Alert reader Dennis called my attention to a new article in aeon Magazine (free online) by poet/philosopher Troy Jollimore. The piece is on secular ethics, is called “Godless but good,” and has the subtitle, “There’s something in religious tradition that helps people be ethical. But it isn’t actually their belief in God.”
Jollimore’s thesis is that secular ethics hasn’t succeeded in framing a philosophy that can appeal to believers. He outlines what he sees as the two major programs of secular ethics, Kantian ethics (e.g.: “one should act in a way that the maxim behind your act could become a universal law”), and utilitarianism (e.g., “act in a way that maximizes universal happiness/well being/ so on”). He notes that neither (he might have added Rawls’s appealing “veil of ignorance” argument) has had any traction with religious people, who continue to assert that their morality is grounded in religion.
But how can that grounding occur? Jollimore reiterates Socrates’s Euthyphro argument, which I still consider a definitive refutation of the idea that morality comes from God’s dictates. (Note: if you cite this argument, remember that it involves piety rather than goodness, but I believe they were equivalent to Socrates—or at any rate can be used as equivalents.) Jollimore’s exposition of this argument is superb, and destroys the notion of God-given morality. He also argues persuasively that atheists aren’t immoral, so there’s no danger of becoming a ravaging beast if you give up your faith. Nevertheless, the faithful continue to argue that their religion is a bulwark of their faith. Why?
Jollimore points out the usual problems with utiliarianism or Kantian ethics, and of course every system of secular ethics is imperfect, though noneas bad as religiously-based ethics. Jollimore then argues that there is, however, another religiously-based way of grounding ethics— one that resonates with people more than does secular ethics; and this grounding has nothing to do with divine command. It is that, according to Jollimore, secular ethics is emotionally sterile, while religious ethics engage deep emotions like empathy and love, emotions that are part of our everyday experience. It also requires a strong and upright character—something that, he says, is also grounded by religion.
Kantian and utilitarian approaches have been both fruitful and influential, and they get a lot of things right. But they share an impersonal, somewhat bureaucratic conception of the human being as a moral agent. The traits that are most highly prized in such agents are logical thinking, calculation, and obedience to the rules. Personal qualities such as individual judgment, idiosyncratic projects and desires, personal commitments and relationships, and feelings and emotions are regarded as largely irrelevant. Indeed, Kant argued that actions that were motivated by emotions — acts of kindness performed out of compassion, for instance — had no moral worth; a worthy action was one motivated simply by the logical judgment that it was the morally correct thing to do. For utilitarians, meanwhile, each moral agent is only one among a great multitude, and the kind of impartiality the theory demands prevents the individual from giving personal emotions or desires any special consideration. A person’s feelings, preferences and commitments are supposed to play almost no role in decision-making.
This is in stark contrast to most religions, which tend to preserve the deep connection between the ethical and the personal. This is true even in those religious traditions that emphasise obedience to God’s will; the moral view of the Old Testament, for instance. And the connection is further emphasised in many streams of both Christianity and Buddhism, which place great emphasis on the cultivation of the virtuous personality and on moral emotions including love and compassion. When I talk with religious believers about their faith and their morals, I am struck by how closely and deeply connected both their faith and their morality tend to be to their deepest personal concerns, how richly interwoven these things are into the general fabric of their lives.
Many religious believers feel skeptical about modern secular ethics in part because they cannot see any possibility for this sort of integration between theory and experience, between moral principles and how life is actually lived. Such theories neglect the personal: they privilege rationality over emotion, the abstract over the particular, obedience to rules over individual judgment. And, on the whole, they have had little to say — and have sometimes actively resisted having anything to say — about such old-fashioned notions as character and virtue.
In addition to being a philosopher, Murdoch was of course a magnificent novelist, and this fact is not incidental. For Murdoch, the most crucial moral virtue was a kind of attentiveness to detail, a wise, trained capacity for vision, which could see what was really going on in a situation and respond accordingly. The sort of psychological insight and attentiveness to detail necessary for writing fiction was also, for Murdoch, what enables a person to live a morally good life. ‘It is obvious here,’ she wrote, ‘what is the role, for the artist or spectator, of exactness and good vision: unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention. It is also clear that in moral situations a similar exactness is called for.’For Murdoch, what so often keeps us from acting morally is not that we fail to follow the moral rules that tell us how to act; rather, it is that we misunderstand the situation before us. When we describe the situation to ourselves, we simply get it wrong. To get the description right — to accurately grasp the nature of the motivations at play, to see the relevant individuals in their wholeness and particularity, and to see what, morally speaking, is at stake — is to grasp the ‘shape’ of the situation, in the words of Jonathan Dancy, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. It is to see things in the right way, from the proper angle, and with the correct emphasis. Once this is achieved, according to Murdoch and Dancy, it will be apparent what needs to be done, and the motivation to do so will follow naturally. Faced with a situation that demands compassion, the virtuous person responds, spontaneously, with compassion; she doesn’t need to reason herself into it.
For Aristotle, ‘practical wisdom’ meant the kind of sophisticated and judicious individual judgment that is necessary to deal with the world’s moral complexity. The virtuous person is the person who is capable of judging well, and on this sort of view the only possible definition of moral rightness makes explicit reference to such a person. Since there is no set of rules that dictates right action in all situations, we can only say that the right thing is what the ideally wise and virtuous person would do.
[W]hen called upon to make a difficult decision, I always start by checking my motivation. Do I truly have others’ well-being at heart? Am I under the sway of any disturbing emotions, such as anger, impatience, or hostility? Having determined that my motivation is sound, I then look carefully at the situation in context…. So while I encourage the reader to internalise a personal value system, it would be unrealistic to suppose that matters of ethics can be determined purely on the basis of rules and precepts. Matters of ethics are often not black and white. After checking to be sure that we are motivated by concern for the welfare of humanity, we must weigh the pros and cons of the various paths open to us and then let ourselves be guided by a natural sense of responsibility. This, essentially, is what it means to be wise.
This all sounds well and good, but I have two beefs. The first is that I’m not sure how particularism can be defended given that every person considers themselves wise, virtuous, and able to judge well. There is then no rational way to adjudicate between disparate moral views. Granted, morality is not objective, but at least one can use rational principles like consistency or relevant empirical evidence to inform decisions (I suppose Jollimore would agree with that). Truly, though, I don’t see how emotionality—besides the usual concern that people be treated well and society functions well—can improve matters.
Now I don’t think any moral system is perfect. But I don’t see how saying, “Let the wise people judge what is moral” improves matters.
I liked Jollimore’s piece, but I wanted to take one more exception to it. And that is this: I don’t think the reason people ground their morality on religion is largely because religion engages personal concerns. That may play a role, but I think there’s something else. And that is the feeling many of us have that morality is largely innate—our moral judgments are often gut reactions, based on some inner feeling that we simply know what is right.
That innateness is, in fact, often used as evidence that morality comes from God, for where else could such ingrained feelings of rightness derive? Recall that Francis Collins, the accommodationist director of America’s National Institutes of Health, uses “The Moral Law” (innate feelings of right and wrong) as scientific evidence for God.
But, of course, innate feelings of right and wrong can come from two nonreligious sources: evolution and childhood indoctrination in secular ethics. I suspect that many of these innate feelings come from evolution, simply because many moral judgments about difficult situations don’t seem to depend on the ethnicity, background, or religious belief of the “decider.” (This is the work of Mark Hauser and his colleagues.) And the work of Frans de Waal and others is beginning to show the rudiments of moral judgments in our close relatives. So Collins is wrong: the “Moral Law” need not come from God.
Can we then eliminate the main opposition to atheism—the view that it erodes morality—by teaching people that innate feelings of right and wrong need not involve God? I doubt it. That would involve an education in science and philosophy that most people simply don’t want. But there’s no harm in trying, and at any rate it’s fascinating to read about how primates like chimps and capuchin monkeys show intimations of morality.
Here are capuchins demonstrating notions of fairness, from a TED talk by Frans de Waal: