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THE ETHICS OF SECULARISM
By PAUL KURTZ
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Failure of Theistic Morality
Theists maintain that only a moral code rooted in a transcendental realm can provide the basis for moral conduct. Unable to envision any other ground for morality, they vehemently oppose any efforts to modify their received doctrines. But the foundation of their system rests on shaky ground.
What is transcendental ethics? It has taken many different forms historically, for although people talk about the "transcendent," they disagree as to what it is. A purely transcendental ethics, unrelated to any human content, would be meaningless, since it would be empty of any empirical referent and irrelevant to human interests or needs.
Plato is doubtless the main inspiration in Western thought for a philosophically based transcendental ethics, if not a theistic morality. Plato thought that there were universal moral ideas or forms. Presumably, a moral inquirer could use these as guides to conduct and seek to exemplify them in the empirical world.
Plato was inspired by Socrates' quest for truth and his devotion to the life of the mind. In various dialogues, Socrates attempts to define justice, piety, truth, beauty, virtue, and the good. He is not interested in extensional definition by reference to specific illustrations of any of these, but in an intensional definition whereby one is able to apprehend the real meaning of a moral concept; that is, its essential differentiating characteristic.
Plato postulates a realm of subsistent ideal essences in terms of which anything in the world of matter receives its existence. The concrete is what it is only because it participates in the universal class that defines it. All particular things would seem to have their counterparts in the realm of essences. Plato is primarily interested in mathematical concepts-which seem ideal and which provide the formal structure for nature-but he is also interested in moral ideals, of which the ideal of the good is the most fundamental. Plato thus attempts to provide an ontological basis for morality, rooted in some transcendent order.
The best critic of this theory is Aristotle, who asks: Of what help are such universal concepts to the ordinary man? They don't provide much aid for the carpenter or physician, who is concerned with achieving the good in his own field of specialty and must deal with the good in concrete terms and as the end of action.
The philosophical critique of Plato's position is well known: Platonic realism simply assumes its ontological postulate. There is no supporting evidence for the claim that there are ideal forms subsisting at large in the universe. Even if ideal essences subsist, they have no empirical content, and they do not tell us what we ought to do in concrete situations. Thus Plato's theory does not help us to resolve moral quandaries-if that is what is intended-and there are serious objections to both his theory of knowledge and his metaphysics. It does not succeed in providing a basis for morality, because its epistemological grounds are questionable. It is not at all clear that by means of the dialectical process of reason we can at some point apprehend these essences. Plato has reified the process of definition by objectifying elements in discourse and giving them ontological status. But terms and concepts have meanings only within the context of language, which is developed by human beings. Words cannot be abstracted from human communication or read into the universe. Justice, for example, is not a non-natural entity floating in ideal space separate and distinct from the world of men and women; it is a notion applied to human institutions that we have chosen to designate by language.
In spite of his transcendental theory, Plato was himself a strong critic of any attempt to derive ethics from religion. In the Euthyphro, Plato asks if it is possible to deduce virtue from the sayings and examples of the gods. The prevailing religious mythology had been spun out by the poets, and Plato found the Homeric myths unreliable.
A day laborer has killed someone on the estate of Euthyphro's father. The latter has the offender bound and thrown into a ditch, and sends for a priest to tell him what to do. The offender dies before the priest arrives; Euthyphro blames his father and is so incensed that he demands he be prosecuted for murder. Socrates is surprised that Euthyphro has turned against his father, since to honor one's parents is a fairly widespread moral prescription. He asks Euthyphro for his reasons. Euthyphro replies that the gods dictate that a murderer should be punished for his crimes. But did not Zeus kill his own father Kronos, and Kronos, his father? Socrates is uncertain whether Euthyphro's father has committed premeditated murder and wonders what the gods themselves would do in such a situation. What is piety? he asks. Euthyphro replies with a statement of conventional morality: Pay heed to the gods, follow their dictates, and engage in religious ceremonies.
But, for Socrates, virtue is more basic than conventional piety supported by religiosity. A man should follow the dictates of his conscience, live by the light of reason, and attempt to do good, which is more important than blindly following customs. Thus ethics precedes conventional religiosity, and is not to be deduced from what the gods may or may not have said.
A similar criticism of conventional religious conformity appears in Book II of the Republic, where Plato has Adeimantus attack its hypocrisy and double standard. One can do evil and yet confess or atone for one's sins and thus propitiate and pray to the gods for help and forgiveness. Ethical devotion to righteousness based on reason must precede any such religious complicity. Nonetheless, Socrates does have intimations of immortality. If there is an afterlife, he has nothing to worry about, since he has been righteous. If there is no afterlife, death is like an extended sleep. In any case, he has no fear of death, and believes that a person must follow his reason and fulfill intrinsic justice aside from any considerations of instrumental rewards. This is the argument that Socrates proposes even as he awaits death, as dramatized in the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo.
Plato's postulation of an ideal realm as the source of ultimate moral ideas is followed by a long line of philosophical theorists, the neo-Platonists, who also divide the universe into the two realms of appearances and reality. The first contains material objects in space and time, coming into being and passing away, interacting on the level of sense observation. The second refers to another realm of ultimate reality, which we do not directly observe, but indirectly infer or intuit. For Plato, the unseen realm is intelligible only to reason; but for others, not even to that; they speak of a mystical presence, of which we may get only a glimmer.
There is a deep-seated conviction that some unseen realm transcends the natural world and is the basis for a moral order in which there is some deeper structure and purpose. Moreover, this provides an ontological basis not only for value but also for obligation. Even Kant, who believed in the autonomy of ethics and did not think that ethical imperatives could be deduced from religion but rather from independent rational grounds, said that by turning within to our moral conscience, we have some glimpse of a noumenal world and some intimation of a moral order. He is only one of many philosophers who have believed that there is an ideal and universal basis for moral conduct that transcends cultural relativity.
I do not wish to elaborate on and critique these philosophical theories here, but rather I shall focus on only one form of transcendental ethics: theistic morality. Belief in a transcendent moral order takes on special meaning to the person who believes that ethics must be given a divine basis. The Christian maintains, for example, that the universe is fulfilling some eternal plan. Although this plan is enveloped in mystery, God has nonetheless made known to us his moral principles (with Christ as exemplar), which it is our duty to obey. Salvation depends on whether we accept the reality of the power of God and are obedient to his moral dictates.
There is a strong and a weak form of theistic ethics; and there is within the theistic camp a sharp difference as to whether we should take the moral commandments as they are put forth in the Scriptures as absolute and explicit guidelines for conduct, or whether they should be interpreted in the most general metaphorical sense. Orthodox Jews, for example, believe the Ten Commandments and the minute rules for conduct outlined in the Torah to be of divine origin, to be followed to the letter of the law. Fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics accept the Old Testament (except of course for the prescriptions binding on Orthodox Jews), and look upon the normative moral principles of the New Testament as binding on their conduct. Similarly, devout Muslims accept largely and without qualification the moral and behavioral code enunciated in the Koran and the sayings attributed to Mohammed.
There are great problems in arguing for a literal interpretation of ancient documents. This is aside from the questions of whether God exists and whether these documents have been divinely inspired or are simply the inventions of human culture. My own view is that there is insufficient evidence for the existence of God and that therefore the religious texts cannot have been revealed by a god but rather are simply the expressions of human beings. Nonetheless, even if we were to grant these premises for purposes of argument, many difficulties follow.
First, it is apparent that from the fatherhood of God, contradictory moral commandments and prescriptions have been drawn by believers. The books of the Old Testament were written over the course of several hundred years and express the ethical thinking and social conventions of various periods. We see a transition in doctrines, and thus there are many contradictory injunctions. On the one hand, God says in the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:13), "Thou shalt not kill." Yet only twelve chapters later (Exod. 32:27), a bloody-minded God commands the Israelites: "Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor." Or again, in the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:14), God says, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Yet, after commanding the Hebrew conquering army to kill all Midianite captives, including innocent women and children, God permits the army (including married men) to seize and keep the young virgins for themselves: "But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves" (Num. 31:18).
The moral contradictions between the Old and the New Testament are legion. In the Old Testament, the retributive justice of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" plays a prominent role. This is supplanted in the Sermon on the Mount of the New Testament by a "turn the other cheek" philosophy: "Resist not evil," says Jesus, "but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:39). The Old Testament condones polygamy, concubinage, and other practices that no doubt were widespread at the times different parts of it were written.
In the Old Testament, divorce is permitted if a wife no longer suits her husband: "When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes ... then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house" (Deut. 24:1). But in the New Testament, divorce is severely restricted. Jesus says, "Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery" (Matt. 5:32).
Many Christians attempt to resolve the contradictions between the Old and New Testaments by saying that the latter succeeds the former and that a Christian morality of love and forgiveness replaces the early doctrines of a vengeful and narrowly conceived Jehovah. Jewish scholars and scribes have spent centuries writing and analyzing the Talmud in an attempt to interpret the Torah in reasonable terms. If one accepts a literal interpretation of both the Old and the New Testaments, then one must conclude that God has changed his mind.
Christians have interpreted the moral precepts and doctrines of the New Testament in radically contradictory ways, and have disputed endlessly about its meaning. For example, some have condoned and even justified slavery on the ground that the Old Testament permits the taking of human captives as slaves and the New Testament admonishes that servants should obey their masters. We are told, "Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh.... And whatsoever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord" (Col. 3:22-23). Or again, "Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear" (I Pet. 2:18). For a long time the Bible was used to justify the divine right of kings. As Christ is the ruler of the universe, so a king was considered the ruler of a temporal realm; this was used to demand obedience to the political authority of the king. Only in modern times, and largely because of the critique of liberal humanists, have Christians and Jews come to defend liberal democracy and argue for individual human rights. But it is difficult to find democratic moral principles in the ancient texts.
A theist presumably could argue that although people have historically used the Bible to defend a particular political and social system, they are not justified in doing so, and further, that there is no connection between the God of the Bible and slavery, or monarchy, or any other such system. But, by the same token, is there a necessary logical connection between the fatherhood of God, let us say, and moral principles that many or most modern people would accept? Can we deduce a doctrine of human rights from the idea of the fatherhood of God? Some believers think that we not only can but must, for without a transcendent being, such a doctrine must collapse.
Here we come to a nonliteralist interpretation, a weak form of transcendental ethics. For when we seek to be explicit, we run into contradictions. For example, what should be the role of women in society; should they have equality with men? The Old Testament constantly demeans women and gives them a lesser place in the social and moral order and in the marriage relationship, as in Genesis: "And thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee" (3:16). The New Testament does the same. Paul reflects the primitive morality of his day when he maintains that a woman's relationship to her husband should be one of obedience. Women are to "keep silence in the churches;" if they wish to learn anything, they should "ask their husbands at home" (I Cor. 14:34-35). Paul says, "The husband is the head of the wife.... Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing" (Ephes. 5:23-24).
It is impossible-and unnecessary-to take the moral insights, practices, and attendant limitations of the nomadic and agricultural societies of two to four thousand years ago and seek to apply them to modern society in toto and without qualification. It is true that much in the Old and New Testaments expresses profound moral insights-in particular, the Golden Rule, the need to be kind, considerate, and just toward one's fellow creatures. But there is much that is primitive and retrogressive. Since biblical times there has been an evolution of moral practices and new situations alien to ancient peoples and thus requiring recognition of new moral principles. Yet much of this is conveniently ignored by many theologians today.
But one logical point should not be fudged: Does one need the fatherhood of God as the foundation of morality? If so, how does one explain alternative moral systems, all rooted in belief in one-presumably the same-God? An illustration is the Islamic religion, based on the Koran. Although every word of the Koran was allegedly received by Mohammed through revelation, Islam justifies practices that Christians and Jews find abhorrent, such as polygamy (for men only), and the fact that a man (but not a woman) may divorce if he does not find his wife to his liking.
Is it the empirical issue or the logical issue that is at stake? It is clear that belief in God does not guarantee either universal moral conduct or even agreement about what is right or wrong, good or bad; there continues to be widespread cultural diversity and relativity. It is the existing social, political, and economic mores that more often determine the morality of an act, and not the converse. Men and women are apt to read into the universe their own cherished moral beliefs and practices. Muslims, like Jews and Christians, have called their own practices divinely ordained, even though their moral commandments were clearly brought by reformers-which Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed undoubtedly were.
Excerpted from FORBIDDEN FRUIT by PAUL KURTZ Copyright © 2009 by Paul Kurtz. Excerpted by permission.
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