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Ethical Guidelines

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.

The Rabbi Writes – An Excerpt from “Staying Sane in a Crazy World”

The Jewish Humanist, March 1996, Vol. XXXII, Number 8

A crazy world is a world without a moral order.  A moral order is different from a physical order. Laws of nature are part of the physical order. But the laws of nature have no moral agenda. The law of gravity is as willing to cooperate with good people as with bad people. It will allow food supplies to be dropped to needy refugees. It will, just as easily, permit evil men to throw innocent victims off of parapets. 

A meaningful world is more than an orderly world. The universe of modern science is an orderly universe. But its order grinds on with no apparent concern for the victims of its relentless march. Earthquakes rumble, volcanoes erupt, floods pour over their riverbanks, all them sweeping their human debris into the path of destruction. This reoccuring Holocaust is the result of a natural order which has natural and irresistible causes with natural, irresistible and inevitable consequences. But it lacks the kind of order that gives the universe meaning.  

Sadists are orderly. But a sadistic universe is not the kind of world we want to live in. We want to live in a world governed by moral law, a world in which everything that happens, happens for the good.  We want to live in a universe in which the powers that govern and control our destiny are neither malicious nor cruel. Simply knowing that they are orderly is little comfort at all.  

Geologists can demonstrate that the eruption of Pinatubo in the Philippines was inevitable and unavoidable. But what comfort is that to the young mother of four children who lost them in all the deadly ash.  Meteorologists can explain why the expansion of the Sahara is the natural consequence of predictable climate change. But what consolation is that to a hardworking farmer and family member who has lost his only means of substance because of the drought? Air traffic controllers can estimate that there will be a certain percentage of fatal airplane crashes during a given year. But what kind of answer to a grieving mother who has lost her only child in a freak air disaster? Kismet only works if Allah has some good moral reason for doing to you what he does. 

Understanding why something terrible happens does not make what happens morally more tolerable. Knowing that Hitler was an abused child and that abused children can turn into murderers does not make the Holocaust less horrible. Becoming aware that criminally assaulted males may suffer from some malformations of the genes does not make their crimes against innocent victims morally more acceptable. Excusing them does not excuse the universe. A just universe would not allow such things to happen. It either would never have arranged to produce such aggressors, or it would have arranged to separate them from their victims. From a moral perspective, the order of the universe can definitely be improved. 

As long as we experience the world as unfair, and most of us do at some time or other, we also experience the world as “crazy.”  

CRUELTY 

A crazy world is a world that “teases.” It fills us with very intense desires and never allows us to fully satisfy them.  

The strongest human desire is the desire to live. The struggle for survival, whether our own personal one or that of the people we love is often relentless and sometimes bitter.  Around every corner we are confronted by the eternal enemy, the specter of death. There is a fundamental cruelty in a universe that fills us with the passion for life and simultaneously endows us with the inevitability of dying.  Contrary to the cliches, death does not become easier and less frightening with age.. It is often more painful because we are filled with regret for all that we failed to do and for all that we failed to see.  When there is no longer any hope of recouping our losses, expiring is no great comfort. Certainly, desiring death as an alternative to excruciating pain or to humiliating feebleness is little consolation. The universe could have arranged for no death at all or for dying to be easier. 

There’s so many things you want to do and experience. And there is never enough time to satisfy our desires. By the time we understand our mistakes it is often too late to correct them. By the time we are wise enough to appreciate the good things in life, we are too old to take advantage of them. By the time we discover who we really are, we begin to fall apart. It is true that youth is wasted on the young. But that truth precisely dramatizes the cruelty of the world. Reality does not fit our desires. Death mocs our passions. A crazy world is a world where desire is too strong, time is too short, aging is too relentless and death is too eager.  Sometimes the universe appears to be a bad joke. 

DISAPPOINTMENT 

A crazy world is a world where the best laid plans come to naught, where the finest of our labors turns out to be disappointingly different from what we imagined it would be.  After all, the good life is anticipation, looking forward to good things.  We love surprises, especially when they relieve the routine of daily living.  But we do not love surprises when they shatter dreams and hopes, when they turn the fragile order of our existence into chaos. 

What we want most out of life is to have a sense of control over what happens to us.  We want to feel that the world we live in is not chaotic, that the future is predictable, that there are certain guarantees which support our right to happiness.  No feeling is worse than feeling totally out of control, the victim of the passing whims of the world.  Pursuing success is too hard to have it summarily dismissed by a careless universe.  So much of our early childhood is devoted to convincing us that effort and determination are worthwhile, that they produce positive results, that they are justified by the success they bring. 

Losing control may make us feel crazy.  It can also make us feel that the world is crazy.  Unexpected surprises undermine our sense of security and order.  Indeed, the universe may be governed by laws that determine every event that happens, even the smallest and most insignificant event. 

Indeed, some complex underlying order may account for the trauma we are presently experiencing.  But that order is not something we can feel.  All we know is that the order which we sought to bring to our lives has collapsed, and the world seems chaotic and crazy.  We have lost control of our lives.  And for us that is disorder. 

Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, echoing the German philosopher Leibniz, maintained that this world was the best of all possible words.  Even the Lisbon earthquake could not shake his faith.  For him the human condition was a joint condition and this universe a just universe. 

But what if we cannot believe that?  What if we experience the world as not the best of all possible worlds?  What if we experience the universe as a slightly or extravagantly “crazy” place?  How do we cope? 

An excerpt from the new book by Sherwin Wine, Staying Sane in a Crazy World

Ethics and Morality

The Jewish Humanist, March 1986

Ethics and morality. They are not trivial issues. They are the very stuff out of which daily decision making is made.

Moral issues of the ’80’s will be the theme of this year’s Retreat discussion. They are bound to stir up some provocative dialogue.

Over the past 20 years, moral values in America have been radically altered. They have been molded by the traumatic political and social events which have left their mark on the American psyche.

The Vietnam War altered our view of patriotism and respect for government. The Black Power movement changed our attitudes toward civil disobedience and conformity to the law. The feminist campaign assaulted our traditional perspectives on gender inequality and the role of women in our society. The contraceptive revolution undermined our conventional vision of sexual behavior and sexual restraints. The psychotherapy “explosion” redirected our attention from historical values like duty and guilt to newer concepts like self-fulfillment, autonomy, and happiness. The persistence of affluence guided us away from an obsessive concern with work to an appreciation of leisure and leisure skills. And the cosmopolitan influence of Eastern religions introduced us to the importance of meditation and holistic health.

But the moral revolution produced its problems. In the heyday of its churning, the consequences of all this change were not clearly discerned. Many of its advocates did not reckon with the negative side of its assault on traditional values. The recession of the early ’80s dramatized the limitations of an ethics of leisure (“Finding oneself” simply became too expensive). The appalling divorce rate and the breakdown of the old family structures brought into question the feminist assault and the self-absorption of self-fulfillment.

The increasing isolation and alienation of so many citizens challenged the values of personal autonomy and sexual liberation. The fundamentalist religious revival reminded us of the danger of tearing down all authority structures and replacing them with clichés about options. And the pervasive disillusionment and pessimism among both the old and the young became an indictment of freedom without direction.

In the environment of the more sober ‘80’s, we need to assess the meaning and value of the moral revolution. Many of its changes were important and necessary. But some of its claims were naive, and many of its effects were harmful.

Because of the excesses of its proponents, we are experiencing a social and political backlash that may undo a good part of its positive achievements.

In order to get a handle on the problem, we need to focus on three ethical issues that dominate our personal decision making.

The first is the issue of risk vs. security. Conservatives have historically been concerned with safety and protection, with law and order, with evenness and stability. Liberals have usually opted for adventure and excitement, novelty and experiment, danger and the rejection of the routine. Both sides have often been carried away by their anxieties and enthusiasm. What is needed is an appropriate balance between the two.

The second issue is the issue of commitment vs. freedom. Conservatives have generally used the vocabulary of duty and obligation, of responsibility and eternal promises. Liberals have resisted with an alternative vocabulary of freedom and self-determination, of dignity and self-esteem. Their controversy has often led to pushing harmful extremes. A rational morality hovers somewhere in between their respective propagandas.

The third issue is the problem of authority vs. autonomy. Conservatives tend to emphasize the necessity of subordinating individual judgment to the wisdom of the past. Liberals are more likely to insist on the importance of personal judgment, personal conscience, and individual uniqueness. When either side is followed to its logical extreme, tyranny or chaos prevails. Neither external authority nor autonomy can be absolute.

These three issues dramatize the moral agonies of the ’80’s.