Humanistic Judaism Anthology – Spring, 1986
An adequate philosophy of life provides two guides. The first is a description of reality. The second is a prescription for how to respond to reality. The first concerns itself with what is. The second concerns itself with what ought to be. The first is called metaphysics. The second is called ethics.
Ethics is concerned with human behavior. Applying moral judgments to the actions of animal behavior is inappropriate. Where self-awareness is absent, the only value judgment that is fitting is aesthetic.
Although metaphysics covers a much wider area of reality than ethics, it is not as compelling. Being human, we see things from the human perspective. And from the human perspective, nothing is more important than making decisions about our behavior.
If I am a humanist, I make ethical decisions in the context of the following restrictions and acknowledgments.
I refuse to accept the legitimacy of authoritarian demands. No behavior is right simply because some important person says that it is right. Neither God nor Moses can make an action ethical by his endorsement. Right and wrong do not derive from the authors of rules. They are a function of the consequences of behavior. Right behavior produces good consequences. Wrong behavior produces bad consequences.
I relate good and bad to basic human needs. Right action satisfies human needs. Wrong action frustrates human needs in some fundamental way. A morality that is indifferent to human survival, human pleasure, and human dignity is no morality at all. It is a morality without human motivation and, therefore, irrelevant.
I acknowledge that human needs are not always compatible. We cannot always pursue our survival needs, our pleasure needs, and our dignity needs simultaneously. Eating sweets to my heart’s content may enhance my pleasure. But it may destroy my life. Betraying my friends to the enemy may spare my life. But it will compromise my dignity. This “disharmony” is intrinsic to the human condition and defines the agony of moral decisions.
I recognize that, because of this disharmony of needs, there is also a disharmony of ethical demands. Morality is not a neat and orderly set of rules that fit comfortably one into the other. If I choose dignity as my primary need and my primary value, as I believe most humanists do, I do so with the full awareness that survival and pleasure are also morally compelling. Since dignity is related to our vision of the ideal ruler, and self-rule is an axiom of humanism, it seems to have the edge. But the edge, as we know from experience, is not always wide and secure.
I am good-humored enough to admit that ethical rules are not absolute guidelines dropped to earth by some infallible heavenly commander. They are useful summaries of past wisdom. If I wish to teach people (especially children) how to defend their dignity and the dignity of others, I need to convey the experience of the past in the easiest possible way. Rules, or operating principles, serve that purpose. Since they are too brief to be all- inclusive, they are bound to have exceptions. Telling all the truth to a dumb and ugly person may not be the best way to protect his dignity.
I acknowledge that it is impossible to motivate people to satisfy needs that are not their own. Parents nurture children and friends help friends because they unconsciously do not distinguish between their own needs and the needs of their families and loved ones. Human drives are individual. And so are satisfactions. Phrases like “the general will” or “the general welfare” conjure up social monsters that do not really exist. An effective ethic is able to motivate the individual to serve the needs of others as though they were his very own.
I recognize that there are few actions in which an individual may choose to indulge that do not affect the lives of others. The famous liberal prescription that grants the individual the right to be the total master of his life in those areas of his existence that do not touch the interests of others sounds good on paper. But it does not work very well in reality. In an overcrowded world, almost every personal activity involves somebody else. Sex, the color of one’s house, smoking, and the noise level of one’s stereo are “private” activities that have social consequences. Even the failure to take care of one’s own health may create an intolerable social burden.
I refuse to make behavioral demands on myself and other people that we are, by nature, unable to fulfill. Asking people to dismiss all anger, hate, and jealousy — dispositions intrinsic to human nature — is an exercise in futility. There is a human nature. The human potential is not unlimited. Nor is the human personality infinitely malleable. To dismiss what is not dismissable is to program human beings for failure. Morality is not always easy. But it is attached to realizable goals. A rational ethic may tame anger, hate, and jealousy in the same way that it tames love. However, it does not seek to arrange what reality cannot arrange.
For most humanists, the criterion of dignity becomes the ultimate arbiter in moral decision making.
I make a distinction between behavior and motivation. Some people are devotees of the cult of intentions. They are always concerned with why people do what they do. They are absorbed with inner thoughts and feelings over which the individual has absolutely no control. If love is primarily a feeling, it is absurd to demand it. If love is a behavior, it is something we can choose to do, even if we do not feel like it. Most ethical people have large amounts of antisocial thoughts and feelings. For that reason, morality requires a great deal of discipline. In the end, from the ethical point of view, people are their behavior.
I recognize that moral intuition (or conscience) is, in reality, a form of unconscious reasoning in which the consequences of my behavior are tested by memory. I may tell the truth because my conscience tells me to. But what appears on the surface to be a dogmatic rule may not be dogmatic at all. It may be derived from human experience. A society in which people cannot trust each other to tell the truth will not long endure.
I am fully aware that there is no such thing as Jewish ethics. As an ethnic group, Jews have exhibited a wide variety of moral attitudes. The Jewish Defense League can find as many Biblical and Talmudic quotations to support its position as can Peace Now. Since a Jewish humanist has to be selective about which historic Jewish advice to accept, there must be a higher, more universal criterion by which he renders judgment. A Jewish humanist and a Gentile humanist have more in common ethically than a Jewish humanist and a Hasid. What binds all Jews together is a shared ethnic and national experience.
Humanistic Jews view this history differently from traditional Jews. Traditional Jews look at Jewish history and find support for the virtue of trusting in God. Humanistic Jews look at Jewish history and find (especially after the Holocaust and despite all the contrary Biblical and Talmudic quotations] the moral necessity for human self-reliance.
A personal ethics for Jewish humanists requires just as much self-discipline (if not more) than traditional morality. The vision of a strong, self-reliant, trustworthy, generous person, who strives to remain consistent in the face of an absurd universe, is quite different from the ideal of a humble, obedient servant who relies on the justice of destiny. That vision is the ultimate guideline for humanist decision making.