Thursday, April 23, 2009

Natural Morality

Before I continue with the discussion about purpose and goals, I would like to explain my statement in the last post “He makes it clear that this proper behavior is not limited to Torah and Mitzvot but is moral behavior universally accepted by all philosophers”. This is extremely important because many hold that morality and ethics have no meaning without Torah.

I want to focus here on the issue of morality only and address the issue of ethics at another time. For this post, I define morals as setting limits to self-indulgence. In the introduction to Pirush Hamishna, I quoted in my earlier post, Rambam writes:

רצוני לומר: "החכמה
לצייר בשכלו אמיתות הדברים כפי שהם עליו, ולהשיג כל מה שאפשר לאדם להשיגו
ו"המעשה" - הוא תיקון ויישור הדברים הטבעיים, ושלא יהיה שטוף בתענוגים,
ושלא ייקח מהם אלא מה שיהיה בו תיקון גופו ותיקון מידותיו כולן

When I say [a perfected man is one who has] “knowledge” I mean one who can picture in his mind the reality of all things as they are and to apprehend everything a man can[1]. “Action” means: (i) - The perfection of natural things [using the scientific knowledge acquired to make things better]. (ii) - Not indulging in physical pleasures. One should not indulge in them more than the necessary for bodily needs. (iii) – Perfecting all of one’s traits.

But then Rambam surprisingly adds -

וזה הדבר לא נודע מאת הנביאים בלבד, אבל חכמי האומות החולפות, ואשר לא
ראו הנביאים ולא שמעו חכמתם, כבר ידעו גם הם, שאין אדם שלם, אלא כשיהיה
כולל החכמה והמעשה. ודי לך בדברי החכם המפורסם בפילוסופיה שאמר: "חפץ האל
ממנו להיות נבונים-חסידים". שהאדם כשיהיה חכם ונבון, אבל מבקש תאוות –
אינו חכם על האמת; שתחילת החכמה מחייבת, שלא ייקח אדם ממעדנים הגופניים
אלא מה שיש בו תיקון צורך גופו.

This is not something we were taught only by the prophets. The wise of the ancient nations, who never saw prophets nor heard their wisdom, already knew that a person is not complete unless he encompasses knowledge and action. The philosopher’s statement “God wants us to be intelligent and righteous” says it all; for a man who is wise and intelligent but a pleasure seeker is not truly wise. The basic premises of wisdom compel a person to not indulge in physical pleasures more than the basic needs of his body.

There is a natural morality that all wise men acknowledge exists. A narcissistic person, whose only goal in life is to indulge in as much pleasure as possible, even if that person is the greatest genius and has acquired all knowledge, is not a perfect human being. Knowledge is a very powerful tool and narcissism is the underlying cause for misusing that power, allowing it to be used destructively. Setting limits to self-interest and developing traits that promote altruistic behavior is crucial. The problem is that judging if the behavior promoted by knowledge is correct is subjective and we must develop criteria that allow us to measure it objectively.

I quote from Rav Kook’s recent sefer, Shemona Kevatzim (page 21) –

אסור ליראת שמים שתדחק את המוסר הטבעי של האדם כי אז אינה עוד יראת שמים טהורה סימן ליראת שמים טהורה הוא כשהמוסר הטבעי הנטוע בטבע הישר של האדם הולך ועולה על פיה במעלות יותר גבוהות ממה שהוא עומד מבלעדיה אבל אם תצוייר יראת שמים בתכונה כזאת שבלא השפעתה על החיים היו החיים יותר נוטים לפעול טוב ולהוציא אל הפועל דברים מועילים לכלל ולפרט ועל פי השפעתה מתמעט כח הפועל ההוא יראת שמים כזאת היא יראה פסולה

Fear of heaven (Yra’at Shamayim) may not supersede a man’s natural morals, for in that case it is not pure Yra’at Shamayim. Pure YS is recognizable as such when the natural morality that is implanted in the correct [proper] nature of man is elevated by it to levels that are higher than it would be without it. A hypothetical YS that without its influence on life, there would be a stronger push to do good by bringing to fruition things that contribute to the welfare of the public and the individual, while under its [YS] influence this would be diminished, such a YS is wrong [false].

Yra’at Shamayim, a subjective by-product of knowledge, can be narcissistic too, becoming counter-productive. To judge its legitimacy we must look at the practical results thereof. So too must we judge knowledge. If it causes one to act in ways that enhance the public and the individual, that knowledge is legitimate. Otherwise, that person is “not truly wise”. This brings us back to the subject of purpose and goals.

[1] It is worthwhile to note the language that gives a sense of limitation to what a man can know.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Can't one translate Hillel's words to the prospective ger, "That which you would hate [if in their shoes] don't do to others. Now go and learn" into "All of the Torah is an elaboration of natural morality. However, you would never figure out how to reach the right conclusions from those principles unless you go study Torah."

    It's like saying that all of biology is inherent in Physics. That said, you would never be able to derive biology on your own.

  3. R. Micha, That is the classic position but apparently, at least when it came to morality in the sense of realizing that our narcissistic tendencies are wrong and how to fight them, Rambam held that it could be understood without having recourse to Nevuah.

  4. These are distinct ideas. The Rambam is saying that the underlying truths at a level that doesn't require nevu'ah is part of Torah.

    The deduction from Hillel's statement is that everything else flows from them. It's not that natural morality is in addition or a specific mitzvah in the Torah, it's the Grand Unified Theory from which the Torah would emerge -- if we were smart enough to do so.

    I think the Rambam means this in the Moreh when he writes (Friedlander edition for easy cut-n-paste):

    Moses prayed to God to grant him knowledge of His attributes, and also pardon for His people; when the latter had been granted, he continued to pray for the knowledge of God's essence in the words, "Show me thy glory" (ib. 18), and then received, respecting his first request, "Show me thy way," the following favourable reply, "I will make all my goodness to pass before thee" (ib. 19); as regards the second request, however, he was told, "Thou canst not see my face" (ib. 20). The words "all my goodness" imply that God promised to show him the whole creation, concerning which it has been stated, "And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Gen. i. 31); when I say "to show him the whole creation," I mean to imply that God promised to make him comprehend the nature of all things, their relation to each other, and the way they are governed by God both in reference to the universe as a whole and to each creature in particular. This knowledge is referred to when we are told of Moses," he is firmly established in all mine house" (Num. xii. 7); that is, "his knowledge of all the creatures in My universe is correct and firmly established"; for false opinions are not firmly established. Consequently the knowledge of the works of God is the knowledge of His attributes, by which He can be known. The fact that God promised Moses to give him a knowledge of His works, may be inferred from the circumstance that God taught him such attributes as refer exclusively to His works, viz., "merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness," etc., (Exod. xxxiv. 6). It is therefore clear that the ways which Moses wished to know, and which God taught him, are the actions emanating from God. Our Sages call them middoth (qualities), and speak of the thirteen middoth of God (Talm. B. Rosh ha-shanah, p. 17b)...Moshe's ability to be the conduit for the Torah and the fountainhead for the halachic process was his being shown the morality inherent in how G-d made and runs the world.


  5. R. Micha, Your reading of MN is correct and I want to add more to it. Moshe and other neviim too try to deduce from their understanding of the universe where HKBH wants to take it and what their and their followers role in this endeavor is. That is the search for Retzon hashem. Moshe Rabbeinu having understood that better than anyone else and also having gotten that extra insight in HKBH that no other human had or will ever have, was able to share with us the Torah which is a tool to help us find this path. Could man find that path without Torah - yechidim like the Avot did but a nation and a continuity for ever requires Torah.

    The philosophers were also able on their own to arrive at the concept of there being a need for humanity to work for the benefit of the whole and therefore realized the need for man to tame his narcissism. That is the only point Rambam is making here in the Hakdamah.

  6. But we do perform an act of ẓedakah when we fulfil those duties towards our fellow-men which our moral conscience imposes upon us; e.g., when we heal the wound of the sufferer. Thus Scripture says, in reference to the returning of the pledge [to the poor debtor]: "And it shall be ẓedakah (righteousness) unto thee" (Deut. xxiv. 11). When we walk in the way of virtue we act righteously towards our intellectual faculty, and pay what is due unto it; and because every virtue is thus ẓedakah, Scripture applies the term to the virtue of faith in God. Comp. "And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him as righteousness" (Gen. xv. 6); "And it shall be our righteousness" (Deut. vi. 25).

    Isnt virtue a good to ones own soul, rather than altruistic- for another?

  7. Rabbi Sacks, You are quoting MN 3:53 Tzedakah is only one of the three acts that one does in emulating HKBH as chapter 53 is an introduction to chapter 54 where he explains

    We are thus told in this passage that the Divine acts which ought to be known, and ought to serve as a guide for our actions, are, ḥesed, "loving-kindness," mishpat, "judgment," and ẓedakah, "righteousness."

    In this context, when we emulate HKBH we de facto fulfill our obligation and actualize the knowledge our nefesh (I find "soul" confusing) has acquired by using it properly.

    We can thus say that this benefit to our nefesh is a result not a goal. We thus have a play on the word where the goal is to emulate HKBH by doing Tzedakah with another like He does with us and the result is that we also benefit and it is Tzedakah for us.

    You are touching on the final point I am trying to make with these posts but I have a slightly different take on it as you will see if you follow along with me.

  8. In that sense the fact that another bwenefits materially from my freedom of mind is a result as well -no?

  9. In my earlier response I originally wrote "in Yshivish parlance one would say "Ot dos iz Olam Haba" and decided to take it out as confusing.

    The reward is the Tzedakah one does with the sechel but it is not the goal. The goal is to act Bedarchei hashem because Ki Kol Drechav Emet! and as Rambam in Hil Teshuvah

    אלא עושה האמת, מפני שהוא אמת; וסוף הטובה לבוא בכלל.

  10. OK. I just am wary of the term "altruistic". That term means for the good of another to me. I don't see zedaka as doing good for another essentially. The motive force,insofar as there is a motive, is not someone elses good. As you say the motive is the good of emet itself.


  11. I completely disagree, tzedaka is entirely good for someone else. In fact, chazal tell us not to give tzedaka based on the fact that we will get reward. So the real way of giving tzedaka is, in fact, altruistic.

  12. David,
    what is the exact definition of natural morality?

  13. I would say what man knows instinctively to be moral. In this post I have limited it to altruism and doing things for others even when it does not satisfy our narcissistic needs.

  14. From the comments I realize that I need to explain a little further. It always bothered me what is the rationale for limiting self indulgence. At one time I thought that the main reason was that a person who is completely immersed in finding ways to indulge leaves himself very little time for dealing with more important existential issue. Although that is a good argument it sounds a little hollow. Why can't a person both indulge himself and at the same time delve into metaphysics? Rambam here tells us that even the philosophers came to the conclusion that this is not possible. Even if one has acquired all the knowledge, in other words his self-indulgence has not affected his intellectual development, he is still not perfect unless he sets limits. Why? The answer can only be that self-indulgence promotes man's narcissistic trait and that prevents him from acting according to what the acquired knowledge directs him. As I continue developing this series of posts this will become clearer.

  15. why would instinctual be considered any better than rational morality?

  16. If you read Ayn Rand you will understand why rational morality in the sense of doing for others may be counter intuitive and not emulate God.

  17. what do you mean?