that social norms evolve, and in order for them to evolve we need to combine moral and intuition with a process of codification that happens over a period of generations. So, I've explained to you now why intuition is inescapable. I don't think there's any other choice. Right?
But, what I now want to argue is that codification is also necessary. It's not enough--we can't just go through life saying, 'Yeah, just introspect, just do what's in your gut.' That doesn't work, either. The problem is that there are hard cases. Right? My intuition works in those obvious cases we talked about. Yeah, I don't think we should carve up that guy visiting his grandmother, and I don't think that you should betray Anne Frank in the attic, but those are the easy cases.
There are hard cases. Most cases are hard. Right? And, also, as we transmit--these intuitions as I said, they're interacting with a given tradition, right? I'm not making this stuff up out of nowhere. Right? I grew up within a tradition and my intuitions work within that tradition. But, the transmission of tradition is noisy. Right? I mean, bad stuff happens. Right? It's very noisy. So, sometimes you just need to put these into rules and write them down so that people have some notion of what they ought to do. And, there's systemic bias. Right? You mentioned this already. It may be that our intuitions are systemically wrong. Right? And, Kahneman and Tversky talk about biases in reasoning, but those biases in reasoning are also biases in moral reasoning, right?
We like people who look like ourselves and sound like ourselves; we follow the more salient evidence rather than the more important evidence. There's a whole long list of systemic biases. And maybe if we actually think deeply about this and have a public debate about it and eventually codify rules about this, we can overcome those kind of systemic biases.
And, then finally, of course, there's Hayek's extended order. Hayek says, 'You know what? All our moral intuitions, well, they evolved in small societies.' But we want to do business now across societies, right? Americans want to do business with China, which has very different traditions and so forth. And, what you need in order to be able to do that is rules for the extended order. Right? Yeah. Forget your intuitions now. We are actually going to have a code which regulates the way we do business.
All of these are good reasons to codify. So, all I'm arguing for is, you need a reasonable balance between moral intuitions and codification. I'm not arguing for anything more than that.
Russ Roberts: And, I think your book talks about the role that that process, how that process works in Jewish law and Halacha, the Jewish obligations. But, of course it's also the same idea behind the common law tradition of England or Hayek's in Law, Legislation, and Liberty, where he basically says--I mean, it's a crazy, crazy idea. I've only read that book once, and I'm not sure read all volumes now that--I'll confess, which I'm going to lose a lot of points in the Hayek fan club. But, if I understand his argument correctly, if I remember it correctly, the argument is essentially that the job of a judge is to figure out the expectations people had going into a transaction and rule accordingly.
And, it's the same idea of what you're talking about. The legislation--the top-down aspect of this--emerges weirdly. It's top down; but it is the codification of the emergent process that's bottom up, and that's extremely interesting. You're arguing, I think, even though I know you're quite a libertarian, you're arguing that coercion should only be adopted when it's well tested by a bottom up approach of trial and error, and then should be done on a careful basis and not to overzealous. Is that a fair summary?
Moshe Koppel: That's absolutely fair. But Russ more importantly, you only read Constitutional Liberty once. Is that right?
Russ Roberts: No. I'm talking about Law, Legislation, and Liberty. I think I'm thinking of Volume Two.
Moshe Koppel: That's okay. Fatal Conceit? How many times have you read Fatal Conceit?
Russ Roberts: Two or three.
Moshe Koppel: Okay. Okay. So, we're okay. I think you're okay now if you're okay with the Hayekian--
Russ Roberts: Oh. Yeah, it's a later book. Some say he didn't write it.
But, anyway, do you agree with me, though, about the--I'm mean I know you don't like state, top-down rules. When you say codification in the Jewish tradition, it's codification within a religious community. Would you argue that that should also be done in a wider state sphere?
Moshe Koppel: Yeah, so maybe we should talk a little bit about the difference between communities maintaining the social norms and states, because there's a lot to unpack there.
So, first of all, what I've been arguing now for maintaining social norms and so forth, just to be clear, I'm talking about communities, which do not have the same coercive power as states do. Okay? Now I know that anybody who has grown up in a very tight-knit traditional community is going to object and say, 'You know what?'--
Russ Roberts: It's pretty coercive--
Moshe Koppel: 'They're pretty coercive.' Right? And, that's true. And, that's true. But nevertheless, they're not as coercive as a state. They can't put you in jail. There's a lot of social pressure there. They can make you feel very uncomfortable, but you can leave. Yes, it's true: you have family connections, you have social connections. It's not easy to leave. But, they can't throw you in jail. So, they do not have the coercive power of the state.
Russ Roberts: The fact that it's hard to leave is the feature and the bug, right? The fact that it's hard leave is what helps these vague norms that have no authority, literal authority, become actual authority, because social pressure induces people to treat them as if they were coercive. At the same time, they can be so difficult for some people to endure that they suffer. And of course, some of those people leave, but some stay and suffer.
Moshe Koppel: That's right. And, I know a lot of them. It can be oppressive. But, on the other hand, because of differences in scale and because of differences in the degree of coercion, there are the kinds of things you can do within a community that increase social capital. Whereas, when you're thinking about the state, they actually decrease social capital.
So, just to take the most obvious example, when you talk about charity within a community, 'Well, today I'm going to help you out just because you're my extended family. You're having trouble, I want to help you.' And, I know--I'm not thinking this, right? It's not like, 'Oh yeah, I'm going to help him today so that you are going to help me a few years from now when I may be in a similar situation.'
But, the fact of the matter is that yeah, that's all there in the background. We are increasing social capital. You know that you can maybe take a risk that you wouldn't take if you weren't part of this community because you know that I have your back. And, I know that you have my back, and that's good for both of us, right? The fact that each of us can take maybe a little bit more risk--not reckless risk, but a little bit more risk than we otherwise would do because you've got my back and I've got yours, that's a very good thing. That builds social capital. I can trust you and you can trust me, and that's a great thing. Okay?
But, there's something else that I think it's less play that's very important, the difference between the community and a state. And, that is that: because there's a process of self-selection in a community, right? Who lives in a state? Whoever lives there lives there, right? There's not much self-selection. But, I'm part of the community because, for the most part, I accept the rules of that community. Right?
Well, that means that the people who are in my community are people who are committed to a particular tradition. And, that's a very useful thing. It means that my tradition can evolve because we trust each other.
So, that if those borderline cases where communities need to figure out what they want to do. Right? New circumstances, borderline cases. If I don't trust you, if I think that you're just a free rider here; you're not really part of it. You're going to do what's convenient for you. You don't really care about the future of this community, then I can't trust you. But, because communities are such--they've got their signaling rules, and people who don't like it can just leave--for the most part, people who are members of communities are committed to that community, and therefore they can trust each other.
And, therefore, however the community evolves, that's acceptable to them. And, that is one of the reasons the communities are adaptive.
And, there's another reason communities are adaptive, Russ. It's very closely related to that, which, you know what? Sometimes there's a scissor issue. There's just an issue where the community cannot agree. There are going to be two teams. Right? The green team thinks that's a really bad innovation and we should not be doing it. But, the blue team thinks that: yeah, things have changed just enough that that's exactly the change we need now. What happens is there are split-offs, and split-offs are actually a very healthy thing. People think, 'Oh gee, why can't we have unity?' Communities get big. They have disagreements about fundamental things. They split off. They're like mutations in the evolutionary process.
Russ Roberts: For sure.
Moshe Koppel: Well, maybe both of these communities will survive because, that decision doesn't really matter that much. But, on the other hand, maybe only one of them is going to survive because it's actually well-adapted to the circumstance. It may be the more traditional one that didn't make that rash move, or it might be the one that made the change that was necessary at that time. Okay?
So, I think that that communities are necessarily more adaptive than states, because they're constructed to allow for--a). they increase trust, as I said, and b). because they allow these kind of mutations and experiments: Well, let's see what works and whatever works that's what's going to happen.
Russ Roberts: That's a fantastically interesting point. And, I think we often forget about the dynamic nature of voluntary association--is the way I would think of it. The case you're talking about, implicitly, I mean, there are many different applications of it in Judaism. It might be the role of women. So, there's a traditional view of women; there's a more so-called modern view of women. You could debate whether those are good or bad--which one's the right one, but time will tell, is what you're suggesting. And, I think that is the power of decentralized--just as you're making generally from bottom up decision making generally. You don't have to figure it out in advance. You don't have figure out: What's the best theory for how this issue should be considered? Let's figure out what's going to happen in the future and do the right one, say, if you're a consequentialist, somebody who worries not about rules, but--
And, the power of religion--and communities like religious communities--is that there are rules about the rules, to come back to a recent Mike Munger conversation. There are the rules of the community, but they're allowed to change, and some communities they're allowed to change briskly relative to others, some very slowly. And, it's lovely to have a whole bunch of them, a bunch of irons in the fire, for the religion as a whole.
And, more importantly if you're not a religious person, the important thing is to allow the different rules to create the different levels of trust and pleasure and meaning and flourishing, because they're impossible to know in advance.
When you were talking about codification, I was thinking about this wonderful example that I haven't talked about in a long time, where you're trying to decide where to put the paths, the sidewalks for the college. So, what you do is you let people walk around for a while, and wherever the grass gets worn down, that's what you pave. As opposed to: We have a theory about shortest distance between two points, and we think we know where people are going to want to walk. So, we'll pave first, and then we'll put signs up, 'Don't walk here.' And, yet people pioneer those paths all the time, because they're the ones that emerge from the actual practices and the adapting to the different circumstances: a major becomes more popular that the administrators and pavers didn't foresee.
But, I think--underlying a lot of what you're talking about, I think needs to be brought out in the open, which is this issue of trust or, quote, "It's better for society," or, 'It's better for the community.'
I think what Hayek and others understood deeply is that to make your way in the world is really hard. And, we often have different goals and our goals rub up against each other, butt up against each other. And, it's a miracle that there's any cooperation, that there's any trust. It's one thing to say that I trust my child, my spouse, my parent, but to trust not just the neighbor and not just the person on the other side of town, but the person on the other side of the ocean to develop the institutions and norms that allow that to happen are not things we want to, I think, design in advance.
So, you know, I think in a way--it's always a temptation to focus on the hot button issues of gender, sexual practice, gay rights, all the things that really excite people on both sides of those issues. And, we forget about the fact that most of what day to day is going on under our radar are the unnoticed practices of how we interact that allow us to get along and do things together and cooperate in all kinds of ways.
One of the things I worry about COVID is that creating among children a suspicion of getting physically close to people. I don't think that's a good thing. And, we don't know what that--we're in the middle of, again, a weird kind of social science experiment there that I think is going to have unpleasant consequences. But, those kind of norms--how close you can get to a person when you're in conversation with them, what has to be specified in a contract versus left unspoken, what I can rely on you to do for me if things go south--all those things are what make life--I just want to move us away from the: It's good for society, or those societies do well. Those are good for what we do as human beings out in the world. They underlay everything, and we don't notice them.
Moshe Koppel: Bravo, Russ. What can I add to that? You said it better than I could.
Russ Roberts: Oh, I don't know about that. Thank you, though.
Russ Roberts: I want to close, and we've talked very big picture here about tradition and you've conceded that of course there are arguments, there's special cases. There's gray areas. There's all kinds of things that make tradition problematic. But, in the big picture, you've defended it.
I want to speak to our 28- or 32- or 35-year-old listener who hasn't maybe spent a lot of time thinking about religion; and probably in educated circles, tradition is a bad word, right? It's like tribalism. It's nasty, or nationalism. And, a lot of, I think, what's happening among young people today is a revolt[?]--sorry, I shouldn't say today. I mean, I've grown up in the middle of it. It starts in the 1960s in some sense. You could argue, it really started in the 1950s under the surface. A rebellion against traditional norms and a rebellion against authority, a rebellion against parents, religion, country.
So, a lot of things that used to be virtues--patriotism, loyalty, etc.--are now seen as not only maybe not virtues, but false. And, it comes down to a really much more basic question, which is: How should we live? You said, 'Okay, it's hard to figure out what the right thing to do is, ex ante. I've got some moral intuition. I've got these traditions of utilitarianism or Kantianism. And, I want to know how to live. I want to how to do the right thing.'
Got any advice for me, if I'm that person listening to this? You're trying to make a case--by the way, the book, it's a fascinating book. It's I think the best defense of Judaism. But for the non-Jewish listener, non-Jewish reader of the book, it's a defense of tradition, and the kind of slow evolution of norms from the bottom up that you've been talking about in this short conversation relative to the book.
But, if I'm a listener, it's like, 'Really? Tradition? I'm supposed to go against my social group that says: Tradition, that's for non-thinkers; those are superstitions from the past. But I am worried about how to live. I'm not sure. I know a lot. You have anything to guide me?'
Moshe Koppel: Yeah. In a word, Russ, humility.
Society is very complicated and the notion that we can figure out, or that experts that we trust can figure out, what's the right way to live, it's pretty unlikely. Okay?
If we look back to thousands of years of evolved tradition, it's likely that lots of different things have been tried, and the ones that have survived until today--the societies that have been around a long time and that have traditions that have proved to work--and the proof is that they're still around today; there are thousands of societies that used to exist and aren't around today--that's probably a good sign that they've figured something out. Probably not perfect. There probably is still plenty of evolving left to do. We need to take those traditions seriously, use a little bit of our own intuitions, a little bit of good reasoning and logic, and slowly figure out what it is that we ought to be doing.
Russ Roberts: Well, I want to quote Roger Scruton, who I've been reading lately. We devoted a whole episode to him with his book Where We Are with a conversation with Megan McArdle. And I've been reading his book The Uses of Pessimism, and he quotes Robert Conquest, the historian. And Conquest argues that in areas that we know a lot about we're conservative. And, here's what he means by that. And, what you just said is basically a conservative argument. I know you're like me in many ways. You're a conservative with some strong libertarian urges. And, I think I understand how those go together for me, and I think I understand how they go together for you, but that's part of another conversation.
But, what Conquest meant was the following in Scruton's example of that: You're a midwife, you deliver babies. You've done it maybe 500 times. And, someone says, 'Why don't you try something a little different? I mean, come on. Some of the things you do lead to pain for the mom, and why don't you try this?' Doesn't matter what 'this' is. The midwife is going to say, 'you know, I really know this area deeply, this area of childbirth. I know how complicated it is. I know how fraught with danger it is. It's not a place to try new stuff. And, if you do, you do it very cautiously. You do it slowly.' It doesn't say never change. It just says do it slowly, because you appreciate both the complexity of the problem, and you also understand that you are humble. You realize as an expert--you should, certainly as a midwife--that you're humble, that maybe what comes to mind might not be the best thing. And, you've seen many things go wrong. And you realize how serious it is.
Similarly, a pilot, a masterful person at flying a plane, doesn't say, 'Hey, let's try something new.' You know? There's too much at stake.
And so, I think Scruton's fundamental argument for a conservative approach is basically--among other arguments; it's a fascinating book--but the world is a complicated place. And, for you to think--the arrogance embodied the idea that, 'You know, I've used reason, and it's my highest faculty. I'll figure it out and this is better.' Or someone else makes the argument.
And, now I think to take your argument and put it in a Scrutonesque frame, most of us are not experts on consequences of novel approaches to anything. And, it should induce some unease about a radical break with tradition.
I don't think that's a very compelling argument, by the way. I really don't. It's only compelling to me because I've already accepted it. I think for young people today, especially, these kind of arguments are deeply unappealing. What's special about your book is you, in 180 pages, actually begin to make the case for why society and tradition and norms have the value we've been talking about. But, I think it's a tough sell. I salute you for trying to do it. And, I think for--well, I'll say it differently. I was going to say something else. I think we're going to get a lot of data about non-traditional societies, and it's going to be a very interesting time in the United States. And, those ideas and pressures are maybe coming to Israel and elsewhere in the world. They are clearly not just limited to the United States--this desire to upend things, the radicals' urge, the revolutionary's urge to start from scratch, do it better.
It also comes back to what Mike Munger and I were talking about in that issue of governance of the rules. To think you can figure out the rules in advance is a big challenge. But there is a time--and likely to fail--but there is a time sometimes when you have to make rules about the rules, and you have to decide to change.
So, I think that's the challenge that a thoughtful person should have going forward. It's not that, 'Oh, tradition is evil. It's a patriarchal, oppressive, racist, fill-in-the-blank.' Or, the flip side: 'Well, we'll just start with a blank slate and we'll just make the best rules from using social science research.' I think those are both fools' games, both dangerous and not likely to come out well. There's something in between. I think that's part of what you're selling.
Moshe Koppel: I agree. And, if I may just address your point about conservatism and libertarianism and how they work together, the point I've been making is that communities preserve traditions and there are advantages to belonging to a community like that and preserving those traditions. And that, of course, is conservatism.
But, the flip side of that is, whatever those traditions are, you probably don't want the state coercing them, because the minute the state starts to coerce those traditions, they cease to really be traditions. They cease to adapt. They cease to evolve. And, that's the libertarian aspect. Okay? So it's: whatever your traditions are, you should maintain them, but don't ask the state to be your partner and forcing other people to maintain them as well. Let the process evolve slowly but surely. So, the conservative and the libertarian views, I think in this respect work very well together.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Moshe Koppel. His book is Judaism Straight Up, and we'll get Moshe back another time to talk about the Israeli Constitution, maybe. Moshe, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Moshe Koppel: Thank you, Russ.