By Israel Drazin
In my discussion on “Are intelligent people moral,” I wrote that Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) taught in his Guide of the Perplexed 1:2 that people should work to develop their thinking and understanding by studying the sciences and logic, and make life decisions based on what they learnt, on what is reasonable. Maimonides explained in 1:2 that the biblical parable of the “garden of Eden” in Genesis 3 containing the divine prohibition that people should not eat from the fruit of the tree of “good and evil,” is a prohibition against making decisions based on what is good and evil, on what morality teaches. Instead, people should base their decisions about how to act on what makes sense after a careful analysis of all factors relevant to the situation. In essence, Maimonides stresses that morality is a system of rules for the multitude, for people who cannot or do not want to think.
Morality is faulty. It attempts to establish absolute rules of behavior that fit all situations, but this is impossible since every event is different. True, for example, one shouldn’t drive through a red light, help old ladies cross the street, give charity, and not kill. But there are instances where these rules do not make sense, such as when one is being pursued by a murderer, when the old lady is crazy and harmful if touched, or if it makes more sense at the moment to spend the money for an investment, or to kill in self defense. Additionally, what may be proper in one country at one moment in time may not be proper in another at another time. Thus, morality is a good set of rules for people who don’t think because the rules are generally (but only generally) the right way to behave to help people and society.
Maimonides followed the teachings of the fourth century BCE Greek philosopher Aristotle and not Plato who mistakenly thought that there are absolutes for virtually everything. When Christianity started Christians bought into Plato’s ideas. When Christianity spread, it influenced people of other faiths to accept the notion of absolutes and the need to be moral. As a result, many great philosophers who failed to recognize the true nature of morality wrestled with how to define it without success, simply because it cannot be defined other than to say that it is a set of general rules on how the general population who don’t think should act.
Aristotle said it this way in his Nichomachean Ethics:
Matters concerning conduct and with what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health…. (In) particular cases, … (people) must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion, as happens also in the art of medicine or of navigation.