Thursday, May 10, 2007

Morality and Halacha

Ok, how is that for a unique and interesting title? Yeah, this issue has come up in a variety of debates and topics and no one has a clear answer (or do they? Let me know if they do).

Yesterday I spent a few hours arguing with "Ed" on R' Harry Maryles' blog. Basically the conversation revolved around a number of issues, namely whether degrading Blacks for pedagogical purposes is a positive activity. Ed argued that children learn better from real world examples and since Blacks have an extremely high rate of drug use and out-of-wedlock children, there is no reason to not use them as an example. Basically, he tells his children, "don't be like those Shvartzes" when he wants to teach them a lesson (no, I am not making this up).

His argument hinges on the Chofez Chaim's argument that its permitted to denigrate evil people in order that others will not learn from their deeds. Since Blacks do bad things, we should tell our children not to act like that. I responded that not all Blacks are bad, and we shouldn't lump them all together. Moreover, it is important not to degrade people when other means are available to accomplish one's purpose.

Basically our argument seems to hinge on a disagreement about a fundamental premise. I believe that degrading people is bad even if Halacha does not prohibit it. Ed seems to believe that such degradation is, at the very least, morally neutral. Since teaching children life lessons is a positive activity, there's no reason to not use Blacks as examples of bad behavior. I, on the other hand, believe that denigration is only acceptable when used for an important end and the other means of getting there are not as efficient. In this case we can just use positive examples as what to do rather than negative examples of what not to do.

Now that I got that out, here's my issue: Halacha does not prohibit Loshon Hara about non-Jews. It, as far as I know, does not promote it either as a general rule. So there's a lacunae in Halacha. How do we fill that gap? Ideally we should use Halachic principles to fill the hole, but I don't really know if that's possible (frankly I'm not even sure what that means). Anytime we get to murky moral and ethical questions, the question is usually underdeterminate, meaning there's more than one correct answer. We generally answer the question based on our moral intuitions, which come from our environment, studies, and other sources.

So when I disagree with Ed, it's basically my intuition filling that gap. When Ed claims that telling Lashon Hara about non-Jews is an acceptable activity, it's his moral views coming into play.

This post wasn't really that well thought out, but I'm trying to figure out if moral intuitions have a role to play in non-Halachic questions. Personally I can't see how they don't.

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