Thursday, October 2, 2014

Purity on a Plane

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt is best known for popularizing Moral Foundations Theory, a model of moral decision-making based on six distinct foundations or heuristics. One of these foundations, the so-called "Purity" axis, came into play on a recent transatlantic flight. A group of ultra-orthodox Jewish men flying from New York to Israel to celebrate the Jewish New Year refused to be seated next to women, causing chaos that delayed the flight and created problems once the plane was in the air.

In ultra-orthodox Judaism men are not allowed to touch women who are not spouses or close relatives. The official reasoning behind this is that according to Jewish law, menstruating women are ritually unclean and "not to be touched." As there is no way to determine whether a stranger might be menstruating, these sects ban all contact. But on a transatlantic flight this is simply ridiculous, especially with how closely packed the seats on planes have become.

The El Al flight from New York, with non-orthodox and secular Jews also on board, eventually arrived at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport before dawn on Wednesday in time to celebrate the Jewish new year, according to news website Ynet.

One female passenger described her trip as: “an 11-hour-long nightmare”. As people boarded the flight, ultra-orthodox men began asking women to change seats so they did not have to sit next to them, some even offering them money to do so, witnesses told Ynet.

When some women refused, including one woman, Galit, who was sitting with her husband, the men stood in the aisles, delaying the flight’s departure. The men eventually sat down, allowing the plane to take off, but then many got up and blocked the aisles.

So this is a prime example of how the Purity axis is poorly suited to the modern world. It evolved under circumstances with far poorer sanitation than what we see today in developed nations, and in which conditions like food poisoning were far more deadly without modern medicines. Likewise, without treatments for venereal diseases sexual behavior was potentially quite dangerous. But in the context of air travel, refusing to sit down during a flight is where the actual danger lies.

The Purity axis is the source of much fundamentalist foolishness in Christianity and Islam as well. Years ago there was a group of Muslim cab drivers in Minnesota who refused to drive anyone carrying alcohol. The consumption of alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but nobody was asking the drivers to drink. They instead tried to make the case that they should not even have to be near a sealed bottle.

The obsession fundamentalist Christians seem to have with sexuality is another example. Nobody is telling Christians who oppose gay rights that they have to be gay. But they seem to think that they shouldn't even have to see same-sex couples in public. As the old saying goes, your right to swing your fist ends at my face, and there simply is no way to enforce such a demand without privileging one set of religious beliefs over another.

I think it's time we recognized that such literal, concretized interpretations of the Purity axis are essentially primitive and outdated. Instead, if we want to promote real spiritual growth, the axis should be turned inwards and applied towards developing coherent consciousness. The concept of Purity still can have a strong role to play there, in terms of maintaining personal honor, integrity, and consistency in all our words and deeds.

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