Category Archives: Morality

Blessed Hesed

 

On Amanour & Co. Cornel West talked some more about the Hebrew concept of hesed.

He started by talking about the great American novelist Henry James who wrote a letter on January 12, 1901 to Robert Louis Stevenson in which he said, he wanted no theory that is too kind  us or that cheats us out of seeing. Every theory has a certain limitedness and narrowness, but the goal is to broaden what we see. We do not want to be short-sighted or myopic. West says the same applies to feeling more deeply.  Then we hopefully can avoid indifference.

West quoted the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “Indifference to evil is more evil than evil itself.”  The Rabbi said it was more dangerous more universal, and more contagious than evil. Then, according to West, the next step is to act more courageously.  It certainly seems like those who are indifferent to suffering are in fact almost numberless. They have no interest in confronting issues of inequity, injustice, poverty, oppression, or the like. They just want to get to their TV shows, or their Facebook feed, or their mindless chatter. I don’t know if it is the most evil thing, but it is surely evil when people are indifferent to suffering.  According to West, If they don’t care about the suffering of others they are simply not fully human.

Even when black leaders are the best of who they are, there are limitations, he admitted. That’s why “democracy itself is the proximate solution to insoluble problems.” It’s the best we can do for now. As he added,

“You are never going to get away with the hatred and insecurity and the anxiety that go hand in hand with who we are as human beings, but you can have mechanisms of accountability vis-à-vis the most vulnerable. That’s democracy. That’s why voices from below can merge to try to shape the destiny of a nation.”

 

When West speaks of love, he means it in the biblical sense of the prophets. As Jeff Sharlet explained,   “Hesed,” he tells me one evening in Princeton, the Hebrew word for “lovingkindness.” “Steadfast commitment to the wellbeing of others, especially the least of these,” West says. That demands a lot of love, but West doesn’t stop there. “Justice is what love looks like in public.” For him, justice is not vengeance but fairness; the respect he believes should be accorded every soul. “And democracy,” he continues, “is what justice looks like in practice.”

I find it interesting how West takes an Old Testament concept and infuses it with modern politics.  He uses the idea to advocate for a  a society where there is justice—a vast, public, and steadfast lovingkindness—for all. That is where West’s religious quest brought him. It brought him to a good place.

 

Religion and Morality

Dostoevsky famously had a character of his claim, in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, that if there is no god then all is permitted. I have actually argued, that if there is a god then all is permitted. More on that another time. Is Dostoevsky right? Are religion and morality that closely tied together?

According to Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, groupishness (the 10% bee in us compared to the 90% chimp in us) is what has allowed humans to go from selfishness to civilization. Relying on Emile Durkheim, Haidt says that “what is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to…regulate his actions by something other than…his own egoism.”

I find this very interesting because this is more or less what I have always said religion is. Religion or morality, on this view, is what connects us to others or to the world.

Haidt also offered an interesting definition of moral systems. He said,

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

That is a mouthful and I am not sure what I think of it. It’s a functional definition so it’s a bit outside my comfort zone. I just think that Haidt had some very interesting things to say about religion and morality, and he made me think. That’s a good thing.

Haidt does not say whether supernatural beings exist or not. He believes such ideas may have evolved with humans as they evolved. He does say however, that those groups who believed in such agents and used such beliefs in building moral and cohesive societies lasted and prospered. They used such ideas to elicit sacrifices and commitment from their members and that helped them to suppress cheating and increase trustworthiness and that helped them in their projects. Groups that had gods who promoted cooperation responded to those gods and were helped to rise to the challenges they faced.

In that sense Haidt says religion is a team sport. As he said:

“We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects. That’s what religion is all about.”

That is also what morality is all about. Religion has not always been about those things. Often religion has been an instrument of division not cooperation. Then religion is shorn of what makes it sacred. It is no longer religion at all.

Finally, this is what politics should be about as well. Clearly, currently that is not the case in much of the world. Politics is riven by partisanship instead. Everywhere you look people are driven apart by politics. That’s a pity. Together we could accomplish so much. Much more than we could on our own. As every coach knows, it’s teams that succeed, not individuals.