The Narrowing Circle

Modern ethics excludes as many beings as it includes.
philosophy, charity, insight-porn
2012-04-242019-04-27 finished certainty: likely importance: 8

The “expand­ing cir­cle” his­tor­i­cal the­sis ignores all instances in which mod­ern ethics nar­rowed the set of beings to be morally regard­ed, often back­ing its exclu­sion by assert­ing their non-ex­is­tence, and thus assumes its con­clu­sion: where the cir­cle is expand­ed, it’s high­lighted as moral ‘progress’, and where it is nar­rowed, what is out­side is sim­ply defined away. When one com­pares mod­ern with ancient soci­ety, the reli­gious dif­fer­ences are strik­ing: almost every sin­gle super­nat­ural entity (place, per­son­age, or force) has been excluded from the cir­cle of moral con­cern, where they used to be huge parts of the cir­cle and one could almost say the entire cir­cle. Fur­ther exam­ples include estates, hous­es, fetus­es, pris­on­ers, and graves.

One some­times sees argu­ments for which play on the Whig­gish idea of moral progress fol­low­ing a pre­dictable trend of valu­ing ever more crea­tures, which leads to not eat­ing ani­mals among other eth­i­cal posi­tions; if one wishes not to incur the oppro­brium of pos­ter­i­ty, one ought to ‘skate where the puck will be’ and beat the main­stream in becom­ing veg­e­tar­i­an.

This seems plau­si­ble: comes to mind as some­one who surely saw that slav­ery was on the way out­—­for which we con­grat­u­late him—but also lacked the courage of his con­vic­tions, —for which we con­demn him. But you can do bet­ter! All you have to do is aban­don eat­ing meat and ani­mal prod­ucts…

The stan­dard for this would be The Expand­ing Cir­cle: Ethics, Evo­lu­tion, and Moral Progress, which opens with the epigraph:

“The moral unity to be expected in dif­fer­ent ages is not a unity of stan­dard, or of acts, but a unity of ten­den­cy…At one time the benev­o­lent affec­tions embrace merely the fam­i­ly, soon the cir­cle expand­ing includes first a class, then a nation, then a coali­tion of nations, then all human­i­ty, and final­ly, its influ­ence is felt in the deal­ings of man with the ani­mal world.”

, The His­tory of Euro­pean Morals

Or con­sider Mar­tin Luther King Jr’s “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Viet­nam” (1967):

I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral uni­verse is long, but it bends toward jus­tice.


In a way, it’s kind of odd that one can pre­dict future moral pro­gress, as opposed to some­thing like future pop­u­la­tion growth. Pre­sum­ably we are doing the best we can with our morals and at any moment, might change our posi­tion on an issue (or not change at all). If one knew in advance what progress would be made, why has it not already been made? (A lit­tle like eco­nom­ic­s’s .) If one knew that one was going to be wrong in guess­ing about a coin com­ing up heads, why does­n’t one imme­di­ately update to sim­ply guess that it will be tails?1

But then again, per­haps ethics is not “effi­cient”: one can beat the trends by being espe­cially intel­li­gent, or espe­cially atten­tive to empir­i­cal trends, or per­haps one has the ben­e­fit of being young & uncom­mit­ted while the rest of the pop­u­lace is ossi­fied & set in their evil ways.


Of course, progress could be an illu­sion. Ran­dom data can , and espe­cially pat­terned if one edits the data just a lit­tle bit. Bio­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion looks like an impres­sive mul­ti­-­bil­lion-year cas­cade of progress towards ever more com­plex­i­ty, but how can we prove wrong if he tells us that is due solely to evo­lu­tion being a drunk­ard’s walk with an intrin­sic lower bound (no com­plex­ity = no life)? And if we were to find that the appear­ance of progress were due to omis­sions in the pre­sented data, that would cer­tainly shake our belief that there’s a clear over­all trend of progress (as opposed to some sort of ran­dom walk or peri­odic cycle or more com­pli­cated rela­tion­ship).

And there may indeed be points omit­ted.

Observer bias

An acquain­tance, try­ing to come up in ways in which the moral cir­cle might have nar­rowed, failed to. Who among us has lived through all those cen­turies, has believed as they believed, and could really give an accu­rate account of chang­ing ethics & mores? We face the same that his­tory & faces: not only are our ideas of what ethics is chang­ing over time, so are our stan­dards of evi­dence, and even what enti­ties we believe to exist (even before we get to ques­tions about which enti­ties have moral stand­ing!).

Matters of fact

The ontol­ogy ques­tion is a very seri­ous one. remarked, if many peo­ple are against burn­ing witch­es, then it’s prob­a­bly because they don’t believe witches exist—but if the witches existed and acted as described, they would howl for the witch­es’ blood:

I have met peo­ple who exag­ger­ate the dif­fer­ences [be­tween the moral­ity of dif­fer­ent cul­tures], because they have not dis­tin­guished between dif­fer­ences of moral­ity and dif­fer­ences of belief about facts. For exam­ple, one man said to me, ‘Three hun­dred years ago peo­ple in Eng­land were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Con­duct?’ But surely the rea­son we do not exe­cute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did-if we really thought that there were peo­ple going about who had sold them­selves to the devil and received super­nat­ural pow­ers from him in return and were using these pow­ers to kill their neigh­bors or drive them mad or bring bad weath­er, surely we would all agree that if any­one deserved the death penal­ty, then these filthy quis­lings did. There is no dif­fer­ence of moral prin­ci­ple here: the dif­fer­ence is sim­ply about mat­ter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowl­edge not to believe in witch­es: there is no moral advance in not exe­cut­ing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceas­ing to set mouse­traps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.2

Or con­sider this exam­ple: the USA has not exe­cuted any­one for trea­son in decades, and rarely , despite plenty of peo­ple com­mit­ting trea­so­nous acts like spy­ing for Israel or China or Rus­sia. Does this reflect an expand­ing cir­cle now includ­ing the belief that one should not kill peo­ple for any rea­son?

Or does it instead reflect that under­stand­ing that: with the largest and most sophis­ti­cated mil­i­tary in the world, a huge pop­u­la­tion, 2 very friendly bor­der­ing states, oceans on either side and a navy to match, there is not the slight­est pos­si­bil­ity of any other coun­try invad­ing or occu­py­ing the USA? We worry about over­seas allies like South Kore­a—but how many other coun­tries are so incred­i­bly sta­ble and secure that an ally half-way around the world is their chief headache? Ter­ror­ism is the chief secu­rity con­cern—and utterly ridicu­lous given the . The one real mil­i­tary threat to the USA is nuclear war with Rus­sia, which relied on a bal­ance of ter­ror no trai­tor could sin­gle-hand­edly affect (the key infor­ma­tion, the loca­tion of nuclear weapons, still would­n’t enable a pain-free first strike); were, inci­den­tal­ly, exe­cuted for nuclear espi­onage—nu­clear war being the only gen­uine exis­ten­tial threat to Amer­ica in the 20th cen­tu­ry. could hand over to the British the key fort of West Point enabling Britain to invade & occupy the com­mer­cial heart of the colonies, New York State, but what could a mod­ern Arnold do? (Bri­tain no longer rules the waves.) Is the US really more moral for no longer exe­cut­ing for trea­son? Or is it just not really threat­ened? If the US were gen­uinely under threat, I sus­pect this eth­i­cal record would dis­ap­pear like the prover­bial snow­ball in hell; cer­tainly the US has been pleased to assas­si­nate or tor­ture any­one it wants to in the course of the War on Ter­ror.


I believe we can iden­tify mul­ti­ple large areas in which the cir­cle has shrunk.


“This achieve­ment is often praised as a sign of the great supe­ri­or­ity of mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion over the many faded and lost civ­i­liza­tions of the ancients. While our great skill lies in find­ing pat­terns of rep­e­ti­tion under the appar­ent play of acci­dent and chance, less suc­cess­ful civ­i­liza­tions dealt by appeal­ing to super­nat­ural pow­ers for pro­tec­tion. But the voices of the gods proved igno­rant and false; they have been silenced by the truth.”

James P. Carse, Finite and Infi­nite Games (1986)

My acquain­tance’s fail­ure was under­stand­able because he was an athe­ist. When one does­n’t believe reli­gion deals with real things at all, it’s hard to take reli­gion seri­ous­ly—­much less recall any instances of its sway in the West increas­ing or decreas­ing.

Nev­er­the­less, when one com­pares mod­ern with ancient soci­ety, the reli­gious dif­fer­ences are strik­ing: almost every sin­gle super­nat­ural entity (place, per­son­age, or force) has been excluded from the cir­cle of moral con­cern, where they used to be huge parts of the cir­cle and one could almost say the entire cir­cle.

One really has to read source texts to under­stand how vivid and impor­tant the gods were. In the Bible or , one seems to read of divine inter­ven­tion on almost every page: the ora­cles were not con­sulted by the super­sti­tious but were key parts of state­craft (and so was brib­ing them either directly by sac­ri­fices or indi­rectly by brib­ing the cler­gy); a mes­sen­ger could meet the god Pan along the road (who berates him for his city’s neglect of Pan’s sac­ri­fices) and relate their con­ver­sa­tion in detail to the leg­is­la­ture, who lis­ten respect­fully and rec­tify the wrongs; the gods would guide their favorites in daily mat­ters with use­ful lit­tle omens, and would rou­tinely pro­tect their tem­ples and sacred places by such effi­ca­cious means as insan­ity and destroy­ing entire fam­i­lies. (If one quoted Tac­i­tus today that Deo­rum ini­uriae Diis curae/“offenses to the gods are the con­cern of the gods”, it comes out as ironic and mock­ing—­physi­cian, cure thy­self!—but I sus­pect the Romans would mean it lit­er­al­ly.) Indeed, the gods were imma­nent and not tran­scen­dent. Their expressed wishes were respected and hon­ored, as were their avatars, pos­ses­sions (Herodotus’s pages are as crowded with art­work given to Del­phi as the tem­ple precincts must have been), slaves, and food.

The Greeks did not believe in belief and the ‘retreat to com­mit­ment’ would have been sheer heresy; the ora­cles were taken very seri­ously by Gre­co-Ro­man cul­ture and were not ‘com­part­men­tal­ized’ aspects of their reli­gion to be humored and ignored. Even the most skep­ti­cal edu­cated elite often believed visions reported by peo­ple if they were awake (see “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire: A Look into the World of the Gospels”); as has been observed by anthro­pol­o­gists, mod­ern West­ern soci­eties are extra­or­di­nar­ily athe­is­tic in prac­tice. Dis­cussing the his­tor­i­cal con­text of early Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ar­ies in his 2009 Not the Impos­si­ble Faith (pg 283–284), writes:

In the other case, cul­tural pre­sup­po­si­tions sub­con­sciously guide the prophet’s mind to expe­ri­ence exactly what he needs to in order to achieve his goals. Such “expe­ri­ences are found among 90% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion today, where they are con­sid­ered nor­mal and nat­u­ral, even if not avail­able to all indi­vid­u­als,” whereas “mod­ern Euro-Amer­i­can cul­tures offer strong cul­tural resis­tance” to such “expe­ri­ences, con­sid­er­ing them patho­log­i­cal or infan­tile while con­sid­er­ing their mode of con­scious­ness as nor­mal and ordi­nary.” So mod­erns like Hold­ing stub­bornly reject such a pos­si­bil­ity only by ignor­ing the dif­fer­ence between mod­ern and ancient cul­tures-­for con­trary to mod­ern hos­til­ity to the idea, “to meet and con­verse with a god or some other celes­tial being is a phe­nom­e­non which was sim­ply not very sur­pris­ing or unheard of in the Gre­co-Ro­man peri­od,” and the biol­ogy and soci­ol­ogy of altered states of con­scious­ness is suf­fi­cient to explain this. [Ma­lina & Pilch 2000, Social Sci­ence Com­men­tary on the Book of Rev­e­la­tion pg 5, 43]

…As it hap­pens, per­son­al­i­ties (who expe­ri­ence a rel­a­tively com­mon form of non-de­bil­i­tat­ing ) would be the most prone to hal­lu­ci­na­tions guided by such a sub­con­scious mech­a­nism, and there­fore the most likely to grav­i­tate into the role of “prophet” in their soci­ety (as Malina him­self argues). Paul, for exam­ple, so often refers to hear­ing voices in his let­ters (often quot­ing God’s voice ver­ba­tim) that it’s quite pos­si­ble he was just such a per­son, and so might many of the orig­i­nal Chris­t­ian lead­ers have been (like Peter). Indeed, the “Angel of Satan” that Paul calls a “thorn in his flesh” (2 Corinthi­ans 12:6–10) could have been an evil voice he often heard and had to sup­press (though Hold­ing is right to point out that other inter­pre­ta­tions are pos­si­ble). But there are many oppor­tu­ni­ties even for nor­mal peo­ple to enter the same kind of hal­lu­ci­na­tory state, espe­cially in reli­gious and vision-ori­ented cul­tures: from fast­ing, fatigue, sleep depri­va­tion, and other ascetic behav­iors (such as extended peri­ods of mantric prayer), to ordi­nary dream­ing and hyp­n­a­gogic or hypnopom­pic events (a com­mon hal­lu­ci­na­tory state expe­ri­enced by nor­mal peo­ple between wak­ing and sleep). [On all of this see ref­er­ences in note 14 in Chap­ter 8 (and note 25 above).]

The grad­ual fail­ure of the ora­cles was a spir­i­tual cri­sis, memo­ri­al­ized by Plutarch in his dia­logue De Defectu Orac­u­lo­rum. (An overview and con­nec­tion to mod­ern Chris­t­ian con­cerns is Benno Zuid­dam’s “Plutarch and ‘god-e­clipse’ in Chris­t­ian the­ol­o­gy: when the gods ceased to speak”.) The dia­logue is inter­est­ing on many lev­els (I am struck by the mul­ti­ple refu­ta­tions of the sug­ges­tion that a eter­nal flame burn­ing less proves the year is shrink­ing yet all uncrit­i­cally believe in the gods & ora­cles, or see Eli­jah’s the­o­log­i­cal exper­i­ment); the speak­ers do not con­sult the remain­ing ora­cle but attempt to explain the decline of the ora­cles as a divine response to the decline of Greece itself (fewer peo­ple need fewer ora­cles), divine will (or whim?), cor­rup­tion among humans, or deaths among the lesser super­nat­ural enti­ties (dae­mons) who might han­dle the ora­cles for the major gods like Apollo or Zeus:

Let this state­ment be ven­tured by us, fol­low­ing the lead of many oth­ers before us, that co-in­ci­den­tally with the total defec­tion of the guardian spir­its assigned to the ora­cles and prophetic shri­nes, occurs the defec­tion of the ora­cles them­selves; and when the spir­its flee or go to another place, the ora­cles them­selves lose their pow­er….but when the spir­its return many years lat­er, the ora­cles, like musi­cal instru­ments, become artic­u­late, since those who can put them to use are present and in charge of them.

Hope­ful, but Plutarch con­cludes with a more depress­ing mes­sage:

The power of the spirit does not affect all per­sons nor the same per­sons always in the same way, but it only sup­plies an enkin­dling and an incep­tion, as has been said, for them that are in a proper state to be affected and to undergo the change. The power comes from the gods and demigods, but, for all that, it is not unfail­ing nor imper­ish­able nor age­less, last­ing into that infi­nite time by which all things between earth and moon become wea­ried out, accord­ing to our rea­son­ing. And there are some who assert that the things above the moon also do not abide, but give out as they con­front the ever­last­ing and infinite, and undergo con­tin­ual trans­mu­ta­tions and rebirths.

This idea that the gods might die, and the gen­eral silence and reduc­tion in mir­a­cles was for­tu­nate for the upstart mys­tery cult Chris­tian­ity as the silence could be and was inter­preted as a vic­tory of the Chris­t­ian god over the Olympians: Chris­t­ian writes in his (313 AD) of Plutarch’s dia­logue:

Hear there­fore how Greeks them­selves con­fess that their ora­cles have failed, and never so failed from the begin­ning until after the times when the doc­trine of sal­va­tion in the Gospel caused the knowl­edge of the one God, the Sov­er­eign and Cre­ator of the uni­verse, to dawn like light upon all mankind. We shall show then almost imme­di­ately that very soon after His man­i­fes­ta­tion there came sto­ries of the deaths of dae­mons, and that the won­der­ful ora­cles so cel­e­brated of old have ceased.

(The ora­cles would occa­sion­ally be restored and sup­ported by var­i­ous emper­ors but the efforts never took and they were finally out­lawed as pagan rem­nants.) Euse­bius goes fur­ther, say­ing the (re­lated in the dia­logue by Cleom­bro­tus) was due directly to Jesus:

…it is impor­tant to observe the time at which he says that the death of the dae­mon [Pan] took place. For it was the time of Tiberius, in which our Sav­ior, mak­ing His sojourn among men, is recorded to have been rid­ding human life from dae­mons of every kind, so that there were some of them now kneel­ing before Him and beseech­ing Him not to deliver them over to the Tar­tarus that awaited them. You have there­fore the date of the over­throw of the dae­mons, of which there was no record at any other time; just as you had the abo­li­tion of human sac­ri­fice among the Gen­tiles as not hav­ing occurred until after the preach­ing of the doc­trine of the Gospel had reached all mankind. Let then these refu­ta­tions from recent his­tory suf­fice.

Religions of convenience

“To see the gods dis­pelled in mid-air and dis­solve like clouds is one of the great human expe­ri­ences. It is not as if they had gone over the hori­zon to dis­ap­pear for a time; nor as if they had been over­come by other gods of greater power and pro­founder knowl­edge. It is sim­ply that they came to noth­ing.”

Wal­lace Stevens, Opus Posthu­mous (1955)

This blind spot is par­tially based on dif­fer­ent ontolo­gies—d­if­fer­ent facts.

But even more, it is based on weak­er, less vir­u­lent reli­gions, where the believ­ers tol­er­ate amaz­ing things. (The anal­ogy is to , which can­not afford to be if trans­mis­sion becomes more dif­fi­cult, eg. per­haps ) One might call this meta-athe­ism: most believ­ers sim­ply do not seem to believe—they do not act as agents might be expected to act if they took as facts about the world the beliefs they claim to believe.

Con­sider how seri­ously reli­gion used to be taken in the West. But today? Ice­land is mocked when con­struc­tion is held up to expel elves—but the con­struc­tion goes for­ward. Japan keeps its tem­ples on sacred places—when they earn their keep and do not block hous­ing pro­jects, of course. Lip ser­vice is paid, at most. In the West, ordi­nary use of the super­nat­ural (eg. ) has been reced­ing since well before any sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion, since the 1300s3. It is triv­ial to point out how reli­gions “evolve” to make every­one a , lead­ing to peo­ple who take their reli­gion seri­ously (per­haps because they are adult con­verts who are not “inoc­u­lated” with the appro­pri­ate excuses and shabby intel­lec­tual dodges ‘cafe­te­ria’ believ­ers incul­cate in their chil­dren) being labeled as insane fanat­ics; but early believ­ers of any­thing took their par­tic­u­lar reli­gion quite seri­ously even if it is almost unrec­og­niz­ably dif­fer­ent from the reli­gion as it is actu­ally prac­ticed many cen­turies lat­er. Chris­tian­ity affords a strik­ing exam­ple given how com­pletely its com­mu­nal­ism has been aban­doned: con­sider the case of in , sup­pos­edly detail­ing how the early churches ran their affairs, which tells us that

There was no needy per­son among them, for those who owned prop­erty or houses would sell them, bring the pro­ceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apos­tles, and they were dis­trib­uted to each accord­ing to need…A man named Ana­ni­as, how­ev­er, with his wife Sap­phi­ra, sold a piece of prop­er­ty. He retained for him­self, with his wife’s knowl­edge, some of the pur­chase price, took the remain­der, and put it at the feet of the apos­tles. But Peter said, “Ana­ni­as, why has Satan filled your heart so that you lied to the holy Spirit and retained part of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain yours? And when it was sold, was it not still under your con­trol? Why did you con­trive this deed? You have lied not to human beings, but to God.” When Ana­nias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last, and great fear came upon all who heard of it…After an inter­val of about three hours, his wife came in, unaware of what had hap­pened. Peter said to her, “Tell me, did you sell the land for this amount?” She answered, “Yes, for that amount.”…At once, she fell down at his feet and breathed her last.

The early com­mu­nist Church held up as an ideal that from each accord­ing to their abil­i­ty, to each “accord­ing to need”, that fail­ing to turn over all (it is not sug­gested that they held back a large amount, just “some”) of one’s worldly wealth is lit­er­ally Satanic and inspired by the Dev­il, and divinely pun­ish­able by instant death. This was not pre­sented as a para­ble, or an ide­al, or a teach­ing, or a metaphor, but as some­thing that actu­ally hap­pened. There is a clear les­son here about how to run human affairs, which is applic­a­ble to all times and places, with no con­ve­nient qual­i­fiers or loop­holes to neuter it. Yet I note with per­plex­ity that in both my con­tem­po­rary Chris­t­ian soci­ety and also all pre­vi­ous Chris­t­ian soci­eties, not only is fail­ing to donate all one’s wealth to the Church not pun­ish­able by sum­mary exe­cu­tion, it does not seem pun­ish­able by any­thing at all; in fact, I’m not sure it is a crime any­where or any time! Of course every­one knows why this inci­dent has been min­i­mized and no soci­ety has ever tried to imple­ment such require­ments, and I have no doubt that some Chris­t­ian at some point has come up with some clever dis­tinc­tion to dis­pose of it (eg. per­haps such com­mu­nism is jus­ti­fied only under direct apos­tolic con­trol, all other humans being too fal­li­ble or too weak) but the grounds on which this exam­ple of divine jus­tice is ignored illus­trate my obser­va­tions here; it is hard not to agree with Niet­zsche (Beyond Good and Evil, sec­tion 4): “It is not their love of human­ity but the impo­tence of their love of human­ity that pre­vents today’s Chris­tian­s—from burn­ing us.”

The wishes of super­nat­ural enti­ties are not respect­ed, even if—as many abo­rig­i­nals might argue of their sacred places and spir­it­s—those enti­ties will be killed by what­ever prof­itable human activ­i­ty. And to think, athe­ists are a small minor­ity in most every nation! If this is how believ­ers treat their gods, the gods are fallen gods indeed.


The cir­cle may have widened for the human and less-than-hu­man, but in what way has the cir­cle not nar­rowed for the greater-than-hu­man? Peter Singer focuses on ani­mals; reli­gion gives us a per­spec­tive on them—what have they lost by none of them being con­nected to divini­ties and by becom­ing sub­ject to mod­ern fac­tory farm­ing and agri­cul­ture? If you could ask snakes, one of the most com­mon sacred ani­mals, what they made of the world over the last mil­len­nia, would they regard them­selves as bet­ter or worse off for becom­ing merely ani­mals in the expanded cir­cle? If India aban­doned Hin­duism, what would hap­pen to ? We may be proud of our legal pro­tec­tions for endan­gered or threat­ened species, but the medievals pro­tected & acquit­ted ordi­nary bugs & rats in tri­als. Let us not for­get that the Nazis—who use­fully replace dev­ils & demons in the West­ern con­scious­ness—were great . may be inher­ently zero-­sum.


Con­tin­u­ing the reli­gious vein, many mod­ern prac­tices reflect a nar­row­ing cir­cle from some points of view: abor­tion and con­tra­cep­tion come to mind. Abor­tion could be a good exam­ple for cycli­cal or ran­dom walk the­ses, as in many areas the moral sta­tus of abor­tion or has var­ied widely over recorded his­to­ry, from nor­mal to reli­giously man­dated to banned to per­mit­ted again.

Con­sider Greece: exam­ples like Agamem­non sac­ri­fic­ing only prove that human sac­ri­fice was ambigu­ous in some peri­ods, not that it never exist­ed. (I have not read much about Greek sac­ri­ficing; Richard Hamil­ton’s review of Hugh­es’s Human Sac­ri­fice in Ancient Greece relays Hugh­es’s skep­ti­cism and alter­nate expla­na­tions of “twen­ty-­five archae­o­log­i­cal sites are dis­cussed in detail and over a hun­dred lit­er­ary tes­ti­mo­nia” describ­ing human sac­ri­fices.)

Much bet­ter doc­u­mented is the wide­spread infan­ti­cide: Sparta rou­tinely tossed infants and expo­sure of deformed existed among other cities— Thebes famously exposed Oedi­pus and Athens dis­carded val­ue­less females. As with much about the life of Greek city-s­tates, the exist­ing evi­dence only whets our appetite and does not give a full pic­ture. Mark Golden in “Demog­ra­phy and the expo­sure of girls at Athens” says the female infan­ti­cide rate may have ranged as high as 20%, while Don­ald Engels in “The prob­lem of female infan­ti­cide in the Gre­co-Ro­man world” dep­re­cates this as demo­graph­i­cally impos­si­ble and says there is a sin­gle per­cent­age upper bound. The impres­sion I get from Mindy Nichol’s senior the­sis, “Did Ancient Romans Love Their Chil­dren? Infan­ti­cide in Ancient Rome”, is that the pic­ture is com­pli­cated but there was prob­a­bly sub­stan­tial infan­ti­cide—although surely not as high as the 66–75% rate (for both gen­ders) ascribed to pre-­con­tact Poly­ne­sians by observers in the 1800s (, ch5 Farewell to Alms).

Into recorded his­to­ry, sac­ri­fice dis­ap­pears and infan­ti­cide becomes rarer while abor­tion remains per­mit­ted within lim­its; early Rome’s man­dated infan­ti­cide of the deformed; from the Twelve Tables:

A father shall imme­di­ately put to death a son recently born, who is a mon­ster, or has a form dif­fer­ent from that of mem­bers of the human race.

Impe­r­ial Rome seems to have even­tu­ally banned abor­tion and infan­ti­cide, but to lit­tle effect; the Chris­t­ian , writ­ing in mid-em­pire, claims the infan­ti­cide laws are ignored in Libri duo ad Nationes, ch 15 (“The Charge of Infan­ti­cide Retorted on the Hea­then”):

Mean­while, as I have said, the com­par­i­son between us [Chris­tians & pagans] does not fail in another point of view. For if we are infan­ti­cides in one sense, you also can hardly be deemed such in any other sense; because, although you are for­bid­den by the laws to slay new-born infants, it so hap­pens that no laws are evaded with more impunity or greater safe­ty, with the delib­er­ate knowl­edge of the pub­lic, and the suf­frages of this entire age. Yet there is no great dif­fer­ence between us, only you do not kill your infants in the way of a sacred rite, nor (as a ser­vice) to God. But then you make away with them in a more cruel man­ner, because you expose them to the cold and hunger, and to wild beasts, or else you get rid of them by the slower death of drown­ing.

Early Chris­tian­ity banned infan­ti­cide but seems to and although there were many dis­senters and dif­fer­ent posi­tions, views have where major­ity sects like the Catholic Church (and most Protes­tant sects) flatly oppose it as mur­der.

And Greece came under Turk­ish domin­ion, so it might be gov­erned by the entirely dif­fer­ent set of chang­ing Islamic beliefs on those mat­ters (con­sis­tently opposed to infan­ti­cide and all human sac­ri­fice) which . Is there any con­sis­tent trend here? If one accepts the basic premise that a fetus is human, then the annual rate (as pro-life activists never tire of point­ing out) of mil­lions of abor­tions world­wide would negate cen­turies of ‘moral progress’. If one does not accept the premise, then per C.S. Lewis, we have change in facts as to what is ‘human’, but noth­ing one could call an “expand­ing cir­cle”.

What about peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties? Are they bet­ter off or worse these days? There’s dis­crim­i­na­tion against the fat because they are seen as morally infe­rior to thin peo­ple—‘glut­tons’—while fat­ness used to just be a marker of wealth. Or con­sider such as . Is there now more dis­crim­i­na­tion against the unat­trac­tive? Is that because of what we might call increases in “beauty inequal­ity” (to go with the more famous income inequal­i­ty)? As pop­u­laces get health­ier, wealth­ier, and ever new tech­nolo­gies & tech­niques are invent­ed, the most beau­ti­ful are get­ting more beau­ti­ful. You can only be so ugly and crip­pled before you die or are too inca­pac­i­tat­ed, but how attrac­tive you can be keeps increas­ing: with cos­met­ics, ortho­don­tics, plas­tic surgery… If you were born in the dark ages and escaped goi­ters and man­age to not be a thin short starv­ing peas­ant, you would still be less­ened if your teeth came in crooked.

Judicial torture

State use of tor­ture can be cycli­cal—­some north­ern Euro­pean coun­tries going from min­i­mal tor­ture under their indige­nous gov­ern­ments to exten­sive tor­ture under Roman domin­ion back to juries & finan­cial pun­ish­ments after Rome to tor­ture again with the revival of Roman law by ris­ing mod­ern cen­tral­ized states and then tor­ture’s aban­don­ment when those states mod­ern­ized and lib­er­al­ized even fur­ther. China has gone through even more cycles of judi­cial tor­ture, with its dynas­tic cycle.

Some areas have changed far less than one might hope; arbi­trary prop­erty con­fis­ca­tions that would make a medieval Eng­land free­man scar­let with anger are alive and well under the aegis of the , under the ano­dyne term as a ran­dom form of tax­a­tion. (And what are we to make of the dis­ap­pear­ance of jury tri­als in favor of plea bar­gain­ing?)

Con­tin­u­ing the judi­cial vein, can we really say that our use of incar­cer­a­tion is that supe­rior to our ances­tors’ use of metered-out tor­ture? I am chilled when I read and agree with Adam Gop­nik:

Every day, at least fifty thou­sand men—a full house at Yan­kee Sta­di­um—wake in soli­tary con­fine­ment, often in “” pris­ons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, can­not freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exer­cise.” (Lock your­self in your bath­room and then imag­ine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the expe­ri­ence.) is so endemic—­more than sev­enty thou­sand pris­on­ers are raped each year—that it is rou­tinely held out as a threat, part of the pun­ish­ment to be expect­ed. The sub­ject is stan­dard fod­der for com­e­dy, and an unco­op­er­a­tive sus­pect being threat­ened with rape in prison is now rep­re­sent­ed, every night on tele­vi­sion, as an ordi­nary and rather lov­able bit of polic­ing. The nor­mal­iza­tion of prison rape—­like eigh­teen­th-­cen­tury japery about watch­ing men strug­gle as they die on the gal­lows—will surely strike our descen­dants as chill­ingly sadis­tic, incom­pre­hen­si­ble on the part of peo­ple who thought them­selves civ­i­lized.

From another author:

For 2008, for exam­ple, the gov­ern­ment had pre­vi­ously tal­lied 935 con­firmed instances of sex­ual abuse. After ask­ing around, and per­form­ing some cal­cu­la­tions, the Jus­tice Depart­ment came up with a new num­ber: 216,000. That’s 216,000 vic­tims, not instances. These vic­tims are often assaulted mul­ti­ple times over the course of the year. The Jus­tice Depart­ment now seems to be say­ing that prison rape accounted for the major­ity of all rapes com­mit­ted in the US in 2008, likely mak­ing the United States the first coun­try in the his­tory of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.

Those cal­cu­la­tions are con­tained in 4 reports dis­cussed in “Prison Rape and the Gov­ern­ment” ( 2011); other inter­est­ing bits:

As the Bureau of Jus­tice Sta­tis­tics found in a recent study, “between 69% and 82% of inmates who reported sex­ual abuse in response to the sur­vey stated that they had never reported an inci­dent to cor­rec­tional man­agers.”…Ac­cord­ing to a recent report by the Bureau of Jus­tice Sta­tis­tics (BJS), a branch of the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, there were only 7,444 offi­cial alle­ga­tions of sex­ual abuse in deten­tion in 2008, and of those, only 931 were sub­stan­ti­at­ed. These are absurdly low fig­ures. But per­haps more shock­ing is that even when author­i­ties con­firmed that cor­rec­tions staff had sex­u­ally abused inmates in their care, only 42% of those offi­cers had their cases referred to pros­e­cu­tion; only 23% were arrest­ed, and only 3% charged, indict­ed, or con­vict­ed. 15% were actu­ally allowed to keep their jobs.

…The depart­ment divides sex­ual abuse in deten­tion into four cat­e­gories. Most straight­for­ward, and most com­mon, is rape by force or the threat of force. An esti­mated 69,800 inmates suf­fered this in 2008.3 The sec­ond cat­e­go­ry, “non­con­sen­sual sex­ual acts involv­ing pres­sure,” includes 36,100 inmates coerced by such means as black­mail, offers of pro­tec­tion, and demanded pay­ment of a jail­house “debt.” This is still rape by any rea­son­able stan­dard. An esti­mated 65,700 inmates, includ­ing 6,800 juve­niles, had sex with staff “will­ing­ly.” But it is ille­gal in all fifty states for cor­rec­tions staff to have any sex­ual con­tact with inmates. Since staff can inflict pun­ish­ments includ­ing behav­ioral reports that may extend the time peo­ple serve, soli­tary con­fine­ment, loss of even the most basic priv­i­leges such as show­er­ing, and (le­gally or not) vio­lence, it is often impos­si­ble for inmates to say no.4 Final­ly, the depart­ment esti­mates that there were 45,000 vic­tims of “abu­sive sex­ual con­tacts” in 2008: unwanted touch­ing by another inmate “of the inmate’s but­tocks, thigh, penis, breasts, or vagina in a sex­ual way.” Over­all, most vic­tims were abused not by other inmates but, like Jan, by cor­rec­tions staff: agents of our gov­ern­ment, paid with our tax­es, whose job it is to keep inmates safe.

…Be­tween half and two thirds of those who claim sex­ual abuse in adult facil­i­ties say it hap­pened more than once; pre­vi­ous BJS stud­ies sug­gest that vic­tims endure an aver­age of three to five attacks each per year…Of juve­nile detainees report­ing sex­ual abuse by other inmates, 81% said it hap­pened more than once.

…The top half of all facil­i­ties have made their achieve­ments with­out explic­itly stated stan­dards; there is still plenty of room for them to improve, and every rea­son to expect that they will once the stan­dards are in place, though prob­a­bly not as dra­mat­i­cally as the bot­tom half of facil­i­ties. In our opin­ion, if the depart­ment issues strong stan­dards, it would­n’t be unre­al­is­tic to expect that the national rates of abuse could sink to those of the best quar­ter or even the best tenth of all facil­i­ties. But even if the stan­dards allowed all facil­i­ties to do only as well as half do now, they would be sav­ing not 3% of the peo­ple sex­u­ally abused in deten­tion, but over 53%.23 This means that had the stan­dards been in place in 2008, instead of the 199,500 peo­ple who the depart­ment says were abused in adult pris­ons and jails, there would have been about 93,100. More than 100,000 adults (as well as many thou­sands of chil­dren) would have been saved an expe­ri­ence from which few recover emo­tion­al­ly.

( cov­ers a vari­ety of sta­tis­tics putting US rape rates in the 2000s at 195,000 and under.)

At least spec­ta­tors could count how many lashes were admin­is­tered; but who counts the anal rapes—and gives time off for extra?

And mil­lions of rapes per decade is only the start of the crim­i­nal­ity of the Amer­i­can crim­i­nal sys­tem; in much the same way was—un­con­tro­ver­sial­ly—a tor­ture employed by the likes of the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion and con­demned as such by Amer­i­cans when­ever it appeared (and after WWII, they hung Japan­ese who employed water­board­ing) yet once water­board­ing became use­ful in the War on Ter­ror it sud­denly ceased to be tor­ture when Amer­i­cans did it, the prison sys­tem abu­sively uses —well-estab­lished to be pro­found tor­ture in its own right, lead­ing to sui­cide, hal­lu­ci­na­tions, mad­ness, and suf­fer­ing (these effects were, inci­den­tal­ly, why the early Amer­i­can Quak­ers aban­doned reform plans for pris­ons based on soli­tary con­fine­men­t)—even as Amer­i­cans crit­i­cize any employ­ment of soli­tary con­fine­ment by other coun­tries such as Iran. (Let’s not talk about how one is sen­tenced to jail in the first place; Hunter Felt: ‘“Your third arrest, you .” “Why the third?” “Because in a guy gets three times to swing a stick at a ball.”’)


Another pos­si­ble over­sight is the way in which the dead and past are no longer taken into con­sid­er­a­tion. This is due in part to the expand­ing cir­cle itself: if moral progress is indeed being made, and the weight of one’s voice is related to how moral one was, then it fol­lows past peo­ple (by being immoral) may be ignored. We pay atten­tion to Jef­fer­son in part because he was par­tially moral, and we pay no atten­tion to a South­ern planter who was not even par­tially moral by our mod­ern lights.

More dra­mat­i­cal­ly, we dis­honor our ances­tors by neglect­ing their graves, by not offer­ing any sac­ri­fices or even per­form­ing any rit­u­als, by for­get­ting their names (can you name your great-­grand­par­ents?), by sell­ing off the fam­ily estate when we think the mar­ket has hit the peak, and so on.

Even if the dead sac­ri­fice and save up a large estate to be used after their death for some­thing they greatly val­ued, we freely ignore their will when it suits us, assum­ing the courts will exe­cute the will at all (“per­pe­tu­ities” being out­right for­bid­den by law and treated skep­ti­cally by respected jurists like 4 despite being prima facie highly desir­able; although sim­i­lar insti­tu­tions like the has both good and bad aspects, as does the Mus­lim world’s prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence with the waqf insti­tu­tion, cov­ered in an appen­dix). Con­trast this with the abil­ity of the wealthy in far gone eras to endow eter­nal flames, or masses con­tin­u­ally said or sutras recited for their soul, or add con­di­tions to their prop­erty like ‘no Duke in my line shall marry a Catholic’, or set up per­pet­ual char­i­ties (as in the Mus­lim or Indian world­s). The dead are ill-re­spect­ed, and are not even secure in their graves (what shame to hand over remains to be destroyed by alchemists in their bizarre unnat­ural pro­ce­dures, what­ever those “sci­en­tists” claim to be doing). The “dead hand of the past” was once more truly the ‘live hand’—a vital com­po­nent of soci­ety and the world; from , The Shadow of the Sun 2002, pg 36–37 (quoted in In the Val­ley of the Shadow 2011, pg 33):

The spir­i­tual world of the ‘African’ (if one may use the term despite its gross sim­pli­fi­ca­tion) is rich and com­plex, and his inner life is per­me­ated by a pro­found reli­gios­i­ty. He believes in the coex­is­tence of three dif­fer­ent yet related worlds.

The first is the one that sur­rounds us, the pal­pa­ble and vis­i­ble real­ity com­posed of liv­ing peo­ple, ani­mals, and plants, as well as inan­i­mate objects: stones, water, air. The sec­ond is the world of the ances­tors, those who died before us, but who died, as it were, not com­plete­ly, not final­ly, not absolute­ly. Indeed, in a meta­phys­i­cal sense, they con­tinue to exist, and are even capa­ble of par­tic­i­pat­ing in our life, of influ­enc­ing it, shap­ing it. That is why main­tain­ing good rela­tions with one’s ances­tors is a pre­con­di­tion of a suc­cess­ful life, and some­times even of life itself. The third world is the rich king­dom of the spir­it­s—spir­its that exist inde­pen­dent­ly, yet at the same time are present in every being, in every object, in every­thing and every­where. At the head of these three worlds stands the Supreme Being, God. Many of the bus inscrip­tions speak of omnipres­ence and his unknown omnipo­tence: ‘God is every­where’, ‘God knows what he does’, ‘God is mys­tery’.

Con­tin­u­ing Kugel:

It is not dif­fi­cult to imag­ine our own ances­tors some gen­er­a­tions ago liv­ing in such a world. Indeed, many of the things that Kapuś­ciński writes about Africans are eas­ily par­al­leled by what we know of the ancient Near east, includ­ing the cult of the dead. Though largely for­bid­den by offi­cial, bib­li­cal law, con­sult­ing dead ances­tors, con­tact­ing them through wiz­ards or medi­um­s—in fact, pro­vid­ing the deceased with water and sus­te­nance on a reg­u­lar basis via feed­ing tubes spe­cially implanted at their bur­ial sites (be­cause, as Kapuś­ciński writes, those rel­a­tives have ‘died, as it were, not com­plete­ly, not final­ly, not absolutely’)—were prac­tices that have been doc­u­mented by archae­ol­o­gists within bib­li­cal Israel and, more wide­ly, all across the east­ern Mediter­ranean, as well as in Mesopotamia and even in impe­r­ial Rome.6 More gen­er­al­ly, those three over­lap­ping worlds Kapuś­ciński describes—one’s phys­i­cal sur­round­ings, one’s dead ances­tors, and the whole world of God and the divine—have been described else­where by ethno­g­ra­phers work­ing in such diverse locales as the Ama­zon rain forests, New Guinea, and Microne­si­a….­For cen­turies and mil­len­nia, we were small, dwarfed by gods and ances­tors and a throb­bing world of ani­mate and inan­i­mate beings all around us, each with its per­sonal claim to exis­tence no less valid than our own.5

The dead have been ejected utterly from the “expand­ing cir­cle” and indeed, from the Egypt­ian sands to used as , be burned as con­ve­nient fuel, be turned into , or become the lovely paint col­ors & . One might say that there has never been a worse time to be dead.

This is par­tic­u­larly amus­ing given that one of the pri­mary pur­poses of prop­erty was to honor and sup­port the dead, and be hon­ored by sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions in turn; from (2011):

Accord­ing to , it was in no way com­pa­ra­ble to Chris­t­ian wor­ship of saints: “The funeral obse­quies could be reli­giously per­formed only by the near­est rel­a­tive … They believed that the dead ances­tor accepted no offer­ings save from his own fam­i­ly; he desired no wor­ship save from his own descen­dants.” More­over, each indi­vid­ual has a strong inter­est in hav­ing male descen­dants (in an sys­tem), since it is only they who will be able to look after one’s soul after one’s death. As a result, there is a strong imper­a­tive to marry and have male chil­dren; celibacy in early Greece and Rome was in most cir­cum­stances ille­gal. The result of these beliefs is that an indi­vid­ual is tied both to dead ances­tors and to unborn descen­dants, in addi­tion to his or her liv­ing chil­dren. As Hugh Baker puts it with regard to Chi­nese kin­ship, there is a rope rep­re­sent­ing the con­tin­uum of descent that “stretches from Infin­ity to Infin­ity pass­ing over a razor which is the Pre­sent. If the rope is cut, both ends fall away from the mid­dle and the rope is no more. If the man alive now dies with­out heir, the whole con­tin­uum of ances­tors and unborn descen­dants dies with him … His exis­tence as an indi­vid­ual is nec­es­sary but insignif­i­cant beside his exis­tence as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the whole.”39

…The emer­gence of mod­ern prop­erty rights was then pos­tu­lated to be a mat­ter of eco­nomic ratio­nal­i­ty, in which indi­vid­u­als bar­gained among them­selves to divide up the com­mu­nal prop­er­ty, much like Hobbes’s account of the emer­gence of the Leviathan out of the state of nature. There is a twofold prob­lem with this sce­nario. The first is that many alter­na­tive forms of cus­tom­ary prop­erty existed before the emer­gence of mod­ern prop­erty rights. While these forms of land tenure may not have pro­vided the same incen­tives for their effi­cient use as do their mod­ern coun­ter­parts, very few of them led to any­thing like the tragedy of the com­mons. The sec­ond prob­lem is that there aren’t very many exam­ples of mod­ern prop­erty rights emerg­ing spon­ta­neously and peace­fully out of a bar­gain­ing process. The way cus­tom­ary prop­erty rights yielded to mod­ern ones was much more vio­lent, and power and deceit played a large role.5

…The ear­li­est forms of pri­vate prop­erty were held not by indi­vid­u­als but by lin­eages or other kin groups, and much of their moti­va­tion was not sim­ply eco­nomic but reli­gious and social as well. Forced col­lec­tiviza­tion by the Soviet Union and China in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury sought to turn back the clock to an imag­ined past that never exist­ed, in which com­mon prop­erty was held by nonkin. Greek and Roman house­holds had two things that tied them to a par­tic­u­lar piece of real estate: the hearth with its sacred fire, which resided in the house­hold, and nearby ances­tral tombs. Land was desired not sim­ply for its pro­duc­tive poten­tial but also because it was where dead ances­tors and the fam­i­ly’s unmov­able hearth resided. Prop­erty needed to be pri­vate: strangers or the state could not be allowed to vio­late the rest­ing place of one’s ances­tors. On the other hand, these early forms of pri­vate prop­erty lacked a crit­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tic of what we regard today as mod­ern prop­er­ty: rights were gen­er­ally (that is, they con­veyed the right to use land but not to own it), mak­ing it impos­si­ble for indi­vid­u­als to sell or oth­er­wise alien­ate it.6 The owner is not an indi­vid­ual land­lord, but a com­mu­nity of liv­ing and dead kin. Prop­erty was held as a kind of trust on behalf of the dead ances­tors and the unborn descen­dants, a prac­tice that has par­al­lels in many con­tem­po­rary soci­eties. As an early twen­ti­eth-­cen­tury Niger­ian chief said, “I con­ceive that land belongs to a vast fam­ily of which many are dead, few are liv­ing and count­less mem­bers are still unborn.”7 Prop­erty and kin­ship thus become inti­mately con­nect­ed: prop­erty enables you to take care of not only pre­ced­ing and suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions of rel­a­tives, but of your­self as well through your ances­tors and descen­dants, who can affect your well-be­ing.

In some parts of pre­colo­nial Africa, kin groups were tied to land because their ances­tors were buried there, much as for the Greeks and Romans.8 But in other long-set­tled parts of West Africa, reli­gion oper­ated dif­fer­ent­ly. There, the descen­dants of the first set­tlers were des­ig­nated Earth Priests, who main­tained Earth Shrines and presided over var­i­ous rit­ual activ­i­ties related to land use. New­com­ers acquired rights to land not through indi­vid­ual buy­ing and sell­ing of prop­er­ties but through their entry into the local rit­ual com­mu­ni­ty. The com­mu­nity con­ferred access rights to plant­i­ng, hunt­ing, and fish­ing not in per­pe­tu­ity but as a priv­i­lege of mem­ber­ship in the com­mu­ni­ty.9 In tribal soci­eties, prop­erty was some­times com­mu­nally owned by the tribe. As the his­tor­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gist explained of the Celtic tribes, “Both the free and the unfree are grouped in [ag­nat­ic] kin­dreds. These kin­dreds hold land in com­mu­nal own­er­ship, and their pos­ses­sions do not as a rule coin­cide with the land­marks [bound­aries] of the vil­lages, but spread spi­der-­like through dif­fer­ent set­tle­ments.”10 Com­mu­nal own­er­ship never meant that land was worked col­lec­tive­ly, how­ev­er, as on a twen­ti­eth-­cen­tury Soviet or Chi­nese col­lec­tive farm. Indi­vid­ual fam­i­lies were often allo­cated their own plots. In other cas­es, prop­er­ties were indi­vid­u­ally owned but severely entailed by the social oblig­a­tions that indi­vid­u­als had toward their kin-liv­ing, dead, and yet to be born.11 Your strip of land lies next to your cous­in’s, and you coop­er­ate at har­vest-­time; it is unthink­able to sell your strip to a stranger. If you die with­out male heirs, your land reverts to the kin group. Tribes often had the power to reas­sign prop­erty rights. Accord­ing to Vino­grad­off, “On the bor­ders of India, con­quer­ing tribes have been known to set­tle down on large tracts of land with­out allow­ing them to be con­verted into sep­a­rate prop­erty even among clans or kin­dreds. Occa­sional or peri­od­i­cal redi­vi­sions tes­ti­fied to the effec­tive over­lord­ship of the tribe.”12

Cus­tom­ary prop­erty held by kin groups still exists in con­tem­po­rary . Upward of 95% of all land is tied up in cus­tom­ary prop­erty rights in and the . When a min­ing or palm oil com­pany wants to acquire real estate, it has to deal with entire descent groups (wan­toks).13 Each indi­vid­ual within the descent group has a poten­tial veto over the deal, and there is no statute of lim­i­ta­tions. As a result, one group of rel­a­tives may decide to sell their land to the com­pa­ny; ten years lat­er, another group may show up and claim title to the same prop­er­ty, argu­ing that the land had been unjustly stolen from them in pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.14 Many indi­vid­u­als are unwill­ing to sell title to their land under any con­di­tions, since the spir­its of their ances­tors dwell there. But the inabil­ity of indi­vid­u­als within the kin group to fully appro­pri­ate their prop­er­ty’s resources, or to be able to sell it, does not nec­es­sar­ily mean that they neglect it or treat it irre­spon­si­bly. Prop­erty rights in tribal soci­eties are extremely well spec­i­fied, even if that spec­i­fi­ca­tion is not for­mal or legal.156

In famous micro-ethnog­ra­phy , of an obscure French vil­lage notable chiefly for the extremely detailed Inqui­si­tion records allow­ing recon­struc­tion of the vil­lagers’ his­tory & beliefs & econ­o­my, Ladurie strug­gles to explain to the mod­ern reader one of the over­rid­ing moral con­cerns of the vil­lagers: their pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the social struc­ture of the domus, or ‘house’ (pg24, Chap­ter II), which is not quite a phys­i­cal house nor quite a clan/family linked by blood nor ances­tor-­wor­ship, but cru­cial to Mon­tail­lou—the Cathar heresy spread domus by domus, resis­tance to inform­ing was done out of con­cern for the domus, threats to the domus were employed by the Inqui­si­tion, etc.

Property rights

An exam­ple of the inter­ests of the dead being neglect­ed—even at sub­stan­tial harm to the liv­ing—is not far from hand. Eng­lish com­mon law explic­itly bans wills or trusts that oper­ate indef­i­nitely through a ; the appli­ca­tion can be , for­bid­ding even appar­ently legit­i­mate short­-term spec­i­fi­ca­tions.

This trick­i­ness reflects the basic desir­abil­ity of such con­tracts. Indeed, under a basic eco­nomic analy­sis of , respect­ing the wishes of even dis­tant ances­tors is valu­able—we should hardly quib­ble about the odd bil­lion devoted to an eter­nal flame for Ahura Mazda or child sac­ri­fice to Moloch if it means addi­tional tril­lions of dol­lars of growth in the econ­omy (a con­clu­sion which as stated may seem objec­tion­able, but when hid­den as a para­ble seems sen­si­ble).

Nor is the sug­ges­tion of very long-term invest­ments and per­pe­tu­ities purely the­o­ret­i­cal: suc­ceeded in exactly this, turn­ing 2,000 pounds into $7,000,000+ over 2 cen­turies; Anna C. Mot­t’s $1000 turned only into $215,000 in 2002 due to a shorter matu­ri­ty, Welling­ton R. Burt suc­ceeded in turn­ing his few mil­lions into $100 mil­lion. Very old con­tin­u­ous orga­ni­za­tions like the Catholic Church or are more com­mon than one might think; see Wikipedia on the old­est & , , churches, and .

Sad­ly, when we look at sub­se­quent his­tory, the chief risk to such phil­an­thropy is not infla­tion, tax­es, or any of the other fail­ure modes tri­umphantly sug­gested as refu­ta­tions, but legal hos­til­i­ty. The estate of Franklin’s first imi­ta­tor, (who sought to ben­e­fit his descen­dants), was embroiled in the on which more than 100 lawyers earned their daily bread (paid out of the inter­est of course) for the next 62 years; would-be phil­an­thropist Jonathan Hold­en’s mil­lions were like­wise eaten up, the trusts bro­ken by the liv­ing, and noth­ing even named after Hold­en. The lack of per­pe­tu­ities endan­gers arrange­ments one might want; in describes an exam­ple of only par­tial­ly-kept reli­gious per­pe­tu­ities and draws the appro­pri­ate les­son for (sec­u­lar) long-term projects like 7 or the 8:

Even in the Mid­dle Ages, money was not the only cur­rency in which you could buy parole from pur­ga­tory [in­dul­gences]. You could pay in prayers too, either your own before death or the prayers of oth­ers on your behalf, after your death. And money could buy prayers. If you were rich, you could lay down pro­vi­sion for your soul in per­pe­tu­ity. My own Oxford Col­lege, , was founded in 1379 (it was new then) by one of that cen­tu­ry’s great phil­an­thropists, , Bishop of Win­ches­ter. A medieval bishop could become the Bill Gates of the age, con­trol­ling the equiv­a­lent of the infor­ma­tion high­way (to God), and amass­ing huge rich­es. His dio­cese was excep­tion­ally large, and Wyke­ham used his wealth and influ­ence to found two great edu­ca­tional estab­lish­ments, one in Win­ches­ter and one in Oxford. Edu­ca­tion was impor­tant to Wyke­ham, but, in the words of the offi­cial New Col­lege his­to­ry, pub­lished in 1979 to mark the sixth cen­te­nary, the fun­da­men­tal pur­pose of the col­lege was ‘as a great to make inter­ces­sion for the repose of his soul. He pro­vided for the ser­vice of the chapel by ten chap­lains, three clerks and six­teen cho­ris­ters, and he ordered that they alone were to be retained if the col­lege’s income failed.’ Wyke­ham left New Col­lege in the hands of the Fel­low­ship, a self­-­elect­ing body which has been con­tin­u­ously in exis­tence like a sin­gle organ­ism for more than six hun­dred years. Pre­sum­ably he trusted us to con­tinue to pray for his soul through the cen­turies.

Today the col­lege has only one chap­lain and no clerks, and the steady cen­tu­ry-by-­cen­tury tor­rent of prayers for Wyke­ham in pur­ga­tory has dwin­dled to a trickle of two prayers per year. The cho­ris­ters alone go from strength to strength and their music is, indeed, mag­i­cal. Even I feel a twinge of guilt, as a mem­ber of that Fel­low­ship, for a trust betrayed. In the under­stand­ing of his own time, Wyke­ham was doing the equiv­a­lent of a rich man today mak­ing a large down pay­ment to a cryo­gen­ics com­pany which guar­an­tees to freeze your body and keep it insu­lated from earth­quakes, civil dis­or­der, nuclear war and other haz­ards, until some future time when med­ical sci­ence has learned how to unfreeze it and cure what­ever dis­ease it was dying of. Are we later Fel­lows of New Col­lege reneg­ing on a con­tract with our Founder? If so, we are in good com­pa­ny. Hun­dreds of medieval bene­fac­tors died trust­ing that their heirs, well paid to do so, would pray for them in pur­ga­to­ry. I can’t help won­der­ing what pro­por­tion of Europe’s medieval trea­sures of art and archi­tec­ture started out as down pay­ments on eter­ni­ty, in trusts now betrayed.


If the past has been excluded from the cir­cle, what of the future? One won­ders.

The is a curi­ous phe­nom­e­non, and one that is putting many devel­oped nations below replace­ment fer­til­i­ty; when com­bined with national and pri­vate debt lev­els unprece­dented in his­to­ry, and deple­tion of non-re­new­able resources, that sug­gests a cer­tain dis­re­gard for descen­dants. Yes, all that may have resulted in higher eco­nomic growth which the descen­dants can then use to pur­chase what­ever bun­dle of goods they find most desir­able, but as with banks lend­ing mon­ey, it only takes one blow-up to ren­der the net returns neg­a­tive. (If a mul­ti­-lat­eral ther­monu­clear war bombs the world back to the stone age—what is the net global growth rate from the Neolithic to WWIII? Is it pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive? If, know­ing this risk, we con­tinue to “bor­row from the future”, are we guilty of coer­cive fraud? This is an impor­tant ques­tion since war casu­al­ties his­tor­i­cally fol­low what appears to be a .)

There are no explicit advo­cates for futu­ri­ty, and no real place for them in con­tem­po­rary ethics besides eco­nom­ic­s’s idea of (which has been crit­i­cized for mak­ing any future con­se­quence, no mat­ter how ter­ri­ble, almost irrel­e­vant as long as it is delayed a cen­tury or two). Has the liv­ing’s con­cern for their descen­dants, the inclu­sion of the future into the cir­cle or moral con­cern, increased or decreased over time? Whichever one’s opin­ion, I sub­mit that the answer is shaky and not sup­ported by excel­lent evi­dence.


One of the most dif­fi­cult aspects of any the­ory of moral progress is explain­ing why moral progress hap­pens when it does, in such appar­ently ran­dom non-­lin­ear jumps. (His­tor­i­cal eco­nom­ics has a sim­i­lar prob­lem with the Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion & .) These jumps do not seem to cor­re­spond to sim­ply how many philoso­phers are think­ing about ethics. As we have already seen, the straight­for­ward pic­ture of ever more inclu­sive ethics relies on cher­ry-pick­ing if it cov­ers more than, say, the past 5 cen­turies; and if we are hon­est enough to say that moral progress isn’t clear before then, we face the new ques­tion of explain­ing why things changed then and not at any point pre­vi­ous in the 2500 years of West­ern phi­los­o­phy, which included many great fig­ures who worked hard on moral phi­los­o­phy such as Plato or Aris­to­tle. It is also trou­bling how much moral­ity & reli­gion seems to be cor­re­lated with bio­log­i­cal fac­tors. Even if we do not go as far as Julian Jay­nes’s9 the­o­ries of gods as audi­tory hal­lu­ci­na­tions, there are still many curi­ous cor­re­la­tions float­ing around.

Given these shrink­ing cir­cles, should we call it an expand­ing cir­cle or a shift­ing cir­cle?


The Fukuyama thesis

West­ern lib­eral social­ist cap­i­tal­ism is the attrac­tor state for indus­tri­al­ized human­ity for the fore­see­able future, and that bar­ring exis­ten­tial risks etc, we will see a long-term trend (pos­si­bly very noisy in the short­-term) towards that; alter­na­tive sys­tems of eco­nom­ics & gov­er­nance may have spo­radic suc­cesses but fun­da­men­tally have no broad alle­giance among the intel­li­gentsia and richer coun­tries; and that most crit­i­cisms of the Fukuyama the­sis are based on mis­un­der­stand­ings, pop-­cul­ture sim­pli­fi­ca­tions, igno­rance, rea­son­ing from anec­dotes, and ignor­ing long-term trends in favor of some brief regres­sions.

One restrict­ed, almost purely empir­i­cal, ver­sion of the gen­eral Whiggish/progressive the­sis is offered cour­tesy of Fran­cis Fukuya­ma’s 1992 _; to steal a Fukuyama quote, the gen­eral under­stand­ing of his the­sis is:

What we may be wit­ness­ing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the pass­ing of a par­tic­u­lar period of post-war his­to­ry, but the end of his­tory as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ide­o­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion and the uni­ver­sal­iza­tion of West­ern lib­eral democ­racy as the final form of human gov­ern­ment.

This isn’t the same thing as the ‘expand­ing cir­cle the­sis’, but rather an almost triv­ial obser­va­tion that West­ern lib­eral democ­racy has steadily expanded the ranks of believ­ers and as time pass­es, ever more coun­tries slip into lib­eral democ­ra­cies (of vary­ing qual­i­ties) and few slip back into some alter­na­tive form like a divine-right absolute monar­chy. Curi­ous­ly, one some­times sees descrip­tions of Fukuyama as debunked by 9/11, such as this gem in a National Inter­est review:

He reject­ed, for exam­ple, Fran­cis Fukuya­ma’s her­alded “End of His­tory” the­sis—that West­ern lib­eral democ­racy rep­re­sents the final form of human gov­er­nance—when it appeared in this mag­a­zine in 1989. His­to­ry, it turned out, lin­gered long enough to prove Gray right and Fukuyama wrong.

I dis­agree in the strongest pos­si­ble terms: this is a grossly unchar­i­ta­ble read­ing of Fukuyama and a shock­ing mis­un­der­stand­ing of the last 20 years of geopo­lit­i­cal changes & key his­toric events. His­tory has not proved Fukuyama wrong, it has proven him right. And he fore­saw both this and that peo­ple would be unable to under­stand this; the very first para­graph of his 1989 arti­cle “The End Of His­to­ry?” ends in a line that should shock the aver­age reader of 2015 to their core:

Most of these analy­ses lack any larger con­cep­tual frame­work for dis­tin­guish­ing between what is essen­tial and what is con­tin­gent or acci­den­tal in world his­to­ry, and are pre­dictably super­fi­cial. If Mr. Gor­bachev were ousted from the Krem­lin or a new Aya­tol­lah pro­claimed the mil­len­nium from a des­o­late Mid­dle East­ern cap­i­tal, these same com­men­ta­tors would scram­ble to announce the rebirth of a new era of con­flict.

I ask sim­ply this: what cred­i­ble alter­na­tives are there to West­ern lib­eral democ­racy with reg­u­lated cap­i­tal­ism? For con­crete­ness’s sake, let us spec­ify Nor­way as our par­a­dig­matic West­ern lib­eral democ­ra­cy. If you can pro­vide a form of gov­er­nance which has the alle­giance of hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple as improv­ing on Nor­way as a goal or ideal, then you have suc­ceed­ed. So many peo­ple claim Fukuyama is not just wrong, but laugh­ably incred­i­bly wrong, that this should be easy.

Com­mu­nism was fully dis­cred­ited and remains dis­cred­it­ed, no one dis­putes that; Cuba & North Korea inspire no one and are a lin­ger­ing refu­ta­tion of the idea com­bined with a demon­stra­tion of com­mon com­mu­nist fail­ure modes.

Social­ism is not clearly dis­tin­guish­able from the above sum­ma­ry, and in key coun­tries like the USA, Britain, or France, has been in con­stant retreat since the days of unions and reg­u­lated air­lines and gov­ern­ment rations of cheese and coal.

Anar­chis­tic self­-­gov­ern­ing com­munes? Hard­ly.

City-s­tates? There have been no new ones, one of the exist­ing 2 (Hong Kong) has fallen under Chi­nese sway, and attempts to cre­ate new ones in the form of have died at the hands of nation­al­ist democ­ra­cies; they have nei­ther come into exis­tence nor won a global intel­lec­tual or mass fol­low­ing. is even more obscure and unsuc­cess­ful. And it’s worth not­ing that even though it was famously char­ac­ter­ized as a “Dis­ney­land with the death penalty” and com­monly put forth as a new kind of gov­er­nance, the tech­no­cratic par­lia­men­tary democ­racy of Sin­ga­pore has noth­ing new to it—the Amer­i­can , and their Sil­i­con Val­ley con­tem­po­raries, would have approved.

Monar­chism? It con­tin­ues its shab­bily gen­teel decline into tourist fod­der. I can think of per­haps one coun­ter-ex­am­ple where a monarch may have increased their power (Thai­land), but its reliance on thug­gish tac­tics like laws, sug­gest, if any­thing, its lead­ers per­ceive seri­ous under­ly­ing weak­ness (espe­cially after the 2006 coup), con­tin­ued inter­nal polit­i­cal divi­sion, and the monarch sub­stan­tial age plus mul­ti­ple mil­i­tary coups sug­gest Thai­land has only post­poned its reck­on­ing (après nous, le Déluge?). This is fur­ther proof of the Fukuyama the­sis, not evi­dence against.

What about 9/11? Surely if this dis­proved Fukuyama as so many com­men­ta­tors claimed, it must have demon­strated the rise of a new form of gov­ern­ment that would rev­o­lu­tion­ize key coun­tries, be fer­vently espoused by mil­lions, and seize the imag­i­na­tions & minds of intel­lec­tu­als the world over—­surely we can point to many suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tions spear-­headed by al-Qaeda, to new Caliphates, and to the Caliph con­sol­i­dat­ing the Dar al-Is­lam under his benev­o­lent & divinely ordained rule and expand­ing the realm of peace­ful­ness? Peo­ple, look at the . It hap­pened before our eyes in exhaus­tive detail, you have no excuse for igno­rance of what the pro­test­ers sought or what the results have been. Did it yield any caliphates? Empires? Monar­chies? Self­-­gov­ern­ing city-s­tates? Hanseatic Leagues? Or heck, anar­chis­tic autonomous com­munes? Of course not. It yielded more rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ments—eg. Tunisia, Egypt. (They are still far from being West­ern utopi­as, but who can argue that they are worse than 50 years ago?) On the con­trary, rad­i­cal Islam has been increas­ingly unpop­u­lar as the bru­tal­ity and inef­fec­tive­ness of ter­ror­ism became evi­dent, the suc­cess of peace­ful lib­er­al-style protests became appar­ent. And in the one coun­try where Islamists (the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood) have suc­cess­fully been elected (note the ver­b), Egyp­tians have been learn­ing that being fer­vent believ­ers is not a job qual­i­fi­ca­tion for effec­tive cor­rup­tion-free gov­ern­ment and the Pres­i­dent has become increas­ingly unpop­u­lar with both his party and the pop­u­lace.

Well, OK, but what about… um… Hugo Chavez’s “”? No. Chavez never suc­ceeded in gain­ing hege­mony over Latin Amer­ica or export­ing his ‘rev­o­lu­tion’ (a warmed-over social­is­m), and did suc­ceed in destroy­ing Venezue­la’s econ­o­my, loot­ing & crip­pling its oil indus­try, and died hav­ing failed to turn Chav­ismo into any­thing but a per­son­al­ity cult com­bined with stan­dard wel­fare give-­away tac­tics for gain­ing votes. It is barely alive in Venezuela and non-ex­is­tent over­seas. This is no refu­ta­tion.

Iran’s “Islamic Rev­o­lu­tion”? Iran never had any sway in the Sunni Mus­lim world, and what it did, it has likely for­feited due to its sup­port for Bashar Assad try­ing to roll back his per­sonal Arab Spring; the urban protests belie any claim that the regime can earn legit­i­macy in the face of West­ern lib­eral demo­c­ra­tic memes, and the uniquely Iran­ian aspects of their democ­racy like the Coun­cil of Guardians ban­ning pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates inspire no admi­ra­tion either in or out­side the coun­try. The Iran­ian eco­nomic model has fos­tered mas­sive cor­rup­tion due to the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards and the bonyads, failed to pro­vide jobs for a youth bul­ge, is not robust against sanc­tions, and is run­ning per­ilously high infla­tion. No one admires the Iran­ian eco­nomic mod­el. The Islamic Rev­o­lu­tion is not a coun­ter-ar­gu­ment to Fukuya­ma, and no one sug­gested this in 1992 either though the rev­o­lu­tion hap­pened decades before.

Var­i­ous Sunni mil­i­tant extrem­ists, with AK-47s in one hand and Shar­i’a law in the oth­er? Ask Kenyans or Malians or Afgha­nis or Soma­lians how attrac­tive they found such a sys­tem of gov­er­nance in prac­tice.

Sim­i­lar com­ments hold for Rus­sia: crony cap­i­tal­ism & eth­nic prej­u­dice might be inspi­ra­tional for dic­ta­tors like Kim Jong-Eun think­ing about how to ride the eco­nomic growth tiger with­out being deposed, but no intel­lec­tu­als or masses believe it is supe­rior to West­ern lib­eral democ­ra­cy. Growth is based prin­ci­pally on resource extrac­tion, wealthy Rus­sians main­tain over­seas ties to hide their wealthy from the regime and ensure them­selves an escape route, Putin has allied him­self with the Ortho­dox Church for sup­port and man­pow­er, and there are occa­sional protests despite sur­veil­lance, rou­tine exe­cu­tions of jour­nal­ists, etc. Where are the Com­mu­nist apol­o­gists of yes­ter­year?

We could say some­thing very sim­i­lar about Chi­na, as well. In par­tic­u­lar with Chi­na, we have explo­sive growth paper­ing over huge prob­lems in the under­ly­ing lev­els of cor­rup­tion, eco­nomic equi­ty, sep­a­ratism, lib­er­al­iz­ing pop­u­la­tion, and park­ing chil­dren and wealth over­seas. Peo­ple prais­ing the Com­mu­nist Party there seem to ignore the strik­ing par­al­lels to Japan­ese growth in the 1980s, where its own over­ween­ing gov­ern­ment agen­cies & prac­tices of ques­tion­able integrity & scle­rotic con­sen­sus-build­ing were praised as a unique new form of national & cor­po­rate gov­er­nance—right up until the crash revealed the truth and largely dis­cred­ited them. As Fukuyama com­ments in his 2014 ret­ro­spec­tive eval­u­a­tion of how well the the­sis is doing:

The only sys­tem out there that would appear to be at all com­pet­i­tive with lib­eral democ­racy is the so-­called “China mod­el,” which mixes author­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment with a par­tially mar­ket-based econ­omy and a high level of tech­no­cratic and tech­no­log­i­cal com­pe­tence. Yet if asked to bet whether, 50 years from now, the U.S. and Europe would look more like China polit­i­cally or vice ver­sa, I would pick the lat­ter with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

Scott Sum­ner remarks blunt­ly:

This story [a Niger­ian sui­cide bomber for ] is emblem­atic of some­thing I’ve noticed seems increas­ingly com­mon in the 21st cen­tu­ry—po­lit­i­cal move­ments that appear exceed­ingly stu­pid­…To an edu­cated west­erner the state­ments made by the anti-west­ern lead­ers (as well as ter­ror­ist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram) don’t just seem offen­sive, they seem extremely stu­pid. I’ve talked to Venezue­lans who told me that Chavez would give long speeches on TV that were almost mind-bog­glingly stu­pid. Any­one who has read the var­i­ous laugh­able claims made for the Kim fam­ily in North Korea has to won­der what the North Korean peo­ple make of the absurd pro­pa­gan­da…Both the US and Sovi­ets, as well as their allies, at least tried to make their polit­i­cal mod­els look appeal­ing to the non­aligned coun­tries, and to intel­lec­tu­als. And to some extent they suc­ceed­ed—lots of west­ern intel­lec­tu­als were on each side of the debate. There is almost no west­ern intel­lec­tual sup­port for the mil­i­tarism and gay bash­ing of Putin, or the racism of Mugabe, or the ston­ing to death of adul­ter­ers and homo­sex­u­als. Nor for the kid­nap­ping of school girls that get sold into slav­ery. The North Korean dynasty is treated like a bad joke. Only Chavez had a bit of sup­port among west­ern intel­lec­tu­als, and that’s mostly gone now, as Venezuela keeps dete­ri­o­rat­ing under his replace­ment.

None of these mod­els come even close to sat­is­fy­ing the require­ment of con­vinc­ing even a small frac­tion of the world that they are more desir­able end-s­tates or equi­lib­ri­ums than mature West­ern lib­eral democ­ra­cies. (“Caliphism, com­rades, has never truly been tried!”) There is no cred­i­ble alter­na­tives for cur­rent humans—although I can­not frame any hypothe­ses about what the ideal post-hu­man soci­ety or gov­er­nance will be.

Fukuyama was right. There are no cred­i­ble alter­na­tives to the cap­i­tal­ist lib­eral democ­racy par­a­digm. Human his­tory has end­ed. And we await the resump­tion of his­tory with fear and trem­bling.

Islamic waqfs

Excerpts of arti­cles by Timur Kuran review­ing the Islamic cor­po­rate char­ity form of the waqf: char­i­ties with per­pet­ual endow­ments which are locked into nar­row mis­sions by found­ing doc­u­ments. Kuran argues that this struc­ture, while grad­u­ally engross­ing every more of the econ­o­my, was cor­rupt and inef­fi­cient, dam­ag­ing growth of Islamic coun­tries which employed it.

“The Pro­vi­sion of Pub­lic Goods under Islamic Law: Ori­gins, Impact, and Lim­i­ta­tions of the Waqf Sys­tem”, by Timur Kuran; Law & Soci­ety Review, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2001), pp. 841–898. The basic idea:

A is an unin­cor­po­rated trust estab­lished under Islamic law by a liv­ing man or woman for the pro­vi­sion of a des­ig­nated social ser­vice in per­pe­tu­ity. Its activ­i­ties are financed by rev­enue-bear­ing assets that have been ren­dered for­ever inalien­able. Orig­i­nally the assets had to be immov­able, although in some places this require­ment was even­tu­ally relaxed to legit­imize what came to be known as a “cash waqf.”

Waqfs were not an Islamic inno­va­tion, exact­ly; may have had Per­sian antecedents, but cer­tainly we can find ear­lier analo­gies:

One inspi­ra­tion for the waqf was per­haps the Roman legal con­cept of a sacred object, which pro­vided the basis for the inalien­abil­ity of reli­gious tem­ples. Another inspi­ra­tion might have been the phil­an­thropic foun­da­tions of Byzan­tium, and still another the Jew­ish insti­tu­tion of con­se­crated prop­erty (hekdesh). But there are impor­tant dif­fer­ences between the waqf and each of these fore­run­ners. A Roman sacred object was autho­rized, if not ini­ti­at­ed, by the state, which acted as the prop­er­ty’s admin­is­tra­tor (K6prluii 1942:7–9; Barnes 1987:5–8). By con­trast, a waqf was typ­i­cally estab­lished and man­aged by indi­vid­u­als with­out the sov­er­eign’s involve­ment. Under Islamic law, the state’s role was lim­ited to enforce­ment of the rules gov­ern­ing its cre­ation and oper­a­tion. A Byzan­tine phil­an­thropic foun­da­tion was usu­ally linked to a church or monastery, and it was sub­ject to eccle­si­as­ti­cal con­trol (Jones 1980:25). A waqf could be attached to a mosque, but often it was estab­lished and admin­is­tered by peo­ple out­side the reli­gious estab­lish­ment. Final­ly, whereas under Jew­ish law it was con­sid­ered a sac­ri­lege to con­se­crate prop­erty for one’s own ben­e­fit (Elon 1971:280–88), there was noth­ing to keep the founder of a waqf from appoint­ing him­self as its first admin­is­tra­tor and draw­ing a hefty salary for his ser­vices.

These per­pe­tu­ities were huge; mod­ern Iran’s s are esti­mated at 20% of its GDP and the waqfs may have been big­ger and cor­re­spond­ingly active:

Avail­able aggre­gate sta­tis­tics on the assets con­trolled by waqfs come from recent cen­turies. At the found­ing of the Repub­lic of Turkey in 1923, three­-quar­ters of the coun­try’s arable land belonged to waqfs. Around the same time, one-eighth of all cul­ti­vated soil in Egypt and one-­sev­enth of that in Iran stood immo­bi­lized as waqf prop­er­ty. In the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tu­ry, one-half of the agri­cul­tural land in Alge­ria, and in 1883 one-third of that in Tunisia, was owned by waqfs (Hef­fen­ing 1936:1100; Gibb & Kramers 1961:627; Barkan 1939:237; Baer 1968b:79–80). In 1829, soon after Greece broke away from the Ottoman Empire, its new gov­ern­ment expro­pri­ated waqf land that com­posed about a third of the coun­try’s total area (Fratcher 1973:114). Fig­ures that stretch back the far­thest per­tain to the total annual income of the waqf sys­tem. At the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry, it has been esti­mat­ed, the com­bined income of the roughly 20,000 Ottoman waqfs in oper­a­tion equaled one-third of Ottoman state’s total rev­enue, includ­ing the yield from tax farms in the Balka­ns, Turkey, and the Arab world (Yediy­ildlz 1984:26). Under the assump­tion that indi­vid­u­als cul­ti­vat­ing waqf land were taxed equally with those work­ing land belong­ing to state-owned tax farms, this last fig­ure sug­gests that roughly one-third of all eco­nom­i­cally pro­duc­tive land in the Ottoman Empire was con­trolled by waqfs.

…here is abun­dant evi­dence that even a sin­gle waqf could carry great eco­nomic impor­tance. Jerusalem’s Haseki Sul­tan char­i­ta­ble com­plex, founded in 1552 by Haseki Hur­rem, wife of Suley­man the Mag­nif­i­cent and bet­ter known in the West as Rox­e­lana, pos­sessed 26 entire vil­lages, sev­eral shops, a cov­ered bazaar, 2 soap plants, 11 flour mills, and 2 bath­hous­es, all in Pales­tine and Lebanon. For cen­turies the rev­enues pro­duced by these assets were used to oper­ate a huge soup kitchen, along with a mosque and two hos­tels for pil­grims and way­far­ers (Peri 1992:170–71). In the 18th cen­tu­ry, a waqf estab­lished in Aleppo by Hajj Musa Amiri, a mem­ber of the local elite, included 10 hous­es, 67 shops, 4 inns, 2 store­rooms, sev­eral dye­ing plants and baths, 3 bak­eries, 8 orchards, and 3 gar­dens, among var­i­ous other assets, includ­ing agri­cul­tural land (Meri­wether 1999: 182–83)…­many of the archi­tec­tural mas­ter­pieces that sym­bol­ize the region’s great cities, were financed through the waqf sys­tem. So were prac­ti­cally all the soup kitchens in oper­a­tion through­out the region. By the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry, in Istan­bul, whose esti­mated pop­u­la­tion of 700,000 made it the largest city in Europe, up to 30,000 peo­ple a day were being fed by char­i­ta­ble com­plexes (imarets) estab­lished under the waqf sys­tem (Huart 1927:475).

Such wealth would make them tar­gets just like the Catholic Church was tar­geted by King Hen­ry—but per­haps with dif­fer­ent results (sur­pris­ing since waqfs seem pred­i­cated on ordi­nary prop­erty rights being inse­cure, espe­cially com­pared with Eng­land):

The con­se­quent weak­ness of pri­vate prop­erty rights made the sacred insti­tu­tion of the waqf a con­ve­nient vehi­cle for defend­ing wealth against offi­cial pre­da­tion. Expro­pri­a­tions of waqf prop­er­ties did occur, espe­cially fol­low­ing con­quests or the replace­ment of one dynasty by anoth­er. How­ev­er, when they occurred, they usu­ally gen­er­ated seri­ous resis­tance. Dur­ing the two and a half cen­turies pre­ced­ing Egyp­t’s fall to the Turks in 1517, no fewer than six rev­enue-seek­ing Mameluke rulers attempted to con­fis­cate major waqfs; pri­mar­ily because of judi­cial resis­tance, their efforts were largely unsuc­cess­ful (Yediy­ildlz 1982a:161). In the 1470s the Ottoman sul­tan Mehmed II expro­pri­ated scores of waqfs to raise resources for his army and his unusu­ally broad pub­lic works pro­gram. His con­ver­sion of hun­dreds of waqf-owned vil­lages into state prop­erty gen­er­ated a strong reac­tion, and it influ­enced the suc­ces­sion strug­gle that fol­lowed his death. More­over, his son Bayezid II, upon acced­ing to the throne, restored the con­fis­cated lands to their for­mer sta­tus (Repp 1988:128–29; Inal­clk 1955:533). Such episodes under­scored the rel­a­tive secu­rity of waqf prop­er­ty. …Pre­cisely because of the com­mon­ness of this motive, when a state attempted to take over a waqf it usu­ally jus­ti­fied the act on the ground that it was ille­git­i­mate (Ak­gun­duz 1996:523–61). Accord­ing­ly, its offi­cials tried to con­vince the pop­u­lace that the expro­pri­ated prop­er­ties belonged to the state to begin with or sim­ply that the waqf founder had never been their legit­i­mate own­er.23

The waqf struc­ture did suc­ceed, as eco­nom­ics might pre­dict, in increas­ing the amount ded­i­cated to char­i­ty, as we can see com­par­ing reli­gious groups’ par­tic­i­pa­tion:

Accord­ing­ly, up to the 19th cen­tury Jews and Chris­tians were ordi­nar­ily per­mit­ted to estab­lish only func­tion­ally sim­i­lar insti­tu­tions (Akgind­fiz 1996:238–41). Unlike waqfs, these would not be over­seen by the Islamic courts or enjoy the pro­tec­tion of Islamic law. We know that actual prac­tices var­ied. In cer­tain peri­ods and regions influ­en­tial non-­Mus­lims were per­mit­ted to estab­lish waqf­s.14 Yet, the require­ment per­tain­ing to the founder’s reli­gion was gen­er­ally effec­tive. Non-­Mus­lims were less inclined than equally wealthy Mus­lims to estab­lish and fund char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tions of any kind, even ones to serve most­ly, if not exclu­sive­ly, their own reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties (Mas­ters 1988:173–74; Jen­nings 1990:308–9; Mar­cus 1989:305).15 This pat­tern changed rad­i­cally only in the 19th cen­tu­ry, when the right to estab­lish waqfs was extended to the mem­bers of other faiths (Cadl­rcl 1991:257–58). At this point it became com­mon for wealthy Jews and Chris­tians to estab­lish waqfs under a per­mis­sive new vari­ant of Islamic law (Sha­ham 1991:460–72; Afifi 1994:119–22).16

The chief flaw in waqfs was the ‘dead hand’—per­pet­ual meant per­pet­u­al:

To start with the for­mer type of rigid­i­ty, the des­ig­nated mis­sion of a waqf was irrev­o­ca­ble. Ordi­nar­ily not even the founder of a waqf could alter its goals. Wher­ever pos­si­ble, the objec­tives spec­i­fied in the waqf deed had to be pur­sued exact­ly. This require­ment, if obeyed to the let­ter, could cause a waqf to become dys­func­tion­al. Imag­ine a richly endowed waqf estab­lished to build and sup­port a par­tic­u­lar car­a­vanserai. Two cen­turies lat­er, let us also sup­pose, a shift in trade routes idles the struc­ture. If the long-dead founder had neglected to per­mit future mutawal­lis to use their own judg­ment in the inter­est of sup­port­ing com­merce through the most effi­cient means, his waqf’s assets could not be trans­ferred from the now dys­func­tional car­a­vanserai to, say, the admin­is­tra­tion of a com­mer­cial port. They could not be shifted even to another car­a­vanserai. At least for a while, there­fore, the resources of the waqf would be used inef­fi­cient­ly. Prob­a­bly because this dan­ger of seri­ous effi­ciency loss gained recog­ni­tion early on, the archi­tects of the waqf sys­tem made the resid­uary mis­sion of every waqf the ben­e­fit of the poor.36 This rule meant that the assets sup­port­ing a dys­func­tional car­a­vanserai would even­tu­ally be trans­ferred to a pub­lic shel­ter or a soup kitchen, thus lim­it­ing the mis­al­lo­ca­tion of resources. But in tem­per­ing one form of inef­fi­ciency this mea­sure cre­ated anoth­er. The resources devoted to poor relief would grow over time, pos­si­bly damp­en­ing incen­tives to work. The ear­lier-re­ported evi­dence of Istan­bul’s soup kitchens feed­ing 30,000 peo­ple a day points, then, to more than the waqf sys­tem’s suc­cess in pro­vid­ing social ser­vices in a decen­tral­ized man­ner. Per­haps it shows also that the sys­tem could gen­er­ate a socially costly over­sup­ply of cer­tain ser­vices. This is the basis on which some schol­ars have claimed that the waqf sys­tem con­tributed to the Islamic world’s long eco­nomic descent by fos­ter­ing a large class of indo­lent ben­e­fi­cia­ries (Akdag 1979:128–30; Cem 1970:98–99).37

Not only were these rec­og­nized but steps were taken to mit­i­gate them. The typ­i­cal Ottoman waqf deed con­tained a stan­dard for­mu­lary fea­tur­ing a list of oper­a­tional changes the mutawalli was autho­rized to make. How­ev­er, unless explic­itly stated oth­er­wise, he could make only one set of changes; once the waqf’s orig­i­nal rules had under­gone one mod­i­fi­ca­tion, there could not be another reform (Akgindiiz 1996:257–70; Lit­tle 1984:317–18). This point qual­i­fies, but also sup­ports the obser­va­tion that the waqf sys­tem suf­fered from oper­a­tional rigidi­ties. Sooner or later every waqf equipped with the stan­dard flex­i­bil­i­ties would exhaust its adap­tive capac­i­ty…It is on this basis that in 1789, some 237 years after the estab­lish­ment of the Haseki Sul­tan com­plex, its mutawalli decided against hir­ing a money chang­er, even though some employ­ees wanted the appoint­ment to cope with ris­ing finan­cial turnover (Peri 1992:184–85).

Final­ly, if the founder had not explic­itly allowed the waqf to pool its resources with those of other orga­ni­za­tions, tech­ni­cally achiev­able economies of scale could remain unex­ploit­ed. In par­tic­u­lar, ser­vices that a sin­gle large waqf could deliver most effi­cient­ly—road main­te­nance, piped water—might be pro­vided at high cost by mul­ti­ple small waqfs. Founders were free, of course, to stip­u­late that part, even all, of the income of their waqfs be trans­ferred to a large waqf. And scat­tered exam­ples of such pool­ing of waqf resources have been found (Ciza­kga 2000:48).40 The point remains, how­ev­er, that if a waqf had not been designed to par­tic­i­pate in resource pool­ing it could not be con­verted into a “feeder waqf” of anoth­er, ordi­nar­ily larger waqf. Even if new tech­nolo­gies came to gen­er­ate economies of scale unimag­in­able at the waqf’s incep­tion, the waqf would have to con­tinue oper­at­ing inde­pen­dent­ly. Rifaah al-­Tahtawi, a major Egypt­ian thinker of the 19th cen­tu­ry, put his fin­ger on this prob­lem when he wrote, “Asso­ci­a­tions for joint phil­an­thropy are few in our coun­try, in con­trast to indi­vid­ual char­i­ta­ble dona­tions and fam­ily endow­ments, which are usu­ally endowed by a sin­gle indi­vid­ual” (Cole 2000).

On this basis one may sug­gest that the “sta­tic per­pe­tu­ity” prin­ci­ple of the waqf sys­tem was more suit­able to a slowly chang­ing econ­omy than to one in which tech­nolo­gies, tastes, and lifestyles undergo rev­o­lu­tion­ary changes within the span of a gen­er­a­tion. Even if adher­ence to the prin­ci­ple was only par­tial-as dis­cussed lat­er, vio­la­tions were hardly uncom­mon-in a chang­ing econ­omy the effi­ciency of the waqf sys­tem would have fallen as a result of delays in socially desir­able adjust­ments.42 This inter­pre­ta­tion is con­sis­tent with the fact that in var­i­ous parts of the mod­ern Islamic world the legal infra­struc­ture of the waqf sys­tem has been, or is being, mod­i­fied to endow mutawal­lis with broader oper­a­tional pow­ers. Like many forms of the West­ern trust, a mod­ern waqf is a cor­po­ra­tion-an inter­nally autonomous orga­ni­za­tion that the courts treat as a legal per­son­.43 As such, its mutawal­li, which may now be a com­mit­tee of indi­vid­u­als or even another cor­po­ra­tion, enjoys broad rights to change its ser­vices, its mode and rules of oper­a­tion, and even its goals, with­out out­side inter­fer­ence. This is not to say that a mutawalli is now uncon­strained by the founder’s direc­tives. Instead, there is no longer a pre­sump­tion that the founder’s direc­tives were com­plete, and the mutawal­li, or board of mutawal­lis, is expected and autho­rized to be much more than a super­in­ten­dent fol­low­ing orders. A mod­ern mutawalli is charged with max­i­miz­ing the over­all return on all assets, sub­ject to intertem­po­ral trade­offs and the accept­abil­ity of risk. The per­ma­nence of any par­tic­u­lar asset is no longer an objec­tive in itself. It is taken for granted that the waqf’s sub­stan­tive goals may best be served by trim­ming the pay­roll to finance repairs or by replac­ing a farm received directly from the founder with equity in a man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­ny. …The ongo­ing reforms of the waqf sys­tem amount, then, to an acknowl­edg­ment that the rigidi­ties of the tra­di­tional waqf sys­tem were indeed sources of inef­fi­cien­cy.

Such inef­fi­ciency is con­sis­tent with one esti­mate of the ben­e­fi­cial eco­nomic effects of the Eng­lish Dis­so­lu­tion of the Catholic Church’s hold­ings (Heldring et al 2015). The nat­ural approach was to add in new flex­i­bil­ity by two routes; first, explicit flex­i­bil­ity in the incor­po­ra­tion:

It was not uncom­mon for founders to autho­rize their mutawal­lis to sell or exchange waqf assets (istib­d­dl). Miriam Hoex­ter (1998:ch. 5) has shown that between the 17th and 19th cen­turies the mutawal­lis of an Alger­ian waqf estab­lished for the ben­e­fit of Mecca and Med­ina man­aged, act­ing on the author­ity they enjoyed, to enlarge this waqf’s endow­ment through shrewd pur­chas­es, sales, and exchanges of assets. In the same vein, Ronald Jen­nings (1990:279–80, 286) has observed that in 16th-­cen­tury Tra­b­zon some founders explic­itly empow­ered their mutawal­lis to exer­cise their own judg­ment on busi­ness mat­ters. He has also found that the courts with juris­dic­tion over Tra­b­zon’s waqfs tol­er­ated a wide range of adap­ta­tion­s.45 The waqfs in ques­tion were able to under­take repairs, adjust pay­ments to suit mar­ket con­di­tions, and rent out unpro­duc­tive prop­er­ties at rates low enough and for suf­fi­ciently long peri­ods to entice renters into mak­ing improve­ments (Jen­nings 1990:335). Other schol­ars, in addi­tion to pro­vid­ing exam­ples of founder-en­dorsed plas­tic­i­ty, have shown that there were lim­its to the founder’s con­trol over the waqf’s man­age­ment, espe­cially beyond his or her own life­time. Said Arjo­mand (1998:117, 126) and Stephane Yerasi­mos (1994:43–45) inde­pen­dently note that the waqf deed could suf­fer dam­age or even dis­ap­pear with the pas­sage of time. It could also be tam­pered with, sow­ing doubts about the authen­tic­ity of all its direc­tives. In such cir­cum­stances, the courts might use their super­vi­sory author­ity to mod­ify the waqf’s orga­ni­za­tion, its mode of oper­a­tion, and even its mis­sion. More­over, even when no dis­agree­ments existed over the deed itself judges had the right to order unstip­u­lated changes in the inter­est of either the waqf’s intended ben­e­fi­cia­ries or the broader com­mu­ni­ty. We have seen that such heavy hand­ed­ness some­times sparked resis­tance. Harmed con­stituen­cies might claim that the prin­ci­ple of sta­tic per­pe­tu­ity had been vio­lat­ed. How­ev­er, judges were able to pre­vail if they com­manded pop­u­lar sup­port and the oppo­nents of change were poorly orga­nized. Yerasi­mos fur­nishes exam­ples of 16th-­cen­tury Ottoman con­struc­tion projects that involved the suc­cess­ful seizure of osten­si­bly immo­bi­lized waqf prop­er­ties, some­times with­out full com­pen­sa­tion. …There are ample indi­ca­tions that mod­i­fi­ca­tion costs were gen­er­ally sub­stan­tial. As Murat (Siza­kca 2000:16–21) observes, only some of the Islamic schools of law allowed sales and exchanges of waqf prop­er­ties, and even these schools imposed var­i­ous restric­tions.

The sec­ond approach was to avoid inalien­able assets—not real estate, but per­haps money or other finan­cial instru­ments:

“Cash waqfs” thus emerged as early as the eighth cen­tu­ry, earn­ing income gen­er­ally through inter­est-bear­ing loans (Qiza­kga 2000:ch. 3). Uncom­mon for many cen­turies, these waqfs pro­voked intense con­tro­versy as their num­bers mul­ti­plied, because they vio­lated both waqf law and the pro­hi­bi­tion of inter­est (Man­daville 1979; Kurt 1996:10–21). Accord­ing to their crit­ics, not only was the cash waqf dou­bly un-Is­lamic but it con­sumed resources bet­ter devoted to char­ity and reli­gion. Inter­est­ing­ly, the defend­ers invoked nei­ther scrip­ture nor the law. Con­ced­ing that the cash waqf vio­lates clas­si­cal Islamic prin­ci­ples, they pointed to its pop­u­lar­ity and inferred that it had to be serv­ing a valu­able social func­tion. In effect, they held that the cash waqf should be tol­er­ated because it passes the util­i­tar­ian test of the mar­ket-the irre­li­gious test now com­monly used to jus­tify pop­u­lar, but per­haps eth­i­cally trou­bling, eco­nomic prac­tices. The defend­ers of the cash waqf, who included promi­nent cler­ics, also lamented that their oppo­nents, though per­haps knowl­edge­able of Islam, were igno­rant of both his­tory and the pre­vail­ing prac­ti­cal needs of their com­mu­ni­ties (Man­daville 1979:297–300, 306–8).

Because they met impor­tant needs and encoun­tered lit­tle oppo­si­tion out­side of legal and reli­gious cir­cles, cash waqfs became increas­ingly pop­u­lar. By the 16th cen­tu­ry, in fact, they accounted for more than half of all the new Ottoman waqfs. Most of them were on the small side, as mea­sured by assets (Ca­gatay 1971; Yediylldlz 1990:118–22; Mas­ters 1988:161–63). One fac­tor that accounts for their enor­mous pop­u­lar­ity is the ubiq­ui­tous quest for wealth pro­tec­tion. Another was that there existed no banks able to meet the demand for con­sump­tion loans, only money­len­ders whose rates reflected the risks they took by oper­at­ing out­side the strict inter­pre­ta­tion of the law. Where and when the cash waqf enjoyed legal approval, it allowed money­len­ders to oper­ate more or less within the pre­vail­ing inter­pre­ta­tion of Islamic law. If noth­ing else, the sacred­ness that flowed from its inclu­sion in the waqf sys­tem insu­lated its inter­est-based oper­a­tions from the charge of sin­ful­ness.

Both brought their own prob­lems:

Yet, cash waqfs were by no means free of oper­a­tional con­straints. Like the founder of an ordi­nary waqf, that of a cash waqf could restrict its ben­e­fi­cia­ries and limit its charges. Yediylldlz points to the deed of an 18th-­cen­tury waqf whose founder required it to lend at exactly 10% and only to mer­chants based in the town of Amasya (Yediylldlz 1990:122). The restric­tions imposed on a cash waqf typ­i­cally reflect­ed, in addi­tion to the founder’s per­sonal tastes and bias­es, the pre­vail­ing inter­est rates at the time of its estab­lish­ment. Over time, these could become increas­ingly seri­ous bar­ri­ers to the waqf’s exploita­tion of profit oppor­tu­ni­ties. Pre­cisely because the cash waqfs were required to keep their rates fixed, observes Ciza­kqa (2000:52–53), only a fifth of them sur­vived beyond a cen­tu­ry…Re­veal­ing­ly, the bor­row­ers of the 18th-­cen­tury cash waqfs of Bursa included their own mutawal­lis. These mutawal­lis lent on their own account to the money­len­ders of Ankara and Istan­bul, where inter­est rates were higher (Ciza­kqa 1995). Had the endow­ment deeds of these cash waqfs per­mit­ted greater flex­i­bil­i­ty, the gains reaped by mutawal­lis could have accrued to the waqfs them­selves.

Inso­far as these meth­ods enhanced the accept­abil­ity of cor­rup­tion, they would also have facil­i­tated the embez­zle­ment of resources osten­si­bly immo­bi­lized for the pro­vi­sion of social ser­vices, includ­ing pub­lic goods and char­i­ta­ble caus­es. Embez­zle­ment often occurred through sales and exchanges of waqf prop­er­ties. While such trans­ac­tions could serve a waqf’s finan­cial inter­ests, and thus its capac­ity for meet­ing the founder’s goals, they were sub­ject to abuse. Mutawal­lis found ways to line their own pock­ets through trans­ac­tions detri­men­tal to the waqf, for instance, the exchange of an eco­nom­i­cally valu­able farm for the infe­rior farm of an uncle. A bribe-hun­gry judge might approve such a trans­ac­tion under the pre­text of duress, know­ing full well that it was moti­vated more by per­sonal gain than by civic duty. In cer­tain times and places this form of embez­zle­ment became so com­mon that high offi­cials took to treat­ing waqf prop­er­ties as alien­able. In the early 16th cen­tu­ry, right before the Ottomans occu­pied Egypt, a Mameluke judge ruled that the land on which the famous al-Azhar com­plex stands could be sold to some­one look­ing for a site to build a man­sion (Behren­s-Abou­seif 1994:146–47)…Her waqf was to sup­port, she stat­ed, “the poor and the hum­ble, the weak and the needy… the true believ­ers and the right­eous who live near the holy places . . . [and] hold onto the sharia and strictly observe the com­mand­ments of the sunna” (Peri 1992:172). Since prac­ti­cally any Mus­lim res­i­dent of greater Jerusalem could qual­ify as either weak or devout, within a few gen­er­a­tions huge num­bers of fam­i­lies, includ­ing some of the rich­est, were draw­ing income from the waqf. Even an Ottoman gov­er­nor man­aged to get him­self on the waqf’s pay­roll, and he took to using the waqf as an instru­ment of patron­age (Peri 1992:173–74). As Hfir­rem’s waqf turned into a politi­cized source of sup­ple­men­tary income for peo­ple whom she would hardly have char­ac­ter­ized as needy, the gov­ern­ment in Istan­bul tried repeat­edly to trim the list of ben­e­fi­cia­ries. Evi­dently it sensed that con­tin­ued cor­rup­tion would cause the waqf, and there­fore Ottoman rule itself, to lose legit­i­ma­cy. Yet the gov­ern­ment itself ben­e­fited from show­er­ing provin­cial nota­bles with priv­i­leges, which lim­ited the reach of its reforms. After every crack­down the waqf’s man­agers returned to cre­at­ing enti­tle­ments for the upper classes (Peri 1992:182–84). Ann Lambton (1997:305) gives exam­ples of even more seri­ous abuses from 14th-­cen­tury Iran. Based on con­tem­po­rary obser­va­tions, she notes that prac­ti­cally all assets of the 500 waqfs in Shi­raz had fallen into the hands of cor­rupt mutawal­lis bent on divert­ing rev­enues to them­selves…One must not infer that man­age­r­ial harm to the effi­ciency of waqfs stemmed only, or even pri­mar­i­ly, from cor­rup­tion. As Richard Pos­ner (1992:511) observes in regard to char­i­ta­ble trusts in com­mon law juris­dic­tions, the man­agers and super­vi­sors of trusts estab­lished for the ben­e­fit of broad social causes gen­er­ally lack ade­quate incen­tives to man­age prop­er­ties effi­cient­ly.

Con­trast with Euro­pean insti­tu­tions:

Just as the pre­mod­ern Mid­dle East had inflex­i­ble waqfs, one might observe, the prein­dus­trial and indus­trial West fea­tured restric­tions that inhib­ited the effi­cient admin­is­tra­tion of trusts (Fratcher 1973:22, 55, 66–71). …Do such facts inval­i­date the claim of this sec­tion, name­ly, that inflex­i­bil­i­ties of the waqf sys­tem held the Mid­dle East back as Europe took the lead in shap­ing the mod­ern global econ­o­my? Two addi­tional facts from Euro­pean eco­nomic his­tory may be advanced in defense of the pre­sented argu­ment. First, over the cen­turies the West devel­oped an increas­ingly broad vari­ety of trusts, includ­ing many that give a trustee-the coun­ter­part of the mutawal­li-­greater oper­a­tional flex­i­bil­i­ty. These came to include trusts to oper­ate busi­ness­es, trusts to man­age finan­cial port­fo­lios, and trusts to hold the major­ity of the vot­ing shares in a cor­po­ra­tion. Also, while it is doubt­less true that cer­tain West­ern trusts suf­fered from the sorts of rigidi­ties that plagued the waqf sys­tem, other trusts mit­i­gated these prob­lems by equip­ping their trustees, or boards of trustees, with pow­ers akin to those of a cor­po­rate board.

Another impor­tant dif­fer­ence con­cerns the pow­ers of founders. As early as the 14th cen­tu­ry, judges in Eng­land were dis­cour­ag­ing waqf-­like “per­pe­tu­ities” through which donors could micro­man­age prop­er­ties indef­i­nite­ly, well after their deaths. Trusts pro­vid­ing ben­e­fits for unborn per­sons were declared invalid, or valid only if sub­ject to destruc­tion by prior ben­e­fi­cia­ries. And in France, a law was insti­tuted in 1560 to keep the founders of , trust-­like devices grounded in Roman law, from tying the hands of more than two gen­er­a­tions of ben­e­fi­cia­ries (Fratcher 1973:11–12, 86). These cases of resis­tance to sta­tic per­pe­tu­ity show that the immo­bi­liza­tion of prop­erty also pre­sented dan­gers in Europe. But they also demon­strate that suc­cess­ful attempts to con­tain the dan­gers came much ear­lier in Europe than in the Mid­dle East, where legal reforms designed to give mutawal­lis greater dis­cre­tion had to await the 20th cen­tu­ry.

Waqfs are dis­cussed fur­ther in , Kuran 2016 & , Kuran 2018:

This essay crit­i­cally eval­u­ates the ana­lytic lit­er­a­ture con­cerned with causal con­nec­tions between Islam and eco­nomic per­for­mance. It focuses on works since 1997, when this lit­er­a­ture was last sur­veyed…Weak prop­erty rights rein­forced the pri­vate sec­tor’s stag­na­tion by dri­ving cap­i­tal out of com­merce and into rigid waqfs. Waqfs lim­ited eco­nomic devel­op­ment through their inflex­i­bil­ity and democ­ra­ti­za­tion by restrain­ing the devel­op­ment of civil soci­ety.

The later exploits a nat­ural shock in Indone­sian pol­i­tics which drove a burst of dona­tions to waqf endow­ments, show­ing gen­er­ally neg­a­tive effects in affected regions (par­tic­u­larly to eco­nomic growth).

The Discovery of France

Excerpts from Rob­b’s on peas­ant pes­simism, pover­ty, death-wish­es, the bless­ing of cre­tinism, famine, fire, and infan­ti­cide.


Writ­ten descrip­tions of daily life inevitably con­vey the same bright sense of pur­pose and progress. They pass through years of lived expe­ri­ence like care­free trav­ellers, tele­scop­ing the changes that only a long mem­ory could have per­ceived. Occa­sion­al­ly, how­ev­er, a sim­ple fact has the same effect as the pho­to­graph in the muse­um. At the end of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, doc­tors from urban Alsace to rural Brit­tany found that high death rates were not caused pri­mar­ily by famine and dis­ease. The prob­lem was that, as soon as they became ill, peo­ple took to their beds and hoped to die. In 1750, the Mar­quis d’Ar­gen­son noticed that the peas­ants who farmed his land in the Touraine were ‘try­ing not to mul­ti­ply’: ‘They wish only for death’. Even in times of plen­ty, old peo­ple who could no longer wield a spade or hold a nee­dle were keen to die as soon as pos­si­ble. ‘Last­ing too long’ was one of the great fears of life. Invalids were habit­u­ally hated by their car­ers. It took a spe­cial gov­ern­ment grant, insti­tuted in 1850 in the Seine and Loiret départe­ments, to per­suade poor fam­i­lies to keep their ail­ing rel­a­tives at home instead of send­ing them to that bare wait­ing room of the grave­yard, the munic­i­pal hos­pice.

When there was just enough food for the liv­ing, the mouth of a dying per­son was an obscen­i­ty. In the rel­a­tively har­mo­nious house­hold of the 1840s described by the peas­ant nov­el­ist Émile Guil­lau­min, the fam­ily mem­bers spec­u­late openly in front of Émile’s bed-rid­den grand­mother (who has not lost her hear­ing): ‘“I wish we knew how long it’s going to last.” And another would reply, “Not long, I hope.”’ As soon as the bur­den expired, any water kept in pans or basins was thrown out (since the soul might have washed itself—or, if bound for Hell, tried to extin­guish itself—as it left the house), and then life went on as before.

‘Happy as a corpse’ was a say­ing in the Alps. Vis­i­tors to vil­lages in the Savoy Alps, the cen­tral Pyre­nees, Alsace and Lor­raine, and parts of the Mas­sif Cen­tral were often hor­ri­fied to find silent pop­u­la­tions of cretins with hideous thy­roid defor­mi­ties. (The link between goitre and lack of iodine in the water was not widely rec­og­nized until the early nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.) The Alpine explorer Saus­sure, who asked in vain for direc­tions in a vil­lage in the Aosta Val­ley when most of the vil­lagers were out in the fields, imag­ined that ‘an evil spirit had turned the inhab­i­tants of the unhappy vil­lage into dumb ani­mals, leav­ing them with just enough human face to show that they had once been men’.

The infir­mity that seemed a curse to Saus­sure was a bless­ing to the natives. The birth of a cretinous baby was believed to bring good luck to the fam­i­ly. The idiot child would never have to work and would never have to leave home to earn money to pay the tax-­col­lec­tor. These hideous, crea­tures were already half-cured of life. Even the death of a nor­mal child could be a con­so­la­tion. If the baby had lived long enough to be bap­tized, or if a clever witch revived the corpse for an instant to sprin­kle it with holy water, its soul would pray for the fam­ily in heav­en.

…A slightly cal­lous view of past suf­fer­ing has empha­sized the sus­pi­ciously repet­i­tive nature of these Cahiers. Set phrases were sug­gested by cen­tral com­mit­tees and copied down by local com­mit­tees. One vil­lage found an ade­quate expres­sion of its suf­fer­ing and oth­ers repeated the impres­sive details: chil­dren eat­ing grass, tears moist­en­ing bread, farm­ers feel­ing envi­ous of their ani­mals, and so on. But those grass-eat­ing chil­dren were clearly not a fig­ure of speech: the har­vest of 1788 had been worse than usu­al, and the Cahiers were drawn up in the dan­ger­ously hol­low months when last year’s sup­plies were run­ning low and next year’s corn had yet to ripen. The rel­a­tively pros­per­ous town of Espère obvi­ously had noth­ing to gain when it applied the phrase to its neigh­bours:

We have not yet seen our chil­dren munch­ing grass like those of our neigh­bours, and our old peo­ple, hap­pier than many of those in the sur­round­ing region, almost all sur­vived the rigours of last Jan­u­ary. Only once did we have the afflic­tion of see­ing one of our own peo­ple die of hunger.

Even for pros­per­ous peas­ants, dis­as­ter always loomed. Few lives were free from sud­den set­backs. Every year, sev­eral vil­lages and urban dis­tricts went up in smoke. An Eng­lish trav­eller, cross­ing the Jura from Salins to Pon­tar­lier in 1738, was told that ‘there is scarce a Vil­lage in all this Tract that does not per­ish by Flames once at least in 10 Years’. Salins itself was almost totally destroyed in 1825 by a fire that burned for three days. The city of Rennes dis­ap­peared in 1720 and much of Limo­ges in 1864. Thatch was cheap (gleaned from har­vested fields in Octo­ber), but it har­boured huge pop­u­la­tions of insects and caught fire eas­ily unless it was com­pletely cov­ered by a layer of clay, quick­lime, horse manure and sand. (In some parts, thatch was out­lawed in new build­ings in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury and replaced by the red cor­ru­gated iron that was thought to add a pleas­ant touch of color to the land­scape.)

Déguignet was for­tu­nate in hav­ing par­ents who wanted to keep him. Thou­sands of chil­dren—­like Tom Thumb in the French fairy tale—were aban­doned every year. At Provins, between 1854 and 1859, 1,258 chil­dren were deposited in the rotat­ing bar­rel built into the wall of the gen­eral hos­pi­tal. (It can now be seen in the local muse­um.) These tours d’a­ban­don, which con­tained a straw bed and some blan­kets, made it pos­si­ble for moth­ers to aban­don their babies anony­mously and safe­ly. They were out­lawed as a pub­lic dis­grace in 1861, which sim­ply meant that more babies than before were left to die on doorsteps. In 1869, over 7 per cent of births in France were ille­git­i­mate, and one-third of those chil­dren were aban­doned. Each year, fifty thou­sand human beings started life in France with­out a par­ent. Many were sent to the enter­pris­ing women known as ‘angel-­mak­ers’ who per­formed what can most kindly be described as post­na­tal abor­tions. A report on the hos­pice at Rennes defined them as ‘women who have no milk and who—­doubt­less for a fee—felo­niously take care of sev­eral chil­dren at the same time. The chil­dren per­ish almost imme­di­ate­ly.’

Before 1779, the nuns who ran the foundling hos­pi­tal in Paris were obliged by law to take the infant over­flow from the provinces. This emer­gency reg­u­la­tion pro­duced one of the strangest sights on the main roads of France. Long-dis­tance don­keys car­ry­ing pan­niers stuffed with babies came to the cap­i­tal from as far away as Brit­tany, Lor­raine and the Auvergne. The carters set out on their two-hun­dred-and-­fifty-mile jour­neys with four or five babies to a bas­ket, but in towns and vil­lages along the route they struck deals with mid­wives and par­ents. For a small fee, they would push in a few extra babies. To make the load more tractable and eas­ier on the ears, the babies were given wine instead of milk. Those that died were dumped at the road­side like rot­ten apples. In Paris, the carters were paid by the head and evi­dently deliv­ered enough to make it worth their while. But for every ten liv­ing babies that reached the cap­i­tal, only one sur­vived more than three days.

The Dark Side of the Enlightenment

Flem­ing 2013, The Dark Side of the Enlight­en­ment, offers a use­ful exam­ple of the blind­ing effects of time & changes in ide­ol­ogy in dis­cus­sion of Mil­ton’s Par­adise Lost (pg27–29):

The same phe­nom­ena viewed from oppo­site ends of a period of dra­matic intel­lec­tual change may look very dif­fer­ent… [1667] is an epic poem based in the his­tory of Adam and Eve as recounted in the first two chap­ters of the Book of Gen­e­sis…The sub­ject of Par­adise Lost is “the Fall of Man”, the “orig­i­nal sin” of ancient Chris­t­ian the­o­log­i­cal ortho­doxy. The results of the pri­mal trans­gres­sion were cat­a­stroph­ic, for sin “brought death into the World, and all our woe, with loss of Eden.” Our human ances­tors, now ren­dered mor­tal by their own dis­obe­di­ence, were ban­ished into the harsh world of labor and neces­si­ty—our world. This myth was uni­ver­sally under­stood among Chris­t­ian thinkers both as a his­tor­i­cal account of the pri­mal fall and an alle­gory of every act of sin in which sen­su­al­ity mas­ters rea­son an will­ful­ness con­quers a required obe­di­ence. John Mil­ton, an actual rev­o­lu­tion­ary both in pol­i­tics and in art, very clearly grounded his poem in a strictly sta­tic hier­ar­chy of the . There was a meta­phys­i­cal pyra­mid with God at its apex. Just below that were the hier­ar­chi­cally ordered angels. A “lit­tle lower than the angels” were human beings, with man the supe­rior to woman. Below that were all the ani­mals and birds, all of veg­e­ta­tive life from the mighty oak to the lichen scabrous upon the stone, then the stones and min­er­als them­selves, down to the mean­est clods of the earth­…Sin at its core was the over­throw of divinely estab­lished hier­ar­chies, turn­ing things upside down.

…In 1793…William Blake cre­ated a work called The Mar­riage takes Par­adise Lost as its point of depar­ture, and it makes the fol­low­ing crit­i­cism of it: “Note: The rea­son Mil­ton wrote in fet­ters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at lib­erty when of Dev­ils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Dev­ils party with­out know­ing it.” The idea that Mil­ton was sub­con­sciously “of the Dev­ils party”—or putting it in more force­ful terms that Satan is the true hero of Par­adise Lost and God Almighty its true vil­lain—has become one of the ortho­dox­ies of mod­ern lit­er­ary his­to­ry. It seems to accord with our sense of what is good and true, and it seems con­firmed by the nature of the verse. Mil­ton’s God is arbi­trary and auto­crat­ic, and His words, when com­pared with Satan’s fiery speech­es, are bor­ing. Accord­ing to one famous inter­pre­ta­tion, by the lit­er­ary critic William Emp­son, Mil­ton’s God is actively evil. Satan, on the other hand, is dynam­ic. Pan­de­mo­ni­um—the par­lia­ment of all the dev­il­s—is less like a royal court than a demo­c­ra­tic sen­ate. There is ver­bal thrust and ver­bal par­ry, the most fun­da­men­tal chal­leng­ing of author­i­ty. Non serviam, cries Satan. I shall not serve. His most mem­o­rable line may be “Bet­ter to reign in hell than serve in heav­en!”

Despite tor­tured attempts to attribute this “read­ing” to Mil­ton’s con­scious inten­tion, it seems impos­si­ble that a sev­en­teen-­cen­tury Eng­lish Puri­tan would write a bib­li­cal epic in which God is the vil­lain and Satan the hero, or that it would be received by nearly the entire Protes­tant eigh­teenth cen­tury as the great­est Chris­t­ian poem ever writ­ten. Slightly more plau­si­ble, but only slight­ly, is the notion that such an inter­pre­ta­tion reveals a sub­con­scious irres­o­lu­tion within John Mil­ton. It is much more likely that what seemed man­i­festly clear to the twen­ti­eth-­cen­tury lit­er­ary critic Emp­son never occurred to any­body for a cen­tury or more after the poem’s pub­li­ca­tion [1793–1667 = 126]. When, how­ev­er, the Old World view of the Great Chain of Being and the right­ness of fixed hier­ar­chies gives way to a very dif­fer­ent view—of the gen­er­a­tive power of dynam­i­cally inter­act­ing polar­i­ties—the phe­nom­ena may look very dif­fer­ent. Yet unless we are will­ing to turn all of cul­tural his­tory into a vast Rorschach test that can tell us only what is already in our own minds, we need to make a stren­u­ous effort to grasp some­thing very dif­fer­ent from what may already be there. “A per­fect judge will read each work of wit”, says Alexan­der Pope, “With the same spirit that its author writ.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker

Excerpts from Steven Pinker’s The Bet­ter Angels of Our Nature on vio­lence & infan­ti­cide in pre-in­dus­trial soci­eties (in­clud­ing Chris­t­ian ones):

…A sur­vey of cul­tures by the anthro­pol­o­gist Laila Williamson reveals that infan­ti­cide has been prac­ticed on every con­ti­nent and by every kind of soci­ety, from non-s­tate bands and vil­lages (77% of which have an accepted cus­tom of infan­ti­cide) to advanced civ­i­liza­tions.102 Until recent­ly, between 10 and 15% of all babies were killed shortly after they were born, and in some soci­eties the rate has been as high as 50%.103 In the words of the his­to­rian Lloyd deMause, “All fam­i­lies once prac­ticed infan­ti­cide. All states trace their ori­gin to child sac­ri­fice. All reli­gions began with the muti­la­tion and mur­der of chil­dren.”104

…Martin Daly and Margo Wil­son tested the triage the­ory by exam­in­ing a sam­ple of sixty unre­lated soci­eties from a data­base of ethno­gra­phies.111 Infan­ti­cide was doc­u­mented in a major­ity of them, and in 112 cases the anthro­pol­o­gists recorded a rea­son. 87% of the rea­sons fit the triage the­o­ry: the infant was not sired by the wom­an’s hus­band, the infant was deformed or ill, or the infant had strikes against its chances of sur­viv­ing to matu­ri­ty, such as being a twin, hav­ing an older sib­ling close in age, hav­ing no father around, or being born into a fam­ily that had fallen on hard eco­nomic times.

…The tech­no­log­i­cal effi­ciency of daugh­ter-proof­ing a preg­nancy may make it seem as if the girl short­age is a prob­lem of moder­ni­ty, but female infan­ti­cide has been doc­u­mented in China and India for more than two thou­sand years.119 In Chi­na, mid­wives kept a bucket of water at the bed­side to drown the baby if it was a girl. In India there were many meth­ods: “giv­ing a pill of tobacco and bhang to swal­low, drown­ing in milk, smear­ing the moth­er’s breast with opium or the juice of the poi­so­nous Dat­u­ra, or cov­er­ing the child’s mouth with a plas­ter of cow-­dung before it drew breath.” Then and now, even when daugh­ters are suf­fered to live, they may not last long. Par­ents allo­cate most of the avail­able food to their sons, and as a Chi­nese doc­tor explains, “if a boy gets sick, the par­ents may send him to the hos­pi­tal at once, but if a girl gets sick, the par­ents may say to them­selves, ‘Well, we’ll see how she is tomor­row.’”120

Female infan­ti­cide, also called gen­der­cide and gynecide, is not unique to Asia.121 The Yanomamö are one of many for­ag­ing peo­ples that kill more new­born daugh­ters than sons. In ancient Greece and Rome, babies were “dis­carded in rivers, dunghills, or cesspools, placed in jars to starve, or exposed to the ele­ments and beasts in the wild.”122 Infan­ti­cide was also com­mon in medieval and Renais­sance Europe.123 In all these places, more girls per­ished than boys. Often fam­i­lies would kill every daugh­ter born to them until they had a son; sub­se­quent daugh­ters were allowed to live.

…The evo­lu­tion­ary anthro­pol­o­gists Sarah Hrdy and Kris­ten Hawkes have each shown that the Triver­s-Willard the­ory gets only half of the story right. In India, it’s true that the higher castes tend to kill their daugh­ters. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it’s not true that the lower castes tend to kill their sons. In fact, it’s hard to find a soci­ety any­where that kills its sons.128 The infan­ti­ci­dal cul­tures of the world are either equal-op­por­tu­nity baby-killers or they pre­fer to kill the girl­s—and with them, the Triver­s-Willard expla­na­tion for female infan­ti­cide in humans.

Whether they are new moth­ers in des­per­ate straits, puta­tive fathers doubt­ing their pater­ni­ty, or par­ents pre­fer­ring a son over a daugh­ter, peo­ple in the West can no longer kill their new­borns with impuni­ty.135 In 2007 in the United States, 221 infants were mur­dered out of 4.3 mil­lion births. That works out to a rate of 0.00005, or a reduc­tion from the his­tor­i­cal aver­age by a fac­tor of two to three thou­sand. About a quar­ter of them were killed on their first day of life by their moth­ers, like the “trash-­can moms” who made head­lines in the late 1990s by con­ceal­ing their preg­nan­cies, giv­ing birth in secret (in one case dur­ing a high school prom), smoth­er­ing their new­borns, and dis­card­ing their bod­ies in the trash.136 These women find them­selves in sim­i­lar con­di­tions to those who set the stage for infan­ti­cide in human pre­his­to­ry: they are young, sin­gle, give birth alone, and feel they can­not count on the sup­port of their kin. Other infants were killed by fatal abuse, often by a step­fa­ther. Still oth­ers per­ished at the hands of a depressed mother who com­mit­ted sui­cide and took her chil­dren with her because she could not imag­ine them liv­ing with­out her. Rarely, a mother with post­par­tum depres­sion will cross the line into post­par­tum psy­chosis and kill her chil­dren under the spell of a delu­sion, like the infa­mous Andrea Yates, who in 2001 drowned her five chil­dren in a bath­tub.

What drove down the West­ern rate of infan­ti­cide by more than three orders of mag­ni­tude? The first step was to crim­i­nal­ize it. Bib­li­cal Judaism pro­hib­ited fil­i­cide, though it did­n’t go the whole hog: killing an infant younger than a month did not count as mur­der, and loop­holes were claimed by Abra­ham, King Solomon, and Yah­weh him­self for Plague #10.137 The pro­hi­bi­tion became clearer in Tal­mu­dic Judaism and in Chris­tian­i­ty, from which it was absorbed into the late Roman Empire. The pro­hi­bi­tion came from an ide­ol­ogy that held that lives are owned by God, to be given and taken at his plea­sure, so the lives of chil­dren no longer belonged to their par­ents. The upshot was a taboo in West­ern moral codes and legal sys­tems on tak­ing an iden­ti­fi­able human life: one could not delib­er­ate on the value of the life of an indi­vid­ual in one’s midst. (Ex­cep­tions were exu­ber­antly made, of course, for heretics, infi­dels, unciv­i­lized tribes, enemy peo­ples, and trans­gres­sors of any of sev­eral hun­dred laws. And we con­tinue to delib­er­ate on the value of sta­tis­ti­cal lives, as opposed to iden­ti­fi­able lives, every time we send sol­diers or police into har­m’s way, or scrimp on expen­sive health and safety mea­sures.)

For almost a mil­len­nium and a half the Judeo-Chris­t­ian pro­hi­bi­tion against infan­ti­cide coex­isted with mas­sive infan­ti­cide in prac­tice. Accord­ing to one his­to­ri­an, expo­sure of infants dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages “was prac­ticed on a gigan­tic scale with absolute impuni­ty, noticed by writ­ers with most frigid indif­fer­ence.”145 Mil­ner cites birth records show­ing an aver­age of 5.1 births among wealthy fam­i­lies, 2.9 among the mid­dle class, and 1.8 among the poor, adding, “There was no evi­dence that the num­ber of preg­nan­cies fol­lowed sim­i­lar lines.”146 In 1527 a French priest wrote that “the latrines resound with the cries of chil­dren who have been plunged into them.”147

At var­i­ous points in the late Mid­dle Ages and the early mod­ern peri­od, sys­tems of crim­i­nal jus­tice tried to do some­thing about infan­ti­cide….­Var­i­ous fig leaves were pro­cured. The phe­nom­e­non of “over­ly­ing,” in which a mother would acci­den­tally smother an infant by rolling over it in her sleep, at times became an epi­dem­ic. Women were invited to drop off their unwanted babies at foundling homes, some of them equipped with turnta­bles and trap­doors to ensure anonymi­ty. The mor­tal­ity rates for the inhab­i­tants of these homes ranged from 50% to more than 99%.149 Women handed over their infants to wet nurses or “baby farm­ers” who were known to have sim­i­lar rates of suc­cess. Elixirs of opi­um, alco­hol, and trea­cle were read­ily obtain­able by moth­ers and wet nurses to becalm a cranky infant, and at the right dosage it could becalm them very effec­tively indeed. Many a child who sur­vived infancy was sent to a work­house, “with­out the incon­ve­nience of too much food or too much cloth­ing”, as Dick­ens described them in Oliver Twist, and where “it did per­versely hap­pen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sick­ened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-s­moth­ered by acci­dent; in any one of which cas­es, the mis­er­able lit­tle being was usu­ally sum­moned into another world, and there gath­ered to the fathers it had never known in this.” Even with these con­trivances, tiny corpses were a fre­quent sight in parks, under bridges, and in ditch­es. Accord­ing to a British coro­ner in 1862, “The police seemed to think no more of find­ing a dead child than they did of find­ing a dead cat or a dead dog.”150

It is true that in much of the world today, a sim­i­lar pro­por­tion of preg­nan­cies end in abor­tion as the frac­tion that in cen­turies past ended in infan­ti­cide.151 Women in the devel­oped West abort between 12% and 25% of their preg­nan­cies; in some of the for­mer com­mu­nist coun­tries the pro­por­tion is greater than half. In 2003 a mil­lion fetuses were aborted in the United States, and about 5 mil­lion were aborted through­out Europe and the West, with at least another 11 mil­lion aborted else­where in the world. If abor­tion counts as a form of vio­lence, the West has made no progress in its treat­ment of chil­dren. Indeed, because effec­tive abor­tion has become widely avail­able only since the 1970s (espe­cial­ly, in the United States, with the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court deci­sion), the moral state of the West has­n’t improved; it has col­lapsed.

“The Book of Rev­e­la­tion: prophecy and pol­i­tics Edge mas­ter class 2011”:

Steven Pinker: This speaks to the orig­i­nal ques­tion of why a lot of these beliefs per­sist. And I’m always puz­zled how, if you take all of this lit­er­ally as some pro­fess to do, that it really does lead to some—and speak­ing anachro­nis­ti­cally as a post-en­light­en­ment sec­u­lar human­ist—it leads to all kinds of per­ni­cious con­se­quences. Like if the only thing that keeps you from an eter­nity of tor­ment is accept­ing Jesus as your sav­ior, well, if you tor­ture some­one until they embrace Jesus, you’re doing them the biggest favor of their lives. It’s bet­ter a few hours now than all eter­ni­ty. And if some­one is lead­ing peo­ple away from this kind of sal­va­tion, well, they’re the most evil Typhoid Mary that you can imag­ine, and exter­mi­nat­ing them would be a pub­lic health mea­sure because they are lur­ing peo­ple into an eter­nity of tor­ment, and there could be noth­ing more evil. Again, it’s totally anachro­nis­tic. The idea of damna­tion and hell is, by mod­ern stan­dards, a morally per­ni­cious con­cept. If you take it lit­er­al­ly, though, then of course tor­tur­ing Jews and athe­ists and heretics and so on, is actu­ally a very respon­si­ble pub­lic health mea­sure. Nowa­days, peo­ple both pro­fess to believe in The Book of Rev­e­la­tion, and they also don’t think it’s a good idea to tor­ture Jews and heretics and athe­ists.

…Even the tel­e­van­ge­lists who are thun­der­ing from their pul­pits, prob­a­bly don’t think it’s a good idea to tor­ture Jews. And in fact, in pub­lic opin­ion polls, there’s a remark­able change through the 20th cen­tu­ry, in state­ments like, all reli­gions are equally valid, and ought to be respect­ed. which today, the major­ity of Amer­i­cans agree with. And in the 1930s, need­less to say, the major­ity dis­agreed with. What I find fas­ci­nat­ing is, what kind of com­part­men­tal­iza­tion allows, on the one hand, peo­ple to believe in a lit­eral truth of judg­ment day, eter­nal tor­ment, but they no longer, as they once did, fol­low through the impli­ca­tion, well, we’d bet­ter exe­cute heretics and tor­ture non­be­liev­ers. On one hand they’ve got admirably, a kind of post-en­light­en­ment ecu­meni­cal tol­er­ant human­ism, tor­tur­ing peo­ple is bad. On the other hand, they claim to hold beliefs that log­i­cally imply that tor­tur­ing heretics would be an excel­lent thing. It’s inter­est­ing that the human mind can embrace these con­tra­dic­tions and that for­tu­nately for all of us, the human­is­tic sen­ti­ments trump the, at least, claimed belief in the lit­eral truth of all of this.

  1. It’s accepted that the­o­ries should be con­sis­tent. It’d also be good if one’s beliefs were con­sis­tent over time as well, oth­er­wise one gets things like Moore’s ques­tion (or a quote ascribed to Leonardo Da Vinci, appro­pri­ately on veg­e­tar­i­an­is­m), “I went to the pic­tures last Tues­day, but I don’t believe that I did”, a sort of incon­sis­tency which seems to ren­der one vul­ner­a­ble to a Dutch book exploit. (How exactly the incon­sis­tency is to be resolved is a bit unclear.) Reflec­tion prin­ci­ples have been much dis­cussed.↩︎

  2. C.S. Lewis, (1952), Bk1, ch2↩︎

  3. Kugel 2011, pg 165–16:

    The omens con­tin­ued to exist long after Europe was Chris­tian­ized; indeed, Chris­tian­ity was often the omens’ close friend, a fre­quent fea­ture in tales of the saints. But then, slowly at first, their sphere of influ­ence began to shrink. The whole realm of the super­nat­ural under­went a marked con­trac­tion in West­ern Europe—not, as one might sup­pose, with the sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion, but well before it, dur­ing the period of, rough­ly, 1000 to 1500 of the com­mon era.6 The super­nat­ural of course con­tin­ued to exist, but, as I men­tioned, the very act of dis­tin­guish­ing the nat­ural from the super­nat­ural was a dis­tinc­tion that bespoke mankind’s grow­ing power over occult forces.

    One indi­ca­tion of this change is the phe­nom­e­non of ‘trial by ordeal’. In many soci­eties, super­nat­ural means were used to deter­mine a per­son’s guilt or inno­cence, or the appro­pri­ate­ness or inap­pro­pri­ate­ness of a given course of action: lots were cast, entrails were scru­ti­nized, arrows were shot, and so forth, and the results deter­mined what was to be done. This was not, it should be stressed, like our flip­ping a coin nowa­days, where the utterly ran­dom nature of the out­come is gen­er­ally rec­og­nized by the par­tic­i­pants. Instead, the results here were taken to be an expres­sion of the divine will…Chris­t­ian tri­als by ordeal con­tin­ued long after this time [first cen­tury CE], in fact, well into the Mid­dle Ages. And they were no joke: indeed, they were known by the some­what more omi­nous name of ‘the Judg­ment of God’ (iudi­cium Dei)…The inter­est­ing thing is that such tri­als vir­tu­ally dis­ap­peared from West­ern Europe by the year 1300, and it seems this was part of a wider trend that lim­ited (but cer­tainly did not elim­i­nate entire­ly) the role of the super­nat­ural in human affairs. It may not be a coin­ci­dence that this was also the time when the writ­ings of Plato and Aris­totle, as well as the other Greek sci­en­tific and math­e­mat­i­cal trea­tis­es, were mak­ing their way into Lat­in, often via ear­lier trans­la­tions into Ara­bic. (Greek had been largely unknown in West­ern Europe.) A whole new atti­tude to the for­merly super­nat­ural world was emerg­ing, what the soci­ol­o­gist called “break­ing the magic spell” of the world.8 The uncanny was reced­ing.

  4. Char­i­ta­ble Foun­da­tion­s—­Pos­ner’s Com­ment:

    But I would not place much weight on com­pe­ti­tion by uni­ver­si­ties and other recip­i­ents of char­i­ta­ble giv­ing for foun­da­tion grants, since the recip­i­ents will com­pete what­ever the source; uni­ver­si­ties com­pete for gov­ern­ment grants just as they do for pri­vate grants. A per­pet­ual char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion, how­ev­er, is a com­pletely irre­spon­si­ble insti­tu­tion, answer­able to nobody. It com­petes nei­ther in cap­i­tal mar­kets nor in prod­uct mar­kets (in both respects dif­fer­ing from uni­ver­si­ties), and, unlike a hered­i­tary monarch whom such a foun­da­tion oth­er­wise resem­bles, it is sub­ject to no polit­i­cal con­trols either. It is not even sub­ject to bench­mark com­pe­ti­tion—that is, eval­u­a­tion by com­par­i­son with sim­i­lar enter­pris­es—ex­cept with regard to the per­cent­age of its expen­di­tures that go to admin­is­tra­tion (staff salaries and the like) rather than to donees. The puz­zle for eco­nom­ics is why these foun­da­tions are not total scan­dal­s…A deeper puz­zle relates to the left­ward drift in foun­da­tion poli­cies that Becker dis­cuss­es, a drift enabled by the per­pet­ual char­ac­ter of a foun­da­tion. (I agree that foun­da­tion staff work is attrac­tive to lib­er­als and that the chil­dren of the founders tend to be more lib­eral than their fathers. In both cases the main rea­son is prob­a­bly that while the cre­ators of the major foun­da­tions invari­ably are suc­cess­ful busi­ness­men, and busi­ness val­ues are con­ser­v­a­tive, foun­da­tion staff are not busi­ness-peo­ple and many chil­dren of wealthy busi­ness-peo­ple do not go into busi­ness either.) The puz­zle is why con­ser­v­a­tives estab­lish per­pet­ual foun­da­tions. Don’t they real­ize what is likely to hap­pen down the road? The answer may be that the desire to per­pet­u­ate their name is greater than their desire to sup­port con­ser­v­a­tive caus­es. In any event, a rule for­bid­ding per­pet­ual foun­da­tions would be pater­nal­is­tic.

    Nev­er­the­less, on the basic libertarian/economic grounds, even Pos­ner has to admit:

    I agree with Becker that the great strength of char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tions, and the prin­ci­pal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the tax exemp­tion (though a sec­ondary one is to off­set the free-rider prob­lem in char­i­ta­ble giv­ing—if you give to my favorite char­i­ty, I ben­e­fit, and so the more you give the less I will be inclined to give), are that they bring about a decen­tral­iza­tion of char­i­ta­ble giv­ing, break­ing what would oth­er­wise be a gov­ern­men­tal monop­oly and thus reduc­ing the play of pol­i­tics in char­i­ty. In addi­tion, how­ev­er, to the extent that char­i­ta­ble giv­ing sub­sti­tutes for gov­ern­ment spend­ing, such giv­ing (mi­nus the tax ben­e­fits to the giver) rep­re­sents a form of vol­un­tary tax­a­tion, like state lot­ter­ies. Given the enor­mous skew­ness of incomes in today’s United States, it is good to encour­age vol­un­tary tax­a­tion of the wealthy…If rich peo­ple want to squan­der their money on feck­less foun­da­tions, that should be their priv­i­lege. More­over, to the extent that foun­da­tion spend­ing sub­sti­tutes for gov­ern­ment spend­ing, the com­par­i­son is of two inef­fi­cient forms of enter­prise, and the foun­da­tions may be the less inef­fi­cient form.

  5. 6: See on this M. Bayliss, “The Cult of Dead Kin in Assyria and Baby­lo­nia”, Iraq 35 (1973), 115–125; Brian B. Schmidt, Israel’s Benef­i­cent Dead: Ances­tor Cult and Necro­mancy in Ancient Israelite Reli­gion and Tra­di­tion (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisen­brauns, 1996), 201–215; Theodore Lewis, The Cult of the Dead in Ancient Israel and Ugarit (At­lanta: Schol­ars Press, 1989), 97. [More read­ing: Eliz­a­beth M. Bloch-­Smith’s 1992 paper, “The Cult of the Dead in Judah: Inter­pret­ing the Mate­r­ial Remains”.]↩︎

  6. The fol­low­ing are the num­bered ref­er­ences in the Fukuyama extract:

    • 39: Hugh Bak­er, Chi­nese Fam­ily and Kin­ship (New York: Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity Press, 1979), p. 26.
    • 5: Such rights were said to have spon­ta­neously emerged dur­ing the of 1849–1850, when min­ers peace­fully nego­ti­ated among them­selves an allo­ca­tion of the claims they had staked out. See Pipes, Prop­erty and Free­dom, p. 91. This account ignores two impor­tant con­tex­tual fac­tors: first, the min­ers were all prod­ucts of an Anglo-Amer­i­can cul­ture where respect for indi­vid­ual prop­erty rights was deeply embed­ded; sec­ond, these rights came at the expense of the cus­tom­ary rights to these ter­ri­to­ries on the part of the var­i­ous indige­nous peo­ples liv­ing there, which were not respected by the min­ers.
    • 6: Charles K. Meek, Land Law and Cus­tom in the Colonies, 2d ed. (Lon­don: Frank Cass, 1968), p. 26.
    • 7: Quoted in Eliz­a­beth Col­son, “The Impact of the Colo­nial Period on the Def­i­n­i­tion of Land Rights,” in Vic­tor Turn­er, ed., Colo­nial­ism in Africa 1870–1960. Vol. 3: “Pro­files in Change: African Soci­ety and Colo­nial Rule” (New York: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 1971), p. 203.
    • 8: Meek, Land Law and Cus­tom, p. 6.
    • 9: Col­son, “Impact of the Colo­nial Peri­od,” p. 200.
    • 10: Paul Vino­grad­off, His­tor­i­cal Jurispru­dence (Lon­don: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1923), p. 327.
    • 11: Meek, Land Law and Cus­tom, p. 17.
    • 12: Vino­grad­off, His­tor­i­cal Jurispru­dence, p. 322.
    • 13: For a dis­cus­sion of the pros and cons of tra­di­tional land tenure, see Curt­in, Holzknecht, and Lar­mour, Land Reg­is­tra­tion in Papua New Guinea.
    • 14: For a detailed account of the dif­fi­cul­ties of nego­ti­at­ing prop­erty rights in Papua New Guinea, see Wimp, “Indige­nous Land Own­ers and Rep­re­sen­ta­tion in PNG and Aus­tralia.”
    • 15: The mod­ern eco­nomic the­ory of prop­erty rights does not spec­ify the social unit over which indi­vid­ual prop­erty rights extend for the sys­tem to be effi­cient. The unit is often pre­sumed to be the indi­vid­u­al, but fam­i­lies and firms are often posited as hold­ers of prop­erty rights, whose con­stituent mem­bers are assumed to have com­mon inter­ests in the effi­cient exploita­tion of the resources they together own. See Jen­nifer Roback, “Exchange, Sov­er­eign­ty, and Indi­an-An­glo Rela­tions,” in Terry L. Ander­son, ed., Prop­erty Rights and Indian Economies (Lan­ham, MD: Row­man and Lit­tle­field, 1991).
  7. In the non-Sin­gu­lar­ity sce­nar­ios where patient main­te­nance & revival trusts will need to last a min­i­mum of a cen­tu­ry—the first cry­op­reser­va­tion was in 1967, so already hit­ting the half-­cen­tury mark—the con­tempt of descen­dants for their ances­tors’ wishes becomes a seri­ous con­cern.↩︎

  8. Finan­cial funds or trusts which only last a few decades or a cen­tury or two may not be a large con­cern for the or the , which are designed to func­tion with­out human or finan­cial input; but it is a seri­ous con­cern for (how do the pre­dic­tions pay out if the funds are seized? or if the orga­ni­za­tion is forced to dis­solve?) and a deal-breaker for any “Library of the Long Now” (what’s the point of a new library if it will only last a few cen­turies? Any efforts would then be far bet­ter invested in exist­ing old insti­tu­tions like the or the ).↩︎

  9. pg65–66, James L. Kugel, In the Val­ley of the Shadow:

    One book I read dur­ing chemother­apy was the well-­known study by the exper­i­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist , (1976). Jaynes sug­gested that the human brain used to func­tion some­what dif­fer­ently in ancient times (that is, up to about 3,000 years ago). He noted that, while many aspects of lan­guage and related func­tions are located in the two parts of the brain’s left hemi­sphere known as and , the right-brain coun­ter­parts to these areas are nowa­days largely dor­mant. Accord­ing to Jay­nes, how­ev­er, those areas had been extremely impor­tant in ear­lier times, before humans began to per­ceive the world as we do now. Back then, he the­o­rized, humans had an essen­tially “bicam­eral mind” that lacked the inte­gra­tive capac­i­ties of the mod­ern brain. Instead, its two halves func­tioned rel­a­tively inde­pen­dent­ly: the would obey what it per­ceived as “voices”. which in fact emanated from those now-­dor­mant areas of the right brain. (In Jay­nes’s for­mu­la­tion, the right hemi­sphere “orga­nized admon­i­tory expe­ri­ence and coded it into ‘voices’ which were then ‘heard’ by the left hemi­sphere.”) Although inter­nally gen­er­at­ed, those voices were thus per­ceived by the left brain as com­ing from out­side. It is this sit­u­a­tion that led to the belief in com­mu­ni­ca­tions from the gods in ancient times, as well as the belief in lesser sorts of super­nat­ural com­mu­ni­ca­tors: talk­ing spir­its and genies, muses who dic­tated poetry to the “inspired” poet, sacred rocks, trees, and other objects that brought word “from the other side”. When this bicam­eral mind faded out of exis­tence and mod­ern con­scious­ness arose, prophecy like­wise ceased and peo­ple sud­denly no longer heard the gods telling them what to do.

    Jay­nes’s the­ory attracted much atten­tion when first pro­mul­gat­ed: it answered a lot of ques­tions in one bold stroke. But it was not long before other schol­ars raised [sub­stan­tial], and even­tu­ally dev­as­tat­ing, objec­tions to his idea. To begin with, 3,000 years is a tiny speck of time on the scale of human evo­lu­tion. How could so basic a change in the way our brains work have come about so recent­ly? What is more, 3,000 years ago humans lived in the most var­ied soci­eties and envi­ron­ments. Some soci­eties were already quite sophis­ti­cated and diver­si­fied, while oth­ers then (and some still now) existed in the most rudi­men­tary state; some humans lived in trop­i­cal forests, oth­ers in tem­per­ate climes, still oth­ers in snowy waste­lands close to earth’s poles; and so forth. could human brains in these most diverse cir­cum­stances all have changed so rad­i­cally at—in evo­lu­tion­ary terms—the same instant? Cer­tainly now our brains all seem to func­tion in pretty much the same way, no mat­ter where we come from; there are no appar­ent sur­viv­ing exem­plars of the bicam­eral mind that Jaynes pos­tu­lat­ed. What could have caused human­ity to undergo this rad­i­cal change in lock­step all over the earth’s sur­face? A ray from outer space?

    But if Jay­nes’s idea has met with dis­ap­proval, the evi­dence he adduced is no less provoca­tive. The prob­lem of explain­ing such phe­nom­ena as the appear­ance and sub­se­quent dis­ap­pear­ance of prophecy in many soci­eties (though cer­tainly not all), along with the near-u­ni­ver­sal evi­dence of reli­gion dis­cussed ear­lier (with the wide­spread phe­nom­e­non of peo­ple com­muning with dead ances­tors and/or god­s—and hear­ing back from them), remains puz­zling.