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Monday, April 04, 2005

Ethics Without Religion?

A thoughtful reader challenges the essentiality of religion in ethics.

The following courteous and thoughtful comment was emailed to me in reaction to How Far Have We Fallen?, which compared the 17th century ideas of John Locke regarding education with the ideas prevailing today.

Dear Mr. Brewton,
You conflate religion with ethics.? This is misleading, in that the latter does not require the former—although religion is, of course, a perfectly acceptable way of learning ethics for those who prefer it that way or have been brought up in a religious tradition.? Secular education need not be value-free, nor is it typically so, although each of us might object to the ethical content of one or another curriculum.? The only limitation of the teaching of ethics in secular schools is that they ought not to be limited to the particular ethics of a particular religion—such as the Ten Commandments, say, or the Koran—to the exclusion of others.?
As to how far we may have fallen, the eighteenth-century America that taught ethics to schoolchildren from a mostly religious stance was a society that suffered from institutionalized sexual discrimination, racism, and slavery.? This scarcely strikes one as the moral beacon to which we ought now to repair.
Timothy Ferris

Mr. Ferris has a personal website, , which lists a formidable array of books he has authored and publications in which his work has appeared.  In addition, he has received the American Institute of Physics prize, the American Association for the Advancement of Science prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His books have been nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Professor Ferris has taught in five disciplines at four universities. He is currently emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Mr. Ferris certainly doesn’t need a detailed explanation from me.  He is the teacher, I, the pupil.  But his comment touches upon such a fundamental issue that I think it appropriate to offer an explanation of my understandings to regular readers of this website.

First, I agree with Mr. Ferris’s statement that religion is not the sole source of ethics.  In the article about Locke’s views, I implicitly acknowledge that; the only time the word ethics appears in my article is in the following sentence:

“What the teacher can do is to hinder the student from being cunning, what today we call playing the angles, or being street-smart (both of which are end products of John Dewey?s pragmatism, now taught as situation ethics, the idea that you make up the rules for each situation that arises).” 

Situation ethics is, of course, one of the alternative sources of guidelines for personal conduct to which Mr. Ferris refers.

Second, the real issue is the validity and effectiveness of alternative sources of ethics.  Mr. Ferris doesn’t say that they are necessarily better than religion-based ethics.  Nor does he take the secular and materialistic position of liberals typified by the ACLU, namely that teaching even non-sectarian religious ethics in schools is unconstitutional.

Alternative ethical systems became prominent in early 19th century Europe and spread to American academics only after the Civil War in the 1870s.  These alternative ethical systems are secular and materialistic.  That is, they deny the existence of God and deny the reality of anything that is not material, in the sense that it can be physically observed and measured directly or indirectly by our physical senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, or touch.

All of these materialistic systems tend in a very dangerous direction.  By denying God’s existence and the laws of nature imposed by God’s Will, they leave intellectuals, by default, in charge of defining and regulating behavior.

The door to totalitarianism was opened in the late 18th century by Immanuel Kant.  His celebrated categorical imperative -  that one must act as if his every action were to become a universal rule of conduct -  is essentially a restatement of the Judeo-Christian command to love thy neighbor as thyself.  But Kant had little faith in God’s love as the source of order for individuals’ conduct.  Instead he advocated the authoritarian, statist theory that true freedom lies in rigid state control of moral action in a way that prevents individuals from doing wrong deeds, thereby ?freeing? them for true liberty.  From there it’s only a short step to Mussolini’s Fascist and Hitler’s National Socialist doctrine that the individual has meaning only in carrying out the aims of the political state.

Impelled by this secular materialism, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., opined that there is no higher law of morality or natural law; only the intelligence of human minds.  Therefore the law is whatever a judge declares it to be in a given case.  Professor John Dewey, the great exponent of secularity in Progressive education, stated in his pragmatic ethics that Darwin’s evolution hypothesis had proved that everything is continually evolving in response to random and accidental material factors.  There is thus no God and no such thing as fixed principles of morality.  Pragmatic ethics speaks, not of right or wrong, but of valid or invalid conduct.  Valid action is defined as what works to your advantage, with the implication that the end justifies the means.  Charles Darwin’s great champion, Thomas Huxley, declared that the evolution hypothesis had eliminated the ignorant belief in God.  There is, he said, no such thing as sin (right or wrong); human life is nothing more than the struggle for survival.

The end of the road for all of these alternative ethical systems is either nihilism at the personal level, or totalitarian tyranny at the level of the political state.  Nihilism meaning that, if there is no such thing as Divinely instituted order in human life, then anything becomes permissible, no matter how horrible.  Every individual is free to make up his own rules.  Such is the case among young men in the inner-cities who were spawned out of wedlock by the advent of President Johnson’s secular and socialistic Great Society of welfare entitlements.  Drug dealing and drive-by shooting became commonplace; young men could look anyone in the face and kill him without remorse or mercy.  With the loss of religious morality, we were left with Professor Dewey’s pragmatism in the extreme.

Totalitarian tyranny appeared with the first of the 19th century alternative systems of secular ethics.  The French Revolution’s Reign of Terror was followed by Napoleon’s military subjugation of Western Continental Europe, both in the name of secular materialism.  The Russian Revolution of 1917 installed one of the most blood-thirsty, totalitarian regimes in history.  Hitler’s National Socialism failed to match Soviet mass killing only for lack of time and interference by Allied military action.  Mao’s socialist China resumed the death march.

Third, my firm faith is that the highest and best source of ethics is the religious principles of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  Christian morality was the foundation of our unwritten constitution in the United States.

Before the 19th century the dominant systems of ethics, outside of France, all derived from metaphysical sources, that is from spiritual, non-material considerations. 

Plato saw society’s savior as the philosopher who struggled to turn toward the light of truth and relay that truth to his fellow citizens.  Truth he visualized as the Ideas, Ideals, or Forms that lie outside the material world, in the realm of God.  These God-given Ideals are the real essence of existence, of which our observable world is only an imperfect manifestation.  Plato, incidentally, believed in the immortality of the human soul, which would face judgment after death.

Aristotle, in his “Metaphysics,” identifies theology as the source of understanding of the highest principles of existence.  There is, he says, a Supreme Being, an Unmoved Mover, who precedes everything that we think of as existence in the cosmos.  Thus all that we perceive partakes of the essence of this Supreme Being, from whom our understanding of ethics derives.

Christian ethics is obviously metaphysically based.  It is through prayerful participation in the spirit of God, in God’s love, that humans can find the guidance and strength to repent and to turn their lives away from preoccupation with self and direct their energies outward in benevolence toward others.

In the the words of Jesus, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34).  Many other passages in the Gospels and in the letters of the Apostles make the ethical, or moral, substance clear.  Loving one another means to think first, not of your own selfish desires or angers, but of the larger context; to meditate upon God’s love, seeking inspiration for what you may do to help others in their times of need. 

Ethical guidance must flow from God’s love for the simple reason that God created us and everything in the universe.  All that we experience as existence is part of God’s Will, or, if you prefer, subject to the laws of physics that God instilled throughout the universe at the instant of its creation.  Ethical, moral conduct comes from aligning our souls with God’s Will.

Finally, I must respectfully take a different view from Mr. Ferris’s statement that “...the eighteenth-century America that taught ethics to schoolchildren from a mostly religious stance was a society that suffered from institutionalized sexual discrimination, racism, and slavery.? This scarcely strikes one as the moral beacon to which we ought now to repair.” 

A defining characteristic of the 18th and 19th centuries, both here and in England, was the sweeping and vigorous movement toward social reform, all emanating from Protestant churches;  all of it predating the influence on English and American political life of non-Christian systems of ethics.

This stands in stark contrast to the effect of secular ethics during the same period in socialistic France: the 1789 Revolution, the bloody Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s military conquest of Europe, repeated collapses of socialistic republics, more than a dozen different constitutions, and the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, with thousands of deaths.  By 1859, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, the French people as individuals had become indifferent to each other’s problems.  They were, he said, willing to endure any degree of tyranny, so long as the government paid their welfare benefits.

Slavery was not a product of religion.  It was a commonly accepted phenomenon as far back as historical records exist.  But it was Christian morality that ended it, both in England and in the United States.

In the Constitutional Convention of 1787, northern state delegates strongly opposed slavery.  Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Benjamin Rush, along with other Quakers, were active in the Manumission Society to free slaves.

Only when it became clear that the Constitution would not be ratified by enough southern states without it, was the compromise of Section I, Article 9, adopted.  It prohibited Congress from abolishing importation of slaves prior to 1808, but permitted Congress to levy taxes on such trade in order to discourage it. 

In 1794 Congress passed legislation prohibiting the manufacture, fitting, equipping, loading or dispatching of any vessel to be employed in the slave trade.  In 1800, Congress imposed stiff penalties on American citizens serving voluntarily on slave vessels sailing between other countries.  By 1804, every northern state had enacted legislation requiring gradual freeing of all slaves.  In 1807, Congress enacted legislation banning the importation of slaves, effective in 1808, the earliest Constitutionally permitted date. 

The abolition campaign grew out of the nation-wide religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1795-1835).  This moral revival period featured the introduction of camp meetings in rural areas and travelling preachers who sought to turn people?s attention from purely material concerns at a time when the nation was experiencing incredible economic growth.  Preachers began publishing abolitionist literature in 1820, and in 1833 William Lloyd Garrison and Protestant church leaders formed the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. 

Between 1820 and 1861, when the Civil War started, the abolition debate was given widespread attention in newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets throughout the nation.  At that time the doctrine of socialism and its secular, social-justice ethics were unknown to the American public.  The anti-slavery movement was based exclusively upon traditional Christian moral teachings. 

The women’s rights movement also arose from the same impulse.  National attention was focused on this issue by the famous Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, at which Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony drafted the first declaration of women’s rights.  Mrs. Stanton’s husband was Christian abolitionist Henry B. Stanton, and she was initially active in religious groups’ efforts to liberate slaves.  Susan B. Anthony was the daughter of a Quaker abolitionist.

Abolitionists were deeply religious Christians, who opposed slavery on moral grounds.  The Civil War’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” made it clear that is was the Glory of the Lord that inspired Union troops in the struggle.  Christian morality was the unwritten constitution of the nation.

During this same period, English Protestant churches, primarily the Methodists, had led England into what came to be called The Age of Reform.  Appalled by bad conditions in the great manufacturing and mining centers, the churches of the rising middle class began political agitation for reform of working conditions and for abolition of slavery.  In 1833 Parliament outlawed slavery in the British Empire, well before secular ethical systems, such as utilitarianism and socialism, exercised any real degree of political influence among the British public.

The civil rights movement led by Protestant minister Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s is usually claimed by liberals as a social justice cause, because liberals were prominent among its supporters.  Success of the civil rights movement, however, flowed entirely from its appeal to the same old-fashioned Christian morality that ended slavery.  Dr. King made no appeal for Federal “diversity” regulation, affirmative action, or other shibboleths of secular, social-justice ethics.  Nor was Dr. King?s crusade founded on a program of government redistribution of wealth.  Its aim was to secure equal opportunity under the law for blacks as individuals, not the benefits entitlements prescribed by the ethics of secular materialism. 

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