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Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself (review)

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 63, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 112-114 | 10.1353/coj.2012.0034

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According to the noted academic “practitioner of Jewish philosophy” Lenn E. Goodman,1 the first step of a modern Jewish philosophy should be to identify the correct theory as a matter of general philosophy; and then, at the second step, the “practitioner” should show that that correct theory is “not alien to or incongruent with” traditional Jewish texts (p. ix, cf. also p. 188, n. 63).2

Given this agenda, Goodman apparently views this book—in which he advocates a type of “virtue ethics” with a theistic twist—as accomplishing this mission in respect of Jewish ethics. His execution of his agenda seems, however, problematic, on a number of levels:

  1. a.    One well-known weakness of virtue-ethics theories is an inability to translate their general focus—on the development within an individual of a right sort of character—into meaningful counsel to a person actually facing a particular difficult moral problem. (See, e.g., chapter 2 of K.A. Appiah’s recent book, skewering virtue-ethics theories on this and related points.3) For example, in trying to care for an elderly parent suffering from Alzheimer’s, I understand when a Kantian (or deontologist) says that there are obligations that the family and doctor must respect, and rules they must follow, such as “deliberately acting for the sole purpose of hastening death is wrong.” I also understand when a consequentialist (e.g., a utilitarian) says that my decision should be based on weighing all the consequences in terms of benefits versus pain and other costs to the elderly person and to his or her caregivers and loved ones (and indeed to the health care system as a whole).

    I do not understand, however, how it helps for Goodman to tell me that the fundamental moral command is “to find worth in our own interests, goals we cherish, values that build our personhood and give content to our claims of liberty [while] urg[ing] us to see and act on the recognition that others too have goals, needs, hopes, fears that matter not just to them but objectively in the same ways ours do” (p. 14; see also pp. 61, 129). Yet Goodman does not address this failing, nor any of the other familiar weaknesses, of virtue ethics; nor does he cite to the secondary literature examining these problems (cf. Appiah).

  2. b.    Goodman’s theistic “twist” is a dialectical reasoning process he calls “chimneying”—by analogy to how a rock-climber ascends. According to Goodman, since God is “All-perfect” and the “Source of all good,” we can gain in our understanding of ḥesed and virtuous character by contemplating God; which then will help us better to understand divine goodness and perfection; which will in turn further improve our understanding of ḥesed and virtuous character; etc. (pp. 36–37, 93).

    But, first: even Goodman recognizes an apparent circularity here in that, according to Goodman, “[t]he idea of God . . . must [first] be disciplined . . . by our moral insights.” Goodman asserts that we can break the circle by considering the goodness of all of “nature itself.” But that recommendation seems, at a minimum, too vast to be meaningful (see pp. 36, 45, and 92–94).

    Second, Goodman assumes a very medieval picture of God, and rejects the possibility that Jewish texts can teach anything else, stating: “Let’s lay our cards on the table. I don’t think, and the Jewish tradition does not think, that God left nature so radically deficient that only magically or mythically can its wounds be stanched and healed. Our trust in God’s unity, creation, rule, and justice reflects and reinforces our shared confidence that tragedy is not inevitable, that one good need not undermine another, that the good life is possible” (p. 104).

    But Jon Levenson, by contrast, has taught, in Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence,4 how the theology of Genesis, various prophets, and many of the psalms imagines that creation is not complete, that evil has not been overcome, and that somehow our actions are relevant to rouse God and help God get back in the fight. See also Michael Fishbane’s analysis of the rabbinic...

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