Law and Virtue in Jewish Tradition


We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

David Shatz is Ronald P. Stanton University Professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religious Thought, Yeshiva University,


Because law plays a central role in Judaism, one initially assumes that its code of conduct is best characterized as an act morality rather than agent morality. In addition, one expects questions about proper conduct to be answered by rabbinic authorities formalistically– by derivation of the law from existing precedent laws by use of analogies. At their core, these expectations about Jewish ethics are correct. My aim in this paper, however, is to explore to what extent Jewish ethics can be characterized as well as an agent morality– that is, how, in Jewish tradition, considerations of virtue do or do not impact on norms and how they do or do not override formalistic derivations of proper conduct.  The topic itself is not new, but I aim at a synthesis, analysis, and critique that is somewhat distinctive.

It must be said at the outset that Jewish tradition pays close attention to developing virtues. Indeed the literature on virtue is immense. Most famously, we have Maimonides’ work Eight Chapters, which is largely about virtue, and a section of his monumental legal code Mishneh Torah titled “Laws of Character Traits,” Medieval pietistic literature is a goldmine for explorations of character, and the Musar (translation: ethical) movement in the 19th century addressed in prodigious detail what traits are desirable and how to acquire them. Humility, faith, self-control,  fear of heaven, love, kindness, compassion, altruism—these and more are foci of the huge virtue ethics literature in Judaism. The question is how this high regard for virtue, this spotlight on agent-morality, interacts with the rule-centeredness act-morality of Jewish law (Hebrew: Halakhah).

In particular, I want to show how the following theses about the law-virtue relationship appear in Jewish texts, and to explore some questions and disagreements surrounding them.

1)    Some biblical laws are based on the desire to inculcate certain virtues and not on the belief that the actions proscribed or prescribed are in and of itself objectionable.

2)    At times doing the right thing may diminish one’s character. (I’ll call this the problem of moral attrition.)

3)    At times, doing the right thing reflects a character flaw—some right actions are such that a good person wouldn’t do them.

4)    A concern for virtue expands the parameters of obligation.

5)    Actions “bein adam la-havero” (=between two people, such as a giver of charity and a recipient) should not be motivated by submission to rules but rather should flow from inclinations (pace Kant).


Such claims appear in general philosophical literature, and the paper will utilize some of that material in examining the Jewish texts.

Self-Other Concept in Humble Love As Exemplified by Long-Term Members of L’Arche


We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Robert C. Roberts is Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy. Michael Spezio is Associate Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience and head of the Laboratory for Inquiry into Valuation and Emotion (LIVE) at Scripps College in Claremont, CA.

After living for a significant period in l’Arche communities, people often experience a change of self-other concept. It is a character change in which, from conceiving self-other in a way that is typical for modern secular societies, members’ experience of self in relation to others is transformed under the reign of what we call humble love. Both before and after the transformation, the experience of self-other has the character of concern-based construal, but the terms of the two kinds of construal are mutually contrary. Following Jean Vanier, we call the ethos guiding the first self-other style of construal “the Normal” (he writes of “the tyranny of the Normal”). The leading concepts on which this ethos turns are success, competence, competition, advancement, achievement, power, superior-inferior, rival, reputation/recognition/ acclaim, and the like, as criteria for the evaluation of persons. Here the self is seen as in relation to the other/ others, but the relations are distancing, alienating, ones of rivalry, differential competence, superior achievement, competition for power, winner and loser, etc. The relations are not those within a community, in the strict sense, but rather within a social arena of agonistic differentiation. By contrast, the terms of self-other construals that are fostered by long-term living in l’Arche are characterized by commonality, mutuality, and reconciliation: brother/sister, friend, helper, colleague, forgiveness, love. Humble love combines two highly congruent and complementary virtues: humility and charity. The tyranny of the Normal erects “walls” that impede the mutuality construals of self-other that are characteristic of love. Humility, which dissipates or undermines the distancing, alienating self-other construals, brings down these walls, making way for the genuine communion of love with its characteristic self-other construals.

The origins of social categorization


We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Katherine Kinzler is Associate Professor of Psychology and Associate Professor of Human Development at Cornell University,


Forming conceptually rich social categories helps people navigate the complex social world by allowing them to reason about others’ likely thoughts, beliefs, actions, and interactions as guided by group membership. Yet, social categorization often has nefarious consequences. We suggest that the foundation of the human ability to form useful social categories is in place in infancy: social categories guide infants’ inferences about peoples’ shared characteristics and social relationships. We also suggest that the ability to form abstract social categories may be separable from the eventual negative downstream consequences of social categorization, including prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping. Whereas a tendency to form inductively rich social categories appears early in ontogeny, prejudice based on each particular category dimension may not be inevitable.

Keywords: essentialism, infant, intergroup cognition, prejudice, social categorization, stereotype

Photos of our June 2017 Working Group Meeting

Twenty of our scholars met in Chicago for their final working group meeting to discuss their work in progress with each other across the disciplines of psychology, theology, and philosophy.

Find more photos on our Flickr page.



More photos from this session can be found on our Flickr page.