chapter  4
20 Pages

Is Maimonides a moral relativist?

ByLenn E. Goodman

Near the start of The Guide to the Perplexed Maimonides confronts an objection: How was it a punishment for Adam and Eve’s disobedience to result in moral knowledge, humanity’s prized distinction? Joseph Soloveitchik saw Maimonides’ response as following Aristotle (!) into moral relativism. Shlomo Pines’ still widely used translation of the Guide, similarly, projects mid-century stress on the fact-value dichotomy here. But the new translation now in preparation by Phillip Lieberman and myself plainly shows Maimonides preserving the rabbinic view that Adam and Eve had moral knowledge from the start – hence God’s commands. Eating the fruit bestowed no knowledge but betrayed an all too human hubris. Following their impulses set the couple more on a par with beasts than gods. Hence, Maimonides argues, Adam’s sudden concern with his nakedness. For only by convention is nakedness is wrong – convention being what we humans add to impulse in embracing the illusion that subjective preferences yield moral knowledge, making us godlike, but only in our own eyes. Reading the Eden narrative neither as history nor as etiological myth, Maimonides, far from stumbling into relativism, finds a stern indictment of the illusion that we create moral values rather than being called to discover moral truths.