Ethics, Religion, and Relativism
Haldane, John, The Review of Metaphysics
THE RECENT PUBLICATION of a collection of essays by Elizabeth Anscombe on the themes of Human Life, Action and Ethics (1) has reawakened some interest in the question of whether morality can be made sense of independently of belief in a transcendent source of obligation or value. Answering that question is certain to be a complex matter; for the terms in which it is posed are open to a variety of interpretations. There are different definitions of morality, different ways of making sense, different kinds of independence and of transcendence, and different accounts, and different forms, of obligation and of value. In a critical review of the volume, Simon Blackburn cites Anscombe's thesis from her famous essay "Modern Moral Philosophy":
the concepts of obligation, and duty--moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say--and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of 'ought,' ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals or derivatives of survivals, from an earlier [divine law] conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are generally harmful without it. (2)
Blackburn writes of this that "Anscombe's thought was a version of the Dostoevskian claim that if God is dead everything is permitted," (3) and he goes on to reject it as absurd, pointing out that someone may regard an action as immoral who has no commitment to, or even any knowledge of Judaeo-Christian law-based ethics. It is relevant to add, by way of background, that while Anscombe was a committed Roman Catholic, Blackburn is a convinced atheist who regards religion as at best irrelevant to the effort to ground ethics, because of the Euthyphro dilemma, and at worst corrupting of ethics because it substitutes vengeful dogmatism for humane values. As he puts it elsewhere:
A just practice would be commanded by a just deity, no doubt, but that throws the question back on to why we suppose our deities are just, and whether that judgement in turn could be more than an expression of our own subjectivity. Indeed, the vengeful and jealous and fearsome monotheistic deity seems very obviously to be exactly that. (4)
In arbitrating the philosophical dispute about the character of moral concepts, it is necessary to get clearer about what is involved in the idea of the "moral." Anscombe certainly did not think that one could not judge a course of action to be such as ought not to be followed unless one thought it prohibited by God. Indeed, her positive aim in "Modern Moral Philosophy" was to identify a basis conceptually independent of religious claims, on which wrongness might be established: namely, incompatibility with virtues related to human flourishing. On the other hand, she does hold that the idea of distinctively moral wrongness carries a sense of forbiddenness requiring the presence in the background of a source of prohibition that has to be external to human decisions and human nature, and which is, in that sense, a transcendental source of commands, such as God is taken to be in Judaic, Christian, and Islamic thought.
This is not a trivial claim, and Simon Blackburn is not obviously wrong in disputing it, for there is more than one tradition of philosophical theorizing about ethics which tries to ground moral directives, "ought" and "ought not," in facts about reality, or reason, or proper sentiment that are held to be independent of any theological claims. One reply would be to say that these efforts have failed. The most common grounds for maintaining this claim, however, suggest that the failure occurs at the earlier stage of trying to establish objective value--a stage antecedent to any requirement to promote or protect the good, and to counter or avoid the bad. Yet, significantly, Anscombe expended much philosophical energy in defense of ethical objectivity by showing the flaws in efforts to maintain a sharp logical distinction between matters of fact and of value. So this is not a line of reply that she could have been sympathetic to.
Instead, one might argue that while it may be possible to show, without reference to any religious claims, that certain things are good, and even that, this being so, a rational agent has reason to pursue them (and correspondingly reason to avoid things shown to be bad), nevertheless it cannot be shown without appeal to a transcendent lawgiver that anything is morally obligatory or morally prohibited, in a juridical interpretation of these notions. (5) This, surely, is what Anscombe had in mind. She heard people who were not avowedly religious say that such and such is "morally wrong," "wholly forbidden," and so on, and she wondered what that could mean if not forbidden from on high.
A secular philosopher might try to establish an understanding of morality such that it could contain this sort of indefeasible absolutist prohibition, but it is difficult to see how it might be grounded. More likely, he will prefer to think in terms of cancellable prohibitions: requirements not to act in certain ways, save in emergencies. Consider, for example, the case of John Rawls, who writes as follows:
The norms of the conduct of war set up certain lines we must not cross, so that war plans and strategies and the conduct of battles must lie within the limits they specify. The only exception is in situations of extreme emergency.... This exemption allows us to set aside--in special circumstances--the strict status of civilians that normally prevents their being directly attacked in war.... Political liberalism allows the supreme emergency exemption; the Catholic doctrine rejects it, saying that we must have faith and adhere to God's command. (6)
Evidently, and notwithstanding their being said to "set up lines we must not cross," Rawls's norms of the conduct of war are not absolute but conditional, prima facie, or pro tanto prohibitions. If these are the most that secular reason can achieve, then indeed it should conclude, with Anscombe, that stronger directives, or deontological modalities, such as "absolutely must" and "absolutely must not," have their origins outside of natural reason. Rawls seems implicitly to do this by his contrast with Catholic absolutist teaching, and by footnoting in that connection Anscombe's essay, "War and Murder." (7) Even so, his sense of the appropriateness of unconditional absolutes seems hard to shake off, for in an earlier footnote he adds that "[p]rohibitions such as that against the torture of prisoners of war still remain in place." (8) The obvious question to ask, however, is why these are not also subject to exemptions and may not be defeated in "situations of extreme emergency." So far as I have been able to determine, neither Rawls nor those who follow him in these areas provide any answer.
Here, as in subsequent sections, I shall …
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Publication information: Article title: Ethics, Religion, and Relativism. Contributors: Haldane, John - Author. Journal title: The Review of Metaphysics. Volume: 60. Issue: 1 Publication date: September 2006. Page number: 121+. © 2009 Philosophy Education Society, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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