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GOD, RELIGION & MORALITY

FREETHINKERS’ LECTURE SERIES & LITERARY EVENING

Family of the Heart - lecture by Farzana Hassan

June 12,2011 

Before I get into a discussion on the interplay of God, religion and morality, I would like to pose a few questions to the audience: 

Are human beings endowed with an innate sense of right and wrong?   

Are certain actions right because they are God’s commandments?  

Are certain actions right regardless of religion?  

Are religious people more moral than atheists and agnostics? 

Is God the source of all morality?   

Can we be better without God?  

All of us have faced tough moral choices in our lives. The question is: How do some people resolve what is often complicated because situations requiring an ethical decision are not always black and white. One’s practice of ethical principles is sometimes not as clear cut and well-defined because moralities and ethics conflict due to the fact that the details and aspects of certain situations often overlap.  This sometimes poses what is known as a moral dilemma. Our contemporary world presents even greater challenges and dilemmas for us that were nonexistent in earlier times. Is Euthanasia moral? Should Gay marriages be legalized?

These questions demonstrate the range of the complexity and intricacy surrounding our contemporary moral decisions.  

Nonetheless, people make all sorts of ethical decisions during the course of their daily personal and professional lives. Ethics therefore plays an enormous part in how our lives unfold. Human beings are parents, they are teachers, they are professionals of various backgrounds, they are friends, they are associates and in each of these roles, they must make decisions that will impact their relationships with other human beings, as well as the work that they accomplish as team players.

While some may claim that the sense of right and wrong is innate in man, ethical philosophers have still helped human beings to exercise their choices by adopting various approaches to ethical decision-making. Three of these deserve special mention. They include Deontology, Axiology, and Consequentialism.

Deontology is based on religious edicts contained in the scripture of various religious traditions. It considers certain actions as imperative and morally sound simply because they are religious duties. An action therefore comes to be perceived as “good” simply because it is commanded by God.  Deontology is also a position which acknowledges the importance of absolutes in moral ethics. It is derived from moral objectivism which means that certain moral principals must transcend differences in culture and tradition and be recognized as having moral validity regardless of culture. With this approach, there would be a set of rules that would have to be adhered to regardless of a person’s circumstances or the consequences it might have on him/her. Jihad as service to Allah for example, is always deemed as a righteous act by devout Muslims. With this approach, jihad, polygamy and circumcision would comprise a set of rules that would have to be adhered to regardless of a person’s circumstances or the consequences it might have on him/her. These would constitute a “categorical imperative” that the philosopher Emmanuel Kant spoke about. The other sources for Deontology are seen to be based on natural law.  Kant who is credited with the notion of deontology and moral objectivism thought there was no real distinction between these two sources: i.e. divine law and natural law.  

Moral objectivism demands a person never lie, despite the circumstances. Many religions prescribe this as the proper course of action. A moral objectivist, using the deontological approach would simply look up what is required from his divine or natural source and act accordingly.

Let me provide an example.  According to Orthodox Islam, a wife is to obey her husband at all times, except if he urges her to go against her faith. This woman has an aging mother who needs constant care and would like to bring her mother to her husband’s house so she can care for the mother. The husband refuses. According to religious edicts the wife must agree to the husband’s wishes and leave her mother to her devices. What then is moral? Is it more moral for the woman to discharge her religious duty and obey her husband, or is it more moral for her to cater to her mother’s needs?

Female theologian Farhat Hashmi solved this problem according to the first option. She categorically stated in one of her lectures to a gathering of women that the woman’s duty to her husband supersedes her duty to her mother.

Consequentialism

            The other major moral philosophy is known as moral relativism. The three main proponents of this view were: Jeremy Bentham, David Hume and John Stuart Mill. The main thrust of their philosophy was the reduction of suffering and the promotion of happiness for the greatest number of people. If according to Bentham, an action leads to suffering or pain, it would have to be condemned as unethical. Bentham also believed that an action could be quantified with respect to how much pain or pleasure it was capable of causing. This concept also engendered the notion of Consequentialism, that any action must be judged good or bad based on the consequences it is likely to produce. Mill also believed that certain actions were determined according to social custom, because society had come to agree that they led to the greatest good. Therefore, Consequentialism as an approach to arrive at what is good or bad was to be used to solve ethical dilemmas.  According to Kant on the other hand, who believed in moral objectivism, this sort of approach would result in the compromising of ethical standards.

            According to a moral objectivist position lying is wrong and the condemnation of lying becomes a categorical imperative.  According to Kant, lying would be wrong under all circumstances. A student has cheated in his exam. He has realized his mistake on his own and has rectified his behavior but has not told the relevant authorities about his past conduct. It would result in his dismissal from the school, cause unhappiness to his parents and ruin his chances of succeeding in life. Should he tell? Kant would not condone such behaviour.

            John Stuart Mill on the other hand, would believe in the promotion of happiness for all as an ethical principle and condone this behaviour (Keele, 2008).  The parties concerned would be happy even though the happiness would come at the cost of sacrificing honesty. This would constitute a utilitarian approach to solving ethical dilemmas.

Axiology

            We’ve seen how actions often do not seem entirely right or entirely wrong.  There are no clear-cut approaches to solving moral dilemmas.  In this situation, what is often suggested is an amalgamation of consequentialism and deontology. This happens through Axiology or Value theory which studies values as a way of incorporating the different ideologies about ethics into a workable mean.

            It first makes a distinction between a virtue and a value. Most individuals are imparted values from their parents or elders. However, when faced with ethical dilemmas they may very well subject these to scrutiny. They would then have to consider what causes the maximum happiness.  However; these have to be modified with respect to how they affect other people. Happiness therefore, turns out to be a virtue that may not be absolute. A happy “mean” may be difficult to establish at times.

            A virtue or value is the state which helps individuals make these choices about a particular course of action. In making these choices, they may draw from the values imparted to them by their elders, and also make situational decisions about the rightness or wrongness of an action.

            Our perceptions of what is good and evil will therefore be governed by our values to this extent. This amalgamation of the values that are imparted to us by our elders and what we learn from our own experience will be responsible in creating a balance between the extreme positions that Deontology and Consequentialism might offer.

            Socrates posited three types of good actions. These include ones that are intrinsically good, those that facilitate this goodness and those that combine knowledge and goodness for the benefit of humanity  Many of these are also determined by our values. For example, racism is now deemed unacceptable according to the norms established by civil society. It is therefore, deemed reprehensible that children be discriminated on the basis of race or ethnicity.

            If a teacher for example, is discriminating against a child with an oriental background by making her feel uncomfortable about her culture and civilization, she is going against what is considered an acceptable value. Values change over the years and centuries. A century ago it would be acceptable to discriminate against oriental or black children based on a purely deontological approach that would justify racism based on certain interpretations of scripture. However, considering the greater good of all human beings, a value was arrived at over the century which discarded such interpretations to form a more just society based on Axiology. This just society would be considered virtuous.

            There are many real life situations that demand different types of responses from different people about what is right, good and appropriate in a given situation involving an ethical response. The religious communities tend to follow deontology and draw from the moral codes in scripture. Others like John Stuart Mill and his followers consider the greatest good, even if it contradicts scripture. Axiology, which combines the two methods strives to provide balance to what can often be seen as two extreme approaches.