In a comment on my last post Evanston Jew in his usual sharp and cogent exposition described what a coherent and logical explanation for the reason for doing Mitzvot should contain – (with some editing) -
“The way to do this without cheating is to first specify what counts as the good (utility, welfare, benefit), independently of any mitzvoth. Is it satisfaction of desires or satisfaction of rational desires or achievement of the highest good, whatever you, the Rambam picks. Then you must show how each mitzvah contributes in a direct way to this good. You cannot say the good/utility is to do Hashem's commandment to perform mitzvoth, since that is circular. I don't think a complete Ta’amei Hamitzvot in the sense I just outlined has ever been put forward.”
To address the first part of the requirement I would urge the reader to go to my two earlier posts –
In those two posts, I presented what I understand to be Rambam’s position as to the place of man, his relationship to the universe and his role in it. To summarize, man is a component of a huge universe / cosmos that has a built in system for self-preservation and long-term, in fact eternal a parte post, survival. Each component as a category, has its own survival instinct so to say, but also has a part to play in the conservation of the whole by using its own unique abilities for that purpose sometimes to its own peril. The unique abilities are what define a category, in medieval Hebrew Aristotelian language that is called Tzura (Form) and give us a clue to that category’s role as a component of the whole. Man’s uniqueness is his Sechel, his potential to develop his mind to apprehend abstract thoughts, and coupled with self-awareness and introspection to understand how to act correctly to fulfill his part in the survival of the whole. Unlike the other elements that make up existence that have a well-defined role, man is unique in that he is born with the potential only. He has to develop this special ability before he can use it correctly. We call this Freedom of Choice – Bechira – to develop the potential constructively, destructively or not develop it at all. The way I see it in my mind is that we have a system with components that have well defined and predictable roles and then, one component is added, that is a wild card who can define his role, as he understands it. That wild card is man and his role is to address the needs of the whole as they become evident. When we read the story of Creation, we see that as the components come into being they are referred to by God as Tov – good and when man is created all is seen as Tov Me’od – very good. Good and very good are words that describe survival and long-term survival, fulfillment of a role that was willed for the component and the whole by their Creator. When we say that we as humans are trying to do God’s will, we are saying that we are trying to fulfill our part in existence by playing the role we were created to act out.
The problem is that this special ability of man that he is born with as a potential and is intrinsically coupled with freedom of choice, is not easy to develop. It is not a simple matter to figure out what is the correct action that will be constructive. This potential for developing the mind is inherently quite complicated. It is a blend of emotions, feelings, urges, instincts, thoughts, ideas, imagination and so on, all the human being’s elementary traits, that work together to bring about this perfected person who knows how to act constructively – do good, do the will of his Creator. If these abilities are not developed in a controlled manner, they have the potential to be really destructive.
“It is acknowledged that a man who does not possess this "form" (the nature of which has just been explained) is not human, but a mere animal in human shape and form. Yet such a creature has the power of causing harm and injury, a power which does not belong to other creatures. For those gifts of intelligence and judgment with which he has been endowed for the purpose of acquiring perfection, but which he has failed to apply to their proper aim, are used by him for wicked and mischievous ends; he begets evil things, as though he merely resembled man, or simulated his outward appearance.” (MN 1:7)
Which brings us back to the question that Evanston Jew said needs to be answered before anything else – what is good independently of Mitzvot? As it relates to man, it is for him to act in a way that uses his developed potential to the maximum to fulfill the role he was created to perform for the survival of the whole of existence. The challenge is to figure out a way to get this complex entity with this powerful potential to act correctly, to develop that potential properly and not use it destructively – to do what is good. This is the “utilitarian” goal of the Mitzvot, to help man as an individual and humankind as a category, to fulfill its role in the preservation of the whole of existence. That role can only be discovered through an understanding of how the universe works, how God has created and put in place laws that govern it and what role man has in that system. That discovery and acting accordingly is called going in God’s paths. It is emulating God by understanding what He wants us to do. That understanding has to be arrived at rationally and objectively, taking out our personal biases and preferences from the equation, otherwise we will arrive at conclusions that are erroneous. That is the underlying rationale for the Mitzvot in general and it is how Rambam presents them – to promote opinions, morals and social conducts. All Mitzvot according to Rambam fall under one of these three categories.
This thinking has to always be in the background as we continue trying to understand the reason for Mitzvot. As we will see, Rambam had this in mind as he organized his Mishne Torah where he detailed all the Mitzvot and he uses that same organization as he discusses the reason for Mitzvot in the Moreh.