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

TJI Pick
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Published: 2 May 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

DAVID EDMONDS argues Jews bring an outsider attitude that allows us to unpick and identify assumptions and values that can be hidden to others.

Some of the most important moral and political philosophers of the second half of the 20th century include Isaiah Berlin, Jerry Cohen, Ronnie Dworkin, Shelly Kagan, Frances Kamm, Thomas Nagel, Larry Temkin, Sam Scheffler and Peter Singer.

Does the extraordinary Jewish presence in these intellectual domains simply reflect Jewish overrepresentation in academia generally? Or is there something specific about their Jewishness 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.

 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 Peter Singer’s four Viennese grandparents (one of whom was a friend of Freud’s) perished in the camps.

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.

Why have so many of the giants of moral philosophy been Jews? (Jewish Chronicle)

Photo: Philosopher Peter Singer (Wikimedia commons)

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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