Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Stray Thought on Ethics

An interesting thought popped into my head this morning. In the past, we have discussed the tension that may exist between the natural ethic and the divine imperative that commands our obedience. We have also dealt with character attributes and how they need to be utilized.

Perhaps the natural ethic is really simply a character attribute. In other words, each individual has, to some varying degree, been imbued by God with some amount of sensitivity to that natural morality that is the pulse of the universe. However, as philosophers will be quick to point out, since each human is allocated a different level of sensitivity, the morality that makes up this world seems varied and unclear. Some people feel that eating meat is immoral, while others are not fazed by their conscience when participating in the mass murder of humanity. Since this internal moral compass is so varied, the ethics of revelation are brought to light, guiding our use of our moral and ethical attributes: compassion, hatred, vengeance and forgiveness.

Only an objective ethic can claim authority over the vastly different consciences that exist in each of us. If it tells us to suspend our need for vengeance, or our feeling of duty to have compassion, we do so.

When discussing middoth, Rabbi Kook explains that the 'good' character traits, such as love, compassion, patience and kindness, must become part of our very being. True, there are certain times we need to supress them. However, the suppression of these midoth should be against our natural tendencies. We should feel uncomfortable the whole time we suppress them. In contrast, the 'bad' midoth should never become part of our natural state of being. Rather, they should remain in our toolbox of traits, to be dusted off and used only when absolutely necessary. All the while we utilize them, we should feel a foreign attribute in our actions.

The same should hold true for our ethical traits.

(27 Kislev, 5769: Revisiting this issue, my chevrusa and I discussed the ethical in light of the Torah. Our discussion concluded that perhaps an individual halacha, such as Amalek could not be used in isolation to teach the ethics of the Torah, for it is a product not of a purely ethical form or category, but a result of various competing ethics and considerations. For example, the act of torture may be morally reprehensible. However, when used to urge a terrorist to reveal the location of a ticking time bomb, the overall ethical thing to do is to use torture. Some actions should define us (being kind, being peaceful), and are inherently ethical, while other actions, though sometimes employed, do not define our ethic, and only receive the nod of approval because of surrounding considerations. Thus, while an individual halacha may not define morality, the totality of halachot and hashkafa do, and provide a framework and set of rules to, with all the complexities of life, choose the best possible course of action when none may always be perfect. אשת יפת תואר and עמלק are thus not necessarily so different. They are both the best course of action for imperfect situations.)