The Good Life in Times of Refugees


by Elliot Ratzman

Throwback Thursday: This week (January 21, 2016), Elliot Ratzman responds to Michael Walzer’s 2004 piece, “What Is a ‘Good’ Life?” Ratzman’s piece is titled “The Good Life in Times of Refugees;” it is immediately below. Beneath that is Walzer’s piece.)


The Good Life in Times of Refugees  by Elliot Ratzman

What can a socialist say about the rabbinic injunction that “You are not required to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it”? Michael Walzer meditated on the proverb from Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) in a 2004 issue of Religious Socialism. Walzer’s essay displays his usual mix of gentle common sense, measured consideration, and useful suggestions. Walzer shies away from being too preachy or too prescriptive about the nature of the good life, as if such a “nature” exists in a plural world, and suggests that the wise lesson to be learned is to realize that the “work”—in our case, of social justice—is ongoing. Walzer opposes a perfectionist “messianism” that assumes that at some point struggle cease and social contradictions are reconciled. Walzer also takes the injunction as saying that one should expect that one’s own efforts will be never be complete but may be sufficient; that the “work” of politics is always partial, and that even our goals are subject to revision. The alternative is a socialism of certainty that has road maps ready. For Walzer, as for many midcentury left-liberal commentators, unshaking certainty and utopian road-maps—the secular messianism of the self-righteous—inevitably lead to gulags and reeducation camps.

Although I tend to agree with Walzer, I want to note a cluster of more demanding suggestions about the “good life”—ones that correlate well with the ongoing nature of the “ work” but lack Walzer’s emphasis on a pluralist and fallible conception of the “good life.” In this season, the Syrian refugee crisis persists as a timely and urgent test case.

The utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer, writing in the time of the East Pakistan refugee crisis of 1971 articulated an example of what French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas might mean by “infinite responsibility.” Singer’s conclusion is that “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” Given the urgency of the refugees in danger of starving, Singer argues, we have an obligation to give until we cannot give any more. Our non-essential spending ought to be used to prevent death and destitution. Distance—between myself and the far-off refugee—is not a moral consideration, only a practical one that has been resolved by technology. Instead of buying that bookcase, I could be sending that money to Oxfam online, feeding and housing several refugees. The “infinite” is that there is no end to need—there is always a life to be saved, an unjust world to be set aright—making the work ongoing.

Singer acknowledges that few of us really sacrifice to that extent, but his claims are insistent, haunting our choices, overcasting our otherwise “good life” with the shadow of destitution and suffering. Such models of extreme giving are found most immediately in the stories of saints, and most of us are not saints.

In the face of urgent suffering—from refugees in Syria to health care in Haiti—what is one to do? Walzer may be too temperamentally and epistemologically humble to tell people what to do, but does not the reality of the refugee call this hesitancy into question? “Starving children should get food” and “we ought to help prevent unneeded deaths” are claims that undermine a congenial pluralism. In short, the good life, I would argue, must entail acting on this radical responsibility. A lived irresponsibility cannot really be a good life.

If we acknowledge this pull of “radical responsibility,” Levinas says one is “chosen” because one is heeding the call of the Other. What Singer and others argue is that our lives would have to be refashioned and reoriented toward maximizing one’s utility for resource redistribution—a more difficult task than mere acknowledgment. Singer’s involvement with the “Effective Altruism” movement is one such example of secular attempts to create models for responsible lives.

And it is here that the study of religion and religious communities has something to offer. Religious communities are in the business of not just suggesting what a good life might look like—from venerated saints to celebrated congregants—but provide the social framework to enable such good lives to be lived in the first place. The rabbinic injunction about the work, Walzer notes, was also referring to the study of the Law, both an existential commitment and a social practice. It is these dynamics that might be utilized to enable more people of good will to live up to radical responsibility.

We, as religious socialists, should be advocates for a “good life”—one that is active, political, and generous. Socialists, at least in theory, are attuned to the realities of suffering and destitution. A good life, then, would be not one in which we all merely hold certain values, but one where we live out those values to the best of our abilities. A good life then must be a haunted life and a busy life: we are haunted by the enormity of need and the limitations of our powers, and we should be busy trying to position ourselves to be of best use in the elimination of suffering and the establishment of justice. 

In this time of the Syrian refugees then, we socialists, who dwell in relative freedom and resources, need to figure out how to best intervene in the efforts to save more lives, resettle more immigrants, pressure our governments to do the right thing. Such campaigns, “the work that we cannot neglect,” strike me as indispensable components of the “good life” lived in these times.

Elliot Ratzman is assistant professor in the Religion Department at Temple University, where he teaches courses on race and poverty, religion and philosophy, practical ethics, and Jewish Studies.


What Is a “Good” Life? by Michael Walzer (Originally published in the Religious Socialism Journal, Volume 28, Issue 3, Summer 2004)

The subject of the good life is one that makes me nervous, because it invites two different kinds of discourse, that of a philosopher and that of a preacher. And it is very easy to slip from the first to the second, that is, to slip from analyzing the meaning of life to suggesting what that meaning is and telling people how they ought to live. I will try to provide a perspective on what the good life might be or what it might be like, but I will also try to avoid preaching at least in this sense, that my argument will be pluralist in character: there are many different good lives, and I will not advocate or prescribe any one of them.

More like a preacher than a philosopher, I will interpret a text, a very short text, an old Jewish maxim that comes from a book called Sayings of the Fathers (Pirke Avot), written or compiled in the second century of the Common Era. Pirke Avot might be thought of as a post-biblical version of the Book of Proverbs: it is a late example of what is called “wisdom literature,” a collection of aphorisms and maxims attributed to the intellectual leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine up to, roughly, the year 200.

This is my text: “You are not required to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” The maxim is meant to tell us something about how to live well. But what does it mean? My interpretation is in three parts: first, I will take up the general view of the right and the good that is implicit here; then, I will discuss the “work” that we are supposed to do; and finally, I will consider the implications of saying that we don’t have to finish it.

1. We Live “Under Commandment”

The maxim reflects a belief that we live “under commandment”—under divine commandment, the rabbis would have said, invoking the moment at Sinai when the commandments were delivered to the children of Israel, but I am going to leave it without the adjective: under commandment. You are “not required”—but you might be. Most basically, you are “not at liberty.” The moral world, on this view, is a world of requirements and rules, to which all men and women are subject.

Now, Americans generally are opposed to subjection. We set a high value on individual autonomy, and rightly so: the choices we make shape our lives to a very large extent, and there are many things that we have to choose. In our politics, the idea of consent is central, and consent is a choice: we choose the people who govern us and we help to choose the policies of our government. And in the same way, in everyday life, we choose spouses, friends, projects, careers, professions, and all the organizations and associations that we join (or leave) in the course of our lives. Most Americans would say that choice is crucial to the good life; some would say that we literally determine the meaning of our lives by the choices we make.

But there are also things that we don’t choose: most important, we don’t choose our morality. When we live a moral life, we are living according to values and principles that are commonly expressed as injunctions—as in the biblical version: Thou shalt not… We can view these injunctions as God-given or humanly constructed; they are in any case inherited. If there is a construction process, it takes place over a very long period of time; we don’t make up the moral rules for ourselves or by ourselves. We can join in the ongoing process of interpreting and revising the rules, but we don’t make up the rules as we go along.

The moral world is not subject to our will; we are its subjects. We incur obligations by making promises, but here is something we never promised. We never promised not to murder, or lie, or rob—but we are bound not to do those things, and other things too. The maxim about “work” suggests that we are not only bound negatively but also positively. Just as there are things we shouldn’t do, so there are things, or there is something, that we should do.

I will ask in a moment what that something is. Now I only want to convey this sense of the moral world as a fact; it is really there. Morality is a given, and we have literally been given it, in our earliest childhood and again and again since then, in parental instruction, in schooling, in religious teaching, and in the socialization process generally.

I don’t think that this sense of an overhanging morality is peculiarly Jewish. Consider the contemporary arguments about human rights: the idea that all of us have rights simply by virtue of being human, rights not to be killed, or enslaved, or  tortured, and so on, implies that all of us also have obligations, not to kill or enslave or torture—and it doesn’t matter that we never voluntarily accepted these obligations; we know that we are obligated. And that means that we all experience the moral world, whatever role we play in interpretation and revision, as an imposed reality: we all live “under commandment.”

Right and wrong, just and unjust, good and bad: these are substantive designations. We can and do disagree about their precise references and applications, and the disagreements are very important.

But we know that these moral terms refer to something real, and we know that they apply to us, to our everyday activities. We can’t do whatever we want. We can’t refuse to do whatever we don’t want. So it isn’t an odd idea that there is some kind of “work” that we have to do, in which we must engage, even if we don’t finish it. But note that this is a moral “must.” In fact, of course, we can escape the “work,” or we can disengage from it, whatever it is; neglect is easy. That is why we have to be told that we are “not at liberty.”

2. What Is the Work?

Well, then, what is the “work”? I will begin to answer this question by considering some of the things it isn’t. Presumably it isn’t something like painting a picture or writing a novel; it isn’t artistic work, because that kind of work has to be finished. It requires some sort of completion before we can contemplate it as a work of art. A novel left unfinished at the death of a great novelist might be studied by students trying to understand the creative process; or it might be finished by another writer, as one of Jane Austin’s novels has been.

But we wouldn’t tell novelists, you don’t have to finish. In fact they do have to finish, and not only because it says so in the contracts they signed with their publishers, but also because we can’t appreciate the work or grasp its full meaning until it is finished. On the other hand, you could say to the architects and builders of a medieval cathedral: you don’t have to finish (it often took centuries to finish), but you can’t walk away from the work… That example points us, perhaps, toward the kind of “work” that might be intended by the maxim (if we translate it across religious boundaries). What about other great works—the Great Wall of China, the ancient Egyptian irrigation system, the Taj Mahal?

The “work” might be more prosaic than these examples suggest. Still, it won’t be anything like washing the dishes, cleaning out the basement, buying groceries, mowing the lawn, ainting the kitchen, fixing the leaking faucet. For this is work that we do and then, inevitably, down the road, we do it again. These are recurrent activities; they play a central part in every human life, and I suspect that they play a part in every good human life.

It makes sense to say that you “must” engage in some of them, at least, but it wouldn’t make sense to say that you don’t have to finish them: at any given moment you do have to finish them. But what about caring for sick friends and relatives or tutoring a student who has problems with math? These are also recurrent activities, but they have a different feel to them: Why? What’s the difference?

I don’t think that making money, or seeking political power, or pursuing fame and glory qualify as the “work.” For one thing, the imperative hardly applies; we don’t have to be commanded in any of these cases. We all need money, and it is useful to have some degree of political power, and I suppose that most of us want our 15 minutes of fame. The making, seeking, and pursuing can be endless, but it is also possible for me to get as much as I want in one or more of these areas and then, as the saying goes, “rest on my laurels.” It’s also possible to drop out or retire; these are personal projects, and we can cut them short or give them up without making excuses. They aren’t projects that need to be finished, even if we can’t finish them ourselves. Getting and spending are not inconsequential human activities, but they don’t constitute a good life.

Nor will any kind of athletic activity serve as the “work” we have to do. It makes good sense to say to someone running a marathon, that she doesn’t have to finish, but we wouldn’t tell her that she’s not allowed to give up running entirely; she can decide whenever she wants never to run again. Nor would we say that it’s not permitted to give up playing football or even baseball. And the reason we wouldn’t say that is that play is something radically different from “work” (though professional ballplayers make their play into work, even very hard work, they can’t make it into “work” in the moral sense). The “work” that we have to do might well have its playful moments; it may sometimes be fun to do it. But it won’t be the first choice of people who are fun-loving above all else.

So, again, what is the “work”? In Pirke Avot, it seems to be the study of God’s law. What would it mean to finish studying the law? Well, there are a finite set of texts—the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible and the 41 tractates of the Talmud—and in theory you could just begin at the beginning and work your way through to the end. But the work is slow and hard; it requires painstaking effort; and since you may not get very far, it is a good thing to know that you are not obligated to finish. Just get as far as you can; do what you are able to do. There will be other people studying too, and some of them will get farther along. And there will be people coming after, and still others after them…

In fact, finishing isn’t even a theoretical possibility. Studying the law also means interpreting and revising the law, since every legal system, even one that has been divinely revealed, has to be adapted to human circumstances and changed when the circumstances change. This is an ongoing process that you really can’t ever finish, even if you get through all the books and tractates. I am sure that interpreting and revising is the real “work” and not just studying. In fact, just studying, rote learning, would be more like make-work, and the “work” can never be make-work.

Study ranks very high on the Jewish list of valuable and virtuous activities, and it gives us further clues as to what qualities the “work” has to have: for study of God’s law is supposed to produce observance, the acting out of the law in the form of good deeds and loving kindness, and these two, so we have been told, bring the messianic age closer. But study isn’t alone on the Jewish list—or on any other list.

In the maxims of Pirke Avot, other possibilities are suggested that fit the formula, “not obliged to finish, not at liberty to neglect.” These include helping other people; service to the community—I mean, the community as it is; and then, by extension, working to create a better community (which may be what interpreting and revising the law is all about). You won’t be able to provide all the help that other people need or all the services that our common life requires, and the project of creating a better community is sure to be unfinished, however hard you work at it, since it is always possible to do better than better (I will come back later on to the idea of “best,” which does indeed invite completion). So it makes sense to say in all these cases that you don’t have to finish, but you can’t walk away. Why not? Because this “work,” or “work” of these kinds, is morally important, and we have been commanded to do it.

But I have now begun my central project: to pluralize the idea of “work.” You are not at liberty to neglect it, but you are at liberty to think about it, to find and defend alternative meanings, and so to choose the good work or the good works that you do. If we multiply the meanings of “work,” then it will turn out that there are different ways, perhaps many different ways, of living a moral life; there are many good lives. What makes a good life is a project of a certain kind—an expansive kind, so that many activities fit. The fact that this project doesn’t have to be finished, or can’t be finished, means that it isn’t purely private or egocentric. It isn’t the same as a hobby or even as a career—though some hobbies and some careers might involve work of the right sort.

It is interpersonally valuable work, which is why we can be sure that other people will carry it on with us, and after us. So, to go back to an earlier example, if the building of the Great Wall of China protected individual lives, and families and villages, from violent attack (the people on the other side may have had a different view of the Wall, but let’s stick with this one), then it was work of the kind that fits the maxim, and we can say of the builders that they were not free to neglect the “work.”

The “work” has to be generally valuable, valuable to others as well as to ourselves, otherwise it wouldn’t be morally required. Think of the work of medical researchers looking for a cure for a particular disease. Before they begin their research, they could certainly choose a different project. It wouldn’t make sense to say that this particular work is the “work” that no one is at liberty to neglect.

The author of the maxim may have thought that studying God’s law was “work” like that: everybody should do it, but he also knew that “everybody” had to do other things too, else we could not sustain our common life. And some of those other things must also be valuable in the special sense that makes them obligatory.

Once you have chosen “work” of that sort, in addition to study or even as a replacement for study, you are not at liberty to neglect it. The medical researchers don’t have to find the cure, but they can’t stop looking. But what if they do find it? Can they stop then? Not if they are still young enough to continue. The cure will have unexpected, maybe dangerous, side effects, or the disease will reappear in new forms; in any case, there are other diseases. The “work” won’t be finished, but it is the sort of “work” that other people will carry on.

Some of my colleagues in political theory think that politics is the “work” that everybody has to do. As democratic citizens, we must be active in shaping and directing the common life, even if, or precisely because, the common life is never finished. Some of them even think that political activity is the highest human calling: when the citizens of Athens met on the agora, argued with one another, and together made decisions that determined the future of their city, they were living on the heights.

Well, politics is certainly one way, perhaps the most obvious way, to make the community we live in a better place; it is, at its best, “work” of the sort the maxim enjoins. But it isn’t the only way of improving our community, and some people are much more readily drawn to it than others. Even if we all participate in part-time fashion, by reading the newspapers and voting in elections, politics will never be everyone’s “work.”

So I can continue to defend a pluralist position: even though politics is my own “work”—I write about it, help to edit a political magazine, and try to advance a particular political position—my view of political activity is similar to my view of legal study. It is important that some people be engaged in it; it is a good thing if many people are engaged; but there are other possible and valuable engagements.

3. Why You Don’t Have to Finish the Work

Now I want to consider more carefully what it means to say, “you don’t have to finish the work.” This can be read as an argument against personal perfectionism. We don’t have to beat ourselves up for not finishing; we don’t have to work 16 hours a day; we don’t have to neglect our obligations to other people; we don’t even have to sacrifice our creature comforts. Here are the words of a thirteenth-century commentator on the maxim “Do not say: ‘I shall drive myself’… the way workers do who have to finish a fixed task. For if you act this way you will in the end grow weak and sluggish and cease from the work altogether. He who tries to do more than he is able, will in the end do less, because he wears out his body, dulls the sharpness of his mind, [and] slackens his enthusiasm…”

We have to do only what we can do, within reasonable limits, and then we can pass the work on to someone else, to the next generation. There is a deep idea here: the goodness of a single life is not complete in itself. Think of it as part of an ongoing goodness project: the “work” only works if other people work at it together with us, and after us. In fact, we need many workers if the “work” is to proceed, and there is something mad or obsessive or vainglorious in trying to finish it all alone. So the maxim encourages a certain kind of humility, which leads people doing the “work” to look for helpers and co-workers.

But I think that the maxim can also be read in another way. It isn’t only an argument against personal but also against collective perfectionism. This is an anti-revolutionary, anti-messianic, and anti-redemptive text. The central idea of revolution or of messianic redemption is that all-of-a-sudden, in an actual historical moment, human life and human society will be transformed and perfected. The “work,” whatever it is, will then be over and done. Communism will be the end of human history. The messiah will usher in the kingdom of God. Human life will no doubt continue, but it is hard to see how “work” in the sense I have given it will still be necessary; presumably it won’t be necessary.

The Jewish philosopher Maimonides says that even after the messiah comes, we will still study God’s law; in fact, given the conventional view of the messianic age, we will be delivered from the hard necessities of everyday life, so we will have more time for study; we will be more free to study than we ever were before. But wouldn’t this then be, so to speak, a leisure time activity, not really “work”? And since God’s law would already be operative, fully in force, wouldn’t its study be superfluous or superogatory or even beside the point? Surely the ambition of revolutionaries and messianists has always been to achieve a definitive completion, and what comes after that is radically unclear.

This text says no to all this. Its argument is very much in the spirit of an old Jewish joke about a man who takes a job with the city: he sits at the city gate and watches for the messiah, so that the people inside will have some warning before he (or she) appears. A friend asks him how he likes his job. Well, he says, it doesn’t pay very well, but it is steady work.

The “work” that I have been referring to is also steady; it is never done; whatever it is, it is endless. You don’t have to finish because the “work” in principle is unfinishable; there may be temporary endings, victories of one sort or another, but nothing like completion. Every human being has been and will be confronted by the same task or set of tasks.

Someone might think that this is a Jewish version of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. A rebel against the gods, Sisyphus is condemned to push a rock up a steep hill, forever; he never gets to the top. Is that the human story? But pushing a rock up a hill doesn’t seem to be “work” of the sort I am considering; in fact, it is a punishment. It has no goodness, no interpersonal value, whereas the reason we can’t disengage from the “work” enjoined by the maxim is precisely because it is a good thing to do; doing it makes the world better.

But better and better somehow don’t add up to best. In fact, doing better is better than doing best, because “best” implies a hubristic completion. It is like someone who claims to have produced the definitive account of God’s law; this is it, he says; no one has to study it anymore; now we can just obey it.

The personal version of this is overweening and arrogant; the collective version is likely to be tyrannical. For the law is always there to be studied, and adapted, and revised; other people always need help; the world always needs to be improved. And to deny this, to say that the “work” is forever done or to try to organize all the people doing it, however they conceive it, and march them to a single conclusion—this is bound to be, and has always turned out to be, a nasty business.

We Want to Win

But isn’t that “always” depressing, and isn’t that the reason people continually try to finish the “work”? Remember the biblical line about the poor always being with us. We resist the “always” and seek to create a society and an economic system in which poverty would be abolished. We declare a “war against poverty,” as Lyndon Johnson did, and we want to win the war. And it is right to try to win; that is one version of the “work” I am talking about. When we think about the “work,” we think about finishing it as well as about not finishing it. Like Martin Luther King, Jr.,we have a dream. We have a utopian idea of a society where well-being is universal. We have an idea of a society where every individual life, every family and village, is secure against violence. We have an idea of humankind freed from catastrophic disease, where death comes only at the end of a “natural” lifespan. We have an idea of a legal system whose laws are so well understood that they are obeyed without coercion.

But it is a great mistake to think that there is a single road to the realization of any of these ideas, and that we have the road map, and that we are marching forward with absolute confidence—because then anybody with another idea about how the “work” should be done is going to seem like an enemy. And yet we need other ideas, because there isn’t a single road; there isn’t an absolutely correct road map, and this is a very long march.

So we should take the maxim to be comforting: don’t worry if you don’t finish—as long as you don’t give up. But the maxim is also a caution, a restraint: don’t be impatient, don’t think that you know exactly what needs to be done, don’t try to do it all, don’t force the end.

Michael Walzer, a political philosopher, is a co-editor of Dissent and author of Arguing About War and co-editor of Volume 2 of Jewish Political Thought. This essay is adapted from a speech given at the University of Tulsa in the spring of 2004.