Haidt and Shabbat: Exploring Tzniut as a Moral Foundation

This week I had the good fortune of getting to hear Jonathan Haidt speak at conference run by the Maimonides Foundation. He is a social psychologist, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business, and author. His main areas of study are the psychology of morality and moral emotions. I have been a big fan of his work for some time. In his talk he decried the coddling of the American Mind and the shaking of the foundation of our cultural values. These trends map on squarely with the rise of the smart phone and social media. It seems that so much in our world is broken and not getting better. It makes you wonder, is the smart phone actually a smart?

At this conference we also had the occasion to explore Moral Foundations Theory. Outlined in Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, this theory was created by a group of social and cultural psychologists to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. In brief, the theory proposes that several innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The foundations for which we think the evidence is best are:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

You can find out your own moral foundations profile at www.YourMorals.org.

In thinking about these Moral Foundations in the context the current challenge of the rise of the smart phone, I got to thinking that we might need to explore a seventh Moral Foundation to repair our society. But what would that be?

This question got me thinking about a Gemara in Beitzah regarding the gift of Shabbat to the Jewish People. There we learn:

Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: All the mitzvot that the Holy One, Blessed be God, gave to the Jewish people, God gave to them in public [parhesya] except for Shabbat, which God gave to them in private [b’tzinah]. As it is stated: “It is a sign between Me and between the children of Israel forever” (Exodus 31:17), meaning that in a sense, it is a secret between God and the Jewish people.

Beitzah 16a

Surely one of the gifts of Shabbat is the opportunity to put away our smart phones. But, on another level, the essence of the gift is Tzniut itself. We translate this word as privacy or modesty. But modesty has a certain element of shame connected to it. That is not the point. Can we cultivate a value around creating moments of connection and intimacy between people? Not everything needs or should be done in public. Instead of running in fear from social media, we need to curate experiences of privacy and deep human connection to fortify ourselves today. This Shabbat I will be giving more thought to what Tzniut might look like a 7th Moral Foundation. I invite you to do the same. Shabbat Shalom.

2 Responses to “Haidt and Shabbat: Exploring Tzniut as a Moral Foundation”


  1. 1 Jon Haidt July 29, 2022 at 2:46 pm

    Lovely! Yes, shabbat! thank you.


  1. 1 Alone vs Private: Exploring Tisha B’Av and Tzniut | Said to Myself Trackback on August 5, 2022 at 1:14 pm

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