Why have so many of the giants of moral philosophy been Jews?

We bring an outsider attitude that allows us to unpick and identify assumptions and values that can be hidden to others


Philosopher and historian of ideas, Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909 - 1997, standing) chairing a 'musical discussion' at the Bath International Music Festival, 4th June 1959. On the panel are (left to right) violinist, Yehudi Menuhin (1916 - 1999), composer and writer, Nicolas Nabokov (1903 - 1978), Berlin, and music critic and BBC Controller of Music, William Glock (1908 - 2000). The event was organised by Menuhin in his first year as the festival's director. (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

April 28, 2023 13:38

Derek Parfit is widely regarded as one of the most significant ethicists of the past century — some go further, claiming he’s the most important moral philosopher since John Stuart Mill. He didn’t give interviews, he didn’t write newspaper columns and he wasn’t on TikTok, Instagram or Twitter (it’s unlikely he’d heard of them). So you’ll be forgiven for not knowing about him.

Born in 1942, he lived a cloistered life, literally: the cloisters of Eton, then Oxford. There he pondered problems like what it is that makes a person the same person over time. And what obligations, if any, we have to people who will exist in the future but are not yet born.

Legendarily eccentric, the philosopher, who died on New Year’s Day 2017, wore the same clothes every day (including a red tie), and ate the same food. He was nocturnal and could only fall asleep after downing a concoction of vodka and pills. Once, when he had to cut short an animated discussion with another Oxford Fellow he suggested they continue it at a later date: “Are you,” he asked his colleague, “free at 3am on Tuesday?”

There’s never been a non-Jew as non-Jewish as Parfit. His four grandparents were Christian missionaries. So were his parents: indeed, Parfit was born in China where his parents were working as missionary doctors. But what is notable about his austere philosophical life is how many of his friends and philosophical interlocutors were Jewish.

These include some of the most important moral and political philosophers of the second half of the 20th century: Isaiah Berlin, Jerry Cohen, Ronnie Dworkin, Shelly Kagan, Frances Kamm, Thomas Nagel, Larry Temkin, Sam Scheffler and Peter Singer. It raises an interesting question. Does the extraordinary Jewish presence in these intellectual domains simply reflect Jewish overrepresentation in academia generally? Or is there something specific about their Jewishiness that has nudged them in this academic direction?

I think there is. After all, it’s hardly surprising that Jews might be particularly interested in moral philosophy. Shelly Kagan, for example, who nearly became a rabbi, was raised in Skokie, a town with many Holocaust survivors. Skokie was the scene of the notorious legal battle about whether a neo-Nazi march should be allowed to go ahead.

Parfit’s former student and dear friend, Larry Temkin, recalls that it was family discussions about the Holocaust that lured him into philosophy — along with the naïve assumption that implanting reason and logic into debates about ethics and politics might prevent any such catastrophe from recurring. Both Frances Kamm’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Three of Singer’s four Viennese grandparents (one of whom was a friend of Freud’s) perished in the camps.

Inevitably Jews with backgrounds like these are led to ponder big moral issues. However, the preponderance of Jewish moral and political philosophers cannot be explained solely by direct contact with antisemitism.

There’s also a more general sensitivity that comes with membership of a minority group. Political philosophy addresses the nature of the relationship between government and citizens, and examines ideologies (socialism, liberalism, fascism etc.) and topics such as rights, freedom, equality, justice, law. It’s easy to take existing norms and structures as somehow natural and immutable — as being obviously the best and right way to organise affairs. It requires a leap of imagination to recognise alternative ways that society might be arranged, and even improved. An outsider’s eye can help.

For example, naively, unreflectively, we might have a view of ourselves as free and unfettered individuals. It’s remarkable how many Jewish intellectuals — not just philosophers — have chipped away at that notion, highlighting how our lives are constrained by, eg, class (Marx), sex (Betty Friedan and many others) language (Wittgenstein, Derrida, Chomsky), our unconscious (Freud), beliefs, rules and deep social structures (Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss).

The outsider can more easily identify and unpick the assumptions and values that are so deeply embedded in a culture that they’re blind to the majority: it’s like the joke about the two young fish who come across an older fish swimming in the other direction: “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two youngsters swim on until one of them turns to the other: “What the hell is water?”.

Derek Parfit’s base for much of his life was the most elite and the most English of institutions: All Souls College, built in the 1430s during the reign of Henry VI. It’s a research institution with no undergraduates. In the past it had a reputation for being reactionary and unwelcoming. When the Riga-born philosopher Isaiah Berlin was elected to a research fellowship at All Souls in 1932 he became the College’s first Jewish fellow. Later, in 1957, he was elected the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, also based at All Souls.

Berlin was a staunch Parfit supporter. In 1981, after Parfit had already been at All Souls for 14 years, there was an attempt by some Fellows to throw him out because he had yet to produce a book. Berlin thought this was a scandal and campaigned on his behalf.
One of Berlin’s successors as Chichele Professor was GA (Jerry) Cohen. Cohen and my uncle Ralph were great buddies dating back to their Oxford student days, and in 1986 (or possibly 1987), he invited me for lunch. Isaiah Berlin, it transpired, had proved an ethnic trailblazer. Cohen showed me a booklet containing the names and photos of All Souls Fellows; sifting through the pages, he proudly pointed out, “he’s a bloody Jew… he’s a bloody Jew… he’s a bloody Jew”.

Like many Jewish political theorists, Cohen was interested in the concept of equality — what did a commitment to equality imply? Equality of what? Equality of opportunity, of outcome, of respect or dignity? And what, in a multicultural society, does it mean to have equality among and between different races and religions? Chichele Professors (even those investigating equality) are well remunerated and likely to be more familiar with sourdough than the breadline; Cohen once wrote a famous book, If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? He was a sort of Marxtory, a peculiar cocktail of Marxist and small ‘c’ conservative.

He’d been brought up in a working class family in Montreal, in which The Communist Manifesto was held to be more sacred than the Talmud. Cohen’s enthusiasm for Marxism faded over the years, while his love for All Souls deepened. He once published an article in which he put the case for objecting to change. The article began: “Professor Cohen, how many Fellows of All Souls does it take to change a light bulb? Change?!?”

Cohen became Parfit’s closest All Souls intellectual confidante. They made an odd couple: an Old Etonian and a working class Jew. I found a reference for Cohen, written by Parfit, in which Cohen is described as the best political philosopher in the country. The respect was mutual. Parfit found it tricky to navigate social relationships and Cohen was moved when Parfit rang him one day: “Would it be all right,”, Parfit wanted to know, “if I call you my friend?”

Parfit, like Cohen, was an atheist. He couldn’t accept that an all-powerful all-good God would permit so much unnecessary suffering in the world. Many Jewish philosophers have likewise been unable to reconcile faith with the slaughter of 6 million of their brethren. But where does that leave the status of claims such as “Naziism is evil”? Can there be objective morality without God? Parfit spent much of the last 25 years of his life desperately trying to prove that there could be. His Jewish philosophy friends would surely have understood how much was at stake.

Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission To Save Morality is published by Princeton University Press

April 28, 2023 13:38

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