The Root of A Decision

Aug 8th, 2011 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Holidays, Spiritual Growth
Psychopaths shed light on a crucial subset of decision-making that’s referred to as morality. Morality can be a squishy, vague concept, and yet, at its simplest level, it’s nothing but a series of choices about how we treat other people. When you act in a moral manner – when you recoil from violence, treat others fairly, and help strangers in need – you are making decisions that take people besides yourself into account. You are thinking about the feelings of others, sympathizing with their states of mind.

This is what psychopaths can’t do. They are missing the primal emotional cues that the rest of us use as guides when making moral decisions. The absence of emotion makes the most basic moral concepts incomprehensible. G. K. Chesterton was right: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

At first glance, the connection between morality and the emotions might be a little unnerving. Moral decisions are supposed to rest on a firm logical and legal foundation. Doing the right thing means carefully weighing competing claims, like a dispassionate judge.

“Moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment,” writes Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate . Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other.”

Benjamin Franklin said it best in his autobiography: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” Jonah Lehrer – How We Decide

There is a powerful reasons why our Avodah, or Spiritual Work, during the Three Weeks of Mourning, is focused on our emotions: No matter how reasonable we may be, we base our decisions on our emotions. The Sages wanted us to identify the negative emotions that led to the disastrous decisions that fed Jerusalem’s destruction. “The Children of Israel cried for no reason when they heard the Spies’ report. I will therefore give them a reason to cry!” Powerful negative emotions fed their decision to reject God and lose hope. The Sages teach us to identify those negative emotions and transform them, not the decisions but the emotions, into healthier emotions that nurture moral decisions.

We are feeding negative emotions and decisions when we practice mourning during the Three Weeks without a sense of what we can accomplish. We are grabbing hold of the same negative emotions that led to all the Tisha B’Avs in our history. We must use the Three Weeks to identify the negative emotions that attempt to assert control over our moral decisions.

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