By Dov Maimon | 10/09/2009
In a world in which any attempt to realize religious or secular concepts in their entirety necessarily leads to bloodshed, Dov Maimon offers a new set of values, one that may enable a new Middle Eastern morality to develop
Human history has taught us that the finest ideas for improving the world have often ended up creating a terrible bloodbath. As Professor Avi Sagi put it: "Since human beings are unable to agree on what is desirable, and because those that believe in the ideal of a better, mended world are convinced that it is the only world that has any meaning, the exertion of coercive mechanisms and direct or indirect violence become inevitable." Both the universal religious visions, on the one hand, and the messianic atheist ideologies on the other, have led to such ghastly tragedies that we must consider an alternative to these transformative projects; perhaps it is time that we completely gave up our childish fantasies of creating an ideal world absent of wars or conflicts. The Americans, after examining the experience of history, offered a narrow, pragmatic vision: a civic society. Clearly, a large part of the charm of the American vision, one of a world without utopia, lies in the fact that it is free of any moral tension. This liberal model does not involve a collective vision, but only the basic desire to establish an effective and fair society that is run according to a rational set of laws, so that its members can enjoy maximum individual liberty. Government intervention can be summed up as the effective management of the system, and its role is not unlike that of a ship's captain, whose job it is to steer a huge imaginary ship, but who does not have to lead the passengers to any particular predetermined destination. All the passengers have to do is observe a set of rules that will make it easier for them to function together in a fair and equitable manner - no more.
An official program and a hidden program
Does the image of a huge ship sailing along on the endless Pacific Ocean without any destination fit in with the image of the State of Israel, which was established as the realization of a political dream? Beyond that, is the principle of fair play, which appears to be functional and neutral, indeed free of any value-based consideration? Ironically, behind the vision of a non-utopian world hides the yearning for a complete and total world, one that is utopian nonetheless. And the proof of this lies in the fact that American democracy has left wide swathes of injustice, inequality and deep frustration among its many thousands of "failures." Perhaps the guise of amorality invariably conceals a political-social vision that is itself based on clearly defined moral choices. According to this implicit societal vision, decisions are made to encourage or rein in social initiatives. It is based on this vision that the government determines its political and legal principles and agenda and decides to provide additional funding to the army or the universities, or for the purpose of minimizing societal disparities or promoting medical research. Without awareness of the hidden goals that are considered axiomatic, no public debate on moral motivations can be held. Consequently, it would be a good idea for America, and even more so for Israel, which is engaged in a war for its survival, to place a value-based debate on its public agenda.
What utopian scenarios have in common
Monotheistic religions are generally characterized by two consecutive stages: 1. A supernatural being reveals itself to a select group and hands down a universal societal vision; 2. The select group becomes the avant-garde of a model civilization (which includes a corpus of formative myths, beliefs, commandments and leaderships) and tries to lead the entire world forth in order to heal it. The secular messianic movements - and these include socialism, liberalism and Zionism - maintained the same structure as the religions while "secularizing" the societal ideal. They replaced the source of the revelation and authority, and rather than a supernatural entity, we have human reason and natural morality. In order to gain a notion of just how similar secular totalitarian messianism and the religious models are, it is helpful to look at the language - so laden with Christian vocabulary and imagery - that Jean Jacques Rousseau, the spiritual father of the French Revolution, uses. He defines what he calls the "civic religion" as a "series of dogmas that the public must believe in so that society can exist."
Communism is yet another example of an atheistic religion. Not only did the mausoleum in which Lenin was buried become no more and no less than a shrine visited by religious pilgrims, but even in theory, the father of the Soviet revolution determines (as stated for example in Lenin's book, "The State and Revolution"), that for the sake of the proletariat - which because it is oppressed is oblivious to its class's true interests - the communist avant-garde must take over the government and force the revolution on its opponents with an iron fist. The blemish of the gulag is already present in the revolution's moral system, as advocated in the writings of Marx and Lenin.
|If it is not reason that determines values but just the opposite, that values precede rational decisions, does that mean that we will be engaged in a constant war between the various value systems? As I understand it, reason must play a major role in the building of this new pantheon of values, not in the choice between competing values, but rather in clarifying their meaning|
Despite the fact that the moral underpinnings of the utopian visions were not the subject of critical debate in real time, these totalitarian messianic models have now become the focus of criticism for the first time. First, as stated, because they did not meet their own expectations: Compassion and good intentions disintegrated in the face of the social reality. Second, the belief in an exclusive, absolute truth, which by nature of it being absolute justified its followers' single-minded ruthlessness, was undermined; doubt was cast on the universality of human nature, and as a result, on the validity of universal moral truths. In the first half of the twentieth century, numerous anthropologists researched societies all over the world, consciously refusing to pass any moral judgment on the various lifestyles and cultures they encountered. If the Western model has no inherent advantage over any other and there is nothing upon which to base an objective moral judgment, no one can claim Western thought is inherently superior, in whose name economic and cultural colonialism was justified. After the Holocaust and the tragic implementation of both black and red fascism, which left a terrible stain of arrogance on the enlightened West, skepticism and relativism became the West's new fundamental beliefs - both in the academy and in the street.
Of the two stages of the utopian model, it is the second that undermines societal stability. Because the first stage of the process (belief in revelation and the pride of belonging to a chosen people) is essentially personal and cognitive, it does not adversely affect societal cooperation. In fact, it is not the personal belief that is problematic, but rather its dissemination by force. The secular consensus - which relegated faith and religion to the private sphere and determined a collective agenda from which faith-based conceptual positions were absent - was formed based on this distinction. All people have to do is believe in their "own" absolute truth, without forcing it on others, for a tolerant society, perhaps even a "confederation of micro-utopias," to come into being.
A political idea that became reality: the concept of the individual
Although secularization appears to be a straightforward means to achieve consensual separation between various groups of believers (it was invented in England as a means to end the bloody civil war of many years between Catholics and Protestants), it involves taking a moral stand regarding the relative place of personal and collective identities. The separation of religion from state represents a very powerful breakthrough in thought on the part of the European philosophers of the 17th century: the invention of the idea of the individual. In light of the fact that a person may change nationality, religion and culture and not feel that he has given up his primary individuality, it may be assumed that one's personal identity precedes one's sense of religious, national or ethnic belonging. Consequently, society becomes a collection of autonomous beings that have reached an agreement according to which the individual is the basic entity. In Israel, for the most part oblivious to the basic philosophical assumptions upon which this idea is based, this position is reiterated like an accusatory mantra to protest religious coercion: "Live and let live."
Within the traditional parts of Israeli society (the national-religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Arabs and to some extent the original Zionist pioneers, fans of Hapoel Tel Aviv, the veteran supporters of Meretz and the extreme-left Gush-Shalom activists), the understanding of the nature of the connection between individual rights and personal vision is different. Being part of a shared collective, we are all responsible for one another and deviation by an individual from the ideal undermines the advancement of the shared project. In a traditional world, the collective is the fundamental entity and realizing the collective project takes precedence over realizing the personal one. According to this understanding, a member of society that refuses to take part in the shared project is in fact betraying his innermost individuality. After 9/11, millions, even in democratic America, displayed the national flag in their windows and declared their willingness to die in order to realize the collective vision. At least in the smaller, outlying American towns, anyone that refused to be part of the patriotic activity was viewed with suspicion and became the target of his neighbors' criticism. The liberal atomist model ignored human being's natural need to belong to a group and consequently failed to penetrate numerous traditional societies in the world, despite the advantages it offered.
For the matter at hand, it is important to understand that the implications of internalizing the concept of the individual are far-reaching. The enshrinement of the values of freedom and individuality has its root in the perception of individual autonomy as a supreme value. Outside the modern Western world, humanity in general has not accepted this moral principle as a given. Note, for example, that the majority of Islamic scholars justify suicide attacks because for them the national interest takes priority over the personal one, and they extol the principle of absolute surrender to God, one that is diametrically opposed to the Western ideal of freedom of the individual. And the Kantian argument regarding the essential need for individual autonomy can also be challenged, for example, by noting that there is no definitive proof that marriages are less happy or successful in India, where most marriages are still arranged by parents based on group interests rather than on the personal choice of the young couple.
The value of equality is an excellent case in point for this debate: Acceptance of the principle of equal rights for all and the decision of the majority, despite the fact that not all people are equally enlightened or share an equal understanding of economics or politics, is not the result of pure reason; it is primarily an internal decision, i.e. one of the conscience. Naturally, these intuitive choices are not considered moral decisions in each community and are therefore not the subject of public debate.
The war of the gods and the polytheism of values
In 1919, sociologist Max Weber identified the inevitable conflict between the various ideological approaches, coining the metaphorical term "war of the gods." Unlike other thinkers of his time and their predecessors, who believed that common sense could be used to settle conflicts and lead humanity towards world peace, Weber determined that politics is not motivated by rational thought and consequently cannot be resolved. All science can do is effectively advance a value-based goal determined from the outset based on internal, irrational considerations. "Various orders of values," wrote Weber, "continually compete in the world," like the constant conflict between the various gods that represented the ideals of the ancient Greek cities. Just as there were various conflicting gods in the Greek pantheon, so too today, the various ideological approaches are in a state of conflict with one another, a conflict that cannot be resolved through rational considerations. However, Weber draws another conclusion from this regarding the relativity of the various value systems. The German sociologist referred to this as the "polytheism of values," meaning that the various value-based judgments that lie at the foundation of various cultures, be they ethical, esthetic or political, are not absolute and cannot make any claim to truth or objectivity.
To some extent, the celebrated article published by Professor Samuel Huntington in the summer of 1993, "The Clash of Civilizations?" continues along the same line of thought and identifies the international political conflict with the value-based debate that lies at its foundation. According to Huntington, the source of international conflicts is neither ideological nor economic, but rather cultural. "In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers from three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous." It is false because other civilizations have different ideals; it is immoral because "Imperialism is the necessary logical consequence of universalism;" and it is dangerous "to the world because it could lead to a major intercivilizational war between core states." If there are no universal, comprehensive human values, then what is the meaning of the concept of "humanism?" If every culture develops its own ethics and there is no room for moral judgment, then the West has no right to interfere in the cultural sphere of the Third World in the name of moral considerations.
The boundaries of relativism
A debate on the basic values that drive our lives is essential for the continued existence of any human collective, both on the local community level as well as globally. One of the subjects raised this year for debate at the traditional UNESCO conference in September, under the heading of "Twenty-First Century Talks," was "The Future of Values." The Western scholars delighted in self-criticism reminiscent of the festival of self-hate we know so well from the intellectual debates among Israeli liberals. They called for turning an attentive ear to the Muslim east, a legitimate alternative to Western thought, and to try to draw new light and redemptive wisdom from it. Paradoxically, it was the Eastern philosophers that came out in defense of the universalist heritage of Western humanism, attacking the West's indulgent and irresponsible attitude towards the corruptions of Islamism. Tunisian anthropologist Hélé Béji noted that radical Islamism had already murdered 150,000 innocent people in Algeria alone. Algerian philosopher Muhammad Arkoun and Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne joined their voices to hers, and called on the West to take responsibility and intervene in the tyrannical regimes because of considerations based on universal values. They warned that "if the West - using the pretext of nonintervention and in the name of the rights of peoples to conduct themselves autonomously - prevents the Africans and Muslim Arabs from undergoing a process of cultural modernization, it will be twice to blame - of both the sin of colonialism and of preventing the liberation from colonialism." Without delving into the full psychological complexity of this statement, let us just note the criticism voiced by the Iranian philosopher Darius Shayegan regarding the ease with which those that have failed at globalization evade responsibility and console themselves for their bitter fate, laying all the blame at the West's doorstep. He calls upon his fellow Muslims to begin learning from the countries of the Far East: They have succeeded in liberating themselves from the yoke of colonialism and subsequently achieved considerable economic success without drowning in moral corruption and despotical tyranny. In a post-modernist age, a proposal such as this - to return to a universalist morality - is quite a challenge. However, in view of the terror and organized evil all around us, the world, and especially Israel, may have no choice but to construct rules for a new ethical system.
A moral determination in favor of reason
In the first part of this discussion, we tried to demonstrate three points: 1. Values underlie everything and there can be no politics without values; 2. If we are fated to live with dogmas, it is our duty to conduct an in-depth clarification as to what the most desirable dogmas are; 3. As part of the explicit debate on values proposed, we may have to challenge the absolute dogmas that lie at the foundation of liberalism, such as freedom of the individual and absolute equality.
If it is not reason that determines values but just the opposite, that values precede rational decisions, does that mean that we will be engaged in a constant war between the various value systems? As I understand it, reason must play a major role in the building of this new pantheon of values, not in the choice between competing values, but rather in clarifying their meaning. The various value systems should be systematically explored, in order to create a shared rational system that can prevent unnecessary clashes. The demand today is not to return to the supremacy of the West, but rather to recognize in a non-dogmatic fashion and employing non-indulgent criticism the sparks of light in every culture. As long as one exercises great caution and approaches from a position of considerable epistemological modesty, one can criticize cultures and seek the shared moral core within them. Perhaps, the investigation will show that due to historical reasons, the West has indeed attained relative moral superiority. Eminent anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who fought his entire life for the equality of cultures, reconsidered this concept towards the end of his life and admitted that humanity owes an enormous debt to Western critical thought.
Another value that appears to be basic to fruitful human coexistence is that of dialogue: The ability to criticize and to humbly listen to criticism offered by others advances us. Other liberal values will also be placed at the focus of debate. Freedom of speech and heterogeneity will apparently be accepted. Will unconditional human rights, freedom of the individual and equality also be accepted by all? Perhaps not. These appear to be far more problematic values, since they are contingent on the culturally dependent relationship between the individual and the collective. These values will require a separate debate as to their advisability in each local context.
Karl Popper (1902-1994), a Jewish philosopher who dealt extensively with this subject, noted that a preliminary and desirable condition for a meaningful and constructive encounter is the ability of all participants to be self-critical. If we are trying to prove that we are right, there is no way we can be attentive to the authenticity of the other person. The Belgrade Circle is an example of just such a value-based multicultural discussion group; its participants include leading Western intellectuals such as Derrida, Taylor and others. Based on their conclusions, the new morality will be simultaneously both more universal and more local. If, as historian Arnold Toynbee claimed, the later religions prevailed because they included their predecessors within them (in his view, Christianity was more universal than Judaism, and liberalism more universal than Christianity), then the new system will contain debatable broader contentions than its predecessors. Unlike Toynbee's suggestion, the debate needed in Israel will not only be more universal, but also more particularist; it will include the non-universalist voices too and take into account the need to maintain a firm and safe collective identity, which Toynbee - who was immersed exclusively in Western individualist thought - could not countenance. Today, there are a number of dialogue groups in Israel that focus on this kind of incisive value-based debate; perhaps they will produce the moral legitimacy for a much-needed renewed Israeli vision.
|The various value systems should be systematically explored, in order to create a shared rational system that can prevent unnecessary clashes. The demand today is not to return to the supremacy of the West, but rather to recognize in a non-dogmatic fashion and employing non-indulgent criticism the sparks of light in every culture. As long as one exercises great caution and approaches from a position of considerable epistemological modesty, one can criticize cultures and seek the shared moral core within them |
The current situation, in which our physical existence is being threatened, does not make it easy for us to bear our weaknesses in discussion, but having no alternative, the renewed value-based debate will have to include dimensions that until now remained outside it, such as feelings, intuitions and esthetics. Beyond these relatively simple value-based judgments, we must discuss around the table subjects over which no consensus exists, such as: Is my personal right to survive moral? And, if my existence comes at the expense of another, a competitor, which of the two moral considerations should take precedence? A number of solutions have been proposed to this kind of dilemma: In contrast to the solution offered by Kant, which has been criticized here, we have the solutions of Darwin (survival of the fittest), of Nietzsche (morality is the invention of the weak), and Carl Shmitt (unceasing hostility towards enemies is the basis for collective identity), which have been used to justify intolerable nightmares.
Perhaps we will have to reexamine the ancient Jewish alternative of "Love your neighbor as yourself." This rule, which moves away from the absoluteness of the above philosophical rules, contains a certain degree of unattractive compromise and realism, developed in the cruel ancient Middle East in order to make possible our continued individual and collective existence based on sensitivity to reality and our own moral expectations. I propose that we hone our understanding of this golden rule according to the following simplistic meaning: If the other of the other is you, then he is no less than you and no more than you.
Dov Maimon is a group facilitator for study and dialogue groups of religious Jewish, Christian and Muslim educators.