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Where Do Ethics Come From?

Where Do Ethics Come From?


Should we clone people? Is there such a thing as a life not worth living? When is it correct to go to war? Is terrorism always wrong? Is there anything wrong with same-sex marriages? Can abortion ever be legitimized? The list of 21st century ethical dilemmas is endless. The key issue in this regard is: how and on what biases do we answer these ethical dilemmas? Indeed this is a question that concerned the earliest philosophers.

In western philosophy there are generally three views as to the origin of ethics. Firstly there is the "Divine Command Theory of Ethics" which contends that ethics originates from G‑d -- that which G‑d commands is arbitrarily good and ethical. The counterargument to this maintains that this view leads to the absurdity where G‑d can, in theory, decree adultery to be ethical. If one argues that G‑d cannot do this one is admitting that ethical standards are set by something outside G‑d.1

Following on from the "Divine Command Theory" is the "Theory of Forms," put forward by Plato, which holds that there is an independent "form" outside of G‑d which is the absolute standard of morality and ethics. The problem here is that this absolute standard was never revealed to a spatio-temporal world, so one could never be certain that one has attained the absolute standard of ethics. We therefore face the original dilemma: what is ethical?

The third view holds that all knowledge is relative to the individual, in which case there cannot be absolute morality: all ethics are relative to circumstances, people and cultures. This view too is problematic because, taken to its logical conclusion, there is no such thing as ethics at all.2

There is an enigmatic verse in the Torah that seems to relate directly to this debate. G‑d says to Moses, "Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the L-rd your G‑d, am holy."3 The command "You shall be holy" elicits debate among the commentators. Some hold that it means that one should be particularly careful in matters of sexual morality.4 Predicating their view on the Talmud, others maintain that it refers to the need to remain self-disciplined even in matters which carry no Torah prohibition. According to this "You shall be holy" implores one always to be abstemious and self-disciplined when it comes to material pleasures.5 Interestingly, this interpretation of the verse is identical to Aristotle's view on how human ethical conduct is to be determined.

"You shall be holy for I, the L-rd, your G‑d, am holy" may seem a rather vague argument for ethical conduct; however, it encapsulates a tremendously deep explanation regarding the origins of ethics. G‑d created man "in His image." 6 According to the Kabbalists this verse indicates that G‑d possesses "attributes" (middot or sefirot). In the Kabbalistic system there are ten G‑dly attributes, three of which are intellectual and seven emotional. It must be noted however that the G‑dly attributes are perfect and infinitely different to those of humans. So when the Torah says that the fact that G‑d is ethical (holy) is a reason for humans to be ethical (holy), it means that the origin of morality comes from G‑d Himself. The perfect form, the standard bearer for perfect morals--which Plato saw as being outside G‑d--in fact originates from within G‑d Himself. G‑d is revealing that the ethical laws that are written in the Torah are not just relative moral laws or an intellectual analysis of human nature leading to educated guesses regarding what is and what is not ethical.7 Rather, the ethical laws found in the Torah are a G‑dly revelation of that Divine perfect form which is a paradigm for ethical human conduct. Indeed, there is no surer way to be certain of what is ethical and what is not than to have the standard bearer of ethical conduct reveal it to us.

So when confronted with the massive ethical dilemmas of the 21st century there is only one place to turn for the answers: to the perfect form which is the origin of ethics, as manifested in the Torah.

See regarding this "The Euthyphro Dilemma" found in Plato's The Last Days of Socrates.
For an excellent summery of these views in greater detail see, Peter Vardy and Paul Grosch in their The Puzzle of Ethics.
This is known as, "The Natural Law Approach to Morality" put forward by Thomas Aquinas.
By Levi Brackman
Rabbi Levi I. Brackman is director of Judaism in the Foothills and the author of numerous articles on issues of the day.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
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Discussion (22)
July 19, 2014
Morality is not universal, it varies depending on your culture, religion, era you were born in, upbringing etc. We are not born with ethics we are either taught them or later experience what hurt is and (hopefully) conclude it is not beneficial to create or recieve it. We are not all made in the same image, that much is perfectly clear.
January 2, 2014
To Mendy
I take very seriously what you are saying. I struggled with the fact of evil, suffering and death in light of a good G-d as well. So have many others throughout history.

Call it a cop-out if you wish, but the conclusion I finally came to was this:

If G-d's nature is wholly good (and He wouldn't be G-d if it wasn't) and yet evil and suffering exist than I must conclude that the ultimate good allows for the possibility of both human flourishing and suffering, the possibility of both good and evil. This reality allows human beings the possibility of meaning, free will and working toward the betterment of others/the world.

Secondly, as those who affirm faith in Hashem and His unity we must have a perspective that is eternal, not temporal. We do not espouse one world but many worlds. Therefore we have the faith that this world and its suffering and evil is not all there is. There is Shamayim and the World to come.
April 19, 2013
It seems that when a problem or dilemma does not have a an obvious human response that is moral and righteous from every cultural religious and secular standpoint, there must be some guiding foundation or set of practicies that respect human individuality and promote each individuals general welfare. Regradless of whether or not a person is a pious believer or an enlightened secularist, the impressive fact remains that the basic principles laid out in the Torah encompass such a wide variety of moral dilemmas and precedents, that it truly is a solid foundation for modern ethical problems. In addition, the Jewish tolerance for various opinions and findings enlarges the possiblilies of not finding the only right answers, but in creating a plurality of opinions where one can find the best possible answer for a particular individual or solution. Judaism also does not do the "deinal answer", but truly probes for an answer to the deepest and most fundamental problems science today brings.
January 21, 2013
To Brett
It would be good if you fully read and thought about what I wrote before you responsed with what seems like a knee-jerk reaction defending God.

We may have NGOs like Oxfam, Unicef, Catholic Relief, Jewish World Services, CARE, etc., today, but drought and famine have been around for thousands of years (to wit, the Torah: "And there was famine in the land"), before there were any NGOs or even radio to broadcast about the starvation and seek international aid. No, millions of innocent kids starved to death for thousands of years, and it was all the fault of that monster, God, who failed to send rain. Don't whitewash Him.

And you didn't even mention the rest of what I wrote.

I welcome a thoughtful response. You sound angry.
New York City
January 21, 2013
your the problem
You're the problem..........and so am I.

There is enough food and resources in the world for everyone.
The majority do not know how to share/distribute the blessings.
The majority do not know or regard Torah.

Nothing wrong with God.....everything wrong with me and you.
April 25, 2012
How can we say that God is "good?"
First, if being "good" means anything, it must mean "comporting with some outside standard." One cannot make a rule for himself and then say he is "good" because he lives up to his own standard. The psychopath's rule is selfishness. Do we say he is "good" when he lives up to that rule?

So, if God created ethics, how can we ever say He is "good"?

Second, God kills 10,000 innocent children worldwide every day through slow death by starvation (He neglects to send rain). Thousands more daily via His pathogens. And God created carnivorous animals, then set them loose to tear prey to shreds, and it is God who was kind enough to give the victims nervous systems so that they could fully experience the agony and terror of being chased and eaten alive. And it is God who commits "acts of God" such as earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, & hurricanes that kill millions of innocents.

We were created in the image of THAT monster. We have His ethics, and that's why we kill
New York, NY
August 1, 2011
An ongoing issue...
Working on a paper for "business ethics" class for a really messed up situation in which all of us are not only in this country but in this world in relation to "Ethics" itself.
I like the beginning of of the article but of course until it got to the end... disappointing! Then of course the issue deviates to other things like "cloning" of human beings. Well, let's get some things cleared first, for "ethical" dilemmas will not stop.
Nature of "ethics", let's re-evaluate... I like reason too. By the looks of it we are not anywhere closer to solve our problems with one "G_d" mentality. It instead instigates, to separate conditions separate actions. Not too mention "Buddhist Ethics" which goes even beyond... We are all in this together... and taking sides is not the solution. I was hoping that sooner rather than later...but for the looks of it, we are barely scratching heads still. Let us re-define Ethics itself and its nature.
Francisco Gonzalez
Olathe, KS. USA
January 10, 2010
Of course God follows logic! God is Reason! He is many other things, Love, Justice,etc. Aesty says anything a perfect Spirit (like God) has, that Spirit is! Look at it this way: can G-d be perfect and not be reasonable? NO! You know it to be as true as the assertion god can't be evil. How do we know reason is good? You are using reasonable arguments to try and dismiss reason! Reason always works; it works for defending the Faith, it works no matter where we go in the universe, and when discussing God, when being theoLOGICAL, we are being LOGICAL. Reason is great. And this whole attititude, "God's not bound by his creature's reasoning," is sophist. God's not bound by his creature's reasoning, because reason isn't something we create. Reason exists outside of us; it's not yours, it's not mine, it's everybody's and everybody must follow it. This is because God is reason. God would have us learn about him through reason. Why? So our faith isn't based on nothing, and we can bring in others.
Come on now.
Lansdowne, PA
January 10, 2010
To the previous poster
His article is not a weak answer to an important question, as you assert. His point was not to deliver an argument as to the correct philosophy or religion, but to assert the point that in Judaism, G- is Goodness and Holinness qua Goodness and Holiness. His article refutes many fallacies, like total depravity (man can discern the will of G-d from reason, because G-d is Goodness, and man knows Goodness), individualism (if there is one Transcendent God, there is one Transcendent Goodness), and agnosticism (for the same reasons it dismisses Calvinist depravity.) Just because the article does not answer what you are presently interested in does not make this subject unimportant.
Lansdowne, PA
November 12, 2009
Whose G-D?
Where does ethics come from - like all good rabbi's - all they say ultimately, is, wait for it...ethics comes from G-D! So whose G-D I ask? Mohammeds? St Pauls, or Moses? Come on Rabbi- poor answser to an important question.