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"A brief introduction to ethics, one that plays lightly and gracefully over a number of philosophical themes, including the relationship between being good and living well."--Jim Holt, The New Yorker
"A slender but rich meditation on why humans should choose to behave well when the possibilities for doing evil are so abundant.... Highly accessible, and highly rewarding."--Kirkus
"Simon Blackburn's short book takes the big moral questions head on and does so brilliantly...a witty, vivid write with an enviable popular touch...this is a wonderfully enlightening book."--Ben Rogers, Sunday Telegraph
· SEVEN THREATS TO ETHICS ·
1. THE DEATH OF GOD
For many people, ethics is not only tied up with religion, but iscompletely settled by it. Such people do not need to think toomuch about ethics, because there is an authoritative code of instructions,a handbook of how to live. It is the word of Heaven, orthe will of a Being greater than ourselves. The standards of livingbecome known to us by revelation of this Being. Either we takeourselves to perceive the fountainhead directly, or more often wehave the benefit of an intermediary—a priest, or a prophet, or atext, or a tradition sufficiently in touch with the divine will to beable to communicate it to us. Then we know what to do. Obedienceto the divine will is meritorious, and brings reward; disobedienceis lethally punished. In the Christian version, obedience brings triumphover death, or everlasting life. Disobedience means eternalHell.
In the nineteenth century, in the west, when traditional religiousbelief began to lose its grip, many thinkers felt that ethics went withit. It is not to the purpose here to assess whether such belief shouldhave lost its grip. Our question is the implication for our standardsof behaviour. Is it true that, as Dostoevsky said, `If God is dead,everything is permitted'? It might seem to be true: without a lawgiver,how can there be a law?
Before thinking about this more directly, we might take a diversionthrough some of the shortcomings in traditional religiousinstruction. Anyone reading the Bible might betroubled by someof its precepts. The Old Testament God is partial to some peopleabove others, and above all jealous of his own pre-eminence, astrange moral obsession. He seems to have no problem with aslave-owning society, believes that birth control is a capital crime(Genesis 38: 9-10), is keen on child abuse (Proverbs 22:15, 23:13-14,29:15), and, for good measure, approves of fool abuse (Proverbs 26:3). Indeed, there is a letter going around the Internet, purporting tobe written to `Doctor Laura', a fundamentalist agony aunt:
Dear Dr Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend he homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18: 22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.
a. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. How should l deal with this?
b. I would like to sell my daughter in to slavery, as it suggests in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
c. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15: 19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
d. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may buy slaves from the nations that are around us. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify?
e. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35: 2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
f. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 10: 10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?
g. Leviticus 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.
Things are usually supposed to get better in the New Testament,with its admirable emphasis on love, forgiveness, and meekness.Yet the overall story of `atonement' and `redemption' is morallydubious, suggesting as it does that justice can be satisfied by thesacrifice of an innocent for the sins of the guilty—the doctrine ofthe scapegoat. Then the persona of Jesus in the Gospels has his fairshare of moral quirks. He can be sectarian: `Go not into the way ofthe Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not. Butgo rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel' (Matt. 10: 5-6). Ina similar vein, he refuses help to the non-Jewish woman fromCanaan with the chilling racist remark, `It is not meet to take thechildren's bread, and cast it to dogs' (Matt. 15: 26; Mark 7: 27). Hewants us to be gentle, meek, and mild, but he himself is far from it:'Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnationof hell?' (Matt. 23: 33). The episode of the Gadarene swineshows him to share the then-popular belief that mental illness iscaused by possession by devils. It also shows that animal lives-alsoanybody else's property rights in pigs—have no value (Luke 8:27-33). The events of the fig tree in Bethany (Mark 11: 12-21) wouldmake any environmentalist's hair stand on end.
Finally there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission.So we might wonder as well why he is not shown explicitlycountermanding some of the rough bits of the Old Testament.Exodus 22: 18, `Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' helped to burnalive tens or hundreds of thousands of women in Europe andAmerica between around 1450 and 1780. It would have been helpfulto suffering humanity, one might think, had a supremely goodand caring and knowledgeable person, foreseeing this, revoked theinjunction.
All in all, then, the Bible can be read as giving us a carte blanchefor harsh attitudes to children, the mentally handicapped, animals,the environment, the divorced, unbelievers, people with varioussexual habits, and elderly women. It encourages harsh attitudes toourselves, as fallen creatures endlessly polluted by sin, and hatredof ourselves inevitably brings hatred of others.
The philosopher who mounted the most famous and sustainedattack against the moral climate fostered by Christianity wasFriedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Here he is in full flow:
Under Christianity the instincts of the subjugated and the oppressed come to the fore: it is only those who are at the bottom who seek their salvation in it. Here the prevailing pastime, the favourite remedy for boredom is the discussion of sin, self-criticism, the inquisition of conscience; here the emotion produced by power (called `God') is pumped up (by prayer); here the highest good is regarded as unattainable, as a gift, as `grace'. Here, too, open dealing is lacking; concealment and the darkened room are Christian. Here body is despised and hygiene is denounced as sensual; the church even ranges itself against cleanliness (—the first Christian order after the banishment of the Moors closed the public baths, of which there were 270 in Cordova alone). Christian, too, is a certain cruelty toward one's self and toward others; hatred of unbelievers; the will to persecute ... And Christian is all hatred of the intellect, of pride, of courage, of freedom, of intellectual libertinage; Christian is all hatred of the senses, of joy in the senses, of joy in general.
Obviously there have been, and will be, apologists who want to defendor explain away the embarrassing elements. Similarly, apologistsfor Hinduism defend or explain away its involvement with thecaste system, and apologists for Islam defend or explain away itsharsh penal code or its attitude to women and infidels. What is interesting,however, is that when we weigh up these attempts we areourselves in the process of assessing moral standards. We are ableto stand back from any text, however entrenched, far enough to askwhether it represents an admirable or acceptable morality, orwhether we ought to accept some bits, but reject others. So againthe question arises: where do these standards come from, if theyhave the authority to judge even our best religious traditions?
The classic challenge to the idea that ethics can have a religiousfoundation is provided by Plato (c. 429-347 BC), in the dialogueknown as the Euthyphro. In this dialogue, Socrates, who is on thepoint of being tried for impiety, encounters one Euthyphro, whosets himself up as knowing exactly what piety or justice is. Indeed,so sure is he, that he is on the point of prosecuting his own fatherfor causing a death.
EUTH. Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious.
SOC. Ought we to enquire into the truth of this, Euthyphro, or simply to accept the mere statement on our own authority and that of others? What do you say?
EUTH. We should enquire; and I believe that the statement will stand the test of enquiry.
SOC. We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.
Once he has posed this question, Socrates has no trouble comingdown on one side of it:
SOC. And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro: is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?
SOC. Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?
EUTH. No, that is the reason.
SOC. It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?
SOC. And that which is dear to the gods is loved by them and is in a state to be loved of them because it is loved of them?
SOC. Then that which is dear to the gods, Euthyphro, is not holy, nor is that which is holy loved of God, as you affirm; but they are two different things.
EUTH. How do you mean, Socrates?
SOC. I mean to say that the holy has been acknowledged by us to be loved of God because it is holy, not to be holy because it is loved.
The point is that God, or the gods, are not to be thought of as arbitrary.They have to be regarded as selecting the right things to allowand to forbid. The have to latch on to what is holy or just, exactly aswe do. It is not given that they do this simply because they arepowerful, or created everything, or have horrendous punishmentsand delicious rewards in their gifts. That doesn't make them good.Furthermore, to obey their commandments just because of theirpower would be servile and self-interested. Suppose, for instance, Iam minded to do something bad, such as to betray someone'strust. It isn't good enough if I think: `Well, let me see, the gains aresuch-and-such, but now I have to factor in the chance of God hittingme hard if I do it. On the other hand, God is forgiving andthere is a good chance I can fob him off by confession, or by adeathbed repentance later ...' These are not the thoughts of a goodcharacter. The good character is supposed to think: `It would be abetrayal, so I won't do it.' That's the end of the story. To go in for areligious cost-benefit analysis is, in a phrase made famous by thecontemporary moral philosopher Bernard Williams, to have `onethought too many'.
The detour through an external god, then, seems worse thanirrelevant. It seems to distort the very idea of a standard of conduct.As the moral philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) put it,it encourages us to act in accordance with a rule, but only becauseof fear of punishment or some other incentive; whereas what wereally want is for people to act out of respect for a rule. This is whattrue virtue requires. (I discuss these ideas of Kant's more fully inPart III.)
We might wonder whether only a vulgarized religion should becondemned so strongly. The question then becomes, what otherkind is there? A more adequate conception of God should certainlystop him from being a vindictive old man in the sky. Somethingmore abstract, perhaps? But in that mystical direction lies a godwho stands a long way away from human beings, and also fromhuman good or bad. As the Greek Stoic Epicurus (341-271 BC) put it:
The blessed and immortal nature knows no trouble itself nor causes trouble to any other, so that it is never constrained by anger or favour. For all such things exist only in the weak.
A really blessed and immortal nature is simply too grand to bebothered by the doings of tiny human beings. It would be unfittingfor it to be worked up over whether human beings eat shellfish, orhave sex one way or another.
The alternative suggested by Plato's dialogue is that religiongives a mythical clothing and mythical authority to a morality thatis just there to begin with. Myth, in this sense, is not to be despised.It gives us symbolism and examples that engage our imaginations.It is the depository for humanity's endless attempts to strugglewith death, desire, happiness, and good and evil. When an exilereminisces, she will remember the songs and poems and folktalesof the homeland rather than its laws or its constitution. If the songsno longer speak to her, she is on the way to forgetting. Similarly, wemay fear that when religion no longer speaks to us, we may be onour way to forgetting some important part of history and humanexperience. This may be a moral change, for better or worse. In thisanalysis, religion is not the foundation of ethics, but its showcaseor its symbolic expression.
In other words, we drape our own standards with the stories ofdivine origin as a way of asserting their authority. We do not justhave a standard of conduct that forbids, say, murder, but we havemythological historical examples in which God expressed his displeasureat cases of murder. Unhappily myth and religion stand atthe service of bad morals as well. We read back what we put in,magnified and validated. We do not just fear science, or want totake other peoples' land, but we have examples in which God punishesthe desire for knowledge, or commands us to occupy the territory.We have God's authority for dominating nature, or forregarding them—others different from ourselves—as inferior, oreven criminal. In other words, we have the full depressing spectacleof people not only wanting to do something, but projecting upontheir gods the commands making it a right or a duty to do it. Religionon this account is not the source of standards of behaviour,but a projection of them, made precisely in order to dress them upwith an absolute authority. Religion serves to keep us apart fromthem, and no doubt it has other social and psychological functionsas well. It can certainly be the means whereby unjust political
Excerpted from Being Good by SIMON BLACKBURN. Copyright © 2001 by Simon Blackburn. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted February 3, 2006
Blackburn promises a short intro to ethics, and he delivers. This is perfect for someone who wants to get right to what different ethical concepts are without reading a book on each. Perfect for the person who wants to 'see it all' in one slim book, then has the opportunity to investigate it more fully to his/her heart's content. Illustrations, particularly the one of the 'Accidental Napalm Attack' in Vietnam, hit home with me, as I have small children.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.