Friday, April 23, 2004

How do you teach dignity?

There's a Talmudic [fn1] discussion, though I don't remember right now precisely where, that sets out the following scenario. Two people, Robert and Simon [fn2] are in the desert, miles from anywhere. Robert has a canteen of water, but only enough water for one person. If either one drinks the water, that one lives and the other one dies; if they share it, they'll both die. What to do?
[fn1:] Go here for the basics of what Talmud is, here for a basic rundown of what the pages look like. It's also got a dictionary definition, if you want it short and sweet.

[fn2:] For various reasons, not least that something bad often happens to someone in hypotheticals like this, traditional Jews will either talk about "Reuven" and "Shimon" -- which I'm Anglicizing here to Robert and Simon -- or about "Plony AlMony," which is the Jewish John Doe. (More like John, son of Doe.) If your name, dear reader, is Robert or Simon (or even Plony), please take no offense.
It should be no surprise to anyone that there is a difference of opinions in the Talmud about the appropriate course of action, though it's ultimately resolved, and also that there's a fair amount of discussion of the case and variations on the case (what if they find the water, what if the water belongs to Simon, but Robert is just carrying it for him, and so on) in the later commentaries. One of the coolest things (at least to me) about being an Orthodox Jew is that I get to live in a world where abstruse discussions about (apparently) abstract morality are not only tolerated, not even encouraged, but expected and admired. The question comes up a lot in shailas (halachic inquiries) related to the Holocaust, where Plony can save one child at the expense of another child, and so on. And though it's part of a larger dialogue in which I'm involved in other parts of my life, I'm not looking to discuss it in depth here.

I merely want to point out one particular tweak in the Talmudic discussion. There are basically two postitions in the original case: one side says share the water, even if means death for both of you, and hope for a miracle; one side says drink the water (and hope for a miracle anyway for the other guy).

The discussion centers almost entirely on what Robert (the owner and possessor of the canteen and the water inside it) should do. There's no discussion at all about what Simon should do. There's not even the beginning of the idea that Simon should, say, steal the water from Robert, drink it, and leave Robert to die. At first this seems like no big deal, but this whole discussion stems from a larger discussion about the moral imperative to maintain one's own life, and once framed in that context, it seems strange. Here's Simon the football player and Robert the Woody Allen neb. Why shouldn't Simon just take the water? What if Simon's like a Louis Pasteur/Albert Schweitzer type, and Robert's an ex-con child molesting cab driver?

I think, once you look at this closely, there's a deep deep teaching here. What the Talmud -- by its silence -- is saying is that there are two parts to being "alive." There's the part that's not easy to define but is, essentially, definable. Then there's another part, and while I don't have the precise word for it, "dignity" will do for now. That dignity is a part of the self in a way that your limbs or organs can't be. So that the sentence, "I am obligated to keep myself alive," becomes freighted with a deeper meaning.

Because if Simon reaches over and kills Robert for the water, then while Simon's maintained the first part of being alive, the biological functioning part, he's effectively destroyed the other part, the "self" part, so that while he's kept his body alive, he hasn't satisfied the mandate to keep his-self alive, because in the moment of taking Robert's life Simon was fundamentally, and in some measure irreversibly, changed from what he was.[fn3] He's won, but he's lost. Or rather, it looks like he's won, but in reality he's lost.
[fn3:] I don't want to be taken wrong here; I don't read this to be advocating pacifism or a failure to defend yourself. I think the Torah's just clarifying the serious analysis that has to be a part of any decision, in either direction, on this or related issues.
Again, the implications of this are complex, and I think merit their own discourse in another forum. And I know you're wondering what this has to do with being a good father to Rachel (and a good husband to G). But hold onto the idea for a minute, I'll get there.

What's critical to realize is that while (thank God) the life-and-death version of this scenario doesn't come up that often, the not-so-life-and-death version comes up for a lot of people a lot of the time. And while it's good to think about what you would do if you had the canteen, as often as not you're in the other position, looking at the guy with the canteen.

For instance, you're playing a game with someone and first you make a stupid mistake that you would never really make if you were paying attention, and then ten minutes later they get up to answer the phone and you really could cheat without getting caught. Or at work, where you sign on for one thing and they change the expectations or the pay structure or the project definition on you, and you have the ability to fudge your billing a little to make it work out more equitably for you.

First of all, I need to note that the phrase, "equitably for you," is a brilliantly telling bit of oxymoron. Second of all, I'm not saying these are morally equivalent situations either to each other or to the canteen situation above. I'm only saying that they implicate the same concern; they're situations where it's possible to lose the thing you're striving for in the very act of gaining it. Call it the Dignity Paradox: the ability to destroy a thing desired in the instant of gaining it. If you're playing poker, then the instant you look at another player's cards, you can not win the game, you can only win this new game you've created, "poker-where-I-know-your-cards-but-you-don't-know-mine."

And I've been thinking about this for a while now: How do I teach that to Rachel? It's a very morally subtle concept, but a critical one. And, unfortunately, not one that I think that everybody just gets as they get older, because I really (sadly) feel that not everybody gets it.

Now, I realize that moral subtlety has to follow a baseline education in moral absolutism. Or, maybe I should say that's my opinion rather than I "realize" it, but whatever. What I mean to say is that the whole conversation about the canteen in the desert doesn't even begin until you share the moral baseline that the death of others is generally a bad thing and to be avoided, and certainly that causing the death of others is a bad thing and to be avoided. Only after you've got that down can you even begin to ask questions like the canteen problem or the related trolley problem or anything like that. Only if you have the absolute locked in -- cheating is bad -- can you talk about when cheating might be necessary, and if necessary then morally acceptable.

So I realize that before this ever comes up, explicitly at least, with Rachel, we've got a long road of, "that's Good," and, "that's Bad" ahead of us. And in any event there's the moral and psychological evolution that Rachel's going to have to go through before this even becomes relevant.

But what I'm worried about is example. If you smoke, then it really doesn't matter how much you tell your kids not to smoke, they're probably going to smoke. If you cheat on your wife, no matter your stealth your kids will know, and besides whatever other lasting psychological damage you do, your kids will have it planted inside of them somewhere deep that honesty to one's spouse isn't necessarily the be-all and end-all of spousal responsibility. (How they react to that is more a function of the psychological damage and so a more complex issue than the smoking thing.) And the power of example doesn't pay any attention to the moral/psychological/whatever stage of the child; a child sees a parent smoke and the idea of it is planted in his or her head long before the child has the ability to fully reason out the various implications of the act.

So, here's the thing. I sincerely believe that both G and I live lives that respect the Dignity Paradox. I really and truly try to live a morally correct life, as best as I can figure that out on a day-by-day basis. But, first of all, I'm not always going to get it right, and neither will G. And second of all (and more importantly) I live a life now where sometimes -- not always, but sometimes -- I have to make the morally "subtle" judgments that come with being an adult.

What I'm struggling to figure out is how to teach the dignity idea (and the moral absolutes) to Rachel without being a hypocrite, without confusing her, and without leaving her adrift. She needs to be able to make decisions about what the right thing is to do, even when it's not so clear, but that lack of clarity makes it hard to show.

How's this for an example. I stayed at work late yesterday, and now I'm spending 90 minutes at work today writing this up.[fn4] I work in law, so I'm responsible for tracking my time and those hours get billed to the clients, or, if I'm doing administrative work, to the company. But I don't want to have 10 hours billed yesterday and 4 hours billed today; it'll just look weird and while I don't anticipate any adverse consequences I don't feel comfortable with it. So maybe I just squidge a couple of those hours over to today, right. No big deal; instead of 10 and 4 it's 8 and 6, which makes me feel a lot better about it, at least. And nobody loses, either, unless there's some sort of problem with billing that has a date cutoff of exactly today, which is so infinitesimal a possibility that I'm willing to ignore it.
[fn4:] My supervisor knows that I do some personal work at the office -- almost all lawyers do -- and he doesn't mind, as long as (of course) I don't bill it to a client or anything. We're not talking about use of company resources here
But do I do that? I'm not going to say if I will or won't; I'm using this as an example. What I'm worried about is having the dialogue with Rachel, assuming it ever comes up. I mean, how do you have a conversation on the lines of:

"Stealing is wrong; Lying is wrong. Except maybe when your mother burns the chicken and I say I really liked it, because then I'm not really lying, so much as moving the truth around a little, because I really did like it in so far as I liked that your mother made it for me."

I mean, come on. Who's going to buy that? What's that going to teach Rachel?

I don't know. I don't have an answer on this one. Just something I've been thinking about.


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At Jul 7, 2004 10:41:00 AM, Anonymous said...

[importing from old comment system]

John ( @ 04/24/2004 08:33:

Even if one believes there are moral absolutes, morals still have to have a context to make sense. Pretending these contexts don't affect our moral decisions makes for a kind of relativism - all morals are made relative to whatever context we happen to be in at the time. Your comments software won't let me go into detail, but I'll think about it and maybe post something on my own site.

PS - great post, by the way.


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