The Epistemology of Moral Tradition: A Defense of a Maimonidean Thesis

Article excerpt

THIS DISCUSSION CONSIDERS some fundamental aspects of medieval Jewish moral psychology and moral epistemology, with emphasis on several of Maimonides' claims. The purpose is to explicate some connections between those aspects, but also to indicate their relevance to enduring issues of ethical life and ethical theory, especially in connection with the concept of tradition. A key issue is the way in which the particularity of a tradition can be educative with regard to universal, objective moral considerations. The views of some medieval Jewish thinkers explicate how tradition is not just practice firmly established and transmitted across generations. Tradition can have a significant epistemic role. Maimonides figures especially prominently though I will refer to other thinkers, such as Saadia Gaon and Bahya ibn Pakuda, who are also important.

They, along with Maimonides, shaped a current of Jewish thought in which even those elements of tradition least transparent to reason can have a role in the achievement of a rational ethics. They argued that practice and understanding form a spiral of mutual reinforcement. Practice can enable agents to attain greater comprehension of the rationale of the practice, and that higher degree of comprehension can fuel the motivation to persist in the relevant practices. The view is not uniquely Maimonides', though his explication of it is the most sophisticated and most fully elaborated. The view provides elements of a moral epistemology of tradition of more than just historical interest or significance within the Jewish context. It addresses some fundamental metaethical issues.

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I begin by noting some general features of the view to be considered and by highlighting a contrast with some important currents of modern moral thought.

Much modern moral thought answers the question of how fully evident the justification of moral requirements must be by maintaining that an agent should not regard a moral claim as obligating unless its justification is rationally compelling. This is true of some of the most influential early modern conceptions of natural law and it is true of Kant's theory and Kant-inspired approaches. There are diverse conceptions of the character of rational justification, but a great deal of modern thought agrees that moral obligation depends strongly on rational justification. However, even if one holds that moral requirements must be rationally justified, there may be grounds for reservations regarding the claim that the justification of a requirement must be evident. The Maimonidean (and more broadly, medieval Jewish) view maintains that there can be a good reason to uphold a tradition because we can understand that there are reasons for its requirements even if we cannot render the justifications for them fully evident.

Jewish thinkers articulated a conception of tradition such that its requirements are rational but in ways that only come into view through living in accord with the practices, perspectives, and commitments constitutive of the tradition. On a different understanding of tradition, the value of tradition is that it sustains moral dispositions and moral orientation when those dispositions and that orientation are not underwritten by rational justification. In this latter view tradition can supply both moral substance and form in those areas into which reason does not reach. If one believes that there are strong reasons against an objectivist conception of moral considerations, this conception of tradition might be attractive. Tradition could help maintain realist-seeming features of ethical judgment and practice even though the metaphysics of morals does not underwrite realist value. Also, in both that view and the medieval Jewish view tradition can be vitally important to the cultivation of virtue, including the development of fluency of judgment, a discerning sensibility, and sound moral motivation. Whether tradition is a mode of access to objective values or shapes a form of moral life that is important because it is thought that there are no objective values, the views agree that moral agents are formed by tradition. …