‘The big education for me is that civilisation is fragile and can be destroyed in a heartbeat' - Jeremy Brade, former peacekeeper in Sarajevo.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Can you have ethics without some form of religion?

I think not. 

Ethics have to have a basis. You can't derive an "ought" from an "is" - unless you have a philosophy that combines both - e.g. God the Creator who is also the Lawgiver. 

Without that, ethics is merely a study of moral attitudes without any hortative or normative force. Or a matter of logical consequences - "if you believe x and wish to be consistent, then you should do y". For example I asked a class whether eating animals was cruel and they all said yes, but balked at the idea of not eating meat at lunch. 

One answer would be simply to change one's principles to make them consistent with one's desires. Although possibly, being consistent could also be seen as an optional principle.

A moral code may be desirable, but that is not enough for it to be independent of human wishes or inclinations. Codes may differ sharply, with no way to determine which is correct or superior: for example, how does one adjudicate between cannibals and vegans?


Paddington said...

I would say that you are wrong. Many people have studied this very question, and one solution has been observed from the evo-psych people, that ethics are an emergent phenomenon from living in groups. It can be observed in all kinds of herd animals.

As for ethics from religion, there is scant evidence that it actually exists. Were one to follow the laws of either the Old or the New Testament, you would be locked up for child abuse, murder, slavery, animal cruelty, and a host of other behaviours.

Sackerson said...

Yes, you have reduced it to a scientific question, an observation of what happens - i.e. an "is". Dispassionately observed, it contains no "ought": to the extent that we have a choice - if at all - there is no authoritative guidance.

Sackerson said...

P.S. I am not here advocating any particular moral code.

Sackerson said...

JD comments:

Too late to start thinking about things like that but it is an old conundrum which can never be answered because ethics (or morality) does not depend on a religious belief, cannot arise from any religious belief system.

But it didn't take me long to find this quote and commentary -

"Modern man denies himself every metaphysical dimension and considers himself a mere object of science. But he screams when they exterminate him as such."
=Nicolás Gómez Dávila

Exactly. Treat an atheist like the pointless agglomeration of matter that he is, and he won't like it. He might even scream that his "rights" are being violated. What rights?

Read this book and then re frame the question about ethics and religion-

Sackerson said...

@JD: You say ethics do not arise from religion but I think one aspect of religion is an explanation of why there is anything, why we are here, how we fit in; and then ethical rules, if objective rather than arbitrary, are grounded in that.

Sackerson said...

JD responds:

You are correct and what I should have said was that 'religion' was an attempt to codify and explain the origin and the necessity for ethics/morals. Those things are inherent in us as metaphysical reality. Translating them into mere words is next to impossible; even Jesus had to use parables to encourage people to look within and work it out for themselves.

"The Kingdom of heaven is within you." according to Luke's Gospel so you can find 'the good, the true, the beautiful' within yourself. In Psalms it says "Be still and know that I AM." In other words, sit quietly in contemplation or meditation and the 'monkey mind' begins to settle leading eventually to a stillness which allows 'the truth' that is within to become evident.

Lots of people throughout history have tried to explain it and have done a much better job than I can. You can pick famous names at random - Plato, Buddha, Patanjali, Rumi, Black Elk, Vivekananda, Jung, ....the list is very long and covers all creeds because they all have the same message.

Even Monty Python joined in: during "The Life of Brian" Graham Chapman shouts out to his 'followers' "You're supposed to work it out for yourselves!"

see also - http://theylaughedatnoah.blogspot.co.uk/2018/02/the-cream-of-reason-revisited-by-jd.html

"......the ideal of reason does not produce reasonable behaviour."

On which basis, the ideal of reason cannot produce a basis for ethical, moral society.

Paddington said...

Except that that the answers given by religion are generally useless. The answer of 'God did it' is an infantile one, on a par with a parent's 'because'. It doesn't explain how or why.

What rights does religion actually promise?

I accept 'rights' as legal and biological constructs.

Sackerson said...

@P: that is where the logic trends, absent a theological underpinning. The "loophole" is that certain individuals then realise there is no reason other than the fear of real and immediate personal consequences to prevent them doing terrible things. The twentieth century has well-known examples.

Still, I doubt whether psychopaths can be deterred by moral and philosophical discussion anyway. Norman Cohn in his "The Pursuit of the Millennium" notes how the mediaeval revolutionaries simply gave every outward sign of believing in and complying with the established religion, until their opportunity came.

But I suspect there are worrying implications for the stability of modern society of a general perception that there is no absolute basis for ethical principles.

Paddington said...

I have lost count of the number of US Christians who have told me in discussion that their faith is the only thing which prevents them from murder, rape and general running amok. In fact, that is precisely what many of the evangelical churches here teach. They are amazed that atheists generally have the attitude that we only have one short life, so we should live it correctly.

Time for a little data, to inject facts over feelings.

As it happens, there are two well-established sets of statistics for the US which are quite relevant to this discussion:

1. The percentage of non-believers in the US prison population is far lower than their representation in the general population.

2. If you look at the states (and even the regions within each state) which are the most religious (think Texas and the South), they have the highest rates of murder, assault, rape, sexual abuse, child abuse, teen pregnancy, repeat teen pregnancy, abortion and divorce. As one particular statistic, those girls in religious high schools are much more likely to have an abortion than girls in state schools

MikeW said...

Can you have ethics without some form of religion?
I think not.

In the ought/is link you give and why I'm posting, there is a reference to Macintyre's 'After Virtue'. It does not come over in the discussion in Wiki how important this study is.If you know AV, sorry for boring folks with this poor attempt at a review.

I read AV as a student years ago, expecting merely to gather some insight about The Enlightment: Voltaire, Hume, Smith etc. I did, but AV is so much more. I point you to it because part of the thesis is that what we percieve to be the 'natural' order of Christinaty was carefully constructed by Aquinas to incorperate Aristotle's philosophy (Thomism). It is also teleological, so it does make sense, in this scheme, to appraise what man in state A is attempting to be in the future B. Macintyre calls this - man as he is in nature (imperfect)- to man as he could be, if he follows the 'virtues' to perfect himself.

Ethics and our modern 'relationship' with it is in chaos, as most of us don't understand that this system has been destroyed. What we have to use are 'fragments', of historically located virtues,but no teleological agreement that once made sense of them.We only have science: cause and effect and its supporting philosophy - Logical Positivism. Playing out here?

It would be Macintyre's point that the conflict we have today about what it is to do right or wrong, stems from the destrution of this system by the proposed Enlightenment, replacement, ethical system.
He argues that, Utilitarianism, was the 'scientific', replacement project for Thomism. A moral system that refers not to the imperatives of church ethics and the virtues, but the calculation of what is the outcome, results of a particular course of action (ie greatest good principle).

In short, Macinyre's thesis, has two great ethical systems, one of them contradicts your stated view above. But his power also rests in explaining why the second system of ethics failed too!What that means, and what solutions there are open to us in modernity I still do not fully understand.But I suspect this Enlightenment failure will interest you a great deal.

CherryPie said...

JD, I agree with everything you say in your comment at - 4 March 2018 at 10:49

All those teachers tell us 'The Kingdom of heaven is within you'. Those teachers (and others) also tell us how to find that Kingdom. The problem is that most people do not understand what they are teaching.

Sackerson said...

@P: I think it is well known that lower income groups are more likely to profess a religious belief, though it doesn't follow from that that all believers are stupid or ignorant. St Thomas Aquinas might serve as a counter-example.

Similarly lower-income people are over-represented in jail, but that doesn't necessarily mean that their religious beliefs, if they have them, are to blame. [Young men are also over-represented, by the way, as you know - if one could safely keep males away from general society until the age of 25 or so there might be far fewer incidents of murder and manslaughter.]

An alternative explanation might be that the poor have more need for some kind of hope of outside help, having little confidence in their own capacity to change their lives to any great extent; whereas the well-off can afford to be more complacent. Indeed in some cases (I do not mean any interlocutors here) it could look as though the proselytising nonbeliever is, in effect, boasting of his superiority like a self-made man.

And religious belief is not the same as religious experience. St T A's revelation at the age of c. 48 made him say of his previous writings, "All I have written seems as so much straw."

I return to your earlier comment about ethics as legal and biological constructs. Bertrand Russell said (can't find the reference just now) that morality was merely what Nanny had taught one.

I spoke too loosely of ethics needing a philosophical basis; instead I think I should have said, moral absolutes.

Sackerson said...

@Mike W - thanks, I think I only partially understand but it's been a long day/week, will mull over.

MikeW said...


In one sense please ignore my review. All I would advise is get hold of AV and read that first chapter (5 pages). 'A Disquieting Suggestion: Image that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe...' And so it begins. A day or a week to think about AV. I'm still thinking about it 25 years later. And I'm not even a Catholic!

Paddington said...

I'm sorry, but your explanations are apologetics. In the list I included divorce, teen pregnancy and abortion.

Hint: It isn't the poor doing most of those.

With all that I have read, whether religion or social justice activists, it always seems to be that,"X should be true, so it must be true."

And when science studies it, it turns out that X is false. The basic idea is Aristotle's, "argument from adverse consequences."

Now, in addition to what I wrote earlier, there are many examples of mammals and birds demonstrating what we would call altruism and other ethical behaviour.

CherryPie said...

I will pose the question from a different perspective

What was Jesus (and the other teachers that JD mentioned) trying to teach?

Was it ethics or something else?

Sackerson said...

JD says:

This is shifting the goalposts slightly -

"For example, he [Steven Pinker] believes it is possible to ground morality in logic. Yes, I suppose that's possible, so long as you furnish logic with the correct premises! But logic alone obviously cannot provide those premises.

"Remarkably, Pinker didn't seem to comprehend this when Prager pointed it out. For example, Pinker argued that it is logical not to murder children. But why should we be logical? What if I want to murder children? Who says logic is better than desire? Not Nietzsche, for one."


Very interesting and well worth reading.

Sackerson said...

@P: Not apologetics, merely putting some points for the other side of the argument. Largely I was addressing your first point on jailbirds.

I don't know the stats on your second. But you have told me any times that the religious Right in the USA can be quite different from most of the religious in the UK. And some seem to see their religion as a sort of football team to be noisily supported, rather than to inform their behaviour. I don't see how one can wave the flag of Christianity at the same time as permitting oneself extramarital fornication, abortion and divorce.

I am aware of altruistic behaviour among animals - there are touching examples posted on FB from time to time. I'm not sure it would have puzzled or surprised St Francis of Assisi. Though it does surprise me to see a bear hoist a drowning crow out of the water rather than crunch it up as a snack.

Paddington said...

And the US evangelicals are far more devout than 99% of the believers that I knew in the UK.

The explanation is beautiful in The Science of Discworld II, where Pratchett contrasts tribal behaviour (including lots of religion, and the ideas of predestination) with barbarians. One gets around the former (i.e. committing sins) by finding other people to blame for your 'mistakes'.

There is simply no evidence that religious beliefs make people behave 'better'. Of course, for the most part, neither do laws.

Sackerson said...

@P: Devout? Not from what you have been saying, which implied to me that they were to be criticised not for being Christians, but for not being Christians. Matthew 7:21 (I had to Google it):

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Paddington said...

What you miss is the idea (mostly Southern Baptist) of 'Once Saved, Always Saved'.

Accept Jesus into your heart, and you are going to Heaven. In theory, belief is supposed to make you behave 'better', practice says that this doesn't work. However, many believers take OSAS to mean that any sin is forgiven if you believe. And boy, do they believe.

Sackerson said...

The launderette. They have forgotten "presume not, despair not."

Brett Hetherington said...

If we accept that religion is largely just well-organised and popular superstition then we have to also acknowledge that humans existed before religion was formally set up.

That means that any argument that maintains that religion is necessary for ethics also logically argues that communities that existed before religion were unethical.

I find that impossible to agree with because even if only between family groups there must have been ethical actions for these groups to survive.