Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Michael J. Harris: Divine Command Ethics: Jewish and Christian Perspectives

My review originally appeared in Religious Studies 40:383-386, 2004.

Divine Command Ethics: Jewish and Christian Perspectives by Berel Dov Lerner
© COPYRIGHT 2004 Cambridge University Press
Michael J. Harris Divine Command Ethics: Jewish and Christian Perspectives. (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon,
2003). Pp. xiii + 207. [pounds sterling]55.00 (Hbk). ISBN 0 145 29769 9.

This book, based upon a doctoral thesis and written by an Orthodox rabbi, attempts to determine how the Jewish tradition answers Plato’s famous ’Euthyphro question’, restated as (3):

Is it the case that:
(1) an act is right because God commanded (or wanted, or
willed or approved) it,
or, alternatively, is it the case that:
(2) God commanded (or wanted or willed or approved) this act
because it is right?

In order properly to assess the doctrinal tendencies of different authoritative Jewish texts, it is necessary to pin down precisely what kinds of ideas belong to (1) (referred to by Harris as DCT--divine command theory), and which ideas are versions of (2) (referred to by Harris as SMU--the shared moral universe of God and humanity). One of the book’s major points is that each horn of Plato’s dilemma refers to whole families of theses regarding the relationship between divine
commands and morality. In his opening chapter, Harris arms the reader with a list of no fewer than seven different versions of DCT, four versions of SMU, and two versions of M, a mixed compromise thesis. Some of these make claims regarding the Torah’s moral authority; others refer to the role of God’s ’unrevealed will’ in ethics. Some are concerned with
the source of our moral knowledge, while others talk about what endows human actions with moral qualities. This conceptual taxonomy allows for some confusing possibilities. A theory might easily be counted as an instance of SMU because it views morality as ontologically independent of God, while simultaneously instantiating DCT, inasmuch as it views God as the only reliable source of true moral knowledge.

Readers acquainted with Judaism’s relative lack of concern for doctrinal (as opposed to practical) orthodoxy might well wonder why anyone would expect the tradition to side wholly with either party to the Euthyphro debate. Indeed, Harris himself ultimately concludes that the Jewish canon is largely ambiguous regarding these issues. The second chapter, ’DCT and SMU in philosophy and Jewish thought’, tacitly explains the book’s real motivation. After a perfunctory nod to Christian philosophers, Harris proceeds to catalogue quotations from the works of various prominent contemporary Jewish thinkers who appear to claim that Judaism firmly embraces one option or the other: Immanuel Jakobowitz, Marvin Fox, and Len Goodman identify Judaism with DCT, while Aharon Lichtenstein, David Hartman, and Shubert Spero support SMU. Yeshayahu Leibowitz proposes a ’conflict solution’, claiming that the body of divine commands known as Jewish law is radically God-oriented and completely unconcerned with the anthropocentric goals of the moral realm. If so many authors insist on taking sides on the Jewish DCT/SMU question, perhaps even a demonstration of the tradition’s ambiguity might constitute a move towards the light. Most importantly, two respected Israeli philosophers, Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman, have published detailed defences of the notion that Judaism is, in the main, committed to SMU. Much of Harris’s book is devoted to explicit criticism of their work.

Chapter 3 considers the bearing of several biblical texts on the issue at hand. The first encounter with biblical evidence foreshadows much of what follows. Harris considers an argument suggested by Shubert Spero and Ze’ev Falk: the divine commands of the Torah are presented by scripture as the stipulations of a covenantal agreement between God and
Israel. However, covenantal obligations can only be binding upon people who already recognize the prerequisite moral obligation to observe covenantal agreements. The Torah must assume that at least one moral obligation (the obligation to fulfil covenants) preceded God’s commands, implying SMU. Harris counters this argument by bringing in one of the many subtle versions of DCT formulated in his first chapter (DCTNW). That version remains true whenever ’God’s unrevealed will is a necessary condition of the moral rightness of an act’ (7). The biblical account does not rule out the possibility that the obligation to fulfil covenantal agreements gains its force from its agreement with God’s unrevealed will, leaving scripture safe for DCTNW.

Harris has equipped himself with so many weak and variegated formulations of DCT that it is hardly surprising that the prophets and rabbis failed to produce a text that was strictly inconsistent with all of them. In fact, it would be quite difficult to produce such a text unless the author had a copy of Harris’s book to hand, in order to know exactly what to avoid! Similarly, weak versions of SMU guarantee that practically no text will unambiguously rule out either horn of Plato’s dilemma. And so chapter 3 continues, offering informed and intelligent readings of the sin of Adam and Eve, Abraham’s dialogue with God regarding the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, and so on. In each instance, Harris considers which of the various versions of DCT and SMU are refuted, supported, or left untouched by the text in question.

Chapter 4 investigates rabbinic texts and concepts that might be thought to support SMU. Here, we get to see Harris take advantage of his classical Talmudic education. He presents these materials very clearly, supplying the uninitiated reader with background explanations as needed. The passages cited invite a variety of arguments for SMU. For instance, the Talmudic claim that there are ethical commandments, ’which, if they had not been written [in the Torah], by right should have been written’ (73), clearly supports the notion of moral obligations whose force does not derive from revelation. However, as Harris once again points out, it is still possible that those obligations are ultimately grounded in God’s unrevealed will. Talmudic sages sometimes challenge the morality of divine commands, and such challenges would appear to be grounded in an independent SMU ethic. Harris points out that these challenges might also be understood as stemming from a moral sensibility informed by the Torah itself. In that case, apparent challenges to the morality of particular divine commands would be better understood as demands that those commands be interpreted in a manner consistent with the body of divine law as a whole. And so Harris continues, examining additional Talmudic texts and concepts, along with the writings of individual thinkers, including Saadia Gaon, Nissim Gaon, Maimonides, Judah Halevi, Nachmanides, Meir Halevi Abulafia, Abraham Isaac Kook, and Meir Simkhah of Dvinsk. In each case, he offers interpretations that leave at least the weaker forms of DCT unscathed. It becomes clear, however, that there is some kind of general consensus in the tradition that the revealed Torah does not constitute the only means of access to ethical knowledge.

Chapter 5 interrogates rabbinic texts that would appear to support DCT. Harris contends that many of them are indeed most naturally read as implying various forms of DCT. Most strikingly, one Talmudic statement condemns a certain liturgical formulation because it ’[indicates that] the commandments of the Holy One [are an expression of] mercy, whereas [in fact] they are simply divine decrees’ (107). He also finds support for DCT in quotations from various famous rabbis, including Ovadiah of Bertinoro, Abraham Isaiah Karelitz, Abraham Isaac Kook, and Samson Raphael Hirsch. In spite of this evidence, Harris does not claim to have demonstrated that the tradition as a whole should be understood as supporting DCT. Rather, he uses these quotations to counter Sagi and Statman’s claims for SMU, while explicitly criticizing their own interpretations of the particular texts in question.

Chapter 6 treats the story of the binding of Isaac (in Hebrew: the Akedah), the biblical episode most closely associated with the Euthyphro question. Harris is anxious to demonstrate that the Akedah does not necessarily imply DCT. First he considers the ’conflict thesis’, which he identifies with Kierkegaard’s ’teleological suspension of the ethical’, as well as with Leibowitz’s views mentioned above: divine commands do not underwrite moral obligations, but they do trump moral obligations. Harris is somewhat uncomfortable with a doctrine that strips morality of its categorical authority. He prefers to develop a reading of the Akedah that is indifferent to the SMU/DCT controversy. Citing the Hebrew text of Genesis, Harris argues that God did not command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but rather requested it of him. The Akedah becomes a personal test of Abraham’s willingness to give up freely to God that which is most precious to him. A person of faith simply cannot ignore a direct divine request. The ethical weight of Isaac’s apparently impending murder is neutralized by Abraham’s certainty that God will somehow arrange for everything to work out for the best. The story’s ’happy ending’ bears out Abraham’s faith. The remainder of the chapter describes how traditional Jewish exegesis also tries to neutralize the ethical conundrum posed by the Akedah.

The final chapter considers the biblical commandment to wipe out the nation called Amalek. Harris believes that the unadorned Deuteronomic text obviously clashes with conventional ethics, so that it must imply either the ’conflict thesis’ or some form of DCT. In order to leave room for SMU, he entertains the rather surprising suggestion (especially from the pen of an Orthodox rabbi!) that the biblical verses involved may have been interpolated into the text of Deuteronomy by Satan.

Moving on to rabbinic interpretations of the commandment, Harris again contests the views of Avi Sagi, who has made the rabbinic treatment of the Amalek issue a main pillar of his argument for the pervasiveness of SMU in the Jewish tradition. Sagi tried to demonstrate that the rabbis were always uncomfortable with the Amalek commandment: either they emphasized Amalek’s depravity in order to justify its annihilation, or they removed the command’s moral sting by treating it as merely allegorical. In their legal discussions, the rabbis piled up legal technicalities, reducing the irksome biblical command to a dead letter. Sagi claims that the rabbis’ consternation points to their tacit assent to SMU. If the rabbis had favoured DCT, they would have assumed that, like any other divine command, the Amalek commandment must be moral by definition, and they would never have been troubled by it to begin with.

Harris offers a number of responses to Sagi. First, he mentions that some classical exegetes remained silent on the Amalek issue, implying their indifference to its alleged ethical difficulties. Furthermore, the rabbis’ consternation may be interpreted as stemming from the apparent contradiction between the Amalek command and certain general principles of revealed Torah morality, rather than from respect for the dictates of purely human morality. Harris also tries to demonstrate that the legal discussions regarding Amalek were rarely motivated by moral unease or intended to neutralize the commandment’s practical significance.

Unfortunately, this book leaves several crucial methodological issues almost untouched. (1) What precautions must be taken when assigning opinions to ancient writers regarding an issue which, apparently, did not directly interest many of them? (An extremely exaggerated analogy: some biblical texts describe arithmetic calculations; does it make sense to ask whether their authors believed that mathematical equations are analytic truths?) (2) Jewish law self-consciously combines elements of divine revelation with creative human interpretation. How does one ask the Euthyphro question in connection with the obligations formulated by this joint divine/human project? (3) When we look for conflicts between divine commands and morality in ancient texts, exactly whose moral ideas should we take into account? For instance, Harris’s discussion of Amalek assumes that genocidal warfare is immoral. Would the original readers of Deuteronomy have agreed?

In any event, this book should certainly be required reading for anyone interested in Jewish attitudes towards the Euthyphro question. It makes a large collection of relevant traditional texts available and understandable, even to an audience unacquainted with rabbinic literature, and it offers careful and informed discussions of their philosophical significance. The book’s many endnotes and copious bibliography may also serve as a guide to the relevant contemporary Jewish literature.

Western Galilee Academic College, Israel

1 comment:

Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).