Ethics Without God
by Don Santor
Many grandparents upon discovering that their grand children are not attending church and Sunday school often respond by saying, "Where will they learn right from wrong? Where will they learn morality?" The new parents are confronted with the age-old question: Is morality dependent on a belief in God? If they don't take their children to church, will they grow up moral? But to suggest that morality depends on a belief in God is to condemn humanists to a life of immorality and hedonism.
I use the word morality to mean behaviour that is fitting vis-à-vis persons (Maguire, 72). Morality has to do with the distinction between good and bad, and between right or wrong. Ethics, on the other hand, is a systematic study of morality. While there is a distinctive difference between the two words, much of the literature, both popular and philosophical, uses morality and ethics interchangeably, and this is appropriate to the extent that they both concern themselves with many of the same questions, namely, What is good? What is right? What is moral? How should I behave? What ought I to do?
While a discussion of ethics might involve us in a consideration of naturalistic ethics, utilitarianism, deontology, analytic ethics, moral epistemology, moral realism, moral ontology, relativism, teleological ethics, and evolutionary ethics, to mention only a few avenues of investigation, most of these approaches will be alluded to and will be the implicit foundation for many ideas and concepts, but they will not be explored in any depth. Instead the focus of this presentation will be: Can we do ethics without reference to God, to a god or gods, to divine revelation, or to a religious tradition? Indeed, perhaps the question should be, Should we do ethics without God?
When I was seconded to the Ministry of Education in the early 1980s, I was asked to develop a basic document for religious education and then one for moral education. The sequential proposal made sense because it followed the "twin pillars" approach of Egerton Ryerson, the first superintendent of Education in Ontario. He believed that public education should rest on the twin pillars of Christianity and morality. For more than a century students were taught the Christian religion for two one-half hours per week, and moral instruction was integrated with the curriculum, especially literature and history. The conventional wisdom that passed from generation to generation, and is still prevalent today, asserted that morality rests on the underpinnings of religion, and in the case of Ontario, on Christianity. But in believing that morality could exist without a religious foundation, I suggested that the document to support a moral education program be developed first. Of course the question was raised immediately, "How can you do morality without religion?"
Before making a case for doing ethics without God, it should first be demonstrated that there is a problem in doing ethics with God, and that there is a good reason for doing ethics without God. In order to ascertain what God wants humans to do and how he/she/it wants them to behave, it is reasonable to turn to the Christian Bible, or what is commonly called the "Word of God".
Old Testament Sources
The Old Testament, more politically correct to say the Hebrew Scriptures but appropriate from the Christian perspective, includes a variety of instructions that prescribe the appropriate behaviour for a variety of situations. For example the Holiness Code is clearly instructive in setting the standards for behaviour.
These rules and instructions, if followed, would improve the quality of family and societal life, and can be applied with very little thought. But should they be applied literally and equally in all situations? Are they to be adhered to regardless of the circumstances? Should a child honour an abusive or incestuous parent? Is it ever permissible to steal? Is it ever permissible to kill? Was Dietrich Bonheoffer morally wrong to participate in the plot to kill Hitler? If not, then some additional guidance is needed to determine the appropriate course of behaviour. Where might that guidance come from?
But there are many rules and regulations in the Holiness Code that would be difficult to follow, and if followed would cause considerable inconvenience, harm or even an egregious injustice. For example:
The sixth commandment says, "You shall not kill." But a more accurate translation of the original Hebrew reads, "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13), leaving open the possibility that there might be different kinds of killing, and that under certain circumstances killing might be acceptable. A law against murder was necessary for society to maintain law and order as well as to protect individual rights. Yet ancient Israel tolerated and permitted killing in a number of situations. For example: "Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death" (Exodus 21:15). "Whoever curses mother or father shall be put to death" (Exodus 21:17). The code goes on to say that if an ox, that has a reputation for goring, gores and kills a man or woman, then its owner shall be put to death (Exodus 21:29). Those who appeal to scripture to justify capital punishment would not likely extend it to include these crimes or misdemeanours. There is little doubt that they would be compelled to use scripture selectively to define appropriate moral behaviour. Exceptions to rules or commandments do not categorically invalidate them, but they do challenge their absoluteness. Rules and regulations such as these reveal that the "word of God" is contradictory and outdated as a guide for contemporary society. Some of these rules would actually cause grave injustices or perpetrate considerable violence. Were these rules meant to apply only to the Hebrew people? Is it inappropriate to apply them to the rest of us? Were they meant for all time? Certainly, a literal application of the Holiness Code was an impediment to justice. What criteria outside of scripture might be used to determine which parts should be followed and which parts ignored?
The Holiness Code, in spite of the fact that its adherents claim it originated with God, did not necessarily incline the children of Israel to obey it. Eventually a number of prophets appeared on the scene critiquing the moral standards of their time. Amos, a beacon of morality for both Jews and Christians, was one of a long line of prophets who challenged his society, broadened the base of morality and re-introduced the concept of moral obligation. With equal fervour he attacked the religious and moral hypocrisy of the rich and advanced the option for the poor. Time and again Amos condemned those "who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way" (Amos 2: 6-7). He compared the rich to the well-fed cows and forecast their destruction (Amos 4: 1-5) because of their shoddy treatment of the poor and the needy (Amos 5: 11-12). Amos was also quick to condemn religious hypocrisy (Amos 5: 21-24), but one of the foremost sins of the people of Israel was the oppression of the poor by the rich. The advice that Amos offers requires people to reflect on their behaviour and decide whether or not it advances good or evil, justice or injustice.
These clarion calls to do justice lay the foundation for a new moral order, but they raise as many questions as they answer. How is poverty to be solved? Through charity? Through progressive taxation and the redistribution of incomes? Or through mandatory social programs? Amos compels the individual and the society to reflect on and define what is meant by justice and how it might be achieved. The Holiness Code does not provide sufficient guidance, and some of the guidance is ambiguous or even contradictory. Then what criteria should be used?
New Testament Sources
The advocates of ethics based on the "Word of God" assert that the inadequacies of Hebrew scripture were overcome in the New Testament which embodies the teachings and words of Jesus. In particular they turn to the gospels for guidance.
In this example Jesus serves as a role model for revising an outdated moral code. (We should follow his example and continue to do the same.) But surely we should offer resistance to those who oppress and violate the rights of the unfortunate. Should we not resist a Clifford Olsen, a Paul Bernardo, or even an Adolf Hitler, and in today's world, a Mugabe?
Jesus elevated the status of women throughout his public ministry, and is reported to have strengthened the relationship between men and women. His mandate to those who are married is quite clear and is still the foundation for marriage in the Roman Catholic Church to this day.
The intent of this direction is quite clear: once you are married, it's for life, for better or for worse. In the hands of the church it became an absolute rule that once married there were no grounds for separation or divorce. As a result countless women have been sentenced to a life of misery and abuse. But the Gospel of Matthew provides an out:
It seems that Jesus identified some circumstances under which divorce was acceptable. Does this negate the earlier rule? If one circumstance invalidates the rule, why not some others? Is unchastity worse than years of abuse? Is Jesus endorsing situation ethics? But the scholars of the Jesus Seminar do not believe that Jesus actually uttered these words, and they unanimously agree he did not add the caveat of extenuating circumstances. Of course this all points to another problem in using scripture to discern the words of God and Jesus: Is the Bible literally and truly the word of God, or is it a heavily edited version of some oral traditions that passed from generation to generation before they were recorded and later made canon?
Throughout the New Testament there are passages of scripture that offer sound advice and would serve as a moral compass for any society regardless of time and place. One such passage is the Great Commandment:
And if there is any doubt as to who is your neighbour, Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35). In providing an answer to the question, Jesus also demonstrates that moral codes of behaviour are evolutionary and should not be bound to the past. (Again a good role model for us) By suggesting that Samaritans and Judeans can be neighbours, Jesus redraws the social and sacred map that had prevailed for generations. The message is clear: moral standards change. If we all obeyed this commandment, the world would be a better place. A far more difficult question to answer is what actions are encompassed by the mandate to love. Does it include waging war, capital punishment, performing abortions, accepting homosexual persons as equals, tough love, etc.?
While the teachings and words of Jesus are seen as the embodiment of love, Jesus had very little tolerance for those who did not trust and believe in him.
Is this a role model we are to emulate? Is this not a denial of the love that Jesus preached in the Good Samaritan? These words are found only in the Gospel of John written long after the other Gospels. Many scholars think that John, through words like these, was trying to suppress the rise of heresy in the 2nd century. Accordingly the Jesus Seminar unanimously agreed that Jesus did not utter these words. Once again this highlights one of the central problems in relying on the word of God as the guide for moral behaviour: What is the true word of God?
The letters of Paul are likewise confusing and ambiguous.
Should we take this literally? What other way is there to take it? Can a serious person actually believe this? Taken at face value, it seems that God himself is part of the problem and has been playing a dirty trick on humanity for quite a while. If not, under what conditions would it be acceptable to disregard it? Are we therefore required to obey a tyrannical government? Once again, was Dietrich Bonheoffer morally justified in his resistance to Hitler?
Paul's letter to the Thessalonians raises the idea of getting even with your enemies.
The entire Biblical enterprise is thrown into confusion when Paul questions submitting to another. He seems to be saying that in the final analysis we are morally autonomous:
The central problem of using the Word of God as a guide for moral behaviour has been aptly summarized in a well known pithy epigram:
Because the scriptures are often incomplete or ambiguous in defining the appropriate moral behaviour, some further assistance is required. Adherents to the Christian tradition respond by saying we can always turn to God himself for guidance. Some persons try to ascertain the will of God through prayerful discernment, and then act on what has been revealed to them. But this has resulted in some of the most bizarre and destructive behaviour. When the late Rev. Jimmy Jones ordered the mass murder/suicide of close to one thousand persons at Jonestown, he purported to be doing the will of God. And the Grand Inquisitor, in ordering the torture and execution of heretics, sincerely believed he was executing God's will. Prayerful discernment does not guarantee moral insight and subsequent good behaviour. I am certain that the hundreds of pedophile priests prayed daily. Of course many Christians have done good works, claiming that their actions were revealed to them by God. Martin Luther King and Albert Schweitzer are suitable role models for any generation. On the other hand, some of those who are opposed to abortion claim that God has directed them to terminate doctors who perform abortions. There needs to be some outside criteria to determine if God's so-called directions are moral or not. And if we can establish outside criteria, and we must, then we can do ethics without God. The Roman Catholic moral theologian Daniel Maguire has suggested that if you receive a moral imperative from your religious tradition, you need an objective standard to determine if that directive is in fact moral.
Doing Ethics Without God
Intuition has long been an acceptable philosophical tradition. Self evident propositions have been a part of philosophical discourse from the time of Plato; there are simply self evident truths that lie beyond the pale of empirical or logical truths. And ethical intuitionism is no exception. That individuals want to be happy is a self evident ethical axiom that needs no proof. Aristotle argued in Book I of Ethics that the ultimate end of human activity or object of human life was to achieve happiness. Not only is it the ultimate end, but it is "perfect and self sufficient, being the end to which our actions are directed." (Ethics, 74) The "golden rule" is another example. These propositions make intuitive sense to most persons. They also acknowledge that humans live in relationships and one's happiness is dependent on how others treat us, and therefore we had better treat them in the manner in which we would want to be treated. This notion logically leads to Kant's dictum not to treat persons as a means to an end, but as an end in themselves. Once one of the dominant approaches to ethics, ethical intuitionalism must now sustain the current critique of post modernity which casts considerable doubt on any claim to self evident truths. Ethical intuitionism while a useful tradition for moral guidance is an insufficient foundation for resolving the ethical issues that humanity is confronted with.
Values to Direct Behaviour
Any approach to ethics should first of all establish a goal or an objective to which the ethical code aspires. The first step in doing ethics, either with or without reference to God, is to establish a set of values which, if implemented and acted on, will enhance personal and societal well being. Such a set of values should include:
Respect for self
These are the values that most parents want taught to their children. But simply listing a set of values does not solve the problem of how we should behave. Before we can act decisively on these values we must decide what they mean. Does respect for life permit capital punishment, abortion, imprisonment, stem cell research, or killing in self defence? We must also decide what to do when these values come in conflict with each other. Is it ever acceptable to lie to protect a friend (honesty versus loyalty)? Is it ever acceptable to steal to feed your family (honesty versus concern for others)? We must also decide if there are limits on these values. What does respect for the environment and freedom say about owning a SUV? About excessive lawn care? Regardless of the problems inherent in compiling a list of values, they do provide a standard against which we can judge our behaviour as well as a goal to aspire to.
More than 2000 years ago Aristotle compiled his own list of virtues that he believed should govern human behaviour, and he did this without reference to God or the gods. His list included:
For Aristotle, each of these virtues (Appendix I) also had an "excess" and a "deficiency". Courage, for example if taken to excess resulted in rashness, and if not taken far enough, resulted in cowardice. The goal was to find the golden mean and then act on it. Indeed, the happy man [sic] is "one who is active in accordance with complete virtue" (Ethics, 84). Aristotle goes on to add, "the end consists in not gaining theoretical knowledge of the several points at issue, but in putting our knowledge into practice" (Ethics, 335). However, in a few instances one of the extremes might be appropriate depending on the circumstances. For Aristotle, ethics, and ethical behaviour, was not simply obeying a set of rules or following a prescribed moral code. Ethics requires hard work in sorting out competing interests and then deciding which course of action would best serve both the interests of the individual and the society as a whole. Briefly stated, "Moral virtues, like crafts, are acquired by practice and habitation" (Aristotle, Ethics, 91). Aristotle anticipated by over two thousand years the idea that we must internalize values and the inclination to act on them through reflection and practice.
For Kant morality is an aspect of rationality and has to do with rules that are considered both universal and necessary. From what Kant wrote about ethics, two salient ideas are useful to those who wish to do ethics without God. First, the morally good act, he argued, is one that can be applied to an individual and to all rational beings and applied consistently. This test of "universalism" is still a useful guide in discerning appropriate moral behaviour. Unless a moral rule or law is valid for us and for all persons, its utility is questionable. Secondly, Kant argued that the individual must be treated as an end in him or herself and not as a means to an end. These ideas would modify and influence the implementation of values that would enhance the well being of the common good. Through these ideals Kant makes intelligible and forceful the notion that "moral principles derive their authority from the sovereignty of reason" (John Deigh).
Rawls: The Veil of Ignorance
In the 20th century John Rawls' veil of ignorance, a variation on Kant's principle of universality, is a useful instrument for figuring out what we ought to do in a given situation. In Theory of Justice, Rawls asks us to imagine that we have total freedom to design a society, but we do not know if we are rich or poor, healthy or ill, white or colored, or Christian or Jew, theist or atheist, to mention only a few of the variations and possibilities. We are at liberty to design a society with all its attendant institutions and rules that are essential so that all may enjoy living happily and justly. The same principle, applied to adjudicating what we might do in a given situation, will incline us to act in accordance with the social perspective of others. In other words, we would be inclined to advance the well being of the common good, which incidentally includes ourselves.
Piaget and Kohlberg: Taxonomy of Moral Growth
Jean Piaget developed a theory of moral development and Lawrence Kohlberg built on it and eventually outlined his six stages of moral development. Both seemed to suggest that a genetic structuralism shaped one's moral growth and development. While the theory sparked considerable controversy that continues to this day, it can be removed from its structural underpinnings and be used to enhance the moral growth (not development) of individuals. The fundamental direction of the theory is to assist persons to grow from a concern for self, to include a concern for others, and if possible to eventually include a concern for the rights of all. This is consistent with what Piaget and Kohlberg had in mind, but is free from much of the structural baggage. Such a growth paradigm, self-others-rights of all, is essential for the development of a caring and just society. Co-incidentally it is consistent with the moral objectives of most religious traditions.
Before attempting to resolve a moral conflict, it is essential to identify one's moral motivation. What is driving the individual's behaviour? Is it fear, concern for self, concern for others, or concern for the rights of all, or a combination of some of these? This is not to suggest that one motivation is better than another. Sometimes an abused woman must act in accordance with concern for self if she is to extricate herself from an abusive relationship. Sometimes a parent must sacrifice something for the benefit of the children. Simply put, the individual must clarify as truthfully as possible what is driving or motivating his or her behaviour. Before this is done, moral decision making is difficult to do.
Kohlberg: Moral Dialogue
Kohlberg's approach was to engage individuals in a group setting in the discussion of moral dilemmas. Such a process requires a person to consider an issue from a variety of perspectives and to assume the social perspectives of others. Invariably, individuals are required to buttress their arguments with values that inform and support their decisions. In coming to a conclusion and making a decision, the individual has to carefully consider the evidence, and internalize the arguments and values that support it. Throughout the process individuals are required to consider the alternative courses of action, carefully examine the arguments pro and con, and look at the evidence that supports the various positions, as well as the fallacies in logic that may have been introduced into the discourse. For moral discussion to be effective, the dilemmas must be realistic and relevant to the life experience of the individual. (Appendix II)
Of course there is never a guarantee that individuals will act in accordance with concern for others or concern for the rights of all, but neither is there any guarantee that they will obey the rules laid down in a moral code, even a religious moral code that comes from God. Think for a moment about pedophile priests who were regularly subjected to the moral code of the church and daily sought the will of God in prayer, and then chose to ignore it all. But the evidence suggests that there is a much greater likelihood individuals will act morally if they are required to regularly analyze and reflect on moral issues and then articulate appropriate courses of action.
Is there room for rules in an ethic without God? Of course there is. From times immemorial rules, laws and codes of conduct have been part of the system for directing and controlling the behaviour of individuals and groups. Rules tend to be a summary of the traditional customs and norms of conduct that sustain social structures. Regardless of their source, we can continue to benefit from them. But we should not follow them blindly nor think they are an absolute standard. Instead, we must be ever vigilant and constantly critique, amend, update, and when necessary reject them when they no longer embody the values that are essential to advancing justice for the individual and society.
Rules and codes of conduct, regardless of their origin, may be useful to individuals and groups in deciding what is moral and what is immoral. They are, as Robert Buckman says in Can We Be Good Without God, a "sophisticated set of traffic lights" that encourage certain kinds of behaviour and condemn others. But because society changes so quickly, many rules are often out of date or do not fit all situations. Consequently, allowances have to be made to accommodate specific situations. This does not mean to say that rules are useless and should be ignored, but it does mean they should be modified in accordance with evolving conditions.
Aristotle recognized the utility of rules, but also acknowledged their shortcomings. Consequently he made allowances for particular cases in order to ensure that justice would be done. More than 1000 years later Thomas Aquinas also accepted the need to endorse situation ethics. "Human actions are good or bad according to the circumstances, said Aquinas in Summa Theologica (Summa Theologica I II q. 18 a. 3). In the 20th century Joseph Fletcher, the author of Situation Ethics: The New Morality, built an entire ethical system on situation ethics. Fletcher's approach to situation ethics was rooted in love and justice, which for him, were the same thing. Contrary to the popular misconception, situation ethics is not moral relativism, nor is it relativistic. Fletcher's approach relies on values and virtues to determine which course of action will best advance the well being of the individual and the well being of society and promote justice for all. Law and order are important to any ethical system, and he adds are "not only necessary but actually good, wherever and whenever they promote the best interest of love" (Fletcher, Situation Ethics, 100).
Most persons seem to have an intuitive understanding about what is right and wrong, about what behaviour is appropriate in a given situation. We intuitively learn in the family and in other social settings, and we acquire the values and behaviours that enable us to get along with others. As we mature, we are attracted to the values and behaviours that are essential to the preservation of our personal well being and the well being of society. Perhaps it is Kant's "moral law within." Regardless of how we learn and internalize values and moral behaviour, it is not enough to leave the process to chance. Certainly, humans need assistance and direction in formally learning and internalizing the values and behaviours that are essential for social harmony and for a civil society. Incidental learning is not enough; the state must insure that the educational community participates systematically in the endeavor from an early age. Aristotle made the same appeal, "Education in goodness is best undertaken by the state" (Ethics, 337).
Can it be done without God? Of course it can. We are not the first to make the claim. Kant made the case in the 18th Century: "As rational beings, men and women possess a truly human autonomy which allows them to realize their basic trust in reality and to be well aware of their responsibility without believing in God" (Kung, Ethics of World Religions and Human Rights, p. 108).
If there is a God, and if ethics can be done without God, I am certain he/she/it would approve. He [sic] has enough on his plate. Not only can we do ethics without God, it might even be preferable.
Aristotle. The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. J. A. K. Thompson. London: Penguin, 1976.
Buckman, Robert. Can We Be Good Without God? Biology, Behaviour and the Need to Believe. New York: Prometheus Books, 2002.
Fletcher, Joseph. Situation Ethics: The New Morality. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965.
Kung, Hans and Jurgen Moltmann, Eds. Ethics of World Religions and Human Rights. London: SCM Press, 1990.
Maguire, Daniel. The Moral Choice. New York. Doubleday, 1978.
Rawls, John. Theory of Justice. Revised Edition. Harvard University Press, 1999.
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