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.
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.
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."
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. 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. 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." 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. 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.