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Our Messy Ethical Lives

July 24, 2022 | by Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens

There are some scenarios in life when no matter what you choose, it's gonna get ugly.

Sometimes it can feel as if you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't. The famous French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, agreed. There are some situations, he thought, in which one simply cannot do the right thing.

He had a student during the Second World War whose older brother had been killed in the German invasion of France. His mother was living a miserable life. Her husband was inclined to become a Nazi collaborator, and she felt deeply betrayed by this treason. Sartre's student – her only remaining child – was her one consolation in life. He was faced with the choice of going to England to join the Free French Forces and join the fight against Nazism or staying with his mother and helping her live.

In Sartre's view, there wasn't a perfect choice in this instance. His student would either betray his mother or his nation.

There wasn't a perfect choice: His student would either betray his mother or his nation.

Immanuel Kant would disagree with Sartre. There's always an answer to any ethical dilemma. An ethical theory should operate with all of the clarity and precision of a mathematical theory. If the theory seems to generate contradictions or conflict, then the fault lies with us, and we have to fix the theory or fix our mistake in applying the theory.

The ethical life, when properly understood, is not messy at all; it's pristine.

The Jewish Position

One might be tempted to think that a Jewish ethic will side with Kant over Sartre. Jewish law suggests to us what to do in any given situation. Even when the law seems to be making conflicting demands of us, there's always a solution. For instance:

  • The duty to save a life overrides any other law in the Torah, with three exceptions:
    • you cannot murder an innocent bystander
    • worship an idol, or
    • Engage in certain forbidden sexual acts to save a life.
  • When there's a conflict between complying with a positive commandment and obeying a negative commandment, the positive commandment overrides the negative one.
  • When there's a conflict between complying with a positive public commandment and a positive private one, the public one overrides the private one.

The job of the Rabbis is to apply Jewish law to new situations or to account for new technology. But if there's ever a doubt about how the law should be applied, the fault lies with us, not the law.

Having said all of that, there's a famous story in the Book of Genesis with which we must contend. The patriarch Jacob is coming home after many years. He's told that his brother Esau is approaching with a large military force. The last thing Jacob knew about his brother was that Esau wanted to kill him.

You can imagine how Jacob must have felt. The text tells us that he was "greatly afraid and distressed." That's understandable. But the Torah is typically economical with its adjectives. Why are we told that he was afraid and distressed when the meaning of the two words is pretty close? Either word would have been enough to give us the general idea.

Rabbi Yehuda, the son of Ilai, asks just this question in the Midrash (homiletic works that complement and fill out the Torah's narrative). This is his answer:

[Jacob] was afraid that he would be killed and distressed that he may have to kill. He said, "if [Esau] gets the better of me, he will kill me, and, if I get the better of him, then I will kill him." And thus, he was afraid that he would be killed and distressed that he may have to kill.

But hold on. If Jacob had killed Esau to save his own life (or the lives of others), he would have fulfilled a religious obligation. You are commanded to defend your life and the lives of others, even if you have to use lethal force to neutralize the threat. It's a positive commandment to act that way.

But that's the point. Not every religious obligation is one that you should enjoy. Jacob knows that he'll act as he has to, even if it means killing in self-defense, but the prospect of such an action nevertheless distresses him.

The truth, it seems, lies somewhere between Sartre and Kant. Life is messy. Even if you always do the very best that you can do, it seems that it isn't always possible to live your life and make the tough decisions without sometimes getting your hands dirty.

If ethical theory demands that you reveal a secret and therefore betray somebody's trust in a particular situation, then you shouldn't feel guilty since you did nothing wrong. Perhaps the ethical law allowed you to make the promise when you made it. Still, because of extraordinary circumstances, the ethical law later demanded that you break the promise (to save a person's life, for example). If that's the case, then you did nothing wrong, and guilt would be irrational.

Living a moral life in this world of imperfection requires a willingness to get your hands dirty.

And yet, as the philosopher Philipa Foot points out, breaking a promise, or missing an appointment, even if you only did it to save a person's life, might still leave you feeling tainted. The taint is felt because you refrained from doing something good, albeit because you were obliged to do something better, or you were obliged to do something ugly to prevent yourself from doing something worse.

The taint isn't the taint of guilt, but it is a taint nevertheless. And so, even if there aren't ethical dilemmas, doing the right thing can sometimes be ugly.

That, I take it, was Rabbi Yehuda's point. At this stage in his life, Jacob understood the damage that doing the right thing can do. It distressed him. But it didn't paralyze him.

Sartre was wrong. There are always right answers as to how you should act. But living a moral life in this world of imperfection requires a willingness to get your hands dirty.

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