Thursday, October 26, 2006

Objective Ethics and Morality - is there such a concept?

During the past few days an interesting discussion developed on my blog and Kylopod’s at http://kylopod.blogspot.com/2006/10/moral-philosophy.html with the particiaption of Rabbi Joshua Maroof of http://vesomsechel.blogspot.com/ about morality and it gave me a better insight into the story of Adam and Chava in Eden that we read just last week.

In MN 1:2 (discussed in detail in the excellent Interpreting Maimonides by Prof. Marvin Fox A’H, a worthwhile study of how to read MN. See also his chapters 5, 6, and 7 relating to our discussion here), Rambam proposes that it describes the different components of a human being. The Sechel, rational part deals with true and false. It analyzes data and extrapolates from it in a methodical rational way arriving at conclusions that are either true or false. It is a purely scientific method for which man utilizes his Tzelem Elohim. Another part of a human being is his ability to discern right from wrong. That is a subjective method where cultural and personal preferences are the arbiters.

The right and the wrong are terms employed in the science of apparent truths (morals), not in that of necessary truths, as, e.g. it is not correct to say, in reference to the proposition" the heavens are spherical," it is" good" or to declare the assertion that" the earth is flat" to be" bad”: but we say of the one it is true, of the other it is false. Similarly our language expresses the idea of true and false by the terms Emet and Sheker, of the morally right and the morally wrong, by tov and rah. Thus it is the function of the intellect to discriminate between the true and the false -- a distinction which is applicable to all objects of intellectual perception… When Adam was yet in a state of innocence, and was guided solely by reflection and reason -- on account of which it is said:" Thou hast made him (man) little lower than the angels" (Ps. viii. 6) -- he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths; the most manifest impropriety, viz., to appear in a state of nudity, was nothing unbecoming according to his idea: he could not comprehend why it should be so. After man's disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said," And the wife saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes" (Gen. iii. 6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed… Hence we read," And ye shall be like Elohim (1) knowing good and evil," and not" knowing" or" discerning the true and the false”: while in necessary truths we can only apply the words" true and false," not" good and evil."

Morality has meaning because man’s imagination is the cause of physical desires. Imagination consists of the memory of past experiences which man wants to repeat. Desires make man narcissistic and selfish bringing about aggression and conflict. For society to function there is a need for ethical behavior and rules of conduct. A moral and legal system has to be put in place. These are not issues that we rate as true and false; they are cultural and are rated as good and bad.

After setting out the two components of a human being, the story continues with man thrown into the real world, constantly yearning for intellectual perfection. He has freedom of choice and if he strives for intellectual perfection, he will try to balance the two, sometimes-conflicting parts of himself, to do the right thing. Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah 5:1 finishes the story as follows:

רשות כל אדם נתונה לו: אם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך טובה ולהיות צדיק, הרשות בידו; ואם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך רעה ולהיות רשע, הרשות בידו. הוא שכתוב בתורה "הן האדם היה כאחד ממנו, לדעת, טוב ורע--כלומר הן מין זה של אדם היה אחד בעולם, ואין לו מין שני דומה לו בזה העניין, שיהא הוא מעצמו בדעתו ובמחשבתו יודע הטוב והרע ועושה כל מה שהוא חפץ, ואין לו מי שיעכב על ידו מלעשות הטוב או הרע. וכיון שכן הוא, "פן ישלח ידו" (שם).

Man has free will to do good or bad. He sets the criteria through his own thinking. If he wants to “know” objectively what is “good and bad” he needs to avail himself of “true and false” and integrate the two. The last words “Pen Yshlach Yado” is read as a wish and not negative. God is saying wistfully, let man take from the tree of life (true and false) when he deals in “good and bad” issues and he will live forever. (See also Shemona Perakim chapter 8 page 251 in Sheilat edition).

What exactly does it mean bringing these two components together? How does “good and bad” become “true and false”? The search for God through nature, trying to find the First Cause through His creation, through science follows the path of scientific inquiry. It follows the path of “true and false”, of objective analysis. When man understands the universe’s perfection in the sense that it is eternal, when he tries to emulate God in how He runs it, when he develops a system of ethics and morals that emulates Him, man uses his understanding of “true and false” to set the criteria of what is “good and bad”. Morality and ethics based on this type of thinking is grounded in objective and absolute norms. It is no longer just cultural but a single universal morality.

Rambam started the Moreh introducing this concept of the difference between “true and false” and “good and bad” suggesting that there is a way of integrating these two ways of thinking. He ends the Moreh with how this integration works. In MN 3:54 –

The prophet thus, in conclusion, says," For in these things I delight, says the Lord," i.e., My objective [in saying this) is that you shall practice loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. In a similar manner we have shown that the object of the enumeration of God's thirteen attributes is the lesson that we should acquire similar attributes and act accordingly. The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired-as far as this is possible for man-the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.”

To Rambam this is the goal of Judaism and the search for God, the integration of physics, metaphysics, ethics and morality thus setting objective criteria for the latter two turning “Good and Bad” into “True and False” .


Note
(1) Rambam earlier in this chapter and in 2:6 explains that the word Elohim here refers to judges and legislators rather than God. It is an equivocal word.

23 comments:

  1. son of tzelem elokim10/26/2006 9:16 PM

    In this weeks of portion Noach,chapter 9 verse 6 we read that "Whoever sheds the blood of man,by man shall his blood be shed;for in the image of G-D he made man.Onkelos explains "by man shall his blood be shed" as referring to the court and its judges(plural) exacting justice on the murderer.The Meshech Chochmah wants to explain the passage as referring to a single judge.He says that in the days of Noach even capital offences were judged by a single "just" judge.The reason for this is explained by the end of the verse " for in the image of G-D he made man".G-D is a single just G-D that judges the world alone.So too if man emulates G-D's actions by being just he too can be a single just judge.This concept of emulating G-d's actions goes back to the time of Noach.It would be interesting to analyze the requirement for our current (post Torah) justice system in requiring a Sanhedrin to judge capital offences from a philosophical point of view.

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  2. I like the equation of morality with subjectivity, I hadn't considered that before. However, as always, I cringe at the suggestion that the Torah/Halacha is simply an incidental part of Judaism and not the focal point of our relationship to the Divine.

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  3. David, you mention Marvin Fox's work on Maimonides quite often. I will have to get my hands on it, as per your recommendation.

    I am curious, have you ever looked at Leo Strauss' essays/introduction to MN? If so, what were your thoughts?

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  4. I enjoyed your exposition very, very much. Excellent post - an insightful, and I believe accurate, presentation of the Rambam's view. I was occupied with the same chapters of the Moreh last Shabbat, so it was helpful to see them cast so clearly.

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  5. >I am curious, have you ever looked at Leo Strauss' essays/introduction to MN? If so, what were your thoughts?

    Of course though he is more dense than Rambam at his worse. I like reading the modern scholars as a backdrop helping see different possible interpretation though I find that they miss the point. One has to be coming from a religiouds point of view to really understand Rambam. He was ultimately a man of religion and not just an abstract thinker. There is fire and passion under the rational persona. Professor Fox was a man of religion as was the Rav and as are many of the current Maimonideans. Those who are unwilling to sever their religious self from thought bring interesting insights. Those who do cut off bring interesting textual points but not do not really understand rambam.

    An interseting story: My son Alex (Son of Tzelem Elokim below ;-)) was getting onto a plane at Newark. The security person checks his bag and pulls out Pines' Guide volume 1. As his bag goes through the detector the man turns to Alex and says "Strauss intro is awesome!". Alex flipped out
    as you can imagine.

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  6. Rabbi Maroof thank you for your kind words.

    Greg: I cannot understand why people have difficulty in seeing torah as a guide and halacha as a self improvement method. The word Torah means guide as does Halacha mean a process of walking. Both are processes that help us gain intelectual perfection. It is only in the last generations that a new religion sprang up, which in itself can be seen as Avodah Zara as Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz A'H saw it, called worship of Torah. It replaces the ultimate goal of Yediat Hashem and is the cause of a host of problems for Judaism.

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  7. hi grandpa-great post

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  8. Greg: I cannot understand why people have difficulty in seeing torah as a guide and halacha as a self improvement method.

    I think that the Rav explains it pretty well in "the Halachik mind"

    (of course, it IS a self improvement method, but also much more than that)

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  9. >When man understands the universe’s perfection in the sense that it is eternal, when he tries to emulate God in how He runs it, when he develops a system of ethics and morals that emulates Him, man uses his understanding of “true and false” to set the criteria of what is “good and bad”. Morality and ethics based on this type of thinking is grounded in objective and absolute norms. It is no longer just cultural but a single universal morality.

    I have to disagree here. Since anyone's idea of the nature of God (and even the idea of God's existence) is itself a cultural artifact, morality and ethics based on imitation of God's behavior is no more objective and absolute than any other system of morality based on cultural norms. If the God (or Gods) one worships is violent and capricious, the resulting moral system will reflect that. The Assyrians burnt their children alive to keep the Molech happy. Even the patriarch Abraham thought at first that sacrificing his son would please God. Truth be told, the God we Jews worship is not always a shining example of our own values either. Who among us has not been moved to ask "How could God let that happen?" We pick and choose the behavior we ascribe to God based on our own definitions of "good" and then pretend that events like the Holocaust happen when God is looking away "or hiding his face."

    Mikeskeptic

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  10. Mikeskeptic, you are basing your criticism on the popular understanding of judaism. People who understand Judaism in that way are not bothered by existential questions and have pat answers .If you ask sophisticated questions you have to move to a more sophisticated understandinmg. Judaism declares upfront that God is only knnowable through His creation. Learn the sciences, see how He has set up things and from that extrapolate how to behave. If you do it truthfully without bias you will act correctly. If you let your own biases take over you will end up with falsehood and idolatry. that is why idolatry is so strongly opposed. it is not an objective analysis of existence. It creates myths instead of scientific reality. I know you will argue what about torah. That is a separate issue and does not belong in a comment. This reply doesn't belong here either. I just wanted to reply. There is much more to say.

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  11. David, I agree with your reply to MikeSkeptic. I am always astounded when scientists (who may actually believe in God) say things like "I derive no ethical concepts from my study of the Universe."

    That was unfortunately a favorite phrase of Einstein, and it continues to be "shegura b'pihem" among scientists.

    I think it is a convenient cop-out, in that it allows the scientists to observe lawfulness and wisdom in all of Creation but not to have to live wisely and lawfully themselves.

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  12. Jewishskeptic10/28/2006 2:39 PM

    >" A moral and legal system has to be put in place. These are not issues that we rate as true and false; they are cultural and are rated as good and bad."

    With that I can agree ,David,however,I don't see how the rest follows from it.
    You are darshening Rambam.As you quoted MN 1:2, Rambam rebukes the 'ish chacham' who asked him how come Adam achieved intellectual greatness after sinning! Rambam explaining to him that on the contrary,Adam's status deteriorated.Adam was intellectually perfect before he sinned,after he sinned he lost this madrega & became aware of the *m'fursamot*,of good & evil.
    I dont see,as you claim,that you can combine the two.Rambam says just the opposite in that ch.
    Show me a Rambam where he refers to morals as emet & sheker.

    >"The last words “Pen Yshlach Yado” is read as a wish and not negative. God is saying wistfully, let man take from the tree of life (true and false) when he deals in “good and bad” issues and he will live forever. (See also Shemona Perakim chapter 8 page 251 in Sheilat edition).

    Of course,one can say 'when I use a word,I use it only in the way I understand it'(wizzard of Oz?).
    In no way can "pen yishlach yado" be understood as a wish.Pen= lest.It's against the laguage & p'shat of the pasuk.After all,"dibrah Torah bilshon b'nei adam".. I don't care who says it.This by itself is wishful thinking..

    >" When man understands the universe’s perfection in the sense that it is eternal, when he tries to emulate God in how He runs it, when he develops a system of ethics and morals that emulates Him, man uses his understanding of “true and false” to set the criteria of what is “good and bad”. Morality and ethics based on this type of thinking is grounded in objective and absolute norms. It is no longer just cultural but a single universal morality."

    Here we go again!I once wrote you about it. In what sense can we emulate God in how He runs the Universe? BE MORE SPECIFIC! What morality do you see in how God runs the universe? In galaxies colliding with each other? Or in the biological world (& as I wrote then),where the animal world is "red in tooth & claw"?WHAT ARE WE TO EMULATE? Isn't Nature AMORAL?

    BTW,I am not as well versed in Rambam as you are,but where specifically does Rambam say that we should learn morality from the universe? Or for that matter from God? (without refering to the Torah. I mean just morality based on God's existence).

    Finally,isn't God,if he exists,even according to you,beyond good & evil.So,it's meaningless to say we emulate Him.

    if God exists, He does not define morality or goodness, it must come from a different source. If it comes from a different source then God did not create it,& there is nothing to emulate.

    Shavua Tov

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  13. >In no way can "pen yishlach yado" be understood as a wish.Pen= lest.It's against the laguage & p'shat of the pasuk.After all,"dibrah Torah bilshon b'nei adam".. I don't care who says it.This by itself is wishful thinking..

    Ignoring for the time being your disagreement that Pen can mean wishful thinking (Pen yesh bachem in Nitzavinm is definitely positive and not negative)you admit that Rambam reads it that way, That being the case does he not read Etz Hachaim as combining Emet and sheker with Etz hada'at tov vera?

    >Or for that matter from God?

    start with sefer hamitzvot asseh 8 continue with Hilchot De'ot 1:5-6
    MN 1;54 and 3:54 at end. there are more but that should suffice.

    >even according to you,beyond good & evil.

    True as it refers to His essence but what about the result of His actions?

    As far as your question about God's actions which is nature and it being neutral morally, it depends what type of morals you are talking about. Morals in secular world is based on self interest as it is in general in Hilchot Mamonot, Nizikin etc... by us. It takes on another meaning when one graduates to emulating God. The idea is that God has set laws into nature that keep it going forever. If one emulates Him in one's own little 4 cubits, doing things to keep others alive, helping them and making sure society runs smoothly so that it does not self destruct, is ecologically responsible etc... one emulates God and his natural laws which are meant to keep things running smoothly forever.

    Of course you question the existence of God. I respect that and will address it from my viewpoint in my next post which I hope to get around to finish soon.

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  14. Apologies for interrupting with this

    Jewish Skeptic - I wanted to contact you - do you have an email address that you'd be willing to post or would you be OK with passing one through the baal hablog? There's something I wanted to ask you.

    Thanks,

    Tafkaa

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  15. Jewishskeptic10/29/2006 12:58 AM

    >"or would you be OK with passing one through the baal hablog? There's something I wanted to ask you."

    If you mean if David can send you you my email address(he has it)-sure.

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  16. Jewishskeptic10/29/2006 1:24 AM

    >"Ignoring for the time being your disagreement that Pen can mean wishful thinking (Pen yesh bachem in Nitzavinm is definitely positive and not negative"

    I don't understand what you mean by it ,David.
    Rashi says on "pen yesh bachem"(Deut.29:17) "shema yesh bachem".How does that make it definitely positive & not negative?
    Anyway,I must insist that "pen yishlach yado"can't mean 'God wishing wistfully for Adam to stretch out his hand.On the contrary,God is fearful LEST he does that.

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  17. JS, I know that generally Pen is negative. The gemara considers it as a Lo Ta'aseh. However Rambam here clearly learns it as an equivocal word, with a mixture of positive and negative, and in the context I understand him to say "Although he probably will not eat from it, if he would it will be good for him". That is the only way Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah 5:1 and in Shemona Perakim 8 can be understood.

    Furthermore in Noach Pen Nafotz al kol ha'aretz, can be read in a similar vein. In Nitzavim it reads "should there be", which is a mixed positive and negative. There will be though I prefer there was not. Depending on the context there is an underlying "Nety'ah" to either positive or negative.

    Unkelos here translate it as "Dilma" which has a similar connotation in aramaic.

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  18. JS take out equivocal in my last comment.

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  19. Thank you both.

    "(Pen yesh bachem in Nitzavinm is definitely positive and not negative)"

    ? pen yesh bachem shoresh poreh rosh valaana and pen yesh bachem ish etc. asher levavo poneh hayom meyim hashem elokeynu - both are undesirable! In noach pen nofutz is also negative.

    "with a mixture of positive and negative, and in the context I understand him to say "Although he probably will not eat from it, if he would it will be good for him". That is the only way Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah 5:1 and in Shemona Perakim 8 can be understood."

    I don't see it at all - I don't think the rambam is saying this. Given that man has the choice good and bad, pen yishlach yado, therefore man is evicted from gan eden.

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  20. Tafkaa,

    The way I understand it is that in Eden he had access without difficulty now he has access only via the "cherev Hamithapechet" which Rambam in his introduction (page 7 Kafih Ed) sees as the metaphor for prophetic inspiration. It comes in bursts as light that shines through a fast revolving sword. God wants man to eat from the tree of true and false even though it is much harder now that Tov and Ra are also involved. (see similar reading in Fox Interpreting Maimonides page 196 - 197) 0

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  21. Pen yishlach yodo is to the etz hachaim - vlokach gam meyetz hachaim v'ochol v'chai l'olam. I am not sure I understand what you mean.

    WRT to page 7 of the intro, I'm not sure why R kapach is convinced that it's not just an expression, an example of momentary illumination, but assuming R Kapach is correct that it means more, why the need to darshen "pen"?

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  22. Etz hachaim is Emet Vesheker, Etz Had'at is Tov ve Ra as the passuk says. HKBH is saying now that he tasted from Tov Vera, if he will also find Emet vesheker again , though he will only have short bursts of insight, he will get eternal life (Olam Haba).

    What I am adding, in my reading of this, is that it also means the integration of the two parts of him and making them one, which takes the Tov Vera and gives it an objective underpinning.

    I tjhought it was a nice way of looking at it. It is still the case see the last few perakim of MN.

    You are reading MN as one reads a Rambam's halachik writings or any other rishon's. That is not the case. Read carefully the introduction. He warns you he is going to obfuscate wherever he needs. I suggest you get Marvin Fox's Understanding Maimonides.

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  23. Ok, I hear all that, but I still don't see how the "pen" becomes positive.

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