Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where do ethics come from?

The idea that religion is the only source of ethics is based on the idea that "God" (and I don't believe in him/her/it) dispenses laws or moral codes for humans to obey, and rewards those who obey and punishes those who disobey.

Anyone who does a good thing because they expect a reward for it from (or avoids a bad thing because they expect to be punished by) some cosmic lawgiver is clearly immoral. In Matthew 6, Yeshua is reported as talking about getting rewards in heaven for doing good on earth (or at least, that is the way that the passage is often interpreted). Eeeeeuuuuuwwwwwww!!!! Wrong wrong wrong.

I do what I believe to be right and good (the pursuit of justice and the comforting of the afflicted and oppressed, donating to charity, participating in campaigns for social & environmental justice) because I believe it to be right and good, and I hope that it will increase the sum of happiness, not because I expect a pat on the head from a non-existent person in the sky.

OK so I get satisfaction from seeing people looking & feeling better after I have helped them - but the amount of effort involved probably outweighs the reward. And OK so I also get satisfaction from doing what is good and right, cos it makes me feel as though I am making a difference, and it makes me feel better about myself, but I don't see why I shouldn't. Self-esteem is good, isn't it?

And anyway, empirical evidence in the form of numerous morally upright atheists (though not all atheists), and millions of bigoted religionists (though not all religionists), make it obvious that the sort of religions that have prescriptive moral codes are not a good place to get your ethics from. The sort of religion that is inclusive and tolerant and rational would be a better place to get your values from, but you should still check them against your own conscience, reason and experience.

There's an excellent book by Richard Holloway called Godless Morality which explains exactly why God being the source of moral commandments can't possibly work even if you actually believe in God (which Holloway doesn't, though he says he isn't exactly an atheist or an agnostic either). The reason is this: because we cannot be sure what "God" wants, or even if s/he exists, we cannot claim in our moral pronouncements to speak for God. If two people both claim to be doing what God wants, but do exactly the opposite, how do we decide between them? By using ordinary evidence, reason and compassion to decide.

I tend to use the word ethics to mean a set of best practices that have evolved or emerged from a group ethos (though that is not the etymology of ethics), and I use the word morals to mean a set of practices imposed by a moral code. In this sense, ethics are clearly more pragmatic and flexible and humane, whereas moral codes, because they are usually arbitrary and invented, are usually cruel and inhumane.

Ethics and altruism are clearly evolved characteristics — but that doesn't make them any less beautiful, especially as we usually have a choice about whether to do the ethical or altruistic thing. It's amazing and wonderful that both people and animals will help the injured and dying, often at considerable cost or risk to themselves — and people often help others who are clearly not genetically related to them, including other species.


Archdruid Eileen said...

Jesus is comparing doing good and receiving rewards in heaven - versus doing good and getting the rewards here and now on earth (in other words, doing good so you get a pat on the back). Of the two, clearly the former would be better.
If you're doing what is right (or at least trying to), then by definition you are trying to be more in line with God's will and therefore your reward *will* be in heaven. Virtue is its own reward. In the same way that if your child brings you a cup of tea, the true reward would be that you are grateful and a moment is shared - not that you bribed them with 50p. Although that sometimes helps.

Archdruid Eileen said...

But wanting to increase the sum of good in the world is, of course, good in itself. And maybe you get the reward whether you like it or not!

Cat said...

Two quotes spring to mind...

An old Yiddish saying, "when you do a mizvah you shouldn't take a brass band" - in other words, doing good in a manner to get noticed both reduces the good done and is simply *tacky*... which so many of those who practice a religious-based 'moral code' consider as perfectly reasonable and praiseworthy.

The second, I seem to remember you know... from 'The Sparrow' by Mary Doria Russell:
"I really resent the idea that the only reason someone might be good or moral is because they're religious.
I do what I do without hope of reward or fear of punishment. I do not require heaven or hell to bribe or scare me into acting decently, thank you very much."

Yewtree said...

@ Eileen: yes, I know, but it's the expectation of reward in either context that I am complaining about.

@ Cat: Precisely.

Jarred said...

Very cool. I hope to do a video on my understanding of how my personal understanding of wyrd informs the development of my own ethics soon.

Ephemeral Thoughts said...

I thought this blog post from Sa-Essay might be relevant to your post (and that you might appreciate it).