Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Maimonides on Free Will at the Societal Level

© Berel Dov Lerner. This article originally appeared in Interpretation: a Journal of Political Philosophy 32(2): 115-123 (Spring 2005).

Although there has been some debate regarding Maimonides’ esoteric view of human metaphysical freedom (Pines 1960, 195-98; Altmann 1974) there is no doubt that his public stand is one of uncompromising support for the doctrine of free will, or what is known in philosophical circles as libertarianism (not to be confused with the similarly named political doctrine!). As Moshe Sokol (1998, 27) points out, Maimonides was concerned with defeating “four different grounds for denying freedom of the will: astrological fatalism, kalam (‘a school of medieval Islamic theology’) and other notions of divine will and causality, psychological determinism, and divine foreknowledge.” These indeed are the only obstacles to human freedom which Maimonides explicitly addresses as possible foundations for an attack on libertarianism. Maimonides attacks psychological determinism, but he does not mention sociological determinism. His discussion in the final chapter of Shemonah Perakim concerns inborn psychological predispositions and ‘second nature’ resulting from repeated deliberate action, rather than the effects of social factors. However, it is clear from the Mishneh Torah (Hyamson 1962) that Maimonides also contends that social pressures constitute a very real challenge to autonomous action:

It is natural to be influenced, in sentiments and conduct, by
one’s neighbors and associates, and observe the customs of
one’s fellow citizens.
(Deot 6:1)

Although Maimonides is never troubled by the social factor’s philosophical significance for human freedom, I believe that it does serve a pivotal role in the solution of an interesting puzzle in the Mishneh Torah, a puzzle which brings together issues in biblical interpretation, metaphysics, and the philosophy of the social sciences. My explication of this problem begins with the fifth chapter of Hilkhot Teshuva (Laws of Repentance) of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, where he makes a general argument harmonizing human freedom with divine foreknowledge:

As to the solution of this problem, understand that “the measure thereof is longer than the earth and wider than the sea” (Job 11:19), and many important principles of the highest sublimity are connected with it. You, however, need only to know and comprehend what I am about to say. In the second chapter of the Laws Relating to the Fundamental Principles of the Torah, we have already explained that God does not know with a knowledge external to Himself, like human beings whose knowledge and self are separate entities, but He, blessed be His Name, and His knowledge are One.
(Teshuva 5:5)

The crux of Maimonides’ argument seems to be that divine foreknowledge does not interfere with human freedom because divine knowledge is different from human knowledge. Apparently, Maimonides is saying that if one person’s future decisions really were genuinely known now by another human being, that would create a problem for the former’s freedom. However, since God is not a human being and His knowledge is not similar to that possessed by humans, his foreknowledge of human decisions does not interfere with human freedom. (I shall return later to the question of what it is about human foreknowledge that makes it a problem for libertarianism.) Maimonides devotes his next chapter (Teshuva 6) to the exegesis of scriptural verses which seem to contradict the libertarian doctrine. Among these is Deut. 31:16:

The Lord said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your fathers. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land which they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I made with them.

Deuteronomy seems to be saying that the children of Israel are foredestined to sin. How can this square with their human freedom? Maimonides explains:

It is also written, “This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land” (Deut. 31:16). Did He not decree that Israel should worship idols? Why then did He punish them? [The answer is] that He did not decree concerning any particular individual that that individual should be the one to go astray. Any one of those who went astray and worshipped idols, had he not desired to commit idolatry, need not have done so. The Creator only instructed Moses as to the way of the world, as one might say, “This people will have among them righteous and wicked persons.” A wicked man has no right, on that account, to say that it had been decreed that he should be wicked, because the Almighty had informed Moses that among Israel there would be wicked men, just as the text, “For the poor shall never cease out of the land” (Deut. 15:11) [does not imply that any particular individual is destined to be poor].
(Teshuva 6:5)

Maimonides’ apology for Deut. 31:6 is based on the distinction he makes between knowing how a particular person will behave as against knowing what we might call the statistical distribution of future behaviors in a certain society. He reads the verse as we would read the economic prediction that next year unemployment in some country will reach ten percent. The economist does not claim to be able to produce a list naming those who will lose their jobs, but rather only offers a general indication of how many people will be unemployed. Similarly, Deuteronomy is not telling us that any particular person will worship false gods, rather that there will indeed be such sinners among the Israelites.

Maimonides’ comparison of Deut. 31:6 with the prediction, “This people will have among them righteous and wicked persons,” is a bit misleading. Deuteronomy is not talking about the kind of deviance from accepted norms which occurs in every human community. The prediction, “This people will thereupon go astray,” implies a society-wide phenomenon of mutiny against God. In simplest terms, Deuteronomy may be understood as saying that a majority of Israelites will be involved in idolatry. Following Gilbert (1989, 257; 1998), this is what might be called a ‘simple summative account’ of group action. Assuming that Maimonides would accept this point (and in this paper I take Maimonides’ biblical exegesis not to be mere ad hoc apologetics, but rather a serious attempt to explicate scripture in a way that addresses issues of plain meaning and context), his understanding of the verse may be given the following formulation: Although more than fifty percent of the Israelites will worship foreign gods, no specific individual is compelled to belong to that number. Furthermore, this situation reflects “the way of the world,” i.e., the historical phenomenon of widespread Israelite idolatry was a natural and predictable state of affairs. Maimonides seems untroubled by the idea that human behavior is predictable at the aggregate, societal, level.

Maimonides’ solution to the problem of Deut. 31:6 invites (at least) two questions: First, what is it about Deut. 31:6 that deserves special comment? (I shall not here attempt an explanation of Maimonides’ parallel interpretation of Gen. 15:13 in the same section of Teshuva.) Why not simply assume that it is covered by the general argument for the harmonization of libertarianism with divine foreknowledge in Teshuva (5)? Second, how does Maimonides square individual freedom with determinism on the societal level? In order to answer these questions, we must examine the immediate context in which Deut. 31:6 appears.

God, knowing that the Israelites will sin after Moses’ impending death, asks him to teach them the song (Deut. 32:1-43) which, in the future, will help them to understand the meaning of their own history of redemption and exile:

The Lord said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your fathers. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land which they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I made with them. When I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey that I promised on oath to their fathers; and they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant, and the many evils and troubles befall them—then this poem shall confront them as a witness, since it never will be lost from the mouth of their offspring. For I know what plans they are devising even now, before I bring them into the land that I promised on oath.
(Deut. 31:16-21)

Later, Moses addresses the Levites:

Well I know how defiant and stiff-necked you are: even now, while I am still alive in your midst, you have been defiant towards the Lord; how much more then, when I am dead! Gather to me all the elders of your tribes and your officials, that I may speak all these words to them and that I may call heaven and earth to witness against them. For I know that, when I am dead, you will act wickedly and turn away from the path which I enjoined upon you, and that in time to come misfortune will befall you for having done evil in the sight of the Lord and vexed Him by your deeds.
(Deut. 31:27-29)

Moses’ speech places the prophecy of Deut. 31:16 in a rather odd light. It is trouble enough for the libertarian doctrine that God predicts Israel’s spiritual failure. Here we have Moses speaking as a human being and in his own name predicting the turn to idolatry! As Maimonides’ great critic, R. Abraham ben David of Posquieres (c. 1125-1198) points out in his gloss on Teshuva 6:5, Moses was capable of making this prediction through the exercise of his own intelligence. Now it is clear why Maimonides must offer a special explanation of Deut. 31:16. His general argument harmonizing divine foreknowledge with human freedom depends on a strict distinction between divine and human knowledge. Deut. 31:16 relates to foreknowledge which is also directly available to human beings such as Moses.

Moses’ speech may also help us understand what it is about human foreknowledge that may create problems for human freedom. Moses does not baldly proclaim that the Israelites will sin. Rather, he offers an explanation of how he knows that this will occur. This takes the shape of a well-formulated sociological prediction: “Well I know how defiant and stiff-necked you are: even now, while I am still alive in your midst, you have been defiant towards the Lord; how much more, then, when I am dead!” (Deut. 31:27). In modern parlance, one might say that Moses observed in the Israelites a tendency to rebellion against God so powerful that it prevailed even in the face of a strong countervailing factor, i.e., Moses’ own leadership. Certainly with the removal of the countervailing factor (i.e., after Moses’ death), the underlying tendency to idolatry will continue to determine Israelite behavior.

Moses seems to be engaging in exactly the kind of psychological forecasting which Maimonides sees as threatening the libertarian doctrine. I propose that Moses’ prediction makes salient that aspect of human foreknowledge which is so problematic when applied to future human behavior. To borrow Maimonides’ expression, Moses’ knowledge of the future is “outside of himself.” It is a knowledge based on the observation of past and current tendencies which will continue to determine the course of events in the future. How do we human beings know that the egg, which has just been thrown off the top floor of a high building, will soon splatter on the sidewalk? We have seen eggs fall in the past, and we assume that the same determining processes and tendencies that splattered eggs in the past are also at work in the present situation. If no determining processes were involved, we would be unable to predict the egg’s fate. Similarly, we may only predict future human behavior to the extent that that behavior results from determining processes on which we may depend, processes that are incompatible with human freedom. Inasmuch as divine foreknowledge does not depend on the presence of empirically discoverable determining processes, it does not imply a lack of human freedom (at least not for the reasons under discussion).

So far I have argued that Deut. 31:16 poses special problems for Maimonides’ libertarian doctrine. He proposes a solution to these problems which suggests that God (and Moses) did not predict that any particular individual would worship idols, but merely that idolatry would become a widespread feature of Israelite society. On my interpretation, Maimonides is here willing to accept the notion that widespread social phenomena may be caused by predictable, determinate processes. This brings us to my second question, i.e., how does Maimonides square individual freedom with determinism on the societal level?

In order to answer this question, we must recall that even when he argues against psychological determinism, Maimonides admits that a person’s decisions are influenced by his or her particular psychological tendencies. A naturally (or experientially conditioned) charitable person will find it easier to give alms to the poor than will a born (or experientially conditioned) miser. Furthermore, the miser is not free to instantaneously become charitable. Rather, he may choose to undertake a course of training (consciously designed to exploit natural psychological processes) that will serve to develop his charitableness.

In the short term, certain aspects of human psychology are predictable. Mary who is a miser in the morning will remain a miser at noon. She may, through sheer force of will, perform generous acts. Indeed, that is exactly the therapy which Maimonides would prescribe. However, even if she has undertaken to change her ways, character traits cannot be overturned in the course of a few hours. If the moral inertia generated by natural psychological tendencies can be shown to become stronger at the cumulative societal level, perhaps we will have discovered the mechanism which allows for predetermined social processes of a kind which are not paralleled in the psychology of the individual.
In order to explain how, according to Maimonides’ psychological doctrine, moral inertia accumulates and strengthens at the societal level, I must now reintroduce the notion of social pressure with which I began this paper. Like other psychological forces, social pressure is, for Maimonides, a factor to be recognized and even harnessed for the achievement of moral perfection:

It is natural to be influenced, in sentiments and conduct, by one’s neighbors and associates, and observe the customs of one’s fellow citizens. Hence, a person ought constantly to associate with the righteous and frequent the company of the wise, so as to learn from their practices, and shun the wicked who are benighted, so as not to be corrupted by their example. So Solomon said, “He that walks with the wise, shall be wise; but the companion of fools shall smart for it” (Prov. 13:20). And it is also said, “Happy is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1).
(Mishneh Torah, Deot 6:1)

Social influences are so powerful that one should come to terms with them by simply avoiding contact with the wicked. When an entire society becomes evil, a person who strives for righteousness has no choice but to leave:

So too, if one lives in a country where the customs are pernicious and the inhabitants do not go in the right way, he should leave for a place where the people are righteous and follow the ways of the good.
(Deot 6:1)
If all societies have become corrupted, one must shun human company altogether:

If all the countries of which he has a personal knowledge, or concerning which he hears reports, follow a course that is not right—as is the case in our times—or if military campaigns or sickness debar him from leaving for a country with good customs, he should live by himself in seclusion, as it is said, “Let him sit alone and keep silence” (Lam. 3:28). And if the inhabitants are wicked reprobates who will not let him stay in the country unless he mixes with them and adopts their evil practices, let him withdraw to caves, thickets, or deserts, and not habituate himself to the ways of sinners, as it is said: “O that I were in the wilderness, in a lodging place of wayfaring men” (Jer. 9:1).
(Deot 6:1)

We may infer from Deot 6:1 that the influence of social pressure is so overwhelmingly powerful that it is impossible for a person to remain within a corrupt society without partaking of its corruption. The scope of individual moral choice in such a society shrinks to the single issue of staying or leaving, or, if relocation is not a viable option, participating or not participating in the life of the community. Inasmuch as the society survives, its general moral tenor will be defined by the behavior of those of its members who do not choose to leave it, and who continue to function as its members, i.e., the morally weaker element. Anyone participating in such a society will inevitably be corrupted by its influence. All other things being equal, such a community qua community is trapped in a moral decline which its own members are incapable of reversing. Even if each and every person in the society were to simultaneously make an individual decision to abandon evil, a societal reformation could not take place. Instead, their decisions would only result in the total dissolution of the society through the dispersion of its members.

The case of Moses’ predictions of future Jewish idolatry may be reinterpreted in the light of these speculations. Moses may have held the Jewish people of his time to be so radically predisposed to idolatry that he was sure that after the mitigating factor of his own charismatic presence would no longer be in effect, they would degenerate into the kind of hopelessly depraved community from which a pious individual must choose to flee. In that case, the Jewish people’s fall into idolatry was indeed the foregone conclusion of an inevitable causal process. Indeed, such a thesis conforms to ideas that find explicit expression in the Bible. The second chapter of the book of Judges sets out a cyclical model of Israelite history, in which a “secular trend” towards idolatry is temporarily interrupted in reaction to the presence of an external military threat and the divine appointment of a successful military leader. In the long term, such leaders were no more successful than was Moses himself: “But when the chieftain died, they would again act basely, even more than their fathers, following other gods” (Jud. 2:19).

Only the ultimate catastrophe of exile and the turbulent struggles of the Second Temple period would be able to finally shake the Jews free of their propensity to worship strange gods. The rabbis of the Talmud were well aware of how different they were from the Jews of earlier times who had found idolatry irresistibly attractive. It is related that Rabbi Ashi spoke with King Menasheh in a dream and asked why even the wise men of his generation succumbed to the idolatrous impulse. King Menasheh retorted that had Rabbi Ashi lived in those early days when idolatry was overwhelmingly enticing, the good rabbi himself would have “lifted up the hem of…[his] robe to run after it” (B. Sanhedrin 102b).

Is there any basis for these speculations in Maimonides’ own writings? According to the account in Mishneh Torah, the Israelites had fallen into an almost irreversible spiritual decline during their stay in Egypt:

When the Israelites had stayed a long time while in Egypt, they relapsed, learned the practices of their neighbors and, like them, worshipped idols, with the exception of the tribe of Levi, that steadfastly kept the charge of the patriarch. This tribe of Levi never practiced idolatry. The doctrine implanted by Abraham would, in a very short time, have been uprooted, and Jacob’s descendants would have lapsed into the error and perversities universally prevalent.
(Avodat Kokhavim 1:3)

Apparently unable to help themselves, the Israelites were lifted out of the depths of idolatry by divine Providence acting through the person of Moses:

But because of God’s love for us and because He kept the oath made to our ancestor Abraham, He appointed Moses to be our teacher and the teacher of all the prophets and charged him with his mission. After Moses had begun to exercise his prophetic functions and Israel had been chosen by the Almighty as His heritage, He crowned them with precepts, and showed them the way to worship Him and how to deal with idolatry and those who go astray after it.
(Avodat Kokhavim 1:3)

Here, then, is the “Moses factor,” come to restrain (with rather modest success, as all readers of Scripture know) the tendency towards idolatry acquired by the Israelites from their Egyptian “hosts.” This much of the story is explicitly recorded in Maimonides’ writings. It would be fair to suggest that Maimonides believed that after Moses’ death, his immediate personal influence would cease to work against idolatry, leaving the Jewish people fated to regress once more. We might add that only the long and tortuous historical process of the genuine internalization of the Law, accompanied and prodded by the course of external events, would finally bring about the true break with idolatry.


I first discussed the ideas set forth in this paper in a lecture on “Maimonides on Sociological Determinism and the Covenant Between God and the People of Israel,” sponsored by the Department of Philosophy and the Wolfson Chair of Jewish Thought, Haifa University, December 1997. My thanks to the holder of the Wolfson Chair, Prof. Menachem Kellner (who also commented on an earlier version of the paper), as well as to others who participated in the discussion. My thanks also to Jerome Gelman, David Widerker, Josef Stern, and an anonymous reviewer who spoke or corresponded with me in connection with several points in this paper.

Altmann, Alexander. 1974. The Religion of the Thinkers: Free Will and Predestination in Saadia, Bahya and Maimonides. In S. D. Goitein, ed., Religion in a Religious Age. Cambridge, MA: Association for Jewish Studies.

Gilbert, Margaret. 1989. On Social Facts. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

_________. 1998. In Search of Sociality. Philosophical Explorations 1: 233-41.

Hyamson, Moses, ed. and trans. 1962. Mishneh Torah:The Book of Knowledge by Maimonides. Jerusalem: Boys Town Publishers.

Pines, Shlomo. 1960. Studies in Abul Barakat al-Baghadi’s Poetics and Metaphysics. Scripta Hierosolymitana 6: 195-98.

Sokol, Moshe. 1998. Maimonides on Freedom of the Will and Moral Responsibility. Harvard Theological Review 91: 25-39.


Blogger haKiruv said...

I've always been perplexed by the notion of free will, in that we don't seem to be entirely free. We are influenced by externalities that can cause us to make decisions we otherwise would not have made. Emotions, medications, brain damage, etc. Thus, not being entirely free.

6:47 PM  
Blogger Berel Dov Lerner said...

This is an extremely complex problem for philosophy. For instance: information that we gather about the environment through our senses also comes from the "outside" and influences our decisions, but without that information, we could not react intelligently to our environment! The question becomes: which outside influences are legitimate and which are not?

11:40 PM  
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