I was handed off an interesting article entitled “Ethics Without Religion,” written by the esteemed philosopher of science Philip Kitcher. He sees in Darwin’s work an alternative approach to our thinking about ethical behavior:
Understanding the historical roots of our ethical practices can help us to do better in going on from where we are. For the past refinements of our ethics might have been achieved more intelligently, by recognizing the consequences of maxims and policies. That recognition would not be the careful prudence of the self-interested agent, but an attention to the needs of all. Ethical debate requires both an understanding of the factual details, and the constant expansion of sympathies, and it cannot be reduced to the exchanging of dogmas from rival traditions, or to the simple acceptance of irreconcilable disagreement. We have to continue the project begun thousands of years ago, by working through the places at which our inherited ethical maxims conflict. The only tools we have for doing so are our ability to fathom, as precisely and thoroughly as we can, the impact of actions on people’s lives and our capacity to extend our sympathies and to view the situation from a large number of perspectives.
We should see our ethical systems, so his argument goes, not as a pre-established system to be adhered to, but one that we develop – communally. It’s an unfinished project that seems to improve (or at least, be refined) with time. There was a time when slavery seemed like a good idea. Not so much now.
We ought explain and defend the authority of the ethical project as a “human achievement” of which we’re all part. “We have inherited a complex ethical practice from those who came before us, and we take it to be authoritative except where we can find ways of improving it.”
It’s clear he’d like to get the religious voice from the ethical project. Ethics, factually speaking, came not from on high but were rather an evolutionary development. Religious ethical systems, then, occasion a twofold error: (1) they presume their ethics to be pre-ordained and (2) the religious communities tend to wield these ethical systems like a cudgel against those who differ. When individuals make religious pronouncements on ethical matters (abortion, for instance), “We should not only protest the tendentious interpretation of the texts, but also point out that these texts are responses to ethical predicaments of the distant past, possibly adaptive to their own times, but in need of reassessment in ours.”
I sympathize with the desire to protest those “tendentious interpretations.” It’s no small task to get the Bible to say anything conclusively. But where did we get the authority (intellectually or ethically) to deem scriptural texts so thoroughly historically conditioned? That is, why can’t scriptural texts speak on a more trans-historical plain, as Leo Strauss believed all great philosophical works necessarily did? Or as we find each time we study great works in the arts? The very persistance of religion suggests these texts do have something exceedingly relevant to say today. It’s a remarkably historicist position.
Kitcher seems not to recognize that the ethical systems which emerge from religious communities are themselves the result of the process for which he’s arguing – and continually changing. Indeed, what Kitcher seems to take issue with is not religion so much as ideology. Let me take a quote from Michael Oakeshott’s essay “Political Education”:
As I understand it, a political ideology purports to be an abstract, or set of related abstract principles, which has been independently premeditated. It supplies in advance of the activity of attending to the arrangement of a society a formulated end to be persued, and in so doing it provides a means of distinguishing between those desires which ought to be encouraged and those which ought to be suppressed or redirected.
Religious discourses, like political ones, are at any given time more or less dominated by ideology. Perhaps we’re in a time where the tide of ideology runs particularly high in religious communities. But these are hardly grounds to dismiss the ethical voice of religion altogether.