Secular Ethics vs. Religious Ethics

NOTE: as I look back on this post I think it important to note that it was written in response to a religious bigot who made the claims I discuss as examples as well as the claim that there was no rights issue at stake in same sex marriage because “gays have the same rights as everyone else: Marry someone of the opposite sex”. The sole justification for these claims turned out to be certain key Biblical verses.

I sometimes hear people say that they don’t see how people could be ethical if they are not religious. This is, of course, quite absurd. Reason is just as good at ferreting out the ethical truth as any revelation. It may take a little more work but it is well worth the effort.  In fact it seems that there is a similar kind of charge to be made against the religious ethicist. The religious ethicist is one who simply appeals to some scripture as evidence for the morality or immorality of some action. Thus, as in my recent encounter with the religious right, someone who thinks that homosexuality is immoral simply because it says in the Christian Bible that God doesn’t like it is a religious ethicist in my sense.

When these kinds of people say that something is wrong they do not really understand why it is wrong. This is a corollary of the Euthyphro question. Either God has no reason for commanding it and so it is arbitrary as to why he commanded this specific action and thus there is no way to understand why it is wrong or there is a reason he commanded it and the religious person is ignorant of that reason (since God never tells us the reasons for his commands).

When the secular person says that something is wrong (and if they are a morally responsible person) then they must have a reason for thinking that it is wrong other than an authority figure. This involves doing some actual thinking, applying an ethical theory, putting oneself in the others place, etc. This is a lot more work than simply appealing to some book. The result of this is that the religious ethicist ends up saying very strange things.

So, to take our earlier example, in my recent debate with the ARZ/B the first move made was question whether or not gays could make acceptable parents. This person said that they could NEVER provide a mother and a father to a child. I disagreed. Gay couples are capable of providing everything that straight couples do (with the exception of being genetically males/female but that is irrelevant). Of course when I make this point and there is no rational response to be made the real motivation for this belief becomes apparent; the Bible dictates a male/female parental unit. But, besides being commanded in your Holy scriptures there is no rational reason for thinking that gays can’t provide parents for children.

To further illustrate this point, when I compare gay rights to the other civil rights movements in history (women, blacks, migrant workers) I sometimes get the response that skin color is not morally relevant but sexual preference is. But why is this the case? What is it that makes sexual preference a morally relevant factor? Here is a reason why it is not: these people have no control over their sexual preference. True some people do choose to become homosexual (maybe Lindsey Lohan) but the vast majority of them are naturally that way. Check your own experience to see that this is true. I am straight, but I never chose to be that way. At the appropriate age I began to notice and be attracted to and made nervousby women, but this isn’ttrue for everyone. Now, of course some sexual preferences are morally relevant (pedephilia for example) but this is because of another factor (lack of consent, abuse of trust).

Now, please bear in mind that I make a distinction between religious beliefs based solely on dogma and theistic beliefs based on reason. If a person believes in God and uses reason to confirm God’s revelation then I have no quarrel with you. But such a person cannot object to gay unions! For as we have seen, there is no reason to forbid them other than the Holy scriptures but for the theistic person reason trumps the scriptures.

At any rate what the secular and theistic ethicist have in common is a commitment to reason as a source of moral knowledge and to a true understanding of moral issues. This is something the religious ethicist lacks and is the source of all of the very poor arguments they usually give.

I have also wondered about this. A large part of moral reasoning involves putting yourself in the place of the other and ‘seeing things from their point of view’. But in the case of people with homophobia it would be very difficult to imagine how they would feel if they were gay and in love and wanted to be married. Perhaps this explains why they try to deny there is a rights issue here.

8 thoughts on “Secular Ethics vs. Religious Ethics

  1. It seems to me that when people say they don’t understand how a secular person can be ethical, what they are appealing to is not some innate difference in moral psychology, reasoning, or motives, but a metaphysical problem. Ethics appears to assume that there are mind-independent moral properties of persons and actions, and while the religious person can happily believe in such things, the secular person has a harder time. I don’t mean to suggest that this is an especially good line of reasoning, but it seems like this the point of the claim. As for moral epistemology, I’ve got to admit to being sceptical that reason helps here. If all the secularist has to boast about it is that their moral reasoning is more complex than that of the religious folk, it may not count for much.

  2. Two things:

    1) While you are certainly correct (and it bears repeating) that secular people can be ethical, the more interesting, and difficult, question is whether a people that is secular can be ethical. For instance, Rawls claims that it necessary for a society to be just that most of its members have a “sense of justice.” Obviously, secular individuals can develop this outlook, but what would be the basis for this in a non-religious society?

    2) Jonathan Haidt (for instance, here)has claimed that moral philosophy, by primarily focusing on harm and fairness, leaves out important aspects of our moral responses. Most relevantly, he claims that disgust is also an important part of our moral psychology–and would plausibly be the cause of many people’s moral response to homosexuality. So I’m curious how you would respond.

  3. Hi Colin,

    I know that there is this objection from ‘queerness’ but I don’t think that this is what they mean. The intuitionist/Platonist has the same intuition about the queerness of morality but this does not mean that they are or need be religious. But I may be wrong about this. If I am, fine. I think my point still stands. A person who tries to justify ‘whatever is in my Holy scriptures’ no matter what as opposed to a person who tries to discover what is justifiable and what isn’t is at a disadvantage. This person will naturally tend to shy away from real moral reasoning since it is liable to show that their favored Holy scripture displays real unfounded biases. This leads to their clinging to any argument no matter how absurd or ridiculous (example: the congressional hearing on gays in the military. Did you hear the arguments against it?)

    There are plenty of natural properties which present themselves as candidates for moral properties so I share your sentiment that this is not a good line of reasoning. I know you weren’t disagreeing, but I just had to say it!

    I am not saying that secular reasoning is simply more complicated and therefore better. I am saying that the secularist (or the rational theologian) has to think through the issues, the reasons for and against, and then come to a conclusion as to the moral status of some action. The religious ethicist does not do this. They start with a given –the bible says homosexuality is wicked– and are not encouraged to think about why homsexuality is bad. Why wouold an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful being hate and despise a certain sexual act? Remember, according to me if they are asking this question then they are not doing religious ethics they are doing theistic ethics, which is fine. A religious ethicist as I use the term is someone who accepts what the bible (or other scripture says) without question or possibility of revision. I know I should think of a better term than ‘religious ethicist’ since it will give people the wrong impression that I have something against religious persons generally (I don’t). Maybe I should switch to ‘religious dogmatist’ or something to make the point? At anyrate, the end reslut is a person who seems to make arguments to support a position (‘gays can’t be parents’ ) but these arguments all fail. There is no evidence that gays can’t be parents, etc. But the religious dogmatist can’t accept this evidence and so continues to cling to the belief. Thus they fail to truely understand what is wrong with homosexuality.

    I don’t know why you think reason isn’t a reliable guide to determining what is right and wrong. Whether you are a utilitarian or a Kantian or an Aristotlean, or a whateverian (or, like me, a pluralist) these are all examples of moral reasoning and there is a lot that these theories agree on. That’s something, isn’t it?

    Hi Joshua,

    Re 1: Yeah I share that worry. However I don’t agree that we need a ‘sense of justice’. I think that all that is required is that you have rational sentient agents. Once you have an agent which is rational you have something which make universal judgments. That ability is (partly) constitutive of being a rational agent. Once you have a sentient being you have a being with certain interests. Once you have more than one of these things questions about actions arise. Now though it is true that every rational agent can acertain moral truths some of these agents choose to ignore it and act immorally. We as a group, shaing certain basic ineterests then have some motivation to band together and develop rules and ways to protect liberties, etc. It is in this way that we get to the sense of fairness. Why isn’t that a good (outline of a) story?

    RE 2: According to me the emotions function primarily as motivators to action and reason serves only to provide justifying reasons for or against emotional reactions. So, as Haidt found, I would predict that disgust is a strong moral motivator. The question, though, is what is it appropriate to feel disgust toward? Again, as Haidt found, educated liberal people felt disgust but were able to override it with a justifying reason (‘people can do what they want as long as they are not harming others’). Applying this to homosexuality I can admit that I find homosexual sex a little gross, but I can reason that this is because I am straight. If I were gay I would not have this reaction to homosexual sex (my gay friends say that straight sex is gross). So my reaction is natural (so is my gay friend’s reaction) but not an indication that anything immoral is going on. On the otherhand my disgust at child molestation is backed by justifying reasons.

    Being a moral agent, on my view, just is having this back and forth between reason and the emotions. So, for instance, when I was younger I found homosexual sex really disgusting but when I tried to find a reason to think that other people, who did not find it disgusting, should not engage in it if they wanted to, I couldn’t. So what if I didn’t like it, why should that stop others? I couldn’t find any reason. So I adopted a ‘leave me out of it but do what you want’ attitude. Now, many years latter, I do not find it disgusting so much as odd, like having red hair, or thinking Angelina Jolie is hot.

  4. “I don’t know why you think reason isn’t a reliable guide to determining what is right and wrong.”

    Hmm, this is hard to articulate. It seems to me that moral knowledge is a kind of know-how rathar than a know-that. Also, it seems to me that the people who know how to make good moral judgments don’t primarily rely on discursive reasoning to do so. That’s all very suggestive and sloppy and I don’t have a lot more to say about it right now, but hopefully it gives you some idea of what I meant.

  5. Hi Colin,

    I think I can agree with you with you know-how/know-that distinction (though I secretly suspect that know-how is know-that, but that is a different matter!). My point is exactly that a religious dogmatist lacks the know how to make good moral judgements because they don’t have the practice reasoning through hard problems that gives rise to that know-how.

    I can also agree with your claim that a lot of moral judgments do not involve discursive reasoning, but what does is the justifying of our moral judgments. Thinking through supportive reasons for judging one way versus another is, in my opinion, how you develop the ability to make good moral judgments. It takes practice. Being told that (x-1) (x+1) are the factors of (X^2-1) is one thing; foiling the thing yourself is another.

  6. should religious ethics be called ethics if it is closed to dialogue and rational justification? if it does not cater to the demand of argument based on reason it is not philosophical to entertain such argument since we will not after all meet at a single point of discussion. with this argument it is not fitting to compare justification by dogma and justification by reason. they are two distinct “worlds”.

    but the question is, if we bring down the religious position into the level of argumentation free from dogmatism can we arrive at the same religious position via philosophical discussion?

    to say that not to believe in the dogmatic stance because it is dogmatic per se is quite sweeping. rational implications can possibly backup a dogmatic ethics in the realm of what we say secular which we could better say contemporary and post-modern stances. contemporary and post-modern reasoning for any like.

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