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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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Anonymous 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. Reply

David January 2, 2014

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. Reply

Channa Cairo 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. Reply

Mendy New York City January 21, 2013

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. Reply

brett canada January 21, 2013

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. Reply

Mendy New York, NY April 25, 2012

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 Reply

Francisco Gonzalez Olathe, KS. USA August 1, 2011

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. Reply

Come on now. Lansdowne, PA 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. Reply

Catholic Lansdowne, PA January 10, 2010

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. Reply

Jeff Timbuktu November 12, 2009

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. Reply

Maso Miami Shores, Fl May 12, 2008

" A person, unlike an animal, cannot live without a soul. If Hashem does not provide a soul for a clone, it will not live. And if He does, the clone will be a real person. Does Torah say anything about cloning people?
Posted By Anonymous, New York, NY
... interesting. It begst the question; will a cloned human being actually have a soul. I properly done clone ( not that I want to see it...) may not be any different than you or me. Reply

A. Moore Summit, NJ/USA via May 12, 2008

The divine command theory does not seem to necessitate a degradation to external influence upon G-d as to what is wrong or right. Unlike us mere humans, it's perfectly legitimate for G-d to say "Because I said it's good [or bad], that's why!" Who are we to be His teacher? The first three chapters of Beresheet (Genesis) are an excellent study in the origins of ethics. G-d makes some definite statements about what is good and evil. Also, the ethical is wonderfully woven with the relational. Disobedience damaged the love relationship with our Creator. Therefore, obedience can help mend it. Finally, a clear distinction must be made between Creator and creature. Anything that is, including any philosophical or theoretical structure, was created. The only reason anything exists is because G-d made it exist. He is holy and from that quintessential base comes all that is good and perfect. All He does and says flows from His holy nature. Let us love G-d, obey His mitzvah, and be holy for He is. Reply

Anonymous New York, NY April 26, 2007

A person, unlike an animal, cannot live without a soul. If Hashem does not provide a soul for a clone, it will not live. And if He does, the clone will be a real person. Does Torah say anything about cloning people? Reply

Maso Miami, Fl January 20, 2007

You ask..."Should we clone people?"

That is a completely moot question. The fact of the matter is this; if they can clone a human, they WILL clone a human and no law will ever stop it. It will be done clandestantly... covertly...under cover anyway. In fact...who's to say the it hasen't been done already...??? Hummm...??? If they can clone a sheep, a cow, a mammal, then what do you bet they can clone a human being too...? You must know that they will if there's a law or not. That law will not be worth the paper it's printed on...!!! Reply

Anonymous April 20, 2006

I think that not all things can be put in the same basket when it comes to ethics. There are things that are categoricaly not ethical. The Torah prohibits them, usualy not as a decree but as a "mishpat" (that can be understood and most importantly internalized). What's unethical about eating chametz on passover? We are told, a person could say "I wish I could eat non kosher but my Father in heaven prohibits it" but u canot say "I wish I could kill but my Father in heaven prohibits it" the difference is obvious.
Then there are things that the Torah permits but the sages of certain comunities forbade, like having more than one wife. bc some things the Torah leaves to us based on the time we live in. The talmud say we'd learn not to steal from an ant had the Torah not comended. the comandments are writen in such a way that "you will not kill" is a comendment, but also a promise. That ingraned in nature will be not to kill. But bc of freedom of choise we can override nature.... Reply

Anonymous April 6, 2006

See The Book of Beliefs and Opinions by Saadiah Gaon, sections titled G-d and also the one about Prohibitions, it talks about similar ideas. Reply

Howard Chudler brea, ca January 7, 2006

I think you are only half correct. The author did not answer the questions he posed, but that would have been a book, not a several hundred word article.

I think the author wanted to introduce the idea of the origin of ethics. I don't think he assumes that the Torah easily answers all modern ethical questions, but I bet he believes it is the basis for answering them.

I thought it was a great introductory job in bringing these ideas out for discussion...not intended to be "the final word" but a general encapsulation of how others have approached this concept and what the author believes. Reply

Anonymous January 5, 2006

Mr. Seaghat -- so, you in fact are agreeing with me. The author did not say that saying that adultery is ethical is absurd. He said that conceiving that G-d could've decreed such a thing is absurd, and I don't see how that is true. We have to decide whether we think that G-d's Laws are Laws because G-d gave them to us (and He is not bound by the logic of His Creation), or because there is something intrinsically right in the Universe, and G-d just gave us a tool of determining what it is (and He is bound by the logic of His Creation).

The difference is -- in the first case, the only way we can be sure something is moral is by listening to G-d. In the second case, there may, in fact, be a way of finding out the "truth" without G-d explicitly telling us what it is. There seem to be indications of both ideas in Torah, both before and after the giving of the Torah. Reply

Anonymous January 4, 2006

Excellent article... At a very basic level, in a world where ethics of any source are increasingly ignored, how comforting and reassuring that the Torah reveals a wisdom ancient that provokes studied consideration. For issues that may not be specifically addressed in the Torah, moderate study of the general principles of this Book reveals guidelines for modern ethical interpretations, with borders that reach far beyond the questions we've asked so far.

Far more then arbitrary injunctions and meaningless examples, The Torah speaks of Divine Love and Intentions for struggling humankind. And so many are so grateful. Reply

Anonymous Virginia Beach, VA January 1, 2006

What you've expressed is all good and well. But you haven't begun to answer the questions that you posed. And where the questions are not specifically addressed in the Torah, there have to be interpretation by humans who bring their biases and personal viewpoints.

I think your answer is far too general to be useful, and In fact, may be no more than platitudes. Reply