Outsider Ethics

Outsider Ethics June 9, 2016

While Athenian philosophy was in many respects quite distant from the political cosmologies that characterized the great Near Eastern empires,” writes Yoram Hazony (The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture), “it continued to develop their view of man as being essentially a creature of the state that governs him, and of ethics as a discipline that aims to understand how the virtuous individual goes about contributing to the good of this state” (132).

On this point, the ethics of the Hebrew Bible diverges quite radically: “The very first instruction that the God of Israel issues to Abraham is the command to leave the country of his birth and to sever his ties with it—just that which Socrates presented as being unthinkable.” Other biblical heroes find themselves in similar positions, often standing outside or against the established powers: “virtually all of [them] are portrayed as being in a condition of acute conflict with the rulers of the nations in which they live, and as disobeying their laws and commands almost as a matter of course. Indeed, it often seems as if the authors of the biblical narratives believe that the laws of states, and the commands of the kings who rule them, are no better than empty words, bearing no normative force whatsoever” (132). Hazony doesn’t believe this is the case, but the theme of resistance to power is striking.

Part of the reason, he thinks, has to do with the social location of the early Hebrews, who were taught the ethics of “the nomad” (133). It is a “shepherd’s” ethic: “From this shepherd’s perspective, ethics cannot begin with the state because human beings can leave the state and lead a worthy life outside of it just as Abraham did. Ethics must therefore begin with a view of the human being—or, to be more precise, with the human family—as being independent of the state. . . . If the state can play a role in assisting the individual to fulfill his responsibilities and obligations, which are prior to the state and entirely independent from it, then the machinery of the state and its laws can be seen as having a purpose and a reason to exist. But when the state cannot or does not serve this end, the state and its laws cease to have a claim on the individual. So far as he is concerned, they no longer have any reason to exist at all” (133).

That, I think, is overstated. The state has other legitimate purposes; there are forms of sociality and levels of achievement that can only be reached through larger-than-family organizations. Further, I wonder whether the category of “the state” is anachronistic in the context of the Hebrew Bible, and I don’t agree with all of the specific interpretations that lead Hazony to his conclusions. Still, the general conclusion is sound: The Bible presents the possibility of an outsider community; and so presents the possibility of prophetic rebuke and resistance.

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