Monday, July 27, 2009

Challenging Assumptions: Am I an Altruist?

This is the fourth post of my dialogue with C. August of Titanic Deck Chairs. In the last post, I discussed his question of whether I am an atheist. My answer in Challenging Assumptions: Am I an Atheist is that I do not identify myself as such, but I know that normative Christians would likely consider my naturalistic concept of G-d atheistic. the first and second posts can be followed by clicking the links.

In the same comment, C. August asks:

"Your definition of "what is the good?" is, as you know, very close to the Objectivist formulation. You said:This, then, is how I determine what is good. That which promotes life and those means by which a person can protect, preserve and enhance his or her life.

To put it bluntly, do you reject the self-sacrifice of altruism? Much like the Founders held a self-interested view implicitly, yet explicitly advocated Christian altruism, it is quite common for people to have mixed premises here. Or is your ethical view as consistently rationally selfish as what your statements seem to suggest?"

This is an interesting question indeed, because of the clear differences between Christian theology, which requires the willing human sacrifice of Jesus as expiation for the sins of humanity, and Judaism which derived from the Israelite religion which had long before rejected human sacrifice, and enshrined it in the story of Abraham and his son Isaac. Some Midrashim suggest that Abraham attempted the sacrifice because the people of the land were sacrificing their first born sons to the fire god, Malach, and Abraham wanted to follow suit. Their explanation is backed up by the fact that Abraham's G-d had to send a messenger to stop Abraham just before he murdered his son. Other Midrashim posit that it was Sarah who put a stop to the murderous deed. All the Midrash fix this story as the point where the Israelites stopped practicing the abomination of human sacrifice. The point is that by the time of the advent of Judaism, there was no human sacrifice, whereas Christianity enshrined this one exception for the purpose of redemption.

Jewish ethics do not require a Jews to give their lives for the sake of another. To illustrate the issue, in the Talmud, the rabbis resort to a lifeboat scenario. Two men are lost in the desert and one has enough water to save his own life or the save the life of the other, but there is not enough water to save both lives. Is he then required to give his water to the other and die? Or to share the water so that both die? The Rabbis say no, that the law allows him to keep his water for himself and save his own life, although they acknowledge the emotionally difficult nature of such a choice.

In Halachah, each life is equally valuable, and no innocent life is no more valuable than another. Thus, for example, a Jew may not deliberately kill another innocent person to save his own life. However, because each person's life is his own greatest value, a Jew may lawfully kill a rodef--a pursuer--who threatens her life. The Rabbinic concept is that of equivalent force, that it is permissible to use an equal amount of force against the rodef as is being threatened. The judgment of the person in harm's way is generally accepted as sufficient to the situation, since the rodef is guilty of the initiation of force. This is why abortion is allowed in certain situations according to Jewish law where it is never allowed in much of Christian tradition. The pregnant woman's assessment of the magnitude of the threat of death or great bodily harm to herself is accepted because she is the innocent person who is at risk.

So this takes care of the life and death issues. Jewish law does not require self-sacrifice unto death, and indeed, in most cases does not permit it.

However, Jewish law does require charitable giving to the poor of the community. To what extent, then is such giving required? The rabbis--contrary to certain Jewish sects--set a maximum of the tithe, or ten percent. The reason for the requirement of tzedakah is to promote a lawful and orderly community in order that no one is reduced begging in the streets nor dying miserably there. It was considered a shonde fur de goyim--a shame in front of the gentiles--for Jews to turn their backs on other Jews. The requirement of tzedakah became especially necessary in Christian Europe, where Jews were isolated in ghettos and were not citizens of places in which they lived. They could expect no help from the outside. Therefore, Jews are still well known for the amount of money they voluntarily give to other Jews in need, whether they are next door or half-way across the world. The reason for the maximum of the tithe is that by Jewish law, there is no virtue in impoverishing oneself and one's family in order to help the poor. If everyone did this, the entire ghetto would languish into poverty. This would be considered altruism by most dictionary definitions, but I do not believe that the Jewish sense of obligation to other Jews is self-sacrificial. Ultimately, it is self-interested. No Jew wanted the Gentile police or army to march into the ghetto because they could could not care for their own. That way would be certain destruction.

There is another piece of Jewish law here, that demonstrates my point. Jews are required to ransom captives--specifically other Jews according to the plain meaning of the law. But in Christian Europe, the nobles of the cities quickly got to the business of enriching themselves by capturing Jews whose business was in the wider world and holding them for exorbitant ransoms, such that paying them continually would impoverish and destroy the entire community. Therefore the medieval rabbis made a tikkun--a precendent--that Jews were not required to destitute themselves to ransom other Jews. Again, such a decision not to ransom would be a difficult one for Jews to make as we regard ourselves as family.

Personally, and in accordance with Jewish sensibilities, I regard my life as equally valuable as that of any other person of goodwill. I do not regard myself as anybody's sacrificial lamb and I do not believe that it is prudent to impoverish myself at the expense of others. I do not believe that it is my duty to live for others, and in fact I tend to believe that those who regard it as virtue to live for others are really out to control them. (You know the line: She lives for others, you can tell which others by their hunted expressions).

Nevertheless, my husband and I do give a reasonable amount of money to charitable causes of our own choice. We do see it as a virtue to build up our community, and we give a significant amount of time volunteering to tutor math and reading, to sit on our water coop board, and other such activities. We live here after all and we want it to be a good place for ourselves and our children to continue to live. And of course we provide significant support to our synagogue and to other Jewish causes that we deem worthy. I think the key here is that these are voluntary choices from which we see benefit to our own lives in one way or another.I believe that those who say that they receive no benefit from their charitable activities are liars or fools.

From the perspective of our evolution, human beings are quite vulnerable alone in the evolutionary environment of adaptation. They had to find ways to cooperate together to survive and to raise children. And when agriculture and cities came to be, that cooperation allowed specialization and the development of marvelous technologies that bettered each individual life. Thus there is a natural pleasure that we derive from working together to accomplish certain of our individual goals. However, to turn that voluntary association for mutual benefit into the idea that one person's life belongs to another (slavery), or that everyone's life belongs to some imaginary whole (such as the state) is a perversion of that natural desire for voluntary cooperation, and is therefore contrary to life and thus, it is evil.
For charity or cooperation to achieve a goal to have any moral meaning requires voluntary choice, just as does trade or any other economic activity.

To sum it all up then, I do not accept the concept of altruism as you define it, that a person is required to sacrifice his own interests to those of others. That is slavery. To accept this, I would then be unable to say that a person's life is his own, and that life is the highest value.

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