Are Ethics & Religion Separable?

January 15th, 2013 5:46 pm

David Weberman

Are ethics and religion separable? I am not asking whether they are separate since it is very clear that they often appear together, sometimes quite intertwined with one another. As children, many of us learn about ethics in the context of religious instruction. And as adults, the ethical or moral judgments of many of us are often shaped by our religious background, whether consciously or not.[i]Sometimes religion is even given as the justification for our ethical ideas. No, the question here is not whether they are separate but whether they are separable. This question breaks into two parts: 1) Is religion separable from ethics? That is, can there be religion without an attached ethics? And 2) Is ethics separable from religion? That is, can you have a coherent set of ethical judgments and a coherent ethical life without any appeal to or grounding in religion? The first depends on a definition of religion whether one might have beliefs about God and metaphysics without there being any implications for how we live our lives. This is an interesting question but different from the one I want to deal with here. Here the issue is this: Can you have a coherent ethics without religion, or does ethics depend on God or some divine order in the universe?

As I see it, there are, broadly speaking, three answers to this question.

No God, no morality

First there is the view attributed to Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov according to which if God does not exist, everything is permitted.[ii] One finds pretty much this same Karamazovian position in the words of the Senator and Democratic candidate in 2000 for US Vice President Joseph Lieberman who denied that “morality can be maintained without religion.” Lieberman may have meant that a non-religious person cannot be moral. There is plenty of evidence against that idea. More plausibly, he may have meant that it is inconsistent or incoherent to judge and act ethically unless one has some religious beliefs that support one’s ethics.

Why would one think this? The reasoning must be something like this. It only makes sense to act and judge in a certain way if there is something that provides grounding for our actions and judgments such that we have good reason to act and judge as we do. In the case of non-ethical beliefs such as that the belief that a stone is white, we find grounding in observational (empirical) evidence. But in the case of ethical beliefs, there is no such grounding.

In the parlance of contemporary philosophy, ethical properties have a certain special or queer status.[iii]That is, we cannot see wrongness in killing in the way that we see the whiteness of a stone. The only kind of support there can be for ethical beliefs must come from somewhere else, from some transcendent source. In effect, if killing is wrong, it can only be because God or some divine order regards it as wrong.

No God, out with the old, in with the new

The second answer, one given by the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, is less well known and gives an interesting twist to the matter. In agreement with the Karamazovian position, Nietzsche also thought that morality which, as he understood it, is a mode of valuation rooted in the contrast between good and evil, is inextricably bound to the belief in a transcendental realm. But this does not mean that we are left with immorality or an amoral vacuum (nihilism) in which life can no longer be oriented on value judgments.

Nietzsche argued that we need to find a new mode of valuation, a replacement for morality. This new valuation would be this-worldly rather than other-worldly, it would be based on human needs not on any sort of divine source. What this new valuation would look like is hard to say. Nietzsche’s new valuation looks, at times, “dangerous.” Yet despite its reputation in some quarters, it is not at all fascistic or even sadistic. It is meant to champion life-enhancement. Still, one wonders what constraints such life-enhancement must submit to and whether Nietzsche’s ideas allowed for such constraints so that not just my life-enhancements counts but also the interests of all. If he cannot accommodate such constraints, one wonders whether this kind of valuation is really acceptable to those who value a decent life for all.

With or without God, morality survives

The third answer directly opposes what the first two answers affirm, namely, that our moral ideas of right and wrong or good and bad can only be supported by something transcendent. The third answer is a widespread position among secular philosophers (at least, in European and American circles). It does not at all presuppose atheism or agnosticism since one might hold that God commands us to act morally, but also hold that morality can be justified on God-independent grounds as well (or that it must be justified without appeal to God because we cannot be sure to know exactly what he commands). In any case, it rejects the view that moral acts are moral (solely) in virtue of God’s commands.[iv] So if ethics can stand on its own without religion, then there must be something else that can support or underwrite our ethical commitments.

But what is it? This is not an easy question. Various philosophers have various approaches but what unites all such philosophical approaches is the idea that one can offer up some kind of support without relying on any sort of religious back-up. One might argue against killing innocents on the grounds that it creates more pain than pleasure (utilitarianism) or on the grounds that it is wrong to treat others in a way that one would not wish for oneself or that one would not wish to be the rule of the land (Kantianism).

But how?

But, of course, the question arises as to what supports the preference for pleasure over pain or the preference for doing unto others as one would have others unto us. In other words, there is an unresolved question about ultimate foundations. The thing is that this difficulty in finding ultimate foundations is not at all unique to secular ethics. It arises just about everywhere. For example, with respect to our beliefs about empirical matters such as the whiteness of the stone or scientific knowledge more generally, these beliefs and theories rest on observational evidence. But what supports or guarantees the reliability and authority of observational evidence? And to give another example: If ethics rests on religious beliefs, what do religious beliefs rest on? Once again, the question of ultimate foundations arises. So this difficulty in finding rock bottom certainty on which our principles and common claims rest is not at all unique to secular ethics.

This is no place to try to answer questions about ultimate foundations, questions such as whether and how such foundations can be provided or even whether they are really necessary in the first place. The fact is that we continue to trust most observational evidence in large part because it serves us well. We might continue to prefer aggregate pleasure over pain for the same reason. Or one might have other arguments in favor of ethical foundations. Some of these arguments are what philosophers call contractualist and constructivist. They are justifications that depend on our own inventions. But they are inventions which perhaps can be shown to be ones that are acceptable to all reasonable human beings who accept certain basic facts about our species and who accept a certain reciprocity in which we stand to one another. So, one might argue that the preference for pleasure over pain needs no grounding since it is a basic fact about all sentient creatures. Furthermore, one might argue that it is not just my needs that count but the needs of others too on the grounds that what we all need, we all in some sense deserve. In any case, one can live a life based on an ethics supported by that preference. It may (or may not) lack ultimate foundations, but it does not seem to me to be an incoherent or inconsistent way to live a life.

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[i]               I use the terms “moral” and “ethical” interchangeably here.

[ii]               Two things should be noted here. First, this was the view of Dostovesky’s fictional character not (necessarily) of Dostoyevsky himself. Second, the character, Ivan Karamazov, holds this view but, despite frequent misattributions, he never quite says these exact words as such.

[iii]              See J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977).

[iv]              Most philosophers have thought that God’s commands only what is ethical but the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian thought that God could command what is unethical as in Genesis where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Kierkegaard wanted to show that religious and ethical duties can come into conflict with one another. See Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983)

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