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

By Jacobs, Jonathan | The Review of Metaphysics, September 2010 | Go to article overview

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


Jacobs, Jonathan, The Review of Metaphysics


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.

I

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.