A Clarification on Unethical Religiosity

Seems my foray into biblical mythology distracted from my larger objective, which was to draw attention to the paradoxical conflict that can arise between being religious and being ethical–or, to put the conflict in objective terms, between the content of divine command and the conclusions of ethical thought.  Permit me to approach the paradox from a different angle and without venturing into the controversial waters of biblical hermeneutics.

I call this conflict paradoxical because it arises for those who see a relationship between the rightness of ethics and the goodness of religious morality.  For anyone who denies the existence of God or any association of God with “the good,” there’s no paradox.  However, if for you God is the source of all goodness, indeed Goodness itself, then sound ethics, which seeks to construct practical rules for living in accordance with the good, would logically lead to conclusions perfectly coherent with the commandments of this God.  And yet it is questionable whether this is always the case.

Take, for example, the Catholic condemnation of contraceptives (because we haven’t talked enough about that!): the moral opposition stems from a religious understanding of the meaning and purpose of human sexuality.  According to this understanding, God intended sex for procreation and has revealed the rules and regulations for sexual behavior to a select group of religious authorities, who instruct the faithful to engage in sex in accordance with its God’s given purpose and never intentionally in opposition to that purpose.  These authorities also teach that this meaning of human sexuality can be discerned in the intelligibility of the sexual acts and in “the natural law,” of which they are the authoritative interpreters.

Now, if you subscribe to natural law theory, or perhaps another sort of moral realism, then you’re not likely to see any conflict between the conclusions of ethics and religion regarding this matter.  Each may lead to the same conclusion.  However, not even all Catholics buy into the idea of natural law.  As theologian Cathleen Kaveny noted to Jon Stewart, natural law ethics doesn’t have the persuasive power it once held.  It’s not a common morality.

Today’s common morality says that contraception is neither immoral nor morally neutral; rather, it’s a moral good.  Sexually active people ought to use contraception.  Contraceptives ought to be universally accessible.  Very ethically-minded people think this way.  Catholics who share this common morality and acceptance of contraception as a moral good therefore find themselves at odds with the moral teaching of their church authorities.  Others may acknowledge the reasonableness of the religious condemnation given the the belief-based premises that support it, while seeing no firm ethical grounding for those premises.  Believers such as these may conclude that their church calls them to act unethically by forbidding the use of contraceptives.

What is such a believer to do?  How ought a person of religious faith decide when her religious tenets conflict with her ethical conclusions?  In answer, I can offer no imperative.  As I said previously, my inclination given this situation is 1) to test every moral claim by religious authority against the ethical as I understand it and 2) to deconstruct my ethical methods and conclusions with an ear to the “voice of God” or the “voice of alterity.”   Ethics contributes to our understanding of what it means to act rightly, but its voice is not alone in speaking to us about rightness and wrongness.  Ethics can be terribly wrong, and even the truest has its limits.  Art, literature, myth, religion–these also have something to say.  On the flip side, they can be put to ill use.  As the new atheists never tire of telling us, religion has done grievous harm.

I recognize, however, that not everyone is as content in undecidability as I am.  It seems natural to desire resolution and certain answers, and so I’m not at all surprised that the conflict between ethics and religion often triggers culture wars aimed at the cultural defeat of one side or the other.  This undecidability will not stand.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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15 Responses

  1. Fred says:

    This is a difficulty caused by reducing religion to divine command, i.e. fideism. And hence, the need to accept Benedict’s challenge to broaden reason…

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      The reduction of religion to divine or ecclesiastical command accentuates the conflict between religion and ethics, but the conflict can also emerge between non-authoritative religious reasoning and purely philosophical reasoning. Religious norms can conflict with ethical norms, with our without the presence of commandment.

      • Fred says:

        I base my decisions and judgments based upon the totality of my encounter with reality— which includes that exceptional man, Jesus Christ and his Church. Other religious folk may disagree with me, and so may those who exclude God or His incarnation from consideration. I do not live as if I need to resolve in myself these disagreements, but I am responsible for paying attention to whomever can call my attention to factors of reality that I have overlooked (whether they are religious or not).

  2. Jaybird says:

    One of the tools I use is to take my action, whatever it is, and take it back, 20, 100, 200, 500, 1000 years.

    Is it intelligible?

    The year where we caught a whole bunch of feral cats and spayed/neutered them to have the kittens adopted and the adults returned to the wild makes absolutely *ZERO* sense 1000 years ago. None. Today? People praised me and Maribou for how much we must love animals.

    Take your action, whatever it is, and put it in another culture. Can you explain it in terms that make moral sense to this culture? If you can’t, maybe that’s an indicator in its own right. Maybe your actions won’t make moral sense in 100, 200, 500 years.

    Will your descendents look back on you the way we look back on Americans in 1812?

    • DensityDuck says:

      “But Jaybird,” says the American of 1812, “it’s a matter of settled scientific truth that the black race is inferior. How could anyone ever consider it immoral to treat them as we would treat cattle?”

      • Jaybird says:

        And a great many of those who disagreed explained how we were all brothers in Christ as a foundation for their disagreement and moved on from there.

        In 200 years, I suspect that many of us will sound just as ignorant to our descendants. Perhaps even all of us.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Interesting approach, Jaybird. I wouldn’t call it conclusive, but then you indicate it isn’t.

      • Jaybird says:

        It’s far from conclusive.

        However, if you realize that you’d sound like a madman to your grandfather’s grandfather when you’re trying to explain your actions, it’s interesting to see whether that’s because he’s limited or because you’re actually crazy.

  3. BlaiseP says:

    I’m not sure there’s much difference between the ethics of the God-believer and those who deny his existence. Here’s why:

    Let us suppose an arbitrary ethical system developed in which some culture ceremonially ate a little bit of a dead parent at the funeral. It might offend our ethical sensibilities, but why? Well, the sociologists call this a tabu. From whence does this system of tabus arise? Independent of what has been forbidden by religion, this tabu has become part of our culture and not part of this culture in New Guinea.

    Those who don’t believe in God have a remarkably naive view of what constrains the actions of the faithful. They believe we labour under this assumption wherein God is Goodness and we are good because we must obey God else he will punish us for our sins.

    No. We believe the Ten Commandments cannot be obeyed completely. We are fallible and perfection is unattainable, the difference between the converging and non-converging asymptotes: there will always be a gap. If the faithful have any vision of God as Goodness, it is only in the analysis of that ever-diminishing yet never-eliminated gap. If the notion of Imago Dei is to mean anything, it is framed in the awareness of that gap. We strive to close that gap but know we never will. Thus we are called upon to forgive each other, knowing our own sins have impeached us from any right to condemn others.

    This business of Non-Decidability is very strange to my way of thinking: at all times and all places, man knows the nature of sin and error, whether or not he is religious. We delude ourselves endlessly about the nature of our own actions, attempting to justify the unjustifable through the substitution of short-term thinking for the long-term understanding of the consequences of our actions.

    Sin begins with selfishness and pride. The burglar steals to satisfy his craving for drugs. His rational mind has been corrupted by desire. Enlightenment begins when we see ourselves in a larger landscape, where what we do impacts others for good or ill in ways we cannot foresee. There is no Natural Law. There never was. Natural Law attempts to extrapolate one set of cultural ethics into some general case which cannot be.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I’m not sure there’s much difference between the ethics of the God-believer and those who deny his existence.

      I actually agree with this. Seems to me that the same impulses, instincts, or premises (I’m not sure what the right word is) underlie our moral decisions whether they are done for ethical and religious reasons. I don’t think you need to posit “God” to have an objective basis for acting one way and not another.

  4. Mark A says:

    BlaiseP: I tend to agree that there is little difference between the ethics of the believer and the atheist or agnostic but I believe that is because the ‘sins’ you refer to are merely instinctual mechanisms that are necessary for the survival of the human species. Cannibalism is a taboo throughout much of the world simply because its rapid adoption could result in a decline in our numbers. And not simply because we might start killing one another for food but because human-borne illness and disease could spread much more easily. That it is practiced only in remote and sparsely inhabited areas is indicative of this. Without the likelihood of germ-bearing outsiders causing a threat, the practice could take hold without consequence.

    Your statement “…at all times and all places, man knows the nature of sin and error” seems very broad and I’d be interested in hearing you explain this in greater detail. Sin, to me, is a very Christian concept that carries with it the baggage of guilt, forgiveness and redemption all of which seem grounded in Western thought. The Buddhist, too, seeks enlightenment all the while knowing it will remain just out of reach. But the failure to reach it is not cause for remorse or repentance. Nor is the failure of others to do so a call to judgment. At the other end of the spectrum, are there not countless examples throughout history of individuals who performed some of the most grievous, ‘sinful’ acts without compunction or remorse? Where is the proof that these people knew or understood the error of their ways?

    Lastly, I take issue with the idea that “Sin begins with selfishness and pride.” The example you cite is proof of the exact opposite. Is drug dependence a manifestation of arrogance? Most psychologists would argue that those with the lowest self-esteem are the most likely to turn to drugs for comfort or fall victim to peer pressure. It is easy to sit back and judge those who use questionable means for their own material benefit or simply flaunt their wealth as narcissistic but isn’t it just indicative of those who value themselves the least?

    Kyle – better approach. Yesterday definitely found everyone (myself included) caught in the interpretation of the example.

    Lastly, I’m not sure the dilemma exists purely between ethics and religious morality. There is the well-worn example of whether someone who is against murder, for any grounds, would say it is OK to kill Hitler before his rise to power. Too cut-and-dry, I suppose. What about whether it would be OK to kill, say, the captain of the Titanic before it set sail? What about a grandfather just before he gets into the car in which he is about to have a heart attack while driving his grand-children to school? I don’t believe Ziggy ever required Sam to have to make that kind of choice. I suppose Quantum Leap would have been a far darker series if she had. In the end, I think we all have to be OK with some degree of undecidability – whether we like it or not.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I’m not sure the dilemma exists purely between ethics and religious morality.

      No, indeed. The dilemma can arise between two sound ethical ways of thinking. Two people working for the good can be opposed to each other because of their unique situations and circumstances.

    • BlaiseP says:

      What’s Sin? I carefully phrased that sentence “the nature of sin and error”. Sin is consciously disobeying our own moral and ethical constructs. Forgive me, here I may wax a bit mystical, but as the difference between mathematicians and numerologists is scientific rigor, so with the ethicist.

      We exist in a framework of time, what the physicists call the Light Cone. Taking consequentialism as far as it can be reasonably pushed, we understand the irrevocable nature of our actions. A surgeon makes an error, nicks an artery, big problems come of it. Sin? No. Error? Yes.

      Now the surgeon covers up the incident. Sin? You tell me. Whether or not you wish to call it Sin, it’s a violation of his own ethical constructs. Now he’s stuck with the coverup, dependent on the surgical team to conspire with him to hide it. Now he’s laboring under a burden of guilt. Sure, he closed up that artery and saved the patient’s life, but he now lives in fear. This surgeon needs to come clean, not because he’s a bad surgeon, but because living with his now-offended conscience influences his judgement thereafter.

      Sin isn’t a Christian concept. There are consequences to what we do and I tried to lay that out, dissecting it away from any notion of offense against God. People hate Christianity because it’s the only religion which demands enough honesty about human behaviour to acknowledge the irrevocable consequences of human failure. People do not want to admit they’re wrong and that’s the simple fact of it. Despite the message of Jesus Christ, that our sins are forgiven, that we can be new creatures, that we can put down our burdens of guilt at any time, it’s the same wretched self-excusing nonsense from the Usual Suspects — oh those Christians trying to condemn us. Sin does not have to rule our lives. We sin when we cover up our Errors. The Buddhists, well, they have a whole panoply of heavens and hells: they have an exquisitely well defined set of consequences for sin: rebirth, over and over and over until at last the soul is freed from the Wheel.

      Consequentialism has its problems: it’s never so cut and dried as all that. We’re not particularly good judges of our own actions. It’s rather like Spock from Star Trek, half Vulcan, half human. Spock is ruthlessly logical but he’s got his own blind spots, humor for example. Granted, Spock is a caricature of the debate but we cannot follow the consequentialist path to the end of the road and still remain fully human. Consequentialism has no room for forgiveness, for a fresh start.

      • Mark A says:

        Forgive me, but I feel a contradiction here. In your previous posting you seemed at odds with Kyle’s undecidability whereby some circumstances defied easy resolution. In your own words “man knows the nature of sin and error, whether or not he is religious.” You end your most recent comments acknowledge that “we’re not particularly good judges of our own actions.” Human failings and irrevocable consequences aside, surely there are instances where the proper choices are not easy to intuit. Perhaps the only options are bad and worse. In life there are those who carry around a heavy burden of guilt for decisions they may have made even if those decisions were the right ones. Yet others walk around blissfully unaware of the dreadful results of their well-intended actions. I believe your definition of sin is a good one but, as you describe it, sin can vary drastically from individual to individual and may evolve over time based on experiences and observed consequences. Doesn’t this mean that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ can be difficult, if not impossible, to discern in certain situations?

        I apologize if I came across as anti-Christian. I likely just got hung up on the term ‘sin’ and my own narrow experiences with it’s use. Thanks!

        • BlaiseP says:

          Okay, here’s another go at this problem. We know we can’t be perfect but we have this sense wherein we ought to be, knowing we can’t. We can’t know the future and our knowledge of the past is imperfect. We come at life with our own prejudices and predispositions. All this we know and there’s very little we can do to put it all in perspective. Furthermore, there’s no point in beating ourselves up over it, beyond coming to terms with what knowledge we’ve been given.

          Do I give money to this needy person and not that one? If so, why not? Recently, Eau Claire had an invasion of beggars from Florida, trying to pass themselves off as homeless veterans. They weren’t of course, just taking advantage of well-meaning people. The cops gave them the Bum’s Rush.

          While it is true, as Tolkien said, not even the wise know all ends, there are some entirely valid shortcuts to avoid sin. Let’s avoid that word for the moment, stick to what is fundamentally Undecidable. The problem comes apart in two domains: deductive knowledge is the first and the Turing Halting Problem from computability is the second. They’re both related (in a very loose sense!) to ethical decisions. Let’s start with the second problem: let’s devise some very long series of yes-no questions and a function to answer them correctly. Obviously, the more questions you add to the list, the less-likely the function will answer them all correctly, no matter how large the function grows in its implementation.

          Under what circumstances could a machine make a moral decision? Asimov’s Rules of Robotics were extremely silly but they give us some insight into the guts of moral constructs. Asimov’s Three Rules are bad morals: why should a machine obey a human? Why should it protect a human being? Why should it protect its own existence? We might as well substitute Master for Human and Slave for Robot in those laws.

          Machines can’t make moral decisions but they can come awfully close. Conservation of information. A machine can make the best possible move in chess, based on what it knows about the nature of good moves, just don’t ask it to deal with its human opponent trying to cheat.