Virtue and Maximal Utility

When I first went to see the rabbi about trying to convert, one of the questions he asked me was why I would be willing to give up the assured place I would have (in Jewish thought) in The World to Come (there is some dispute over what this means; roll with me here) because I am able to follow the Noahide Laws, but if I were to voluntarily accept the burden of the covenant, I would be risking that, due to the admitted difficulty in keeping them perfectly.

Honestly, the question never occurred to me.

Similarly, the book I’m studying now, The 39 Melochos of Shabbos, contains a few anecdotes along the lines of “So-and-so broke Shabbat and bad things happened to them!” which I actually feel undermines the case for keeping Shabbat.  The stories are more or less patently silly on their face, and can be easily debunked/dismissed/refuted by any half-bright first-year student of logic or the humanities.  I’ve encountered the problem of really bad argumentation a couple of times in my study books so far, and it really disappoints me — religious scholarly Judaism is a culture of argumentation, with arguments stretching over centuries and being refuted, reasserted, documented and so on by numerous authors over multiple time periods.  To find something blatantly fallacious or facile in the argumentation itself feels like underachievement on the author’s part.

Although personally, I’m very much more in favour of virtue or right action as its own reward than “right action means avoiding punishment.”  I don’t really think punishment is much of a deterrent to humans generally, and I know in my own thought processes, where I’ve done something I shouldn’t have, getting punished rarely crosses my mind in the moment.  On the other hand, I am (I like to think) usually motivated to try to do the right thing, to take the right action, and to help reduce the amount of misery in the world.

I probably have a very odd ethical/moral conception for someone in my situation.  I basically believe that “evil” is synonymous with “anything that creates harm or misery.”  I don’t see it as a nebulous metaphysical entity, but rather as a result of actions and/or agency.  Of course, this thought process leads me ineluctably to the Jewish idea that right action is the moral course in life, and consequently,  forgiveness (such as it is) is contingent on action.  If you wrong someone, you need to talk to them about it, do something to fix it or atone for it, and then seek their forgiveness; it isn’t (again) some nebulous metaphysical entity that can be dispensed unilaterally by G-d or some agent thereof.  (In the Jewish view, if you commit a wrong against G-d, your atonement is contingent upon your not doing that anymore, whereupon you are, for all intents and purposes, forgiven.)

And maybe I’m doing this backward, but I’m hoping that concentrating on the human will help me always do the right thing.  We’ll see.


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