Talmudic Moral Motivation

There is a story in the Talmud aimed to explain why God gave the Torah to the Jewish people and not some other people. God offers the Torah to a few nations, who ask about its contents and have quibbles with some of them. To make a long story short, when the Jews are offered the Torah, they accept it without asking what’s in it.

“Anything the Lord says”, they exclaim, “we will do and hear!” – first “do” and then “hear”, suggesting that if it were possible to obey His commands first and hear their content second, they would have done so. 

Lately I have been wondering whether it is possible to be motivated by morality independently of some idea, good or bad, as to “what’s in it”. Is it possible to love, fear, care about, be loyal to, be in awe of or be compelled by morality in a way that is utterly independent of any idea as to what it requires? You might admire such motivation or you might disdainfully call it “moral fetishism”, but does it exist?

It seems to me that by the time a child is old enough to use the word “moral”, she already has some ideas about what morality might require – even if they are bad, vague, or disjunctive ideas. A child is not handed a moral theory by which to test any action she considers or observes, nor lists of good and bad actions in which she can look up every action she considers or observes. Through years of being told things like “don’t do this, it hurts the cat!” or “don’t  talk to her like that, she’s your sister!” her brain does its best to connect the dots, generalize, remember paradigm cases, in short – figure out rightness and goodness the way it figures out other things, sometimes reaching interim conclusions like those of Margaret Laurence’s child narrator as she contemplates her grandfather:

He was widely acknowledged as an upright man. It would have been a disgrace if he had been known by the opposite word, which was “downright.” A few of my friends had downright grandfathers. They were a deep mortification to their families, these untidy old men who sat on the Bank of Montreal steps in the summertime and spat amber tobacco jets onto the dusty sidewalk. They were described as “downright worthless” or “downright lazy,” these two terms being synonymous.

Moral concepts like “upright” are not first learned, then applied, but learned, like other concepts, through a careful attention to what and whom adults apply them to, and soon you think of morality as that which goes well with some things (like hard work) and not some others (like hurting the cat), and your relationship to it is “flavored” by these impressions.

Let’s take flavorless moral motivation to be motivation by morality that is independent of any beliefs, true or false, the motivated agent has about what morality requires. Is there flavorless moral motivation? The question becomes clearer once we see its relevance to normative issues surrounding moral ignorance. Imagine a person, Helmut, who is a faithful Nazi, or, if that’s boring, a similar ideologue who thinks that morality requires that he kill people of certain ethnic origins, and who is loyal to his perceived duty. His false moral beliefs are honest – they are not just convenient self-deception or hate-filled motivated irrationality. Is he bad, and blameworthy for his murderous actions? Is he good but tragically misguided, exempt from blame? Something more complicated? The answer depends partially on whether his moral motivation is flavorless. This is, basically, how:

One common way to look at Helmut is to divide his motivation into two parts: there is devotion to morality, a devotion that is flavorless, and then there is a false belief, or a set of false beliefs, about what morality requires. The flavorless moral motivation, we say, is in itself a good thing. The false beliefs might be fully excusing, with Helmut being a good person misguided, or, alternately, we might hold that they are not excusing, perhaps because Helmut’s indifference to the suffering of his victims is so damning that even his flavorless moral motivation doesn’t cancel it out, but one way or another, Helmut’s (flavorless) good will shines like a jewel and you can’t take that part – even if it’s a small part – away from him.

A second common way to look at Helmut is to see his motivation as of one piece. It is not that he is first devoted to morality, then also has false beliefs about it. He is devoted to morality-given-a-certain-set-of-false-beliefs about it. Since morality given his beliefs is a pretty ghastly thing, we must not be impressed by his finding it compelling, any more than I am impressed that you respect my friend if I know that you take her to be a serial killer. If morality ordered people to kill Jews or blacks, it would not deserve respect, and so the respect it gets from Helmut is not in any way jewel-like.

If the second way looks counter-intuitive to you, consider how we treat the news that someone is opposed to morality. Suppose I don’t know anything about Nietzsche’s work but hear that he was a German 19 century philosopher who rejected morality. Before I decide if he is, well, the antichrist, the first question in my mind is what he believed morality requires. Depending on the answers I imagine, I might think of him as a psychopath of sorts – how can anyone else oppose kindness and justice? – or, on the other extreme, as a cool guy who detested some type of suffocating social norms endemic to middle class 19th century Germany and was a bit too dramatic on the subject. In other words, before I make a judgment, I want to know what he objected to. Similarly, if I hear someone respects morality, then before I make a judgement, I want to see what he respects.

Is Helmut any better than a murderer who acts for money or some other motive that isn’t believing that his actions would be right? If he has no flavorless moral motivation then he isn’t, because then there’s no place to locate his excuse, if such there be, or the silver lining around his bad character, if such there be. I am not going to say that there is no such thing as flavorless moral motivation: there probably is, and I’ll have to talk another day as to whether it’s any good. I will say, however, that a person whose devotion to morality is entirely flavorless would be quite rare, as one’s very concept of morality is usually flavored – intertwined with assumptions as to what morality says.

It is not rare to profess that one is willing to follow morality wherever it may take one, to do the right thing whatever it turns out to be. Normally, however, people who say that have a narrower idea than they think they do of where morality might take them and what the right thing might be. Imagine a youngster maintains that Sartre is a true moral expert and asks him for the right thing to do. As per the famous tale, he is ready for the answer “stay home with your mother” and also for the answer “go fight for your country”: he might honestly feel that he does not know which of these incompatible actions is the right one and he needs a moral expert to tell him. He would do, he thinks, whatever the expert says. But imagine that Sartre answers his question with “actually, you should support the Nazis” or “you need to do whatever maximizes the beauty of ducks and worry about nothing else”. It seems likely that he would then become disappointed and decide that Sartre is not a moral expert after all, or that he lost his powers.

Alternately, imagine a very different person declaring that he would do whatever Donald Trump says is right. How likely is this person to follow through if, shortly afterwards, Trump begins to advocate feminism or reparations? Similar things go for a person who swears that God is good and she would do whatever God says. This person is unlikely to change her mind about, say, gay people simply because her preacher suddenly started talking diversity (something happened to him!) or even simply due to hearing a voice from the sky thundering “I am your Lord and I approve of gay people” (the devil is tempting her, masquerading as God, or maybe she needs a medication). Even if, instead of deferring to some fellow human or to God, you treat your own reasoning as an authority as to the right thing to do, you would be bound, by reasons of reflective equilibrium, to tear up your notes and start from scratch if you see yourself nearing the conclusion that we must maximize the beauty of ducks.

Who is the person of truly flavorless devotion to morality? Perhaps Abraham, imagined as suddenly ready to kill his beloved son at the drop of a command from a God he considers good, is an example. Religious people I know, had I dared to ask them what they would have done if God asked them to kill their child, would have answered me promptly: God would never ask me to do any such thing. Most people have a question or two about morality that they would answer in a similar way, “morality would never ask me to do any such thing”, making suspicious any claim they might present to having accepted their Torah without at least a sneak peek at its contents.