Monday, January 26, 2015


Since the start of the year, I have been teaching an Ethics course at Framingham State University (outside of Boston), and often discuss personal dilemmas we confront regularly.  “Whose Life Comes First?” was one of the topics we covered recently.

Ever since Auguste Compte, the French sociologist, coined the term “altruism” in 1851, thinkers have been debating the issue as to whether or not human nature is fundamentally selfish or other-oriented. Some argue that humans compete with one another all the time, and natural selection has made men and women even more egoistic. Others maintain that humanity could not have survived without charity and social responsibility toward the others.

Ancient Rabbis, too, struggled with the issue of “Whose life comes first?” A Talmudic passage put the dilemma is these words:
"Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a flask of water. If both of them drank they would both die, but if one of them drank, [only] he would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]. Ben Petura (a rabbinic scholar) taught: 'Better both should drink and die than that one should see his friend's death,' until Rabbi Akiba (2nd cent. CE) came and taught: [The Bible says:] 'Your brother should live with you' (Lev.25:36) – meaning, ‘your life takes precedence over the life of your friend's' (Baba Metzia 62a). And that is the position of Jewish law today.

We see an application of this rule in the way in which we are expected to act when we fly. As the plane is about to take off, the steward/ess says, “In case the air pressure falls, an air bag will come down from the ceiling. Please put the mask on your face first, and then help your neighbor.” The assumption is that unless you take care of yourself, you are not in a position to help someone else.

Most ethical dilemmas are not so clear cut. Often different situations require a re-evaluation of available options: Let me give you two examples: 

a) What if the other travelling companion is your child? My guess is that most parents would place the mask on his/her child first, or, in the case of the desert, give the bottle of water to his/her son or daughter, and willingly choose death. The ethics of self-sacrifice requires that when you give a gift, you do not expect anything in return, and that the life of the other person is viewed as more important that yours. And, for someone you love, this comes easy. There have been many examples in battle when a soldier sacrificed his/her life by taking a bullet meant for someone else, just because of close friendship or personal loyalty. 

b) What happens if you are not sure that your donation will save someone else’s life, and, in fact, your gift may put you in jeopardy?  Thus, for instance, some rabbinic authorities actually forbid a donor from giving a kidney to a dying patient if it will place the donor in some danger. But Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d.1986), the well-known Orthodox legal authority of our time, took a middle position, and stated that even through it is not obligatory to place oneself in questionable danger, you may personally choose to take this risk in order to save a life.
My life experience has taught me that human beings are basically egoistic, and that self-sacrifice does not come easily to many of us. However, altruism can and must be taught. This is often imparted at home and in school. That is why we need loving parents, influential teachers, and alert advisors to help us become more caring, more loving and more sensitive in our dealing with others. 

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
January, 2015