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.