domenica 20 settembre 2009

About the Golden Rule

This post is an English rewriting of this Italian blog post, for my non-Italian friends' sake.

This is a digression, not a treatise, on mathematics, halakhah (Jewish law) and moral philosophy, inspired by a lecture held in Verona (Italy) on February, 6th, 2009 by the UAAR as a tribute to Charles Darwin, who was born on February, 12th, 1809.

Among the lecturers there was the Dean of the Faculty of Mathematical, Physical and Natural Sciences of the University of Verona, Prof. Roberto Giacobazzi, who explained how negative results have often fostered the advancement of science; among the examples he mentioned, there were the Gödel Incompleteness Theorems, which refuted Hilbert's Program.

In short, David Hilbert aimed to ground all mathematics on a small number of axioms, which all theorems could be deduced from with purely formal techniques - as Prof. Giacobazzi said, "So that they could be proved by a machine". But Kurt Gödel proved that it was impossible, as there are some theorems that can't be proved as such.

Gödel's Theorems are the curse of pure mathematicians, but the blessing of the applied ones, who could then develop information technology, which is now enjoyed by everyone.

A trivial alliteration turns Hilbert into Hillel, the famous Jewish leader who was once challenged to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot, and he replied by stating what is known as the Golden Rule: "What is hateful to you, don't do unto others. That's the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and study." [Talmud Bavli, Shabbat, 13b]

Let's now focus on the Golden Rule: in my opinion, it was an attempt to deduce all halakhic rules from a single principle - a program akin to Hilbert's in mathematics.

It wasn't just Hillel who pursued this aim: the Talmud tells that there once was a dispute among rabbis about which Torah verse could summarize it all, and the winner was Ben Azay, who summed it up in the verse, "This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him." [Genesis 5:1].

Here you can read why was Ben Azay awarded victory, but I would focus on who came in second, Aqiva, who stated this version of the Golden Rule, "(...) Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord." [Leviticus 19:18 - the words in italics are those you can read in the Israeli stamp which adorns this post].

Aqiva's competition entry was deemed less worthy than Ben Azay's since Ben Azay called for going beyond one's limits to respect to all creatures, but Aqiva's entry is crosscultural, i. e. you can find its equivalents even in cultures not (yet) influenced by the Bible.

The British philosopher Richard Mervyn Hare (1919-2002) certainly knew the Bible, and perhaps Jewish thought as well, as he was Peter Singer's master, and grounded his moral philosophy on the Golden Rule.

Moreover, he noticed that Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative's maxims could be deduced from it. Let's read the maxims:

  • Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law;

  • Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end;

  • Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.

If somebody wants to inflict what he himself wouldn't be willing to bear on somebody, he goes against all these maxims; and who behaves according to these maxims wouldn't inflict what he wouldn't bear on anybody.

Once Kant distanced himself from the Golden Rule with this example: a duly convicted inmate could plead with the judge that he couldn't do unto him [the culprit] what he wasn't willing to do to himself [the judge], so the Golden Rule would force the judge to release the inmate.

I think that Kant's example is too naïve: a perfect judge would even apply law against himself (an example of such a man is Creon, a character in Sophocles' tragedy Antigone, who unwittingly destroys his own family for the sake of the law), so the judge would answer the petitioner that, had he been guilty, he would have sentenced and jailed himself.

Moreover, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel stated that the offender has the right to be punished, because punishment redeems him, and only who is accountable for his actions is honored as a rational being - in short, even punishments have their "utility" for the culprit, especially if he is convinced that he deserved them.

So, the way is cleared for Richard Mervyn Hare's attempt to join Immanuel Kant's moral philosophy with the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Summing up, utilitarian theories assume that every human being has an "utility function" which relates the use of something or the performance of an action to the advantage (utility) to him/her.

The study of utility functions is quite a complex subject, best left to mathematics, philosophy, economics, biology, psychology mavens - I'm contented with hinting to their use as the basis of a moral philosophy.

An utilitarian thinks that the purpose of moral action is maximizing the "total utility" of the people involved; (s)he therefore:

  • wants that the principle of his action become an universal law - as it would foster utility maximization in any case, be the action carried out by him/herself or by anybody else;

  • treats everybody as an end in him/herself (who they want their utility to be maximized, and therefore cooperate with total utility maximization) and not just as means (for someone's utility maximization);

  • acts as a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends (as anybody gives his contribution to and takes advantage of total utility maximization).

So utilitarianism can be derived from the Golden Rule and the Categorical Imperative; it's often claimed that it fosters an egoistic moral, but this claim can be easily refuted.

In most people, utility functions are such as that marginal utility is decreasing: drinking a glass of water when you're really thirsty is much more rewarding than after drinking a full bottle; and doctors in the developed world know that the same food that saves a hungry person hurts an obese one - who has eaten too much throughout his/her life.

In the same way, 10 Euros are of little utility to a tycoon, as he already has a lot of money, but of great utility to a beggar, who has very little money. Therefore utilitarianism would favor asking the rich to give to the poor (by way of alms, or by paying a progressive income tax which finances the welfare state), as the rich person's utility is only slightly diminished, but the poor's utility is greatly increased - thus maximizing total utility.

Utilitarianism thus encourages reasonable altruism, not stinginess. A greater drawback of utilitarianism is that people practicing it should spend their life making complex utility calculations, and they may not have the time to do that before acting.

Moreover, economists have discovered that utility functions are incomparable between people: somebody's utility function may be very different from somebody else's function, and the former may not know that.

It could be an argument in favor of market economy (because negotiating a price or an exchange rate is a way to make utility functions comparable), but it is also one of the explanations of why it is so difficult to choose the right gift for somebody - you may not negotiate it, so you have to guess the utility function of who is to be given something.

And a person who wants to benefit people, but can only rely on guesswork or even sophisticated utility calculus, may actually make gross mistakes and bring damage instead of benefit. A good argument against totalitarianism.

George Bernard Shaw stated,"The golden rule is that there are no golden rules", and ironically also said, "Do not do unto others as you would they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same." To overcome this serious objection, Richard Mervyn Hare establishes two levels of moral thought - the intuitive and critical levels.

The intuitive level is the one of the simple moral precepts taught to children, the ethical principles which can be found in the charters of the liberal professions, or even in the Constitutions of the States; these principles warrant adequate utility optimization in most life circumstances, and spare the utilitarian the time and effort moral calculus requires, but they may at times clash, and force to rise to the upper level.

The critical level is the level of actual moral calculus, with the aim of maximizing total utility.

The interplay between the intuitive and the critical level can be explained with an example: when there is only one chair, it is always good manners that the man stands and lets the woman sit on the chair.

Stated as such, it is an intuitive level principle; the critical reasoning behind it is that women's pelvis makes harder for them to stand, so total utility maximization is achieved when the man stands and the woman sits.

In case the woman is young and healthy, and the man old and sick, critical thought may lead to a different decision - to let the man sit down. Critical thought is also required to acknowledge that this weakness of women doesn't imply that they should be treated as second-class citizens, and that all traditions that foster the disenfranchisement of women are wrong.

Critical thought is the tool which has promoted change in history, but in the moral realm it should be used with some care, as Richard Mervyn Hare points out that it is easy for a person directly involved in a stressful moral case, and who may not fully know its terms, to fall into the special pleading fallacy (i. e. wrongly claiming that one's case is a real exception to the rules) instead of performing correct critical thought.

In this case, Hare advises to turn to the advice of a third party, if possible; if not, to resist the temptation to break the usual rules, because the risk is to actually reduce total utility instead of increasing it.

The situation is similar to that of a soldier fighting at front line: maximization of total utility may require him/her to forgo his/her life, or to leave the battlefield; but he may not know which is the best option because he doesn't have the whole picture of war in front of his eyes - so it's best for him to stick to orders, unless they're clearly senseless.

Hare's advice allows us to stop talking about utilitarianism and resume talking about halakhah. There is a lot of popular halakhic literature (on the Web), which often warns the reader that a practical problem involves a conflict of mitzwot (commandments) which must be solved by a rabbi.

I therefore think that this rabbi has to resort to decisional calculus, even though it may not be laid out in the form of a mathematical formula, in which the relative weight of each mitzwah and the circumstances requiring strictness or allowing leniency are present.

A case which has struck me is this. As you can read, a cohen (priest; akin to Arabic kahin - soothsayer) must not enter a building in which there are corpses, so visiting a sick in hospital entails a conflict of mitzwot that must be solved by a rabbi.

In Israel statistics have been collected on the country's hospitals, so a rabbi may know what's the actual risk of contracting tumat met (corpse impurity), and decide whether, given the circumstances, is a risk worth taking.

Even though he may not use mathematical formulae, the rabbi clearly has to make a reckoning based on these statistics; Hillel ended his summary of the Torah with the imperatives, "Go and study", and the verb "study" probably meant "learn halakhic calculus."

Many everyday situations apparently require a rabbi's advice, and therefore I think that halakhah requires a behavior optimization far higher than the one usually required in post-Christian countries like Italy.

If you want to apply Hare's distinction between intuitive and critical moral reasoning to halakhah, you have to give very little importance to intuitive reasoning, because the Jewish ideal is that anybody (or at least every adult male) be able to master critical halakhic reasoning.

I talked about the "relative weight of the mitzwot"; can it be reckoned? As far as I know, the question is deemed silly, or even blasphemous, because each and every mitzwah is important, and none can be neglected.

A more elegant answer would be remarking that if we could really evaluate the "relative weight of the mitzwot", we would know God's utility function - and we already know that we can't even know human utility functions. Moreover, had human reason been up to that, Revelation would have been useless, since pure reason would have sufficed.

So, we can't actually know what's the relative weight of the mitzwot; but practical needs force us to behave as if such a comparison were possible, so we may wonder if Aqiva's and Hillel's program, to deduce all mitzwot from a single principle, could help us.

I'm afraid that we have now to remember Prof. Giacobazzi's words, namely that a negative result is often more fruitful to science than a positive one. The author of the negative result we're dealing with now is Maimonides, who wrote in his Guide for the Perplexed that the mitzwot could be classified into mishpatim (judgements) and huqqim (decrees).

While a rationale can be found for mishpatim, so they may hopefully be derived from the Golden Rule, no rational explanation can be given to huqqim, which should be obeyed because they're revealed, not because they're rational.

Maimonides refuted Hillel and Aqiva, and halakhah may not be considered a kind of moral philosophy, even though there are lots of interesting similarities between them.

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