Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pragmatic Morality

One of the many useful things that religion does is provide a framework for morality. If God has told us what is moral, then the sincere religious person can rest easy knowing that by following his religion’s dictates he is doing what is right.

Without religion it’s more difficult to define morality and to decide whether something is right or wrong. At that, without a divine mandate, the entire enterprise of determining what is moral is called into question. Why does is matter is something is moral? After all, what is considered “good” or “bad” is largely determined by a combination of social norms and biological instincts. Neither of those are important in a written-in-the-sky kind of way, so who cares whether something is moral or not! That the norms of my society or my instincts tell me that I shouldn’t do something is not in itself a reason not to do it.

I think both problems, creating a moral code and a reason to keep it, can be addressed by adopting a pragmatic approach. And I think that a good starting point for a pragmatic morality is the Golden Rule. As Hillel phrased it: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

This is entirely pragmatic. If everyone follows the Rule, then we will all be treated well by everyone else – and that also provides the reason for behaving morally. I must behave morally because if I don’t, the system breaks down. It may be in my best interests at the moment, to, say, steal something from the grocery. If I do, though, then my fellows hano longer have motivation to treat me well – since they are treating me well in order that I treat them well – and the system breaks down. Inevitably, someone will steal from me – something that I don’t want to happen. Therefore I refrain from stealing from the grocery store in order to maintain the universal agreement that we all treat each other well.

The Golden Rule provides a simple, though not easy, basis for judging if an action is moral. If I were the person my action is affecting – not if I was in his place, but if I was him, with his likes and dislikes, his personality, his history, etc. – would I want to be treated that way? If yes the action is moral, if no then the action is immoral.

Of course, as with any moral system, there are gray areas. For example, giving a child a shot. The child certainly doesn’t want to be stuck with a needle, but it is in his best interest. Perhaps we could say that, if he knew that it was in his best interest, he would want it – except that forcing someone against their wish to do what we judge to be in their best interest is a dangerous road to go down. This needs more thought.

There is also the problem of bringing criminals to justice. A criminal who recognizes that what he did is wrong is not much of an issue. We look at it from his perspective, and try to treat him as we would want to be treated if we were caught doing something wrong. If I did something wrong, I would like understanding and compassion, but I recognize that there must be immediate consequences to deter people for whom the long-view of keeping things pleasant for everyone isn’t enough to keep them from breaking the moral code and ruining things for everyone else.

But what about someone who believes that what he did is right? I certainly wouldn’t want to be punished for something that I thought was the right thing to do. Not that I would want to be punished for something that I agree was the wrong thing, but there at least I can recognize the necessity of the punishment and acquiesce.  And what about someone who ascribes to a different moral system? We cannot subject him to the consequences of the Golden Rule moral system – after all, we would not want to subjected to consequences under the rules of his moral system. This also needs more thought.

These are some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for a while. A fully-developed moral system is beyond the scope of a single blog post, and likely beyond my amateur attempts at philosophy. I kind of like this idea, though. Any thoughts on how to make it more coherent?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Choosing Biblical Friends

Who would you rather hang out with, the great tzaddik Dovid HaMelech or Eisav HaRasha?

Let’s compare them:

Dovid was a shepherd. Eisav was a hunter. Both involve killing animals, but shepherding involves caring for the animals, which is traditionally considered noble.

According to the medrash, Eisav married idol-worshipers. Not ideal, perhaps, but it’s not like he had real options. Even his brother Yaakov’s father-in-law was an idol worshiper, and at least one of his wives believed in idols enough to steal her father’s in order to rob him of their powers.

David married the king’s daughter, all well and good. Later, though, he notices a hot girl bathing and arranges for her husband to be killed so that he can have her.

Fealty to father-figure

Eisav was devoted to his father, and often brought him food. David deposed his father-inlaw Shaul after committing treason and fighting for years alongside the Philistines, the Israelites’ mortal enemy.


Eisav sells his birthright for a bowl of soup. He didn’t value it much, but even so, this seems rash. Still, it was Eisav’s to sell, and he didn’t actually do anything wrong. David dances before the aron and in his enthusiasm gives the crowd a good look at his privates – which both violates the halachos of tznius and isn’t appropriate behavior from anyone, let alone the king.

According to Rashi, Eisav killed Nimrod, the evil king who tried to barbeque his grandfather. David killed Goliath, a menacing enemy warrior, but a man about whom we otherwise know nothing. It’s entirely possible that Goliath was a better person than Nimrod. Yet for killing Nimrod, Eisav is denounced as a murderer, while for killing Goliath, David is praised as a hero.

Family Relationships
Eisav wants to kill Yaakov after the brashos are stolen from him, but eventually forgives his brother. Dovid son goes to war against him, and ends up dead.

Neither of these figures are paragons of virtue, but between the two of them, I’d rather hang out with the guy who has a good marriage and isn’t chasing other people’s wives, who’s good to his father, and who won’t inadvertently expose himself when he gets excited.

You know, like this.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Amateur Scholarship?

Last week an acquaintance of mine, a yungerman at the local kollel, gave me a couple of pamphlets he had written, one on tznius and one on ahavas Hashem. He said that each was the result of several month’s work. I read them over Shabbos. If I had to sum up my impression in one word, it would be “amateur.”

I don’t know exactly where this person ranks on the “talmin chachom” scale, but he’s been in yeshiva for many years, gives shiurim… were he in a secular university, he’d have to be at the very least a PhD candidate. Yet the content of the pamphlets was a string of assertions and logical leaps. Granted, I think that the intended audience is high-schoolers, so I wasn’t expecting sophisticated arguments. On the other hand, I also wasn’t expecting the bulk of the content to rely on nebulous, undefined concepts and non-sequiturs.

I can only hope that these works are not representative of the general quality of “learning” in kollelim.

So now I have a decision to make. My instinct is to fisk the pamphlets and point out to him where he’s wrong.* If nothing else, it would lead to some interesting conversations. On the other hand, he told me that the pamphlets were “well received.” Is some interesting conversation worth criticizing his work? Not that I’m anybody who’s opinion he needs to be concerned with, but having your work criticized is never pleasant, no matter what the source.

*I wouldn’t presume to try to show that he’s halchicly wrong, or that other sources argue with his conclusions. I have no doubt that his command of the material is far better than my own. What I would point out is where the logic fails (or is non-existent) and where he is factually wrong.