Monday, June 11, 2012

Ethics and the Wisdom of Proverbs

During the time I taught an engineering ethics module, I tried to help students realize that they didn’t have to come up with a basis for ethical decisions all on their own.  Here in central Texas, most students have at least some familial connection with one of the religions of the Book:  Christianity, Islam, or Judaism.  And while religious observance is not one of the most prominent aspects of undergraduate life, I encouraged students who had any sort of religious faith to explore what that faith said about right and wrong conduct.  One of the most accessible places to explore is the Book of Proverbs found in the Hebrew Bible, which of course is part of the Christian Old Testament.

Most of Proverbs is just that:  short proverbs or aphorisms that say things about a wide range of human experience, from the importance of honest weights and measures to the dangers of adultery, and everything in between.  A good many of these aphorisms draw a contrast between characteristics of a good person (usually termed “wise” or “righteous”) and those of a bad person (usually termed “a fool” or “wicked”).  The Hebrew word translated “fool” means more than just one who is silly or what we would nowadays call foolish.  It carries a connotation of moral deficiency, and combines the notion of someone who does wrong with the idea that wrongdoing usually brings its own reward with it.

This notion is captured well by Prov. 18:7 (chapter 18, verse 7), which reads “A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to himself.”  If you have ever said something that got you into trouble, you have experienced this proverb in action, and at the time you were acting foolishly, in the sense of Proverbs.  The image in this proverb, which comes up repeatedly elsewhere in the book, is of a man who lays a trap and then falls into it himself.

Rather like a pointillist painting that seems to be just a collection of random dots up close but turns into a detailed image when viewed from a distance, the proverbs in Proverbs each focus on one aspect of foolishness and wisdom.  But when taken as a whole, a more complex picture emerges.

If you seek algorithmic rules like “When situation A occurs, always do X” you won’t find many in Proverbs, other than the oft-repeated advice to stay away from loose women.  The author (or authors—opinions differ as to how much of the book should be attributed to its traditional author, King Solomon) rarely engages in direct commands.  Rather, he poetically describes the ways that wisdom differs from foolishness, and lets the reader look for himself or herself in the pages of description.

Despite this elliptical way of proceeding, we can garner some definite characteristics of both the foolish and the wise from Proverbs.  The wise or righteous person “heed[s] commandments” (10:8), “lay[s] up knowledge” (10:14), has a “diligent hand” that “makes rich” (10:4), and “has regard for the life of his beast” (12:10).  Whereas the fool or wicked person will “come to ruin” (10:8) and “the babbling of a fool brings ruin near” (10:14).  The fool has a “slack hand” that “causes poverty” (10:4), and even “the mercy of the wicked is cruel” (12:10).

Besides these bipolar contrasts, there are sayings or truisms that earthily, and even humorously, show how human nature apparently hasn’t changed in the two or three millennia since the book was written.  Take this little gem, which encapsulates the whole history of a transaction and its aftermath in two lines:  “ ‘It is bad, it is bad,’ says the buyer; but when he goes away, then he boasts” (20:14).  Or “If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked” (29:12).  And anyone who thinks there’s no humor in the Bible should read Prov. 23:29-35.  Warning against the excesses of alcohol, it describes in extravagant metaphors what it feels like to go on a binge, and winds up with a quotation from the now-sober inebriate:  “ ‘They struck me,’ you will say, ‘but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it.  When shall I awake?  I will seek another drink.”

The way Proverbs approaches ethics is very different from the way it is taught in most professional contexts today.  It is more like having a chat with a trusted advisor who can tell you war stories about his experiences and life lessons he learned from them.  In today’s mass-produced educational systems, the chance to sit down and talk with mentors this way is rare, and even once you are in the workplace you may not have such an opportunity that often.  So if you haven’t done so before, look up Proverbs on the web and take a few minutes to see if you can find yourself, or people you know, in its pages.  And here’s hoping you’ll recognize yourself in the pictures of the wise and righteous, and not those of the foolish or wicked.

Sources:  I referred to the Wikipedia article on “Book of Proverbs.”  The quotations from the book are all from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. 

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