7/18/2005

Two Types of Ethics

There's an old machlokes as to what exactly makes one ethical: is it the embracing of certain virutes, or acting/behaving in a certain way. Aristotle (and Rambam) were all about virtue-based ethics. Kant and JS Mill were all about action-based ethics. This is an oversimplification, but it'll do for now.

Then we come to this past week's haftarah, in which the prophet Micha, when explaining what God seeks from man, narrows it down to three things: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (hopefully I'll get a chance to discuss why specifically these 3 in a later post).

Interestingly, when it comes to justice (mishpat), the emphasis is on doing (asot), but when it comes to kindness (chessed) the emphasis is on loving (ahavat).

This distinction makes intuitive sense, and acknowledges the partial truth of both the Aristotelean and Kantian ethical systems.

Justice is worthless as a virtue if it isn't executed. When justice is carried out without intention, we still perceive it as 'poetic' justice, or just desserts. The goal of justice is to come to fruition, and if it doesn't it has failed.

Chessed, on the other hand, is all about the love. Punctilious observance of chessed can be kind of insulting - do something nice for me because you care about me, not because you have to. Jeez, you want to do more mitzvos? Go shake a lulav. I have no interest in being your cheftza. Do we say 'efshi ve-efshi' by chessed? 'Gee, I wish I could shove that old lady into oncoming traffic, but what can I do, the Torah commanded me to help her cross. Nu, nu.'

So where does walking humbly fit in?

Stay tuned...
Post a Comment