A Religious Foundation for Ethics?
Moral requirements like the duty not to kill or the duty to keep promises and so on, can naturally be thought of as commands. Following one’s conscience can even feel as though one is following an “inner voice” of some kind. Could it be that moral duties are themselves reflections of the will of a good God, so that the moral requirement “Do not kill the innocent” is the equivalent or stems from “God prohibits the killing of the innocent”? Some philosophers have argued that the most reasonable account of the realm of morality is that it is constituted by divine commands and prohibitions. On this view, moral duties receive their binding character due to the agency of the Creator and, in the absence of God, morality would lose its objective authority. This stance has been developed in strong and moderate forms of a divine command theory of ethics and in the context of Platonic theism.
According to what might be called the strong divine command theory, there is an essential identity of morality and divine commands. So, what it means for someone to claim that killing the innocent is wrong is that God prohibits this. We have here a strict identity just as one has in the case of an analytic definition or in an identity relationship in the natural world. So, in terms of definitions, a ‘grandmother’ simply is ‘a female whose child has a child,’ and in natural identities, water simply is H20. Similarly, so it is argued, to claim something is wrong is to claim that God prohibits it. The divine commands may be formatted as follows:
X is morally wrong = God prohibits X
Y is morally right = God commands Y
Z is morally neutral (neither good nor bad morally) = God neither commands nor prohibits Z
Why think this strong thesis might be true? It would anchor ethics in that which is beyond human culture. A divine command theory allows us to say that something is wrong even if a human culture approves of it. Also, this account seems to ground ethics at the very heart of reality. The purpose of ethics is intended by the Creator of the universe. H. P. Owen grants that while ethical precepts (keep promises, do not murder) seem like impersonal structures, they are best seen as personal commands.
[Moral] claims transcend every human person and every personal embodiment. On the other hand we value the personal more highly than the impersonal; so it is contradictory to assert that impersonal claims are entitled to the allegiance of our wills. The only solution to the paradox is to suppose that the order of [moral] claims, while it appears as impersonal from a purely moral point of view, is in fact rooted in the personality of God. (Owen 1965, 53)
One difficulty is what might be called the good atheist objection. Aren’t there atheists who grasp moral rightness and wrongness and act accordingly? This might not be decisive, however, because you might deny water is H20, and yet it is still constituted by hydrogen and oxygen. The deep structural foundation for ethics may not be evident to everyone who thinks ethically. And so the existence of ethical atheists is not, itself, a good objection to the strong divine command theory. But there is another problem: the Euthyphro Dilemma.
In the fourth century BCE Plato constructed a dialogue, the Euthyphro, which included a question that can be slightly re-phrased: Is X good because God loves it or is X loved by God because it is good. The problem with X is good because of God’s love is that it then seems that love gives rise to reasons, and we may face this problem: what if God loved something unjust? If God loved cruelty, would cruelty then be right? Some have been prepared to go some of the way with this proposal and charge that if God did command cruelty, then it would be morally right and yet, (they argue) God did not command cruelty. This reasoning may suffice, but many philosophers worry about the coherence of someone (even God) making something morally right by decree or command. Commands can, under certain conditions, create new obligations as when someone who owns land offers a decree (imagine she prohibits hunting), but we rarely think these commands can create obligations that are contrary to objective rights and wrongs. We would be uneasy with a landlord who could simply make murder right.
There is another version of the divine command theory that may be more successful. According to a moderate form of the theory for X to be morally right amounts to X is commanded by an essentially good God. On this view, goodness is not defined by Gods’ commands. God is held to be good in God’s self and the source of all goodness. In this framework murder is evil and compassion good, and necessarily so, but their necessary objective statues is derived from God’s commands. This version of the divine command theory avoids the problem of caprice; God cannot, by God’s very nature, command murder. But it still insists that these normative, objective truths stem from God.
Why should one adopt such a framework? It offers a unified, stable account of values as stemming from a single source. It makes no use of an appeal to God’s sheer power; in other words, the obligatory nature of divine commands does not stem from an appeal to God’s power, e.g. obey God or face intolerable consequences.
A difficulty with this theory arises in making clear the kind of causal relationships involved between God and objective moral norms. Causal relations are often thought to be contingent, but this is not always the case. Some determinists hold that all causal relations are fixed and Spinoza claimed that the whole cosmos could not be other than it is.
There is yet a third alternative that may be called Platonic theism which resembles the moderate divine command theory but does not claim that the objectivity of morality rests on God’s commands. On this view, God is essentially good, and yet moral rightness or wrongness do not depend of God’s commands. Nonetheless the very existence of a cosmos in which there are objective moral duties and values, rests upon God’s causal creativity. The objectivity of morality, then, is not derived from God but the existence of a universe of moral beings is itself purposively willed by God. Morality and values have a teleological structure: their very existence and the ultimate fruition of the pursuit of values is part of God’s intentional will.
If the strong version or moderate version of the divine command theory holds, then ethics and values do depend upon God. Given that God necessarily exists, the issue raised at the beginning of this chapter (if God does not exist, would everything be permissible?) would not arise because there is no possibility of God’s nonexistence. If platonic theism turns out to be true, then ethics would have a cosmic intelligibility or purpose that naturalism would neither allow nor concede. Let us compare theistic and naturalistic ethics.
Ethics With or Without God
There are a host of moral theories that seem neutral in terms of whether or not God exists. So, according to a popular form of utilitarianism, happiness (or pleasure or preference-satisfaction) is a great good, and morally right and wrong action can be understood in relation to their promotion or impeding of such happiness. For a deontologist, moral duties are fundamental. According to perhaps the most famous deontologist of all time, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), we each have a duty always to act in a way that treats each person as an end in itself; you might use someone (e.g. asking for directions) but should not thereby denigrate their dignity or treat them in a way that is incompatible with them being valuable in themselves. It seems as though either moral theory could be viable in a theistic or non-theistic framework. Still, some theists have held that in a naturalist framework objective values are not as easily aligned with nature.
George Mavrodes and C. Stephen Layman have both proposed that naturalism does not offer as “deep” or coherent a treatment of values as theism. Mavrodes employs Bertrand Russell’s famous portrait of a cosmos without God.
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotions, all the inspirations, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built. (Russell, cited by Mavrodes 1986, 215)
In a Russellian cosmos, the moral duty to be just and compassionate may indeed be stringent, but such duties would not in any way be in accord with what may be called cosmic purpose. From the standpoint of the cosmos, human and other forms of life count for zero. The paleontologist – theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) drove home the implications of a Russellian naturalism with the concept of “total death.”
Multiply to your heart’s content the extent and duration of progress. Promise the earth a hundred million more years of continued growth. If, at the end of that period, it is evident that the whole of consciousness must revert to zero, without its secret essence being garnered anywhere at all, then, I insist, we shall lay down our arms – and mankind will be on strike. The prospect of a total death (and that is a word to which we should devote much thought if we are to gauge its destructive effect on our souls) will, I warn you, when it has become part of our consciousness, immediately dry up in us the springs from which our efforts are drawn. (de Chardin 1969, 43-44)
By way of contrast, most theistic religious traditions affirm that God works to redeem or save that which is good in this world and beyond.
As noted in chapter five, a traditional theistic framework of an afterlife involves restoration, regeneration, and judgment. Contemporary theists take up different views of hell and heaven. Most defenses of hell in the literature are grounded on the belief that hell involves the voluntary election of some persons to embrace evil (Peterson 1992, 124-125). On the other hand, there are some universalists who hold that no one would, finally, choose hell. Thomas Talbott and Marilyn Adams has argued that while a person may temporarily choose evil (or hell) God will ultimately lead each person to embrace concord with God’s love (heaven). But whether one adopts universalism or a more strict view of retribution and freely-willed alienation from God and the good, theists offer an overall view of reality in which an ethical life is grounded and fulfilled by God’s good, purposive will.
Naturalists can entertain a variety of replies. One is simply to hold the line and contend that morality, by its very nature, is binding whether or not it is backed up by a cosmic purpose. A naturalist might also counter that it is perhaps the brevity of natural life that intensifies its value: we should act well with each other now, for before long we may all perish. This line of reasoning seems especially promising. While a naturalist may have to entertain the possibility of cosmic tragedy (in the end our moral projects, like all projects, will vanish) but that should make us all the more loyal and stringent about what does matter to us morally. Alternatively, a naturalist might hope that humanity and other life may might endure forever, and there never will be a time of total death.
The debate over the objectivity and authority of ethics in naturalism has recently taken an interesting shape. Some naturalists have allowed for a very broad emergence of consciousness and values from non-conscious, value-less forces. This more then allows for a revived teleological argument: Do we have so much emergence that it can as readily be accounted for by naturalism versus theism? But if a naturalist elects to allow for only minimal emergence, can objective values be successfully grounded? Michael Ruse, for example, is a neo-Darwinian evolutionist who holds that “morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and nothing more” (Ruse 1989, 268). This outlook may face a problem similar to the Euthyphro objection: if cruelty aided survival and reproduction, would cruelty be good?
Naturalists have offered a counterargument to the thesis that ethics requires a religious foundation. They content that religion can hamper or undermine moral reflection.
Can Religion Be Bad For Your Ethics And Politics?
Most readers, I imagine, will answer this with a confident ‘yes.’ People have been hated and persecuted for what appear to be religious reasons (e.g. burning heretics, witch trials, crusades, holy war), and I will not try to fully counter this with examples on the other side. I will, however, seek to offer an account of why religion may be thought to have such a big impact ethically and then challenge the way in which the charge of religious cruelty is framed.
In addition to the divine command theories, one reason why religious reasons are seen to be morally relevant involves the claim that God owns the cosmos, and as such, God is within God’s rights to direct the lives of creatures. I briefly present the thesis of divine ownership and offer a sprinkling of objections and replies.
Divine ownership of the cosmos is upheld in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles (1 Chronicles 29:11-18; Psalms 24:1; 50:12; Ezekiel 18:4) and the Qur’an (“To God is the personal ownership [mulk] of the heavens and the earth,” from “The Light”). The thesis that the cosmos is owned by or beings to God is a key claim in medieval philosophical theology and much modern theology. It has led both to an amplified sense of duties (i.e. do X not just because it is good in itself but also because you belong to God and God commands X) but also to new duties such as the duty not to commit suicide (with possible rare exceptions).
Among modern philosophers, probably the most well-known advocate for divine ownership is John Locke (1632-1704) who developed his stance in the Second Treatise on Civil Government. Locke held that “we own our body, soul, and life – whatever we are, whatever we have, and even whatever we can be – to Him [God] and Him alone…. God has created us out of nothing and, if He pleases, will reduce us again to nothing” (Locke, in Idziak 1980, 182). Locke’s position has been defended by Richard Swinburne, Baruch Brody, and others. It is because of divine ownership that it would be conceptually impossible for God to steal from creation. None of us have a right to property over against God’s rights. Thomas Aquinas held this: “What is taken by God’s command, who is the owner of the universe, is not against the owner’s will, and this is the essence of theft” (Aquinas, ST, Ia2ae., 94.5). Swinburne draws the following conclusion: “It follows from this that it is logically impossible for God to command a man to steal – for whatever God commands a man to take thereby becomes that man’s and so his taking it is not stealing” (Swinburne 1997, 207).
Appeals to divine ownership have often been used by theists to undermine what is believed to be excessive individualism and to foster a greater sense of the duty to aid others. Historically, the theistic appeal to give to others in need has often been preceded by advancing the thesis that all one’s possessions are conferred as a gift by God. This theme of the creation as a gift runs through Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Lenn Goodman singles it out in his summation of Jewish philosopher:
Through all the change of style and structure, and all the seeming change of paradigms, the thematic content [of Jewish philosophy] remains remarkably steady, anchored in tradition and text: God offers love and demands justice and generosity. Life is a gift; truth, a sacred and inescapable responsibility. (Goodman 1995, 431)
A divine ownership ethics has its critics. A chief objection is that such an ethics seems to make human beings slaves to God and this offends a mature view of our autonomy and dignity (Young 1977 and Lombardi 1984). One defense of divine ownership maintains that being owned by God is not pernicious. Another defense is to revise the divine ownership ethics so that it is significantly different and amounts to a weaker claim of persons belonging to God.
As for the first defense, it may be argued that God is essentially good and thus not subject to capriciousness and injustice. Any analogy with human enslavement is therefore wide of the mark. Being owned by God would be like being owned by goodness. Consider the second possibility: In English the term “belonging” can be used both to indicate property but also to make a value judgment. When someone reports that “Chris belongs in this school” or “Chris and Pat belong in this family” there is a suggestion that there is a fitting propriety to being in certain relationships. It is good or in some way deserved for Chris and Pat to be in school and in the family. The ownership of God thesis can be modified to make the claim that persons belong to God in the sense (a) that they exist, in part, because God conserves them in being (life is a gift); and (b) a life of fulfillment and welfare is to be found in relationship with God (for further material on divine ownership see Brody 1974 and Avila 1983).
From a secular point of view, belief in the ownership of God may give rise to some difficulties ethically. If God owns the cosmos, cannot God intend for some land to be the domain of some people rather than others?
In part, it is because theism can generate expanded ethical duties that some political liberals are seriously committed to limiting the role of religion in policy making.
Arguments supporting this separation of state and religion have been advanced recently by Robert Audi, Richard Rorty, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and others. Here the goal is to restrict the reasons that ware acceptable in political decision making only to those that are capable of being appreciated independent of recourse to comprehensive, religious conceptions of the cosmos. Jeremy Waldron states the aim of liberalism as follows: “Liberals demand that the social order should in principle be capable of explaining itself at the tribunal of each person’s understanding” (Waldron 1987, 149; see also B. Ackerman and C. Lamore). In the same spirit, Audi countenances only secular reasons in public, political decision-making. “A secular reason is, roughly, one whose normative force, that is, its status as a prima facie justificatory element, does not (evidentially) depend on the existence of God (for example, through appeals to divine command) or theological considerations (such as interpretations of a scared text), or on the pronouncements of a person or institution qua religious authority” (Audi 1989, 278). John Rawls adapts a similar position. In public life, when making political decisions which affect society at large,
we are to appeal only to presently accepted general beliefs and forms of reasoning found in common sense, and the methods and conclusions of science when these are not controversial… We are not to appeal to comprehensive religious and philosophical doctrines – to what we as individuals or members of associations see as the whole truth – nor to elaborate economic theories of general equilibrium, say, if these are in dispute. (Rawls 1993, 224-225)
Rawls and other liberal political theorists thereby seek to secure a sharp distinction between religious and political discourse.
There are several difficulties, however. First one may challenge the delimitation of “comprehensive religious and philosophical doctrines” from “common sense.” It may be argued either that “common sense” can itself count as a comprehensive doctrine (such as religious views of life) can count as “common sense.” Moreover, it may be argued that if we are to banish from political decision-making all theories of the cosmos and values unless they are held by every reasonable person, then very little will be left standing. Is there any consensus in the United States , Great Britian, and other democracies about utilitarianism, deontology, natural law, the ideal observer theory, and soon? Arguably not. As R. M. Adams writes: “nothing in the history of modern secular ethical theory gives reason to expect that general agreement on a single comprehensive ethical theory will ever be achieved – or that, if achieved, it would long endure in a climate of free inquiry” (Adams 1993, 97). If we allow any of the ethical theories just cited to count as worthy of use in political decision-making, why cannot the divine command theory or Buddhist ethics also have a role to play?
Against the secularism of Locke, Stephen Macedo points out that “Locke does not really succeed…in fashioning arguments capable of convincing those who regard a supportive social and political environment as crucial to salvation” (Macedo 1993, 623). A key difficulty that faces contemporary political liberalism is that many in society define themselves in religious terms. For those who do, the liberal ideal seems not only unmotivated but based on a suspect account of the individual. The identities of many individuals are shaped by the communities in which they live and are at radical odds with a religiously barren secularism.
In the next section I articulate a framework that may help bring together religious and secular value theory, and to address the liberal worry about religion fostering dangerous views about God’s commands. Before doing so, however, let me briefly return to the charge that religions are responsible for so much cruelty in the world.
To what extent does one’s claim to be a member of a religious tradition make one a member? In the Introduction, I referenced sources that provide statistics that estimate the size of different religions, but if we look below these statistics, loosely one must ask: when is one, say a Christian or Muslim or Hindu? In chapter one I suggested that one’s identity in a religion is open to serious challenge to the extent that one’s action and character deviates from the canonical authoritative teaching of the religion. So, as John Locke argued in The Letter on Toleration (1689), someone who claims to be a Christian and yet hates other people is not actually a Christian. Locke uses as part of his argument the New Testament teaching that “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness – He who loves his brother abides in light – But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (I John 2:9-11; Locke cited just verse 9 but I have cited the fuller context). One may similarly argue that a Muslim who does not care for others is at least inconsistent and not a practicing Muslim, for Muhammad teaches “No man is a true believer unless he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself” (Ibn Madja, Intro. 9). Because the golden rule is prevalent in virtually every extant religious tradition, one may argue that any self-identified “religious” advocate may not be authentically religious if they live in violation of the golden rule. For a representative collection of such golden rule teachings, consider:
“One should never do to another that which one would regard as injurious to oneself. This, in brief, is the rule of Righteousness.” (Anushana parva 113:7)
“As a mother cares for her son, all her days, so towards all living things a man’s mind should be all embracing.” (Sutta Nipata 149)
“Do not do to others what you would not live by yourself.” (Analects xxi, 2)
One should “regard [others’] gains as if they were his own, and their losses in the same way.” (Thai Shang 3)
“What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 31a)
This list of such similar teachings may be extended indefinitely.
Of course it may be objected that this suggested approach does away with the secular critique of religion too quickly. If the above strategy were adopted, then there can be no cases of selfish religious adherents who despise their neighbors. Perhaps the best approach is a middle ground: flagrant violation of ethical religious teaching (e.g. golden rule) undermines one’s religious identity, but there can be cases of when persons and communities diverge from such teaching and can be critiqued as religious bodies. A plausible case might be the charge that Christianity is guilty of anti-Semitism. Although Jesus and the founders of Christianity were Jewish, one may (in principle) argue that many Christians have shown disrespect for Judaism from the first century onward. This appears to be a plausible and important point of reference in Jewish-Christian dialogue when representatives of Christianity have confessed and set out to repent of past anti-Semitism.
An Ideal Observer Theory
In setting the stage for a comprehensive moral framework that may include religious and secular values, I highlight the three components which seem to partly constitute moral reflection, West and East, North and South. It will be useful to work from a modern setting and extrapolate from there. In this section, I advocate the theory that follows, but I also will field a range of objections.
Imagine you and I are arguing over any action (X) you like in which I think X is morally permissible and you think X is morally impermissible. At a minimum I believe we will each seek to bring into focus different facts. If our argument is over the use of nuclear power as a source of energy, I may argue that you resist it because you are employing a faulty physics, a mistaken probability calculus, and an exaggerated and unrealistic view of risk-taking, and so on. You may reverse the charges on each of these fronts and bring in facts I have neglected. Imagine, for example, I have failed to see that in modern nuclear energy policy there is more risk placed on the economically disadvantaged than on the privileged. I may also be working with the implicit assumption that energy policy involving risks are voluntarily imposed in a democracy. You point out that this imposition will, in practice, always be imperfect and in some cases essentially flawed (for example, children and the severely impaired cannot function as independent parties voluntarily assuming risks).
Early on in a moral dispute much of the work will, naturally, go into identifying different facts, either challenging what one or both of us presume to be factual or bringing to bear new, not commonly recognized facts. A disputation of facts is often tied in with an appeal to impartiality.
Even if you and I agree about what I am calling the facts involving nuclear energy, disagreement may still occur owing to partiality. Imagine I come from a country which benefits chiefly from nuclear energy. My country places other people at risk who do not benefit from this energy practice. You may tell me that I have failed to carry out an essential element in the thinking behind the Golden Rule of putting myself in another person’s shoes. Would I still favor the use of nuclear power if, say, the roles were reversed and I was receiving the burden without the benefit?
An appeal to impartiality and facts do not cover all the elemental stages of moral reflection. There is also an affective dimension to inquiry, an appeal to what it is like to be an agent or victim or bystander. In approving of nuclear energy policy, am I taking seriously (affectively incorporating) what it would feel like (or be like) to suffer from radiation sickness, to give birth to a child suffering from radiation poisoning caused by a China syndrome (a core meltdown) or to be that child? Presumably it is because of the perceived need to take the affective dimension seriously in moral reflection that those of us in wealthy countries sometimes fast in order to remind ourselves (albeit in a fragmented and highly artificial way) of the needs of those who starve. In the city where I live, there are programs that you may enter in which you are placed in economically destitute settings for short periods in order for you to get some hint of what it might feel like to be homeless. In my schooling as a child we were sometimes asked to go through the day in a wheelchair or wear a blindfold in order to get some feeling for what it might feel like to be physically impaired. Such practices may seem like pathetic examples of merely simulating an aspect of moral reflection, but I can report that such educative practices shaped my own and other students’ perspectives.
As we have noted earlier, in classical theism God is understood to be necessarily existing, omnipotent, eternal, the free, gracious Creator and sustainer of the cosmos, worthy of worship and the object of our supplications. These features do not (as yet) enter the above portrait of moral reflection. But in theism God is also pictured as all-knowing or omniscient where this may be understood to include not just the facts but the acquaintance with the affective life of all involved parties. In Christianity as well as Judaism and Islam, God is also understood to be impartial.
If we look just to the features of omniscience of facts, impartiality and affective incorporation, moral reflection can (I suggest) be understood as our seeking a God’s eye point of view. This view of moral reasoning is customarily called The Ideal Observer Theory (IOT). Versions of it may be found in the work of David Hume, Adam Smith, Henry Sidgwick, R. M. Hare, Roderick Firth, Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Tom Carson, and even Immanuel Kant and J. S. Mill.
As for supporting documentation for the IOT in terms of seeking facts, impartiality and affective incorporation, I appeal to the documentation in the Blackwell Companion to Ethics (ed. Singer, 1991). From Mary Midgley’s treatment of early ethics to the entries on African, Asian, and early American ethics, there are repeated recourses to seeking impartiality, facts, and affective incorporation. Obviously the material is too rich and complex to review here – even superficially – but I take note of the natural (or intuitive) appeal of the IOT when one takes into account the documented, essentially social nature of humanity and the occasions when companionship and cooperation need to be negotiated. Historical moral disputes have been marred by a failure to secure a common background philosophy of the relevant facts (you and I have, say, different views of the individual’s relation to family, state, empire, or religion), we may have uneven powers of putting ourselves in the others’ shoes, and impartiality can be flawed by either excessive attachment to or detachment from local customs, but I see in the history of ethics a pattern in which ideal knowledge, affective identification and impartiality are proper goals to achieve, or at least to simulate.
Let us consider a series of objections and replies.
Objection: The IOT is a historical impersonal point of view. The theory is a view from nowhere. Ethics must be grounded in personal, concrete conditions.
The IOT sketched here is not a view from nowhere but, if you will, a comprehensive view from everywhere. Some philosophers worry about the idea of a God’s eye point of view because it may obscure or falsify the way things look from the ground, just as you may have little idea of what a village is like when viewed from your plane at 35,000 feet. The IO theory here is also not a matter of impersonal calculation, but personal appraisal, a taking into account of personal, specific circumstances. The IOT goal is to take into account as much as one can the variable concrete conditions for moral deliberation.
In the mid-twentieth century there was a dominant portrait of philosophical inquiry as something impersonal. A classic version of this may be found at the end of Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, where he celebrates an impersonal ‘scientific truthfulness’.
In the welter of conflicting fanaticisms, one of the few unifying forces is scientific truthfulness, by which I mean the habit of basing our beliefs upon observations and inferences as impersonal, and as much divested of local and temperamental bias, as is possible for human beings. (Russell 1945, 836)
The IOT defended here is explicitly anchored against bias, but there is also the explicit claim that moral reflection involves an affective component which takes seriously local temperaments, traditions, and personal observations.
Objection: But the theory upholds detachment and disinterest as ideals which surely falsify the key components of moral judgment which involves passion and desire.
Reply: ‘Impartiality’ is not the same as being dispassionate, disinterested or apathetic. When you condemn child molestation with fierce passion you are not ipso facto partial. Presumably you believe that an impartial assessment of the harms involved ought to give rise to passionate, determined disapproval.
Objection: But impartiality is not an unattainable ideal. Even if there could be an IO (or if God is one), why should I care?
Reply: I submit that impartiality is easily achieved in a wide range of cases (who would claim that it is merely bias to think that skinning and salting babies is wrong?) and that, in the hard cases, impartiality remains an ideal we may approach, even if we cannot fully achieve it.
As for the person who does not care, I take the (somewhat controversial) position that not to care at all about how your acts affect others, or how they would be viewed from an impartial point of view, is to court an amoral life. I do not doubt there are sociopaths or egoistic individuals or societies which reflect egoism on a massive scale. I just doubt whether one can do this and still claim to be ethical or reflect ethically.
I suggest that taking into account positions other than one’s own is a basic capacity which is evident in much recorded historical moral debate. In fact, finding one’s own moral point of view (that is, one which you recognize as authentically yours) may be latent and subsequent to grasping the points of view of others. Søren Kierkegaard has taught us that many of us can go thought life in an unreflective, routinized fashion merely accepting the status quo or having alien, destructive points of view forced upon us which then perversely tend to cripple us and those we love. Finding one’s own stance can involve an essential comparison of alternative moral positions.
I should also add this caveat: it is in keeping with the IOT developed here that there may be times when the pursuit of objective impartiality may be impossible or dangerous. Imagine you are in a culture where the ostensible objective biology as taught in schools is profoundly racist. The IOT allows us to say that such so-called ‘objectivity’ is spurious, and that the pursuit of such learning would be noxious, but that you are not personally blameworthy for accepting the status quo. The IO theory can allow that, while ideally impartiality is the goal of moral reflection, there are times when a person may not be expected to pursue that goal.
At the end of the day, I suggest that the IOT articulated here does more to promote the virtue of humility than the vice of arrogance. Many of those who have struggled to place narrow self-interest to one side (Iris Murdoch, Virginia Wolf, Martin Luther Kind Jr., Gandhi) testify to the arduous strain in truly recognizing and responding to the values in and around us, without acting on only our own desires come what may.
Objection: As a final objection, let us look to the underlying rationale for the IOT. I have advanced the theory here as a way to articulate a unified framework to weighing secular and religious values. But as noted earlier, religious traditions make specific claims about God’s commands. Some believe, for example, that God prohibits homosexual relations between consenting adults in a committed relationship. Others think that such relations are morally permissible. It seems that here we would have a severe collapse of the utility of an IOT in adjudicating contrary claims. Isn’t this a case where an idealized “God’s eye point of view” collides with what persons think is God’s actual view? Given such a collision, doesn’t the IO simply fail to bridge religious and secular values?
Reply: I suggest that the most promising reply is to extend a point made in chapter two about the Biblical God. If a theist has compelling reasons based on her impartial and fully informed, affective awareness of all relevant states of affairs, that such same-sex relations are permissible (natural or good) then (on the grounds that God is essentially good) she has reason to believe God does not prohibit same-sex relations. Many Christian homosexuals have taken this approach, and argue that apparent divinely revealed precepts prohibiting homosexuality are either not directed at consensual, committed same-sex relations (they are instead directed at homosexual prostitution, homosexual rape or sexual activity against one’s natural sexual orientation—whether this involves hetero- or homosexual activity—for example) or the Biblical passages are culturally specific and not binding on the future Christian community (like a New Testament injunction against women speaking in church, an injunction most contemporary Christians do not treat as normative today). This stance runs parallel with the way some have treated the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) story of when it appears that God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Immanuel Kant famously proposed what Abraham should have said upon thinking that God had made such a command.
Abraham should have replied to this supposedly divine voice: ‘That I ought not to kill my good son is suite certain. But that you, the apparition of God—of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down to me from (visible) heaven. (Kant 1996, 283)
Without delving into the Abraham-Isaac narrative (there are ways to interpret the narrative as God instructing Abraham not to practice child-sacrifice), a theist using the IOT may be so convinced on grounds of impartiality and so on that same sex unions are not ipso facto wrong, then apparent disapprovals of an essentially good God of such union is more apparent than actual. While some Christians adhere to a strict understanding of Biblical authority and sometimes offer independent reasons for disapproving homosexual activity, others adopt the position I have sketched here.
But while someone may use the IOT to modify what they believe to be authentic divine revelation, there can be ways in which attention to the values found in specific religious traditions ought to have a role in modifying one’s search for comprehensive impartiality. I advance four areas in which religious values may well have a claim on such broader ethical reflection. But before doing so, consider secular and religious values when it comes to ethics.
Ethics and Evidence
When addressing a string of theistic arguments in chapter three, I noted that some theists question the need for evidence to back up one’s religious convictions. Could it be that religious convictions (theistic or nontheistic) arise naturally and might well be warranted even if there is no independent case supporting them? W. K. Clifford (1845-1879) famously argued that it is always wrong to believe anything without sufficient evidence. Philosophers have sometimes insisted that without being able to ground our beliefs in compelling, available evidence, we should withhold our ascent and maintain agnosticism.
It is difficult arriving at a consensus as to what should constitute sufficient evidence when assessing philosophical worldviews. Clifford never defined “sufficient evidence,” though he offered a colorful illustration of when one acts wrongly on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. The shipowner becomes convinced (or self-deceived?) in the belief that the ship is safe and when it sinks with no survivors, he goes to collect the insurance money with a clean conscience. Clifford sees this as a clear case of a when a person acted on insufficient evidence and is guilty of the loss of all those on the ship. (Clifford, 1947, 70)
This is a great case of negligence or recklessness and Clifford’s conclusion seems sound. But it is one thing to have standards of evidence that are stable and a matter of common sense when it comes to launching ships or spacecrafts, building bridges, and so on. But what standards should be employed when launching or embracing worldviews? The five world religions are old, but so is naturalism and skepticism. Naturalism and skepticism may or may not have been built well at first, and both have sometimes needed repair. Buddhism needs to address difficulties from its no-self philosophy while theistic religions need to address the problem of evil. Skepticism itself faces many challenger. For example, there are radical forms of skepticism that appear to be self-contradictory, e.g. a person claims to know that no one knows anything, or a person claims to be a radical skeptic but in practice the person must act as a non-skeptic, and so on. Would Cliffordian standards outlaw virtually all the major philosophical positions, including his own for he has no general argument that we need to have sufficient evidence that we should never have a belief without sufficient evidence?
One of the more interesting replies to Clifford was developed by William James (1842-1910). James contended that circumstances may arise when we face a non-trivial choice between live, incompatible hypotheses (neither is known to be false, and each has come credibility) and we seem to have no alternative but to believe (accept or assume) one of them. In such cases, there may be overriding reasons in terms of value to accept one hypothesis over the other. James contended that in matters of religion or spirituality as well as when it comes to believing we have freedom or determined, we are entitled to accept some beliefs (and practices) because of their value, e.g. they help us foster compassion, a sense of fulfillment, they may provide living contact with God, and so on. (James, 1956: 28-30) James is in the tradition of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) who argued that if the reasons for and against God’s existence were evenly matched, we should wager that God exists.
There seems, in principle, nothing obviously wrong with taking values seriously when making momentous decisions under conditions of uncertainty. In an emergency you may have to rely on a mere hunch in choosing alternatives. What you believe may not be under your voluntary control (e.g. it would be difficult to believe there are unicorns without evidence, even if you were offered great wealth for such an act of belief), but something approaching belief seems possible even when the evidence is quite thin. I might, for example, still live and act as though a friend is faithful even in the face of some counter-evidence, e.g rumors of betrayal. What seems evident, however, is that any full use of Jamesian reasoning will need to take as comprehensive a view of the relevant values as possible. So, it is open (I suggest) in principle for a theist to follow James in arguing for the great benefits of theistic life and practice, but then it should be open for the naturalist to argue for the benefits of the life of a naturalist, and for a Buddhist to make a case for the fulfillment available through Buddhism. There are even philosophical traditions of skepticism that have been advanced on the grounds that skepticism fosters a good life that is free from the ills of passion.
While I see no reason to put Jamesian reasoning out of bounds, historically it seems that philosophy as a practice has largely challenged the legitimacy of a belief or worldview simply because it offers contentment or convenience. Recall the point made in chapter one about the roots of philosophy in its confrontations with the status quo. (Perhaps the best balance of values and the pursuit of cognition or knowledge ws the Hindu and Buddhist model sketched in the last chapter.)
I end this chapter by sketching three areas where you may wish to further investigate religious values and their possible role in ethical inquiry. Because the purpose of this book is to enable the beginning of inquiry, rather than the end, I present these cases in terms of the questions for further inquiry in developing a comprehensive ethic.
Three Domains of Value in Religious Ethics
The Importance of Ritual: Current ethical secular theory pays very little attention to ritual. A look at Chinese philosophy of religion would prompt one to re-consider the value of rites. Why is it that Confucianism flourished while the contemporary movement of Moism with its teaching of universal love did not? The teachings of Mo Tzu in the 5th century are deeply attractive and would resonate with those who endorse impartialist ethics, but it lacked the deep anchorage that Confucianism had in ritual practice. While the stress on rites can be exaggerated (Taoists historically critiqued rites as leading to empty acts), the comparative success of Confucianism is a sign that rites can have an enduring role in moral, religious, and personal formation.
Cross-Generational Values: An appreciation of African religious ethics would challenge the current tendency to neglect the wisdom of the elderly and focusing instead on youth and technology. In “Differentiations in African Ethics,” Bénézet Bujo offers this portrait of African, sub-Saharan values:
In modern society, particularly in the West, young people no longer seem to be interested in the elderly other than as a burden to get rid of. Advertising praises eternal youth. As everything centers on profitability, the elderly are relegated to oblivion and anonymity, since they prove unable to perform as society requires.
The value of African tradition could usefully be reasserted here. In Africa the elderly are treated with great respect, and by virtue of their long experience are considered a source of wisdom. Even if they are no longer able to generate or bear biological life, they continue to strengthen and increase the life of the whole community through their great wisdom. When one talks of teaching through experience, it is not at all about transmitting technological knowledge, for instance, because younger people can be experts on this. The experience African tradition talks about is at a more existential level; this experience is what provides technology itself with its soul, so that it is not know-how devoid of wisdom. A technology devoid of wisdom is dehumanizing and leads to death. From the African point of view, a society that dispenses with the experience of the elderly ruins itself because it will not be able to identify the forces of life and death in the cosmos. (Bujo 2005, 434-35)
Nonviolence: In our current violent world and prevailing assumption that deadly violence can be warranted, it is worth taking seriously religious movements of nonviolence. An ethic of strict nonviolence today has been attacked by various philosophers (most prominently be Jan Narveson) on the grounds of being either irrational or unethical. If the only way you could prevent a malicious gunman from killing ten innocent people is by killing him, and you do not do so, then (ceterus paribus) you are partly responsible for these deaths. Moreover, your not taking the life of the gunman may cause us to question whether you honestly do think killing is a grave wrong. After all, if killing is a grave wrong, shouldn’t one seek to minimize killing, and if the only way to do so is by your killing one person to save ten, shouldn’t you do so?
This critique of a nonviolent ethic may or may not be successful. Arguably, the critique rests on a form of utilitarianism and a the-end-justifies-the-means outlook. But I think the above critique has force unless one has a background belief in the sacred such as we find in Jainism (which began in the 9th century BCE) and its reverence for life principle or in divine commands such as Christian pacifists believe they find in the teachings of Jesus. A fruitful, more comprehensive account of the value and rigor of an ethic of nonviolence needs to take seriously both a secular as well as religious case for nonviolence.
An exploration of religious ethics in these and other areas can enrich secular ethical theory. A deeper background in such religious ethical practices may also aid one in cross-cultural and religious dialogue.