Ethics and Morality

Everyone else in the frum blogosphere is dealing with the questions Richard Dawkins raises in his book “The God Delusion”, and whether morality is possible without religion. So why shouldn’t I?

I want to introduce a few distinctions that in my humble opinion are necessary for having a clear conversation of the subject.

Morality vs. Ethics

Morality is defined in term of conduct. It’s from the Latin “moralis”, meaning custom or manner. It is therefore possible to be moral just because one is doing the right thing.

Ethics is from the Greek “ethos”, which describes a person’s character. A person can only be ethical if he believes he was created for a higher purpose, and aspires to live for that higher calling.

(An interesting tangent is what this says about Greek culture vs. Roman.)

The contemporary atheist, like Dawkins, believes their “higher calling” is merely that a particular kind of self-replicating molecule replicates well with all the baggage of producing a Dawkins to provide the right “soup”.

What then is the purpose of one’s life? To do anything possible to make your genes, those molecules, propagate. But if one tries to turn that purpose into a calling, the result is paradoxical: The higher calling, man’s attempt to do more than merely live is itself life, the thing it is supposed to be higher than!

Is vs. Ought

Hume introduced something called the “is-ought fallacy” which I think is unavoidable without the concept of a purposive creation of man. People tend to confuse the “is” with the “ought”. They are different in kind. How does one define what ought to be from observations of evidence of what is?

I suggested in an earlier blog entry that it takes the notion of our existence to have a purpose and a goal in order to avoid Euthyphro’s Paradox. (To convert the paradox to Jewish terms: Is being good an arbitrary choice of Hashem, and therefore of no inherent meaning? Or are we saying that Hashem is subject to an externally imposed morality?)

My resolution (which I recommend reading in full, rather than relying on this excerpt) was:

I would argue that HQBH created the world with a tachlis, a purpose, He placed each of us in it with a tachlis, and what is righteous is righteous because it is in accordance with furthering that tachlis. This fits Rav Hirsch’s etymology for “ra“, being related to /רעע/, to shatter. It also explains why the word “tov” means both good in the moral sense (not evil) as well as in the functional sense (not ineffective, as in “a good toothpaste prevents cavities”). … Moral tov derives from the functional tov. Hashem chose “Do not steal” over “Take whatever makes you happy” because that’s what makes us better receptacles.

So yes, HQBH did choose good vs evil without being subject to external constraint, and yet still the choice was not arbitrary. Socrates gave Euthyphro a false dichotomy — there was a third choice. Hashem has a reason, but that reason wasn’t conforming to a preexisting morality.

Here the same issue holds. Without asserting that man’s existence is for a purpose, one can not define an ethic.

Being Ethical vs. Having a Reason for Being EthicalAnd yet… There have been atheists who died to defend their nation or their civilization. That requires a motivation for such extreme moral behavior; someone wouldn’t sacrifice so much without a noble motivation. Where would it come from?

Perhaps this question is only because everything above presumed that everything man does is reasoned. In other words, all I have argued is that man can not define an ethic, he can not explain why he would be moral. But many people do things they can not justify intellectually, or for which they have an imperfect line of reasoning. Someone could value freedom or democracy because they enjoy having them, not because they have a logical reason why their DNA should be provided one environment rather than the other, or even why replication of a particular variant of DNA has any value over any other chemical reaction (to refer back to the “is-ought fallacy”.

Where does this moral drive come from? Freud saw choice as being between the Id, the desires with which we are born, and the Super-Ego, recordings of all the rules our parents and society have placed upon us. But in Jewish thought, there is a soul. It’s not only repression of natural desire to conform to a higher calling, it’s also the satisfaction of an equally innate human need, the desires of the soul. Not believing in it doesn’t mean one can’t hear its call.

Map vs. Terrain – Personal Ethical Guidelines vs. Hashem’s Objective Absolute Values

Perhaps this ties in to the answer Hillel gave one of the people who approached him to convert. In the post “… the Rest is Commentary” I discuss his answer to the impatient convert (which again I recommend reading in full):

“What you hate, do not do to your peer: that is the whole Torah, the rest is the commentary. Go and learn it.”

Is there a natural morality, an innate sense of right and wrong? Somehow all of humanity labels theft and murder as evil. Everyone has a yeitzer hatov calling him to good and yeitzer hara pulling the other way….

Natural morality is based on empathy. “What you hate, do not do to your peer.” In a somewhat flawed way, it drives the Notzri Golden Rule, as well as the Hindu concept of Karma…. I know something is wrong because I wouldn’t like it — and I am aware of another’s pain when I do it to them.

But that morality from empathy is limited…. It gives general guidelines, but no tools for navigating the grey areas and the questions that involve conflicting values and priorities. Therefore one needs commentary to explain further. And that commentary one must “go and learn”. It goes beyond the innate.

The Torah is therefore in agreement with the general thrust of innate morality, even to those who deny the former and have no explanation for the existence of the latter. But the steps between the first principles innately known and the dictates of the Torah often make it impossible to deduce the terrain of morality without following the map Hashem gave us.

We therefore have two notions of morality: In this entry I am suggesting it means doing what we were made for. However, in that earlier entry (which was also expanded moments before this one) I wrote that being moral is all an elaboration of “what is hateful to you, do not do to your peer” and that even halakhah is only necessary because of the complexity that arises from applying a simple rule to a complex universe.

As to why the two would refer to the same notion of morality, see the first paragraph of the introduction to Sha’arei Yosher:

BLESSED SHALL BE the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were). For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” – that we, the select of what He made – should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.

Hashem created us only for our needs, not for His; He lacks nothing. We, being in His image, are therefore also designed to give to others. Thus we were designed to be able to share in His task, to give to others just as He provides for me.

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    […] recap my summary of that dilemma from an earlier blog entry: In his essay “Euthyphro”, Plato has Socrates ask a young student named Euthyphro, […]

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