There are scenarios in life where no matter what you choose, it’s going to get ugly.
Sometimes you may feel like you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. The famous French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, agreed. There are situations, he thought, where you just can’t do the right thing.
He had a pupil during World War II whose older brother had been killed during the German invasion of France. His mother led a miserable life. Her husband was inclined to become a Nazi collaborator and she felt deeply betrayed by this betrayal. Sartre’s pupil – his only remaining child – was his only consolation in life. He was faced with the choice of going to England to join the Free French Forces and join the fight against Nazism or stay with his mother and help her live.
According to Sartre, there was no perfect choice in this case. Her pupil would either betray her mother or her nation.
There was no perfect choice: his pupil would either betray his mother or his nation.
Emmanuel Kant would disagree with Sartre. There is always an answer to any ethical dilemma. An ethical theory should work with all the clarity and precision of a mathematical theory. If the theory seems to generate contradictions or conflicts, then the fault lies with us and we must correct the theory or correct our error in applying the theory.
Ethical living, when properly understood, is not at all disorderly; it’s blank.
The Jewish position
One might be tempted to think that a Jewish ethic will side with Kant rather than Sartre. Jewish law tells us what to do in a given situation. Even when the law seems to impose conflicting requirements on us, there is always a solution. For instance:
- The duty to save a life takes precedence over all other Torah law, with three exceptions:
- you can’t murder an innocent bystander
- worship an idol or
- Engaging in certain prohibited sexual acts to save a life.
- When there is a conflict between complying with a positive command and obeying a negative command, the positive command prevails over the negative.
- When there is a conflict between respecting a positive public command and a positive private command, the public trumps the private.
The job of rabbis is to apply Jewish law to new situations or to report on new technologies. But if ever there is any doubt about how the law should be applied, the fault is ours, not the law.
That said, there is a famous story in the book of Genesis that we have to grapple with. Patriarch Jacob returns home after many years. He is told that his brother Esau is approaching with a great military force. The last thing Jacob knew about his brother was that Esau wanted to kill him.
You can imagine how Jacob must have felt. The text tells us that he was “very frightened and distressed.” It’s understandable. But the Torah is typically economical with its adjectives. Why are we told he was afraid and afflicted when the meaning of the two words is close enough? Either word would have sufficed to give us the general idea.
Rabbi Yehuda, the son of Ilai, asks just this question in the Midrash (homiletical works that complement and complement the Torah narrative). Here is his response:
[Jacob] was afraid of being killed and distressed at having to kill. He said “if [Esau] gets the better of me, he’ll kill me, and if I get the better of him, then I’ll kill him. And so he was afraid of being killed and grieved to have to kill.
But wait. If Jacob had killed Esau to save his own life (or the lives of others), he would have fulfilled a religious obligation. You are order to defend your life and the lives of others, even if you must use lethal force to neutralize the threat. It’s a positive command act like this.
But that’s the point. Not all religious obligations are ones you should enjoy. Jacob knows he will do the right thing, even if it means killing in self-defense, but the prospect of such action grieves him nonetheless.
The truth, it seems, lies somewhere between Sartre and Kant. Life is messy. Even if you always do your best, it seems that it is not always possible to live your life and make the difficult decisions without sometimes getting your hands dirty.
If ethical theory requires you to reveal a secret and thereby betray someone’s trust in a particular situation, then you should not feel guilty since you did nothing wrong. Maybe the ethics law allowed you to make the promise when you made it. Yet, due to extraordinary circumstances, ethics law later demanded that you break the promise (to save a person’s life, for example). If so, then you have done nothing wrong and the guilt would be irrational.
Living a moral life in this world of imperfection requires a willingness to get your hands dirty.
And yet, breaking a promise or missing a date, even if you only did it to save someone’s life, can still leave you feeling tainted. Defilement is felt because you refrained from doing something good, although you were forced to do something better, or you were forced to do something ugly to keep you from doing something good. worse.
Defilement is not the defilement of guilt, but it is still a defilement. And so, even if there are no ethical dilemmas, doing the right thing can sometimes be ugly.
That was, I guess, Rabbi Yehuda’s point. At this point in his life, Jacob understood the damage that a good deed can cause. It distressed him. But that didn’t paralyze him.
Sartre was wrong. There are always good answers as to how you should act. But living a moral life in this world of imperfection requires a willingness to get your hands dirty.