Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I commented last week about the fascinating panel discussion at the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies that brought together rabbis from three different denominations — Reform, Masorti, and Modern Orthodox. All were insightful and eloquent advocates for their version of Judaism, and they responded creatively to a wide variety of questions. (Michael Harris, the Orthodox rabbi, had the hardest job, since a significant portion of his movement rejects the very notion of sharing a platform with rabbis from other denominations. I asked him whether, given that, it might not be misleading for progressive Jews to pay attention to what any Orthdox rabbi says who is willing to participate in such a panel, since they are then, inevitably, outliers. He responded graciously that, in this respect, British Orthodoxy is not representative of the movement worldwide, and he hoped that this insularity would decline.)

Someone asked the panel whether they thought that moral principles and values change over time. Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain said, of course they do, citing slavery and other examples; Rabbi Harris said no, the core moral laws are eternal and unchanging.

That’s the way their sort are expected to answer. But that got me to thinking: Don’t they have it backwards?  Why is it that the people who declare that moral laws are external to human society and human choice tend to be the same ones who think that these laws were correctly formulated thousands of years ago? Consider two dimensions of beliefs about moral laws: X is the dimension of social construction, ranging from “Something humans make up completely arbitrarily”, to “law that we cannot influence, but can only know or not know”; Y is the dimension of permanence of our values, ranging from “constantly changing” to “fixed and unchanging”. It seems clear that all four quadrants are possible, but there is a rhetorical presumption in favour fo the main diagonal: upper right or lower left. Either socially constructed laws with mutable social values or external moral law with unchanging values.

Why is that? You wouldn’t expect someone to say, “I believe the laws governing the motions of falling bodies are facts external to human society. Therefore I object to any suggestion that we could improve upon Aristotle’s version.” If moral laws are arbitrary human constructs, one could make a case for keeping them fixed, either because of the benefits of predictability, or out of respect for our ancestors who invented them. If moral laws are facts of nature then we have no choice but to continue investigating them, and adapting our customs and values to our improved understanding.

Obviously, fundamentalist types combine belief in unvarying laws with a belief in divine revelation, which is the only way to make the upper quadrant work. But that seems hard for most people to take seriously.

I suppose it’s not really correct to say, as I did above “You wouldn’t expect someone to say…” It doesn’t make sense, but it’s not really uncommon. Whether it’s the Church attacking Galileo, Nazis attacking Einstein, Stalin attacking Darwin, or Republicans attacking climate science, those with moral or political authority are frequently tempted to assert their naive intuitions about natural phenomena above the accumulated knowledge of experts who have actually investigated them. And the reform-minded are rarely as relativist as the orthodox accuse them of being. It tends to be more a matter of the orthodox attributing to their opponents the mirror image of their own views.

So maybe, in the end, the rhetoric exactly reverses the situation: The Orthodox are moral relativists, and the Reform are moral absolutists who are nonetheless willing — at least, in their better incarnations — to recognise the limitations of their current (and any possible existing) moral understanding. In a classic projection move the Orthodox accuse the progressives of holding the views that they themselves hold, and are embarrassed by. The progressives don’t really embrace the relativist view, but they’re not sure they want to reject it either.

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