In a recent essay, Abraham Socher explored how Moses Maimonides dealt with some of the thorniest questions of modern ethical thought: how to square the fact that people want to do good with their inability to do so, and, if being a good person means not just following rules but possessing inner virtues, how is the movement from non-virtue to virtue—that is, repentance—ever possible? While Socher concludes that such paradoxes may be ultimately unsolvable, Andrew Koss sees a possible answer in the work of the Russian-born rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953):
How does someone without virtue, or without a particular virtue, truly repent—not in the sense of acknowledging wrongdoing after the fact and begging forgiveness from God and man, but by actually improving himself or herself?
It so happens that the cultivation of inner virtue was a prime concern of Dessler and his fellow [devotees of the rabbinic movement known as musar], who were fixated—perhaps excessively—on obtaining purity of motive and thought. It’s hard to believe that he didn’t see [repentance] as involving some sort of inner change as well. But how? While Dessler doesn’t say so explicitly, I think the answer comes from another rabbinic statement: “One should always study Torah and fulfill commandments for ulterior motives, since, by doing them for ulterior motives one will ultimately come to do them for pure motives.” To put it differently, good outward actions can foster inner virtue; the means justify the ends.
And if the appeal to talmudic authority doesn’t convince you, modern psychology has come to the same conclusion. According to what’s known as dissonance theory, when a person’s belief is out of sync with his behavior, the most likely outcome is that his beliefs will change to accord with his actions. . . .
The interesting thing is that Aristotle had a similar view of how to develop character: “[B]y refraining from pleasures,” he writes, “we become temperate, and once having become temperate we are most capable of refraining from them.” Indeed, the Ethics puts a great deal of emphasis on habit, and it’s no coincidence that the words for “character” and “habit” are nearly identical in ancient Greek—both transliterate as ethos. And Aristotle, whose virtue ethics philosophy professors like to contrast to the “deontological” (i.e., law-based) system preferred by Judaism, concludes the Ethics by discussing the potential of laws to render people virtuous.
To which Socher replies:
It may be useful as a tool for moral self-improvement to see oneself as adjudicating between opposing forces within one’s breast or brain, [as does Dessler, along with Plato and many others], though where precisely the adjudicator, or charioteer, resides is more than a moot point. But I’m afraid I don’t see how such a picture reconciles virtue ethics with an ethics of obligation, or solves the puzzles in moral psychology to which the experience of weakness of the will and the moral phenomenon of repentance give rise. More generally, I think ethical life is best described at the level of the conscious individual, the moral agent.
Sign Up For Our E-Mail List Get the latest from Mosaic right in your inbox
Sign up now for unlimited access