The Wisdom of Cleanliness image

The Wisdom of Cleanliness


A few weeks ago I reflected on the possibility that our experience of the coronavirus pandemic might help us to better understand the Levitical laws on ritual purity and to apply to our own lives the lessons they are designed to teach. Interestingly, it seems that the findings of moral psychology might support the wisdom behind the ritual purity laws.

The ritual purity laws were most likely given to the Israelites to teach them about the holiness of God and their need to be holy in order to maintain relationship with him. Though the laws were not about moral issues, they were designed to be a constant reminder to the Israelites of the importance of moral purity for those who live in relationship with God. Seeking to remain ritually pure would have encouraged Israelites to seek to be morally pure.

It seems that, unsurprisingly, there was great wisdom behind these laws. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt discusses the way that our embodied nature can influence our moral intuitions (our preconscious moral responses). One aspect of this influence is seen in a correlation between cleanliness and moral purity. Haidt offers three examples of studies which have demonstrated this correlation (pp.71-72):

[S]ubjects who are asked to wash their hands with soap before filling out questionnaires become more moralistic about issues related to moral purity (such as pornography or drug use).

People who were asked to recall their own moral transgressions, or merely to copy by hand an account of someone else’s moral transgression, find themselves thinking about cleanliness more often and wanting more strongly to cleanse themselves. They are more likely to select hand wipes and other cleaning products when given a choice of consumer products to take home with them after the experiment.

[S]tudents at Cornell University [were asked] to fill out surveys about their political attitudes while standing near (or far from) a hand sanitizer dispenser. Those told to stand near the sanitizer became temporarily more conservative.

There is a correlation between physical and moral cleanliness. When we are physically clean, we are more conscious of the importance of morality and more eager to be morally clean.

In ancient Israel, ritual impurity didn’t always correspond directly with physical uncleanness (which is why the language of purity is better than cleanness) but no doubt for those living under the laws, to be in a state of impurity would have felt somewhat comparable to being physically unclean. This would be particularly so for those forms of impurity which were linked to things which are physically unclean. This point would also have been stressed in those forms of impurity which required ritual washing as part of the process for returning to a state of purity. If the research Haidt cites is correct, this ritual washing would not only have been teaching the Israelites about the need for moral purity but would also have been shaping their intuitions to incline them toward moral purity.

Thinking about our situation, it is interesting to consider whether the increased emphasis on hand hygiene will also be having an effect on our own moral intuitions!

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