Hashem and Morality
In his essay “Euthyphro”, Plato has Socrates ask a young student named Euthyphro, “Is what is righteous righteous because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is righteous?” The Jewish spin would be to ask: Is an act good because HQBH chose to make it a mitzvah, or did Hashem command us to do it because it is good? What is the Source of morality?
The problem is that if you say that an act is good solely because Hashem commanded it, then He had no moral reason to tell us to do one set of things and not another. Can mitzvos be the product of Divine whim, the decision between “Thou shalt murder” and “Thou shalt not” entirely without any reason on His part? On the other hand, if there is an overarching definition of good and evil that Hashem conformed to, then we placed something “over” Him, something that even He is subject to.
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”). To prepare the menorah’s lamps is called “hatavas haneiros — causing the functional usability of the lamps.” 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. We might have remained with two definitions of tov (and of “good”) — functional and moral. According to this line of reasoning, “good at its job” is the underlying meaning of tov in the moral sense of the word as well.
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.G-d created us because He could only bestow good if there is someone to receive that good. That is our individual purpose, to make ourselves into utensils, receptacles for emanations of Divine Good. (I once suggested to Avodah that “Qabbalah” isn’t to be translated as “that which was received”, but rather “the art of reception”.) Given that personal purpose, the definition of “tov” feeds directly into a “spiritual health” model of reward and punishment. Oneshim are the product of not being proper keilim for shefa, and therefore one is incapable of receiving the sechar. It’s not that the sechar is being withheld — the problem is with the reception.This makes following the tzavah (command) of the Melech a derivative — learning to be a good subject is part of what it takes to be a good keli. Perhaps this is why they are called mitzvos (that which were commanded) rather than tzavos (commands).
This means that of the Rambam’s ikkarei emunah, perhaps the last three are the most critical. Without an eschatology, without a final state, we have no way of defining which acts advance us to that goal, and which are ra, shattering that which was already built.
One last issue: Why should I follow the purpose for which I was created? What changes G-d’s motivation into my moral imperative?
We can prove the two are identical logically. In order for my moral choice to have any meaning, I must assume my actions have value. Otherwise, what difference does it make which actions I choose to perform? If I believe my actions have value, I am assuming my existence has value, since it makes those actions possible. And thus, presumed in the very quest for morality is the notion that the purpose for which I was created imparts value.
See also Bemachashavah Techilah for Ki Seitzei for an essay on Euthyphro’s dilemma and the concept of “to’eivah”.
R. Yitzchak Blau has an article in the Torah U-Madda Journal titled “Ivan Karamazov Revisited: The Moral Argument for Religious Belief”.Much of his argument is phrased pragmatically, IOW, R’ Blau is more likely to speak of the problems the Moral Argument (MA) leads to more than whether it’s inherently valid. The moral argument is most often used in educating youth and kiruv projects, and RYB assesses them in that light.Rabbi Blau initially argues that MA is likely to lead to one of two opposite errors:1- It makes religion a handmaiden to ethics, as religion then become about being the Divinely given morality. Or
2- By identifying religion with ethics, one makes the ethical merely an expression of religion, which which respect to Judaism means saying there is no ethic beyond the G-d-given din. Do we want to teach a Judaism that has no barrier to geneivas aku”m and the like?After proving that ge’onim and rishonim assert the existence of a natural ethic (citing R’ Nissim Gaon, Ramban, Chizquni and Rav Saadia) he ends up revamping MA to be about supplementing natural ethics with
the more refined Divine ethic. For example, one can argue the need for a Divine ethic not on the grounds of “Thou shalt not murder” but on the impossibility of natural ethic dealing with abortion, euthanasia, and the other borderline cases in any deterministic way. (This ties back to an entry written earlier this week.)I think the paper is fundamentally flawed by a lack of a basic distinction.
There are two distinct issues:
– The source of morality. Can all human beings agree that there is a concept of morality (even if we disagree about much of what morality includes) if G-d didn’t create humans with the concept of morality?
– The source of information about what morality consists of.
I would assert that MA is about the first, not the latter. Therefore, we could rely on the Torah to know what morality consists of, while still using the existence of morality as a concept to imply the existence of a religious world.
I find it interesting that RYB has a discussion of why we should obey G-d in the context of “If all ethic is from G-d, isn’t ethic arbitrary?” and using John Stuart Mill, Hobbes, Geach (the latter two saying “follow G-d or he’ll beat you up!” — far from moral imperative!), but not Plato’s Euthyphro which is this very dilemma!