Another thought on religion and values

In thinking about the relation between ethics and theology, it helps to distinguish the metaphysical aspects of this problem from the epistemological ones. Or, as St. Thomas would say, the order of being from the order of knowing. Value, or ethics, may depend metaphysically on the existence of God, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that knowing moral truths requires knowing (or believing) that God exists.

It seems to me that, difficult moral dilemmas aside, I have no particular difficulty discerning my day-to-day moral duties to family and friends, co-workers, strangers, etc. (I may have difficulty doing my duty, but that’s a separate issue.) Likewise, I have no great difficulty in telling good apart from bad, at least in the normal run of things. By contrast, I have very little idea of how to tie these perceptions and duties together into some grand unified theory of ethics or how such a theory is, or should be, grounded in an overall metaphysical view of the world.

Since at least some moral truths are far more obvious than God’s existence, it’s odd to suggest that you can’t have ethics without God. After all, that would imply that the more certain has to be based on the less certain. (Well, maybe there are people for whom the existence of God is more self-evident than their normal moral duites, but I’m not one of them.) In fact, it’s plausible to think that if God created us and wants us to be good, he would make it possible for us to know moral truths even without believing in him.


4 thoughts on “Another thought on religion and values

  1. Camassia

    What started the original discussion going wasn’t so much how nonbelievers have morals but how they have *shared* morals. That is, if you see good and evil one way and the other person sees them another way, how do you persuade that person to your side? If everyone (or nearly everyone) perceived ethics as objective facts in the same way, this wouldn’t even be an argument. It’s the disagreements that make people feel they have to ground their ethics in some more fundamental reality.

  2. Right – I get that, and I’m not denying that moral disagreement exists. My point was that, for one thing, Fish makes the problem worse than it needs to be by stipulating that “secular reason” can make no appeal to moral values. It’s not surprising that moral agreement is hard to come by if you’ve ruled out one party’s use of moral language by fiat!

    Secondly, though, I’m not convinced that shared religious (or metaphysical or whatever) beliefs are a necessary or sufficient condition for moral agreement. Religious people disagree among themsevles about morality, and religious and non-religious people can agree about morality without sharing the same underlying metaphysical beliefs. I just don’t think ethics is that tightly tied to metaphysics–it has a certain autonomy of its own. There may be exceptional cases that really do come down to a fundamental metaphysical difference (abortion, maybe), but those are fairly rare.

  3. I agree with Lee up to the point at which similar moral beliefs are clearly derived from similar moral instruction.

    Christians are, or at least used to be, universally drilled in the Ten Commandments, generation after generation.

    I cannot help being curious how moral opinion may have become more diverse in the post-Christian societies of Europe, where that common source of moral inspiration and authority is presumably not operative.

  4. Don’t you think that any society will require some kind of moral education for its citizens? And, if so, it’s hard for me to imagine a moral code that diverges too radically from the Ten Commandments (well, the second tablet anyway).

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