Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz on avoiding harm

I am teaching Jewish ethics next semester and am now on the lookout for all things pertaining to the topic. So be prepared for some of the recent books on the topic to show up here- Elliott Dorff, Jonathan Sacks, Jill Jacobs and adaptations of Levinas. I am finding little meta-ethical discussion that has been written since the early 1980s. Everything has been denominational biased professional topics like medical “ethics”. There was no response to Rawls and Sandel the way there was a response to Kant, Gustafson, and Hare in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. So expect me to discuss, time permitting, some Hilary Putnam, Appiah, and Zygmunt Bauman.
In the mean time, here is another op-ed by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz. This time he has a nice use of WD Ross on pluralistic deontology (Wurzburger would be proud) and a nice understanding of rule deontology, which make a nice rubric for dealing with Rabbinic ethics. I wish the article had been titled Jewish ethics and not Jewish law because the supply side and libertarian readings of halakhah are not rule-deontology. The op-ed gets in a nice swipe at ascribing teleology to situations that call for responsibility and there is a virtue ethic yearning for articulation between the lines of the op-ed. Thoughts? more successful than last week? And interconnectedness of all beings is a different line of thought than deontology-are they able to be combined?

The BP Oil Spill, Personal Responsibility and Jewish Law
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

The Jewish concept relating to a case of mass public damage is “harkhakat nezikin” – the requirement that one not partake in any activities that might cause damage to other people or their property. A primary argument that emerges from the halakhic commentators (Shulkhan Arukh 155:33) is whether one is culpable when he or she indirectly causes a single accident (gerama) after following the correct safety procedures in the same way that one who continuously causes direct damage is liable.

Religion, at its worst, can be used to eliminate human agency and responsibility. Texas Governor Rick Perry invoked a morally deficient appeal to religious language last month when he called the Gulf oil spill “an act of G-d.” While we can debate G-d’s presence in the world, we need not debate the issue of human responsibility and culpability.

A primary charge of the Jewish social justice tradition is the demand that we learn both how to limit our damage and how to hold ourselves and others who cause damage accountable. Religious life, lived at its best, shapes a discourse of public responsibility and calls on us to pay close attention to public policy as well as our everyday spills.

Prior to our question of maximizing the good, we must be concerned with avoiding harm. “Sur mei’rah v’aseh tov” – the Jewish antidote is to turn from evil and then do good. This is what the philosopher W.D. Ross in his “pluralistic deontology” calls a “duty of beneficence” (to help others) and a “duty of non-maleficence” (to avoid harming others). These duties to prevent indirect damage are also present in everyday activities that we might not contextualize as being moral issues.

The Talmud (Shabbat 54b) teaches that anyone who can protest a wrong in one’s home, one’s city, or in the world and does not do so is held accountable for that wrong as well.

Full version Here.

One response to “Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz on avoiding harm

  1. It’s not really surprising that metaethics is being ignored. First, modern metaethics has insisted by and large that it is neutral regarding normative ethics. Second, as it has become increasingly technical in its analytic varieties, with a lot of filling in the gaps between stark raving realism and stark raving skepticism.

    I actually wish that given the title and topic Rabbi Yanklowitz had focused a bit more on Jewish law. Instead he makes a move from strict legal liability to a broad consequentialist view of moral responsibility.

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