Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ethics and Religion

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion. – Steven Weinberg

One of the biggest things you can say against cultural relativism is that, when you break it down far enough, pretty much every ethical system that human beings have ever created has been based on the same underlying principle. Every society has had as its moral goal the largest amount of happiness for all persons – we’ve just disagreed vastly on who counts as a person, and how to best achieve that happiness. This is why Utilitarianism was such an influential school of thought – it’s not so much that it was revolutionary or innovative; it’s that it finally codified and rationalised what we’ve been wordlessly striving for all along.

Different societies have of course had vastly different ethical systems over the centuries, despite their common goal. This is because of a difference in assumptions; that is, if you start with different ‘facts’ to another person, you will inevitably come to different conclusions.

One of the great paradoxes of ethical philosophy is that, although many practitioners and thinkers will deny is, they are all inherently consequentialist – they are trying to produce the consequence of an ideal society – but that we cannot ever know with 100% certainty what the consequences of our actions will be. We are trying with our actions to make the world a better place, but we can’t predict the future accurately enough to know for sure whether our actions will make the world better or worse. With the result, ethical thinking has been a series of ever more-accurate guesses as to what will produce the best results.

So, at various points in history, we have had vastly different notions of who counts as a person. I am using the term ‘person’ in a very specific sense here, to mean someone who is given moral worth; who matters to us when we make ethical decisions. And, to take modern Western society as an example, we started in a system whereby only adult, white, land-owning males were counted as persons. The circle has been expanded, however, to include women, children, non-white humans, and we are now in the stage where we are deciding whether to recognise unborn humans or certain non-human animals as persons as well (I didn’t mean to denigrate Utilitarianism above – the Greatest Happiness Principle is hugely useful here).

It’s also worth noting that it’s possible to conceive of a society where not even humans count as persons – for example, only gods might achieve personhood status – but I can’t think of a real-world example of one. In societies where gods were held in the highest possible esteem, and things like human sacrifice went on, it was always to appease the gods – and therefore make life better for the humans beneath them – instead of directly for the benefit of the gods. There's also the tribal ethic, where only humans of your tribe count, and other humans don't; it's not always along species lines.

The reason this circle has expanded is largely through the progress of science and logic; through the progress in facts. We now know that phrenology is bunk, for example, and we know that men and women are on average as capable each other in most respects. The removal of incorrect assumptions removed the justifications necessary to keep the old, disparate ethical systems in place.

So too have we progressed in how best to achieve happiness for those we consider persons. We have concluded for some time that generally speaking, we should try to relieve illness in a person – but with the progress of medicine we can now say that blood-letting is not an ethical thing to do simply because it isn’t effective. Treating a person with evidence-based medicine is much more ethical, for no reason other than it is significantly more likely to work.

So with the progress of knowledge comes the progress of ethics. And in light of this, some ethical systems begin to hold a lot less water than they’re traditionally given credit for. The most obvious example of which, of course, is religion.

To begin with, let’s set aside the fact that faith is a poor basis for morality, since you’re just doing what you’re told instead of deciding for yourself (which is no different to following the letter of the law). Let’s set aside the fact that very, very many religious people do not in fact follow the strict ethical pronouncements of their religion in any serious way, and the fact that most of the current pronouncements bear little resemblance to those found in the original scripture (in Christianity, anyway).

What I want to focus on is this: the argument is often made that while we might not believe in a particular religion, or while some of the things it says about evolution (or similar) might be wrong, those claims are separate from its ethics – and those ethics are a source of good in the world that should not be discarded.

Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair had a debate on this very subject very recently, and in the course of this debate Hitchens quoted the Steven Weinberg line at the start of this piece. Since I’m not what you’d call a big fan of religion (try to contain your surprise) I’ve always quite liked that quote, but I realised while watching the debate that it’s not entirely true. Religion can do it, but really for good people to do evil they just need to be misinformed.

A medieval doctor could very well have been a good person, and would have tried to do the right thing; but simply because he didn’t know any better, he would have set those leeches on you in a heartbeat. Similarly, Rene Descartes believed that vivisection of animals was perfectly fine because they were just biological machines without souls (and that the screams of pain you’d hear would be like the sound of gears grinding to a halt) but said that if animals did have rationality (and therefore souls) they would share the afterlife with us. One can assume that if he thought they had souls, he would not think it was okay to torture them.

Both medieval medicine and the philosophy of Descartes were influenced by religion (when you go back that far, everything is) but are not really what you’d call religion itself. And yet here we have two cases of people who would have generally tried very hard to do the right thing, to be good people, but who failed miserably because they were so sadly misinformed.

To take a contemporary example perfectly devoid of religion, I might put some sugar into my friend’s coffee instead of leaving the sugar on the side for him to put it in himself. I think I’m doing him a favour, saving him the trouble – but little do I know, my friend is diabetic. Simply though being misinformed, I could cause my friend serious pain or even death, despite having the best of intentions.

Weinberg’s problem was that he got a bit too specific – good people can do bad things when they’re misinformed, and the problem with religion is that it misinforms us.

For a moment, let’s assume that there is indeed an afterlife. Let’s assume that if a girl does not have her genitals mutilated, she will indeed go to hell, and that she will suffer for the remainder of eternity there. In light of this, it would indeed be reasonable to save her from this fate by performing the procedure – some pain now, continuing medical problems and a high possibility of an early death would be a small price to pay when faced with an eternity of fiery punishment. But as I’ve said before, there is absolutely no evidence for an afterlife or for any of the other claims. And when you look at it in this light – that you are just mutilating a girl for no good reason – it is seen for the abhorrent crime that it is.

This is just one example, and I’m not here to debate the ethics of specific ethical pronouncements that religions make – I’d be here all day. I’m here to demonstrate that you cannot separate the factual claims that religion makes from its ethical claims, because one directly informs the other. The way you act in the world will always depend entirely on the assumptions you make about how the world works, and the expected consequences of your actions.

Religion’s claims of God and Heaven and Hell and sin are all inextricable from its ethics. And while it’s making false claims, it cannot be a sound foundation for an ethical system. Religion’s ethical legacy is a poor argument for accommodationism, because their ideas on the structure of the universe and their ideas on ethics cannot be separated, and are just as obsolete as each other.


  1. "Religion’s ethical legacy is a poor argument for accommodationism, because their ideas on the structure of the universe and their ideas on ethics cannot be separated, and are just as obsolete as each other." - I think I'll be quoting that.

    This was a most excellent post, very well put.

    Nicely done.

  2. Interesting take. So for you then it is epistemological issues that are of concern? There needs to be empirical "objective" evidence of a consequence for the act to be implemented? Because otherwise, IF (a big if) you DID accept Christianitys cosmology and metaphysics, then you can also accept their epistemology and thus their morality. But you don't accept those things because you ae taking a more pragmatic approach. The only thing you didn't touch on which fascinates me (and still olds with your initial contention that many ethical systems are essentially the same, differing only in regards to what counts as a "person") is the role of reciprocity in ethical thinking. This of course raises questions about who and what we consider as being more than just instrumental to us, and therefore extending "rights" to them...but rights only exist in a Taoist yin/yang intrinsically intertwined dialectic with "responsibilities". This, from a purely logical perspective (you know I'm not as pragmatic as you) raises all sorts of interesting questions about logically how/why/what constitutes personhood. Excellent piece, very provocative and easy to read.