Address by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory, at the International Masonic Festival Week, March 1979.
We share with a range of other institutions a fundamental loyalty to traditional values and standards in a world that is increasingly uncertain that old-time ethics are helpful, meaningful or relevant.
A recent writer has put it this way: “The dazzling economic and social transformation, the popularisation of scientific method and the cynicism bred of world wars, the observation of foreign societies and exotic customs, the growth of relativism and hedonism in philosophy, and the development of a sophisticated semantics – all have challenged the established landmarks and eradicated the familiar lines between moral and immoral. A society changing at an unprecedented pace has simply brushed away the inhibitions of the past. In their place, there seems to be only doubt…”
Values and standards are easier to maintain if society is stable. In a sense, no such society ever exists; every age is an age of transition. But earlier ages were relatively more stable. The changes are now more rapid: within ten years, half or more of what you know about any subject is already outdated – and more evident: because of the communications revolution we see things happening as they happen.
Traditionally, when you had a responsible decision to make, you could seek guidance from certain basic assumptions which were accepted as axiomatic by all who stood for ethical conduct with a base of belief in God.
Among these basic assumptions were notions such as that it is human nature to behave responsibly; that the proper relationship between people is that of mutual respect and concern; that human personality is sacred; and that ultimately we are all answerable to a higher authority.
Today these assumptions are threatened, as MVC Jeffreys suggests in his “Personal Values in the Modern World”, by three major developments:
1. The world is more complex and more difficult to understand; it is harder to make responsible decisions because most of the factors involved in any given situation – political, economic, technological, or scientific – are so intricate as to be almost incomprehensible.
As Jeffreys comments, “The citizen is expected to understand (or at least it is implicitly assumed that he can understand) political and economic matters, most of which elude the grasp of all but the experts.” And even the experts can be at a loss: “It is a matter of speculation to what extent our political and industrial leaders really understand the problems on which they have to make important decisions.”
In making a choice, coming to a decision, or reaching an opinion, therefore, how can one apply the traditional values and standards when so much of a situation is so confused?
2. Our sense of values is confused; moral problems take on ever newer forms, and the old answers no longer automatically fit.
In a consumer society which advocates and supplies instant gratification, who now believes in careful saving and planning for the future? Governments are expected to provide for everyone – so why stress self-respect, self-sufficiency and voluntary care for others?
In a commercially diversified society in which business dealings demand an intricate degree of ingenuity, what use are simplistic principles of honesty, truth and loyalty?
After the sexual revolution, momentary gratification is easily separable from procreation – who talks any more of the ethic of deep and lasting commitment to a partner? And if a pleasure seems right at a given moment, why not say that everything depends on the particular situation and there are no longer any universal rights and wrongs?
After the medical revolution, what use is the old notion that it is God who decides who shall live and who shall die? How does the idea that all humans matter equally, help us in determining whose life we shall save by heroic measures and whose life, by implication, is of lesser value to society?
The knowledge revolution has enabled us to manipulate nature – what now of the ethic of safeguarding the environment? And to manipulate people – what of the ethic of the integrity, authenticity and dignity of every human being? Has one a right to know? Has one a duty to tell? Have the media an ethical responsibility? Must advertising tell the truth?
3. Our popular culture is increasingly standardised. Says Jeffreys, “We live in an age of mass culture which is not only increasingly standardised, but also manufactured and synthetic. More and more we look at the same things, listen to the same things, think the same things, and passively receive the same services as they come off the conveyor belt of the Welfare State.”
Modern means of influencing opinion are unique in nature and degree. The media of communication are intrusive, effective and powerful; and so many people are susceptible to the influence of the media – Jeffreys’ theory is that “the most susceptible victim is the semi-educated person (the well-educated person is fore-armed, and the quite educated person is comparatively immune); and never before have there been so many semi-educated people in the world – people who are educated enough to be got at, but not educated enough to understand what is being done to them”.
The result? Many people do not bother to make their own decisions, whilst others seek notoriety by espousing some bizarre liberationist cause which over-emphasises or perverts one particular value or area of values.
Yet one has to have values to live by. “Human life,” says Will Herberg, “individual and collective, is a dynamic structure of values. Without existential commitment to some system of values which, despite an inescapable element of relativity, is felt to be somehow anchored in ultimate reality, human life in any significant sense is simply impossible. Man lives by values; all his enterprises and activities, insofar as they are specifically human, make sense only in terms of some structure of purpose which are themselves values in action.”
If the old traditionalist values do not automatically fit the new problems, what advice can one give to someone who wants to make a responsible choice?
My advice is, firstly, not to abdicate or purport to suspend judgement. That would be untenable and unrealistic. What Nels Ferre wrote concerning agnosticism applies to all abdication or suspension of judgement: “Agnosticism is not open-mindedness, it is culpable inaction. Tentativeness in morals and religion, except in terms of a humble and teachable positiveness, is not a matter of humility and fair play; it is a matter of stabbing the good in the back by treachery; it is an insidious alliance with evil”.
Nor should one adopt either of the extremes – either to accept as good everything that is new, or to try to live in a pre-modern world that is gone forever. Instead, we can do three things – assess, influence, and integrate.
We can assess all that is happening in terms of eternal verities. True, the society in which the old ethical teachings were cultivated and developed was very different from the world of today. But that does not mean that the old ethical teachings are outmoded simply because they are old; an ethical principle which is sound is both timeless and timely.
Take for example the strike weapon. When if ever is a strike moral? Significant help is supplied by the traditional principles the moment one tries to grapple with the question.
The Jewish ethical tradition clearly upholds the right to organise in unions and associations to enable people with common interests and problems to speak with strength. It favours neither management nor labour. Certainly, the early sources stress the duties of management to labour, because in those days the employer was powerful and the employee needed protection. There were discussions as to whether a labourer might eat some of the food he was engaged in producing; this was permitted because it led to increased productivity. There were discussions as to whether the employer might delay paying his workers’ wages; the answer was in the negative: “Why should the worker risk his life if you do not pay him?”
But the employee in turn had his responsibilities. He might not wilfully cause his master loss or damage. He might go on strike to draw attention to his grievances and to ensure that they would be brought before a court of arbitration, but if he had a “life-line” role in society (for instance, as a doctor or teacher) and withdrawing his services might cause real suffering, then a strike would be immoral and he must seek another solution.
In this manner, one particular situation might be assessed in the light of old principles. The old principles do not have ready-made answers to every ill, but their basic assumptions can still provide powerful general guidelines.
As well as assessing, one must find the way to influence the changes, to ensure that swords will be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks.
The new society needs to be assessed and criticised for many things; but it must also be recognised as providing remarkable opportunities for improving the lot of human beings and arising their levels of ethical conduct.
Archibald MacLeish has written, The development of the instruments of mass communication make it possible for the first time in human history to reach great numbers directly and peacefully and vividly and humanly with an expression of the lives and manners and histories and the arts of people of other nations. Our technology, wiser than we, has given us the unforeseen and unforeseeable means of worldwide understanding at the moment when worldwide understanding is the only possible means to lasting peace.”
Political and economic democracy gives every individual value in the scheme of things. Medical advances make it possible for life to be saved, prolonged and made meaningful. Increased leisure-time offers new opportunities for service and fellowship, as well as for discovering new intellectual and cultural worlds.
The more that people with ethical education and conscience have the courage and imagination to apply their ethical ideals to the areas of life in which they are involved, the more will the new developments in those and related areas be shaped to promote ethical advance.
What we need to do, however, is to improve the means of ethical education. Over the centuries, Judaism developed a remarkably effective ethical education system. Laymen, on their own or in groups, would sit poring over the classical books, taking up the sound of the traditional debates, exercising their heart, mind and conscience in the basic issues of society, and becoming instinctively aware of the Biblical call to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly.
We must not only seek to assess and influence, but also to integrate. What I mean by this is that the ethical person must become an integrated person maintaining a balance between values and ideals.
Take the idea of freedom. What crimes have been committed in the name of a sloganised freedom by the so-called liberation movements! What distortions have resulted in an over-emphasis on liberation!
Then there is the damage caused by over-emphasing the word “peace”. For the sake of a supposed chance of peace, many shameful compromises and concessions have been considered, sometimes demanded, and on occasion actually made.
In Jewish ethics there is a fascinating area in which the relationship between major ethical concepts is explored. The discussions have an uncannily topical ring. Questions are studied such as, for instance, whether truth can ever override peace, or peace truth, and the criteria whereby ethical ideals are able to co-exist.
For us who believe in God, the great unifying force in the universe, the integration of our ethics is a fundamental axiom.
Bertrand Russell said, “I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it.” The “G” in the Lodge room affirms our Masonic belief that God is the ultimate guarantor of man’s ethics.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.