The small pic­ture and the big pic­ture

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - Comment - Rabbi Chaim Stein­metz

The “trol­ley prob­lem” is a pow­er­ful moral dilemma that forces us to de­fine our eth­i­cal be­liefs. The brakes on a trol­ley have stopped work­ing. The con­duc­tor sees that there are five peo­ple work­ing on the track, and if the trol­ley con­tin­ues down­hill, it will kill them. He looks to his right and sees that he can turn the trol­ley onto a rail­road spur. Un­for­tu­nately, one per­son is work­ing on the spur and will be killed if the con­duc­tor turns the trol­ley. What should he do?

The trol­ley prob­lem asks whether you are al­lowed to mur­der one per­son to save the lives of five oth­ers? Do the ends jus­tify the means? This is­sue has long been de­bated by philoso­phers, and the two view­points are called de­on­to­log­i­cal (or ab­so­lutist) and util­i­tar­ian. When I teach the trol­ley prob­lem in classes, most peo­ple take the util­i­tar­ian view that you kill one to save oth­ers. It seems to be a ques­tion of sim­ple math­e­mat­ics: five lives are greater than one.

What is fas­ci­nat­ing is that the ha­lachic tra­di­tion takes the other view. Start­ing from the Jerusalem Tal­mud to Mai­monides and the Rama, Halachah for­bids com­mit­ting mur­der even un­der more ex­treme cir­cum­stances than the trol­ley prob­lem. Why is this so?

A fas­ci­nat­ing way of look­ing at this de­bate is of­fered by Thomas Nagel. He writes that: “Ab­so­lutism is as­so­ci­ated with a view of one­self as a small be­ing in­ter­act­ing with oth­ers in a large world… [while] util­i­tar­i­an­ism is as­so­ci­ated with a view of one­self as a benev­o­lent bu­reau­crat dis­tribut­ing such ben­e­fits as one can con­trol to count­less other be­ings.” The per­spec­tive of ab­so­lutism looks at the small pic­ture and asks what is my moral re­spon­si­bil­ity to a spe­cific per­son. The util­i­tar­ian per­spec­tive looks at the big pic­ture, and tries to get the best out­come for the en­tire world. The Tal­mud be­lieves the small pic­ture is the morally su­pe­rior per­spec­tive. You need to do what is right to your neigh­bour

You need to do what is right to your neigh­bour be­fore you run off to save the en­tire world.

be­fore you run off to save the en­tire world.

In real-life sit­u­a­tions, we in­tu­itively turn to this per­spec­tive. Dur­ing the Holo­caust, Jewish coun­cils had to de­cide whether or not to turn over some of their pop­u­la­tion to the Nazis in or­der to help save the oth­ers. The rare few who col­lab­o­rated with the Nazis with the ra­tio­nale of sav­ing lives, like Chaim Rumkowski, were vil­i­fied and judged harshly by his­tory. Five against one looks like a math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lem, un­til you’re faced with do­ing the killing your­self.

Ju­daism sees the world through the small pic­ture, and the Mish­nah de­clares that sav­ing the life of one per­son is as if you have saved an en­tire world. It is not that Ju­daism doesn’t worry about the global pic­ture. It sim­ply be­lieves that we see the big pic­ture through the lens of the small pic­ture, and that global con­scious­ness be­gins with per­sonal re­la­tion­ships.

The small-pic­ture per­spec­tive is not just about moral choices. It’s also about build­ing com­mu­nity. It’s easy to dis­cuss politics and only con­sider the big pic­ture about what will be the best poli­cies for our coun­try and for­get about our friends and neigh­bours. In our po­lit­i­cal zeal, we find it in­tol­er­a­ble to talk to any­one with a dif­fer­ent point of view, and at times it seems as if peo­ple of dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sions are her­met­i­cally sealed from each other. (Much the same is true of Jews with dif­fer­ent re­li­gious view­points. Even Ortho­dox Jews with dif­fer­ent views on women’s or­di­na­tion can’t have a civil con­ver­sa­tion to­gether.) This is a tragedy. En­am­oured with the big pic­ture, we Amer­i­cans start to love Amer­ica so much that we be­gin to hate other Amer­i­cans, and love Ju­daism so much that we start to hate other Jews.

The Tal­mud’s les­son is that we fix the big pic­ture only by fix­ing the small pic­ture first. I hope we will re­mem­ber this les­son be­fore it’s too late.

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