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A thought inspired by Friday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Gittin 45

A thought inspired by Friday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Gittin 45

Ethics and Temptation.

This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.

When people do bad things, is that because they are bad?

One simple response is that the answer to this question is obviously “Yes.” We could define a bad person as someone who behaves unethically. We need not look inside a person’s mind, even if we could do so. Only actions count, and unethical behavior necessarily implies a bad person.

However, it is also possible to say that almost everybody in the world falls along a spectrum from perfect saintly goodness to downright evil. Moreover, their position is not fixed along just one dimension, since the same person might be caring towards those close to them but wicked towards those with whom they do not identify.

One significant factor that might cause people along this ethical spectrum to behave badly is the level of temptation to do the wrong thing. According to this perspective, most people would, in the abstract, prefer to be good and kind. However, if at any time it becomes too easy to violate the norms of society, or if the reward for such a violation is too great, then they are liable to give in to temptation.

Only after being enticed to seize the opportunity to behave unethically, will people start justifying their decisions. Their ethical evaluation of the situation will shift to realign with their perception of themselves, their values, and the action they are about to take. They will promote arguments in their own minds that explain why what they have decided to do is reasonable and moral.

For example, if a person can avoid paying a significant amount of tax by failing to disclose some income and if they feel extremely confident that they will not be caught, or the potential fine is low, then they might succumb to the temptation. They might initially believe that taxes serve an important role in society, but as they make the decision, they will recall all the stories about how the very rich pay so little. They will come to perceive tax avoidance as simply the way everybody plays the game, rather than as lying, cheating, or failing to participate.

As people go through this process, they themselves begin to change; they become less ethical individuals.

There is no simple solution to this ethical issue. It might be theoretically possible to have a society that is watching everybody all the time or to institute onerous punishments for every offense. We might create a society where no opportunity exists for wrongdoing, but we probably wouldn’t want to live in such a society.

This perspective on ethics is not very optimistic about human character, but neither is it very pessimistic. It sees people as sometimes fickle, weak, and driven by a complex variety of motivations. However, on the other hand, it sees very few people as being truly bad.

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