Let’s Keep God out of Ethics

ScreenHunter_03 May. 10 12.24 When a television network has a porn channel in the pipe-lines voices of outrage sound. When a television-series mocks a dead religious figure, knives are being sharpened and fingers are being shaken. Picketing outside abortion clinics, fighting against end-of-life alleviation, marching against free expression (do they never see the irony?) – we can usually count on the faithful to raise an outcry, on our behalf apparently, for things they consider to be sinful and, therefore, immoral. But what is sinful is not necessarily immoral. They appear to have some insight we do not about morality and ethical deliberation. But upon critical scrutiny, we soon discover that all the noise is a mask for shallow deliberation.

When did we hand over our moral autonomy – that is our ability to look critically for ourselves at moral dilemmas – to the lecherous hands and myopic vision of religious leaders? When did we say that we wanted guardians stationed in moral outposts, peering into the world with outrage-telescopes and hysterical megaphones? I certainly did not and I hope, regardless of your belief in god, you didn’t either. Ethical deliberation is something we all must face as part of our epistemic duty in this world, filled as it is with problems and a continuum of moral actions. To ask simply whether something is good or evil is often to trivialise ethical dilemmas: they are often not simply about choosing between right and wrong, but between two conflicting attitudes which are both apparently the right thing to do. Do we kill the fat man to save the lives of five others? Are we obligated to each sacrifice one kidney, which we don’t need, to save others who do? Do we give up eating meat, which we do not need for survival, to end the suffering of other animals?

These dilemmas are secular, in that anyone can come to them regardless of religious belief, and find in them a moral problem. However, with the blurring between morality and religion in today’s world, some “moral” problems become problems merely because of the arrogant bullying by religious groups who claim to “know”, better than the rest of us, what is moral. Homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion would most likely not be such hysterical moral dilemmas if not for tawdry metaphysical beliefs on the part of the believer. A good case can be made for any of these being moral dilemmas in purely secular terms, but it is unlikely that death or violence would ensue because of disagreement. The ferocity and vernacular of the dilemma would not be one spurred on by self-righteous believers who are defending god’s laws; or defending “babies” from evil, pincer-wielding doctors; or trying to maintain “family values” because of the “moral decline” in society. A lot of these dilemmas could be carefully deliberated upon in a safe, public platform, using the weapons of words and the shield of a podium, rather than bullets and knives to make one’s point felt. We have given into the worst reasoning to justify moral decisions, that is: raising your voice and making the loudest noise. And best of all if you can use god as a backing – since this still has moral force today, though it should not. Just because so many people are outraged by gay-marriage does not make it immoral anymore than everyone believing the earth flat would alter our planet’s shape. Turning something immoral merely because the majority view it as such is part of John Stuart Mill’s notion of 'tyranny of the majority'.

There is much appeal in wrapping oneself beneath a blanket of dogma and dismissal. It is, firstly, easy. Whether life starts at the moment of conception, whether deities are needed for morality, whether free speech has limits and if so how do we go about deciding, are all matters that can be thought of in secular – non-religious – ways. But, if you claim deified knowledge, there is no need for ‘hard thinking’; you can simply appeal to your own personal deity. Thinking about stem-cells and foetuses, cloning and euthanasia, are hard topics for anyone. People who specialise in these areas of applied ethics (doctors, philosophers, lawyers, etc.) will tell you of the vast tundra of conflicts that each of these landscapes reveal. So, if the average person were to enter these moral landscapes, the sheer vertigo of it all would be overwhelming: the depth of knowledge required, the sparks from conflicts which create light for further deliberation, the different areas that are touched upon, etc. Rather, before we can even open those gates, it’s easier to forcefully padlock them with god. Its ease means more people think they can participate fruitfully in the discussion, whereas this is not true at all. If you have no facts, you should do some deliberation of your own in attempting to understand the dynamics involved. Simply because you have a voice does not mean you should use it. Here, coherence with the loudest is confused with a valid argument. But this is a terrible reason to contribute. Unfortunately, and too often, society seems to take the loudest noise for the proper tune. We can find melodies in any amount of screaming but it does not make it music.

There is another more sophisticated reason. The notion that we create the rules of morality is simply terrifying. To know that these things we call ‘good’ and ‘moral’ are not passed down to us from some supreme knowledge-giver but created bottom-up from our mammalian minds is to see the wound before the flesh. It is an easier thought that there are absolute ‘good’ actions and absolute ‘wrong’ actions, since to mess up means you have simply strayed off the beaten moral path. It is hard when we realise that not obeying a moral rule does not necessarily mean we are wrong but the rule might be. This is one reason why those stationed at the outposts of outrage are often so fierce in defending things like the Ten Commandments, of God’s Laws, etc. The need to eradicate homosexuality, abortion and to treat life as absolutely ‘sacred’ (has there been a more rotten term in human history?) even if that life is coming to an end and suffering, is from their attempt to align morality with divinity. If there are no repercussions for straying from their god’s laws, what does that say about their god? If homosexuals can marry and live happy lives (they thankfully can), either my holy book is wrong about homosexuality, or my holy book’s understanding of morality is flawed. (Other possibilities might be that the Devil has won this round, our free-will cannot be usurped by god, etc. but they amount to similar justifications, hence their need to constantly raise their battering rams at the gates of liberty in any way they can.) When the faithful are unable to stem the tide of ‘immorality’, they need only wait for some natural disaster – an Act of God – to blame the homosexuals, the abortions, the rise of liberal values as the source for god’s discontent. Of course they must wonder why God sometimes takes out the holy quarters but spares the Red Light districts.

But they have answers for those too – working the usual mental-gymnastics characteristic of theological justifications. If the ideas of theology were people, many of them would be in cir-cuses as they contort themselves into any position imaginable. For example, the faithful would reply to the accusation that god took out churches instead of brothels by highlighting that this is actually a sign of his love; he is more offended by his worshippers failing (in being perfect subjects) than those non-believers who are not the targets of his salvation anyway. He has put much effort into these specific people and therefore he is more insulted by them biting the hand that celestially feeds them, than he is of those who dismissed his hand from birth.

It is also easy to assume that faithful know that our sinful actions will be met with punishment in the afterlife. But, they would not be the faithful if they were not attempting to see some redress in the current world. In an attempt to mimic their god, the faithful care about our most private actions, our most personal beliefs: do you prefer having sex with men or women? Are you married? Do you own pornography? The faithful must see these issues addressed as it fits with their attempt at making heaven on earth, a world free from sin, and therefore, of evil. Sin – remember not necessarily immorality – leads to evil. To eradicate sin is to eradicate evil. The attempt to do away with abortion, homosexuals, and so on, is their attempt to live in world free from evil, where nothing bad can happen. Of course, we do not live in such a world and never will, though the faithful do not believe it. Afterall, how can we have a merciful, loving god when there is so much suffering, like Hurricane Katrina? Easy: just blame the gays.


There are two reasons behind dismissing religion in general and theology in particular from ethics: 1) there is no reason to think religion, god, holy texts are necessary for morality (indeed, I think they are often retarding of ethical deliberation) and, 2) religion only clouds already diluted waters.

Whatever moral benefits are to be gleaned from religious thought – ‘do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you’ (which Rabbi Hillel famously declared was the entire extent of the Torah), ‘love your neighbour’, etc., – these are beneficent to moral conduct regardless of a god watching. If one performs a moral action because of fear of Hell or god’s reprisal, then, according to most moral theories, one is not in fact being moral. In duty-based ethics, for example, the philosopher Immanuel Kant would claim that, for example, helping the poor for the sake of gaining entrance into Heaven – would be to treat these people as a ‘means’. For Kant, people were ‘ends-in-themselves’. Helping the poor should be done for its own sake of helping our fellow human beings, not because it will open the breaking doors of paradise.

Even if you are the world’s greatest philanthropist who donated his Rolls-Royce to charity, if you did it because you were scared of going to hell (as you main reason), you are not acting morally. This is to touch the surface of what constitutes acting morally in one particular moral theory, but it is obvious from this small example that morality is more than just watching out for sudden bursts of lightning and aftershocks of celestial laughter. Acting morally usually means treating people as persons, worthy of moral concern, and not for any more reason than that. Doing good, being kind, merciful, not hurting others – can all be easily understood by almost anyone, not only the religious. Indeed, the religious are often the ones who do not know what it means to treat others as people. They have no special claim to morality above and beyond the rest of us non-believers.

As professor of philosopher Mike Martin has indicated, a lot of moral theories all tend to cohere on fundamentals. The difficulty is in assessing which one is necessary for the current situation. They all, to take one instance, converge on treating people as persons: rational, moral agents worthy of moral concern. (What constitutes a person and why this is moral is more complicated, but continually fascinating for philosophers)

In an introductory textbook to applied ethics, Martin suggests one investigates all moral theo-ries, focusing on their strengths, weaknesses and developments, and, finally, apply the necessary clarification to the current moral dilemma. For example, if we have more patients than dialysis-machines, how do allocate patients? Those patients who do not receive dialysis will die; so, essentially, removing them from the list (or not putting them on the list) is going to kill them. Do we give it to those patients who would most benefit society, for example: doctors, scientists, etc.? Do we give it to younger people before older (for a powerful criticism of society’s horrible dismissive attitude to the elderly, see Raymond Tallis’ amazing Hippocratic Oaths)? By looking at different moral theories, we come to different but progressive conclusions. The point is that there is no objectively and absolute right answer. These are ways to clarify the position of the hospital’s own ethics, the constitution, the patient herself, etc.

The faithful are often certain that their particular god knows exactly what is moral. But the greatest philosopher, Plato, raised a challenge that has not been met, to any degree sufficient for religious moral sceptics (those who do not think morality comes from religion, which includes many religious people). Known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma, the moral philosopher James Rachels summarised it as follows: is a certain conduct right because the gods say so, or do the gods say so because it is right? You can swap ‘right’ for ‘wrong’, or even ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’. The point remains powerful. Let us bifurcate it in an effort of clarity.
1. A certain conduct, for example, killing babies, is wrong because god says so
2. It is wrong to kill babies, so god says so.

If 1, then it is arbitrary. If it is simply the case that whatever god dictates as right or wrong is right or wrong, then he could arbitrate anything he wants. As in the Bible, it dictates we should stone our non-virgin daughters if we discover her status on her wedding-night (Deuteronomy 22); we should kill our children for continued disobedience (Deuteronomy 21). These are in a Holy Book but are not performed today in modern civil societies. Nearly all Christians will tell you this does not apply now and, indeed, will say that it is wrong if it was done. They might mumble and hand-wring if these same things were done and were justified by the perpetrator according to their bible’s passages, but the point remains: the majority would most likely not accept stoning virgins and brats as signs of morality.

Which relates to 2. If it is wrong and then god says it is wrong, what use is god in moral deci-sions? If even god is subject to moral constraints in his decision, then there is no reason why god is necessary. It is wrong aside from god’s turning it really really wrong. It becomes no less wrong just because god says so. Murder is murder, and remains immoral (in most circumstances), not just because the Ten Commandments say so. (Indeed, Euthyphryo’s logic was recently updated and extrapolated by Christopher Hitchens as a challenge: Name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever.)

The major reason we need to promote godless morality (like the amazing Bishop Holloway) remains neither about convincing people god does not exist, nor that their faith/god/holy book, etc. is poorly justified. It is not about saying nonbelievers are more moral than believers (I do not necessarily think so). It is about the best way to deliberate clearly and coherently about difficult topics, without these already murky topics being shadowed by the supernatural flights of dogma, beating its wings across the different moral tundra. By minimising the ecstatic fervour about moral matters in general, we can help prevent bullet-point arguments being met with bullet-riddled bodies.

UPDATE: Thanks for all the lively comments, both the kind compliments and the intriguing criticisms. Keep them coming. A special thanks to commentator David Evans for pointing out errors which are now corrected.

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