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Can Ethics Be Religious?

In the #IntroductiontoEthics video, we saw that the #MarkkulaCenter says ethics is not religion. Depending on what ethics texts you read, you might see this claim frequently. I suggested that ethicists tend to be either moral philosophers or moral theologians. Now, the question remains whether moral theologians should really be considered ethicists.

First, let me start by noting that when my students say morality is personal, one of the things they talk about as a source of morality is religious belief. I happen to teach at a school where many of the students are religious--this isn't always the case. On the contrary, when I began my doctoral studies, I took a class with the late Hubert Dreyfus at UC Berkeley, and one of my classmates, when he found out I was studying ethics, remarked that he was an ethical subjectivist and couldn't see there being any standard for ethics. What this means--at least as far as I understand it--is that there are people who take religious belief as a basis for ethical behavior, and there are people who dismiss all ethical ideas as subjective. Reflect again on what the Markkula Center said--if you don't remember, here's a refresher:

"Ethics is not religion. Many people are not religious, but ethics applies to everyone. Most religions do advocate high ethical standards but sometimes do not address all the types of problems we face."

By this standard, we're left with a problem from my story above. The young man at UC Berkeley, expressing a view not uncommon in Berkeley (as well as a college campus near you!), said essentially that he didn't think ethical standards could apply to everyone. Now, I'm not saying he was right (if I thought that, I would have changed my focus of study there and then), but it is at least difficult to claim that just because only Mormons, for example, want to follow Mormon morality that it shouldn't apply to everyone.

So that's the second problem. Typically, religious ethics may be only followed by people from a certain religion (and then, that's not always the case--something like 90% of lay married Catholics use birth control despite there being official teachings against it!), but often they are intended for everyone. If it's bad for Muslims, it's probably not good for other people. So, for example, religious opposition to same-sex marriage is based on the assumption that if same-sex marriage is bad for people from one church, it's bad for everyone. It's hard to make a strong claim that religion is not the basis for ethics.

In addition, there are religious ethicists (I mean, that's what my degree is actually in). Consider, for example what sorts of jobs ethicists actually do. Most teach. Some sit on advisory boards. Others work as compliance officers. And some are members of ethics boards, for example at hospitals. Many hospitals are religiously affiliated, and so often have religious figures on their ethics board. Furthermore, the entire field of bioethics--now a thriving and critical branch of applied ethics--began from religious ethics. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Bush Administration's resistance to stem cell research had religious backing to it, and his President's Council on Bioethics had figures working from religious orientations.

Another reason we might believe religious ethics is a legitimate counter to philosophical ethics is because the two borrow so much from each other. The bald monk pictured above is Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth-century Italian Dominican friar, who is considered a pillar of both theology and philosophy. At least according to Jacques Maritain, a French political philosopher, Aquinas's thought forms the basis for human rights theory. Augustine of Hippo, a fourth-century African bishop, also influences philosophy in a big way, including offering strong philosophical accounts for God and the nature of evil. Both Aquinas and Augustine also appear in Monty Python's Philosophy Football sketch.

Similarly, many theologians draw from philosophers. Augustine was inspired by Plato; Aquinas drew from Aristotle. One of my teachers wrote his dissertation on Max Scheler and another wrote on Jurgen Habermas. And the list of how philosophers are influenced by theologians and theologians influenced by philosophers would be too great to write out here, but basically theology often makes claims that can be articulated in philosophical terms and philosophy often makes claims that can be theologized.

Finally, the last reason for considering that ethics could be religious has to do with #metaethics. There's a classical problem in metaethics of explaining what the standard of good is. How do we measure something like human dignity? How do we get past the problem of different types of pleasure (a sadist and a masochist might get along famously, but a sadist and non-sadists creates an ethical impasse)? If human reason is universal, how do we explain vastly different sets of cultural values? What we're left with is what becomes a major crisis for ethics in the twentieth century--the problem of grounding. Some ethicists, like Richard Rorty, claim that there can be no universal standard for ethics--we're back to the UC Berkeley student. In fact, if you're working from a philosophical position, one of the biggest challenges you face is explaining what good is and why that and not something else is the standard. Many philosophers just admit in the end that their view is best supported by "overlapping consensus"--the idea that a lot of people agree so that's good enough (basically democratic principles). Religious ethics, on the other hand, provides a strong grounding from which to work. X is good because it fits with the moral principles grounded in this theology. Y is bad because it contradicts these important religious values.

A final word. The reason why philosophical ethicists often insist that ethics is not religious is because it's dangerous. Consider religious extremists: David Koresh or ISIS or Westboro Baptists, or whatever your cup of tea is. Often, they use religious belief and religious teachings to further their own agenda. ISIS wants to sow discord, so they read the Qur'an as legitimating murder of innocents. Fred Phelps hates gay people, so he emphasizes the six verses of the Bible that say anything about gay sex. Jeff Sessions hates immigrants, so he isolates Romans 13:1 and ignores the rest of the Bible to justify persecuting them. Without careful theological analysis, scriptural exegesis and moral reasoning, religious beliefs won't be ethics. However, when done right, religious beliefs can be a solid foundation for further ethical reasoning.


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