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32 SHOFAR THE PLACE OF ETHICS IN MEDIEVAL JEWISH PHILOSOPHYTHE CASE OF SAADIA GAON1 Menachem Kellner Menahem Marc Kellner is a professor at Haifa University. He is the author of a number of significant studies on medieval Jewish philosophy, especially on Maimonides and Gersonides. Editor of Contemporary Jewish Ethics, he is author of Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, and most recently ofMaimonides on Human Perfection. This study examines the place of ethics as a distinct discipline in medieval Jewish philosophy, using as an example the case of Saadia Gaon. Before I turn to the question itself, however, a considerable amount of preliminary discussion is necessary. This involves the definition of ethics as a philosophic discipline, as well as the question of the relation between ethics and religion in general and between ethics and Judaism in particular. This last, of course, raises the question of the relation between ethics and halakhah. In these areas I do not plan to settle any issues, only to raise them in order to explicate the problematic of Jewish ethics which forms the background against which medieval discussions must be seen. These matters having been described, it then makes sense to sketch in the historical background, touching briefly on the place of ethics in Bible and Talmud, the periodization of the discussion of ethics in Judaism, and, finally, the various approaches to ethics which we find in the medieval period. These matters will take up the first part of this essay. In the second part of this study I will examine the way in which ethics as a distinct discipline was dealt with by Saadia Gaon, the first of the medieval Jewish philosophers. What, then, is ethics? The Encyclopedia of Philosophy distinguishes among three different but related uses of the term: "Ethics" may signify "(1) a general pattern or 'way of life,' (2) a set of rules of conduct or 'moral code,' 1This essay originally appeared in ed. B. L. Sherwin, The Solomon Goldman LectLUes, Volume Five (Chicago: Spertus College of Judaica Press, 1990) and is reprinted with permission. Volume 9, No.1 Fall1990 33 and (3) inquiry about ways of life and rules of conduct.,,2 The first two of these uses must be distinguished from the third. The first two relate to actual moral behavior, and it is customary to distinguish between two types of discussion concerning actual moral behavior: accounts of moral behavior (called "descriptive ethics") and prescriptive statements about how we ought actually to behave ("normative ethics"). The third use is more properly philosophical (or so, at least, it is taken to be by most academic philosophers ) and seeks, not to make moral judgments, but to analyze them. This form of inquiry is often called "meta-ethics." It will be noted that in the preceding paragraph I have distinguished different uses of the term "ethics" but have not yet answered the question posed at the beginning of the paragraph, "What, then, is ethics?" All I have done so far is to define "ethics" in terms of moral behavior or discussions concerning moral behavior. But what is moral behavior? Questions of ethics and morality are, in the first place, questions of value. Within the realm of evaluative issues the domain of ethics is determined by the particular values it seeks to describe, inculcate, or analyze. These values are generally conceded to be good and evil, right and wrong. What sorts of things can be good and evil, right and wrong? One obvious candidate is works of art. After all, we often speak of good paintings and bad poetry. But there is the rub; "bad poetry," yes, but not "evil poetry." Evaluations of works of art, then, aesthetic judgments, are surely evaluations and share that characteristic with ethical evaluations but are withal distinct from them. This should further help to narrow down the domain of ethics. There seem to be two sorts of things which we evaluate when engaged in ethical (not meta-ethical) evaluation: human behavior and human character. Most ethicists relate the two (Kant is an important exception) and emphasize the former over the latter. Not all human behavior falls under the domain of ethicsj if it did, psychologists, anthropologists, etc. would...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 32-47
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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