Is It Morally Proper to Abuse a Robot?
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph references the principle that once a defendant is convicted for a capital crime, there is an imperative to carry out the punishment immediately, so as not to prolong his agony. (See Sanhedrin 35a and Rashi “Lidayne”.) This is known as Iynuy Hadin. However, curiously in our Gemara they are referring to delaying the death of an Ox that was convicted for goring a person.
The commentaries struggle with trying to understand how we could be concerned with the psychological torment of an ox on death row. Of course there is an ethic of tzaar baaley chaim, to be careful not to cause suffering to animals. But could the ox be so perceptive as to understand that he is condemned to death?
Various answers are given, such as there are scriptural comparisons between the animal’s death and a human death that create equivalence in law, even if morally not equivalent (see Ra’avad in Shitta Mekubetzes on this Daf). Others say it is because there is still an additional imperative to “abolish evil from your midst” (Devarim 13:6 and Devar Avraham, II:34:2).
However, I would say that animals are perceptive enough to pick up on their master’s sense of distress and may well realize that some doom awaits them.
Yet, another issue to consider is that even if the animal does perceive some terrible fate, and “feels” anxious, is the animal really suffering? That is subject to a debate between Rambam and Ramban regarding the reason for the prohibition against causing animal suffering. Ramban (Devarim 22:6) considers it absurd that an animal should have enough self-awareness to experience suffering. Biologically, it represents instinctive responses to thrash and fight against existential danger, that in humans, we perceive as suffering. However, without consciousness, animals cannot really suffer. Ramban bases his reasoning on the Gemara Berachos (33b):
הָאוֹמֵר: ״עַל קַן צִיפּוֹר יַגִּיעוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ״..מְשַׁתְּקִין אוֹתוֹ.
One who recites in his supplication: Just as Your mercy is extended to a bird’s nest, as You have commanded us to send away the mother before taking her chicks or eggs (Deuteronomy 22:6–7)… is to be silenced.
Ramban’s understanding of this is that if we took matters to this extent, how would we be permitted to eat animals? Rather, the Torah decreed certain limits to how we use or abuse animals, and also since the animal appears to suffer, to forestall developing a callous and cruel attitude, we cannot mistreat them. But to praise God for having mercy on animals is misguided.
However, Rambam in the Guide for the Perplexed (III:48) holds that animals indeed do suffer. He states in reference to the commandment to send away the mother bird:
There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings.
Rambam holds that emotions come from the instinctive, symbolic, and imaginative faculties which are not a function of cognition, but experience. If this is so, I do not see why we should not be concerned for the distress of the ox as it intuits its pending death.
An interesting contemporary nafka mina (practical outcome) between Ramban and Rambam is if it is a problem to be cruel to an android or AI. According to Rambam, obviously not, as the Android is simply a simulation. Even if it passes a Turing test it does not operate with any form of consciousness; it is merely a sophisticated algorithm. But according to Ramban, poor middos are poor middos, no matter what. If the strictures of tzaar baaley chaim are to prevent developing a callous attitude, then it should apply even to an AI, at least according to the spirit of the law. Personally, for this reason, call me crazy but I say please and thank you to Siri and ChatGPT.
Listening to the Outsider
Our Mishna on Amud Aleph tells us that even if a person who caused an injury pays full restitution, he is not forgiven until he asks forgiveness, and it is granted. This concept is derived from the Biblical story of Avimelech and Avraham. When Avimelech had a prophetic dream, alerting him to the fact that the woman who he appropriated was not actually Avraham’s sister, but instead, his wife, God instructs him:
Now therefore restore the wife of the man; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for you, and you shall live” (Bereishis 20:7)
This shows that aside from making restitution and repair, physically, metaphysically there also must be an appeal for forgiveness.
If I were to ask, who was the first person who prayed to God, the typical answer might be Adam, Kayin, Noach or possibly Avraham. Now, if your definition of prayer is entering into a dialogue with God, the correct answer would be Adam. If your definition of prayer would be asking God to do something or forgive something you might say Kayin or Avraham. However, if you defined prayer as asking something of God, unsolicited, surprise of surprises, the first person who did that would be Eliezer, Avraham’s trusted servant. This occurs when he was met with the overwhelming and seemingly impossible task of finding the right woman from the correct lineage for Yitschok, as described in Bereishis chapter 24.
What was revolutionary about Eliezer’s prayer is that this is the first time recorded in the scripture that a human beseeches God to do something unsolicited. It is a theological revolution. After all, why should we have the chutzpah assume that God would change His plans because we ask for it? Revolutionary or not, this is a principle of our religion, despite the illogic of it, sometimes God awaits and desires the prayers of the righteous before He will act (Yevamos 64a).
It is not surprising that an outsider, such as Eliezer, comes up with a new, out of the box idea. Yisro, as well an outsider, gives Moshe advice about leadership and delegation of tasks (Shemos 18:17-23). It is the outsider that sees the obvious, when those stuck in the system miss it. This is an important lesson in community and family dynamics, to never absolutely dismiss the so-called ravings of madmen. As the Gemara (Bava Basra 12b) teaches, “From the day that the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to imbeciles and children.” Perhaps they may be mad, but as the saying goes, “I may be crazy, but I ain’t stupid.” And certainly, to listen to the voices and concerns of the downtrodden and disaffected often yields beneficial insights.
Multiple Causes, Multiple Solutions
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph warns: “The curse of an ordinary person should never be regarded as light in your eyes, for Abimelech cursed Sarah and it was fulfilled in her descendant.” The Gemara explains that Yitschok’s blindness later in life was caused by a passing remark of Avimelech, who felt misled by Yitschok, in letting him behave “blindly” by taking Rivkah as a wife who was actually married to Yitschok.
The commentaries ask, the Midrash states that Yitschok became blind for a different reason, in that he trespassed by glimpsing the Shechinah at the moment of the Akeidah (Bereishis Rabbah 65:10). Ben Yehoyada answers that glimpsing at the Shechinah caused a dimming of his vision, while Avimelech’s curse was the final blow, so to speak, that caused blindness.
In truth, the Midrash (ibid 65) offers three more reasons for Yitschok’s blindness, including:
- The tears of the angels at the Akeidah falling into his eyes
- Being “bribed” by Esau’s slick tongue and food, and we know that bribery blinds, as stated in Devarim 16:19.
- To allow for Yaakov to mislead him and give him the blessings over Esau.
I believe the true point is that, like many matters in life, there are genuinely multiple causes. Someone suffers a heart attack or a stroke. Is it obesity? Blood Pressure? Stress? Genetic predisposition? Or all of them? The same is true for psychological and social difficulties. If a person suffers from low self-esteem, insecure attachment and emotional dysregulation is it a genetic problem? Is it from a traumatic childhood? Is it from current ongoing hurtful experiences happening in relationships in the here and now? Is it a poor combination of the person’s innate disposition and those around him or her to respond well? The most correct answer is all of the above. And just as problems come from multiple causes, solutions will be found in multiple interventions. It is so rarely one problem nor one solution.
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the moral quandary of whether one should recite a blessing over stolen food:
רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר בֶּן יַעֲקֹב אוֹמֵר: הֲרֵי שֶׁגָּזַל סְאָה שֶׁל חִטִּין, טְחָנָהּ, לָשָׁהּ וַאֲפָאָהּ, וְהִפְרִישׁ מִמֶּנָּה חַלָּה, כֵּיצַד מְבָרֵךְ? אֵין זֶה מְבָרֵךְ אֶלָּא מְנָאֵץ! וְעַל זֶה נֶאֱמַר: ״בֹּצֵעַ בֵּרֵךְ נִאֵץ ה׳״.
Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov says: In the case of one who robbed another of a se’a of wheat, then ground it, kneaded it, and baked it, and he then separated ḥalla from it, i.e., he separated the portion of the dough that one is required to separate and then give to a priest, how can he recite the blessing over the separation of ḥalla? This individual is not reciting a blessing, but rather he is blaspheming. And with regard to this it is stated: “The robber who recites a blessing blasphemes the Lord” (Psalms 10:3), which is referring to a robber who recites a blessing upon performing a mitzva with an item he stole. According to Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov, although this wheat has been significantly changed, it is still considered a stolen item.
There are differences in the poskim about whether it is forbidden to recite the blessing, or one still must recite it, despite it being odious to God. Meiri has a different take. He states that one does not do zimun over stolen goods. The reason he offers will be the focus of our discussion. In order for there to be a zimun, one needs to have what is called a “keviyus” (see for example Taz OC 196:1), which means a group of three who sit together to eat in a fixed formal manner. Meiri here says that since the goods are stolen, by definition this is not a fixed situation. A sinful act cannot be fixed or consistent.
This reflects the nature of sin. Sin itself, by definition, is temporary. God’s will which is eternal and will ultimately prevail is the only things that is permanent. Akeidas Yitzchak (73) explains that when Chazal say (Sotah 3a), “A man commits a transgression only if he is temporarily insane”, they really meant it. He quotes Socrates in saying that the intellect is only capable of stating the truth. When a person sins, his need for immediate gratification temporarily blinds him to the truth of the consequences that he deeply knows. How many times do we have that extra portion of food, knowing that our doctors have told us, “That food is killing you”? We know the truth, we just can’t help ourselves.
This is the mystery and paradox of the human soul; an uneasy graft between the animal and the intellect. We can never win the battle, but losses are temporary. We should never forget this – sin is temporary but truth and goodness are eternal.