The Participant Observer
I have had a long and abiding interest in the process by which we make decisions. Long ago, I was taught that the best way to make a decision is to impartially examine all of the relevant facts. Impartiality guarantees objectivity.
Sadly, however, we are seldom truly impartial, and therefore, our ability to make objective decisions is impaired.
This lesson was first made clear to me in the one of the first courses I took in college. It was in cultural anthropology, a subject that I have found fascinating ever since. I remember reading the works of anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, who studied exotic and primitive Native American and South Pacific societies, although they eschewed the term “primitive.” They believed that, as trained social scientists, they could observe these societies in a neutral fashion, as one would study laboratory phenomena. They felt assured that their descriptions and analyses would be objective.
However, subsequent social scientists severely criticized these studies. They attacked the assumption that one could live in a society for months and even years yet remain impartial and neutral toward that society. One could at best be a “participant observer,” and participants in social interactions can never be totally objective.
The lesson that one cannot be fully objective when he has a personal stake in a situation is the central lesson that Sherlock Holmes tried to teach Dr. Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective stories. Sherlockís amazing ability to see details that no one else saw, thus drawing his astounding deductions, was a function of his ability to detach himself from the situation at hand and observe it with total impartiality. This is something that the more emotional Dr. Watson simply could not do.
Our self-interests hinder our ability to clearly see the facts before us and, hence, cloud our capacity for clear judgment. This critical life lesson is alluded to near the beginning of this week’s Torah portion: “You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and upsets the plea of the just.”
The Torah instructs judges regarding how they are to handle their professional responsibilities. What application does this have to the vast majority of us, who are not professional judges?
Rabbi Israel Salanter, the influential rabbinic scholar and insightful social critic who founded the important 19th-century ethical school of thought known as the Mussar Movement, asks this question. I have taken the liberty to rephrase his answer in contemporary terminology:
“All of us are judges. We may not be ordained scholars, wearing rabbinic robes. We may not be appointed by the community to adjudicate differences between plaintiffs and defendants. We may be unqualified to sit in judgment of those accused of crimes or sins. But we are all judges, because we all face situations that call for personal decisions on our part. We face such situations countless times each day. A judge is but a person who must decide. In that sense, we are all judges, and we must all be guided by the directives that the Torah issues to the professional judiciary.”
Following this line of thinking, we must all be careful not to take bribes, for bribes will blind us to the facts we need to know in order to make moral and practically effective decisions.
But what are the bribes that threaten to undermine our objectivity in our daily life? Surely, we do not meet up with shady characters, sneaking up on us with envelopes full of cash, attempting to influence the numerous decisions that confront us moment to moment in the course of our daily routine.
Here too Rabbi Salanter has an answer, and here too I resort to my own paraphrase of his profound insights into the human psyche:
“There is a force within us called self-interest. This force pressures us to seek our own comfort, to procrastinate, to find excuses not to act, to avoid risk and flee from challenge. We all tend to prefer the easy way out. This inner force is ‘bribery,’ for it blinds our ability to see the facts as they really are. We choose creature comfort over ethically correct action and are tempted by the promise of immediate gratification instead of the difficult road that would produce long-term achievements.”
This is one of the ways that Rabbi Israel Salanter defines the yetzer hara, the “evil inclination” of which the rabbis speak. But for him, this yetzer harais not a demon or Satan or some other such personification of evil. Rather, it is a normal component of human nature, one with which we all struggle. It is part of our existential condition.
The shady character with the envelope full of cash is within us. It urges us to repress our moral inclination and to deny the sublimity of our souls. It persuades us to settle for less, to ignore our conscience. It frustrates our God-given idealism, and it mocks our values and ideals.
How do we combat this “bribery?” Rabbi Salanter has suggestions in this regard as well, and they include serious study of traditional Jewish ethical works, introspection, humility and self-discipline.
But there is another type of resource more readily available to most of us, and it is epitomized in this familiar teaching of one of our earliest sages, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya, who taught: “Get yourself a teacher and acquire a companion.”
Too often, especially these days when society pressures us to exercise our moral autonomy, we make decisions without consulting others. We are loath to seek out the advice of wiser men and fail to heed their counsel when we do seek it. We are reluctant to discuss our decisions with friends, peers and colleagues. We avoid those in our circle who could serve as mentors, and our competitiveness prevents us from requesting guidance from others who have confronted our very dilemmas.
Solomon, the wisest of men, advised us, “Salvation comes with much consultation.” Just as we have a yetzer hara, an evil inclination, we also have a yetzer tov, a good inclination. And that good inclination drives us to the company of other human beings. We can discuss our dilemmas with those in our environment who view them more objectively than we can on our own. That is the path to wise decisions, both in the moral and practical spheres of our existence.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.