Keep your purity

I got Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis out of the library yesterday. It’s interesting but in places it’s also revolting. Jean Kazez talks about the main problem in an article in Philosophy Now and on her blog.

Haidt gives the example of a Hindu Brahmin relishing food that’s been offered to the gods, purifying himself in the Ganges, and feeling a socially sanctioned repulsion toward people of lower castes. That’s an ideal to strive for?

Apparently, yes. I read the passage in question this morning and…was revolted. He suggests we suppose we grow up as a Brahmin in Bhubaneswar (pp. 228-9).

Every day of your life you have to respect the invisible lines separating pure from profane spaces, and you have to keep track of people’s fluctuating levels of purity before you can touch them or take anything from their hands…Hinduism structures your social space through a caste system based on the purity and pollution of various occupations…The experience of meaningfulness just happens…In contrast, think about the last empty ritual you took part in.

Wrong contrast, bub. In contrast, think about someone in that situation who is not a Brahmin! Think about being one of the people whose ‘fluctuating levels of purity’ the Brahmin ‘has to’ keep track of, or one of the people whose pollution is inborn and permanent – then drool about the experience of meaningfulness. Think about being a dalit or a woman or both and then talk crap about meaningfulness versus empty rituals.

There’s a related passage on 190-1. It’s interesting, but it also goes off the rails in the same blind way. He says that some people he talked to in Bhubaneswar saw the rituals related to purity and pollution as just rules, what you did, but others saw them as ‘means to an end: spiritual and moral advancement, or moving up on the third dimension.’

Purity is not just about the body, it is about the soul. If you know that you have divinity within you, you will act accordingly: you will treat people well…you will come back in your next life at a higher level…If you lose sight of your divinity, you will give in to your baser motives…and in your next incarnation you will return at a lower level as an animal or a demon.

Or a woman or a dalit. Yet he doesn’t say that – he skips right over the nastiest aspect of Hinduism, the caste system, and all this hooey about purity and pollution. He just ignores that whole aspect. He should have remembered Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance. He seems for some inexplicable reason to be identifying himself solely with Brahmins and ignoring the fact that most people don’t get to be Brahmins. He wraps the whole nasty mess of that passage up by saying, roundly and utterly incorrectly, that ‘Emerson said exactly the same thing’ and then quoting this:

He who does a good deed is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God.

Boy is that ever not exactly the same thing. A Brahmin checking on his own purity is not the same thing as someone doing a good deed. Hello? Good deeds have to be other-regarding in order to be good deeds? Haidt is just seriously blind or confused or both, here. It’s just nonsense to say that purity is about the soul and connect that to saying ‘if you know that you have divinity within you, you will act accordingly: you will treat people well’ – because Brahmins don’t treat people well. Rules that treat some people as inherently or even temporarily polluted are not about treating people well. Dang – isn’t that obvious?

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