Ethics, Religion, and Relativism

By Haldane, John | The Review of Metaphysics, September 2006 | Go to article overview

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. …

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