Richard J. Severson

Human Decency, The Minimum Requirements:

One of my mentors at the University of Iowa was an unconventional Jewish Rabbi named Jay Holstein.  He used to say that the sole purpose of the Hebrew Bible was to teach the minimum requirements of human decency.  It’s an interesting thesis.  What are the minimum requirements of human decency?  It’s a timeless moral question that has preoccupied our species for tens of thousands of years.

Much more ancient than the Bible was the experience of our Stone Age ancestors.  The virtues that they prized most were generosity and humility.  They lived in small nomadic bands of 20-50 people.  In order to survive the Ice Ages, they had to learn to function like cooperative moral hives.  As Charles Darwin pointed out, moral communities outcompete nonmoral ones because they work together more efficiently. 

After the invention of agriculture, people began to settle down and live in larger communities.  Some of them eventually grew into cities with tens of thousands of inhabitants.  The great moral struggle of every budding civilization was how to promote generous feelings between strangers who were forced to live in close proximity with one another.  How can we overcome the natural xenophobic instincts of our tribal origins?  It hasn’t been an easy quest, and all of the institutions of civility that were invented to help us—including religions, legal systems, schools, etc.—have only been partially successful, as the study of human history reveals all too well.

If we look back at the great arch of our moral evolution, I think what we see is an expanding circle of generosity.  Our Stone Age ancestors had to expand the circle of their generous feelings—their cares and concerns—to other members of their small tribes in order to thrive in harsh conditions.  Then, in the early stages of civilization, our forebears were forced to extend their generosity to strangers in cities and empires.  To this day, we still struggle with these basic moral requirements.  But we also face a new kind of moral crisis that requires another leap forward in our moral evolution.  The ecological crises that we now face require us to extend our generosity to the entire Earth, not just our own kind.

“Hospitality to strangers” is a plausible candidate for the minimum requirement of human decency.  After all, it has a strong precedent in the sacred texts of every budding civilization.  We must stay the course in the struggle to keep expanding the circle of our generosity.  But we must also find a way to extend our generosity to strangers that belong to other species than our own.

Postscript: Jay Holstein was the most popular teacher at the University of Iowa for many years.  Daniel Kraus made a short film about him, titled “Professor.”  “Professor” documentary – YouTube

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s