Why is it often so hard to do the right thing? Why doesn’t everyone share our same beliefs? And why is it so hard to be happy?
These are questions that are integral to the field of cognitive science—the study of how and why we think, feel and act the way we do. But what’s interesting is that so many of these questions have links to Jewish thought and practice.
As someone whose shelves are overflowing with books about cognitive science, and who often integrates these findings with Jewish teachings, I want to share three books that teach Jewish ideas.
Let’s be honest, behavioral economist Dan Ariely tells us. We all cheat. You cheat. I cheat. But we don’t do it because we are bad people. Instead, we tend to view ourselves as good people, so we tend to “fudge” things just enough so that we can keep that self-perception. So not only do we cheat, we also lie to ourselves about our own cheating!
But of course, lying and cheating are antithetical to Judaism. We are taught: “Do not defraud or rob your neighbor,” and “You shall have honest scales and measures.” (Lev. 19:13 and 19:36) Since Judaism tries to teach us how to honest and ethical people, it’s crucial to understand how and why we end up missing the mark. Ariely’s work gives an insight into what encourages—and even more importantly, discourages—cheating, in the hopes of building a more just society.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
There’s a reason politics and religion are generally taboo topics for polite conversation—if you feel strongly about your political or religious beliefs, you just can’t seem to understand how people on the other side can be so stupid. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that a large part of the problem is that we think of religion and politics as being about “right” versus “wrong,” and when we phrase the question that way, it actually becomes “us” versus “them.” As he says, “Morality binds and blinds”—morality creates a more cohesive group of “us,” but it also keeps us from seeing other perspectives and the needs of “them.”
That creates a real challenge edge for the Jewish community. Judaism is not just a religion, but a people. There definitely is an “us” when we think about the Jewish people. But a sense of universalism is central to Judaism, as well—when we think about Jewish ethics, we tend to think about at the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. Haidt’s book helps us to understand where morality comes from, and how we can grow the sense of who we consider to be “one of us.”
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
Which would you rather have happen: win the lottery, or become a quadriplegic? Most of us, without even a thought, would pick the first, because we think that winning the lottery would make us happy, and becoming a quadriplegic would devastate us. But how many wealthy people do you know who are actually miserable? And how many people who have suffered a tragedy are actually fulfilled in their lives? Psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that we are very, very bad at predicting what will make us happy, and that’s because we have a “now-self” and a “future-self”—and they are not always the same self.
Judaism, too, lives with this tension of the present and the future. We both envision a time when the world will be at peace, but we have to do the actions here and now that will make that happen. Or at the High Holy Days, we dream about the kind of person we will become, but recognize that it’s our day-to-day actions that will make us that person. Gilbert reminds us that our “future-self” soon becomes our “now-self,” so we have act in ways that help us bridge that divide.
Ultimately, the reason I love cognitive science is that is helps us better understand who we are and why we act the way we do. And so I believe that if we use the best of science and the best of religion, we can make our own individual lives more fulfilled, and our world a little better.
These three books have been instrumental for me—what books have had a surprising influence on your Judaism?
I’ve been a die-hard Yankees fan ever since I was 8 years old, when my dad took me to my first game right after Hebrew school one Sunday morning. I grew up in the mid-80’s and early 90’s, back when the Yankees had luminaries such as Mike Pagliarulo, Wayne Tolleson and Eric Plunk, and when they were closer to last place than to first.
As I grew older and they started winning, I naturally loved the Yankees who had come up through the farm system, like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. But I also was excited about the players the Yankees brought in — people like Paul O’Neill, Mike Mussina, and even Roger Clemens. After all, they were great players who were coming to play on my favorite team.
So in 2004, when Alex Rodriguez signed with the Yankees, I was ecstatic. Yes, I had known about his tiff with Derek Jeter, and yes, I had heard he was difficult in the clubhouse, but he was the best player of his generation, and I wanted to root for him. Unfortunately, he made it difficult to do so.
A-Rod has always created a media circus wherever he went, and these latest allegations (and potential suspension) for using PEDs and obstructing Major League Baseball’s investigation are, unfortunately, not all that surprising to me (or anyone else who follows baseball). But so much of what has been written about this Biogenesis scandal has been oversimplified to “A-Rod is a rich, selfish bum who cheated and so he should be kicked out.”
I think the situation is more complicated than that because we have to remember that A-Rod’s actions didn’t occur in a vacuum.
Jim Caple of ESPN recently wrote an insightful piece entitled “Understanding A-Rod’s Infractions,” and he reminds us that steroid use — and indeed, cheating in general — is rarely done out of malicious intent:
Athletes don’t dope because they are bad, evil people. They dope because there is a very strong incentive to do so.
Consider this…scenario: You can take a substance that might carry a slight risk to your health…but that could also make you a better player. If you take it, you might help earn yourself millions upon millions of dollars and the acclaim of fans. Your friends and teammates also will benefit from your improved performance. And you know many others in your profession are already doing so. In fact, there is a decent chance you’ll need to take it to offset the advantage opponents have gained over you by taking the same thing.
Do you take it? If you are even tempted to say yes, you shouldn’t be so venomous in your judgments of Alex Rodriguez.
Yes, A-Rod deserves to be punished. And yes, we should try to rid the game of PED use. But while we’re casting judgments on A-Rod and Braun and the others implicated in the Biogenesis scandal and past steroid stories, we might want to consider casting that same harsh judgment on previous generations of players.
And on ourselves.
Obviously, A-Rod has issues, and there is no excuse for his behavior. But the larger issue for us to reflect on is our own views on cheating, morality and ethics.
One of the great moral voices of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, reminds us that “in a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible.” In other words, while Rodriguez is the person who has to own up to his actions, we are all complicit in creating a system that encouraged it.
Indeed, social norms can easily trump even the strongest internal moral compass. Dan Ariely, author of the book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, has done research that shows that people tend to cheat when society views their actions as “normal” and “acceptable.” As he says, “In many areas of life, we look to others to learn what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate. Dishonesty may very well be one of the cases where the social norms that define acceptable behavior are not very clear, and the behavior of others…can shape our ideas about what’s right and wrong.” (Ariely, 201)
This is a particularly powerful message for us as we prepare for the High Holy Days, and think about how we have acted in this past year. While we do reflect on the particular actions that we want to atone for, most of the prayers that we say are in the plural — “We have sinned, we have transgressed.”
In other words, we atone not only for our individual mistakes, but for the ways we have allowed (or even encouraged) immoral behavior to flourish. And so whether or not we ourselves have lied, cheated or used PED’s, we all have played a part in shaping the social norms that will define “ethical behavior,” which then provides the model for how others will behave.
So yes, A-Rod will have to answer for his own actions. But we all helped create the system that incentivized steroids.
We will soon find out if A-Rod is guilty. But regardless of outcome, we all are responsible for creating the society we live in. And it’s the task of all of us to ensure it’s a moral one.
We all know that one of the Ten Commandments is “Don’t steal.” But it’s also hard for us to imagine Bernie Madoff or Jeffrey Skilling in a hooded sweatshirt in a darkened alley mugging a little old lady. And yet clearly, Madoff and Skilling violated that two-word, easy-to-understand commandment. So we have to ask: how in the world were they able to justify it?
A large part of that justification is because different forms of stealing have different “feels” to them. Physically taking money from another person feels more violent, more immediate, and less justifiable of an action. “Cooking the books,” however, can easily feel explainable by the perpetrator. It’s pretty easy to follow the commandment “Don’t steal” if it simply means, “Don’t go around robbing people in the middle of the night.” But Skilling and Madoff did steal – and stole significantly more money than all the armed robbers in America combined.
In fact, when people don’t deal in cash directly, they actually are able to rationalize their actions, and thus end up stealing significantly more money from people.
Cash Keeps Us (More) Honest
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely ran a fascinating study in the MIT dorm rooms to examine what might allow people to steal without feeling all that guilty about it. At first, he put six Coke cans in a communal refrigerator. Within three days, all six cans were gone. No doubt, people thought, “No one will notice, and hey – free Coke!”
Why? As Ariely explains:
When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash. Companies cheat with their accounting practices; executives cheat by using backdated stock options; lobbyists cheat by underwriting parties for politicians; drug companies cheat by sending doctors and their wives off on posh vacations. To be sure, these people don’t cheat with cold, hard cash (except occasionally). And that’s my point: cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money. (Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 218-219)
There seems to be a psychological block that prevents most of us from simply forcibly taking cash from people, but allows us to rationalize small falsifications that ultimately end up being the same thing as stealing. And that is why, in fact, the Torah has more to say about honesty in business beyond just, “Don’t steal.” In Leviticus, the Torah even regulates what might happen one step away from money that might lead people to cheat.
Honest Weights and Measures
Leviticus 19 contains some of the most important and most famous laws in the Torah. The Ten Commandments appear here, as do the verses, “You shall not stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole chapter is known as the “holiness code,” implying that beyond just being ethical, treating people fairly is truly a sacred obligation that God demands of us.
The very last laws in chapter 19 say, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah (a unit of dry measure) and an honest hin (a unit of liquid measure)…” (Leviticus 19:35-36)
Why did this law have to be written in the first place? The simple answer is: you don’t forbid something from happening unless it has already been occurring. So clearly, there were people who would falsify their weights and measures. Cheating and stealing are nothing new in today’s society!
And that’s what makes this commandment so important and valuable. If the Torah had simply said, “Don’t steal,” our natural ability to rationalize would have given people the opportunity to say, “Well, if I weigh down my grain a little bit, no one will really notice. And after all, everyone else is doing it, so it’s not really stealing.” Instead, the Torah teaches us, “Don’t cheat even – perhaps especially – when you’re one step removed from money.” It’s a lot easier to steal when you’re one step removed – and that’s why that commandment is needed.
The First Thing We Will Be Asked When We Die
The Rabbis even elevated honesty in business to become one of the highest values we need to live up to. In fact, in the Rabbinic mind, the first thing God will ask us when we die is not, “Did you believe in Me?” or “Did you pray?” No – according to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the first question we will be asked when we die is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?”
We sometimes say that we know we are acting honestly if we can look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning. But perhaps that is not enough of a judge. After all, our ability to rationalize could make it very easy for us to say, “Well, it’s just a small thing I’m taking.” Moment by moment, we can easily find ways to steal that feel OK and won’t cause us to lose sleep.
So to truly bring ourselves up to our highest standards, the question should not be, “How do we feel about ourselves right now?” It should really be, “How do we want to feel about ourselves at the end of our lives?”
Only by having our day-to-day actions live up to the values we espouse can we truly be proud of the actions we take.