Tuesday, December 11, 2012

On the Ethics of a Shepherd

I am currently reading a book by Yoram Hazony entitled, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scritpture.  I am finding it interesting concerning the Old Testament, but surprisingly also found some ideas that connect with some of the political debate in the last election. In a chapter, "The Ethics of a Shepherd, Hazony discusses differences between Abraham and his great-grandson, Joseph, and argues that the ethical system of the great eastern empires (partially represented by Joseph)--Egypt and Babylon--contrasted with he ethical system developed in the Hebrew Scriptures (as represented by Abraham and Moses). He then compared the ethic of the empires with the Athenian ethic coming from Plato and Aristotle, finding them similar. Hazony writes, "...[Athenian philosphy] continued to find it difficult to think of the ethical life of man as having reference to anything outside the common life of members of the political community constituted by the state. In this respect, the thought of Plato and Aristotle is still much like that of the great empires of the ancient Near East, accepting it as a given that if we are to make sense of the moral order, we must begin with the individual as part of the state that governs him." (p. 130, emphasis in the original). Havony quotes from Plato and then concludes, "The state, then, is to be held sacred, and more revered than one's parents." (p. 131).

Havony also looks at Aristotle, concluding, "Aristotle does not seem to think that the end of man--the highest purposes for the sake of which the individual acts and lives his life--can even be distinguished from the end of the state." (p. 131).  Havony claims that the view was the a child would be mistaken to think his parents provided his life and education because actually the laws and the state protect his parents, so ultimately are responsible for the child's life and education.

This sounds like the debate that occurred over a speech President Obama gave in which he said, "You didn't build that." How much of a person's success should be attributed to things the person does versus the environment provided by the state? There was also the words of John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." One way of asking this is to ask whether the government is there to provide an environment for the individual to thrive, or is the indivual the servant of the state? These are questions Milton Friedman often wrote about, arguing from a libertarian point of view. While I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between, I fear the collectivist tendency implicit in Kennedy's quote and the implication many tried to draw from Obama's statement.


  1. This is an interesting discussion. Obama treats business owners like thieves and forgets that we all pay taxes to allow others to build things for the common use. I believe this should be the role of government: coordinate and plan infrastructure and services for its citizens while leaving each one free to pursue his or her calling. Handouts are against the purpose of the state since it is taking from the productive sector to give to the unproductive. It not only takes money away from the pool to be used for the common good but it is an incentive for the non-productive group to remain as such. I think that in order to receive unemployment or other government handouts, in-between jobs, the recipients should volunteer at public hospitals, schools, etc. You never know, some third generation unemployment/disability, etc., recipients may even find their calling...

  2. Thanks for the comment. One of the most difficult things to do is devise a system that helps those who need it without creating incentives to become dependent.