Friday, August 12, 2005

on the source of morality (redux)

Tam Gu Ja wrote a while back:

...I have heard many discussions in recent months where people testify that a person's faith is the source of their values and ethics, and their sense of right and wrong. The implication in these discussions was that the issue at hand (abortion and gay rights, mostly) was promoting a godlessness that would destroy all sense of propriety or morality.

This is, I assume you'll agree, patently crap. I work with several atheists who seem to have a refined sense of ethics and morality. I can also name several Christians who are somewhat shaky in these areas. What I had difficulty articulating was the source of morality.

My studies in biology and anthropology indicate that morality arises primarily from culture, but that some basic impulses probably derive from biological sources. Expression is culturally specific, though.

The argument that is given back to me is that all of the godless take their morals and ethics from the surrounding Christian culture and that, again, a culture of atheists would be by definition immoral and unethical, having no basis for determining what is right and what is not. Again, patently crap.

In your religious studies, have you ever discussed the human development of ethics and morality in a way that could give me more angles to think on this?

I promised to write at greater length about this over the previous weekend, but didn't. Today, I'll try to do the subject justice, though I'd also recommend hitting some of the philosophical and religious blogs on my sidebar for more and better in-depth treatments.

Tam Gu Ja's question, in the final paragraph, is fairly specific. I'll get to it, but first I'd like to comment on whether the "surrounding Christian culture" argument is indeed "patently crap."

I'm not sure that it is. There's a rich discussion to be had about whether America has been and remains a "Christian nation." Without a doubt, Christianity is the dominant religion, and theistic language (Deistic or otherwise) is sprinkled throughout our founding documents. Christian morality makes its way rather frequently into public discourse, and despite the apparent espousal* of a separation of church and state, politicians regularly invoke God, Jesus, etc.

Even if one makes the argument that America's founders included many Deists, this in no way implies that America hasn't become a predominantly Christian nation. On a very practical demographic level, the claim makes sense. There may be doubt about whether America started off as a Christian nation, but there's little doubt that, in the demographic sense (and possibly other senses as well), it currently is a Christian nation.

But the claim should be treated with caution as well. America is also religiously plural-- increasingly so, in fact. America's ideals make room for and imply such pluralism; much of the current debate centers on how to handle it: are we to practice freedom of religion or to enjoy freedom from it in our public lives? People who view the American flag as sacred will affirm, implicitly if not openly, that secular ideals, virtues, and principles such as personal freedom and democracy stand alongside religious ideals.

Tension about these issues results in part from a great ambivalence about the public or private nature of religion. Is religion only to be a private matter? This is problematic on several levels. What if your religion proselytizes, as so many do? What if your religion requires a certain dress code and/or the wearing of certain symbols-- a public statement of religious alignment? Also: to what extent is the notion of religion-as-private a function of an evolving Western individualism**?

This ambivalence is a porous membrane through which religious ideals can move outward from (primarily Christian) religious communities to society at large. Such has been the case since even before America became America. As Dr. Vallicella (perhaps inadvertently echoing Raimondo Panikkar) puts it, there has long been an unresolved tension in the West between Athens and Jerusalem-- classical Greek ideas about the individual and reality, and Judeo-Christian ideas about morality and the significance of law.

Westerners largely assume that "rule of law" is the normal way of things. Even Western atheists often adopt absolutistic stances when it comes to ethics and morality. Like their religious counterparts, many atheists will claim that such-and-such conduct is "just plain wrong" with no thought given to the historical and cultural roots of such an attitude. Personally, I feel that Athens and Jerusalem are alive and well in modern American society, subtly and grossly governing the way we frame legal questions, helping to form the tacit understandings and assumptions we make about ourselves and others, and informing the attitudes of even the most recent immigrants.

An atheist will, of course, argue that one doesn't need God to have a moral outlook. I completely agree; it'd be ridiculous to claim that atheists are closet theists.*** But if the question is whether one's outlook can be influenced by the surrounding culture, then I submit that American atheists (and, for that matter, Buddhists and other non-monotheists) do not live in a vacuum. Of necessity, they employ the same expressions and imagery as their theistic counterparts, which means that, to a large extent, they share many of the same basic cultural assumptions about what a person is and how that person should act.

[An example: movie star, aikidoka, tulku, and chubby boy Steven Seagal, a Buddhist several times over, gave testimony at a mob trial in 2003, during which he declared at one point, "This is a court of law!" I'm pretty sure he wasn't thinking of dharma when he said "law."]

As for Tam Gu Ja's question...

In your religious studies, have you ever discussed the human development of ethics and morality in a way that could give me more angles to think on this?

My coursework at Catholic University included the REL 700 and 701 courses, which dealt with theological methodology and religious studies. Because this was Catholic University, the bias was necessarily toward a religious point of view. I imagine courses on the sociology and psychology of religion were available, but I didn't take them, much to my regret.

The phrase "human development of ethics and morality" may or may not contain an assumption about the ultimate source of ethics/morality.**** Is that source divine, or does morality arise epiphenomenally from the material cosmos? Is morality something our minds superimpose on the cosmos, in an act one friend of mine describes as the imposition of a "coordinate plane"?

One's assumptions about the source of morality will determine what one believes about the nature of morality. So much depends on that crucial point of departure.

A thinker like French sociologist Emile Durkheim might say that, when a religious tradition declares that "God doesn't approve X," what's really being said is, "Society condemns X." Durkheim seems to be taking a naturalistic view of religion, morals, and society.

A later thinker like Peter Berger, on the other hand, would put aside the question of divine origins in favor of exploring how people transmit moral sensibility in society. Berger lays out a three-part process of externalization, objectivation, and internalization-- i.e., we behave in certain visible ways; certain patterns are discovered within those behaviors and codified; finally, the codified patterns become something we are taught and which we absorb as we mature and become part of the social nomos. Berger seems to be assuming no need for divine agency in this, but his end notes in The Sacred Canopy make explicit that he is making no claim, one way or another, about whether there is a divine reality.

At the risk of retroactive misapplication of modern terminology to ancient cultures, I think morality and religion have gone hand in hand for millennia. Atheism (in its modern sense) is a relatively recent phenomenon, as is widespread scientific skepticism-- something that would have been impossible in the West before the Enlightenment. In tune with my earlier point, this means that atheists and scientific skeptics are very much part of the religio-cultural matrices into which they're born.

If no notion of the sacred motivates a person to be moral, what's the motivation to be moral? A vague sense of "decency"? This prompts the question of what "decency" means and where one's notion of decency comes from. Americans both religious and non-religious are willing to lay down their lives in the name of abstractions like "rights" and "justice" and "liberty," but why?

Could social morality simply be the complex result of millions of selfish individual motivations, arising and arranging themselves over time into an organic thought-structure that maximizes the ability to continue selfish pursuits? Is morality rooted in a gene-level survival impulse, as Robert Heinlein argued through his characters in the novel Starship Troopers?

Or how about this: is moral conduct what arises from the practice of mindfulness and compassion, and is it associated with the cosmic law of cause and effect, as Buddhists might argue?

A philosophical Taoist angle: is morality built into the very structure of the cosmos, providing a "grain" to reality? Can you go against that grain, or along with it? Could morality then be about the discovery of the nature of the universe, and living a life in harmony with that nature?

Does the term "morality" imply something narrow, such as how humans treat each other, or does it imply something much wider, such as how humans treat animals, plants, and the rest of the environment?

Our assumptions about the source of morality determine what we believe the nature of morality to be. I hope I've provided you, Tam Gu Ja, with enough angles to approach the problem of the source(s) of morality, and I hope you'll write in with insights from your own explorations.

*This is a discussion in itself. Maybe another time.

**A strong argument can be made that ancient Judaism and nascent Christianity would have viewed salvation as something more corporate than individual: the "God's chosen people" language of Judeo-Christian scripture reinforces this contention. Even today, I think it's possible for Jews and Christians to contend from within their traditions that we are all intimately connected to each other and to the rest of the cosmos. Here, too, a discussion for another time.

***For the record, I agree that many atheists conduct themselves far more virtuously-- more nobly, more selflessly, more charitably and compassionately-- than many folks who claim to be religious.

****For the purposes of this discussion, I, like Dr. Vallicella, will assume the terms "ethics" and "morality" are synonymous. Obviously, not all scholars and thinkers agree. Just bear with me.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Peter Berger.

Take out the first E and add a U in Berger and you've got Burger.

Peter Burger.