Terror, Religion, and Liberal Thought- Richard Miller Part I

In the winter, we were discussing Rawls and the need for rational universals. Here is the major post on the topic. Back on January 31, I posted:

To continue the discussion of Rawls and the creation of a fair Judaism that does not deny the humanity of others, I will do some posts on Richard B. Miller, Terror, Religion, and Liberal Thought (Columbia UP 2010). So AS and EJ you can have a chance to read it before I post.

Now, I am finally getting to it. I hope they had a chance to read it. For advanced warning, I will be discussing later this summer Oliver Roy, Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways

Miller’s agenda is how not to get caught up in multicultural relativism even as we argue for respect for relgions. How can we give room for religious beliefs and not justify killing, lying or stealing as condoned by a certain interpretation of religious law.

This topic is also important for all the events making the newspapers in our community. How should we tell someone in our community that theft from gentiles or cheating to make a living is inappropriate when there are minority voices allowing it. Or how to reject statements about not selling apartments to gentiles in Israel . Doesn’t multiculturalism mean that I cannot critique their religious view?

I am not interested in the gossip and scandal elements of the crimes and inappropriate statements. I am not looking for the hock or to necessarily criticize anyone.

I am interested in how to set up the ethical equation. My question is: How do we express an ethical position without having to give into the rampant religious relativism by those most religious? If someone says that a position that involves stealing or killing is the true halakhah, then how can we answer their claim that there is no outside vantage point to judge? Can we formulate halakhic responses to positions that have a moral force?

Miller’s basic answer is that there must always be a fundamental intuitionism as the core of any religious position. One must have a fundamental acceptance of “Do not kill” and “do not steal” as an intuition or natural starting point. What Saadiah called the rational laws (mizvot sikhliot). If one accepts do not steal as an axiom then no amount of casuistry can overturn it. What Rav Kook called natural morality. Or as Rav Aharon has said repeatedly: “Gezel hagoy (stealing from gentles) should not come down to two opinions in tosfot.” There needs to be a fundamental universal of “Do not steal” as a norm within the system. It takes Miller until chapter three to get to this point. So hold off questions. I am only presenting here the first chapter and parts of the second.

The seven chapters of the book deal with why that fundamental intuition is necessary and sufficient. And in the last four chapters he explains why we do not need all the big guns and many premises and expectations of Rawls, Rorty, Macintyre, Habermas, Taylor and Waltzer.
This will take about three posts to finish, so be patient.

Chapter One – Indignation
The first chapter expresses the problem of multicultural relativism as a culture of excuse and apology. This approach to culture will not defeat the evil or offer moral standards . (Michael Waltzer) There is a need for feeling of indignation when injustice occurs.

If we value human dignity and respect, if we want a society of justice and equality then how do we affirm it against multicultural pluralism?

Miller’s first point is that we have to take extreme statements seriously. They become part of our culture and poison the atmosphere. If Bin Laden and his followers are in favor of murder then we have to take it seriously. What we should not do is say that Bin Laden is not really Islamic, so we don’t have to take it seriously. We should not create false liberal images of Islam or Judaism and then tell people to disregard the extremes, the unethical, and immoral. People follow these extreme positions even if they are not the best textual reading.

On the other hand, we should also not create a firewall between faith and ethics. We should not say whatever religion says is good and that universal ethics like stealing and killing have no place in the discussion. We cannot tell someone to listen faithfully to the shaariah or halakhah and ignore the moral imperatives.

We should not say that stealing and embezzlement is OK because a specific posak said it was OK.

We can acknowledge that Islam and Judaism have civil, economic, and political aspects and we should follow the arbitration and judgment of those systems but when is a position just plain aggressive or immoral?
Miller feels that we are stuck between the rock and hard place of offering a favorable judgment on demand to every religious group based on multicultural tolerance and the liberal ethnocentrism of not allowing religion into the discussion.

Miller ends the chapter by asking: What does it mean to respect others and to offer a universal baseline ethic? We need both the acceptance of religious systems and offering them the benefit of the doubt as well as a baseline ethic.

Chapter 2 – Contextualization
In the second chapter Miller is bothered by how contextualizion is used to justify any moral wrong found in a system. If one goes back to any religious text, one can offer legal, historical, economic, and social explanations for what that immoral sentence was written but it is still on the books. You can justify killing heretics or stealing from gentiles based on a variety of contextualizations but if you then bring up the immoral law with a justification for it in conversation it is relativist or if you justify it for other people it is relativist.

(1) The first form of contextualization that Miller finds fault with is the use of historical arguments based on legal and doctrinal precedents to reject the immoral opinion.
For example, a historical approach to the law can claim that Bin laden is not Islamic based on prior sources. He made up new fatwa and makes assumptions not found in earlier sources. So he is not Islamic. Or you can declare the immoral approaches to halakhah as not really Jewish and not really halakhic.

But Miller cries out in his exasperation that telling me that Bin laden is a misuse of Muslim tradition does not deal with moral indignation and resentment of those who suffered an injustice.

Yes we now know from this act of contextualization that extremists have a narrow view of the tradition and ignore the richness of the tradition. But it makes the extremists guilty of reductionism of tradition rather than a moral crime.
Miller puts his finger directly on the problem. When Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s Responded to the Letter Banning Sale of Homes to Gentiles, he writes

This pain stems from the shortcomings that the document manifests in precisely those areas that should have been its strong point. The document speaks in the name Halakha, and its signatories see themselves as its envoys and propagators.

But therein lies the problem; the prohibition of selling homes to gentiles is presented as the exclusive halakhic position in the manner at hand, and the voice that bursts forth from the throats of the signatories is made to sound like the single unequivocal word of God, that is, halakha. Here one asks, is that indeed so? Without a doubt, the position expressed in the letter is based on rabbinic sources and a long halakhic tradition. Yet taken as a whole, the document leaves one with the impression that its conclusions are based on presumptions that characterize a particular—but not exclusive—halakhic approach.

Miller thinks that Rav Aharon should not turn this into a problem of reductionism of tradition but he should directly invoke the ethical principles. There needs to indignation not just regret. Rav Aharon ended his letter “I conclude with what should be self-evident. At stake are key questions that involve meta-halakhic considerations.” Miller thinks the self-evident should be front and center. (Dont take as a critique of Rav Aharon in any way, rather take this as an example of Miller knowing how these protests sound and wanting the rhetoric to be more direct.)

Why does Miller think this?
First, because laments of reductionism of tradition are not indignation.
Second, it does not place the rejected opinion as off limits. It is not strict and does not offer sufficient limits.
Third, it is much too vague about the moral judgment at core.

2] The second form of misplaced contextualization are economic arguments in which the offending opinion is considered as due to economics and material concerns. They are only doing it out of desperation or need, or social hopelessness, or it was the way they acted in the old country, or they don’t recognize America is a different country.

Miller does not like placing economics over faith especially when they themselves are claiming that their decisions are direct due to religion. Miller also finds that many amoral religious do not have any social or economic desperation. Many of the criminal Jews are already wealthy. Economic accounts do not take them at their word.

To be continued in at least two more parts. Help me think this one through. Is he setting up the problem correctly? I will edit this first part as I gain clarity. Could Rav Aharon have directly and head-on dealt with the ethical and meta-halakhic issues? How is this multicultural relativism moving to occupy a default position within Orthodoxy?

After the three parts, we can go back to the classic essays like “Is there an Ethic Outside of Halakha? to see if we have gained any clarity against 21st century multiculturalism.

4 responses to “Terror, Religion, and Liberal Thought- Richard Miller Part I

  1. Let me try an interpretation of what I understand him to be saying, based on your presentation.

    Miller is calling for the problems of religion to be responded to by making ethics primary and other concerns secondary. (One can hear the argument: Isn’t it unethical to make ethics a secondary consideration? Hence, this approach.)

    Defending religion against bin Laden by arguing that bin Laden isn’t truly religious fails to reflect proper emotional ethical response to bin Laden. (It’s also an example of the True Scotsman fallacy.)

    Chapter two is much more problematic from a Jewish perspective, because it insists the argument be carried out on the basis of ethics. We do not kill Amelekite babies because it is wrong to do so, not because of incidental problems of identifying them. This is problematic for traditional Judaism because the Talmud assiduously avoids ethically rejecting immoral Biblical precepts, even as it overturns them. Rav Aharon is being Talmudic in his rejection of the Jim Crow rabbis of Tzfat. Miller seems to be arguing that there is an ethical obligation to speak out for ethics, and bring ethics into the discourse, even if it has not previously been there.

    The problem with this is does one’s ethics apply to one’s language, or to the effect of one’s language? Should Rav Lichestein use language designed to appeal to the amoral Orthodox middle, rather than ethical language that is in fact a red flag of treif to much of the community? Can one separate one’s ethical obligations from their consequences?

  2. Not primary and secondary or ethics and law, rather a fundamental ethical intuition as natural law, or mizvot shikliot, or mussar tivi or derekh hashechel of Saadayah, Rabbis Hirsch, Kook, and Hertz, or rambam. One cannot enter into a closed scriptural universe without the universal ethical. Miller wants to keep the legal and religious discussion from losing its bearing, he wants us to still be able to judge if they have lost their bearing, and he wants to locate where it loses its bearing. Midrashim that paint Edom or Moav as ethically depraved dont speak with a multicultural voice and say that in their culture murder is accepted so we have to accept it. Miller wants a universal moment.
    He also puts his finger on the exact moments when we lose the moral train of thought and start condemning the other side for reduction of the tradition.

    Maimonides codified the laws of slavery and stated that the law allows x, y,z- nevertheless he ended the section by stating there there are also moral universals of the “ways of the pious” and the “ways of the wise.”
    “The way of the pious and the ways of the wise is to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to overburden or oppress a slave, and to provide them from every dish and every drink. The early sages would give their slaves from every dish on their table. They would feed their servants before sitting to their own meals… Slaves may not be maltreated of offended – the law destined them for service, not for humiliation. Do not shout at them or be angry with them, but hear them out.”

  3. I paged through the Miller book per your recommendation, and not finding anything that caught my attention, I must confess to having relegated it to book heaven or wherever old books go to rest. In my library it’s strict survival of the fittest, few exceptions allowed. I hope to benefit from your more attentive reading. My problem with the Miller book is that it looked to me like a form of intuitionism in the style of W.D. Ross. Ross simply gave a list of our obligations and left it at that. He assumed that we simply have some special faculty called Intuition for apprehending these truths, a view which is no longer at all obvious given all the new work on experimental ethics. Similar problems arise with natural law, mussar tivi, derech hasechel and all the rest of Jewish hand waving. Besides even in ostensibly simple cases like the trolley problem, most everybody loses their bearings within 2-3 hypothetical cases.(See Frances Kamm’s Mortality, Morality v.1.) So when all these rabbis say there is a morality that is prior to halacha, I agree, but I have no clear conviction what the rules and principles that constitute this morality might be other than the simple mnemonic maxims like not to steal, murder and so on. We minimally need an account why more particular moral beliefs are rational. Simply repeating that they are, is a start, but not much of an argument.

    Looking at particular cases, what is wrong with a utilitarianism that gives greater weight to ”our welfare” over those of outsiders, a sort of aneeyei ircha gone haywire? After all discounting utilities in some way or other must indeed be rational in cases of justice between generations. If the well being of those alive many centuries from now count equally to our well being, ain ledavar sof, and we all are obligated to live forever at the subsistence level. There is no clear consensus to my knowledge on exactly how to discount the future. An intermediate case are those who live far away in a different nation? The answer how to treat the world poor is far from obvious, with no clear intuitions. ((http://www.amazon.com/Living-High-Letting-Die-Innocence/dp/0195108590/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1304882116&sr=1-1) and the subsequent reviews of the book by Martha Nussbaum and many others.) OTOH, “we” but not some of our charedi coreligionists, feel that within a society, nation, country there should be no discounting in favor of one’s own group. We accept a duty of fair play, and some charedim do not. The easiest way to handle these charedi views is to argue and try to establish some form of contractualism, which would then provide arguments that utilitarianism is incorrect as such; in which case skewed utilitarianism (group egoism) would be also obviously unacceptable. In addition, going down the contractualist road seems to me the only way to give any rational account why moral principles have a priority over halacha. Just asserting the existence of an outside impartial framework of morality and leaving it at that is lame. It’s even more complicated because we do have to provide a space for halacha within this moral framework.

    When charedim steal from each other they don’t justify their behavior by adopting some nihilist or relativist view…e.g. who says stealing is wrong? Their problem is to feel bound to the society at large, considering that even if America is basically a just society, there is so much inequality and waste, it might be similar enough to life in some failed state or to the draft under the Czar. My hunch is that Scanlon’s version of contractualism would work best in an Orthodox context. A good summary of Scanlon’s views can be found here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contractualism/

  4. I don’t have time to offer anything detailed, but here are a few points:

    First, what is the problem that Miller is trying to address, it seems there are two, that a) liberals from outside the faith committed to pluralism cannot offer a critique of those guided by a particularistic faith or b) people within the faith ought to offer the same kind of critique that everyone outside the faith does based on universals? If, a) then see below, if b), so what? As a secular liberal I care that some religion lets universals in explicitly, or through a back door of “meta halakhic concern” or ignores it altogether as long as they are not harming anyone? If you really do care then you have assumed the stance of a particular kind liberalism where the lack of universal values within a religious culture makes it unworthy of respect, and at that point you have repudiated a).

    Second, it seems that Rawls etc. already give pretty good accounts of why pluralism has limits in the realm of public reason and how public discourse is necessary in shaping our shared intuitions. In that context intuitionism is just an everyday discursive practice, not an alternative metaethical position.

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