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Home » Noach, Politics

Noach: Public Policy

Submitted by on October 28, 2019 – 12:37 amNo Comment | 1,453 views

Public policy must be established on principle, not empathy, says Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale and author of Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion. Empathy plays a role when deciding how or how much we should personally help another in need, but public policy should never be formulated on the basis of empathy. When you draft legislation or set legal precedent out of empathy with the struggles of an individual, you often lose sight of the burdens such policies place on the public.

Parents are well aware that they must set empathy aside when setting policy for their children. If we were always empathetic toward our children, we would never set limits. The best policies are rooted in principle and rational compassion, argues Bloom, rather than empathy.

This is the basis of the Torah’s blanket prohibition for murder. In our lexicon, we have many names for the taking of a life. If it is self inflicted, we call it suicide. If it is government sanctioned, we call it execution. If it is a terminally ill patient, we call it euthanasia. If it is a fetus, we call it abortion. The Torah has one name for it. Murder.[1] And murder is always wrong.[2]

One can easily get swept away by empathy for the victim and rationalize murder. If killing one, will satisfy the bloodlust of a mass murderer, we can rationalize letting one person die. If the mother doesn’t want to have the baby, we can rationalize killing the baby. If the patient is terminally ill and wants to die, we can rationalize killing the patient. To feel better about such killings, we use euphemisms that help us overlook the grim facts, but the bottom line is this. If we formulate public policy based on empathy, we end up permitting murder.

Let’s analyze the Torah passage that prohibits murder.

But your blood, of your souls, I will demand, from the hand of every beast I will demand it, and from the hand of man from the hand of his brother I will demand the soul of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man through man his blood should be shed, for in the image of G-d was man made.”[3]

This is a rather lengthy and wordy passage that seems redundant at first blush, but we will take a closer look and demonstrate that each word is instructive.

But your blood, of your souls, I will demand,” is a prohibition against murdering oneself—suicide. “From the hand of every beast I will demand it,” is a prohibition against throwing someone to the wolves, or any wild beast, to be devoured. “And from the hand of man, from the hand of his brother, I will demand it,” is a prohibition against hiring others to murder someone for you. The double wording, “the hand of man, the hand of his brother,” implies a man who hires his brother to commit murder for him.

Of course, this raises a question. Why does the Torah describe the hired killer as a brother? The answer is that sometimes the murderer is indeed a brother. You see, there are two forms of murder. One is intended as a detrimental act such as in revenge or to commit theft, etc. Another is to benefit the victim such as when he is in pain and prefers death to life.

The Torah addresses both forms of murder. “From the hand of man,” prohibits murder for the sake of hurting the victim. “From the hand of his brother,” prohibits murder performed with the consent of the victim and for his benefit. Even virtuous people, such as the victim’s siblings or friends, might believe that they are in fact performing a mitzvah when they help the patient take his life. The Torah, therefore, states, “from the hand of his brother,” to tell us that killing as a brother or as a friend is just as forbidden as killing to hurt the victim.[4]

Capital Punishment
Let’s move to the next sentence. “Whoever sheds the blood of man through man his blood should be shed, for in the image of G-d was man made.” After everything we said earlier, we can easily deduce that life is sacrosanct and should never be taken under any circumstance. The Torah comes back and informs us that this too is incorrect. One who has taken a life, has forfeited his or her right to life. Not only must the murderer die, he must die by the hand of man. We cannot leave it to nature or to G-d. As a society it is our judicious responsibility to administer this punishment through the courts.

We can easily see the argument that once the victim has been killed, there is little point in killing the murderer. It would result in two lives lost rather than one. Besides, killing the murderer doesn’t bring the victim back to life. Of course, an argument can be made that capital punishment acts as a deterrent to potential murderers, but (a) the verdict is still out on how effective such deterrents are and (b) we can’t justify taking a life today in the hope that it might save a life in the future.

However, if we stop and think about it, we will realize that all these arguments are empathy based. We are thinking about the murderer as an individual and empathizing with him. We are considering the finality of execution and hesitate to inflict it on the murderer once the crime has been done and can’t be undone. However, The Torah reminds us that empathy should never serve as the basis for public policy. Public policy must be formed on principle.

Asking to save the murderer on the sanctity of life argument is a little bit like the fellow who pleaded guilty to murdering both his parents and asked the judge for clemency on the basis that he had recently been orphaned. If you are the architect of your own loss, you cannot seek empathy for it. The same is true about sanctity of life. A murderer who attacked the image of G-d and erased his victim’s sanctity of life cannot claim that his life is sacred.

Life is sacred because we are made in the image of G-d. One who has murdered, has attacked the Divine image. Not only does this bleed the murderer’s life of all sanctity, if we allow him to live, if we pretend that he still bears the Divine image, we cheapen the divine image, which becomes a stain on all of us. Our collective Divine image is impacted if we attribute sanctity of life to one who has destroyed and erased that sanctity.

In the end, public policy that rests on principle, serves society and it serves G-d’s purpose for humanity. Public policy that rests on empathy, serves to make us feel good, but often carries results that are detrimental to others.

[1] See Sanhedrin 57b that the words, שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם – one who sheds the blood of man in man, refers to abortion. In the Noahide code, abortion carries the capital punishment. In Jewish law, abortion is not the equivalent of murder, but it is strictly forbidden with few exceptions.

[2] With two exceptions, war and capital punishment for certain gruesome crimes.

[3] Genesis 9:6.

[4] Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, Haketav Vehakabalah, Bereishis 9:6. Note that euthanasia is technically not murder because the doctor doesn’t end the patient’s life. The doctor merely enables the patient to end his or her own life. Nevertheless, it is just as contemptible and morally repugnant.