Teaching Values in a Community High School
The Grade 12 Rabbinics curriculum at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto deals with a number of current moral issues that challenge the minds of senior high school students. Issues as varied as Sexuality, Business Ethics, War and Peace, Ecology, and Biomedical advances are discussed using rabbinic sources to explore these moral problems from a Jewish perspective. Students, however, although taking their classes seriously and actively participating in classroom discussions, often do not relate to the Jewish perspective, feeling that the sources do not “speak” to their modern concerns. Why is this so? Why do some students find these sources irrelevant to their lives?
I feel that the reason is fairly obvious. The rabbinic classical sources and the students’ environment present different moral and ethical approaches and values, often with conflicting results. Values are the principles upon which a particular society is based, the axioms and assumptions which underlie how we behave. How we view, for example, the significance of life or the importance of commitment, loyalty, faithfulness and honesty will impact on how we act in situations requiring moral decision-making.
Unfortunately, the basic principles and axioms upon which the modern secular world is based often differ from the values and assumptions that are the basis of a Jewish worldview. I would like to suggest that one of the major problems facing the Jewish educator is the different belief or value systems upon which the educator and the student base their decisions. The Jewish educator’s value system is one of Torah; values judgments and decisions will be made from that vantage point. The student, however, comes from an entirely different belief system – a system that does not share the same language, the same expectations and the same definitions of good and bad, right and wrong, a system that operates by different axioms.
Since the teacher and student begin from different starting points and do not share the same basic assumptions, the teacher may not be able to understand where the student is coming from, what his thought processes are, why he behaves the way he does and why he doesn’t accept what the teacher is saying. At the same time, the student often finds the teacher authoritarian and is unable to appreciate the arguments and positions of the teacher.
Even Dati students who live in an open, secular society are strongly influenced by the values of the dominant culture. Although they may be outwardly observant, many have not internalized Jewish values but, rather, have assimilated the morality and thinking of the society around them.
It is therefore essential that before a school can approach the task of teaching classic Jewish texts and the inherent Jewish values contained therein, it must first recognize this discrepancy and take it into consideration when planning curricula. It is only after the students fully realize the different approaches and belief systems that we can begin to educate towards an understanding and appreciation of Jewish sources and values.
Return to top
Teaching Judaic studies in a modern Jewish day school is not an easy task. Jewish education, as distinct from many approaches in secular education, entails much more than imparting information. In addition to teaching content, the Jewish educator tries to transmit to his/her students a love for Judaism, an understanding and appreciation of its teaching and an adherence and commitment to שמירת מצוות. Its goal is not to mirror society but to lead it, to give it moral direction. However, as any Jewish educator can attest—both in Israel and in the Golah—attaining these goals in a community Jewish high school can be a difficult and frustrating experience. Students come from a variety of backgrounds and often do not share the same goals as those fostered by the school. They often view Jewish law (and Judaism) as archaic and restrictive, frequently in conflict with their own values and opinions. This then leads to an attitude of disdain and, at best, indifference—which is, of course, the opposite of what Jewish educators would like to achieve.
The study of Jewish ethics today faces an especially difficult task—the task of justifying the attempt to articulate Jewish ethics at all. Modern men and women find their values within the secular world around them. Jews, as well, perceive no need for Jewish morality or for a revealed system of ethical norms. The Jewish ethicist must therefore justify religious ethics in a way unparalleled in earlier Jewish philosophic thought. Modernity, therefore, offers a difficult challenge to contemporary Jewish ethics: that of justifying its unique ethical system to a skeptical world. Judaism must show itself of value in competition, not with other religions, but with a secular ethical tradition.
Although teaching Judaic subjects and values has always been an uphill battle because of the gap between where the students (and parents) are and where the school would like them to be, the sociological and educational changes during the past thirty years have added an additional serious problem. In a multicultural society and in a pluralistic setting, establishing standards and expectations for an entire student body has been a difficult task. Respect for the autonomy of the individual and fear of offending the feelings of others have resulted in the hesitation of many community schools to emphasize and require specific behaviours and common practices.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the question of values. A number of recent books have chronicled the changes of the past thirty years and have demonstrated how much damage has been done over the past generation by the fads and innovations in the teaching of values. Moral educators, basing themselves on theories of Rousseau and Dewey, raised a generation of students who viewed values and moral decisions as subjective, relative, merely opinion. The number of times teachers and administrators have heard students say “It’s up to the individual,” “There are no universal, objective moral standards,” “What’s right for you may be wrong for me,” or, simply, “Who’s to say what’s right?” are legion. In today’s Jewish schools a discussion of the morality of Nazi Germany’s planned destruction of Jews very often concludes with the students agreeing that, from Germany’s point of view, killing Jews was not wrong. They will not accept the argument that even wholesale murder or genocide is absolutely wrong. Their unquestioning acceptance of moral relativism and the primacy of individual autonomy lead them to this very disturbing conclusion.
A prime example of one of these new trends in education was “Values Clarification”, which, supported by moral educators throughout North America, became the rage in the 60s and early 70s. Based on the personal freedom and the questioning of authority which were prevalent societal values of those years, values clarification came on the scene, capturing the spirit of the times and, in an increasing pluralistic society, offering the schools a way to talk about values while preserving their moral neutrality. Process was more important than content; discussion was more significant than ultimate behaviour. It took 20 years until some of the founders of values clarification began to question, and ultimately speak out against, their original ideas. Merrill Harmin, one of the co-authors in 1966, (together with L. Raths and S. Simon), of Values and Teaching, wrote the following in 1988:
Our emphasis on value neutrality probably did undermine traditional morality…. As I look back, it would have been better had we presented a more balanced picture, had we emphasized the importance of helping students both to clarify their own personal values and to adopt society’s moral values…. It makes a good deal of sense to say that truthfulness is better than deception, caring is better than hurting, loyalty is better than betrayal, and sharing better than exploitation. 
The societal issues of Pluralism and Multiculturalism, although important and meaningful in some respects, coupled with the philosophical approaches of Situational Ethics and Moral Relativism, have had a serious effect on North American society, in general, and on Judaism, in particular. In addition, the division of Judaism into Orthodox, Conservative and Reform denominations has made it extremely difficult for Jewish communal schools, which reflect that diversity of thought and observance, to teach classic Jewish sources while respecting the views of both the student and parent bodies.
Historically, while Judaism has always provided opportunities various opportunities various opinions to be voiced (compare, for example, Maimonides’ thirteen Principles of Faith to Rabbi Yosef Albo’s three), there was always a goal of common practice and observance. While Jews disagreed on theological matters, there was an emphasis on elevating matters of behaviour, including ethical issues, to a primary position, perhaps unique among Western monotheistic faiths. Thus, the approach to the study of sacred texts in Judaism is vastly different from that of our technological society. In essence, Jewish learning is non-academic in nature. Judaism views the primary purpose of knowledge not as theoretical understanding or contemplation but to foster appropriate behaviour. Therefore the subject matter of Judaism emphasizes man’s obligations toward God and his fellow human beings. It assumes that God is sovereign and that Jews must obey God’s moral law in general and His Torah in particular. Thus, for example, we find in the Talmud and Midrash God as saying, “Would that they [the Jewish People] had abandoned Me but kept My Torah!” Whereas content was always emphasized and the traditional scholar was one who had mastered traditional texts, the primary purpose of learning was its impact on behaviour. “העיקר אלא המעשה לא המדרש הוא” says the Mishnah in Avot.
Jewish tradition has argued this point for centuries. Proper behaviour was taught by emphasizing positive habits, continually acting in a moral fashion, helping others and training oneself to do the right thing. Habitual behaviour, taught the sages, has a positive effect on the soul. Maimonides expresses this idea in his commentary to ” לפי רוב מעשה ” (Pirkey Avot 3:19). If one wishes to give $1000 to charity, should he give it all at once or is it better to make ten instalments? Ramban supports the latter approach. By doing a positive act many times, the act becomes more routine; one becomes more accustomed to doing the act. The Mitzvah is not only to give charity but to become charitable. And this occurs through habit.
However, today the goals of Jewish education in a communal day school have changed dramatically from those which have governed the Jewish schools for many generations. No longer are standards of religious behaviour the primary goal. But even though the thrust of our community schools today may no longer be to train its students in the observance of Mitzvot, it certainly is one of its primary goals to produce a student who is ethical and moral. Indeed, in a study done by Marshall Sklare in 1979, 93 percent of respondents to the question “for a Jew to be a good Jew” answered “lead an ethical and moral life”, ranking that answer first in a list of twenty-two items.
Moral educators have recently come to similar conclusions. As many of the critics of Lawrence Kohlberg (who, following Piaget’s cognitive development model, postulated six levels of moral development) point out, merely knowing the right thing to do will not necessarily produce proper behaviour. Knowledge of right and wrong is not sufficient. These moral educators today argue that, although important, process is less significant than the end result. That students behave morally is more important than why. “Good and bad,” “right and wrong” are moral terms which describe behaviour.
Although Jewish educators and most school boards will agree that one of the major goals of the Jewish day school should be to teach and –to use an unpopular word—inculcate specifically Jewish ethical and moral principles and values to its students, this is becoming increasingly more difficult since the students often do not share those principles or values. How does one teach uniquely Jewish subjects to students who do not live in a “Jewish” world, to students whose value system and world view differ from those expressed in the material they are learning, to students who have no a priori commitment to their value or authority? Most students in community schools (and most parents) do not take for granted the authority of Jewish tradition, its “right” to shape their individual lives. They do not see Judaism as a comprehensive source of significance and obligation. In other words, they are not committed to its value and truth before the process of learning takes place. If the students and the school do not accept the same axioms and premises, then communication becomes difficult and (Jewish) education cannot achieve its goals.
Acknowledging that the Jewish communal school cannot require its student body to adhere to a standard religious practice (aside from some traditions and rituals without which other students would feel uncomfortable), we are still faced with teaching a Jewish ethical system and Jewish values to students who not only do not share that system and its values, but find the principles and values to have little meaning in their lives and even, at times, “silly,” “old-fashioned” and “obsolete”.
How can a Jewish communal school educate its students towards an appreciation and acceptance of Jewish ethics and morals when those students (and their parents) live within a different value system, have a different outlook, and simply do not agree with the values being presented?
It would certainly be an understatement to say that this is no easy task. Internalization of mitzvot and ethics is not always accomplished in the best of yeshivot. It is therefore especially difficult when there is no full agreement about what Jewish values are and what should be our commitment to them.
Return to top
In 1985 and 1986, S. Daniel Breslauer published two volumes of bibliography of books and articles dealing with Jewish ethics and values. Of the 1506 entries listed, few dealt with the issue of competing values systems. The main exception, however, was the Jewish Values Project initiated by the Hebrew University’s Melton Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora. In the early 1970s, a school in Mexico City turned to the Hebrew University with a request for assistance in developing a program on teaching Jewish tradition. It soon became clear that the issues raised in that particular school were similar to the problems being faced in other schools and communities as well: “how to convey Jewish tradition to young people living in the modern world, whose consciousness is formed by influences and elements which are fundamentally modern and not authentically Jewish.”
A team of scholars and educators met for two years (before beginning to write) to define and discuss the problems and issues involved in such a curriculum. One of the outcomes of these discussions was a small, but important, introductory book, authored by Michael Rosenak, which defined the major difficulties in Jewish education and provided a conceptual framework and rationale for the Melton’s Jewish Values Project. David Resnick summarized Rosenak’s analysis as follows:
Rosenak sees the basic disjunction -in Jewish education as being “between the subject matter and the environment.” Either classical Jewish texts are seen as totally out of touch with and irrelevant to modern Jews’ lives or their message is so universalized as to seem banal and unauthentic. The Jewish Values curriculum is an attempt to recapture both authenticity and relevance, while working within the bounds set by the environment, i.e., not openly challenging the lifestyle of students and parents….
[T]he curriculum selects from the particularity of classical sources (authenticity) those issues and values which can address the questions and concerns of the contemporary world (relevance). Thus the curriculum designers determined that the only realistic course of action was to fine tune the subject matter, rather than intervening to change the environment.
The Jewish Values Project produced curricular materials in four areas of Jewish tradition: Torah Shebe’al Peh, including both Halacha and Aggadah, themes of the Chagim as related to the narrative books of the Tanach which were relevant to those themes, Issues in Jewish Thought and Literary Aspects. The approach was, through the analysis of classical texts, to discuss ideas and themes, to derive the underlying values inherent in the texts, and to show that rabbinic texts deal with issues, themes and ideas which are, although written 2000 years ago, meaningful and relevant to students today when presented in modern form.
The Melton team concluded that “the language of Judaism most plausibly and effectively conveyed to non-committed pupils is that of value ideas”. Rosenak believes that
[t]eaching Judaism via the language of principles and values has a distinct educational advantage. It presents Judaism in a light which is often startling to pupils in Jewish schools. As a result, they learn to see it as a world-view which encompasses their lives in all its dimensions, and which is serious and worthy of deep study. They understand it to compete vigorously with some of the ideas that other civilizations posit….The concept of Judaism as value-ideas…can be stated in terms that are universal enough to speak to the pupil ‘s general sense of reason and morality at the same time that they are learning something specifically Jewish which is new and challenging.”
The Jewish Values Project has been successful in developing both an approach and the necessary materials for combining authenticity and relevance; the study of modern value-ideas inherent in classical Jewish texts. Through this approach, students begin to understand and appreciate the deep insights of the sages and that modern problems and issues are echoed, albeit in a different guise, in rabbinic literature.
This approach works well when the Jewish values are similar to or are not in conflict with the life-style and value system of the students. What would the reaction be if normative Judaism and secular values would indeed clash? How would students respond, for example, when confronted with the Jewish attitude, based on classical Jewish sources, towards homosexuality, premarital sex, assisted suicide, abortion or euthanasia and that of the values of the secular society and many of our students today?
The Melton approach, then, although useful in showing that classical texts speak to modern issues on an intelligent level, does not offer advice in dealing with issues where conflicts arise. Students may be surprised to learn that the Jewish classical sources deal with current moral dilemmas and offer guidance and direction. But ultimately, many students will disregard the Jewish values since they are so estranged from Jewish life and immersed in a life-style and value system that is quite different. Therefore, even in a school system that uses the Melton approach, it would still be useful to begin the sessions with an introduction to how ethical decisions are made and the various theories which underlie those decisions.
The specific goal of this paper is not to solve this major educational problem but to merely begin the process: to have students who live in a pluralistic, multicultural society (or even students who live in a more homogeneous environment but for whatever reason do not share those same basic principles) to explore their own value systems, to look at the principles which underlie their moral decision-making, to compare their principles to the Jewish value system, to evaluate the various systems and, ultimately, to appreciate the validity and value of the Jewish system.
The goal is not, necessarily, to convince the students that the Jewish ethical system is superior to their own (Oh, if we could only do that !!) but simply that Jewish values are built upon principles and axioms that are logical and have withstood the passage of time. Rather, the hope is for students to at least appreciate the Jewish value system and respect those who believe in and follow such a system.
Return to Top
Before beginning a mini-course on Ethics and moral decision-making, it is important to define terminology and parameters.
- The first issue to be clarified is the difference between facts and values. Questions of factare questions about what is true and what is false. “Is the world round?” is a question of fact. Generally, questions of fact have the characteristic that the answers are verifiable by some widely accepted method. Facts are truths known by actual observation or authentic testimony. Opinions do not apply to facts.
Questions of value, on the other hand, can actually be divided into two categories. When dealing with values and value judgments in human affairs, philosophers distinguish between Aesthetics and Ethics. Aesthetics is the study of art and the artistic—what is good or bad, right or wrong, in Art. Although among philosophers volumes have been written to try to establish standards to define “good and bad” in Art, in common speech these terms are used to express opinions. Common usage such as “this movie was great”, “the book had a good plot” or “that statue is ugly” are merely expressing that the viewer or reader enjoyed the movie or book (or found the message to be worthwhile) and disliked the statue. Aesthetics, then is a very subjective area. “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, “בטעם וריח אין להווכח”. Aesthetics, the terms “good,” “bad,” “beautiful,” “ugly,” are therefore no more than opinions.
Ethics, however, deals with what is “good,” “bad,” “right,”or “wrong” in a moral sense. Morality deals basically with human beings and how they relate to each other: how they treat other humans to promote their mutual welfare, striving for what is good over what is bad and what is right over what is wrong. These values then, have an impact on others and are thus, more universal and less a matter of individual opinion.
- In addition to “moral,” there are two other terms that require mention: “amoral” and “non moral.” “Amoral” means having no moral sense at all or being indifferent to right and wrong. Babies, for example, would be considered as amoral because they have no moral sense, no sense of right and wrong. Only once a child becomes educated in morality do we begin to seriously praise or blame him for his moral behaviour. The word “non moral”, however, means out of the realm of morality altogether. For example, inanimate objects are non moral. Even a gun isnon moral. A person using a gun may use it immorally, but the object itself is non moral. Many areas of study (e.g., Mathematics, Physics, History) are, in themselves, non moral but since human beings are involved in these areas, morality may also be involved. Mathematics is non moral but using it to produce a hydrogen bomb is certainly a moral issue.
The first session should deal with TERMINOLOGY. The class should explore the difference between fact, opinion, and morality. It should then discuss the various meanings of the words “good” and “bad” – how each value word can be used to describe aesthetic, non moral and moral issues. The goal of this lesson should be to have the students arrive at the conclusion that value terms like “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “bad” when used in a moral sense are stronger and more universal than individual opinions.
- Distinguishing between facts (or non moral issues), aesthetic values (opinions) and moral values.
- Write the following sentences in three columns on the board:
Thou shall not murder.
It is wrong to cheat.
The earth is round.
Two plus two = four.
The music was beautiful.
I like broccoli.
- From these (or similar) examples, try to elicit from the students the three categories of statements mentioned above. Example: In what ways are the sentences in each column similar and how are they different? How would you label each column?
- Distribute Worksheet #1
Separate class into groups of 5 students. Have each group follow directions on sheet for Exercise 1. The goal is to show the students the differences between the three categories especially which are issues of moral concern.
- When completed, compare the answers of each group in the class as a whole. How would the students define a moral issue?
- As a class, ask the students what each of the sentences mean in Exercise 2. The goal of this exercise is to show that some English words have numerous meanings, depending on the context of the sentence. Love can mean, enjoy, have an emotional attachment to, have a strong emotional attachment to, sexual relations, score in a tennis match, etc.
- Again, in small groups, ask the students to do Exercise 3. Here, too, the value-laden words of right and wrong have different meanings. Review the answers of the groups in class. What is common to the moral statements? In what ways do the moral statements differ from opinions?
The goal of this Exercise is to have the students appreciate that opinions are more individual decisions while moral issues are more universal and more significant in nature. Moral decision-making is more than mere opinion.
1. Listed below are a number of statements. How would you classify these statements according to the following categories? Why?
|1. Reading a good book|
|2. Cheating at cards|
|3. Keeping the car washed|
|5. Eating healthy food|
|6. Cheating on exams|
|7. Eating pizza|
|8. Getting drunk every few days|
|9. Keeping your car in good condition|
|10. Going to a folk music concert|
|11. Giving charity to the poor|
|12. Enjoying a movie|
|13. Volunteering to tutor foreigners|
2. Read the following sentences. What does the word “love” mean –in each of them?
a) I love hamburgers.
b) I love the Beattle’s music.
c) I love my parents.
d) I loved that movie.
e) I love my wife (husband).
f) I love my girlfriend (boyfriend).
g) I made love to my wife (husband).
h) The score in the tennis game was 30 – love.
i) What conclusions can you derive regarding the meaning of words?
3. The following statements contain the words “right” and “wrong.” In which sentences are the words used in a moral sense and in which in a non-moral sense? If you cannot decide, what information is lacking that would help you in your classification?
MORAL / NON-MORAL
1. You were right to pay back the loan on time.
2. Pay the loan right away.
3. The lies in his painting are just right.
4. What right do you have to walk on my flowers?
5. Your answer was right.
6. You were right to answer the way you did.
7. Turn right at the next corner.
8. He made the right decision when he returned the I money.
9. It was wrong to say that.
10. That’s the wrong thing to say.
11. Murder is wrong!
12. He said, “You were wrong to kill her.”
13. It is wrong to use cornstarch instead of flour.
14. This is the wrong time to speak about her illness.
15. We made the wrong choice in seeing that movie.
Return to Top
Every day we have many choices to make, some of them trivial, some important, some easy to make, others very difficult. Where should I go for lunch? What should I eat? Should I return the extra dollar given me in change when I paid for my lunch? How should I spend the evening? Should I study for my test tomorrow or should I go to the movies? Should I prepare properly for the quiz or should I should I use crib sheets? What career should I choose? Should I follow my parents’ wishes or my own inclinations? Would I be justified in finagling my income tax returns a bit so that I won’t have to pay the government so much?
Some of these choices primarily, affect only the individual. Others involve the welfare of many people, most of whom the individual doesn’t even know. To what extent should the individual consider the effects of his/her actions on others? Does he/she have duties and obligations to people other than himself/herself? How, in general, can the individual tell what is the right thing to do in relationship to himself/herself and others?
When issues are trivial they present no serious difficulty and we tend to decide them quickly. When they are more important or more difficult or both, then many questions arise. As conscientious and thoughtful people we generally try to do what is right and avoid doing what is wrong. In questions concerning ourselves we want to make the choice that is right for us. When other people are involved we feel we ought to do what is right for everyone concerned. But at times there may be a conflict between our welfare and the welfare of others. Or there may be a conflict between other important values. For example, we may feel that it is wrong to lie. We may also feel that it is wrong to hurt someone’s feelings. What should we do if these values come in conflict and only one value can be followed?
When making moral decisions, most of us do not systematically establish a consistent set of principles which serve as an adequate guide for determining wise moral choices. The purpose of this lesson is to show that moral decision-making is based on moral principles, on values that are important to the individual. This can be accomplished by having the class discuss various moral dilemmas and determining the underlying principles.
- Begin by writing the following statements on the board and asking the class what the presuppositions (the underlying presumptions) for the statements are;
- But he couldn’t have taken the money; he’s a Boy Scout.
- Of course I won’t help her—she’s only a servant.
Discuss how certain outlooks and beliefs impact on our moral conduct.
- We live in a society that emphasizes the privacy of the individual and in which interfering in another’s life is deemed unacceptable. Are there situations where “interfering” in someone else’s life is considered proper? What kind of situations? What are the moral issues involved?
- Divide the class into small groups of approximately 5 students each. Distribute Worksheet 2 containing a number of moral dilemmas. The groups are asked to brainstorm the various solutions to the moral dilemma and the underlying principleor value upon which those solutions are based. They should then decide, upon consensus, which of the solutions the group would choose. Each group would then present their conclusions (the conflicting principles, -their choice of solution and the reason why) to the class.
Principles/Values (See Worksheet for cases)
CASE 1: Should you respect the doctor/client confidentiality and prevent what might amount to coercion of the child’s father? Or, should you be honest and pursue the child’s best interest at the expense of confidentiality and the father’s strong right to privacy regarding his own feelings about donating his kidneys as well as the right to maintain the integrity of his body?
CASE 2: As a lawyer, should you do nothing, which will preserve the lawyer/client confidentiality, the welfare of the client, and the widely accepted standard of practice (as well as not be sued for malpractice)? But if you choose to protect those values, it will be at the cost of the liberty and welfare of someone else who is being severely punished for a crime she did not commit.
CASE 3: As a professor, you must decide between the welfare of your student and your institutional obligations as an employee of the university.
In daily life we often hear, “It’s none of your (or my) business.” In which of the following situations would you say that the matter in question is none of the person’s business? Why?
1. It’s none of your business. Mother, whom I date or marry.
2. Fellow Congressmen, it’s strictly my own business how I received my money.
3. It’s none of my business if my neighbour’s children are in rags.
4. If I choose not to mow my front lawn, that’s strictly my own business.
5. If I refuse to see a doctor when I’m seriously sick, that’s nobody else’s business.
6. How I behave in public is nobody’s business but my own.
CASE 1. Imagine that you are a doctor and one of your patients is a four-year-old girl in severe renal (liver) failure. She is failing to thrive on dialysis and it has become evident that without a kidney transplant in the near future she will not survive. The chance of a successful transplant is roughly ninety percent if the kidney comes from a close relative whose tissue type is virtually identical to that of the recipient. A successful transplant is far less probable if the tissue match is less close, even if the kidney is from a close relative. And implanting a poorly matched kidney from a relative holds out no greater probability of success than the implantation of an equally poor match from a cadaver. The probability of getting a good tissue match from a cadaver is lower than getting one from within the family. You inform the child’s family (her parents and two older siblings) of this; all agree to undergo tissue-typing to see if any of the family members are good candidates for donation. The tests reveal that the child’s father is an excellent match. All the other family members are poor matches. You are about to contact the family about the good news when the father arrives and asks to speak with you about the test results. You tell him, but much to your surprise, he begins to cry and tell you that he is afraid to donate his kidney. He begs you to tell his family that none of them is an appropriate tissue match and asks you to begin the search for a cadaver kidney. The child’s best chance for survival lies in receiving a kidney from her father. You feel quite certain that if you tell the man’s wife, he will be shamed into donating.
What would you do? What are the principles/values in this conflict? What are the possible solutions? Which solution would you consider the best? Why?
CASE 2. Imagine you are a criminal lawyer defending a client who is on trial for murder. You are quite certain that she is innocent of the crime. The trial is going in her favour and the probability of acquittal is very high. You have established a good relationship with her and (bolstered by her prospect of acquittal) she tells you that although she did not commit this murder, she did commit another murder four years earlier. She goes on to tell you that another woman with a long criminal record was convicted of that crime and is serving a life sentence for it. You attempt to persuade her to confess to the crime, but she adamantly refuses. She has been in trouble with the law numerous times before and is an intelligent and exceptionally well-informed criminal. When you threaten to withdraw from the case, she reminds you that your withdrawal at this stage would prejudice her case and, therefore, is impermissible under the American Bar Associations Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Further, she reminds you that the Model Rules require strict confidentiality between attorney and client, permitting breach of confidentiality only under certain clearly circumscribed circumstances, none of which obtain in this case.
What would you do? What are the principles/values in conflict? What are the possible solutions? Which solution would you consider the best? Why?
CASE 3. Imagine that you are an instructor at a large state university. You make a strong effort to get to know your students and are relatively successful at this. One day you are giving an in-class exam and, much to your distress, you see one of your students cheating. He is very bright and is one of the students who has come to your office several times to discuss the course material. You know from one conversation with him that his father recently died and that he had some difficulty concentrating on his school work since then. When you see him cheating, you realize that you could interrupt him during the exam, but you decide not to do so since this would humiliate him in front of his classmates. You could confront him after the exam, fail him for the test, and let the matter go at that. The university, however, has a firm policy on how cases of cheating are to be handled. The policy requires that all cases of cheating are to be reported by the faculty to the administration. Faculty are expressly forbidden to use their own discretion in any case of cheating. The administration is highly intolerant of cheating and first of tenses result in suspension for a semester. Second of tenses result in expulsion.1
What would you do? What are the principles/values in conflict? What are the possible solutions? Which solution would you consider the best? Why?
Return to Top
At this point we are about to begin a discussion of various ethical theories. But before we begin our task, it is important to define basic terminology. The terms “morals” and “ethics” are commonly used as synonyms. However, it is generally accepted that moral issues refer to problems that are relatively specific and practical while ethics refers to more general and theoretical issues. For example, “Is abortion ever right?” or Should civil disobedience ever be condoned in a democracy?” would be moral issues while “What makes an act right or wrong?” or “What is the definition of the ‘good’ that we seek?” are ethical issues. Ethics, then, refers to a system of principles and values, a set of criteria by which moral decisions are made. Morals, on the other hand, are the norms, behaviours, specific decisions. An ethical system or theory provides the framework by which a person makes moral choices.
In the previous lesson we saw that students can come to different conclusions about how to act in a moral dilemma because their decisions are based on determining which principles they consider to be more important. But how does the student determine which principle or value is more significant? We must therefore now turn to the question of deciding which theory (or theories) of defining right and wrong we are using.
WHAT MAKES AN ACT RIGHT OR WRONG?
Consider the following:
In George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma, a distinguished doctor is prevailed upon by a lovely and fascinating young lady to treat her artist husband. The doctor, Sir Colenso Ridgeon, agrees to help her husband. However, he soon learns that the artist husband Dubedat is a worthless scoundrel. The problem is that Ridgeon -is the only person who can save Dubedat, but can only take one more patient; if he helps Dubedat, he must neglect a true and dear old friend who is very sick. Who should be saved, a dishonest and insincere young man who can make an artistic contribution to the world, or a good man and an old friend? Are there any moral rules to guide one? Sir Colenso Ridgeon decides to save his old friend, and there certainly seems to be a moral basis for his doing so. Yet in the fifth act of the play we learn that the reason Ridgeon chose to cure his friend and neglect the worthless Dubedat was not in consideration of his feelings for his friend but in consideration for his love for Dubedat’s charming wife. Ridgeon’s own assessment was that he committed a “purely disinterested” murder, but was this the case? Is his decision any less moral because it served his own selfish purposes?1
This is a simple example of a moral problem. Some are much more difficult. The normal process of daily living gives rise to the need of determining what is right and wrong. More than this, people want to understand what their own obligations are, or what they ought to do. Even though we know something is right, it does not necessarily follow that we are obligated to do it. For example, it may be right to risk our lives to save another’s life, but does that mean that we always have an obligation to do so?
Over the centuries philosophers have made an effort to formulate moral rules to help us distinguish between right and wrong. This field is called Normative Ethics. Philosophers have proposed a number of ethical theories and principles in terms of which we can understand what is right or wrong, good or bad, and what we ought to do. These are called theories of obligation. For our purposes, we shall assume that one should try to do the right act and to refrain from doing any wrong act. What we ought to do is independent of personal inclinations. An individual ought to pay his debts, whether or not he feels so inclined. He should also not beat his child, no matter how badly he wants to retaliate for the child’s misbehaviour. Although human beings do not always do what they ought to do, nevertheless trying to understand what we ought to do, what we define as right behaviour, will help us understand the process of how an individual makes moral decisions.
All Ethics must first concern itself with the question of human nature, for any theory which is inconsistent with the nature of man would be worthless. One of the most crucial questions about human nature for the ethical theorist is whether Man has free will or whether his/her actions are simply an outcome of heredity or environment, biology or culture. If the actions of man are not based on free choice but on circumstances beyond his/her control, then he/she cannot be condemned for them, since it would be meaningless to blame or praise those who have not responsible for their behaviour.
An ethical system or theory contains (1) beliefs about ideals, about what is good or desirable or worthy of pursuit; (2) rules defining what ought to be done and what ought not to be done; and (3) motives that incline us to choose the right over the wrong course. Most of us do not think too deeply about ethics or morality and we are therefore not inclined to pay attention to the process of moral decision-making but rather lay more emphasis on rules of behaviour, not on ideals. We learn as children that we should share and not be selfish, that we should not tell lies, that we should not cheat—that we should follow a whole host of rules covering different aspects of life. Consequently, for many of us, morality remains, all our lives, a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” Philosophers, on the other hand, try to incorporate these various rules into a coherent system.
There are two general views of ethical theories. The first, Deontology (from the Greek deon, meaning duty or obligation), regards rules as fundamental. Moral rules are not rules for achieving ideal ends. Their validity do not depend on their success or failure in bringing about these ends. Rather, they are worthy of obedience in their own right. Deontologists would argue that we ought to pay our taxes because that is the proper thing to do, not because we might get caught.
The second general approach is called Teleological (Greek telos, meaning goal or end). These philosophers regard moral rules as rules for producing what is good (philosophers will define “good” differently) and avoid what is bad. The actions are judged not on their inherent value but on the basis of their tendency to promote what is good and prevent what is bad. To the teleologist, we are under no obligation to keep promises because “a promise is a promise” if it would clearly be more beneficial to break it.
The following are some of the common answers to the question of defining right and wrong and why we generally feel bound to do what is right.
Every society has its own customs, certain ways of acting that are generally practiced. In our society, for example, it is the custom to eat with a knife and fork, sleep at night and refrain from stealing. Some of these customs are socially sanctioned and others are not. Our society censures and punishes the thief, but it does not condemn and discipline one who works at night and sleeps during the day. Societal customs that are socially sanctioned are called Mores.
Some philosophers maintain that it is the mores that make an action right or wrong. The right act is the one that conforms to the mores of that particular society; the wrong act violates those mores. Some acts, like using a bow to tie shoelaces, are neither morally right or wrong because the mores of society do not govern them at all. But other acts are judged more strictly by society. Adults, particularly parents, try to teach children to do certain acts and to refrain from doing others. Those who deviate from the expected patterns of behaviour are subject to disapproval, blame, and various informal pressures or even legal punishments. Those who conform to the mores are praised, approved and rewarded in various ways. The mores of any society therefore serve as the standards of what is moralIy right or wrong. We feel morally bound to do what is right because of enculturation. Most individuals have been raised to realize that if they violate the mores of society, they can expect to be censured or punished for those actions. We feel bound because we are apprehensive of the social sanctions supporting those mores. The ties that bind us to the right acts are therefore psychological ones. It is our fear of social censure and punishment that obliges us to do what is right and refrain from doing what is wrong.
- ETHICAL EGOISM
Ethical Egoism is the theory that what makes an act right or wrong is the agent’s welfare. The distinction between right and wrong is grounded entirely in the good and bad brought into existence: it is right to do good or increase the goodness in the world; it is wrong to be harmful or increase badness. But not everyone’s good is relevant, however. What makes an act right or wrong is its impact of the agent’s own welfare. Ultimately, the only reason why a person ought or ought not do some specific act is that it will be beneficial or harmful to that individual’s own interests. The difference, if any, that the act makes to the welfare of others is entirely irrelevant. For example, expressing annoyance by kicking another is not wrong because the act of kicking will harm or cause pain or injury to the other person, but because the kicker will be hurt when the victim or a spectator retaliates. Ethical Egoism suggests that what anyone ought to do is always the act that is most beneficial to that individual. His own self-interest defines right and wrong.
This theory, associated in various forms with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1808-1873), asserts that what makes an act right or wrong is utility or disutility. Utility, or usefulness, consists of bringing value into existence; disutility, or harmfulness, consists of bringing disvalue into existence. Although some philosophers argue that it is the individual that determines utility (e.g., Bentham believed that the only intrinsic good was pleasure), most understand Utilitarianism on a more universal basis. Rightness and wrongness of any act depends on the consequences of that act—whether the act will bring value and benefit to the world or not. An act is considered right if it brings the greatest good for the greatest number.
- CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argues that the basis for evaluating conduct and defining right and wrong is not the consequences that follow the act but the win that lies behind that act. He bases this argument on the belief that morality is not empirical. The empirical concerns what is, whereas morality has to do with what ought to be. This being the case, Kant held that the field of Ethics does not have anything to do with the consequences of our acts. Consequences involve questions of what happens in the empirical world, which is factual matter. What we ought to do, therefore, cannot be a question of consequence, as the Utilitarians insisted. It must be a question of duty. Kant’s ethical theory is therefore deoltological. For the will to be good, Kant stipulates that it must not operate from emotions or inclinations but out of the recognition of a moral his own inclinations—to follow duty. To Kant, whether an act is moral or not is determined by whether it arises from a motive of duty.
Kant believed that it is possible by reasoning alone to set up valid absolute moral rules which have the same force as indisputable mathematical truths. Such truths must be logically consistent, not self-contradictory and must be able to be universalized. This means that any time an individual is about to make a moral decision, he must first ask, “What is the rule that authorizes this act that I am about to perform?” He must then ask, “Can this rule become a universal rule for all human beings to follow?” For example, if a lazy person argues, “Why should I work hard? Why don’t I simply steal from others?” According to Kant, the man would first identify the rule he is following (I don’t need to work because I can steal what I need from others) and then ask himself “What impact would that have if all human beings followed the same logic?” The conclusion he must come to is that it is illogical for all mankind to practice this rule because if no one worked there would nothing to steal. Another example is that of telling the truth. A person may be tempted in various circumstances to tell a lie, perhaps to spare someone’s feelings or to get himself out of a difficulty. But the acid test whether it would be right to lie is whether lying can be universalized. Would it be desirable to live in world in which lying was acceptable? No one would ever know what to believe.
Kant called this principle the “categorical imperative.” To him, a truly consistent moral rule is one that can be universalized – that is, it can be applied categorically, without any exception; it will apply in all situations. An imperative is a command. Therefore a categorical imperative tells us what we must do, and there are no expections.
Another principle in Kant’s ethical system is that human beings should not be thought of as means for someone else’s end. Rather, each human being is a unique end in himself. Regard for people as worthy of respect and affirming that they should not be used just as instruments or objects is an important aspect of Kant’s moral philosophy.
- GOD’S LAW
Many philosophers argue that definitions of right and wrong cannot lie with the society or the individual. They therefore have looked for some higher standard of right and wrong—the law of God. God’s law is seen as a system of universal rules of action, rules which prescribe certain kinds of acts and proscribe others, all enforced by God. God has made His will known to Man and sanctions it with reward and punishment. Any act that conforms to the law of God is right and any act, which violates God’s law, is wrong. This approach also explains why we feel obliged to do what is right; we do not want to be punished or, on a higher level, we simply want to do what God ask of us.
The following quote can serve as a good theoretical summary of the three main positions mentioned above.
Now let us pose a hypothetical question, bearing on this discussion. Suppose a rather distinguished-looking gentleman is standing at the end of a pier observing the rolling waves rushing forth. Suddenly, his tranquil contemplation is broken as he sees a man in a rowboat topple over and fall into the whirling waters. The fallen man, asping for breath and in a state of desperation, calls for help and seems to be going down. He shouts, “Help me! Help me! I-I- can’t swim.” The gentleman on the pier knows that as far as Kant is concerned one should do his duty and help his fellow man. However, he has also read Jeremy Bentham, and believes he should consider the consequences of his acts. But at that moment he forgets Bentham’s formula that the good is the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and remembers instead the ethical hedonistic position that good is the greatest happiness for himself. “Sorry old chap,” he tells the drowning man, “I’d really be delighted to help you, but after all this is a brand new suit I have on, and I would hate to get it wrinkled—have a date tonight you know.” About to go down for the last time, the drowning man makes one further effort and yells, “Don’t wrinkle your suit, but do toss me that life preserver there.” The gentleman assures him that he would be glad to, but makes the point that the damn thing is frightfully dirty and that he would not even think of getting his hands all grimy from it. The poor soul then drowns. “Pity,” the gentleman comments as he resumes watching the majestic ocean.2
SUMMARY OF MAJOR ETHICAL THEORIES
|UTILITARIAN METHODOLOGY||KANTIAN METHODOLOGY|
|1||TELEOLOGY: For the Teleologist, adhering to a system of duties and obligations is only important as a means to happiness.||1||DEONTOLOGY: For the Deontologist adhering to a system of duties and obligations is an end in itself.|
|2||CONSEQUENTIALISM: Rightness/ wrongness depends on the actual consequences of the act.||2||NON-CONSEQUENTIALISM: Rightness and wrongness is determined by the motive of the duty defined by conformity to an accepted moral rule. Actual consequences are irrelevant.|
|3||PARTIULARISM: Rightness/ wrongness of an act depends upon the context.||3||UNIVERSALITY: Context is irrelevant. Rules apply to all moral agents.|
|4||ACTS: Acts are prior to rules. A moral rule can be broken if greater happiness will result.||4||RULES: Rules are logically prior to acts. If an act is inconsistent with an accepted moral rule, then the act is morally wrong.|
|5||EMPIRICISM: All knowledge comes from experience.||5||RATIONALISM: All knowledge comes from reason.|
|6||DESCRIPTIVISM: Moral judgments are based on the description and prediction of what will happen as a result of an act: e.g., If stealing bread will feed the family, then steal the bread.||6||PRESCRIPTIVISM: Moral judgments prescribe acts. If someone seriously accepts a moral rule, s/he should always act in accordance with it. Thus, if you sincerely accept the moral rule that stealing bread is wrong, then do not steal.|
|7||CONDUCT: acts are the major concern. Morality is concerned with the right and wrong conduct—not with the motives of the agent. Giving to charity for a tax write-off is morally OK.||7||VIRTUE: Morality is primarily concerned with making moral judgments rather than the acts. Giving to charity only for tax write-off is not proper. Motives areimportant.|
|8||PUBLIC MORALITY: Concerned only with public morality. Private actions, which affect no one but the agent, are excluded from moral judgment. There are duties to the self. A drunk who is not harming anyone else is not acting immorally.||8||PRIVATE MORALITY: Concerned not only with public morality but also with private morality. There are duties to oneself. Drunkenness is a moral vice because it shows disrespect for the self.|
|UTILITARIAN PRINCIPLES||KANTIAN PRINCIPLES|
HAPPINESS: sole, intrinsic good
UNHAPPINESS: sole, intrinsic evil
ALTRUISM: help others in need
NON-MALEVOLENCE: minimize harm to others.
|1||RESPECT: always treat others as ends in themselves, never merely as means.|
RESPECT FOR OTHER: respect for others.
SELF-RESPECT: always respect yourself as a person.
SELF-PERFECTION: pursue virtue and resist vice.
|2||EXPEDIENCY: a good end always justifies the means.||2||CONSCIENTIOUSNESS: do your duty for duty’s sake.|
HONESTY: always keep valid promises and contracts.
TURTHFULLNESS: always tell the truth; never lie.
SINCERITY: never lie to yourself.
|3||QUALITY OF LIFE: life is only valuable when it possesses an acceptable balance of happiness over unhappiness.||3||SANCTITY OF HUMAN LIFE: life is sacred and an end in itself; life is valuable no matter what its quality.|
|4||JUST REWARD: happiness and unhappiness should be distributed in proportion to individual merit or need.||4||EQUALITY/FAIRNESS: always treat people fairly.|
|5||DETERENCE AND REFORM: punishment is justified not only if it deters further wrongdoing or benefits the offender.||5||RETRIBUTIVE JUSTICE: only the guilty should be punished.|
|6||BIO-CENTRISM: man is not the only thing in nature that has intrinsic worth; any species that can feel happiness or unhappiness has intrinsic value.||6||HOMO-CENTRISM: only people possess intrinsic value; plants and animals do not.|
|7||ANIMAL RIGHTS: animals ought to have legal rights to maximize their welfare.||7||ANIMAL RIGHTS: animals have no rights but there should be no wanton cruelty towards them.3|
Return to Top
Lesson 4 continues the discussion of ethical theories begun in the previous lesson. The goal here, however, is to discuss and evaluate those various theories.
- We will begin by reviewing the major source of deciding what is “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.” Ask students to determine the advantages of each theory. List advantages on a board.
- a) MORES: Society determines what is right and wrong.
Advantages: easy to decide what is right and wrong; gives good motive for doing right (praise, acceptance).
- b) ETHICAL EGOISM: everyone should always act in his or her own self-interest regardless of the interests of others unless their interests also serve his/hers.
Advantages: easier for egoists to know what is in their own self-interest than it is for other moralists who are concerned about more than self-interest. It can work successfully as long as people are operating in limited spheres, isolated from each other, thereby minimizing conflicts.
- c) UTILITARIANISM: people should always follow the rule or rule which will bring about the greatest good (happiness) for the greatest number of people. ACT UTILITARIANISM states that everyone should perform the act that will bring the greatest good to everyone affected by that act.
Advantages: it gives a plausible explanation as to why certain kinds of acts are right and others wrong. Telling the truth is right because it is useful—otherwise we could never believe what others say—and stealing is harmful—because taking property from others without permission causes insecurity, distrust and retaliation.
- d) CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE: consequences do not, and in fact should not, enter into judging whether actions or people are moral or immoral. Rather, morality or immorality is decided on some logical universal standard.
Advantages: understands that morality of some extent depends on human motivation; morality is not merely a matter of inclination or preference, but is something objective: more universal.
- By discussing and analyzing the cases on the Worksheet, the students, in small groups, should try to determine some of the logical deficiencies in, and disadvantages of, each of the theories.
- MORES – no objective standards; each society, country, can determine its own morality.
- ETHICAL EGOISM – offers no consistent method of resolving conflicts of self-interest between individuals; we do not live in isolated, self-contained communities but rather in communities where social, economic, and moral interdependence is necessary and where self-interests constantly conflict.
- UTILITARIANISM – it is difficult to determine what would be good consequences for others; since the rightness and wrongness of each individual act changes according to the consequences, it is difficult to educate the young to act morally since there are no rules or guides to follow; separates acts from motives.
- CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE – acts, devoid of proper motivation are not always wrong; how does one act in a conflict of duties; categorical imperatives are too absolute.
The following is a more acceptable adaptation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative.
It is obvious, based on the example of Fritz, that a moral society must be more flexible in applying the Categorical Imperative. According to more moderate versions of Kantianism, morals rules are to be understood as generalizations rather than as categorical propositions, without exception. In general we should tell the truth, but there may be circumstances where lying would be morally obligatory. One of the moderate versions was suggested by twentieth-century philosopher, W. David Ross. Ross felt that it is most important to clearly distinguish between right and good. Good is that which has beneficial consequences. Right is what we ought to do whether or not it leads to that which is good. Therefore, in the case of Fritz and the Nazis, according to Ross, it may have been right to tell the truth but not the good thing to do. Similarly, where Kant would say that the mother who cared for her child out of love rather that out of duty was not doing anything morally right, Ross would agree, but would add that what she was doing was unquestionably good.
The following practices are usually considered wrong in our society. Do you think you would still consider them wrong if you were living in the social or physical conditions in which they are not considered wrong? Why? Can you think of any general moral principle that supports your view?
1. Mass executions without trial or with only the pretence of one in a country undergoing a revolution.
2. Tormenting trapped or captured birds and animals for sport.
3. Eating human flesh, assuming that it will give one strength and virility on the next hunting expedition.
4. Polygamy, in a country in which (owing to casualties of war) the women outnumber the men by five to one.
5. Killing babies (infanticide) after the family has reached a certain size.
Other issue to discuss:
1. In the Southern United States before the Civil War, fugitive slaves, if recaptured, were often maimed, frequently by chopping off one foot. This act of maiming of a fugitive slave was customary and even sanctioned by society. Did that fact make this cruel and vindictive act morally right?
2. In ancient Sparta, weak or deformed children were placed in the mountains to die. This was the accepted societal value. Were these acts morally right?
3. Nazi Germany defined non-Aryans as inferior human beings, contaminating Aryans and therefore not worthy of life. Since this definition was accepted by German society, was this behaviour morally right?
2. ETHICAL EGOISM
In which of the following circumstances would YOU behave like an Ethical Egoist and act egoistically?
1. Would you, if you were a car manufacturer, put together a car cheaply and without the necessary safety devices, if you had considerable statistical evidence to prove that many more people would be attracted to your product because of its lower price than would refrain from buying it because of shoddy construction? Why?
2. Would you, as a motorist, stop to pick up a piece of jagged metal from the street, to keep other motorists from getting a flat tire? Why?
Discuss the implications of the following case:
In places where doctors receive payment directly from the patient, it is very easy for a doctor to pocket payments for house calls without keeping any records of this income. In the course of the year, these small payments add up to a sizable sum of unreported income. It would be very easy for the doctor to cheat when filing income tax and pay no tax on this additional money. The personal advantage from the keeping this additional money would be considerable; the disadvantage would be quite small. The chance of any harm coming to the doctor from the detection and punishment is very slight. Surely the act that would contribute most to the doctor’s welfare is that of cheating on income tax. Ethical Egoism would support this. However, to many this is morally wrong because it is a violation of the law and an unfair attempt to evade societal obligations.
Discuss the following cases from the perspective of Utilitarianism:
1. The story of Robin Hood is familiar to us all. He made a practice of stealing form the rich and sharing the proceeds with the poor. His acts of stealing did very little harm because those he robbed were seldom injured and because his victims were so wealthy, they hardly missed the money. On the other hand, his acts did considerable good for the poor since the money was used for food, clothing and other necessities. If we accept Act Utilitarianism, the acts of Robin Hood must have been right. What do you think? Do you feel, as a morally sensitive person, that it is wrong to steal, whether the victim is rich or poor?
2. On many university campuses, one of the serious problems is the theft or unauthorized borrowing of library books and journals. It is not just the cost. Even if eventually replaced, students have been unable to use them for research or readings. Suppose that some university administration decides to frame a few students. The dean of the university can easily pick a few of the students with poor marks who are at the university because of their parents’ insistence and suspend them. For these students, suspension may even do more good than harm since they do not want to be there anyway. In addition, the act of punishing the innocent will benefit the many students on campus because it will act as a deterrent to the real culprits, many of whom will now believe that the detection of library thefts is more effective than it really is. And since those unjustly punished will be immediately sent off campus, they will not be around to proclaim their innocence. Based on Act Utilitarianism, the fact of punishing the innocent would seem to do a great deal of good and very little harm and therefore would be morally correct. However, do you think that it is morally right punish innocent students?
What would you do in the following cases? Would you behave as a Utilitarian? Why or why not?
1. You see a suspicious-looking person hanging around the gunpowder plant. No one else is in the vicinity, and there is no time to report his presence to anyone. He lights a match. Should you wait to see whether he uses it to light a fuse, which may set the entire plant on fire? Or should you take the law into your own hands and try to stop him forcibly now, on the assumption that his intentions are evil?
2. As a doctor, you can save the life of a man who is almost certain to kill again if he lives. Or you can give him a drug that will painlessly put him out of the way now. Assume that no one would ever find out, or if they did, would not prosecute. What should you do?
3. OFFICER: Don’t you realize that by taking that boat without permission and rescuing your brother (who had been left behind on the island when the troopship moved out) you were endangering not only your own life but that of all the troops on board, by informing the enemy of our presence?
ENLISTED MAN: Yes, I know, but I took the chance and nothing happened, and everything turned out all right, didn’t it?
Did the enlisted man do wrong? Should he be punished?
4. In Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, the main character, Raskolnikov, p1ots and carries out the murder of an old woman who has a considerable amount of money in her apartment. After killing her, he steals the money. He argues that (1) she is a malicious old woman, petty, cantankerous, and scheming—useless to herself and to society (which happens to be true), and her death causes no unhappiness to herself and to others; and (2) her money, if found after her death, would only fall into the hands of chisellers anyway, whereas he, Raskolnikov, would use it for his education. Would you, as a Utilitarian justify his action?1
4. CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE
Kant holds that, through reasoning, valid absolute moral rules can be established. The Categorical Imperative is defined by the universality of that rule. If the rule by which a person acts can become universalized, then the rule is valid and absolute. Thus, Kant promulgated a number of what he considered absolute moral rules: “Never kill,” “Never steal,” “Never break promises,” “Never lie.”
Consider the following moral problem:
The setting is World War II in Nazi Germany. Fritz hates the Nazis but feels helpless and thus tries to stay aloof form all that goes on. His mother, whom he loves very much, is quite different. She works for the underground; in the basement of her home she has a secret press on which she prints leaflets and a clandestine transmitter on which she sends out radio messages against Hitler and the Nazis. At the same time as she does this in the secret basement, her son sits upstairs reading Kant. A heavy knock is heard; Fritz opens the door and is confronted by a Gestapo agent accompanied by two storm troopers. The Nazis inform Fritz that they know his mother is a traitor against the Third Reich and ask him if he knows where they can find her. Since Fritz hates the Nazis and loves his mother, he lies to the Nazis, telling them he does not know where his mother is. The Nazis believe him and are about to depart. Fritz sits down at the table to continue reading Kant when he suddenly has a pang of conscience. He calls to the Nazis to come back. He remembers the categorical imperative and informs them his mother is downstairs in a secret basement printing propaganda against them. The Nazis apprehend Friz’s mother, drag her out, torment and torture her awhile, then line her up against the fence in the front of Friz’s house, and shoot her. If Kant was right about the absolute duty to tell the truth, then Friz has done his moral duty? 2
Suppose breaking a promise would result in someone being seriously injured or killed. What happens when two Kantian absolutes conflict?
Return to top
A proper study of Jewish Ethics, as well as the study of Ethics in general, goes well beyond an introductory mini-course in a Jewish high school. The simple question of “What is Jewish ethics?” presupposes an understanding of “What is Judaism? and, in contemporary society, this is not an easy task. Judaism, today, can be defined in both religious and secular terms and each approach will see Jewish ethics differently.1
From a traditional Jewish perspective, moral behaviour is associated with, and defined by, the Jewish legal tradition (Halacha). Halacha is the system of norms that governs all aspects of their lives: ritual and moral. Jews need only to follow these norms to live a moral life; they do not require an extensive ethical system to know how to choose the good and refrain from the bad. In their view, a separate ethical system is redundant in Jewish life. From the prescribed moral behaviour, one can deduce the ethical principles. The Halacha, as the legal norms of behaviour, provides examples of particular moral decisions which illustrate the way in which Jewish ethics actually works. Thus Jewish ethics, to the traditionalist, are the ideals and values that lie beneath the surface of the legal details spelled out in the Halacha. The Halacha, then, is the expression of Jewish ethics; the detailed legal prescriptions that enable the Jewish community to live in an ethical manner. Traditionalists reject the idea of an independent ethics that can judge whether any particular halachic decision is valid. No independent ethics is necessary. They defend their view by suggesting that the Halacha itself contains an ethic of love and concern for humanity by providing ethical guidance through its detailed rules.
However, due to the complexity that Judaism is not only a religious system but a social and cultural one as well, a more liberal approach to Halacha developed. These Jews do not accept the relationship between Jewish ethics and Halacha as do the traditionalists. They reject this approach as too “God-centred.” As Humanists, they argue that humanity, not God or Torah, is central to Jewish teaching. These thinkers (Buber, Kaplan, Elkins) contend that Jewish ethics can be detached from the Halacha and that Jewish ethics, by itself, is worth retaining in Judaism. They therefore suggest that various religious practices and observances developed in the past were secondary to the ethical system. To the liberals, Halacha is not determinative. Rather, it is Jewish ethics which should determine behaviour; the Halacha is not the ethical absolute of Judaism.
Whereas the liberals identified Judaism with its ethical ideals, the traditionalists argued that ethics is only a small part of Judaism—it is to be subsumed under the general category of Torah. The different approaches often focus on this question of priority. If the Halacha, as an expression of God’s will, takes priority, then Humanistic ethics must play a secondary role (the Halacha defines what is ethical). But if Judaism is defined by its ethics, then ethical considerations determine Jewish life and practice (ethics defines practice). This difference becomes more meaningful in today’s world, when universal ethics often conflicts with the particularism of Judaism.
Most students in Jewish communal high schools will reflect these approaches.
What is unique about Jewish ethics; about which both liberals and traditionalists will agree, is that its investigation develops out of religious study. Unlike other ethical systems, Jewish ethics stem from study and investigation of Jewish sources, by confronting the accumulated rabbinic tradition and practice. Through exploration and interpretation of biblical and rabbinic sources, especially the Halacha and aggadah, one constantly confronts questions of values and principles and can thereby derive general ethical principles.
The intensive study of Jewish sources, and, equally important (if not more so), the derivation and discussion of the values, principles and ideas inherent in those surces, should serve as the cornerstone of an approach to Jewish ethics.
Lesson 5, should therefore emphasize that Jewish ethics are derived from rabbinic sources, interpretations and traditions. Through their previous study of Talmud, students should be able to understand that the sources describe cases (case law) from which one can derive and extrapolate basic principles and values. Students can be given selections from Mishna, Talmud, Aggadah, Halacha, responsa literature, etc., to derive the underlying ethical principle. In small groups, students can learn and discuss these sources and develop the basic Jewish values inherent in them. These values can then be applied to contemporary ethical issues facing society.
In addition, moral dilemmas, i.e., the conflict between two valid values, should be presented. For example, sources dealing with telling the truth vs. hurting feelings or maintaining shalom, individual rights vs. sanctity of potential life, human sexuality vs. concept of Kedusha, autonomy vs. following orders, quality of life vs. sanctity of life, among others, should be analyzed with the goal of creating a hierarchy of Jewish values.
Ultimately, a comparison should be made between Jewish ethics, Utilitarianism and Kantianism, hopefully pointing out that the Jewish ethical system is valid and relevant, and has elements which make it more worthwhile, functional and able to withstand the test of time.
Return to top
Baylis, Charles A., Ethics: The Principles of Wise Choice, (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 1958).
Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York: Penguin Books, 1987).
Breslauer, S. Daniel, Contemporary Jewish Ethics: A Bibliographical Survey, (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985).
─────, Modern Jewish Morality: A Bibliographical Survey, (Westport, Conn,: Greenwood Press, 1986).
Callahan, Joan C., ed., Ethical Issues in Professional Life, (Oxford University Press, 1988).
Fackenheim, Emill, Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy, (New York: Schoken Books, 1980).
Hospers, John, Human Conduct: An Introduction to the Problem of Ethics, (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1969).
─────, Human Conduct: Problems of Ethics, Second Edition, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1982).
Katen, Thomas Ellis, Doing Philosophy, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973).
Kilpatrick, William K., Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).
Lickona, Thomas, Educating for Character, (New York: Bantam Books, 1992).
Macniven, Don and Norquay, Margaret, “Making a Moral Choice: Discussion Guide”, (Toronto: Open College/Ryerson, 1985).
Popkin, Richard H. and Stroll, Avrum, Philosophy Made Simple, (London: W. H. Alien, 1969).
Reid, Charles, Choice and Action: An Introduction to Ethics, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1981).
Resnick, David, “From Ought to Is: On the Relationship of Jewish Values to Jewish Life,” in Studies in Jewish Education, Vol. VI, ed. Asher
Shkedi, (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1992).
Rosenak, Michael, Teaching Jewish Values: A Conceptual Guide, (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University, Melton Centre for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, 1986).
Shkedi, Asher, ed.. Studies in Jewish Education, Vol. VI, (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1992).
─────, “Jewish Values – An Educational Approach to the Jewish Sources,” in Studies in Jewish Education, Vol. VI, ed. Asher Shkedi,
(Jerusalem; The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1992).
Singer, Peter, editor, A Companion to Ethics, (Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1993).
Spero, Shubert, Morality, Halakha and the Jewish Tradition, (New York: Ktav Publishing House, Yeshiva University Press, 1983).
Thiroux Jacques P., Ethics, Theory and Practice, Second Edition, (Encino, California: Glencoe Publishing Co., 1980).
Wellman, Carl, Morals & Ethics, (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1975).
Return to top
 For example, see William K. Kilpatrick, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992) and Thomas Lickona, Educating for Character (New York: Bantam Books, 1992).
 Quoted in Lickona, Education for Character, p. 237.
 T.J. Chagiga, 1.7.
 Avot, 1:17.
 Quoted in David Resnick, “From Ought ot Is: On the Relationship of Jewish Values Education to Jewish Life” in Studies in Jewish Education, Vol. VI, edited by Asher Shekedi (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1992), p.49.
 S. Daniel Breslauer, Contemporary Jewish Ethics: A Bibliographical Survey, (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985) and Modern Jewish Ethics: A Bibliographical Survey (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986).
 Asher Shkedi, “Introduction: Jewish Values—An Educational Approach to the Jewish Sources,” in Studies in Jewish Educaiton, Vol. VI, p. 10.
 Michael Rosenak, Teaching Jewish Values: A Conceptual Guide, (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University, Melton Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, 1986).
 David Resnick, “From Ought to Is: On the Relationship of Jewish Values Education to Jewish Life”, in Studies in Jewish Education, pp.55-56.
 Rosenak, Teaching Jewish Values, pp. 75-76.
 Ibid., pp. 74-75.
1 The above three cases were adapted from Joan C. Callahan, Ethical Issues in Professional Life, (Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 3-4.
1 Thomas Ellis Katen, Doing Philosophy, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973), p. 224.
2 Ibid., p. 254.
3 Don Maciven and Margaret Norquay, “Making a Moral Choice: Discussion Guide”, (Toronto: Open College/Ryerson, 1985).
1 The last four examples were taken from John Hospers, Human Conduct: Problems of Ethics, Second Edition, (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1982), pp. 170-171.
2 Thomas Ellis Katen, Doing Philosophy, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973), p. 261.
1 See Menachem Kellner, “Jewish Ethics,” in A Companion to Ethics, ed. by Peter Singer, (Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1993).