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Discussion 1 to Reflections on Ethics 76
Morality And Religion: Unnecessary Union

by: PsiCop

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Morality is defined as “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour … the extent to which an action is right or wrong … a system of values and moral principles.”[1] The idea that certain actions are appropriate, acceptable, or “right,” and that others are inappropriate, unacceptable or “wrong,” is as old as humanity itself. Regulation of behavior allows people to live together; without some conception of propriety, no society would exist.

Many people believe that morality is dictated by a deity; philosophers and anthropologists call this the “divine command theory” of morality.[2] The connection between morality and religion is particularly strong where Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are in the majority, but it’s also true elsewhere. The connection between morality and religion is age-old, and undeniably so; the question before us is, whether or not this link is necessary.

History of Morality and Law

The best evidence we have for morality in earliest history, is found in the legal systems of the oldest human societies. The oldest law-related texts are found on tablets in Sumerian, listing the results of decisions made by judges or arbiters. In many cases we do not know what the situation was, we just know what the judge or arbiter decided, so while we have many such tablets, the actual body of Sumerian law is not entirely clear. The oldest extant statutory law code is the fragmentary Code of Ur-Nammu, who ruled Ur near the end of the third millennium bce.[3] Later kings of that region issued similar codes, perhaps the most famous being Hammurabi of Babylon.[4] Law codes of this sort were typically prefaced with an assertion of their divine authority or provenance. For example, Hammurabi’s code contains the following in its preamble: “When Marduk sent me to rule over men, to give the protection of right to the land, I did right and righteousness in … , and brought about the well-being of the oppressed,”[5] thus establishing his authority to promulgate the law.

We have less documentation about the laws of ancient Egypt; ancient writers mentioned that the Egyptians had a law code based on what they called ma’at, which is a difficult word to translate but means, essentially, “propriety” or “rightness.” Many aspects of Egyptian life centered on ma’at, designed to promote harmony. Morality and law were part of this, of course, but so too was all of Egyptian religion, as well.[6]

Thus, morality and law in the ancient occidental world, were connected explicitly with religion. But it is possible, based on the evidence we have, to exaggerate this connection. The rulers of Egypt and the Mesopotamian city-states were all priest-kings, whose authority as rulers came from their standing as priests and vice-versa. What’s more, most of their ministers and assistants — people who set policy and made decisions — were part of the priesthoods as well. Thus, very little any of them did, could be separated from religion. Government and law were part of religion, by definition and by practice.

Law in the Abrahamic Tradition

Given that they lived in the Near Eastern world — nestled snuggly at the juncture of Mesopotamia and Egypt — the ancient Hebrews naturally developed a law-code of their own, with religious overtones. One could hardly expect anything else of them. Their law code included not only what we would refer to as civil and criminal law, it also included sacred or ritual-purity law; of the famous Ten Commandments, for example, most cover ritual behavior (such as not taking the Lord’s name in vain). The ancient Hebrews blended ritual purity into everyday life in many other ways, as well. For instance, all Hebrew males were circumcised, a practice which had been part of the initiation of Egyptian priests.[7] In this and other ways, the Hebrews asserted themselves to be an entire nation of the priesthood. Adherence to an extensive, strict ritual code, which included dietary restrictions, holy days, sacrifices, etc. by all the Hebrew people, only furthered this assertion.

Naturally, since theirs was both a sacred and civil law code, the Hebrews considered it a divine ordinance, dictated to Moses by their god. They maintained this ritual-purity code as they became part of the Hellenistic and then the Roman world. The Hebrew ritual-purity code then became an aspect of Christianity; at first, as a point of contention over whether or not it must be followed, then after the majority of Christians decided they didn’t have to follow it, as a part of their sacred heritage. To this day, Mosaic Law is a core part of any Christian’s Bible, thanks in part to Church Fathers like Tertullian and the doctrine of supercession.[8] Islam has inherited the same principle, that law and morality are expressions of righteousness and come from God.

Hence, in the modern occidental world, we end up with statements such as, “There is no morality without God.” Most westerners believe that morals are absolute, and moreover, that those absolutes have been decided by God.[9] Without those “divine commands” declaring what is moral and what isn’t, life is a free-for-all and anything goes (the religious usually refer to this as “moral relativity”).

Morality Without Gods

There is, however, equal historical precedent for systems of morality which are not based on the “divine command theory.” In the occidental world, perhaps the most influential such system was that of the Stoics.[10] In modern usage the word “stoic” means someone who has no emotions (e.g. the Vulcans of Star Trek). The Stoics I’m referring to, though, are philosophers of a Socratic school of thinking. The Stoics developed a highly sophisticated system of ethics and morals, from a mechanistic point of view. Stoicism was highly influential in the Roman Empire, its basic principles known to almost everyone with an education.

The goal of Stoic morality was to allow its adherents to “live according to nature.” This meant many things, but specifically, since Stoics believed that reason or rationality was the fundamental impulse of humanity and nature itself (i.e. things interacted according to specific, rational rules; a principle fundamental to modern science), “living according to nature” necessarily meant “living according to reason.” They applied rationality to all things; thus, an action was moral if it was rational. For them, morality boiled down to the application of reason, to (potential) actions; no deity was required.

A few centuries before that, in China, Confucius had established a school of thought which promoted virtue based on a small number of specific principles.[11] Among them was ren, which might be translated as “compassion” or “regard for others.” Every person’s well-being is enhanced, if everyone looks out for everyone’s well-being: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others” (Analects 12.2)[12].

While Buddhism is a religion, its morality is not based on “divine command,” but rather is the result of its basic teachings (the Four Noble Truths[13]). Morality is one element of the Eightfold Path, “Right Action.”[14] Right Action is required in order to escape the cycle of suffering and craving inherent in the world. As for what constitutes morality, this is based on Five Precepts[15], the goal of which is to promote harmony with the believer’s surroundings, reducing cravings and in turn reducing suffering.

The Ethic of Reciprocity

The quotation from Confucius, above, brings us to an important element of morality in many moral systems, which is the Ethic of Reciprocity.[16] In the English-speaking world it’s commonly called “the Golden Rule,” and expressed as “do unto others as you would have done unto you,” or perhaps less archaically, “Treat others the same way you’d like to be treated.” This ethic is part of many morality systems and religions, around the world.[17]

In the occidental world, the Golden Rule is strongly associated with Christianity, since it’s part of Jesus’ teachings (e.g. Matthew 7:12[18]). But note that the Ethic of Reciprocity does not really require a “divine command”; it is its own reward! That is, if each of us always treated others kindly, then each of us would only be treated … well … kindly! The need for a “divine command,” to tell us what is moral and what isn’t, isn’t necessary, if we simply follow the Ethic of Reciprocity, and treat others in ways we want to be treated.

So is God necessary for morality? Not if the Ethic of Reciprocity holds true. Note that many of the old “laws” that Abrahamic tradition holds were dictated by God, such as the prohibition on taking the Lord’s name in vain, have no bearing as far as the Golden Rule is concerned; it may be a spiritual or ritual transgression, but a person’s cursing has no effect on anyone else. So Jesus was not entirely correct, that the Golden Rule is the sum of the Mosaic Law; the Law actually goes further than that.

The Social Contract Theory

The idea that morality is really a kind of collective, social contract dates back to Socrates, although this model of morality did not really come into its own until the Enlightenment.[19] This notion follows, logically, from the Ethic of Reciprocity. By this theory, deciding what is moral requires knowing its societal benefit. Actions which harm others, can harm society, so they are to be avoided.

Creating a system of morality which limits harm to its members, benefits everyone within it. This again is self-rewarding system requiring no “divine command” that everyone obey it.

The “Moral Relativity” Fallacy

As we’ve seen, religious people in the occidental world believe that without God to dictate morality, there is no morality, and “anything goes”; anarchy and chaos result. The problem is, this is a fallacy (mainly, the fallacy of the false dilemma[20]). It is quite possible to have a system of morality with specific constraints on behavior, without believing in a deity to establish it. We have seen this in the morals of the Stoics, Confucians, Buddhists, and in any system based upon the social contract model. The very definition of a “social contract” requires there to be some agreement on what the morality should be; without specific moral determinations, one cannot have any “contract” at all; the social contract model does not allow any iffy or fungible morals.

The complaint of the religious that the non-religious want there to be “no morality” is, quite simply, preposterous; I would not want to live in an amoral, lawless society any more than they would, and I think I can safely say that no other “secularist” does, either (with the exception, I suppose, of sociopaths, but then, there are religious sociopaths, too, who use religion for their own ends). Religious people, then, are conjuring a straw man (that’s another logical fallacy[21]) when they accuse secularists of wanting there to be no morals.

A Circular Argument

Another aspect of the “divine command theory” which invokes fallacy, is the very idea of basing morality on divine dictate in the first place. Socrates posed this dilemma in Plato’s Euthyphro[22]: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” That is, has God decided an action is moral because he likes it, or does he dislike it because it is inherently immoral? If something is immoral merely because God declared it so, then the immorality itself is just arbitrary and has no inherent basis, which in turn means that the entire matter of morality is just divine whim and caprice; but if God forbids something because it is immoral, then the immorality itself is something we could discover on our own without his declaring it to be immoral.

Religious folk who depend on God to decide their morals for them, then, are living out a fallacy. Either they’re living according to moral strictures which are merely divine whim, or else they’re following orders that are not necessary since they’re discoverable already.

The Problem of Revelation

Another fault with the idea that morality is defined by God, is that we know what God wants only by revelation. This in turn means that a different revelation could present another, different, moral code. Deciding right and wrong becomes schismatic, and can vary according to whatever revelation one chooses to follow. Because morality is based on “divine command” there is no way to “test” morals independently of these various revelations and know the inherent morality or immorality of an action.

This kind of thinking actually leads us to moral relativity, the very sort that religious folk abhor. Stoics, on the other hand, who believed that morality could be reasoned out, come to no such disagreement; for them, morality is definite. This is, of course, the exact opposite of the very results that religious folk are looking for!

The Bottom Line

One can honestly believe that morality comes only from God and no other source, only through ignorance of history. The inescapable fact is that there were, and are, people in the world who adhere to strict moral systems, who do not believe that system was dictated by a deity. Moreover, for them there is no question about what is moral and what isn’t, their guidelines are specific. If anything, leaving morality up to “divine command” creates ambiguity that would otherwise not exist.



[3] For more on Sumerian law, see the works of Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer, esp. History Begins at Sumer or The Sumerians

[6] Information about Egyptian law

[8] Adversus Iudaeos, chapter III, etc.

[22] Euthyphro by Plato