Michael Waltzer —“On Humanitarianism” and Maimonides

Michael Waltzer has an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that argues for humanitarian aid to other countries using Maimonides’ laws of tzedakah. He both using tzedakah as a model for international aid and as a casuistic model for deciding what to do. He makes a distinction in tzedakah between the coerced collection of the money and the effect in creating justice. This article contributes to Jewish ethical thought since we lack articles on contemporary issuesin Jewish philosophic ethics, which was a neglected topic for the last few decades of legal reasoning. Back in the 1960’s Prof Isadore Twersky wrote “Tzedakah: Some Aspects of the Jewish Attitude Toward the Welfare State” in Tradition 5 (1963) showing the Jewish support for the welfare state made a different distinction in Maimonides law of tzedakah distinguishing between the virtue of justice and the social effect of justice.
If we wanted to provide an alternative to Waltzer and they had to work with a Jewish text, would Rawls or Nozick read Maimonides differently or pick a different Jewish text to work with. Those who are now working with Levinas would not approach the topic via Maimonides.

On Humanitarianism

Individuals send contributions to charitable organizations when there is a humanitarian crisis, and then these organizations rush trained aid workers into the zone of danger and desperate need. But governments also send help, spending tax money that is coercively collected rather than freely given. Are individual citizens free not to give? Are governments free not to act? Does it matter whether the money is a gift or a tax?

I have been puzzling over these kinds of questions in the course of helping edit a volume in the series The Jewish Political Tradition, one dealing with, among other things, charity and taxation — giving and taking. It should be easy to distinguish the two, shouldn’t it? Individuals give, freely and spontaneously; the state takes, with threats and penalties. Yet it turns out that the distinction is not so easy to make. The difficulty is signaled by the Hebrew word tzedakah, which is commonly translated as “charity” but which comes from the same root as the word for “justice.” This suggests that charity is not only good but also right. The same message is conveyed by the Hebrew word mitzvah, which in the Bible means “commandment” but has come colloquially to mean “a good deed” or “an act of human kindness” — although still something that you have to do.

And so the medieval philosopher Maimonides argued, following Talmudic precedents, that insofar as Jewish communities in the Diaspora had coercive power, they could legitimately force their members to give tzedakah. The kahal, the autonomous or semiautonomous Diaspora community, could compel people to give what they were supposed to give freely, and it still counted as a charitable gift. It was distinct (although often hard to distinguish) from the taxes imposed, usually by the gentile overlord, which were levied on individuals by the Jewish rulers of the kahal, the tovei ha-ir (the good men of the city).

In the Jewish tradition, this view of tzedakah as an expression of justice was sometimes described in theological language. The idea is that God has heard and responded to the cries of the poor and, in principle at least, has given them what they need. You may possess some part of what they need, but you possess it only as an agent of God, and if you do not pass it on to the poor, if you do not contribute, say, to the communal charity fund, you are robbing the poor of what in fact already belongs to them. The negative act of not contributing is a positive theft. And since theft is unjust, you are acting not only uncharitably but also unjustly by not giving — which is why coerced tzedakah is legitimate. I called this a theological argument, but it is possible even for nonbelievers to accept that, in some sense, it is true and right. Or nonbelievers can translate the argument into secular language: some part of everyone’s wealth belongs to the political community, which makes economic activity and peaceful accumulation possible — and it can and should be used to promote the well-being of all the members of the community.

Fundraising in the contemporary Diaspora still partakes of this two-in-one character. I celebrated my bar mitzvah in 1948 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. That year, my parents brought me with them, as a new member of the community, to the annual banquet of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), the main fundraising event on the Johnstown Jewish calendar. The year 1948 was a critical one, and every Jew in town was there; no one really had a choice about whether or not to come. There was a speaker from New York who talked with great emotion about the founding of Israel, the war that was then going on, and the desperate needs of the refugees waiting in Europe. Pledge cards were distributed, filled out at the table, and then put in an envelope and passed to the head of the table. There sat the owner of one of the biggest stores in town — let’s call him Sam Shapiro. Sam knew everybody else’s business: who was doing well and who was not, who was paying college tuition for their children, who had a sick mother, who had recently made a loan to a bankrupt brother, who had money to spare. He opened each envelope, looked at the pledge, and if he thought that it was not enough, he tore the card in half and passed it back down the table. That is how the Jews of Johnstown raised money, without a Jewish state, without — or supposedly without — coercive power. Was that charity, or was it the functional equivalent of taxation? Was it giving, or was it taking? Tzedakah signals something of both.

But what should be done with the money collected? What does it mean to address the needs of the poor? This, too, is a question not only of charity but also of justice. Maimonides has a famous discussion of the eight levels of tzedakah, but only two need concern us here. The highest form of charitable giving, he wrote, is to set up a poor man in business or in work of some sort, to make him independent. This is the height of tzedakah because it recognizes and respects the dignity of the person who is being helped — which is also, obviously, a requirement of justice.


This is the context in which we have to think about humanitarianism, which cannot in the circumstances of statelessness be a freely chosen gift, which has to respond to urgency and need. It is like tzedakah: if it does not connect with justice, it will not be what it should be. Religious men and women can reasonably think that God has already determined what we owe to the global poor, and the sick, and the hungry, and that our task is just to figure it out. And secular men and women can acknowledge that whether or not God exists, this is not a bad way of thinking about these things.

But even when driven by religious motives, humanitarianism is a political project. And because it is, it carries risks with it that are not usually associated with charitable work. Indeed, recent literature on humanitarian aid suggests that the work can go very badly when its organizers are not politically informed, committed to justice, and ready to make prudential calculations. You can, for example, deliver aid in ways that bring in new predators to feed on the provisions and resources intended for the poor, or you can insist on the military or police forces necessary to keep the predators out. You can act through governments that are often corrupt, or you can send your own people into the zones of need and danger and work directly with local individuals and groups. These are choices that primarily involve calculations of effectiveness.

Opposition to all interventions is a mistake, although opposition to some is sure to be morally necessary.
In fact, there are actually many states in international society that are capable of acting as humanitarian agents. In contrast to ordinary individuals in domestic society, ordinary states, even those far from being great powers, can act effectively in crises because of their ability to collect taxes and recruit aid workers and soldiers.

Again, this dedication is not merely philanthropic. It arises also from a commitment to justice; like tzedakah, it is two in one. And a commitment to justice is not voluntary; it is a commitment that we are all bound to make, as individuals and as citizens, and that all states are bound to make. We are not in a position where we can let generosity and warm-heartedness determine what states do in international society. In the absence of a global welfare state, there are many things that individual states have to do. But here is the agency question again: Which states have to do what?

International humanitarianism is an imperfect duty. In any crisis situation, different states are capable of acting, but no single state is the designated actor. There is no established procedure that will tell us the proper name of the agent.

The same combination, two in one, should determine the character and purpose of aid and intervention. It is, of course, immediately necessary to feed the hungry, to stop the killing. Relief comes before repair, but repair, despite the risks it brings with it, should always be the long-term goal — so that crises do not become recurrent and routine. As with tzedakah according to Maimonides, aid workers and soldiers should do what they can, the best that they can, to promote the independence of individuals and states. In international society, this means building states that can defend the lives of their citizens and helping them help themselves. What must be avoided is enduring economic or political dependency — the creation of pauper populations or of satellite states and puppet governments.

Although we are often told that the state system must be transcended, sovereignty is in fact humanitarianism’s morally necessary end: a decent state, capable of providing security, welfare, economic management, and education for all its citizens. Then, the aid workers and the intervening armies can go home. If they have created the conditions for self-determination, we know that they have acted both charitably and justly.

Humanitarianism has to be an ongoing argument: What ought to be done right now? The answer to that question will change depending on the existing needs, the political circumstances, the resources that benevolence can provide, and the requirements of justice. But once we have figured out an answer, we can think of humanitarianism as the two-in-one enterprise that I have been describing. As individual men and women, as members of or contributors to nongovernmental organizations, as citizens of powerful states, it invites us to choose to do what we are absolutely bound to do. Read the rest here.

H/T WJD (I was there becuase they linked to my blog) and then EF on FB

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