Tag Archives: justice

Moshe Halbertal on Amartya Sen

Moshe Halbertal has a review in TNR of  The Idea of Justice By Amartya Sen (Harvard University Press) He summarizes Sen as claiming that there is no one principle of justice and that there is no overarching ethical principle, we deal with the situation at hand. In this, Sen is against Rawl’s grand egalitarian system. Halbertal thinks that if Sen means that no grand theory that we cannot decide between theories then he is incorrect. But if he means that there should be no grand overall theory then he has a point. Halbertal thinks Sen shows too much sympathy for the libertarian position. Halbertal showing his own sympathies frames Sen as a pluralist.

Once upon a time, not that long ago a book like this would have received book reviews from Rabbis like Walter Wurzburger. They would discuss where the ideas in the book fit into various halakhic thinkers and how to formulate a Jewish version. Now we have a orthodox halakhic libertarianism facing a liberal non-philosophic egalitarianism. People use the term “values” as a way of moving beyond halakhic formalism, but there needs to be the prior discussion consisting of: which ethics?

As I said before, we lost out by not producing in the 1990’s a Jewish reading of Rawls, Nozick, Sandel, and Waltzer.  I believe at this point, it would still be well received. In addition, it is a shame that after the culture wars, Halbertal has to defend academic discourse on ethics from the charge of relativism. Not long ago, the introductory course in ethics taught Kantian deontology, utilitarianism, intuitionism, and prudence in equal measure and instructed the students that you need to know all of them for reasoned discourse.

In his introduction to The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen asks the reader to imagine a scenario that will figure prominently throughout the book. Three children are arguing among themselves about which one of them should have a flute. The first child, Anne, is a trained musician who can make the best use of the flute. The second child, Bob, is the poorest of the three and owns no other toys or instruments. Clara, the third contender, happens to be the one who, with hard sustained labor, made the flute. Since philosophers try to reason about such distributive problems, each of the children can enlist support from a grand theory of justice that originated in what seems to be an impartial position in moral philosophy.

Utilitarians will opt for giving the flute to Anne, since their criteria for distribution is to give preference to the scheme that will maximize overall utility, thus granting the instrument to the individual who can derive the most pleasure out of it. Bob, the poorest child among the three, will be chosen by egalitarians, since the main concern of their distributive approach is to narrow social and economic gaps as much as possible. And libertarians, who emphasize rights-based ownership entitlements, will claim that Clara deserves the flute as the producer of the object, and that no other distributive concerns–egalitarian or utilitarian–can supersede her entitlement to what she naturally owns.

.Rawls himself defended an egalitarian position. According to Rawls, perfect equality should have been the rule, but rewarding capable people with differential income will create an incentive for them to raise the production of the sum total of goods, which in a system of fair distribution might end up benefiting the people who are at the bottom of the economic ladder.The ultimate merit of Rawls’s work did not lie only in his own theory, but in the extraordinarily broad discussion that it generated

G.A. Cohen’s in Rescuing Justice and Equality, which challenged Rawls from the left and advocated a stricter egalitarianism; and Robert Nozick’s sophisticated libertarian response in Anarchy, State, and Utopia; and Michael Walzer’s development, in Spheres of Justice, of a communitarian approach to the problem.

Sen rejects, as a matter of principle, the nature of Rawls’s project…According to Sen, a sustained and reasoned argument about justice should focus on a result-oriented comparative approach among different conditions, rather than on an attempt to formulate the philosophical conditions of a perfectly just society…. Injustices are altogether easier to identify than the conditions of perfect justice. And injustices can be identified on the basis of various and competing grand theories, which may overlap in such actual comparative judgments.

Grand theories become perverse when they postulate themselves as exclusive, when they wish to solve all the complex issues with one decisive and final principle.

The best way of making comparative judgments is by considering multiple points of view as they are refined by different theories, and weighing the diverse claims that they make.. Only when philosophy is deployed in this patient and pluralistic way can we apply it usefully to real people and real conditions….It is important to note also that Sen’s acceptance of the limited and relative force of each grand theory does not deteriorate into any kind of moral relativism. Pluralism is not relativism. Choosing between different approaches and policies is not an expression of taste or prejudice, a purely subjective effusion of passion.

Lord Jonathan Sacks on the Siddur

1] When I think of certain prayer books commentaries, I sometimes think of them with a few words. Hirsch – moral aspiration, Birnbaum – historical anti-Semitism Artscroll – Hashem centered,   Rebbe – attachment to God

For Sacks, the words are hope, faith, and dignity.

Full disclosure – I received a copy from the publisher after my last post on the idea of witness in his thought. In short, my reaction is that his books are generally well crafted and delivered publicly, but here we have short comments not fully explained or justified.

2]  Collective Prayer

His message throughout the siddur is collective faith, we join with others. Prayer concerns the past and future of the community, the people Israel. The prayer is adoration and praise for God – our highest aspirations for the Jewish people. He favors Yehudah Halevi– prayer shows a God of history and human events. We learn from prayer the need to maintain faith, hope, dignity, and pride.

What is prayer? Prayer changes us – it is self-fulfillment He opens the book with a definition that prayer is conversation with God and never actually uses that definition in the book. From his commentary, prayer is listening and shaping oneself from the liturgy. Symbols need meditations therefore many do the yehi ratzon (cf. Hirsch).

His commentary is not very spiritual, emotional, or experiential, despite his use of these words. For example, he states the repetition of the amidah is the peak of religious experience because it contains the kedushah which was based on prophetic and mystic visions. Liturgy is not experience or experiential. Nor will one find much solace or human struggle in the prayer book.

Like the commentaries on Book of Common Prayer – he offers Biblical teachings applied in everyday life. The book is not very Rabbinic.

The commentary on the weekday shaharit is on the history of the liturgy and on the Shabbat shaharit is more theological.

3] Justice

His vision is that prayer will teach us personal and social responsibilitie. There is a cosmic moral standard of justice  God’s eternal values for the affairs of humankind-are justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, freedom to captives, and hope to those at the margins of society.” Korban (sacrifice) is the pledging of ourselves to do his will. Peace the ultimate hope of monotheism. [Wow – this is nice universalism and good ethical monotheism- will it mold Orthodoxy?]

He writes: We believe that “The world is the product of single will , not the blind clash of conflicting elements”.[what of divine mandated clashes and exclusivism?]

He writes “Havdalah means making distinctions”, “to make order out of chaos, God wants us to be creative.” That is great homiletic but will it encourage the production of what the wider world calls creativity?

4] Revelation

Sacks writes that in contrast to the universal demands on Jews, Revelation is particular – it is our covenant of love with God – a relationship.Torah is our written constitution, collective memory, and record of covenant- not just sacred literature The message, however, of revelation is the universal justice, compassion, inalienable rights for the downtrodden.[This is the point were I find this commentary as selected quotes from his books on global ethics. Nothing is substantiated or justified here but they are justified in the books.In addition, the books come from speeches delivered in public to answer a need. These comments have no criteria for their inclusion.]

5] Christian locutions

a) Sacks writes that Resurrection is hope “ Jews kept hope alive, hope kept the Jewish people alive.”We have a divine promise and hope defeats tragedy

This is one of my pet peeve – tikvah and spes are not the same even if both translated as hope.

The former word tikvah is restoration –

[There is a debate of Radak and Ramban is if has the same meaning as kav – to make a line.]

Nahmanides says that just as a blueprint has lines drawn so too our tikvah for the national redemption is already drawn. Christian meaning of spes is of unseen things, the future, as part of the supernatural virtues of faith hope, and charity. For Christians hope is a virtue, for Jews, God (or Torah) has kept up Jewish hope for the redemption. One hopes in God, one does not hope as a virtue.

Sacks uses the word in several places in the Christian sense  and even has locutions like faith, hope, and dignity – cf the Christian faith, hope and charity

The use of the word hope in this sense is also used often in Shakespeare

b) On page 146 – he writes we are your witnesses, the bearers of your name. (Jews don’t use it like this)- see my prior post

c) He uses the phrase “free air of hope” – page 152 coined by the Irish theologian George Tyrrell (1861 – 1909).

6] He views religious language as metaphor

In many places he has a variant of the following: God is unknowable and belong words – the goal is to get behind words.

7] As a book

Well…A large number of quotes are quite cryptic – he likes good phrases better than good comments. Many times one cannot make out what it means. The full ideas in other books are here reduced to bon mots. Comments sometimes say “it may be” “may reflect” – so the effect is a more of a homily than a commentary.

Sometimes he cites his sources – in one case there are three cited names in a single  passage—and then there are many pages without a single citation. Yet, in his other works he cites the author of the interpretation. It seems arbitrary.

8] Sources and comparisons

a) On the topic of liturgy and spontaneity, he surprisingly does not use the usually rabbinic passages on keva and kavvanah but discusses the topic through passages the in Bible. Source seems to be an unnamed book on the Bible or early Rabbinics.

b) He cites historical material from a much much earlier decade with any new insight- he does not references to Yakovson (Jacobson), Abrahams, Elbogen or other works that he relies on.

c) Conspicuous in its absence is the Lubavitcher Rebbe since Sacks relied heavily on the Rebbe in earlier works and adapted a volume of the Rebbe on parashah. But Sacks makes prayer thankfulness and adoration – and does not follow the Rebbe that prayer is connection to God.

d) Sacks noticeably quotes Rav Soloveitchik in his introduction, as if to claim continuity or authenticity, but does not follow his approach to prayer in the commentary.For Soloveitchik, Prayer is the personal existential cry in which there is personal redemption through the tefilot and more importantly, the Torah give us words that raise us above our natural inarticulate grunts of animals.

e) Isaiah Berlin on negative freedom and positive freedom – is unattributed here, and presented as Hazal. In addition, he states that Jews as eternal from Tolstoy (in an earlier work he credited the citation to Hertz quoting Tolstoy) This quote of Tolstoy is also in Isaiah Berlin.But quoting that Jews are eternal from Tolstoy—and not from Krokhmal, Kook, Rosenzweig or Reines—reduced it to a bon mot.

f) In Alenu, he explains “leTaken Olam bemalkhut Shadai” as Lurianic tikkun – is it from Elliott Dorff in My People’s Prayer Book?

9] The sections in the introduction on study, mysticism, and history was less than adequate and quite vague. The section on mysticism could be from more than half a century ago. It has a tone of “Mysticism devalues world”

He takes Kabbalat Shabbat from Elbogen recognized by Elbogen’s its mistaken reliance on Solomon Schechter.  And one is not inspired to confidence when he writes that the source of Ushpezin is a nebulous “Jewish mystical tradition.”

10]  Now what of his frequent citation of Franz Rosenzweig on creation, revelation, redemption? I don’t get this one.

This triad is originally from Hermann Cohen where the triad is a divine meaning to creation in the natural order, the revelation of ethics in the human mind, and human work to make the world a better place. (One finds this Cohen triad occasionally in Rav Soloveitchik;s homilies.)

For Rosenzweig, it is God presence as meaning that negates nihilism, revelation is human love for God, and the liturgical fulfillment of eternity. Prayer along with poetry and love are means to let us be existentially human. For Gershom Scholem, it is a creation of emanation and tzimtzum, revelation of creativity and antinomianism, and redemption through apocalyptic change.

But for Sacks, it is God in nature, God revealed in Torah and prayer, and our redemption in history and life. Where is this mild version from and why bother linking it to Rosenzweig? I have not checked yet, but Netiv Binah by Jacobson and Taamei Hamizvot by Heinneman both combine Hirsch and Rosenzweig into a milder form.

Yet the way Sacks frames the triad it can just as well be Albo’s God, Revelation, and Reward or Cordovero’s God, Torah and Israel. There is a triad in Rabbinic thought and liturgy and in the Rabbinic reading of the Bible which has been formulated different ways in different eras. (see Max Kadushin’s Organic Thinking on this thinking in triads) I am not sure why Sacks attributed his reading to Rosenzweig when Albo or Cordovero would have better served his needs.

But then I found on the web a position similar to Sacks—“Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe explained that mans’ relationship with G-d is three-dimensional; we know Him through His creation, His revelation at Sinai, and His promise of redemption.” Did both Sacks and Wolbe take it from Jacobson or Heinneman? Or another secondary source produced by German Jewry? Hmm..

In short, I like the Orthodox universalism, but will stick to reading his longer works,

Justice or Rawls Lives

Michael Sandel has his Harvard University course on Justice  online. It has recording of the lectures, reading lists, and discussion material. (It comes on with a loud audio soundtrack)

Good article about the course – including how he came to teach it and about his critics.

Good line in article – “Campus legend has it that Sandel provided the physical inspiration for Mr. Burns, the villainous nuclear-plant owner on The Simpsons, for which many Harvard graduates have written.”

Amartya Sen, the Noble prize winner in economics, has a similar book out and here is an article about it.

Suppose three children—Anne, Bob, and Carla—quarrel over a flute. Anne says it’s hers because she’s the only one who knows how to play it. Bob counters that he’s the poorest and has no toys, so the flute would at least give him something to play with. Carla reminds Anne and Bob that she built the darn thing, and no sooner did she finish it than the other two started trying to take it away.

When Rawls declared justice “the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought,” and began his painstaking probe of the conditions of just institutions, he re-established a modern tradition dating back to Hobbes: using social-contract theory to articulate ideal forms of social justice, sometimes in quasi-syllogistic form. But there was also a longstanding, skeptical, antisystematic tradition in justice theory. One of the suspenseful aspects of Sen’s book is how its author, personally close to Rawls (who died in 2002) but more expansive and historical in regard to justice, walks a difficult line between the analytic foundationalism Rawls and Nozick practiced and the sensitivity to real-world justice in people’s lives that Sen and Martha Nussbaum argue for and describe as the “capabilities” conception of justice.

Solomon wrote in A Passion for Justice that justice is “a complex set of passions to be cultivated, not an abstract set of principles to be formulated. … Justice begins with compassion and caring, not principles or opinions, but it also involves, right from the start, such ‘negative’ emotions as envy, jealousy, indignation, anger, and resentment, a keen sense of having been personally cheated or neglected, and the desire to get even.” In time, suggested Solomon, “the sense of justice emerges as a generalization and, eventually, a rationalization of a personal sense of injustice.”

Update – Jewish Texts for Social Justice from American Jewish World Service. Let me know what you find in the various categories. Is it all pragmatic? Is there any overall theory? I see that Levinas, Heschel, Soloveitchik are used interchangeably in small snippets.

Walmart, Love and Universal Ethics

Pope Benedict of the Week

David Nirenberg a Jewish professor of (Jewish) history and social thought at the University of Chicago offers a review in the TNR of Benedict’s recent encyclical “Caritas in Veritate: On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.” He likes the message of love over market values, but asks: Why does it have to be framed as Catholic and not universal?

Benedict’s teaching differs from that of his predecessors in at least two important ways. The first is evident in the key term in his analysis: “love,” rather than “justice,” “natural law,” or “human reason,” the terms that were favored by some of his predecessors

As Wal-Mart shoppers, for example, we must divide our attention between 1) a self-interest in the lowest possible price for whatever object we desire; and 2) the needs of that object’s producers, of the environment in and from which it was made, and of the moral and fiscal balance of global trade (hence “consumers should be continually educated regarding their daily role, which can be exercised with respect for moral principles without diminishing the intrinsic economic rationality of the act of purchasing”); and 3) an openness to the loving “spirit of the gift.” Benedict is not simply suggesting a moral yardstick for the marketplace. He is claiming that every commercial exchange needs to become a loving act modeled on the gratuitous gift of Jesus Christ.

And only Catholicism, Benedict tells us, can achieve the universal fraternity necessary for authentic community: “Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity.

The problem is that Benedict is claiming to offer general answers to global questions that affect people of every faith (and sometimes of no faith), while at the same time insisting that the only possible answer to those questions is Catholicism. Such a suggestion might be a plausible prescription for global peace and development in a Catholic world, but the world is not Catholic.

In a de-secularizing age, and with our faith in self-interest shaken by economic crisis, we should want to draw on the wisdom in that ocean of thought. But if those teachings are to contribute to global “unity and peace,” they will have to be taught in a way that seeks to transcend the boundaries of the traditions that produced them. This does not mean, as Benedict fears, that Christianity (or any other religion) must become “more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance,” or that “there would no longer be any real place for God in the world.” Values are not a zero-sum game. God’s place in the world is not lost when one religion tries to translate some of its truths into helpful good sentiments for those of other or no faith

Full review

To which Michael Sean Winters replies at NCR and at his blog at America that he likes the perspective of the historian but disagrees with the need for universalism

his article is so refreshing and so frustrating. On the one hand, he understands that the advent of capitalism and its values represented a “reversal of a millennial moral consensus”

If Nirenberg truly believes that Benedict’s vision is narrowed by his insistence on truth to the point of preventing dialogue, why write a review of the encyclical? Nirenberg’s effort disproves his own claim.

Who is correct?

I think A Jewish Call For Social Justice by Shmuly Yanklowitz is closer to David Nirenberg in that he discusses social justice without any claims of truth or higher values. But is Jewish pragmatism enough? Is Winters correct that David Nirenberg, and most Jews, are more utilitarian than principled?