Why does philosophy matter to the everyday humanist Jew?

A conversation today has me thinking a bit about why philosophy matters. It doesn’t just matter to humanist Jews, though that’s where I’m situated and it gives me a lever into what I hope to say.

Humanism has, as an underlying principle, the notion that humans bear both responsibility and authority for determining right and wrong action. This means that, however universal the ethical claims one might make, for humanists those claims draw their authority from their makers and the acceptance and acceptability of the ethical claims to the broader community.

Philosophy matters because some philosophies are compatible with this principle, and some are not. There are philosophies that would locate ethics entirely outside of the realm of human creation–dualist systems, for example. Some of these systems would remove any sense of the role of situation in affecting or moderating what ethics demands upon us as persons–that is, they would remove contingency from ethics. Much as we might deride “situational” ethics, what ethics demands of us–that is, what we as a community would say is ethical conduct–is contingent upon the specific situation before each individual.

Even if you don’t “do philosophy,” this matters because it affects how your community views your ethical obligations. The more out-of-human-hands ethics are thought to be–that is, the more a group regards ethics as “fixed in stone”–the less capable ethics may be of addressing new situations, and the less value is placed upon the individual as free to determine their own ethical values. While we may talk about the independence and freedom of individuals as ethical agents, it’s a different freedom to be told that your choice is to do what is right or wrong based upon a set of standards to which one has and can have no input.

Put another way: you are free when you’re given credit for the ability to decide to take an already-prescribed course of action that has been deemed correct externally, but you are a lot more free when you are also given credit for the ability to reason out what is the correct action.

Why does this matter for Jews? Judaism walks an interesting line on the human control of ethics. We are told in Deuteronomy that the Torah is not in heaven, that is, it is not beyond human understanding; yet at the same time, Torah is certainly exhibit one in the history of Western monotheist divine command ethical theory. And the rabbinical encounter with Torah reads and re-reads the text, and admits that its results are novations.

For humanist Jews, the insistence that the written Torah and the oral law as we have received them today are divine commands run counter to what we see in the history of the development of these texts. It also strips both us and our predecessor generations of the greater ethical free agency that allows us to reason our way to what the correct ethical result is, even as the world around us changes.

Why does philosophy matter? Because it’s your responsibility as an ethical agent–as an individual who can think–to determine how free you want to be, and what community will allow you to apply and enjoy that freedom.

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