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Is there a single ethical ideal?

What is the ethical ideal? Is it always altruism?

Pirkei Avot states in the name of Antigonus:

“Be not like servants who serve their master with the expectation of reward. Rather, be like the servants who serve their master without expectation of reward.”

We know that Antigonus was speaking metaphorically, for he appended to his ethical ideal this: “And let the awe of Heaven be upon you.” In other words, serve G-d for its own sake. Do not make deals with G-d, the classic example being, “If you heal my mortal illness, I will [fill in the blank for whatever it is you think G-d wants].”

Metaphor or not, Antigonus is easily transposed to the realm of human relations. Should one give tzedakah anonymously, or in order to receive public recognition? This is another classic ideal which is so simple to answer because, in fact, it is so simplistic. Of course one should give tzedakah without expectation of public recognition. The thing is, this binary, black-and-white choice clouds the way the world should work.

A few ethical variations on this issue:

If one gives tzedakah publicly, this can, and often does, have the effect of coercing others to give, or to give more than they otherwise would, when they can well afford it.

If people give tzedakah only because they will receive public recognition, but otherwise would not give at all, or would give less than they can afford, the dilution of the purity of intent in the giver is offset by something much more important: the relief of pain or poverty of the recipient (or whatever the specific gain to the beneficiary may be, depending on the charitable cause).

The issue reaches beyond the monetary sphere. A book reviewer in the Wall Street Journal notes:

“A coffee chain ‘sustainably sources’ it coffee beans and proudly announces this to customers interested in conscientious caffeination. A sports league festoons its athletes with pink to publicize its breast cancer ‘awareness,’ hoping to lure female fans. Ivy League universities rake in ‘charitable giving’ by easing admission for the children of ‘charitable givers.’ A lonely Facebook user harvests a hundred ‘likes’ by posting his $20 contribution to a refugee organization.”

Who is against the environment, or breast cancer research, or higher education, or the alleviation of loneliness? All of this public projection of contributions to the public weal clearly aids others. If one discourages this on the grounds that it contravenes Antigonus’ ethical idea, which is clearly compelling but nonetheless ignores competing considerations, would that be right?

Yet, if it is simplistic to accept Antigonus at face value, it is also simplistic to reject him at face value. It is possible to embrace his ideal, doing the right thing for its own sake, yet also engage in public behavior that compels or encourages others to do good. This is possible.

But it is difficult.

It requires, first of all, an acknowledgement of Antigonus’ ideal.

This directly entails a confrontation with one’s own motives. Do I value purity of spirit? Am I driven by altruism? One cannot get to Antionus’ purity of intent without asking these questions. Then, if one comes to aspire to altruism, how can one achieve it while, say, insisting on public recognition for one’s charitable giving?

The task here is difficult. Yes, I have come to value and want to preserve my purity of intent; and yes, at the same time, I want to act publicly in a way that does promote a good cause, encouraging others to join in, or calling attention to a dire need. Reduce this dual gesture to hard reality. Can I look at my picture in promotions for the charity’s annual dinner, and not be moved by a trace of egotism? Can I do both?

If this is the true ethical challenge, it means that just as feeling a deep need to showcase my philanthropy violates Angitonus, so, too, hiding in the background, keeping my philanthropy invisible, may lower the probability of success for a cause, such as breast cancer research, that needs millions for success.

Of course, we can reverse this. The felt need for high visibility can yield much more than increased charitable giving. It can yield power grabbing, stepping on people — ugly behavior — doing anything for the cause. As Rabbi Israel Salanter put, “A person can destroy the world running to do a mitzvah.”

I might summarize this discussion by recalling what the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, an ethical paragon, said when asked to summarize what he learned in graduate school, “Life is complicated.”

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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