Sunday, May 28, 2017

God or Superman?

He is far more powerful than any human. He wants what is best for people. He rescues people from disasters.

Am I describing God, or Superman?

I've realized that many people think of God as Superman. Rather than the omnipotent omniscient deity they would describe if you asked them to tell you about God, they seem to think of God as a powerful and benevolent but quite limited Being. He is dealing the best He can with bad situations. The disasters, even the natural disasters, are not His fault, as they must be if He is omnipotent and there is hashgacha pratis, but just kind of happen. Then, like Superman, He swoops in and tries to rescue people. He may even try to mitigate the disaster. This must be why people say things like, "Thank God, it wasn't worse."

Thank God it wasn't worse?! God caused the earthquake or the tsunami or the plane's engines to fail or allowed the terrible war to happen or guided the bomb to land here instead of there. That it was bad at all is God's fault! Except that they don't think of Him that way. The God they're thinking of isn't the theologically correct God, what someone once described to me as "The Sunday School version" of God. The God they're thanking is Superman, who came rushing over when he heard the plane's engines suddenly go quiet and managed to save one little girl before it crashed. It's sad that the other passengers died, but it isn't His fault. He managed to divert the plane away from the nearby town and save the little girl. Thank God it wasn't worse.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Learning League

There's a gemara that says it is the duty of every Jew (by which it means men, of course) to learn Torah. It runs through excuses that people might offer after death to the Heavenly Court, and counters them with examples of people who overcame those problems.

To the poor person who says he had no time to learn because he had to support his family, the Court will ask him why he wasn't like Hillel, who spent half of the small coin he earned each day to enter the Beis Medrash, and supported his family on the other half.

To the rich man who says he had no time to learn because he had to look after his business, the Court will ask him why he wasn't like Rabbi Elazar, who had a thousand ships but never saw them because he was busy learning.

To the person who says he was too wrapped up in the pleasures the world has to offer, the Court will ask him why he wasn't like Yosef, who was tempted daily by Potiphar's wife and didn't succumb.

Let's leave aside the unfortunate implications of these stories: that Hillel let his children go hungry so that he could go learn, that no hard work is necessary to be successful, and that all people have similar experiences of temptation.

My first thought when I came across the above today was that this was silly. These weren't real people. They were legendary and mythical figures. Maybe a real person had been the seed of the story, but these versions of them weren't real. This gemara was little different than  saying that anyone can be a crime fighting vigilante hero.

To the person who says that childhood trauma prevents him from fighting crime, we can ask him why he isn't like Bruce Wayne, who fights crime as Batman even though he lost his parents at a young age.

To the person who says that a fear of hurting people prevents him from fighting crime, we can ask him why he isn't like Clark Kent, who fights crime as Superman even though he has to constantly take care that his super strength doesn't destroy everything around him.

To the person who says that he is too young to fighting crime, we can ask him why he isn't like Peter Parker, who started fighting crime as Spiderman while still in high school.

And then I realized that there's no going back. Even if I were convinced tomorrow that God is real and Judaism is the way He wants us to live, I would still see the figures the gemara cites as legends and myths. Once your perspective changes, and you see these stories for what they are, you can't unsee it. They might be inspiring, in the same way some people might find Superman inspiring, but they're not real.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

What is Morality? Some Thoughts

First, what it is not. It is not merely those things I dislike, those things which make me angry or which I find disgusting. I may dislike immoral things and find them disgusting, but that is not sufficient  to make them immoral.

Morality is that system of evolved instincts and evolved social norms which allow people to live together in societies, and so to benefit from living in societies. Nothing more, nothing less. That is moral which allows the largest number of people to participate in society without abridging the ability of the individual to reap full benefit from being a member of the society.

That which makes the society one is part of larger is a moral good, so long as it does not do so to the detriment of current members of the society or those who are joining the society as a result of the enlargement.

Morality serves first to allow us to live with and benefit from our immediate social circle, then the next layer of society, and the next, all the way out to humanity as a whole. Therefore it is most moral to benefit your immediate social circle, then the next layer of society, and so on, so long as benefiting one social layer does not harm other members of the wider society.

Morality is that which allows people to live together, and so applies most immediately (only?) to beings which can be classified as people. That is, conscious, sentient social beings. It applies to humans by default, as we cannot meaningfully distinguish humans who meet the criteria for personhood from that subset, if any, who do not.

Morality concerns the well-being and thriving of people as individuals and as communities.

This is not a fallacious Appeal to Nature. That is, I am not saying that this is how morality has developed naturally, therefore this is what it should be. Rather, I am saying that this is what morality is. Morality doesn't have its own ontology, so that it can be shaped by naturalistic (or any other) framework. Morality simply is the system of evolved instincts and evolved social norms which allows people to live together.

Some may object that this robs morality of its moral force, reducing it from something transcendent to something pragmatic. I would argue that it cannot be reduced to pragmatism, because that is simply what it is. That seeing it for what it is may rob it of some of its force is unfortunate, but irrelevant to what it is.

I realize that the description I have given of morality neatly matches by own moral biases. It may be that my moral instincts are perfectly informed by the reality of the nature of morality, in which case I can carry on secure in the conviction that my moral compass is true. But I have to acknowledge that it is more likely that my description of morality has been influenced and shaped by my biases, and so needs review and refinement by people who don't share my particular set of moral assumptions.