January 30, 2013
Kwame Appiah, Jewish Empiricism, and the Guns Debate
Philosophers have long debated how knowledge is acquired. Empiricists believe in the primacy of our senses for determining human knowledge. Rationalists believe that many of our most important ideas and knowledge can be attained by methods independent of our senses and experiences, such as by intuition and deduction.
One strict empiricist was Thomas Reid (1710-1796), a Scottish philosopher whose philosophy brought him in conflict with Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume, another Scottish philosopher of the same time period. Reid believed that our senses inevitably lead us to valid beliefs. Any belief that is contradictory to this “common sense” is false, given that common sense beliefs must be in accord with each other. He explained that every significant discovery is achieved through “patient observation, by accurate experiments, or by conclusions drawn by strict reasoning from observations and experiments, and such discoveries have always tended to refute, but not to confirm, the theories and hypotheses which ingenious men had invented” (Essays on the Intellectual Power of Man, 367-368).
This debate has led to fascinating, if sometimes confusing, dialogues. However, can empiricism offer practical ways to improve society today? Kwame Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton University who was raised and has studied and lectured all over the world, is one who seeks to know how fundamental progress can be achieved through translating philosophical thought into action. He has published widely in many areas of philosophy, and is keenly interested in how philosophical theory affects political thought and action.
Employing his extraordinary multi-cultural education, Appiah proposes in his lecture series Experiments in Ethics that we must have empirical backing for our philosophical theories. He explains:
Appiah goes beyond the mere philosophical argument to urge an active pursuit of justice:
Jewish thinkers have also examined this issue. Maimonides explained the importance of the quest for truth and how we must alter our positions in line with new observations. Significantly, he noted that Aristotle had been accepted over the old beliefs of Jewish sages on an astronomical question: “It is quite right that our Sages have abandoned their own theory: for speculative matters every one treats according to the results of his own study, and everyone accepts that which appears to him established by proof” (Guide for the Perplexed, 2:8).
Rambam further explains: “Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs … A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back...” (Letter on Astrology)
Rav Moshe Feinstein, the 20th century Jewish legal authority, explained that many aspects of Jewish law can be affected by contemporary science: “We thus see that unless we are compelled otherwise, we should assume that matters that are dependent on nature should be based on the assessment of the rabbis of every given time” (Even Ha’Ezer, 2:3). On many matters we must apply contemporary research to apply timeless values in the real world. Other times, we break beyond the academies to the populace to “go out and see” (puk chazi) what is being done.
The rabbis had the humility to acknowledge new findings and the importance of legal evolution:
In the 1950s, Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog lamented that, as science progressed and added to our knowledge, “we bury our heads in the sand” when science comes in contact with the Torah: “It is imperative that we cultivate from within our holy yeshivot – from the geniuses among them – people to be men of science of every field, and thus we will not be dependent on others regarding matters of physiology, chemistry, electricity, and all matters that touch upon our holy Torah.”
For example, there is currently a debate concerning various gun control provisions, including a restoration of the assault weapons and high-capacity magazine ban that had been in place from 1994 to 2004. Consider the following facts from contemporary researchers:
• 15 of the 25 worst mass shootings during the past half century occurred in the United States
In contrast, gun control opponents have flooded the Internet with claims that gun control does not work, but offer vague denunciations of old computer games, exhortations to arm even more citizens, and offer no explanation for why high-capacity magazines are necessary for hunting or target practice. There are moral truths that do not require empirical investigation to be verified, and every law of course cannot simply be overturned based upon new scientific findings. However, much of the application of those moral truths requires empirical tests to ensure they achieve the moral goal. For example, Jewish law wishes to save innocent life. In the debate between gun control and gun rights, the data clearly demonstrate why increased gun control will achieve this goal. Jewish law seeks to balance the value of self defense with the value of saving life. The statistics help us to identify what Jewish law must endorse. A more complete explanation of the Jewish approach to gun rights and gun control is needed.
There are countless Jewish moral dilemmas posed in the 21st century that require constant reassessment of contemporary research and the facts on the ground. Empirical research must be applied, in the most pressing way, to end-of-life issues and other pressing moral dilemmas. The Torah is actualized when our timeless Jewish values are kept alive and relevant by acknowledging and wrestling with new realities in the most intellectually honest and critical ways.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"
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