Jonathan Jacobs

Jonathan Jacobs is Director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Ethics and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is also a member of the Doctoral Faculty of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. Prior to his current position he taught for twenty-three years at Colgate University. Author of nine books and editor of two, he works primarily in moral philosophy, moral psychology, and philosophy of law and punishment. Among his books are Law, Reason, and Morality in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Oxford, 2010), Choosing Character: Responsibility for Virtue and Vice (Cornell, 2001), and Reason, Religion and Natural Law: Plato to Spinoza (ed., Oxford, 2012). He is the author of over sixty journal articles and book chapters, many of them on medieval Jewish philosophy and its relevance to current debates metaethics and moral psychology.  He has received  grants from the Littauer Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and has held fellowships or visiting appointments at the University of St. Andrews, Cambridge, the University of Edinburgh, and the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He is currently writing Criminal Justice and the Liberal Polity and a textbook on criminal justice ethics.

The Realism of Biblical Moral Wisdom

There are significant respects in which the biblically based conception of value, and moral value in particular, can be interpreted in realist terms. Moreover, the interpretation fits in an especially plausible and illuminating way. This paper is an explication of the main elements of biblical realism. Granted, Tanakh, Talmud, Midrash, and other key Jewish texts are not works of philosophical theorizing. However, the rich tradition of commentary, legal thought and argument, elaboration, and especially seeking the reasons for the commandments exhibits several features inviting a realist interpretation. Though there is a vital role for divine command in Judaism it is simplistic and misleading to categorize biblically based moral thought as instantiating divine command theory without also explicating other key features. The way in which the search for understanding, the aspiration to holiness, the complex interrelation of ethical and intellectual virtue, and the imitation of God are involved build elements of realism into biblically based moral thought and thought concerning value more broadly. There is a crucial respect in which Torah is, as it were, a referential anchor for thought which, through the continuity of tradition, remains tethered to its source but is elaborated, extended, deepened, and integrated in ways with considerable affinity to some contemporary conceptions of realism. The discussion will identify and illustrate those features of recent accounts of realism most appropriate to biblically based valuative thought. It will also consider the relation between moral and non-moral valuative thought, the connections between practice and understanding, and the epistemological role of tradition. Work by McDowell, Platts, Murdoch, Kripke, Mackie, and other recent and contemporary thinkers will figure in the account.