Monday, April 10, 2006

Parfit on the Birth of Ethics

Some people believe that there cannot be progress in Ethics, since everything has been already said. Like Rawls and Nagel, I believe the opposite. How many people have made Non-Religious Ethics their life's work? Before the recent past, very few... Buddha may be among this few, as may Confucius, and a few Ancient Greeks and Romans. After more than a thousand years, there were a few more between the Sixteenth and Twentieth centuries. Hume was an atheist who made Ethics part of his life's work. Sidgwick was another. After Sidgwick, there were several atheists who were professional moral philosophers. But most of these did not do Ethics. They did Meta-Ethics. They did not ask which outcomes would be good or bad, or which acts would be right or wrong. They asked, and wrote about, only the meaning of moral language, and the question of objectivity. Non-Religious Ethics has been systematically studied, by many people, only since the 1960s. Compared with the other sciences, Non-Religious Ethics is the youngest and the least advanced...

[In the long-term future,] there could be higher achievements in all of the Arts and Sciences. But the progress could be greatest in what is now the least advanced of these Arts or Sciences. This, I have claimed, is Non-Religious Ethics. Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.

-- Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, pp.453-454.

See also my post: Moral Diversity and Skepticism.


  1. As I've already mentioned, the major ethicists (Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Smith, Bentham, Singer) all did ethics without any reference to religion. And of this illustrous group, only Kant devised a deontological ethic that bears any similarity to a religious ethic; his categorical imperative, while intellectually distinct from the Golden Rule, almost always produces the same result. Virtue ethics has nothing in common with religious ethics, other than Aquinas's disenjegious attempt to synthesize Christian imperatives with Aristotle's golden mean.

    Hippocrates alone established the only aposteriori deontological axiom, but he did so without logical rigor; he simply asserted the maxim: Do no harm. Certainly, whatever ethics ever achieves in the future, this axiom will always be fundamental, if not central. I'm continue to be baffled by its omission from nearly all naturalistic ethics.

    Hume and Smith are the only historical ethicists that still speak centuries later. Hume was logically more rigorous by observing that all ethics originates in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. But it was Smith who really put the moral sentimentalist on the map, by explicitly citing empathy and fairness as foundational. Obviously, he did much more, but together these two men finally began a naturalist ethics.

    Peter Singer seems to be determined to devise an evolutionary ethic, and I wish him well, although much of what he has written has led to several moral alleys. James Q. Wilson is the first, to my knowledge, to try synthesizing the sentimentalist tradition with insights from evolutionary psychology. His thesis is that fairness, empathy, self-control, and duty are the hallmarks of a naturalistic ethic, but again he lacks logical rigor to make a more compelling argument in their favor. And yet again, "do no harm" is not even a feature.

    Religionists have rarely done ethics in any meaningful sense. Aside from Aquinas's assimilation of Aristotle, most religionists use biblical verses to determine their behavior. When one considers what has been done "in God's Name," one clearly sees religionists don't have much of an ethic at all. And, what for heaven's sake does "keep the Sabbath holy" have to do with ethics? Also the biblical proscription against envy may be psychologically appropriate, but it has absolutely no ethical value. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is vague enough to be about as meaningful. Even the religionists' notion of "sin," presumably the opposite of virtue, is simply defined as "wrongdoing." Just a tad bit tautological, if you ask me.

    But before dismissing biblical ethics as incoherent or vacuous, Paul alights onto what he calls "the fruit of the Spirit," which "is love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5:22). He contrasts these charisms with, "the works of the flesh," which are, "fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, socery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing" (Gal. 5:19-21). Obviously, the juxtaposition of "works of the flesh" with the "fruit of the Spirit" is incoherent. Moreover, I'm not sure that any type of a list of things would be perfect, but these two sets of contrary behaviors suggests a fairly comprehensive contrast between vice and virtue. Noticeably absent are "theft" and "harm" and "deceit." Still, I imagine there is something to work with, if stripped of the theological underpinnings.

    Religion, despite postulations to the contrary, is not a particularly moral disposition. Jesus's precepts are few and too general to apply in all circumstances. The Mosaic and Levitical Codes aren't much help, either. So Judeo-Christian ethics lacks substance, and what substance it has, is often too theological to be ethically meaningful. Hume, Smith, Singer, and Wilson are definitely onto a truly naturalistic ethic that is not only meaningful, but universally applicable by virtue of a Darwinian human nature. Wilson's "A Moral Sense" is as close to a pure naturalistic ethic as I have encountered, and more importantly, is one that has teeth to bit and make a difference in our lives.

  2. No, religion can add its insights, whatever they are (and I suggest Paul's letter to the Galatians is a possible starting point), but religion thus far has contributed nothing to ethics. Heavenly prescriptions aside, and the imperative to love everyone, which is ambiguous at best, has not made relgious folk ethical (a survey of Western history and Christianity proves the point). And what does the command about the Sabbath have to do with ethics?

    The Bible, in contrast, cites helping the poor over 200 times! Even I think there might be an imperative behind such frequency! But when's the last time (other than John Paul II and mainline Protestants) that the poor is a condition to which every believer should respond? Nope, contraception, sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, etc. are the religionists battle cry. Indeed, Robertson, Falwell, Sheldon, et alia are Social Darwinists to a fault. Not even empathy and fairness reach their narrow-minded heads.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.