Ethics, Morals and Religion

Religion is one of the oldest human institutions and we do have evidence of religious practices which were entwined with laws or taboos exhorting early human beings to behave in certain ways. In these earlier times, morality was embedded in the traditions, mores, customs, and religious practices of the culture.

Furthermore, religion served (as it has until quite recently) as a most powerful sanction for getting people to behave morally. That is, if behind a moral prohibition against murder rests the punishing and rewarding power of an all-powerful supernatural being then the religious leaders will strongly dictate their followers against killing human beings.

  • RELIGIOUS PEOPLE CAN BE IMMORAL – Taking the case of some priests of the Roman Catholic Church who even though highly trained in religion and the ethics of their church, nevertheless were guilty of molesting children under their supervision.

NON-RELIGIOUS PEOPLE CAN BE MORAL – If many human beings do not accept the existence of a supernatural world and yet act as morally then there must be some attributes other than religious belief that are necessary for one to be moral. Although it is obvious that most religions contain ethical systems but it is not true that all ethical systems are religiously based. Therefore, there is no necessary connection between morality and religion.

Ethics and religion

Religious believers who make ethical judgements solely on the basis of their religious beliefs see the two as indistinguishable. So some Christians see the wrongness of divorce as consisting in its offence against God’s law. While some people see their religious and ethical duties as compatible and even co-extensive. For example, some people see adultery as wrong because it is forbidden by God’s law and because it involves deceiving marriage partners. Let’s understand religious basis of ethics;

  • Religion as the basis of ethics – Religious belief can provide a powerful basis for ethics. If people believe that supernatural being gives them guidance on how to behave and if they see this force with whom they have a personal and emotional relationship, their convictions about what they ought to do are likely to be held very strongly. Religion gives them a sense of purpose – as individuals they know who they are, where they are intended to go, and where to look for guidance on their journey.
  • Criticism – There are, of course, disagreements as to which religious world-view is the correct one. These disagreements occur not only between the major religious traditions but within them, for instance, in Buddhism there are the Theravada and Mahayana paths to enlightenment. Within most religious traditions there are also fundamentalist and liberal schools of thought. Fundamentalists tend to see good behaviour as a matter of obeying what they regard as the specific instructions of Holy Scripture whereas liberals in the same religions consider they have freedom to make their own judgements on how to interpret religious guidance in specific circumstances.

There are similar disagreements among people (Atheists) who see ethics as based on secular considerations. One of the problems with basing ethics on a set of religious beliefs is that this provides no guidance for those who do not share those beliefs. These people have no reason to accept god’s authority. Because of this problem, many have sought a basis for ethics in indisputable facts rather than in religious beliefs that not everyone shares.

Does ethics need religion as its basis?
Many people think that atheists cannot have a firm basis for ethical convictions. This is not surprising since most people have lived in societies dominated by religious traditions. Consequently, many people think that if you have no religious beliefs you can have no source for your ideas of what is right and wrong. Unsurprisingly, atheists challenge these ideas, claiming that their secular ethical convictions have firm foundations and they do not need to see other people as created by a god in order to have good reasons to promote their well-being. Their experience of the suffering and happiness of themselves and of people close to them is sufficient to convince them of the value of striving for the well-being of all.

Let’s explore some non-religious foundations (Basis) of ethics;

Nature as the basis of ethicsFor many people, ‘unnatural act’ is wrong and only ‘natural act’ is right. Herein, it is important to identify indisputable factual criteria to distinguish between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ activities. One criterion frequently used is that human activities that interfere with natural processes are ‘unnatural’ and thus wrong. However, it can’t be conclusively maintained that all interference with natural processes (e.g. cooking food) is wrong, we need an objective basis for drawing a line between interference that is permissible and impermissible.

    • Subjective criterion – People regard activities that they are familiar with as acceptable interference with nature and those they are not used to as unacceptable. Many people, for example, regard the use of antibiotics as acceptable interference with natural processes, but see surrogacy as unacceptable, even though, biologically at least, later one interferes less than antibiotics with ‘natural processes’.
    • Objective criterion – Human activities that use the components of nature for their specific functions are seen as acceptable, whereas those that use them for other purposes are not. For example, it is often claimed that the specific function of human sexual activity is reproduction of the species and so it is only acceptable but to use our sexuality for oral or same-sex activity –which cannot carry out this function – is unacceptable.

Human nature as the basis of ethics – People identify and select different facts about human nature as the basis for ethics. Some of them are as follows;

    • According to Aristotle, we should aim to live a life in which three basic parts to our nature – physical, emotional and rational are properly exercised and fulfilled, so we should aim to have a fit body, an active mind and an emotionally fulfilled life.
    • Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill have seen it as natural to humans to desire happiness or pleasure above all else. Therefore whenever we have a choice of actions, we should aim for the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure and the least amount of pain and suffering for as many people as possible.
    • Human beings are social animals – Since we are naturally gregarious, we should act in ways that enable societies to flourish. Some people maintain, for example, that for societies to flourish their members must be able to rely on each other through telling the truth and keeping their promises. All humans should, therefore, accept truth telling and promise keeping as basic duties.
    • Needs and wants of human being – Human beings have certain natural needs that they want to fulfil. However, there is a vast variety of needs and wants that different people regard as essential which vary across cultures. It is therefore difficult to identify the common set of essential needs. Furthermore, the needs and wants of one person may conflict with each other and the totality of people’s needs often exceeds the resources available to satisfy them. This requires categorising some needs as more essential than others and accordingly fulfilling it.

Ideas of ourselves as the basis of ethicsThis was developed by Immanuel Kant who based ethics on what he thought were facts about how we think of ourselves. He said that we all hold certain ideas about ourselves and so should accept the ethical views that follow logically from them. These are ideas about freedom of choice – we have the freedom and capacity to decide how we ought to behave and experiences of deciding for ourselves what we ought to do based on our own reasoning.

Intuitions as the basis of ethics – Sometimes people have intuitions about what is right and wrong which is not derived from other beliefs or ideas but just have an immediate conviction – a feeling of total certainty. So people who have, for example, an intuition that human happiness is valuable will see no need to support it by making any general claims about human nature. Similarly, people who have intuitions that certain types of act, such as, truth telling or promise keeping are right – see no need to support their intuitions by appealing to other beliefs. From these intuitions, they try to develop general ethical guidelines, on the grounds that if something is the right thing to do in one situation it may also be the right thing to do in similar situations.

Emotions as the basis of ethics – Sometimes people base their ethical views on emotional experiences they have had. So someone who has witnessed the suffering of war victims may become a pacifist and someone who has felt fulfilled by parenthood may consider that assisting fertility should be a priority for healthcare resources. People may take one or two emotional experiences as the foundation of their ethical thinking and try to work towards general ethical views but those who have not had these experiences may not share this view.