5761 - #11

Ethics of the Mind

When Canada declared war on Germany in September of 1939, the vote in the House of Commons was almost unanimous. One individual, J.S. Woodsworth, opposed the declaration of war. As a pacifist, Mr. Woodsworth made an impassioned speech challenging war; this event is considered by many to be one of the finest moments in the history of the Canadian Parliament. Even as every other member of the House of Commons voted to declare war, Mr. Woodsworth was recognized for his courageous ethical stand and his commitment to his principles. We can only be thankful that others did not share Mr. Woodsworth's ethical perspective, an ethical perspective that, if shared by the majority of legislators in the Allied countries, could have led to the destruction of the world. Unfortunately, without judging Mr. Woodsworth himself, I, in turn, can only define his position as one of foolishness and, even, evil.
Ethics are often perceived to exist in a vacuum. They are deemed to be solely reflections of the personality of an individual. We define people as ethical in the same way we refer to other personality traits. This individual is out-going. This one is pensive. This one is highly ethical. It is deemed to be a statement of the emotional make-up of the person. The statement that someone is ethical indicates that he/she has a strong caring for others and/or a commitment to an ideal. So Mr. Woodsworth was seen by his colleagues. His impassioned speech reflected the essence of his personality. Here was an individual with an ideal; more so, he embodied the ideal. One could see it in his eyes. Yet a distinction must be made between these ethical emotions that are tied to personality and the essential definition of ethical behaviour. Ethics does not exist in a vacuum. Proper ethical conduct must consider the reality of the situation. Mr. Woodsworth had what we would term ethical emotions but ethical emotions do not necessarily lead to ethical behaviour. In 1939 for the sake of humanity, war was necessary. Ethical emotions have to confront reality to determine the correct course of action. Ethics ultimately cannot be the product of the heart but ethical behaviour has to be determined by the mind.
Emotions inherently reflect the short term. They are barometers of the immediate response to a situation. If we see death, our emotional response reflects our immediate feelings to the event of death. War is horrible; the ethical emotional response to war must be one of repugnance. But inherent to the very essence of a Jewish response to life is that we do not consider only the short term but the long term. Our emotions are to be controlled. We are to use our minds to project beyond the short term response of the emotion to see long term effect and then determine behaviour in consideration of all factors. As much as one's ethical emotional response is to avoid war, there are times that, notwithstanding the depth of emotions to the contrary, one's ethical response of the mind must be to enter into war. To only follow the emotion is to end in greater harm. To only follow the emotion is actually to do what is not ethical.
This is not simply an argument for the end to justify the means. It may be that, in consideration of all factors, the end does not necessarily justify the means. The cases in Jewish Law which declare that one must sacrifice one's life rather than violate the law
1 are examples of situations where the end does not justify the means. There are also situations where people argue for the end to justify the means to pursue simply an emotional desire. What must be demanded in the realm of ethics is that ethics leaves the realm of the emotional and enters the realm of the mind. Our ethical responses cannot be tugs upon our hearts but rather considered judgements of our minds.
This, of course, is not to say that there is no place for the emotions of the ethical. We can only render correct ethical decisions of the mind if we have developed proper ethical personalities. Our emotions declare what our concerns should be. The emotions of ideals and consideration for others must be the foundation of our being. In fact, the application of our minds is to ensure that these desires be met not only in the short term but in the long term. The declaration of war in 1939 was correct precisely because of these ideals and considerations for others. In effect, by following his emotions, Mr. Woodsworth was being inconsiderate. It is the mind, it is ethical behaviour determined by thought even as it seems to the emotions alone to be unethical, that is the ultimate expression of the ethical.
This, of course, is Yaakov Avinu. Yaakov's ethical emotional integrity and essence is summed up in one sentence.
2 He was above all else an idealist and a man of integrity. This was the essence of his personality. The entire story of Yaakov's life, however, seems to show how he acted contrary to this emotional essence. The entire life of Yaakov in fact is a declaration of ethics of the mind. His very idealism demanded in thought that he ensure that the blessing be passed to him rather than Esav - and so he acted even as his emotions must have challenged him. His very integrity must have demanded in thought that he define his financial contracts with Lavan in that way that he did,3 even as an emotional response would define the matter differently. Idealism and integrity demanded such responses to Esav and Lavan. The emotions of integrity and idealism do not see the factors of reality; the emotions do not see Esav and Lavan. The mind considers all factors, understands integrity and idealism in the context of the situation, projects the full effect of behaviour and thus renders the truly ethical conclusion.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, chap. 5. Of course, the most well-known examples of such cases are murder, incest/adultery and idolatry which in all cases must not be transgressed.

2 Bereishit 26:27. See further Rashi.

3 See Bereishit 30:25-42. See, further, Rashi, Bereishit 31:41.

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