Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ethics and World-Views

A redated post.

This is a response that I will be presenting to my students in Introduction to Ethics. I thought I would get feedback on it. The textbook is Jacques P. Thiroux and Keith W. Krasemann’s Ethics: Theory and Practice, ninth edition (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007)

In this chapter there is developed an account of what morality is, including some reflections on the relationship of religion to morality. I’ve got some pretty significant differences with the chapter, and so I am going to give you some points to ponder with respect to these issues.

Morality, as I conceive it, is concerned with three different things. The first has to do with how humans relate to one another. The second has to do with how one ought to relate to oneself. The third has to do with how one should relate to one’s creator (if there is a creator). These are three different things, and so if we ask, for example, what relevance religion has for morality, we have to look at all aspects of these things.

In our present day, whether one practices a religion or not depends on what world-view one holds. One highly prevalent world-view springs from the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These religions maintain that one being is the creator and sustainer of the world, and as such has handed down or communicated certain moral imperatives. Even if you are the President of the United States, from the standpoint of these religions, you cannot rightfully set aside, say, one of the Ten Commandments and say that it does not apply to you.

A second world-view would be the world-view of many Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. In those religions there may be concepts of deity or there may not, but the deities in those religions do not have personal wills and, for the most part, do not issue commandments. Nevertheless, humans are thought to be caught on a cycle of birth and rebirth, and certain states of character (such as nonattachment) are thought to help humans get free from this cycle.

The third world-view is the view of philosophical naturalism. On this view what is real is the world as described by the natural sciences. On this view humans are wholly and completely products of evolution. The processes which produced us had, in Bertrand Russell’s words, no prevision of the end they were achieving.”

And there are other world-views, or mixtures of the two. Aristotle didn’t think that God had any purposes for our existence, nevertheless there were purposes inherent in nature. Other world-views are polytheistic, and accept numerous deities without supposing that any one has an absolute right to give commandments.

Now let’s look at how different world-views might answer the question of what the purpose of human existence is. For those in theistic traditions, the purpose for human existence is given by God. This would be an intended purpose for human existence. Aristotle seemed to believe in inherent purposes but not intended purposes. For those in Eastern traditions, God does not give purpose for existence, but the desire to escape the cycle of birth and rebirth functions something like an inherent purpose. Eastern traditions operate on the presupposition that sooner or later (it may be several incarnations later) humans are going to want to get off the wheel of rebirth. Naturalism, on the other hand knows nothing of intended purpose or inherent purpose. They do believe in Darwinian function; for example a naturalist might explain the prevalence of heterosexuality over homosexuality by explaining that the former is far better suited to the passing on of one’s genes than the latter. However, we have no reason to believe that one’s chosen purpose (one that one chooses for oneself) is or should be identical to one’s Darwinian purpose, ethicists who are philosophical naturalists do not ordinarily oppose homosexuality because if fails to satisfy our Darwinian purpose.

Now, given this analysis, how is world-view going to affect morality? Let’s take human relationships with one another. Here, we are most likely to find the greatest agreement on moral matters. People of all religions and no religion desire to do what is socially useful or advantageous. If you want others to treat you will, it is often to your advantage to treat them well. Besides, we humans do have a natural sympathy for one another. Nevertheless there are some differences, because naturalists think that humans can expect about 70 years on earth on oblivion after that, while Hindus think we are going to be reincarnated, and Christians think that humans are headed for heaven or (perhaps) hell. Theists think that we have an intended purpose for our existence and naturalists do not.

In assessing our duties to ourselves, these world-views differ more markedly. Do I have a duty to myself not to commit suicide? How we answer the question of the purposes of human existence is certainly going to affect that question, will it not? And as for our duties to a creator, a lot, of course, is going to depend on whether one thinks a deity exists. It is plausible to suppose that if a deity exists we ought to worship that deity in public, but if no deity exists then the time we spend worshipping ought to be spent elsewhere.

The textbook argues that morality should not be wholly based on religion. I agree, in that whether we have religious beliefs or not, we still want to know how one goes about conducting relationships with other persons. He also seems to think that our inability to prove the existence of a supernatural being is a reason not to base religion on morality. I happen to think there are reasons one can weigh for and against the existence of God, so I am not sure how strong that reason is. Everyone has to assess, as best one can, what is true about the question of God, and if one decides that one does believe, then the fact that one may not be able to justify one’s beliefs to the satisfaction of all reasonable persons is not a reason not to base one’s morals on what one does believe. However, we have to share social space with people who differ with us religiously, and even people who are atheists have an interest in questions of how we ought to conduct ourselves. That said, I think that persons of differing world-views can only go so far in agreeing on their ethical convictions. I also think it would be silly for people who have moral convictions based on religion to set those considerations aside when doing ethics. If we are talking not about individual moral decisions but about decisions that have to be taken by legislators or society as a whole, then the solutions will have to come to terms with the fact that there is a plurality of religious viewpoints out there. That’s part of why ethics isn’t electrical engineering.

13 comments:

architect said...

I was thinking about this whole conversation and it dawned upon me that so many ebelive that values are just arbitrary. A new book that serves as a rebuttal to Richard Dawkin’s, The God Delusion, and other books against religion is Adults Only (Bernard Hanan and Co. Publishers). This book offers scientific proof to the fact that the human being has a distinct soul and thus has a special moral imperative and questions whether morality is possible without religion. It also proves that there is an absolute ethical standard. You can't make up your own values. I found the title to be provocative and realize that the point is to reinstate adulthood as a concept of morality. This book is very comprehensive and is exceedingly logical. It covers everything from scientifically disproving atheism to delving into themes of human sexuality. The author, IC Fingerer, is a rabbi and bioethicist. It can be ordered from Barnes and Noble or from www.thebookforadults.com.

Anonymous said...

I congratulate Mr Fingerer on scientifically proving that the human being has a distinct soul, scientifically disproving atheism, and proving that there is an absolute ethical standard. I looking forward to him being honored by the Nobel Prize Committee later this year.

One Brow said...

Dr. Reppart,

I congratulate on a very well-written, balanced introduction to the various concepts.

One small quibble:
And as for our duties to a creator, a lot, of course, is going to depend on whether one thinks a deity exists. It is plausible to suppose that if a deity exists we ought to worship that deity in public, but if no deity exists then the time we spend worshipping ought to be spent elsewhere.
Even as a naturalist, I have a creator (the universe, the planet, the ecology). The equivalent of worship would be time spent trying to preserve and improve upon the condition of my creator.

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Thought provoking post.

"That said, I think that persons of differing world-views can only go so far in agreeing on their ethical convictions. I also think it would be silly for people who have moral convictions based on religion to set those considerations aside when doing ethics."

I take heart in the observation that, in our pluralistic societies at least, conflict between faiths and philosophies is remarkably rare. To date, the usual stimulus for hostilities being when one group of people declare that their moral code justifies restricting the rights of another group of people. And yet, even these attitudes do not appear to maintain for long against the slow but firm drift of progression. There's hope for us yet.

To Architect,
One should be wary of authors who declare that they hold simple and conclusive answers to questions that have baffled the greatest philosophers and theologians for thousands of years. As much as it is tempting, and comforting, to subscribe to opinion purely because it supports what one has already chosen to believe, it is hardly the path to enlightenment.

"Even as a naturalist, I have a creator (the universe, the planet, the ecology). The equivalent of worship would be time spent trying to preserve and improve upon the condition of my creator."

An excellent point. The clarity of the line between atheism and deism has always been dependent on how one defines "The Creator".

Hiero5ant said...

"In our present day, whether one practices a religion or not depends on what world-view one holds."

Not for me. One would hope that people practiced religion according to whether that specific one had sufficient *evidence*, rather than according to some a priori personal dispositions.

"Hope" being the key word.

Timmo said...

Victor,

I have not read Thiroux and Krasemann's book, but maybe I can make a helpful comment anyway (if only as a tangent). You explain that they look for non-religious foundations of morality because of religious pluralism. Well, one of the points of studying ethical philosophy is to guide our efforts to make the society in which we live more just. If we want ethics to help us improve society at large, then we need the confluence of individuals who may possess drastically different religious convictions. So, at least when we tackle ethical questions pertaining to the organization of society, we have good reason to make our efforts as religiously neutral as possible: we need shared convictions to co-operate and act effectively.

Gordon Knight said...

Given theism, is our purpose determined by Go?

Suppose God said, "the purpose of humantity is to hate and kill and torture as much as possible"

I assume this is absurd. Therefore we cannot say whatever God wants for us is our purpose"


On the other hand, if God is really the greatest GOOD, then OF COURSE whatvever God wants for us
is our greatest good. But its not a matter of arbtrary fiats, but of truth

IlĂ­on said...

There are two, and only two, basic or root world-views:
1) the world is intended
2) the world is not intended
And, theoretically, one anti-world-view:
3) there exists no world to be either intended or not intended

Most specific world-views (and relegious traditions) are variations on 2).

3) is theoretical because no one is able to actually believe that.

unkle e said...

This is a very helpful schema for understanding ethics. Reminds me a little of CS Lewis's analogy for a fleet of ships, which have to be seaworthy, have to not crash into each other and have to journey to the correct destination.

"we need shared convictions to co-operate and act effectively"

This is an important point. In pluralist societies, we all have our own worldview and personal ethic, but society needs at least a common law, which will be based on a common, if somewhat truncated ethic (truncated because it deals mainly with actions and not thoughts, whereas personal ethics will include both).

So our personal ethic needs to include the willing submission to society's law even at points when that may be opposed to my personal ethic. For example a person who is opposed to divorce or homosexuality must nevertheless accept society's laws and mores on those matters.

J said...

Yr another jew-protestant, Dr. Reppert. That's the problem.

Victor Reppert said...

I don't know which I object to more, the ad hominem character of that comment (you only say that because you are a jew-protestant...classic Bulverism), or the comment's anti-Semitism.

Tory said...

I'm curious if you have ever considered this ethical worldview (desire utilitarianism) found here:

http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=772

and here (which answers many questions):
http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=776

Joshua said...

There are two, and only two, basic or root world-views:
1) the world is intended
2) the world is not intended


@Ilion - did you mean to say that most religious traditions are variants of #1, or of #2? I'm guessing #1.

I would go on to suggest that many people secretly want to believe #2, but fear #1.