Mixing in the circles that I do and more importantly, being a denizen of the internet, it’s not infrequently that I hear the insistence that people must (by implication, ‘will obviously be unable to’) justify their moral beliefs – particularly Christians. There is a general feeling about the place that a number of ethical claims important to the historic Christian tradition are generally indefensible. I dispute this assertion and will thrash out some thoughts on it. (This post is likely to be honed over time, so don’t be too surprised if it’s diachronically dynamic). I’m not too sure how one would go about justifying one’s moral beliefs, whether they be secular or religious in origin – but I’ve fired a mental shot gun at the target and will show you the results.
It’s popular to bash the fundies as outclassed outmoded illiterate inhabitants of a cultural and mental back-water, deserving of abuse and ridicule. Dictums that are commonly dismissed as being religious in origin include ones along the lines of ‘the unborn child has rights’, ‘some sexual practices are immoral’, ‘personal responsibility is an important factor in societal wellbeing’, ‘punishment has a retributive element’, ‘religious beliefs have a part to play in public policy discussions’, and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (oh wait, that one’s probably okay). A number of these are certainly debated within Christian circles and I’m not concerned with their truth or falsehood so much as one’s right to hold to them in the absence of arguments to the contrary, preferably without being despised.
I’m by no means an ethicist, but I think that moral beliefs should fulfil some criteria. Here are some that seem appropriate:
1) *they should be internally consistent.
2) *they should have a grounding or basis, which accounts for their coherency.
It’s the second one that’s tricky to spell out, for most views. Secularist opponents of ‘Christian values’ are not immune to this. Start applying the ‘why’ question to some of their ethical assertions. Why should income be distributed more equally, why do people have things owed to them (e.g. a particular standard of living), why does the environment need to be protected, (why can’t I kill endangered snails if I want), why should we act in the interests of [X], …?
A similar point was illustrated to me by the stage one law paper I took. The lecturer was not a fan of ‘moralism’ and its influence on public policy at times in NZ’s past. However, many positions advocated in the course are fairly evidently influenced by moralism – just of a different persuasion. You shouldn’t hit kids ever, minority voices should be listened to particularly carefully, you should address historical grievances, you shouldn’t legislate against certain things and for others because, well it’s just obvious really that person X has right Y.
So, many claims in the area of public policy are of a moral nature and most (all?) people can’t fully justify their moral beliefs. So there is definitely some equivalence here. Yet secularists know, or claim to know, that while their own moral beliefs are ultimately justifiable in some sense perhaps simply by being obvious to the educated, traditional values are patently silly and misguided, as, e.g. they are based on the bible – an obscure religious text rejected by educated people as a source of both fact and ethics.
Perhaps the real issue is utter rejection of the possibility that the bible, or Christian beliefs in general, could be authoritative or true. The Bible can’t be used as evidence. This strikes me as bizarre and I will blog on it later (a starter: the Bible contains historical accounts – why can’t these be used as evidence?). Yet it is plausible to many people, for a host of reasons (many bad, some good) that the Bible is authoritative when speaking on ethics. It seems to me that in the absence of good reasons to reject a set of ethics as false (e.g. inconsistency or due to being ad hoc), we’re not justified in preferring those of our own culture or intuitions above those of others to the extent of abusing them – it is likely that to the outside observer, our own ethical beliefs will be similarly counter-intuitive in their details.
Let me phrase all this another way: play nicely children, for the post-modern consensus calls into question (at least to some extent) your guiding narrative too!
But this all raises another underlying question – what do we even mean when we speak of ethics, or of what we ought to do?