Home| Letters| Links| RSS| About Us| Contact Us

On the Frontline

What's New

Table of Contents

Index of Authors

Index of Titles

Index of Letters

Mailing List


subscribe to our mailing list:



SECTIONS

Critique of Intelligent Design

Evolution vs. Creationism

The Art of ID Stuntmen

Faith vs Reason

Anthropic Principle

Autopsy of the Bible code

Science and Religion

Historical Notes

Counter-Apologetics

Serious Notions with a Smile

Miscellaneous

Letter Serial Correlation

Mark Perakh's Web Site

email this article to a friend printer-friendly format download format voice your opinion Digg It

Theses on the nature of human morality

By Alexander Eterman

Posted June 6, 2004

Morality is the historical reincarnation of the rules
of mutual social assistance as practiced by the
obsolete tribal system.
B. Gadunov

The author of these lines is unlikely to die a natural death. There are things whose deflation meets with severe and inevitable punishment. Then again, to a true moralist no death is unnatural. Moreover, he is sure to find himself in good company.

1

Let us begin by stating that morality (let alone the things that are intuitively held to be morality) is not a set of acts we define as honorable or moral, and certainly not a theory that defines these acts. [1] Even so-called moral behavior is at best a graphic illustration of morality, one of its manifestations. We should keep in mind that even those noble acts we consider as being purely altruistic -- the kind whose doers are compared to Mother Teresa -- are time and again performed by scoundrels and animals, too, yet -- justly, though not always for the right reasons -- we do not call these acts moral. Why? Is it for the sole reason that scoundrels do not count and animals are not blessed with intelligence? Perhaps. What is far more important is this: in the most widely held view altruism is much more diverse and extensive than morality, which does not in any way depend on the abilities and experience of its bearers or on their material and spiritual habits. For this reason alone morality can hardly be envisioned as divinely inspired, eternal, absolute, and universal. Furthermore, if it were all that, it couldn't really be practically serviceable.

There is no doubt that morality is one of the functional spheres of our social fabric, one that has a palpable practical application. Unfortunately, it is this latter that usually gets all the attention. Yet when discussing morality, it would be sensible to focus on the key concept -- that of so-called altruistic motives. For example, is it true that any help given to the poor -- even unselfishly -- involves moral considerations whose nature is still unclear to us? Hardly. For centuries, the entire impoverished populace of Rome was fed at the state's expense -- even when the imperial capital was prudently moved to the remote Balkans, and the City became the hinterlands. This systematic philanthropy had no moral rationale, but the rationale it did have was no less intriguing: it represented a distinctive political and cultural tradition which subsequently evolved into a deeply entrenched custom.

On the other hand, it is an interesting question whether it is by accident that we intuitively couple concepts like morality and honor. What can we say about the moral image of Roland or Cid? What is akin to the readiness to fight a duel over a sidelong glance or a dropped handkerchief? Is it the honorable behavior of Albert Schweitzer -- or the mad capers of Don Quixote? Or does their kinship lie on the moral, maternal side? The last is quite likely. It is no accident that knighthood, while it seriously existed, described itself as noble and gracious and all the rest as base; whichever way you look at it, a name does have an impact on behavior. Those who buy noble titles today seem to think so.

Nevertheless, morality is not a useless and obsolete toy, as it was depicted by some of the last century's classic writers. On the contrary, it is one of the mainstays of our social orientation -- in fact, a highly useful mechanism. Thus it is not enough to say that morality is a historical concept -- meaning that it undergoes changes with time -- for we ourselves change at a much more rapid and painful pace. On the contrary, we consider morality as more stable than our social fabric, and in an effort to defend it we frequently resort to arguments and means that sound suspiciously moral.

What is more, morality possesses remarkable qualities that imbue it with a sentimental, otherworldly aura, making us view it, despite all logic and experience, as all but the only tangible perfect abstraction, a living example of a magically transcendent phenomenon devoid of any clear material value and mechanism and needing none -- as if moral experience (the a priori concept of good and evil) came first, and only later did morality begin to fulfill itself by unfolding through history. Essentially, this is nothing but insipid social creationism. Liberal thinkers persist in finding a utilitarian or historical aspect in notions of good and evil (which they continue to view as the main content of morality), believing them to be something akin to an unfolding of the social cube, its emotionally two-dimensional projection -- but this is usually as far as they go. Yet morality is a living phenomenon that cannot be reduced to its external manifestations, just as economic activity of a company cannot be reduced to the rate of its shares on the stock exchange. We should note that indisputable evil can be moral while undeniable good can be amoral. The most important thing here is not to get bogged down in terms. Furthermore, it would seem that good and evil are at least partially relative, so that the context must be firmly kept in mind at all times. The Talmud has a story about a certain sage who sentenced his own son to death, knowing that he was innocent -- all for the sake of maintaining legal formalities. The conduct of this sage, a Jewish Cato, was definitely highly moral, albeit disgraceful.

2

Even those who fearlessly believe morality to be a natural, evolutionary phenomenon, something akin to biological vision or economic relations, rarely take the main question of what it is all about to its logical conclusion. Since the entire set of social interactions is patently evolutionary, it is easy to mistakenly credit morality with everything that takes place between humans without being contingent on anything substantial, reflecting current customs as well as generating emotional evaluations. Regrettably, this approach is unproductive. Unless morality by definition is viewed as a mechanism for evaluating events that unfold in front of us, then it is totally unclear within the framework of this premise where morality came from and why it is held in such esteem by society. This nominalistic premise transforms morality from a functional phenomenon into a trivial label randomly attached to an amorphous set of social phenomena that have nothing in common with each other (in the spirit of Napoleon's aphorism), living yet not fighting together -- and most importantly, into a construct void of any organizing or prognostic power. In a similar vein, the term weather can be applied to anything that happens in the atmosphere without trying to simultaneously understand the elements of relative phenomenon, labeled ad hoc with a relative term. However -- using a different school of thought -- weather may also be defined in functional terms, leaving aside such intriguing atmospheric phenomena as pink dawns and crocodile-shaped clouds, while paying extra attention to the wind speed and the amount of precipitation. Then weather becomes a neat physical package whose parameters can be successfully predicted -- or at the very least correlated -- by means of differential equations. The question that must be asked is this: when discussing morality, do we imply something definite, coherent, and substantial? Are we looking for another innovation besides the linguistic -- or at least for concreteness? Is it our intention to explain or predict anything?

I sincerely hope that the answer is an earnest yes. To be sure, our task is and will continue to be hampered by traditional terminology. Once we are fully justified -- the language cannot be changed -- in referring to the actions of Mother Teresa as moral, it is not only natural but probably even accurate to add on the noun morality. For example: morality is a set of behavioral patterns that guided the renowned nun and her ilk. Such a straightforward approach is blatantly tautological, and probably downright fallacious. It is not only that the same highly moral deeds may be inspired by various reasons, including those that are morally irrelevant, the opposite is also true: the same motives frequently produce morally ambiguous results. In other words, an altruist who behaves in an amoral or simply obtuse manner will almost inevitably make a mess of things.

Even more importantly for us, functional morality -- as opposed to altruistic behavior -- should obviously be collective. Indeed, let us imagine the moral aspect of Robinson Crusoe's actions before he met Friday. Moral tree chopping, moral house building, moral goat raising -- a patent absurdity. Then again, it would not be difficult to put together a morality-emulation model -- the quasi-model behavior of a solitary man on an uninhabited island -- but this would be nothing more than a crude fabrication. Roughly the same means may be used to emulate love. The mind of a solitary person has no place for morality -- save perhaps a reminiscence, a dream of morality as a kind of a dream of society (or perhaps this is a mere flirting with God, one's cell mate).

Therefore we should concern ourselves with classification, take a good look at examples. Handing out cookies on the street is not a moral deed -- at best it is an exotic act, an offshoot of altruism unassimilated by the collective mind, at worst a publicity stunt. Helping an old lady cross the road is a far more fitting example of an ideal moral act. Self-improvement usually has nothing in common with morality, while returning a dropped bill to a hapless passer-by clearly does. The fact that "anyone would have done the same" (at least in front of witnesses) only goes to reinforce this thesis.

On the other hand, it is obvious that morality (or even moral motivation) is not precluded by an individual's amoral behavior. Putting oneself outside the collective moral consensus is far from an easy task. On the contrary, amorality may very well prove to be a manifestation of moral zeal. Certain Gnostic sects declared daily amoral conduct to be a sanctified standard, either in an attempt to eradicate amorality from this world through its active practice or simply assuming a mirror effect in the moral relations between worlds: all that is amoral down here is moral up there and vice versa. A truly boundless trust in today's rules of morality! To the same extent, violating an ordinary law does not eliminate that law in the offender's mind. On the other hand, laws meet their natural end not only on an uninhabited island but also after crossing state borders. In London bigamy is a crime, while in Riyadh it is the rule. This begs the question of whether the power of British law over the respectable Englishman evaporates the moment the latter disembarks at the Saudi airport.

Be that as it may, morality is one of the most fascinating evolutionary products created by the human society and existing only within that society, one of the most important mechanisms of our collective (rather than individual) behavior. [2] It contains at least one distinctive element that is usually left outside the framework of moralistic inquiry. Let us try to track it down.

3

There is no doubt that society, having an evolutionary interest in ensuring that its members behave in a reasonable manner, creates and legalizes dialectically evolving stereotypes of desirable behavior. For society, it is important to prevent its members from killing and robbing one another, to have them follow the same cult, respect the elderly, fight for common causes, prefer their compatriots to outsiders, protect the environment, and much more. Society only survives to the extent that it manages to create effective tools for encouraging its members (not with one hundred percent success, to be sure, but evolution is satisfied with less) to consciously follow the desirable stereotypes.

The principal natural tool that serves society's collective needs from the moment of its birth is the law, demarcating the initial domain of social phenomena, a domain that is sacral in nature and functional in purpose. This refers not only to the formally adopted tribal, state, or religious law, but also to any rule that carries a punishment, inspiring fear in the offender and thereby intimidating him into toeing the line. A law may be written or unwritten, manmade or passed down by tradition -- in fact, it can be any or none of these, as long as it inspires fear or wields a punishment.

In early societies practically every sphere [3] of human life -- let alone of collective life -- was ordained and tightly regimented. Primitive society left practically no degree of freedom to the individual. Freedom -- no matter how theoretical -- was a negative concept, viewed as akin to deviant behavior (this should be easily understood by those from the former Soviet Union, where any "deviation" was a crime), a departure from the true path, associated with death, and realizable only outside society and at the cost of renouncing the real and/or sacral protection it provided -- i.e. at the cost of the individual's social and sacral death. To merely raise the issue of freedom (specifically freedom from the law, the freedom to violate the law, to deviate from the law) was the equivalent of blasphemy, of siding with evil, undermining the fragile sacral edifice of the social habitat. Ignoring the law was viewed by the tribal society as a refusal to contribute one's share to the common cause, as an evasion of the vitally important collective mission, as a patently useless and invariably punished apostasy that posed a threat not only to society but to the entire world. A loyal individual needed no freedom in the earliest totalitarian societies.[4]

In theory, the picture has not changed in the case of ultra-Orthodox Jews, for example. Their entire life is in principle ordained by Halacha; they view any action, no matter how insignificant, as imbued with sacral meaning, so that it must be understood and meticulously performed in full conformity to the letter of the law; on the other hand, the law does not overlook the tiniest detail. Thus their life has no place for freedom, not even for raising the issue of freedom. For the Jews (or the Bushmen -- the Jews are not alone in this), striving for freedom constitutes a sacrilege, tantamount to an attempt to overthrow the yoke of the law! For the ultra-Orthodox Jew, any degree of freedom is a result of oversight, weakness, disregard for the divine truths, as well as their society's failure to foist the required sacral restrictions on its members. All of this is possible only in a tribal society that is primitive in its structure.

It should be stressed that the degree of regimentation is a key structural feature of society. The amount of natural, non-censured freedom allowed by society serves as the key indicator of its evolutionary distance from the primitive tribal system. One hundred percent regimentation is used only in the sacral structure of the tribal type -- no matter whether it is an ancient society or one that has deteriorated into a tribal state. We should keep in mind, however, that even in more advanced societies any rigid social regulation has a sacral quality. Even where the language has evolved to a sufficient degree, and numinous (I continue to be an admirer of Jung's language) terminology seems incompatible with society's nature, rigid constants are still called -- and are -- "sacred cows."

Thus in the course of its development -- or rather de-sanctification, or, what is essentially the same, the liberalization of its norms -- the evolving society gave birth to a fascinating phenomenon: the de-sanctification and abolition of the law due its relative superfluity. This brings us to a crucial conclusion: at some point the law ceases to be the sole, principal, and (most importantly) most effective means of ensuring compliance with basic rules of social interaction, losing some of its relevance as a result. The classical mechanism of coercion through law and fear of punishment is replaced by a new socio-psychological mechanism. It turns out that social habits hitherto enforced by law are capable of sustaining themselves without the intervention of the latter. In other words, most if not all members of an evolving society are willing to comply with key social customs on a voluntary basis.

It must be noted that in most instances the existence of the mechanism for self-sustaining social norms does not result in the abolition of the laws that actively safeguard those norms. Thus the fact that murder has long become unacceptable and abominable did not lead to the annulment of severe punishment for the murderer -- the violation of the rule "thou shalt not kill" is considered too dramatic to rely exclusively on social psychology in this matter. However, the law in the society we are familiar with is intended to restrain only the "marginal" would-be murderer -- a psychopath or the out-and-out vermin. It is not without reason that today virtually every murderer or rapist undergoes psychological testing in order to understand his irrational motives, as well as find out whether he is sane enough to bear responsibility for his actions. Social mechanisms that prevent murder have long been operating side by side with the law, and to a much better effect. Consider the fact that the reason the overwhelming majority of people do not kill their enemies is not their fear of retribution but because they regard murder as physically repugnant or even impossible -- unless carried out in the heat of passion. Abhorrence of murder saves far more lives today than the fear of retribution! And yet this has not always been the case. A mere several hundred years ago, murder per se did not particularly disturb the charming D'Artagnan as he strolled around civilized Paris knocking off Richelieu's men without batting an eye. Today, a musketeer brandishing a long sword would appear as a savage to the average Parisian. In 99% of the social domain in Paris there has long been no need for a law against murder, for it inspires the Parisians with visceral abhorrence. The law retains its relevance solely due to the remaining one percent. It should be noted, however, that not so long ago this abhorrence only applied to certain members of society. Subsequently this moral injunction acquired a universal nature, making it unthinkable to kill any human (and for some any animal), though not to an equal degree.[5]

5

It is this mechanism of unregulated, self-sustaining social norms that deserves the title of morality. Let us try to give it an accurate and concise definition. Morality is a socio-psychological mechanism motivating society members to obey social norms and rules that are not regulated by law or that act independent of law.

It should be noted that the root of morality, its line of descent, runs through society's assimilation and acceptance of the norms set down by law, so that even if the law does not die off completely it ceases to be essential on the macro-social level. Yet this is only one aspect of the issue. The moral mechanism is fully capable of invention, of creating new norms that are inherently moral or of extending old norms to people or objects previously unaffected by them. This, in fact, represents its main advantage over the law. Consider this: even today we are not overly concerned by the terrible hunger in Africa, although we would never tolerate a similar situation on our own turf -- even if the law did not demand it of us. Yet a mere couple of centuries ago in Europe, the view of the plight of the lower classes was roughly the same to as the genocide in Rwanda today; the only aid to the poor came from a handful of individual benefactors who had been the first to extend their class ideas of society to include other sectors of population. In their eyes a humble pauper became part of the same social fabric they belonged to -- a revolutionary innovation. It was different when members of privileged social groups found themselves in dire straits -- their well-to-do brethren supported them in a "natural" fashion.

Next social morality spread to the entire population of Western Europe; yet it was not so long ago that Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa were the only ones to pay humanitarian visits to Africa or India, today's outsiders. Their choice was predetermined by the moral mechanism we have outlined, the same one that once turned the murder of a neighbor from a forbidden to an unacceptable act; they were merely among the first to have extended the psychological boundary of their society to the Third World. The expansion of social boundaries made it unacceptable for the majority of Parisians to treat with indifference a person starving to death on Champs Elysees or a public beating of a weaker person by a stronger. For the majority of Europeans, the same applies to the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia. This should come as no surprise: the Europeans have finally come to embrace the Yugoslavians as more or less their own, denizens of the same Europe that has spread eastward and swallowed up the Balkans. We can see why these same Europeans placidly tolerate the genocide in Chechnya -- the moral mechanism has not yet persuaded them to adopt the Chechen as "their own."

We see a classical example of a moral action in helping a man who falls down on the street and dislocates his leg. There is no law that obliges one to help the victim up and take him home or to the hospital (some countries, religions, and cultures do have statutes that require one to help a sick person, but even there it is enough to simply call the police or an ambulance). Nevertheless, the moral mechanism works like a charm: sincerely concerned people rush to help the victim from every side, as if by reflex. Make no mistake: what we are seeing is not a basic illustration of the effect of the moral mechanism, but a typical instance of expanded moral domain. The only primal force was probably the obligatory clan welfare, resembling the military framework where the care for the wounded lies with the System. In ancient Rome no one would have paid the slightest heed to a beggar sprawled on the ground and calling for help. In today's Western society, aiding the fallen is an entrenched moral norm.

5

Understanding the nature of the moral mechanism enables us to give a reasonable answer to the following question: How do we explain the invariable failure of any attempt to build a modern society and economy based on the abolition or severe curtailment of individual initiative? We should keep in mind that, formally at least, the communist economy contains no insurmountable contradictions, so that generally speaking it is quite capable of survival. Furthermore, as we know, it was successfully launched on numerous occasions -- and yet the communist endeavors inevitably came to a bitter end.

It was often pointed out that banning individual initiative, curtailing property rights, centralizing distribution of material good, and non-egotistic work motivation run contrary to human nature. It is obvious, however, that this is a matter of a cultural, i.e. transitory, contradiction -- for possessiveness is by no means an inborn trait. It is sufficient to remember that mankind went through a long period of primitive communism [6] and that private property is a relatively recent invention. Thus it is appropriate to offer a more modest explanation: individual initiative is a natural and inevitable element of an advanced civilization, and all attempts to suppress it are nothing but childish yearning for the anachronistic past.

Unfortunately this assertion -- whether true or not -- is superficial and explains nothing. In order to give it substance we must determine why known civilizations are incapable of existing on the basis of communist principles, at what stage in social evolution this inconsistency went into effect, and most importantly, whether it is eternal -- in other words, how will the events unfold from now on? In short, we must create a sound theory of the socio-psychological mechanism that drives economic relationships.

In fact, the moral theory provides us with a ready answer, and one that is not at all far-fetched. The revolutionary essence of a communist economy consists of transferring the idea of property from the regulated sphere to the moral one. This, incidentally, marks the dramatic difference between modern and primitive communist: in early antiquity private property was not even a social option, and society did not expect any material altruism from its members. Since social relations were rigidly and absolutely determined by sacral law, the problem of choosing a system of economic behavior did not even arise. On the other hand, today's communist is perfectly aware that the publicly owned cow or car could very well belong to him, so that acceptance of their collective status entails a personal sacrifice on his part. The question, thus, has to do with the nature and scope of this sacrifice.

More often than not, economic communism was introduced by means of a decree that nationalized the means of production. As a rule, such a reform did not cause any essential problems.[7] Therefore the law is quite capable of establishing new economic relations -- all that remains is to prove their viability. It is here, unfortunately, that society meets with failure.

As we have already remarked, the modern communist system, unlike its ancient counterpart, must compete with another, egotistic initiative both on the psychological and the economic fronts. Today members of communist collectives are expected to exhibit a consciously selfless work ethic, essentially amounting to an economic altruism, while at least aware about the existence (even if only in theory) of an egoistic alternative; at times the latter is very real, entering into a direct confrontation with the altruistic impulse. It is here that the problems begin: in practice, the amount of selfless industriousness was invariable never enough. To be sure, the lack of diligence may be counteracted by adopting coercive laws. Laws of this type (written or unwritten, but equally binding) were frequently introduced in different societies, yet they never solved the problem. The fact of the matter is that the very idea of forced altruism (as opposed, in a way, to forced labor) contains a serious inner contradiction. Exactly to the extent that economic altruism is at odds with today's society, a law such as we have mentioned proves futile -- forced altruism has no chance of taking root since it looks too much like slavery! As for slavery, civilization has decided its fate long ago and irrevocably, and on a competitive basis as well: had forced labor been sufficiently productive, slavery would never have been abolished. All in all, forcing people to work efficiently against their will is extremely hard -- industriousness is far too intimate an entity.

Thus the success of a communist economy boils down to people's willingness, or even ability, to voluntarily display genuine industriousness in the framework of a system that does not repay them with adequate individual rewards. Yet this is nothing less than a moral problem as defined above! Let us rephrase it: Is there a socio-psychological mechanism capable of motivating people in today's society to diligently observe the rules of a communist economy without the use of coercion? Unfortunately, we are forced to answer this question in the negative: at the present time, there is no such mechanism.

As a matter of fact, there are a number of indirect signs that clearly point toward this conclusion. For a communist enterprise to be efficient and competitive (in other words, where workers put as much effort into making it succeed as they would into their own business), people must be willing to devote themselves to their work regardless of rewards. It would be safe to assume that a society with such a work ethic would be virtually free of theft, so that if a person lost a wallet, there would be a 99% likelihood of his getting it back, and unopened too. In other words, the concept of possession in such a society should have shifted to the moral sphere, without any real need for formal regulation.[8] However, to this day this has not happened anywhere. What is more, most members of all societies continue to view the material sphere as one that permits discreet rapaciousness based on the time-tested motto "Whatever is not forbidden is permitted." Society's present attitude to economic egoism is no less positive than it was a century or two centuries ago; what is more, it has remained virtually unchanged. In business, unfortunately, altruism is still impossible, so it would be premature to give up the services of the bookkeeper and the watchman. Simply put, the material sphere still requires directed regulation, which is incompatible with the moral communist economic policy. That is why communist economic entities are rapidly and ruthlessly eaten away by the discrepancy between their moral appetites and society's incapacity to function in a non-regulated manner in the economic sphere.

An extremely interesting question is whether changes in this sphere are possible in the foreseeable future. A serious discussion of this question would lead us far afield; it should be noted, however, that there are considerable grounds for cautious optimism. In recent centuries many crucial areas of social behavior have gradually started to become non-regulated. At present, human life and basic human rights need regulated protection to a far lesser degree than earlier -- though they have quite a few economic aspects. In our opinion there is a real chance for social and psychological change [9] in the sufficiently near future which will make the attitude to property more moderate than it is today, with material altruism becoming socially "passable" as a result. It is quite possible that in such a society the basic material relations between people will easily withstand being regulated by a moral non-decreed mechanism. In such a case the communist economic system will once again appear on the agenda, probably with better chances of success than it has today.

6

We would like to discuss, at least in passing, a crucial and relevant issue -- the moral concept of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It is of particular interest in the context of the moral mechanism theory proposed above, due to the aforementioned extremely regimented nature of the Jewish religion.

Judaism has not only armed itself with practical commandments for every possible situation, but also supplied theoretical grounds for their necessity. The all-embracing concept of the world as an arena for man's worship of God effectively rules out any intellectual or moral human autonomy. Man may retain [10] his freedom of choice, but he is in no way the measure of good and evil. Even individual views on this issue are absolutely intolerable. Any predetermined situation is evaluated beforehand by the collective -- by Halacha, if you wish, expressing God's will and interpreted by the rabbis -- so that every ultra-Orthodox Jew is instructed from outside, or simply knows beforehand what is good and what is bad and how to act in any given case. All he has left, therefore, is choose between obedience (to God, the rabbi, and the law) and disobedience (to the same), the latter tantamount to transgression. This state of complete legal predetermination eradicates all other spheres of human autonomy, including the moral. In Judaism man does not decide what is good and what is bad (even what is white and what is black), and even when he does not know the right answer the most he can do is decide which way to turn. He is forbidden to create morality or even to discuss moral issues, for listening to the authorities does not constitute creativity and discussion, but rather choice through obedience, so that in today's positivistic terms he can be simply said to have no moral categories (or independent notions).

In a society where the only available choice is between obedience and lawbreaking, man is happily freed from the "mirage of conscience," as aptly observed by one of the last century's totalitarian thinkers. Perhaps the original Jewish paradigm for making moral decisions is the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, unlawful a priori (since it was forbidden by Jewish law itself), yet redefined as a necessary, moral (ordained) act commanded by God. This paradigm removes morality from human usage once and for all, returning it to Heaven. All in all, "good" in Judaism is synonymous with "ordained," which essentially leaves no room for "moral" in our sense of the word. In Judaism the moral non-regimented mechanism is simply inapplicable. This state of moral affairs is perfectly consistent with all the other elements of Judaism as a tribal religion, or, if you will, a religion of the tribal period. In this, Judaism is far from alone.

7

These factors acquire particular significance when we proceed to examine the attempts made by liberal Orthodox Jews to manipulate those classical halachic injunctions which they view as inconsistent with the social standards of today, being downright amoral (by an apt definition, irreconcilable with the non-regulated norms of the society they were brought up in) from the standpoint of Western values. Their attitude is understandable: the prohibition against returning lost goods to a gentile does not look too appealing in present-day New York. However, it is precisely the tribal nature of Judaism that makes these attempts ludicrous. The moral watershed runs along the boundary that separates the tribe from a more advanced social unit. In a sense, morality is synonymous with freedom. Since these reformers are still Orthodox, the world in their eyes remains regulated, regimented, subservient to Halacha -- it has no room for the freedom to decide, and thus for the moral mechanism. As a consequence, the classical formulae cannot be repealed, retaining their sacred status as God's living word; returning lost goods to a gentile, at least ideally speaking, is an undesirable act.

One may, however, take another road, one that does not disrupt the concept's unity: to arrive at the required social rule through more or less legitimate rabbinical methods, i.e. to authoritatively conclude that in our day and age, given our weakness and so on, the classical amoral prohibition (as viewed by the liberals, that is -- in the fundamentalist world, there is no morality or amorality) must unfortunately be temporarily suspended. In other words, the liberals, dissatisfied with Halacha, make use of the same Halacha to find justification for returning lost goods to a gentile. For a time this may be convenient for practical life, but it is totally inadequate from the moral standpoint. Since the essence of morality is that it flourishes in the non-regulated sphere, the obtained halachic permission is not even moral -- at best, it envelops the conduct of a liberal Orthodox Jew in a light moral veil, barely creating a veneer of a moral mechanism. Morality, whose essence lies in replacing rather than revising the law, does not need legal sanction.

In fact, this was perfectly clear to the classical halachic thinkers, the Talmudic sages and the rishonim, who treated the few quasi-moral indulgences they issued as precisely that -- a veneer. Maimonides, who simultaneously prohibited the Jews from swindling gentiles, talking about them in positive terms, and returning goods they had lost, sensibly pointed out [11] that the moment the Jews win real power over the gentiles, or at least real independence from them, all the indulgences concerning Jewish-gentile relations will be abolished, while the principle of "for the sake of peaceful coexistence" that provided the basis for these indulgences will immediately evaporate. What is more, the Jews will not tolerate even the temporary presence of the most righteous gentile on the territory they control. There is no cruelty involved in this -- only the harsh tribal logic according to which Judaism has no room for morality as social factor, as a factor of social freedom, for the sacral law does not leave a single square millimeter of the social domain unfilled with decrees.

Attempts to inject morality into Judaism are nothing but coarse modernization, inspired by ulterior motives, performed by people contaminated by alien -- usually European -- intellectual values. In their essence, these attempts are anti-Orthodox. The intellectual zeal of their instigators creates an outlandish picture: the law they have revised (the law and only the law -- after all, Orthodox Judaism, as well as all other Orthodox products of tribal mentality, knows nothing else) permits the Jews to return goods lost by a gentile while their suddenly awakened conscience pulls them to an ideal halachic time, a time when Judaism rises in all its glory and a Jew is finally able to draw a free breath, where there will be no indulgences either for the Jews or for the gentiles. In other words, the Jew is returned in his sweet dreams and prayers to a time when he will be allowed once again to not return the lost goods to a gentile with a clear conscience.


[1] Let us leave aside the question of what ethics is, for if ethics -- as people often claim -- is the theory of morality, we still have to begin by defining morality.

[2] Individual behavior -- provided it even exists as such -- is driven by completely different mechanisms. Yet what is individual behavior? A man raised outside society by monkeys or wolves is hardly a man. Robinson Crusoe on his tropical island incessantly reproduces a picture of the world learned previously in the British human society, behaving in a strange, not fully comprehended domain without people as if they are about to appear at any moment. To be sure, we can define individual behavior as behavior that is atypical, having no collective analogies and improvised by the individual, behavior that a priori has no social relevance due to its uniqueness. Yet is such behavior possible? Does it exist? And if it does exist, does it have any moral relevance? We are not about to step into this quagmire: man rarely realizes the extent to which he is a social animal. If he were not such an animal, he would not be able to realize anything at all.

[3] Legends of primitive freedom and blissful tribal communism are as fictitious as the tales told by Russian Bolsheviks about the free socialist existence in Stalinist Russia. Freedoms, alas, are won at the high price of introducing complexity into social structures, including public production -- complexity that we appropriately call liberalization. Simplicity is synonymous with rigid constraints and severe punishment for any deviation from the letter of the law, always an offense by definition.

[4] Continuing the topic of the preceding footnote -- it is amazing to what extent the primitive renunciation of freedom for the sake of global welfare resembles the political system of Soviet Russia! Nor is it any wonder: in order to force the people to voluntarily (a terrible oxymoron) give up freedom, the Bolsheviks had to create a total, world embracing picture, and proclaim it sacred to boot!

[5] One might reasonably ask: what about the sanctioned murder committed in war? The answer is very simple: unfortunately, the social framework of civilian life does not apply to military reality. There, the division into "us" and "them" retains its original freshness, so that the extermination of "them" is transformed from a crime into a virtuous deed. But just try to harm one of "us" in war, especially a superior -- and you will immediately experience the force of the law in its early, unspoiled form. Admittedly, there do appear every so often peace-loving heroes who confuse the civilian and the military worlds and try to apply civilian social mechanisms developed by evolution to wartime. The results of their endeavors are plain to see: the civilized armies of today strive to kill only enemy soldiers, while sparing and even feeding innocent civilians. How well they do it is another question.

[6] In fact, this period makes up almost the entire nominal history of mankind.

[7] In several instances, it was even introduced in a relatively peaceful manner, with the consent of the members of communist collectives -- the Israeli kibbutzim are one example. Yet what was involved in those cases was not expropriation of existing assets, but rather creation of new and initially harmless economic entities.

[8] Communist systems are well aware of this. No wonder they all declare as their primary objective the cultivation of the so-called new man, imbued with intrinsic altruistic values. The problem is that such a man cannot be cultivated -- although one day he might naturally hatch forth from society.

[9] To begin with, society will become sufficiently wealthy and organized to guarantee members a decent standard of living; today even the richest countries cannot make this claim.

[10] Actually he retains nothing of the sort, but that is quite another matter.

[11] In chapter 11 of Hilchot M'lachim, Mishne Torah.