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What is Morality?

What is Morality?

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Abstract: Without G-d there is no valid justification for a morality of any kind, new or old. The pivotal point of this argument is to notice that what distinguishes moral judgments and makes them unique is that they are categorical. What is meant by 'categorical' here is basically what Immanuel Kant meant when he said that moral judgments are binding on all human beings no matter what kind of society they live in.

Many people are inclined to say that the only thing that can justify the categorical element of moral judgments is the fact that G-d commanded them. However, being commanded by G-d is not a necessary and sufficient condition for something being a categorical, moral judgment.

What then is the justification of a moral judgment? This is a difficult question to answer, but I believe it is connected with the idea that we were made in the image of G-d, and therefore contain innate elements of natural goodness which is part and parcel of the soul and life of every human being, and is expressed in the two basic moral senses of justice and compassion.


The Talmud says in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, "If there is no Torah there is no ethics, and if there is no ethics, there is no Torah" (Ethics of the Fathers, 3:17). Furthermore, it is said, "Anyone who says I am only interested in Torah (and not G-d its commandments), such a person doesn't even have Torah." Torah without G-d is unthinkable. It follows then, that without G-d there can be no ethics or morality. This is the view of Torah.

There is, however, a commonly held conception that one can be moral or live a moral life without G-d. I believe that this is false, and the remainder of this paper will attempt to explain why.

Before one can even begin such an argument, however, one has to define morality, for if one is not clear on how to identify a moral action when one sees it, how can one know whether it can or cannot exist without G-d? I shall begin then with an attempt to answer the question, what exactly is morality?

One way of approaching this question, which philosophers often use, is to replace the question about morality with another one, namely, what is a moral judgment? When I say, "lying is wrong" or "one should not lie," I am making a moral judgment. There are, however, kinds of judgments other than moral judgments. There are descriptive judgments as when I say that it is raining. This is a description of the weather that is either true or false. Moral judgments are not descriptions of anything but evaluations of people and their actions expressed in the form of an imperative. They place a value on human actions and declare them to be good or evil, right or wrong. For this reason they are called "value judgments", and in this they are different from descriptive judgments which simply describe things without placing a value on them.

A moral judgment, however, is not the only kind of value judgment. I could evaluate something in terms of its usefulness as when I say, "that's a good horse" or "that's a good car," meaning that they work well or run well. Though I use the term "good" here, it is used differently from how it is used in a moral judgment, as when I say that it is good to tell the truth. In this case, I do not mean that it is useful or advantageous to tell the truth, but that it is morally good to do so. The question is how does moral goodness differ from utilitarian goodness?

Immanuel Kant gave the most accurate description of a moral judgment and how it differs from other kinds of value judgments, particularly utilitarian ones, when he said that the unique feature of a moral judgment is that it is categorical. What Kant means by calling a judgment categorical is that it applies to all human beings in some absolute sense. Another way of putting it is that there are no acceptable excuses for not abiding by a moral judgment.

For example, there are no excuses for lying. One should simply not tell lies. If I say, "I will meet you at 2:00 PM," I might fail to meet the appointment. If you ask me why I didn't show up, I might say that my car broke down, my watch went on the blink, I felt ill, or even that I just forgot, and apologize. All these, under appropriate circumstances, would be accepted as reasonable excuses, and a charitable person will forgive and forget. What would be unacceptable, however, would be to say that when I promised to meet you at 2:00 PM, I was lying and had no intention of keeping the appointment. One cannot forgive and forget this. It is simply not acceptable and one would feel justified in harboring ill feelings against such a person. He is untrustworthy, he lies, he is bad, and any decent person will have nothing to do with such a liar.

Suppose, however, I say to someone, "You should practice your piano lessons." That person might give a number of acceptable excuses. He might even say that he doesn't want to practice piano because he hates playing the piano, and the only reason he is taking piano is that his mother makes him. There is no prima facie obligation to take piano lessons as there is to tell the truth. One might admit that one should practice his piano lessons, if one has to give a recital and does not want to be embarrassed. In those circumstances, my statement that he should practice his lessons would have a point and should be taken seriously because of the consequences of not playing well at the recital.

If, however, one were to say out of the blue that one should always take piano lessons no matter what, one might well ask why, and it would be a reasonable question that calls for an answer. If, however, one says that you should tell the truth or that you should not lie, only a bad person would ask for a reason why one should tell the truth. It is prima facie wrong to lie and there are no excuses to justify it. In fact, if anyone would demand a reason why one should not lie, that itself is a sign that that person is morally deficient. A morally good person would take it as self-evident. In other words, just by being a human being living in society makes it incumbent upon one not to lie. Being a human being living in society, however, does not per se include the responsibility to take piano lessons. That's up to you. If you would like to play piano and think you have a talent for it, and if you have the time and money, it would be good to take lessons. It is a matter of one's priorities and free choice.

This is not true of moral judgments. It is not a matter of priorities whether one should lie. Just don't lie even though it might cost you money or put one to shame or both. The morally right thing to do in all situations is simply not to lie, and what makes it bad or evil are not the consequences. Even if you were never caught and even benefited from lying, it is still wrong to lie.

This excludes "white" lies when telling the truth would conflict with other moral values that take precedence over lying, as saving a life. These exceptions, however, do not undermine the categorical, moral imperative in situations where it is wrong to lie. That is, when it is wrong to lie it is categorically wrong, and there are no excuses for it. Whatever it is that makes lying morally wrong, it is not the consequences.

On the other hand, what makes playing the piano good are precisely the consequences. It gives pleasure to the one playing and to those listening. If your playing produced pain in listeners as well as in yourself, there would be nothing good about your playing. That one should play the piano is a hypothetical judgment. It depends on whether it is good for you and/or for the listener.

These are simple examples and real-life situations are not always as easy as these. But no matter how complicated the situation may be, what determines what is prima facie morally right in that situation is never the consequences, while what determines what is right in a utilitarian sense is always the consequences. To say that lying is morally wrong is therefore to make a categorical judgment, i.e., it itself is wrong quite apart from its consequences; while to say that playing the piano is good, is to make a hypothetical judgment, i.e., the validity or truth of the judgment depends on the consequences and is never good or bad per se, i.e., in itself.

Origin of the Categorical Judgment

Kant was certainly correct, then, when he said that the essence of a moral judgment is that it is categorical. That, however, is not the end of the problem of understanding the basis of morality. In fact, it is just the beginning of the problem, for if the truth or falsity of a moral judgment does not depend on the consequences of actions, what does it depend on? How is one to know whether any moral judgment is true or false? What, indeed, is the basis of morality?

The answer that many theists give at this point is that moral actions are actions that G-d has commanded. The fact that G-d has commanded an act is sufficient to transform it into a moral one. I suppose these theists would argue that if G-d commanded us to play the piano, then playing the piano would also become for us a moral act.

Would it? There are numerous commands in the Bible that one would be hard pressed to understand as a moral act. What is moral about the biblical prohibitions on mixing linen with wool or eating non-kosher food? Furthermore, G-d was not beyond commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Was that a moral command? G-d Himself said on another occasion that one should not offer human sacrifice to idols. Did human sacrifice suddenly become a morally good act when G-d commanded it?

When G-d told Abraham that He was going to destroy the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorra, Abraham argued with G-d that this would not be just if there were good people living in these cities. "G-d forbid, that the Judge of the whole world should not do what is just!" (Genesis 18:25). G-d agreed with Abraham that to destroy the good people together with the bad, would not be just, but the truth is that there were no good people in those cities. If what G-d commands is eo ipso good, however, then Abraham should never have argued with G-d in the first place. He should have said something like, "G-d, I always thought that it was immoral to punish the righteous together with the wicked, but now that you have commanded your angels to do so, I see that I was mistaken and that it is indeed the morally right thing to do." Had Abraham said this, G-d would no doubt have called Abraham an idiot and have had nothing more to do with him. After all, how could an idiot be the father of our faith?

It is true that what G-d demands of us is obedience whether we understand Him or not. What G-d commands is a categorical command, but that does not make it "moral". Being categorical may be a necessary property of a command by G-d, but it does not follow that G-d's command is a sufficient condition for it being moral. G-d has commanded us not to wear clothes made of wool and linen, but no one can claim to understand that this is a moral imperative simply because G-d commanded it. Rashi says that the true test of faith is obedience to G-d whether one understands the command or not. If it were true, however, that G-d's commanding something is a sufficient condition for our understanding it as morally good, it would be impossible for chukkim (commands of G-d which appear to have no compelling reason behind them other than the fact that G-d commanded them) to exist.

When G-d commands us not to steal, no one puts up an argument except the thief, who might complain that G-d has taken away his livelihood. When, however, G-d commands us not to wear woolen and linen garments, we all wonder what could possibly be the reason for this command. If we are devoted to G-d we will obey Him anyway, for who can understand G-d?

The conclusion of all this is that it is false to suppose that G-d's commanding something is a sufficient condition for our understanding it as morally good. In other words, one cannot argue for the moral goodness of anything by simply appealing to the fact that G-d has commanded it. To what, then, can one appeal? What, indeed, is the ground of morality? I believe the ground of morality rests upon something I call "the moral sense." In the remainder of this paper, I will try to explain what I mean by this.

The Moral Sense

What I mean by the moral sense is well-illustrated in one of Plato's earlier Dialogues. 1 Plato recounts how the gods gave to each species of animal the precise kind of abilities and instincts to survive. To the weak they gave speed, to those with strength they gave slowness of movement so the weaker could escape. To the smallest of all animals, the birds, they gave flight. To the animals living in cold countries they provided thick hair for warmth, and to each species they gave those kinds of bodily mechanisms and instincts to survive in its respective environment. After they had taken care of all the animals, they finally came to man and to their consternation discovered that all the natural protections and instincts had already been apportioned out and there was nothing left for man. Man was about to come naked into the world without any means of survival. The situation was saved by Zeus. He imparted to humans "...respect for one another and a sense of justice." This enabled man to form societies and live together in friendship and unity and thus survive.

I know of no other ground of morality or the moral sense than this. I do not mean that it was Zeus who implanted this sense of justice in human beings, but however it got there, the point I want to argue here is that it needs no ground or justification any more than modus ponens needs a proof of its validity. (We remind our readers that modus ponens is the Latin term for the following valid logical inference: from the two premises, i) if p then q, and ii) p; it follows that iii) q.) No proof could be more persuasive than modus ponens itself, and no argument supporting justice could be more compelling than justice itself. It is to the credit of John Rawls to have pointed out that justice as fairness cannot be reduced to some utilitarian value. 2 It is an a priori good in itself apart from the social and utilitarian values it so eminently serves. Even in those cases when it may not serve a utilitarian value, one still feels the compelling call of the biblical command, "Justice, justice shall you pursue!" (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Another integral element that composes this sense of morality is the compassion we feel for the suffering of another human being. These two -- the sense of justice and the sense of compassion -- comprise what I mean by the sense of morality. There may be other elements that enter into morality, but these are the primary ones. It is no accident that these two senses -- the sense of compassion and the sense of justice -- are intimately connected with love (chessed) and sternness (gevurah) which Chasidism and Kabbalah propound as the basic emotions in man and as the primary middot (moral qualities) with which G-d created the world.

The first thing I want to call attention to are the emotions one instinctively feels when one witnesses acts of injustice or suffering. They are called, respectively, "righteous indignation" and "compassion." Why do we have these emotions? Injustice is really an act or a fact about human relations, and suffering is a state of human existence. Why is it that these facts call forth these emotions? There is no necessity in our feeling these emotions, and indeed we may know individuals or have read about certain people for whom the appropriate situations do not call forth such emotions. We call such people insensitive or lacking in moral feelings. Though they may not yet be said to be evil or cruel, it is nonetheless the sine qua non of being a morally good person that one feels indignation and compassion on the appropriate occasions.

I believe there is something innate about these feelings, such that we find it quite natural to have them and think it unnatural when we do not. This is particularly true of cruelty, which is so unnatural that we call perpetrators of cruel acts "inhuman". A human being feels compassion for the suffering of another human being, and a decent person feels indignant when he sees injustice.

These feelings are as natural as laughing at a joke. It is silly to ask why one laughs at a joke if it is truly funny, and it is just as odd to ask why one feels indignation and compassion on the appropriate occasions. How else should one react to injustice and suffering? It is difficult to imagine reacting in any other way, just as we would find it difficult to react to a funny joke other than by laughing.

If one feels no indignation or compassion, this is a sign of something seriously amiss with one's humanity or goodness. The association of moral character with these feelings is so intimate that we are inclined to say that a decent person would never knowingly consent to injustice and a compassionate person could never inflict unnecessary pain or suffering on anyone. The "would never" and "could never" here is "logical" in that what one means by a moral person is someone who would never act unjustly and could never bring oneself to cause unnecessary pain or misery to anyone. To say that someone is morally good but acts unjustly or is cruel is a "logical" contradiction in the same sense in which it is a "logical" contradiction to say that a bachelor is married.

The reason the term "logical" is flagged here is that it is being used a bit differently from the way it is ordinarily used by logicians. Logical contradiction is usually applied to statements that negate logically valid inferences. Thus if modus ponens is a valid inference, then to say i) if p then q, and ii) p, but iii) not q, is a logical contradiction. However, the contradiction in saying that someone is a bachelor and is married contradicts no valid inference. What it contradicts is how we use words in English. It has to do with our understanding of concepts or ideas. What ordinarily is meant in English by the term "bachelor" excludes the possibility that a bachelor could be married. To ask of someone to whom you have been introduced as a bachelor, "By the way, are you married?" shows that either you do not understand English very well, or that you are trying to be funny, or that you are an imbecile. One might imagine other ways of explaining how or why someone might ask such a nonsensical question, but the point is that it is nonsensical, given the common meaning of the term "bachelor" in English.

In a similar way, I think it is nonsensical to say of someone, that he is morally good or decent, but nonetheless unjust or cruel. I want to say that what one means by a good person is at least a person about whom one would say that it is unthinkable that this person could act unjustly or cruelly. (It goes without saying that no one is morally perfect. We are all prone to weakness and temptations. Occasionally, we are unjust or lose our tempers and are mean. If we are morally decent, we will recognize these backslidings and regret them.)

There might be other traits that define our concept of moral goodness, but certainly justice and compassion are necessary aspects of this concept and perhaps even sufficient aspects. In any event, they are crucial, such that anyone who lacked these qualities would not be said to be a morally good person.

If it is true, as we claim here, that these feelings are innate or that all human beings are born with them, how is it that some people feel them more strongly than others and some seem to lack them altogether? I do not think these are counter examples to our point. People get side-tracked through bad nurturing or training from parents or teachers. It is a matter of education, as is any kind of character or emotional development.

This is Plato's point that the evil that men fall into is inadvertent and unintentional. No one willingly sets out to become evil. Some people are raised in an environment that is hostile to their basic moral feelings. The moral growth of such people becomes stunted, much as musical talent is stunted by an environment that fails to nurture and develop that talent. The difference between a talent for music and the sense of justice and compassion is that lack of the latter is a more serious character fault than the lack of the former. One who lacks a talent for music or a sense of humor is missing out on something important that adds to the value of human life, but someone who is unjust or cruel should be ostracized from human society.

Such people are cancerous. They destroy the trust and friendship that is the glue holding society together. Sometimes these moral sentiments shine through the thick skin of the most hardened criminals or those whom one would ordinarily consider cruel or inhumane. A close friend of mine who survived the infamous death march from Auschwitz was saved by a Nazi guard who, along with shooting straggling prisoners on the way, would come over to my friend every day and share his canteen of coffee with him. When they reached the railroad junction after days of marching and they boarded the cattle cars that transported them to Bergen-Belsen, the guard disappeared and my friend never saw him again. Why the guard showed my friend this kindness, and who this person was has remained a mystery to this very day.

In Kabbalah, the term for evil is klipah (‘shell' or ‘covering'). The idea here is that the world and man are essentially good, but an external layer of evil covers and conceals this good. One simply has to peel back this layer to reveal a basic underlying goodness. Sometimes a glimmer of humanity peeks through the outer shell of evil.

A similar idea was expressed in a lecture I once heard by Robert Frost who described what a poem is using the following metaphor: The ancients thought that the black sky at night was a curtain that was stretched over the heavens when the sun set. Beyond that curtain was a supernal light which we could not see. Powerful archers would shoot arrows at the curtain and sometimes they would pierce it and pinpoints of the supernal light would shine through. The ancients thought that was a star. Robert Frost said it is a poem. Kabbala proclaims it a ray of that elemental goodness which is the essence of man and the world. The mysterious kindness shown by the Nazi guard mentioned in the previous footnote was a fleeting glimpse of that goodness in the midst of evil.

No one is all good or all evil. Each of us is a mixture of both, varying in the degree that goodness is able to shine through the shell of egoism that encrusts us all.

Egoism is the dark curtain that conceals the supernal goodness concealed in the soul of every human being and the bad and evil among us are simply those unfortunate ones who, for whatever reason, have been unable to unearth this goodness. From time to time on rare occasions, it manages to poke a hole through the mire of our entanglements.

However we come by this sense of morality, we do not come by it as a result of G-d's commands, though the commentators on the Bible tells us that in pursuing morality we are emulating G-d. Man naturally feels compassion with or without G-d. Furthermore, as we said earlier, Abraham actually challenged G-d for not displaying a sense of justice in dealing with the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorra.

The interesting thing about this story is that it is taken for granted by both G-d and Abraham that it would not be fair to treat righteous men and wicked men in the same way, and that it is unthinkable that G-d could act unjustly. Suppose G-d had challenged Abraham to produce an argument that it is morally wrong or evil to treat people unfairly. What could Abraham have said? I myself do not know of any argument that Abraham could have produced. I doubt if G-d would have been impressed by either a Kantian or a Nietzschean argument, and certainly not a utilitarian one.

Abraham, as a matter of fact, had preempted the question. He challenged G-d: "G-d forbid, that the Judge of the world should not do what is fair!" If G-d indeed had answered by saying something like, "What is so terrible in treating the righteous and the wicked in the same way? Prove to Me that this is wrong," we would then have to throw up our hands in despair, for all would be lost. If the Judge of the whole world is not just, G-d have mercy on us! If a fellow human being of flesh and blood would have asked this question, we would question his sanity. How can any decent person ask why it is good to be fair?

Something similar can be said about the sense of compassion. Why should one feel compassion for the suffering of another human being? The only possible answer is that if you don't, you are morally insensitive and probably capable of cruelty yourself. If someone were to ask, what is evil about cruelty? There is no answer. One simply throws up one's hands in horror and stays as far away as one can from such people. This is the only proper response. Such people do not deserve an argument! If G-d Himself were cruel (and there is no contradiction to His being an omniscient, omnipotent Creator of the world and also cruel), could one go on living? If the ultimate end of the righteous as well as the wicked is eternal damnation, what is the point of it all?

Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book, Fear and Trembling, in which he imagines how the biblical story of the binding of Isaac might have been written a bit differently had Abraham not been the true hero of faith that he was. He might have pleaded with G-d, complained against G-d, held in repressed anger or disappointment, and so forth. It never occurred to Kierkegaard to rewrite the story as if G-d were not G-d but an evil demon. The evil demon would not have saved Isaac at the last moment and moreover would have gloated over his sacrifice and laughed at Abraham's suffering in gleeful joy. If he had said to Abraham, "You fool -- the only reason I created you and tested your faith is that I should have the enjoyment of watching you suffer!" The only proper response to this is that Abraham plunge the knife into himself, for there would be no point in going on living. If G-d is cruel, that is the end -- the world gets turned upside down. This shows how fundamental is the idea that the world and G-d are good.

The Necessity of Goodness

This fundamental role that moral goodness plays in human life, however, is derived from man, not from G-d. It is not that we consider moral goodness crucial because G-d has commanded it -- rather we consider it crucial because we cannot imagine living without it. In some ways, it is even more fundamental in our thinking than is G-d. Many people claim they can live without G-d, but no one can say honestly they can get along without goodness. This attests to the efficacy with which G-d implanted it within us, and it is important that one should not forget that it was G-d Who implanted it. That is, it did not come about by chance or through some evolutionary process.

This certainly adds to our responsibility. If one has a talent, one should try to develop it if it enhances one's life. However, one has no responsibility to develop it unless it is "G-d-given." If the Creator of Heaven and Earth has given someone a talent that enhances the value and the goodness of human life, then one has a categorical responsibility to nourish this talent. That is, it is not up to one's individual choice to decide whether one should develop it.

How much more does this apply if we are talking about one's "talent" for goodness, i.e., one's sense of compassion. This is nothing else than the emulation of G-d. "As I am merciful," says G-d, "so shall you be merciful." The sense of compassion in man is a reflection of G-d's image in us. As G-d is good, so are we, or rather our dependency on goodness is due to the fact that this is how G-d made us, and the development of our talent for goodness is an emulation of G-d.

The only difference is that this is a talent that every human being has, by right of being human. This talent was not reserved for a select few. The exhortation by G-d that we should be merciful is not a command as such. It is more of an encouragement. "I know it is difficult," He says, "but you can do it. You have it in you. I know-I put it there!" It is similar to G-d's exhortation to be holy. "You shall be holy because I am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). At first, this does not sound like much of an argument. If G-d had said, "You shall be omnipotent because I am omnipotent," we would think it a joke. The difference is that G-d has given us the ability to attain a degree of holiness or goodness, but not His omnipotence. Don't let it go to your head. Just because G-d shares with man some of His attributes, man does not, therefore, become G-d.

That goodness is a G-d-given talent is significant. It implies that man has a categorical responsibility to develop that talent, which otherwise he would not have. 3 If one's feeling for justice and compassion for suffering are evolutionary traits that evolved in the course of man's cultural development, there is no moral duty or obligation to nurture them except for prudential reasons, i.e., to help stabilize society or lead to pleasure and happiness, but then we are no longer talking about morality but about prudence. In order for righteous indignation and compassion to be a genuine barometer for morality, one needs G-d. Human compassion is a moral feeling because G-d is compassionate. Justice is a moral trait because G-d is just. Without G-d, the feeling we all have that righteous indignation and compassion are the sine qua non of morality could be "explained" as some kind of evolutionary development that has survival value. The only way one can say that these feelings constitute morality as we know it, is not because that's the way we have been taught or nurtured, but because the moral life is some form of emulation of G-d. To be what it is, morality must be "G-d-like."

Thus the Bible says one must "...walk in His ways" (Deuteronomy 28.9). Various rabbinic commentators interpret this to mean that one must emulate the characteristics that G-d Himself displays. To quote Maimonides, "Just as He (G-d) is called kind, so you should be kind. As He is called merciful, so you should be merciful. As He is called holy, so you should be holy" (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, chap. 1, paragraph 6). One of the interpretations of the biblical statement that man was made in the image of G-d is that the feelings we call moral feelings are such as they are and have the categorical demands that they do, because they are the feelings that G-d has also, insofar as it makes sense to talk of G-d as having feelings similar to those of human beings.

When Plato asked his famous question in the Euthyphro, "Is something holy because G-d desires it or does G-d desire it because it is holy?" (--or our purpose, we can substitute "good" for "holy"; the logic of the question is the same--) the answer is a bit of both. When we say that the feelings of moral indignation and compassion are moral feelings, we mean that this is so because that's how G-d Himself feels on certain occasions, and man has these feelings because G-d implanted them in him. Without G-d, man might still have them but there is no way one can justify its categorical demands. G-d and morality are essentially one and the same thing. This dimension of human life that distinguishes mankind from animals disappears with the view that there is no G-d and man has no peculiar virtue other than that of being at the top of the evolutionary process. What we call morality would be nothing more than the end point of evolution; that does not make it moral but simply successful.

Should some evolutionary process replace our present moral feelings with others, then man would simply have outgrown what we all call morality, and the evolutionary value of survival will have replaced these moral feelings and values with others which we might then call the "new morality." One can well imagine that if Hitler had won the Second World War and established his dream of the thousand year Reich, he might indeed have created a new ‘morality' altogether.

In a word, the categorical element in moral judgment has no basis without G-d. The main inspiration of this view has been the Hebrew Bible, and in particular the prophets. Indeed the purport of the argument of this paper could not be more succinctly expressed than it is in a single sentence from the prophet Micah:

He has told you, oh man, what is good, and what G-d requires of you: only to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your G-d. (Micah 6:8)

In reply to the question, "How do we know that this is really what G-d has told man?" we answer that the question is irrelevant. The point is that without the first part of the sentence quoted from Michah, the exhortation "...to do justice and to love mercy..." ceases to be a categorical imperative and becomes hypothetical as are all prudential imperatives.

The power and inspiration that the Hebrew prophets have had on the history of mankind for so many hundreds and thousands of years is due precisely to the fact that the appeal to the human heart for justice and mercy in our dealings with one another is a command of G-d and does express G-d's very dealings with us. As we should treat others so does G-d act towards us: midda keneged midda (measure for measure), as the rabbis say.

G-d and humankind together form a community in which the human moral sense is the guiding light. G-d is bound by this sense as much as man and therefore Abraham can complain if G-d does not appear to live up to it. He says it as it is: "G-d forbid that the Judge of the whole world should not do what is just."

Most people when they read this nod their heads and say to themselves, "Well, of course, what could be more obvious!" The truth is that it should be considered the height of arrogance and chutzpa for anyone to presume to tell G-d what to do. Arrogance, however, is the last thing of which anyone would accuse Abraham. Indeed, Abraham asks G-d to pardon his forwardness, for after all, he is but "dust and ashes" (Genesis 18:27). Abraham's humility, however, does not hold him back from speaking his mind. It is no time for false humility when the lives of innocent people may be at stake. What's more important, justice or G-d's honor?

In this case, Abraham clearly thought it was appropriate to question God's actions, and the truth is that G-d did not seem to take offense. He patiently pointed out to Abraham that there were no decent people in Sodom or Gomorra, and if there were, He would surely not destroy them. Having made a world built on justice and compassion, G-d was not at liberty to disregard these values. Having made the rules whereby the game of living in His world were to be played, He Himself was duty bound to follow them. The important thing is that the rules are made by G-d, not by man, and this is none other than the origin of the binding, categorical authority of morality.

The answer to Plato's question in the Euthyphro of whether what G-d does is good because He does it, or whether He does it because it is good, is that G-d's world is good because G-d made it, but He made it in such a way that man is an equal partner with G-d in maintaining and preserving its goodness. As such, G-d and humankind must see "eye-to-eye" and agree on the matter. To ensure that agreement, G-d implanted in the human soul the two attributes on which the entire Creation was founded -- justice and compassion. Any deviation from these two foundations spells not only the moral disintegration of humanity but the destruction of the world as we know it. The world, however, already once took this path in the time of Noah. We have G-d's promise that it will never happen again. Humankind and the world are destined for redemption whether they like it or not. G-d, however, left it up to us to determine whether this happens sooner or later.

FOOTNOTES
1. See Plato's Protagoras, 320d-322e
2. See his "Justice as Fairness" in The Philosophical Review, vol. LXVII (1958) and his book, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971) chap. 1.
3. Kant assumed that one has a categorical responsibility to develop whatever talents one might have, but he never argues for this in any convincing fashion. He simply says that "...as a rational being, he necessarily wills that his faculties be developed since they serve him, and have been given to him for all sorts of possible purposes." (Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 450-490 in original German edition, ed. Rosencranz and Schubert, 1938). I do not see how reason can dictate the necessity of developing our talents unless it is on the basis of prudential or utilitarian considerations, which Kant actually suggests here. However, the duty then becomes hypothetical and not categorical, as Kant would like. If one has no desire to develop his talent for music, why should he feel obliged to do so just because he has it?
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Discussion (8)
July 4, 2012
Morality
I think that morality is what Hillel had in mind when answering the pagan. The negative golden rule followed by "That is the law. All else is commentary", appears to say this is morality, and if you wish to gauge an act in moral terms and are unsure, look it up in the original and in the Talmud. But if you don't have the time to do that, then do no harm. Very few of us will ever have to be in an overcrowded life boat. But all of us engage in buying, selling, and engaging in everyday social intercourse, and it is here where our moral compass is tested.
Dan
Yardley, PA/USA
March 26, 2012
there can never be morality without GOD
FAITH MATHEBULA
NELSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA
July 25, 2011
You state that morality cannot be seen as valuable because of it's consequences but I would disagree here - if someone lies they cut themselves off from the person they lie to, they in fact encase themselves and deny the Truth the chance to be seen. The thought must enter thier mind however quickly "He will not know because I am separate from him - he cannot know my mind". The consequences would be obvious - a cooled or broken friendship and lack of trust of that person. That encasing and separating off is what is happening all over the world right now, right in front of us at all times. The consequences are to be OBSERVED. ie the Natzis convinced themselves that Jews were different, and so felt justified in killing.
I think this is why Abraham is praised for blindly following God re. Issac. He did not doubt that G_d could know his mind which was full of love for his son. God taught him that his faith was justified and showed him the meaning and consequence of compassion.
Julie
Durham, UK
August 17, 2010
Scholarly
good read
Okoa
Nairobi, Kenya
December 13, 2009
morality
Dear Prof Block

In B'OR HATORA , 12E, page 129 you published a paper G-D and MORALTY in which you state that to tell the TRUTH (ie not to lie) is a categorical moral judgment. How can that be so if we are allowed to lie in order to avoid negative consequences?

Sincerely
Dr Israel Korn
Sydneyhts, Australia
June 29, 2008
is obeying what G-d commands eo ipso a moral imperative and an over riding moral imperative? is to obey one's creator a moral imperative?
if the answer is yes, then it is plausible that the moral imperative of obeying one's creator could override the moral obligation not to kill an innocent person just as the moral wrong of lying is justified in some instances?
also why didn't Abraham challenge G-d's authority when it came to killing Issac? the bible extolls his virtue in that he DIDN"T challenge G-d's authority and followed G-d blindly?
david
October 3, 2006
This is an excellent article. Every word of it.
HansDieter ben Karl-Otto
freudenstadt
November 27, 2004
Morality Without G-d
My comments on this essay are prompted by, and confined to, the opinion given on page 1.para. 5. -- "There is, however, a commonly held conception that one can be moral or live a moral life without G-d. I believe this is false and the remainder of this paper will attempt to explain why."

Page 8. para. 6. states that however we come by our sense of morality we do not come by it as a result of G-ds command. That righteous indignation and compassion we all feel is --- as stated on page 9. para. 5. --- derived from the fundamental role that moral goodness plays in human life. Furthermore, page 11. para.2. states that without G-d man may still have them but there is no way one can justify its categorical demand.

From the outset the essay admits that the justification for a moral judgment is difficult to answer, and Kants Categorical Imperative notwithstanding, I too believe it is related to the idea that we are all made in G-ds image. The sense of justice, compassion, and respect for one another are indispensable to human existence as Plato reminds us, and the necessity for goodness is un-questionable. However, individuals may live a life of moral goodness and be ignorant, or indifferent, to the source of that goodness.

"The dimension of human life that distinguishes man from animals disappears with the view that there is no G-d." Does it? The injunction to love your neighbor as yourself only becomes meaningful and timeless because it was spoken by G-d. That there are categorical demands may be of little concern to an individual, he may not understand them as such, or be stirred by curiosity to search for their source in G-d. Cannot an individual uphold virtue and be ignorant of it source? Is it not possible for an individual to live a moral and upright life and be unaware that he finds favor with G-d? Many are they that serve Me but do not acknowledge Me.

I will paraphrase Leviticus 26The Lord said26 v3 if you live according to my laws and obey my commandmentsv 11-13 I will live among youI will be with youI will be your G-dI broke the power that held you down and enabled you to walk with your head held high. By substituting the vowel a with o in enabled we alter the meaning. By knowing the source of our goodness we become ennobled, otherwise we are merely enabled.

Can one live a moral live without G-d? Cannot an individual be callous to his G-d yet retain a sense of righteous indignation and compassion? Categorical demands he may not understand, yet hears a voice to do justice and love mercy albeit he knows not from whence it comes.

You are the fountain of life, in you light (only) do we see light The insert in parenthesis is of course mine.
Anonymous
Calapan, Philippines
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