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What is ethics?


As part of the Bney Abraham project, which I mentioned shortly in the former post, I’ve wrote some thoughts about how I understand “Ethics”. It did take me some time to write it, and though I didn’t believe that it would be easy, I still got a little frustrated that maybe there is no single answer to this. At least not in the scope of a “set of rules” of which one should follow.

It seemed, and still does, that ethics is about the basis from which we understand the world, our role in the world and how we move in the world. For example, the ethical behavior or understanding for a person who believes in the Quran, is to do what he is commanded via the Quran and Muhammad, by G-D. If he is commanded not to eat pork, then he doesn’t since that is the ethical thing (not) to do. Of course, for the rational believer it would seem appropriate to find out why the commandment was given, but he would nevertheless abstain from eating pork, no matter what the reason might be. And this is the core of the understanding of ethics, that it is the understanding of what is “right” and “wrong”.

Apparently this is relative, since for some religions and ideologies, one thing is “right”, what in others is “wrong”. Take the eating of pork. In Islam and Judaism this is viewed as wrong, based on the commandment against eating impure animals (which the pig is considered to be), while for the Christian or Atheist (or follower of other religions, which doesn’t have this prohibition) it is perfectly okay. This doesn’t mean that it necessarily is right for the Christian or Atheist, as opposed to it being wrong for the Muslim and Jew, but more correct that it is “not-wrong”. So here we see that it is not solely a question about wrong or right, but also in the between. This is something that is familiar to the Muslims, who deal with things being fard (obligatory), mustahabb (favoured or recommended), mubah (neutral), makruh (disliked), and haram (prohibited).[1] There are that which is halal, allowed, and that which is prohibited, haram, but whereas there is only one category for the prohibited (there is nothing that is more okay to do wrong than other things, it’s just wrong), there are four categories of halal. There are those things that the Muslim has to do, so as to pray, there are things that are encouraged, such as giving charity and greet people, there are things that are neutral for the Muslim, and things that – though they are allowed – are disliked, which could be things that harm the body. So the ethical Muslim understands that even though there are things that are right or wrong, then it’s not black and white, there are indeed grades, and not all are recommended.

The same goes for the Jew, being commanded to do some things and prohibited to do others. We don’t find in Judaism the same concept of categories, at least not expressed. Instead there is the awareness that not all that the Jew is commanded makes rational sense. The commandments which, in Judaism, are considered to be able to be derived from rational sense, that is, the commandments that somehow are obvious, are termed Mishpatim, and those who is without any rational sense, at least in the eye of humans, are termed Huqqim. This concept, that there should be laws which seems to run contrary the human intellect, e.g., the eating milk and meat, seems to show that religions, at least Judaism and other similar religions, has an element which is irrational. But it isn’t how the religions themselves perceive the issue, seeing that the human understanding is limited, and that knowledge is something that we reach when we study and delve into a subject. So it is expressed in the Torah, “Na’aseh w’Nishmah”, we will do and we will “listen”[2], as said by the People to Moshe Rabenu, A”S.

Why is this interesting in this connection? It would seem that the “Mishpatim” are what appears to be “right” from nature. This can be, e.g., not to murder, since it is that it’s wrong to commit murder. Such an act might be beneficent for the individual, at least at first, but a society which allowed murder wouldn’t last long, and in the end it would be more to harm than benefit for the individual.

It is clear for me that what is the basic ethics, is what we can deduce this way. What we can – by reason – decide is wrong, is ethically wrong, and what is right, is ethically right. But there is another level, which I believe is important to get closer to the higher ethical behavior, what I choose to call “true ethics”, namely the awareness of “the self in the other”. By that I mean recognizing oneself in one’s fellow human being, even when he or she doesn’t do the same. In order to understand that what oneself needs, is often what one’s fellow human being needs too.

For me this is exemplified in the moral teachings of R. Hillel, Z”L, who taught the following: “If I am not for me, then who? And if only for me, then what am I? And if not now, when?” as well as “What is hateful for you, do not do to others!”

In his teachings I find the realization that I – as an individual – have to stand up for myself, since if I don’t do it, I cannot expect anyone to do it. I have to take care of myself, not in order to be selfish, but because I need to do it. But I should never confine in only taking care of myself. Just as I have my needs, so others have theirs, and if I – G-D forbid – only focused on myself, then what would I be, if not selfish, egoistic, or the worse? And I shouldn’t postpone to do what is right till tomorrow, but rather act today, since we never know what the future will bring, even the near future. And finally, if I find something hateful, lack of respect, recognition of my needs, something third, then I should certainly not do it to others.

Then what would I be, if I – myself – did what I believed wrong?

[1] I am aware that the question about Halal and Haram, as well as the categories within these concepts, are much broader than what I mention here. I merely attempt to use an example for understanding.

[2] Which is traditionally understood as “understand”.

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