April 12, 2010


Putting ethics back together:To understand why moral arguments disintegrate into shouting matches, we need to know our Christian heritage. To see where we go from here, we need philosophy, says one of Britain's leading philosophers. (John Haldane, 29 March 2010, MercatorNet)

The fact that we describe ethical challenges in certain ways using the concepts of human welfare, of equality of respect, of demands of justice and charity and so on, is not a creation of recent times but has a particular cultural and intellectual history. Central to this history is Christian moral theology, in which were fashioned the ideas of human dignity, of the inviolability of the innocent, and of the duty of concern for those in material and spiritual need. Certainly in the last two centuries there have been important developments in moral philosophy that were not avowedly religious, and indeed often came from the pens of agnostics, but of itself this does not challenge the claim that the core ideas originated in a Judaeo-Christian understanding of human nature.

Let me offer two examples: the impartial promotion of happiness, and the respecting of rights. These are particularly relevant, both because of their rhetorical power in contemporary discussions and because they are often thought to originate in secular rather than religious thought. Indeed, they are often paraded as achievements of secular philosophy working in opposition to religious morality, as represented by the Ten Commandments and other systems of ‘divine law.’

Many today associate the principle of acting so as to promote the happiness of all, treating each as equal, with the liberal utilitarians of the nineteenth century, who avowed it without reference to Christian doctrine. Yet if one asks why this should be done, and in particular why each should count equally in one’s regard, it is hard to find a coherent secular answer. For the Christian, by contrast, the principle of equality of consideration is rooted in the idea that each human being, whatever their condition or talents, is equal insofar as they are adopted children of God whose existence was divinely chosen and sustained. Likewise, in asking the question “who are we to care for,” the answer, “whoever one encounters who is in need,” has its origins in the parable of the Good Samaritan offered by Jesus in answer to the question “who is my neighbor?”

Similarly, the idea of human rights has its origins not in the secular enlightenment but in the world of the scholastic theology. In the middle ages there was a debate over holy poverty, which turned in part on the question of whether Christ and his Apostles owned anything individually or held everything in common. The conclusion was that everyone has inalienable rights of ownership and control over their own bodies, from which was developed, by extension, the idea that people have rights over what they create through their labor. These various ideas of equality of regard, of duties of beneficence and charity, of the universality of rights of bodily integrity, and of ownership of one’s body and of the products of one’s labor, are fruits of a particular religious understanding of human nature. Detached from that understanding it will only be a matter of time before they dry and wither. Of course, one might seek to develop equivalent fruits from a different source, but the question is whether that can be done.


We continue to use concepts and language that have their origins in a religious outlook, but we now lack the single coherent source for that use. We speak of “universal rights” and of the “equality of all people” but by any natural measure human beings are evidently unequal, so whence comes this elevated status and inviolability? We speak of the obligation to clothe the naked, and feed the hungry but whence comes that duty, if not from some broad notion of common membership in an all-inclusive moral community? And what can be a natural basis for this that can substitute for the religious idea of brotherhood?

Not only has the original foundation been lost sight of without an evidently adequate alternative being provided, but in losing touch with the source of moral meaning, our moral thinking has become confused. On the one hand we invoke the principle of the inviolability of innocent life in condemnation of the bombing of civilians, but on the other we set it aside when it comes to the matter of abortion. We assert the principle of non-exploitation in opposition to slavery yet countenance the creation of “sibling saviors” for the purpose of harvesting tissue from them. We deploy the language of innocence in relation to underage sex, yet switch instantly to talk of a right to gratification with the passing of a birthday. We assert the importance of community and of autonomy, yet legislate to restrict the latter in ways that will forseeably destroy the former. We oscillate between understandings of doctors, nurses, teachers and judges as motivated by vocations to serve the common good, and as salaried service-providers in a consumer economy. Little surprise, then, that we face confusing and apparently irresolvable conflicts.

How then to procede? It will not be surprising if a professional philosopher suggests that philosophy is the place to start, and perhaps even the place to end. Nor will this seem a novel suggestion to those familiar with the burgeoning fields of “applied” and “professional” ethics, which often presents themselves as providing guidance to those in moral need. But these are not what I have in mind, since applied ethics generally takes for granted the ethical position it applies, and professional ethics tends to restrict itself to fashioning codes of conduct for practitioners in specific fields. Our need, by contrast, is for an enquiry into ethical foundations sufficient to provide a guide to life more generally, which is something far broader and deeper.

One thing that philosophy, even of a preliminary sort, does well is to improve one’s grasp of an issue by clarifying it. Philosophy involves the analysis of ideas, assumptions, and arguments—and that brings with it the resolution of ambiguities and confusions. For example, it is increasingly common in talking of “rights” to conflate liberties and entitlements. A clear instance of this is the argument that people have a claim to reproductive services based on article 16 of the Declaration of Human Rights which specifies “the right to marry and to found a family.” On analysis, however, it is clear that this refers to a right of non-interference from the state (a liberty) not a right to the provision by it of the means necessary to conceive and bear children (an entitlement). Again, in speaking of “acceptance” there is a tendency to confuse toleration with approbation. So, while it may be reasonable on grounds of liberal toleration to require secular humanists to tolerate public displays of religious devotion, or to require traditional Christians to tolerate public recognition of gay partnerships, it does not follow that it is reasonable to require either party to approve or support these. Acceptance-as-toleration, and acceptance-as-approval are distinct, and it is both a confusion and an imposition to require the latter on the basis that a liberal society should be a tolerant one. [...]

If ethics is ever again to make the kind of sense it did to generations past, it will have to be set within a broader philosophy of life. That is a challenge to secularists who have yet to provide a non-religious alternative, and to Christians who wield biblical passages as if they were swords provided for the striking down of unbelievers. For they too need to seek out the larger narrative. Supposing then that both step up and meet the challenge, how might we tell which is true? The only possible answer, I think, is that we should favour that philosophy which best makes sense of human life including both its intimations of human transcendence and its demonstrations of human depravity. It is hard to see how such an account could be other than a religious one, at least to the extent of identifying something in humanity that transcends its material foundations and orients it towards some kind of spiritual fulfillment. Certainly there are intellectual challenges in recovering such an account, but there are also moral dangers in trying to live without one.

On the necessity of Christianity to rights, we'd recommend Robert Kraynak, on toleration, A.J. Conyers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 12, 2010 8:12 PM
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