Chicago Public Schools George Mavrodes Moral Obligation Discussion Paper

300 words. Links and reading will be provided.

For the GEORGE MAVRODES reading, you should focus on the idea of moral obligations: what they are, what they mean, and what it means for ethics if they do and don’t exist. Does the author present the ideas of a secular world well? If not, why not? What feature does the author think is necessary for a coherent concept of moral obligations? Can you think of a way out of the bind the author presents?

For the RATIONAL RELIGIOUS ETHICS reading, you should focus on the requirements of ethical thought in philosophy. What are the standards that have to be met before we can legitimately consider an approach philosophically viable? In what ways does the reading address those requirements from the religious perspective? In what ways do you feel it might fail at that task? Can you think of a counterargument for the article?

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Text not available due to copyright restrictions
Religion and the Queerness of Morality
George Mavrodes is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Michigan and is one
of the leading figures in contemporary philosophy of religion. His works include Belief in
God: A Study in the Epistemology of Religion (1970) and Revelation in Religious Belief
(1988). In this essay, Mavrodes opposes Bertrand Russell’s secular view of ethics and explores
the suggestion that morality somehow depends on religion.
Reprinted from George I. Mavrodes, ‘‘Religion and the Queerness of Morality,’’ in Rationality, Religious
Belief and Moral Commitment: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, edited by Robert Audi and William
J. Wainwright.
GEORGE MAVRODES ! Religion and the Queerness of Morality
Many arguments for the existence of God may be
construed as claiming that there is some feature
of the world that would somehow make no
sense unless there was something else that had
a stronger version of that feature or some analogue of it. So, for example, the cosmological
line of argument may be thought of as centering
upon the claim that the way in which the world
exists (called ‘‘contingent’’ existence) would be
incomprehensible unless there were something
else—that is, God—that had a stronger grip
upon existence (that is, ‘‘necessary’’ existence).
Now, a number of thinkers have held a view
something like this with respect to morality.
They have claimed that in some important way
morality is dependent upon religion—dependent,
that is, in such a way that if religion were to fail,
morality would fail also. And they have held that
the dependence was more than psychological,
that is, if religion were to fail, it would somehow
be proper (perhaps logically or perhaps in some
other way) for morality to fail also. One way of
expressing this theme is by Dostoevsky’s ‘‘if
there is no God, then everything is permitted,’’
a sentiment that in this century has been prominently echoed by Sartre. But perhaps the most
substantial philosophical thinker of the modern
period to espouse this view, though in a rather
idiosyncratic way, was Immanuel Kant, who held
that the existence of God was a necessary postulate of ‘practical’ (that is, moral) reason.
On the other hand, it has recently been popular for moral philosophers to deny this theme
and to maintain that the dependence of morality
on religion is, at best, merely psychological. Were
religion to fail, so they apparently hold, this
would grant no sanction for the failure of morality. For morality stands on its own feet, whatever
those feet may turn out to be.
Now, the suggestion that morality somehow
depends on religion is rather attractive to me. It
is this suggestion that I wish to explore in this
paper, even though it seems unusually difficult to
formulate clearly the features of this suggestion
that make it attractive. I will begin by mentioning
briefly some aspects that I will not discuss.
First, beyond this paragraph I will not discuss
the claim that morality cannot survive psychologically without the support of religious belief. At
least in the short run, this proposal seems to me
false. For there certainly seem to be people who
reject religious belief, at least in the ordinary
sense, but who apparently have a concern with
morality and who try to live a moral life. Whether
the proposal may have more force if it is understood in a broader way, as applying to whole cultures, epochs, and so forth, I do not know.
Second, I will not discuss the attempt to define
some or all moral terms by the use of religious
terms, or vice versa. But this should not be taken
as implying any judgment about this project.
Third, beyond this paragraph I shall not discuss the suggestion that moral statements may be
entailed by religious statements and so may be
‘‘justified’’ by religious doctrines or beliefs. It is
popular now to hold that no such alleged entailment can be valid. But the reason usually cited
for this view is the more general doctrine that
moral statements cannot be validly deduced from
nonmoral statements, a doctrine usually traced to
Hume. Now, to my mind the most important
problem raised by this general doctrine is that of
finding some interpretation of it that is both significant and not plainly false. If it is taken to mean
merely that there is some set of statements that
entails no moral statement, then it strikes me as
probably true, but trivial. At any rate, we should
then need another reason to suppose that religious
statements fall in this category. If, on the other
hand, it is taken to mean that one can divide the
domain of statements into two classes, the moral
and the nonmoral, and that none of the latter entail
any of the former, then it is false. I, at any rate, do
not know a version of this doctrine that seems relevant to the religious case and that has any reasonable likelihood of being true. But I am not
concerned on this occasion with the possibly useful
project of deducing morality from religion, and so
I will not pursue it further. My interest is closer to a
move in the other direction, that of deducing religion from morality. (I am not quite satisfied with
this way of putting it and will try to explain this dissatisfaction later on.)
For the remainder of this discussion, then, my
project is as follows. I will outline one rather common nonreligious view of the world, calling attention to what I take to be its most relevant features.
Then I shall try to portray some sense of the odd
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status that morality would have in a world of that
sort. I shall be hoping, of course, that you will
notice that this odd status is not the one that you
recognize morality to have in the actual world.
But it will perhaps be obvious that the ‘‘worldview’’
amendments required would move substantially
toward a religious position.
First, then, the nonreligious view. I take a short
and powerful statement of it from a 1903 essay by
Bertrand Russell, ‘‘A Free Man’s Worship.’’
That man is the product of causes which had no
prevision of the end they were achieving; that his
origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves
and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental
collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism,
no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve
an individual life beyond the grave; that all the
labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius,
are destined to extinction in the vast death of the
solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s
achievement must inevitably be buried beneath
the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things,
if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can
hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of
these truths, only on the firm foundation of
unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation
henceforth be safely built.1
For convenience, I will call a world that satisfies the description given here a ‘‘Russellian
world.’’ But we are primarily interested in what
the status of morality would be in the actual
world if that world should turn out to be Russellian. I shall therefore sometimes augment the
description of a Russellian world with obvious
features of the actual world.
What are the most relevant features of a Russellian world? The following strike me as especially
important: (1) Such phenomena as minds, mental
activities, consciousness, and so forth are the products of entities and causes that give no indication of
being mental themselves. In Russell’s words, the
causes are ‘‘accidental collocations of atoms’’ with
‘‘no prevision of the end they were achieving.’’
Though not stated explicitly by Russell, we might
add the doctrine, a commonplace in modern
science, that mental phenomena—and indeed life
itself—are comparative latecomers in the long
history of the earth. (2) Human life is bounded
by physical death and each individual comes to a
permanent end at his physical death. We might
add to this the observation that the span of
human life is comparatively short, enough so that
in some cases we can, with fair confidence, predict
the major consequences of certain actions insofar
as they will affect a given individual throughout
his whole remaining life. (3) Not only each individual but also the human race as a species is doomed
to extinction ‘‘beneath the debris of a universe in
So much, then, for the main features of a Russellian world. Because the notion of benefits and
goods plays an important part in the remainder of
my discussion, I want to introduce one further
technical expression—‘‘Russellian benefit.’’ A Russellian benefit is one that could accrue to a person
in a Russellian world. A contented old age would
be, I suppose, a Russellian benefit, as would a thrill
of sexual pleasure or a good reputation. Going to
heaven when one dies, though a benefit, is not a
Russellian benefit. Russellian benefits are only the
benefits possible in a Russellian world. But one
can have Russellian benefits even if the world is
not Russellian. In such a case there might, however,
also be other benefits, such as going to heaven.
Could the actual world be Russellian? Well, I
take it to be an important feature of the actual
world that human beings exist in it and that in
it their actions fall, at least sometimes, within
the sphere of morality—that is, they have moral
obligations to act (or to refrain from acting) in
certain ways. And if they do not act in those
ways, then they are properly subject to a special
and peculiar sort of adverse judgment (unless it
happens that there are special circumstances that
serve to excuse their failure to fulfill the obligations). People who do not fulfill their obligations
are not merely stupid or weak or unlucky; they
are morally reprehensible.
Now, I do not have much to say in an illuminating manner about the notion of moral obligation, but I could perhaps make a few preliminary
observations about how I understand this notion.
First, I take it that morality includes, or results in,
judgments of the form ‘‘N ought to do (or to
avoid doing)_______’’ or ‘‘it is N’s duty to do (or
to avoid doing)_______.’’ That is, morality ascribes
GEORGE MAVRODES ! Religion and the Queerness of Morality
to particular people an obligation to do a certain
thing on a certain occasion. No doubt morality
includes other things as well—general moral rules,
for example. I shall, however, focus on
judgments of the sort just mentioned, and when I
speak without further qualification of someone’s
having an obligation I intend it to be understood
in terms of such a judgment.
Second, many authors distinguish prima facie
obligations from obligations ‘‘all things considered.’’ Probably this is a useful distinction. For
the most part, however, I intend to ignore
prima facie obligations and to focus upon our
obligations all things considered, what we might
call our ‘‘final obligations.’’ These are the obligations that a particular person has in some concrete
circumstance at a particular place and time, when
all the aspects of the situation have been taken
into account. It identifies the action that, if not
done, will properly subject the person to the special adverse judgment.
Finally, it is, I think, a striking feature of moral
obligations that a person’s being unwilling to fulfill
the obligation is irrelevant to having the obligation
and is also irrelevant to the adverse judgment in
case the obligation is not fulfilled. Perhaps even
more important is the fact that, at least for some
obligations, it is also irrelevant in both these ways
for one to point out that he does not see how fulfilling the obligations can do him any good. In fact,
unless we are greatly mistaken about our obligations, it seems clear that in a Russellian world
there are an appreciable number of cases in which
fulfilling an obligation would result in a loss of
good to ourselves. On the most prosaic level, this
must be true of some cases of repaying a debt,
keeping a promise, refraining from stealing, and
so on. And it must also be true of those rarer but
more striking cases of obligation to risk death or
serious injury in the performance of a duty. People
have, of course, differed as to what is good for
humans. But so far as I can see, the point I have
been making will hold for any candidate that is
plausible in a Russellian world. Pleasure, happiness,
esteem, contentment, self-realization, knowledge—
all of these can suffer from the fulfillment of a moral
It is not, however, a necessary truth that some
of our obligations are such that their fulfillment
will yield no net benefit, within Russellian limits,
to their fulfiller. It is not contradictory to maintain that, for every obligation that I have, a corresponding benefit awaits me within the confines of
this world and this life. While such a contention
would not be contradictory, however, it would
nevertheless be false. I discuss below one version
of this contention. At present it must suffice to
say that a person who accepts this claim will probably find the remainder of what I have to say correspondingly less plausible.
Well, where are we now? I claim that in the
actual world we have some obligations that, when
we fulfill them, will confer on us no net Russellian
benefit—in fact, they will result in a Russellian loss.
If the world is Russellian, then Russellian benefits
and losses are the only benefits and losses, and
also then we have moral obligations whose fulfillment will result in a net loss of good to the one
who fulfills them. I suggest, however, that it
would be very strange to have such obligations—
strange not simply in the sense of being unexpected or surprising but in some deeper way. I
do not suggest that it is strange in the sense of
having a straightforward logical defect, of being
self-contradictory to claim that we have such obligations. Perhaps the best thing to say is that were
it a fact that we had such obligations, then the
world that included such a fact would be
absurd—we would be living in a crazy world.
Now, whatever success I may have in this paper
will in large part be a function of my success (or lack
thereof) in getting across a sense of that absurdity,
that queerness. On some accounts of morality, in a
Russellian world there would not be the strangeness that I allege. Perhaps, then, I can convey
some of that strangeness by mentioning those
views of morality that would eliminate it. In fact,
I believe that a good bit of their appeal is just the
fact that they do get rid of this queerness.
First, I suspect that morality will not be queer
in the way I suggest, even in a Russellian world, if
judgments about obligations are properly to be
analyzed in terms of the speaker rather than in
terms of the subject of the judgment. And I more
than suspect that this will be the case if such judgments are analyzed in terms of the speaker’s attitude or feeling toward some action, and/or his
attempt or inclination to incite a similar attitude
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in someone else. It may be, of course, that there
is something odd about the supposition that
human beings, consciousness, and so forth,
could arise at all in a Russellian world. A person
who was impressed by that oddity might he
attracted toward some ‘‘teleological’’ line of
reasoning in the direction of a more religious
view. But I think that this oddity is not the
one I am touching on here. Once given the existence of human beings with capabilities for feelings and attitudes, there does not seem to be
anything further that is queer in the supposition
that a speaker might have an attitude toward
some action, might express that attitude, and
might attempt (or succeed) in inciting someone
else to have a similar attitude. Anyone, therefore, who can be satisfied with such an analysis
will probably not be troubled by the queerness
that I allege.
Second, for similar reasons, this queerness
will also be dissipated by any account that understands judgments about obligations purely in
terms of the feelings, attitudes, and so forth of
the subject of the judgment. For, given again
that there are human beings with consciousness,
it does not seem to be any additional oddity
that the subject of a moral judgment might
have feelings or attitudes about an actual or prospective action of his own. The assumption that
morality is to be understood in this way takes
many forms. In a closely related area, for example,
it appears as the assumption—so common now
that it can pass almost unnoticed—that guilt
could not be anything other than guilt feelings,
and that the ‘‘problem’’ of guilt is just the problem generated by such feelings.
In connection with our topic here, however,
we might look at the way in which this sort of
analysis enters into one plausible-sounding explanation of morality in a Russellian world, an explanation that has a scientific flavor. The existence of
morality in a Russellian world, it may be said, is
not at all absurd because its existence there can
be given a perfectly straightforward explanation:
morality has a survival value for a species such as
ours because it makes possible continued cooperation and things of that sort. So it is no more
absurd that people have moral obligations than
it is absurd that they have opposable thumbs.
I think that this line of explanation will work
only if one analyzes obligations into feelings, or
beliefs. I think it is plausible (though I am not
sure it is correct) to suppose that everyone’s having
feelings of moral obligation might have survival
value for a species such as Man, given of course
that these feelings were attached to patterns of
action that contributed to such survival. And if
that is so, then it is not implausible to suppose
that there may be a survival value for the species
even in a moral feeling that leads to the death of
the individual who has it. So far so good. But this
observation, even if true, is not relevant to the
queerness with which I am here concerned. For I
have not suggested that the existence of moral feelings would be absurd in a Russellian world; it is
rather the existence of moral obligations that is
absurd, and I think it important to make the distinction. It is quite possible, it seems to me, for
one to feel (or to believe) that he has a certain obligation without actually having it, and also vice
versa. Now, beliefs and feelings will presumably
have some effect upon actions, and this effect may
possibly contribute to the survival of the species.
But, so far as I can see, the addition of actual
moral obligations to these moral beliefs and feelings
will make no further contribution to action nor will
the actual obligations have an effect upon action in
the absence of the corresponding feelings and
beliefs. So it seems that neither with nor without
the appropriate feelings will moral obligations contribute to the survival of the species. Consequently,
an ‘‘evolutionary’’ approach such as this cannot
serve to explain the existence of moral obligations,
unless one rejects my distinction and equates the
obligations with the feelings.
And finally, I think that morality will not be
queer in the way I allege, or at least it will not be
as queer as I think, if it should be the case that
every obligation yields a Russellian benefit to the
one who fulfills it. Given the caveat expressed earlier, one can perhaps make some sense out of the
notion of a Russellian good or benefit for a sentient
organism in a Russellian world. And one could, I
suppose, without further queerness imagine that
such an organism might aim toward achieving
such goods. And we could further suppose that
there were certain actions—those that were ‘‘obligations’’—that would, in contrast with other
GEORGE MAVRODES ! Religion and the Queerness of Morality
actions, actually yield such benefits to the
organism that performed them. And finally, it
might not be too implausible to claim that an
organism that failed to perform such an action
was defective in some way and that some adverse
judgment was appropriate.
Morality, however, seems to require us to hold
that certain organisms (namely, human beings)
have in addition to their ordinary properties and
relations another special relation to certain actions.
This relation is that of being ‘‘obligated’’ to perform those actions. And some of those actions are
pretty clearly such that they will yield only Russellian losses to the one who performs them. Nevertheless, we are supposed to hold that a person
who does not perform an action to which he is
thus related is defective in some serious and important way and an adverse judgment is appropriate
against him. And that certainly does seem odd.
The recognition of this oddity—or perhaps
better, this absurdity—is not simply a resolution
to concern ourselves only with what ‘‘pays.’’
Here the position of Kant is especially suggestive.
He held that a truly moral action is undertaken
purely out of respect for the moral law and with
no concern at all for reward. There seems to be
no room at all here for any worry about what
will ‘‘pay.’’ But he also held that the moral enterprise needs, in a deep and radical way, the postulate of a God who can, and will, make happiness
correspond to virtue. This postulate is ‘‘necessary’’ for practical reason. Perhaps we could put
this Kantian demand in the language I have
been using here, saying that the moral enterprise
would make no sense in a world in which that
correspondence ultimately failed.
I suspect that what we have in Kant is the recognition that there cannot be, in any ‘‘reasonable’’ way, a moral demand upon me, unless
reality itself is committed to morality in some
deep way. It makes sense only if there is a moral
demand on the world too and only if reality will
in the end satisfy that demand. This theme of
the deep grounding of morality is one to which
I return briefly near the end of this paper.
The oddity we have been considering is, I
suspect, the most important root of the celebrated and somewhat confused question, ‘‘Why
should I be moral?’’ Characteristically, I think,
the person who asks that question is asking to
have the queerness of that situation illuminated.
From time to time there are philosophers who
make an attempt to argue—perhaps only a halfhearted attempt—that being moral really is in
one’s interest after all. Kurt Baier, it seems to
me, proposes a reply of this sort. He says:
Moralities are systems of principles whose acceptance by everyone as overruling the dictates of
self-interest is in the interest of everyone alike
though following the rules of a morality is not of
course identical with following self-interest. . . .
The answer to our question ‘‘Why should we
be moral?’’ is therefore as follows. We should be
moral because being moral is following rules
designed to overrule self-interest whenever it is
in the interest of everyone alike that everyone
should set aside his interest.2
As I say, this seems to be an argument to the
effect that it really is in everyone’s interest to be
moral. I suppose that Baier is here probably talking about Russellian interests. At least, we must
interpret him in that way if his argument is to
be applicable in this context, and I will proceed
on that assumption. But how exactly is the argument to be made out?
It appears here to begin with a premise something like
(A) It is in everyone’s best interest (including
mine, presumably) for everyone (including
me) to be moral.
This premise itself appears to be supported earlier
by reference to Hobbes. As I understand it, the
idea is that without morality people will live in a
‘‘state of nature,’’ and life will be nasty, brutish,
and short. Well, perhaps so. At any rate, let us
accept (A) for the moment. From (A) we can derive
(B) It is in my best interest for everyone
(including me) to be moral.
And from (B) perhaps one derives
(C) It is in my best interest for me to be moral.
And (C) may be taken to answer the question,
‘‘Why should I be moral?’’ Furthermore, if (C) is
true, then moral obligation will at least not have
the sort of queerness that I have been alleging.
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Unfortunately, however, the argument outlined above is invalid. The derivation of (B) from
(A) may be all right, but the derivation of (C)
from (B) is invalid. What does follow from (B) is
(C0 ) It is in my best interest for me to be moral if
everyone else is moral.
The argument thus serves to show that it is in
a given person’s interest to be moral only on the
assumption that everyone else in the world is
moral. It might, of course, be difficult to find
someone ready to make that assumption.
There is, however, something more of interest in this argument. I said that the derivation of
(B) from (A) may be all right. But in fact is it? If it
is not all right, then this argument would fail even
if everyone else in the world were moral. Now (A)
can be interpreted as referring to ‘‘everyone’s best
interest’’ (‘‘the interest of everyone alike,’’ in
Baier’s own words) either collectively or distributively; that is, it may be taken as referring to the
best interest of the whole group considered as a
single unit, or as referring to the best interest of
each individual in the group. But if (A) is interpreted in the collective sense, then (B) does not
follow from it. It may not be in my best interest
for everyone to act morally, even if it is in the
best interest of the group as a whole, for the
interest of the group as a whole may be advanced
by the sacrificing of my interest. On this interpretation of (A), then, the argument will not answer
the question ‘‘Why should I be moral?’’ even on
the supposition that everyone else is moral.
If (A) is interpreted in the distributive sense,
on the other hand, then (B) does follow from it,
and the foregoing objection is not applicable. But
another objection arises. Though (A) in the collective sense has some plausibility, it is hard to
imagine that it is true in the distributive sense.
Hobbes may have been right in supposing that
life in the state of nature would be short, etc.
But some lives are short anyway. In fact, some
lives are short just because the demands of morality are observed. Such a life is not bound to have
been shorter in the state of nature. Nor is it
bound to have been less happy, less pleasurable,
and so forth. In fact, does it not seem obvious
that my best Russellian interest will be further
advanced in a situation in which everyone else
acts morally but I act immorally (in selected
cases) than it will be in case everyone, including
me, acts morally? It certainly seems so. It can,
of course, be observed that if I act immorally
then so will other people, perhaps reducing my
benefits. In the present state of the world that
is certainly true. But in the present state of the
world it is also true, as I observed earlier, that
many other people will act immorally anyway,
regardless of what I do.
A more realistic approach is taken by Richard
Brandt.3 He asks, ‘‘is it reasonable for me to do
my duty if it conflicts seriously with my personal
welfare?’’ After distinguishing several possible
senses of this question, he chooses a single one
to discuss further, presumably a sense that he
thinks important. As reformulated, the question
is now: ‘‘Given that doing x is my duty and that
doing some conflicting act y will maximize my
personal welfare, will the performance of x
instead of y satisfy my reflective preferences better?’’ And the conclusion to which he comes is
that ‘‘the correct answer may vary from one person to another. It depends on what kind of person one is, what one cares about.’’ And within
Russellian limits Brandt must surely be right in
this. But he goes on to say, ‘‘It is, of course, no
defense of one’s failure to do one’s duty, before
others or society, to say that doing so is not ‘reasonable’ for one in this sense.’’ And this is just to
bring the queer element back in. It is to suppose
that besides ‘‘the kind of person’’ I am and my
particular pattern of ‘‘cares’’ and interests there
is something else, my duty, which may go against
these and in any case properly overrides them.
And one feels that there must be some sense of
‘‘reasonable’’ in which one can ask whether a
world in which that is true is a reasonable
world, whether such a world makes any sense.
This completes my survey of some ethical or
metaethical views that would eliminate or minimize this sort of queerness of morality. I turn
now to another sort of view, stronger I think
than any of these others, which accepts that
queerness but goes no further. And one who
holds this view will also hold, I think, that the
question ‘‘Why should I be moral?’’ must be
rejected in one way or another. A person who
holds this view will say that it is simply a fact
GEORGE MAVRODES ! Religion and the Queerness of Morality
that we have the moral obligations that we do
have, and that is all there is to it. If they sometimes result in a loss of good, then that too is
just a fact. These may be puzzling or surprising
facts, but there are lots of puzzling and surprising
things about the world. In a Russellian world,
morality will be, I suppose, an ‘‘emergent’’ phenomenon; it will be a feature of certain effects
though it is not a feature of their causes. But
the wetness of water is an emergent feature,
too. It is not a property of either hydrogen or
oxygen. And there is really nothing more to be
said; somewhere we must come to an end of reasons and explanations. We have our duties. We
can fulfill them and be moral, or we can ignore
them and be immoral. If all that is crazy and
absurd—well, so be it. Who are we to say that
the world is not crazy and absurd?
Such a view was once suggested by William
Alston in a criticism of Hasting Rashdall’s moral
argument for God’s existence. Alston attributed
to Rashdall the view that ‘‘God is required as a
locus for the moral law.’’ But Alston then went
on to ask, ‘‘Why could it not just be an ultimate
fact about the universe that kindness is good and
cruelty bad? This seems to have been Plato’s
view.’’ And if we rephrase Alston’s query slightly
to refer to obligations, we might be tempted to
say, ‘‘Why not indeed?’’
I say that this is perhaps the strongest reply
against me. Since it involves no argument, there
is no argument to be refuted. And I have already
said that, so far as I can see, its central contention
is not self-contradictory. Nor do I think of any
other useful argument to the effect that the
world is not absurd and crazy in this way. The reference to Plato, however, might be worth following for a moment. Perhaps Plato did think that
goodness, or some such thing related to morality,
was an ultimate fact about the world. But a Platonic world is not very close to a Russellian
world. Plato was not a Christian, of course, but
his worldview has very often been taken to be
congenial (especially congenial compared to
some other philosophical views) to a religious
understanding of the world. He would not have
been satisfied, I think, with Russell’s ‘‘accidental
collocations of atoms,’’ nor would he have
taken the force of the grave to be ‘‘so nearly
certain.’’ The idea of the Good seems to play a
metaphysical role in his thought. It is somehow
fundamental to what is as well as to what ought
to be, much more fundamental to reality than
are the atoms. A Platonic man, therefore, who
sets himself to live in accordance with the Good
aligns himself with what is deepest and most
basic in existence. Or to put it another way, we
might say that whatever values a Platonic world
imposes on a man are values to which the Platonic world itself is committed, through and
Not so, of course, for a Russellian world. Values and obligations cannot be deep in such a
world. They have a grip only upon surface phenomena, probably only upon man. What is deep
in a Russellian world must be such things as matter and energy, or perhaps natural law, chance, or
chaos. If it really were a fact that one had obligations in a Russellian world, then something
would be laid upon man that might cost a man
everything but that went no further than man.
And that difference from a Platonic world seems
to make all the difference.
This discussion suggests, I think, that there
are two related ways in which morality is queer
in a Russellian world. Or maybe they are better
construed as two aspects of the queerness we
have been exploring. In most of the preceding
discussion I have been focusing on the strangeness of an overriding demand that does not
seem to conduce to the good of the person on
whom it is laid. (In fact, it does not even promise
his good.) Here, however, we focus on the fact
that this demand—radical enough in the human
life on which it is laid—is superficial in a Russellian world. Something that reaches close to the
heart of my own life, perhaps even demanding
the sacrifice of that life, is not deep at all in the
world in which (on a Russellian view) that life is
lived. And that, too, seems absurd.
This brings to an end the major part of my
discussion. If I have been successful at all you
will have shared with me to some extent in the
sense of the queerness of morality, its absurdity
in a Russellian world. If you also share the conviction that it cannot in the end be absurd in that
way, then perhaps you will also be attracted to
some religious view of the world. Perhaps you
586 PART 10
! Religion and Ethics
also will say that morality must have some deeper
grip upon the world than a Russellian view
allows. And, consequently, things like mind and
purpose must also be deeper in the real world
than they would be in a Russellian world. They
must be more original, more controlling. The
accidental collocation of atoms cannot be either
primeval or final, nor can the grave be an end.
But or course that would be only a beginning, a
sketch waiting to be filled in.
We cannot here do much to fill it in further.
But I should like to close with a final, and rather
tentative suggestion, as to a direction in which
one might move in thinking about the place of
morality in the world. It is suggested to me by
certain elements in my own religion, Christianity.
I come more and more to think that morality, while a fact, is a twisted and distorted fact.
Or perhaps better, that it is a barely recognizable
version of another fact, a version adapted to a
twisted and distorted world. It is something
like, I suppose, the way in which the pine that
grows at timberline, wind blasted and twisted
low against the rock, is a version of the tall and
symmetrical tree that grows lower on the slopes.
I think it may be that the related notions of sacrifice and gift represent (or come close to representing) the fact, that is, the pattern of life,
whose distorted version we know here as morality. Imagine a situation, an ‘‘economy’’ if you
will, in which no one ever buys or trades for or
seizes any good thing. But whatever good he
enjoys is either one which he himself has created
or else one which he receives as a free and unconditional gift. And as soon as he has tasted it and
seen that it is good he stands ready to give it
away in his turn as soon as the opportunity arises.
In such a place, if one were to speak either of his
rights or his duties, his remark might be met with
puzzled laughter as his hearers struggled to recall
an ancient world in which those terms referred to
something important.
We have, of course, even now some occasions
that tend in this direction. Within some families
perhaps, or even in a regiment in desperate battle,
people may for a time pass largely beyond morality
and live lives of gift and sacrifice. On those occasions nothing would he lost if the moral concepts
and the moral language were to disappear. But it is
probably not possible that such situations and
occasions should be more than rare exceptions in
the daily life of the present world. Christianity,
however, which tells us that the present world is
‘‘fallen’’ and hence leads us to expect a distortion
in its important features, also tells us that one
day the redemption of the world will be complete
and that then all things shall be made new. And it
seems to me to suggest an ‘‘economy’’ more akin
to that of gift and sacrifice than to that of rights
and duties. If something like that should be true,
then perhaps morality, like the Marxist state, is
destined to wither away (unless perchance it
should happen to survive in hell).
Christianity, then, I think is related to the
queerness or morality in one way and perhaps in
two. In the first instance, it provides a view of
the world in which morality is not an absurdity.
It gives morality a deeper place in the world
than does a Russellian view and thus permits it
to ‘‘make sense.’’ But in the second instance, it
perhaps suggests that morality is not the deepest
thing, that it is provisional and transitory, that it
is due to serve its use and then to pass away in
favor of something richer and deeper. Perhaps
we can say that it begins by inverting the quotation with which I began and by telling us that,
since God exists, not everything is permitted;
but it may also go on to tell us that, since God
exists, in the end there shall be no occasion for
any prohibition.
1. Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic (New York:
Barnes & Noble, 1917), pp. 47–48.
2. Kurt Baier, The Moral Point of View (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958), p. 314.
3. Richard Brandt, Ethical Theory (Englewood Cliffs,
N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1959), pp. 375–78.
Rational Religious Ethics
Within the field of ethics, religious ethics (commonly referred to as Divine Command Theory)
are often dismissed as an irrational concept of a bygone era of ignorance; an artifact of a failed
project – no different than witch-burning to ward off the flu. However, religious ethics matter, a
lot. Not only do they give us a historical sense of social and philosophical development (given
that nearly all philosophers and societies around the world were religious up until some 300
years ago), they still represent the ethically normative position of the vast majority of all
people.[1] Moreover, actual religious ethics seem to exhibit few if any of the irrational features
attributed to them in the course of their dismissal.
In the following analysis, I will consider the objections to religious ethics, and demonstrate that
the philosophical dismissal is generally without merit.
Philosophical Problem:
Divine command theory, or rather the philosophical dismissal thereof, rests on the idea that
religious ethics are ultimately irrational, because they are never, and cannot ever be, anything
more than the demands of old bearded man in the sky. His will may be known, but the thought
process cannot be known, understood, or rationally comprehended. The old man rules by fiat,
and that’s the end of the discussion. For philosophical analysis of ethics, the process must be
known, understood, and rationally comprehended, in order to be analyzed and used. Thus, the
very idea of religious ethics is contrary to the idea of the philosophical approach, because
religion must, ipso facto, reject the use of reason.
However, such a reading of religious ethics is badly skewed ethically, historically, theologically,
and legally. To suppose this standard philosophical position to be true, one would have to
assume that the religion in question claims one of the following positions:
1. The text claims to prescriptively answer all possible ethical questions, in all contexts, directly
and ahead of time.
2. All adherents of the faith have a direct line of reciprocal communication with the divine and get
all their ethical questions answered that way – obviating the need for a book to do so.
3. All adherents have access to a 3rd party (a prophet) who answers all ethical questions by their
connection to the divine – and this is the only way to resolve ethical questions.
4. The text prescriptively covers all possible ethical questions, because the rules are set in stone,
and no difference in context can matter
The reality of the situation is that no book can prescriptively answer all questions in advance –
nor purports to do so – because the text is, by definition, finite, but human actions, contexts, etc.
are infinite. Thus, the first option is gone. Second, no religion requires all its adherents to be
prophets and speak to the divine – nor does any purport to do so. Thus, the second option is
gone. Third, as noted by Al Ghazali over 900 years ago, no form of authoritative human-based
instruction (i.e. prophets) can adequately function to address all the ethical questions and choices
of the religious populace.[2] For one thing, there would need to be as many prophets as there are
Rational Religious Ethics
people, and they would have to follow them around all day – to be available to offer guidance.
Thus, the reliance on prophetic contact with the divine for every issue is untenable. Some
questions, for example, are of a time-sensitive nature, and thus trekking to meet with the person
who “knows” the answer is impossible – yet a decision must be made, and ethically. Thus, the
third option is gone.
The last option is that the religious ethics come in a single variety, the “set in stone” kind, and
have nothing else to add (which bypasses the need for infinite answers, the need for direct
communication, or the option of prophetic access). However, that would only work for religions
that required that the society and adherents be static, and the context of decision-making never
change. No major religion makes this claim either.
Thus, the underlying claims about religious ethics are generally incoherent. The dismissal of
religious ethics relies on the idea that religious ethics abandon reason, but uses an understanding
of religion that does not match any known religions. If the argument is correct, then it is
irrelevant – because it applies to nothing. If the argument is incorrect, it deserves no further
However, this does not ipso facto make religious ethics a proper subject for philosophical study.
That claim, as will be presently made, would require that the system of religious ethics is open to
rational thought, that it is internally and externally coherent, and that it contains a degree of
functional flexibility (ethical or logical) necessary to address the infinitely changing context of
human experience.
Before we start down that road, there is one more objection to be considered. An argument can
be made that, if the belief in God is not rational, then any consequences of that belief cannot be
rational either. That is, if the belief in the Christian notion of God are false, then we cannot
continue to hold onto the ideas of heaven and hell (at least not the kinds of heaven and hell
described on the authority of Christian God). While a more complete version of this argument
will be considered below, we can give a preliminary answer here. Belief in God (or some sort of
divine power) is not inherently irrational. That is, reasonable people can reasonably disagree
about the existence of God and the truth of religious claims. So long as the divine is possible –
and it is, because it is not logically impossible (evidenced by our ability to imagine it) – then
religion as a whole cannot be dismissed out of hand. Therefore, there is, at least the possibility of
meaningful religious ethics.
Religion and Reason:
Does religion permit the use of reason? That would seem to depend on religion – though
traditionally, the answer is a resounding “yes.” In fact, that affirmation is the basis of religious
thought – according to religion. Surveying the core texts of just the “big 6” religions (Hinduism,
Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the necessity of reliance on reason is
readily apparent.
Rational Religious Ethics

Hinduism requires the rational understanding of the ephemeral nature of the universe, and the
study of the natural world, in order to reach the point of reunification with Atman. A great
example of this need to rationally comprehend is found throughout the entirety of the text of the
Baghavad Gita – which is an intellectual argument posited by God to man.
Buddhism is literally founded and adhered to on the rational conception of the ephemeral nature
of human life, its necessity and sources of suffering, and a path of circumventing that suffering.
Daoism is the study of the harmonious nature of the universe (through the study of nature,
among other things), in order to rationally arrive at a personal and social harmony for the benefit
of self and society.
Judaism, and by extension of the Hebrew Bible, Christianity takes as its primary text a collection
of stories with a repeating plot-line that goes something like this:
A society goes bad by engaging in corrupt practices,
A prophet is sent, who asks “hey people, why are you screwing up?”
The people reply, “we are following in the footsteps of our forefathers” (i.e. blindly following,
without using reason)
The prophet gives arguments, incentives, threats, which are rejected by the people who prefer
their blind following to use of reason (miracles are, by definition, arguments by demonstration)
The society is destroyed, except for those who used their reason.
It should be noted that Biblical miracles are a form of argument. When the guy who claims to
speak on behalf of the Almighty splits the sea, that’s a form of argument that he really does
represent the Almighty. Similarly, when the supposed prophet brings the dead back to life, and
does so on schedule, that’s an argument as to the force that backs his claims.

Finally, while Islam also has many of the same Hebrew Bible stories, covering the use of reason
as noted, its primary text – the Qur’an – also has a few additional features:
The unique nature of humanity is derived from the possession of intellect, not the soul.
The Qur’an references the necessity for the use of reason to believe, and the failure of doing so
as disbelief, over 850 times in a 604-page text.
This includes exhortations such as “why don’t you/they think?” or references to humanity as “O
you endowed with reason,” or references to believers as “this is advice for those who think.”
The text structure and argument requires that the reader be intellectually engaged (not that the
Jewish/Christian Bible does not require thinking, but their structure follows the far more
common format of complete stories, while the Qur’an quite often fragments the stories, and nests
the pertinent parts within larger narrative and argument structures; not to mention the rather
common breaking of the 4th wall – as the text makes an aside for the reader).
However, more proof is needed, as one could be accused with anachronistically reading reason
and intellect use into these traditions. This objection, however, does not stand in light of the
historically orthodox interpretations of these traditions, which are perfectly in line with the noted
ideas. Yet, to make the point clearer, let’s look at a few examples.
Ibn Masarra, a 10th century Andalusian thinker, argued that the basis for religious belief must be
reason. He argued that human beings generally lack the epistemological basis for certainty in
religion. That is, we lack the absolute knowledge necessary to know, in a truly absolute way, that
Rational Religious Ethics
there is a God, or which religion best represents Him. This becomes a problem when the
consequences for disbelief or incorrect belief are severe.
While prophets may enjoy the kind of certainty of knowledge by beholding God, the rest of us
lack that experience, and cannot have that certainty. Moreover, people lie or are confused, and so
we cannot simply proceed on the basis of someone’s word. Since we can’t peer inside their head
to determine the validity of their claims, we must have access to a different resource that would
allow us, all of us, to make the right decision. This resource is reason. The point made by Ibn
Masarra is that humanity the world over, has access to reason. Reason is not a cultural artifact,
nor does it differ based on race, geography, gender, ethnicity, culture, etc. The universal tool,
available to all, is the only method by which human beings can be universally accountable for
their choice in religion – and thus ethics.[3]
Al Ghazali, an 11th century theologian and philosopher par excellence made a similar point. He
argued that the notion of simply following someone or something (blind following is known
as taqleed) is both religiously unacceptable and irrational. It is unacceptable because each human
being is endowed with reason, by which they are to make their decisions. If the decision is made
by something other than reason (i.e. blind following), the act is actually mindless. This makes it
ethically and religiously unacceptable, because even if it were to hit upon a truth, it would do so
by accident (and there is a far greater chance that it would hit upon a false idea). It is irrational,
because even in blind following, we are forced to make the choice to do so. That is, there is no
way of not making a choice, and there is no basis for making a choice, other than reason. Thus,
reason is always in play – even if we’re choosing to be irrational.
Finally, the idea of religion being contingent on a lack of reason is untenable. Even in cases
where the religious system has a strict hierarchy, and where the head of that hierarchy is Godlike in the ability to make pronouncements, reason outranks him. For example, Papal authority is,
essentially absolute. However, even the Pope is bound by the rules of text and dogma, and any
pronouncement made in direct contradiction of either would be rejected. The path to such
rejection could not come by any means other than reason – because all other paths are fully
under the control of Papal authority. However, no matter the authority, a claim that, for example,
Jesus was a woman, would be rejected by argument of reference to the textual pronoun, rules of
Hebrew and Aramaic grammar, etc. – i.e. by the use of reason.
Therefore, we can conclude that the use of reason, of rational thought, of coherence of that
thought, are religious requirements– whether for choosing a religion or adhering to its rules.
The fact that some religious adherents seem to fail miserably at that task and spout the kind of
nonsense that makes us question the functionality of their reason as individuals, is a separate and
unrelated issue. Plenty of people are horrifically bad at math. Their mistakes (e.g. 2+2=22) do
not undermine the functionality of math itself, but only call into question the competence of the
Sources of Religion:
Rational Religious Ethics
Locke famously noted that, since we cannot prove (as per mathematical proof) that our choice of
religion is correct, we cannot force our religion onto others. That is, since we do not have direct
access to God, we cannot have proof. Arguably, what we can prove is human-based thought.
Thus, we get the argument for dismissing religious texts, because – unlike human thought – they
cannot be proven. However, this approach is badly flawed.
From a religious perspective, one (or perhaps few) religions are right, while all others are
wrong.[4] That means that the origin of the primary texts falls under: true/used to be true but is
out of date (divine author/human corruption), or false (human author). Clearly, for the religious
adherents, the source of religious ethics matters quite a bit, because one/few come from an
infallible source, while others come from fallible sources.
However, from a non-religious standpoint, all sources of ethics have been penned by human
authors. There is no real source difference between Kant and the Bible – both are works of
human authors, presenting an argument for a particular normative concept of ethics. To be sure,
there is plenty of difference between the claims, but the source itself is always human reason.
This also holds true between secular ethical theories, so that Kantian ethics and Utilitarian ones
are products of human reason. The way we make personal and social decisions on which to
follow are based on our own use of reason – which is the same process used by religion – as
noted above.
The idea that all texts are human-made, brings us back to the use of reason in our exploration of
their ideas, in our criticism of their functionality, etc. Yet, the same process is embedded in the
religious perspective, and uses reason in the same way. Thus, there is no functional difference
between secular and religious ethics, qua systems of establishing and maintaining normative
personal and social standards. In both cases, we’re forced to use reason to explore the claims
made, to understand the process in question, to use reason to extrapolate the implications of core
rules, in order to adapt and apply them to the ever-changing contextual situations. If this is the
case, and it seems to be, then there is no reason for dismissing religious ethics from a legitimate
field of philosophical study.
Philosophically, we seem to find it distasteful to make certain assumptions generally embraced
by religious ethical positions. The notion of post-mortem judgment and eternal reward and
punishment, for example, tend to be a particular sticking point.
Yet, all ethical systems – and indeed, all thought – is premised on a set of assumptions. These
assumptions cannot be challenged, because they are at the very root of the very idea of ethics in
the system. These assumptions are embedded in a paradigm weltanschauung of interpretation,
order, relations, meaning and values taken by each system to be axiomatically true. Such
assumptions include ethical systems (e.g. Deontological ethics, Utilitarian ethics, etc.), general
ethical values (e.g. human life has value), and even the shared underlying prerequisites for
ethical thought (e.g. free will).
Rational Religious Ethics
As an example, Kantian/Deontological ethics uses universalization of maxims as an axiom,
which it supposes an ethical theory simply cannot do without. This idea then creates a notion of
universal human rights, which have no exceptions and are never subject to contextual
adaptation. Utilitarian ethics, on the other hand, use quantification of consequences (in terms of
pleasure/happiness and pain/sadness) as an axiom, which it supposes an ethical theory simply
cannot do without. This idea then negates the notion of human rights, because the context
requires continuous adaptation of the kind of calculus used to derive ethical positions.
Clearly, the two secular ethical positions are at absolute odds with each other (as Bentham once
noted, the idea of human rights is “nonsense on stilts”). However, the cause of the
insurmountable differences comes from wildly differing axiomatic assumptions that form the
paradigm weltanschauung of Deontic and Utilitarian ethics. While we may be tempted to argue
for the reasons of such assumptions on one side or another, that misses the point entirely. One
cannot have “reasons” for axiomatic assumptions, else the point would be an argument, not an
assumption. The fact that axioms are unassailable is evident in mathematics – when is the last
time you heard someone try to disagree with the idea that all right angles are equal to each other?
More importantly for ethics, the axiomatic starting points of Deontic and Utilitarian positions are
contradictory. This means that we do not have a rational basis for committing ourselves to either
one – because at the very core of the two positions lie irreconcilable differences regarding the
nature of the world and the role of ethics. These foundational differences result in radical
difference in their ethical superstructures. Because the differences are axiomatic, we cannot use
reason to decide on one over the other – not directly, at least. At best, we can look after the
internal and external coherence of the systems, and see if the system presents with selfcontradictory implications or anomalous results – and then try to use this indirect evidence to
argue against the system as a whole, not against the axioms per se. This approach is in line with
the Kuhnian notion of paradigm crisis and replacement.
Theologically, such assumptions are generally termed Articles of Faith, and are the basis for
admittance into the religious orthodoxy. Such articles usually include things like affirming the
existence and nature of the divine, source of rules (affirming the truth of a text), affirming core
rituals, and affirming the value standards which tend to include an afterlife – with reward and
punishment. The thing to note is that, in terms of assumptions at play, the Articles of Faith are
functionally the same as any other axiomatic paradigm weltanschauung. They are functionally
the same because they act the same, because they serve the same function, and because they are
subject to the same kinds of rules. That the Utilitarian position is “secular” while the Catholic
position is “religious” is generally irrelevant to the nature of the claim. In fact, sorting through
axiomatic claims on the basis of the presence/absence of a divine being carries far less functional
value in terms of ethics, than sorting on the basis of admitting/denying human rights.
When push comes to shove, all ethical theories devolve into assumption-based claims. Rape is
wrong, but ultimately we cannot give an objective reason for that evaluation, when it comes to a
rapist who can act with impunity (and for those thinking that psychological damage to the rapist
is harm enough to justify the “no rape” position, I would point out that plenty of fairly common
pathologies will leave the rapist without a shred of additional psychological damage). Instead,
Rational Religious Ethics
we must resort to the assumed value – “it’s wrong because we say so” – to defend our “no rape”
stance. In fact, if we push for an explanation, the person defending the value will generally run
out of arguments and fall back on assumptions by the fifth time we ask “why is that wrong?”
When a religious position uses the notion of an afterlife to build ethics, it is doing nothing
different than any secular ethical system. It is taking an assumption as an axiomatic claim and
using it to construct an ethical superstructure by reason and implication. That is, from the
perspective of assumptions, there is nothing functionally different between the core methods of
religious, Deontic, and Utilitarian ethical structure. This is not to say that Kant and Catholicism
are one and the same, but rather to demonstrate that, by any objective standard, the process of
religious derivation of ethics is no different than secular derivation of ethics. Thus, there is no
basis for dismissing religious ethics from the field of legitimate philosophical study of ethics.
Secular vs. Religious Approach:
It could be argued that, despite the starting similarities in the underlying structure of ethical
systems (i.e. axiomatic bases), secular systems differ from the religious ones because they’re
developed by reason, while the religious ones are developed by divine fiat. While we’ve already
addressed this point a bit in the opening salvo, it bears closer inspection, because the format of
religious texts actually seems to be rather advanced – more advanced than a number of modern
takes on ethics.
The purpose of ethics is to guide the behavior of individuals and groups, by establishing a
hierarchy of normative values. Therefore, the adherent ability to derive infinite range of rules
from a finite revelation is crucial. Religious texts do so in two general ways:
1. Introduction of core rules (e.g. the Decalogue) which serve as ethical guidance, and allow for
extrapolation of principles by implication of core rules and their interactions.
2. Presentation of stories, whose morals are intended to show the correct type of rule interpretation
and application under the most extreme circumstances. This is a tool for habituating the reader to
correct understanding and interpretation of rules (whether in spirit or in letter), and correct action
under pressure.
For example, the Hebrew Bible/Qur’an story of Noah has several such lessons, including the idea
that one is to do “good,” even if alone in the pursuit, even at the cost of one’s family. A very
Deontic position, but it plays out in the context of how to be righteous in a corrupt society – and
that such righteousness will inherently mean suffering of the righteous. The story of Abraham
includes the idea that, in the face of absolute horror, the authority of God must remain paramount
– i.e. that one’s preferences are always infinitesimal in comparison to the ethical rules of action.
The story of Joseph includes a number of critical ideas, including maintenance of the ties of
kinship (even if your siblings try to bump you on eBay); forgiveness (though not weakness) even
in the face of malevolence; suffering physical harm and destruction of reputation is preferable to
breaking a trust – because the trust is ultimately with God/ethical principles, not with people
(thus is Joseph jailed on false charges of attempted rape, rather than engaging in fornication with
the wife of a man who treated him well – even though the same man had bought him as a slave).
Rational Religious Ethics
The core rules are axiomatic postulates. A well-disciplined mind can then take these postulates
and extrapolate an infinite series of rules, covering every human context. This approach requires
strong and coherent interpretive models for unpacking the various implications of the postulates,
and fitting them together in a way that preserves the spirit and letter of the law. However,
humans are generally bad at this activity.
Thus, the stories provide practical case studies of the kinds of interpretations that are considered
religiously acceptable and unacceptable. The story of Cain, for example, is a great example of
what kinds of ethics interpretations are unacceptable: namely that the underperforming,
victimhood mentality that seeks to revenge itself on those who strive with all their being and
succeed, is an unacceptable interpretation and has dire consequences. The same stories also help
to underscore several other general points – such as the idea that the rules apply particularly
when the adherence to them comes with a high cost. The prohibition on lying (Decalogue
commandment 9), is generally irrelevant when our actions have been in line with the ethical and
social standards, because we have no incentive to lie. However, when faced with a bad action –
and facing a bad outcome – people tend to resort to, “I know what it says, but you don’t
understand… my case is different – the rule doesn’t apply to me.” The stories make the point
that, no, your case is not only not different, it is inherently less problematic than the case study
made by the story. The prohibition on fornication is so strong that the correct response is going
to jail – possibly forever – rather than engaging in it. After that, your case can’t ever be
exceptional enough to justify that action.
What religious texts do, is provide the core rules, and then engage with in a long series of case
studies in order to demonstrate the acceptable range of interpretation models. Moreover, the
same stories are used to demonstrate the practical problems for individuals and societies that fail
to integrate into the kind of ethical order proposed – giving additional incentive for rulefollowing. These stories have, for the most part, outlasted all other written texts in the world. The
stories themselves have become integrated into the social core, and act as guiding principles,
even when the religion itself is abandoned. The reliance on these stories, and their role in shaping
society, is so strong that we have continued to explore them in every new medium. The story of
Superman, for example, is the story of Moses (the same is true in Kung-Fu Panda 2, also Harry
Potter). Any number of popular culture films are based on the notion of the sacrifice of the savior
(see: The Matrix).
This is a far more advanced and thorough approach to ethical theories than any of the secular
attempts have managed. This may be a function of time, but one can scarcely imagine a summer
blockbuster film premised on the Categorical Imperative. Finally, the coherence of these ethical
texts is independent of one’s belief in the truth of their divine origin. This is true for religious
ethics the same way that Utilitarians can rationally comprehend Kantians, without needing to be
Kantians. What is necessary is that one intellectually accepts the premises of the theory, for the
purpose of philosophical examination. All this serves to demonstrate that the ideas embodied in
that field are serious contenders in the ethical realm, and should not be dismissed out of hand, as
somehow less “intellectual.”
Rational Religious Ethics
Reason inherently plays a core role in religious ethics. This is true not only in the choice of
religion, but in the implementation of ethical ideas. Since all ethical theories are grounded in a
set of core ideas, the only way to make use of ethics is through interpretation of the core ideas
within the context of operations. This is properly the role of reason, regardless of whether the
source of ethics is secular or religious. Secular and religious ethical theories both struggle to
constantly adapt to the changing nature of human context and update their definitions when new
ideas spring forth. For example, the traditional notion of theft is based on exclusive possession of
a limited material entity, along with right to ownership. However, in the digital age, the question
of “theft” has forced us to redefine the act of theft, so that the exclusive possession is no longer a
necessary factor – given that a digital copy does not rob the original owner of possession. This is
equally true in secular and religious ethics.
The Question of Contradictions:
Perhaps one of the most persistent “issues” with religious ethics is the claim that the core texts
suffer from internal contradictions – that is, it becomes impossible to reconcile between various
axiomatic points, and thus impossible to create an internally-coherent system of rules to be
philosophically addressed. Questions of theological definitions of God aside (as they are not
relevant to the question at hand), this argument stems from the general ignorance about religion,
and the unwillingness to use some reason when reading the texts – in terms of ethical structures.
A modicum of charitable reading, if only for the sake of attempting to make sense of the text, is
generally enough to do away with most concerns regarding the structural integrity of the ethical
There are several things to consider, when reading a religious text – especially those of the
“Western” or rather Abrahamic traditions. The first is that the text must be read contextually
(which is true for all texts of any genera). That is, cherry-picking a quote here and there is an
incoherent strategy. Second, a distinction must be made between rule and exception – the same
way that this difference is noted in all other ethics work, and in the way that legal systems
function. Third, a distinction must be made between moral and legal categories – not all moral
rules translate into legal ones, since a great deal of morality depends on intent, and we have yet
to discover a way of physically seeing intent manifest in most cases. Fourth, the actions of
humans and those of the divine do not follow the same rules, nor should they be expected to.
Human reason is limited in its comprehension, while the divine is omniscient. Human judgment
is limited by our access to knowledge, while the divine is unlimited. Human capacity to pass
judgment is limited by our ability to condemn, forgive, reward, and punish – which is precisely
the role of the divine.
Without properly grasping these distinctions, many authors have sought to dismiss religious
ethics, on the grounds that they merely operate by divine fiat. Case in point, the Biblical order
that the Jews should wipe out the Amalekites is taken as proof that the Hebrew Bible cannot
offer ethics guidance on the ethics of war. After all, the Hebrew war ethics was apparently based
on simply wiping out the peoples around them.
Rational Religious Ethics
However, actually paying attention to the story, we note several key ingredients philosophers
like to omit or gloss over. Israel had an army and used it to go to war – much like its neighbors.
That same army had to be specifically told that they were to wipe out the Amalekites, and that
the order was divine in origin, and that claim had to come from a man that the state and the
people (and the religious hierarchy) had already accepted as a prophet – i.e. a human being who
/is in direct communication with the divine, and whose purpose is to convey the will of the
divine to the people.
In order for a specific command, like that of wiping out the Amalekites, to be issued, several
things must be true:
1. The state of Israel already knows how to go to war – since the reference to military action is
neither new, nor the focus of the story.
2. The same military must have rules and regulations, regarding conduct, because that is a basic
requirement for a military.
3. The order being given is not part of the standard operating procedure for Jewish war – else there
would be no point in issuing the order, nor would that action be the point of the story.
All that is to say that the divine intervention into the kinds of war the Jews were to wage against
these particular people, means that the particular goal of this war was the exception, not the rule,
of warfare ethics. The fact that the Jews did not see the annihilation of peoples as part of
standard operating procedures of war is also demonstrated by the story of David – where, even
having gained the upper hand by killing Goliath and demoralizing the enemy troops, the Jews did
not march on the Philistines to eradicate them.
It could be argued that, even with this exception, what’s to stop religious groups from doing
more of the same now? For one thing, it should be noted that the exception required divine
intervention. For another, the expression of this intervention had to come at the hands of an
already accepted prophet. Unless one presumes that prophets abound like weeds after a rain, the
“worry” is unfounded – since just about all traditional religions have ended the cycle of prophecy
– with the possible exception of a “final” prophetic figure. However, such a figure would need to
fulfill such a list of requirements to be affirmed, not to mention ushering in the end of the world,
as to be irrelevant to the ethical theory of war.
Similarly, the Qur’anic injunction to “kill them wherever you find them” – a point treated as a
license to freely kill whoever one defines as “them” – looses all potency when read in the context
of the order. In one case, the pronoun very specifically refers to those who start the fight against
the Muslim community militarily, and in the context of expelling the aggressors from the places
they have occupied. In the second case, the context is limited to the hostile pagan Arabs fighting
the Islamic prophet, even after the unification of Arabia has otherwise concluded. Moreover, the
same group is first allowed four months to rethink their opposition, or to leave, before the
question of “killing” enters the picture. Not to mention the fact that, once the Islamic prophet
died, the exception can no longer be invoked – as it applied to the context of that particular
individual, only.
Rational Religious Ethics
Skipping the context and reading the “them” as simply all people not in line with your own way
of thinking, is a move made only by terrorist recruiters and western media/academics. The
former are using all means to drum up support for their political aims, while the latter are either
maliciously spreading falsehoods or are deeply ignorant. In either case, the failure to
contextualize the issue produces incoherent readings of the text – and unsurprisingly
contradictory results.
However, once context and noted distinctions are taken into account, the apparent
“contradictions” sort themselves out, and leave us with a coherent ethical system.
On the Idea of Religions:
As a final point, the use of the term “religion” is a bit muddled to begin with, and must be used
with caution. To use a single term implies that all the systems are monolithically structured so as
to eschew any meaningful differentiation between them. The simplest way to see the problem of
this reading is to consider the fact that such a uselessly broad definition includes Janis, ISIS
members, Pope Francis, and your 80-year-old neighbor tottering to church on Sunday. Unless we
want to equate these groups and individuals, we need a far more effective linguistic tool-set in
our considerations.
As a decent starting point, we should stop extrapolating the ideas of one religious group to all
religious groups, because they often do not agree on some rather core ideas. Thus, one may be
able to speak about the problems of considering Jewish or Daoist ethics, but not religious ethics
as such. A second point should be the distinction between actions of religious adherent and the
religious theory. People fall short of many ideals in many ways. A mathematician who makes a
mistake does not negatively reflect on mathematics. A driver who gets into an accident does not
discredit the idea of mechanized transportation. Third, non-expert commentary should be
shunned – because the “opinion” of a non-expert is akin to starting a statement with “I don’t
know anything about this topic, but will give some random opinions anyway…”
In examining the religious notion of ethics, we are confronted with its structured, reasoned, and
otherwise philosophical-like nature. There is nothing about religious ethics that would inherently
disqualify them from serious consideration within philosophy. The arguments made against
religious ethics are generally based on ignorance and unwillingness to actually engage with texts.
Given that some 83% of the world population self-identifies as religious, the idea that we can
simply disregard their ethical systems is silly, but also dangerous. By insisting that only secular
systems are worthy of studies, we’re not bringing the majority of people in line with our secular
claims, we’re merely alienating them from participation – and thus making unavailable the kind
of deep analysis that allows for meaningful contextual adaptation of ethical systems (a staple of
philosophy) to the majority of moral agents.
Rational Religious Ethics
If, instead, we were to treat religious ethics as all other ethical systems, we would be far more
capable of working within those systems to produce the kinds of ethical behavior we desire –
regardless of our own ethical positions. Thus, for example, instead of Kantian or Utilitarian
arguments for the preservation of nature (arguments that primarily affect the 16% or rather 1.1
billion of non-religious population), we would be able to move towards that goal by also working
within the ethical structure of, say, Christianity and Islam – an additional 4 billion people.
Again, there is no serious reason to dismiss the religious ethics on any philosophical grounds.
They generally have all the hallmarks of philosophical ethical systems, and come with an
average of 1000+ years of trial and error in implementation – and the successes and failures of
any system can be used to inform our own approach to the problem, and either find a functional
solution, or at least avoid a known pitfall.
[2] Al Ghazali. Deliverance from Error. Tr. R. J. McCarthy SJ. Pp. 42-50.
[3] Ibn Masarra (883-931) Kitab al-i’tibar (On Reflection), ed. M.K. Ja’far, Min al-turath alfalsafi li-ibn Masarrah: 1. Risalat al-i’tibar, 2. Khawass al-huruf, Cairo, 1982
[4] Branches of Hinduism consider Buddhism to be an extension of Hindu thought; Christianity
considers Judaism to have been true; Islam consider Judaism and Christianity to have been true;
Daoism has no problems with integrating Buddhism into itself; etc.

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