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Religion, Morality, Secular Ideals, and Ethics Education
Rick Garlikov

Morality1 is often entwined with religion in many people's minds, in ways that cause unnecessary confusion and ethical error. Plus, there are other common mistakes which pervade society about what is right and wrong, and about how to do ethics, which add to the confusion.  I want to try to straighten out some of the entanglements or at least perhaps shed some light on them. 

In 1966 Robert N. Bellah wrote an essay titled "Civil Religion in America", attempting to explain how American ideals were a religion -- what he called a "civil religion" after Rousseau's concept by that name -- but not a religion like Christianity or Judaism or any denominations of them.  At the beginning of a later reprint of his essay, he wrote:

"I think it should be clear from the text that I conceive of the central tradition of the American civil religion not as a form of national self-worship but as the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged. I am convinced that every nation and every people come to some form [of] religious self-understanding ..."
The essay, I think, is in many ways a brilliant attempt to distinguish ethical idealism or religion or spirituality 'in general' from specific religious denominations or specific religious principles or precepts other than those which also conform to the "civil" idealWhatever causes some principles to be accepted by a substantial majority or perhaps vast majority of a culture2 when they are, there are ethical and social ideals, some of which are often also precepts of some religions.  But not all religious precepts are ethical ideals, even if espoused to be by the religion. [Of course, not all non-religious or secular ethical principles which are espoused or widely accepted are correct either; more about that later.]  But I think Bellah (and possibly Rousseau) erred in considering national, cultural, or individual ideals to be any kind of religion, and they should instead have just called it the "civil or cultural ideal" or "cultural idealistic principles of ethics or morality" -- the accepted civil ethics, or the civil ideology instead.  Given the point made in the first sentence quoted above, Bellah's second sentence should have been 'I am convinced that every nation and every people come to some form [of]  ethical self-understanding' not "religious" self-understanding.  That would have spared the author and readers from grappling with what kind of "religion" civil religion is, and what is meant by references to God in many of the founding documents and later Presidential speeches of American history when clearly it does not refer to Jesus or even God of the Old Testament.  I would like to propose a way of looking at all this which makes more sense to me and which is consistent, I think, with evidence in the Bellah essay that pertains to morality (rather than his points about there being elements of rebirth or resurrection after death  or sacrifice) and with other evidence of history and which would make sense to the more modern Western psyche which does not always believe in any particular organized religion even among those who considered themselves to nevertheless be "spiritual". 

It is my contention that the term God is used in many of these documents and speeches to denote that higher power from which morality stems (what Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence calls "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God" -- meaning the moral laws of nature from the context).  For many people, that does mean God or the god/God of their specific religion.  But for many people it does not.  For example, in Jefferson's day, in philosophical writing and thinking, "the God of nature" meant God as could be discovered through reason applied to nature, which might or might not be the God of the Bible or any other historically reportedly "revealed" religion. But for many people today who do not believe in God, even the "God of nature" -- God as deduced from reasoning about nature -- the language of religion about God still seems to have a place and meaning in discussing matters of morality
, which is what necessitated Bellah's essay about what the references to religious words could mean if they are not about specific religious designations.  I would say, given Bellah's essay, that for those who are not meaning God as a specific person or the God of the Bible or of reason, references of the sort made in these speeches and documents to God are  representational personifications of whatever gives morality its force or authority, and they are personified representations of the ideal of justice in the afterlife or life to come, insofar as justice is not served in this life.  By justice I mean the rewarding of good and punishing of iniquity in ways that are fair, deserved, and commensurate. 

Now it is philosophically and intellectually questionable that the universe ultimately is a place of justice in this life or any afterlife, if there is one, and it is philosophically and intellectually questionable that morality needs to stem from a person or deity (as opposed to nature or logic) any more than that the essence of music or mathematics or scientific regularity and patterns (known as laws, but not necessarily or normally considered laws in the legislated sense) stems, or needs to stem, from a person or deity.  It is not that there is a mathematical authority other than logic and intellectual thought.  Ethical principles and ideals are somewhat the same but they also require sensitivity to the human condition and human feelings and emotions.  But historically in the West, morality has been associated with the edicts and rewards and punishment of God or of gods, and therefore much of the language and culture of ethical thinking has evolved around that.  Many people, perhaps most people, believe literally that God is the ultimate authority, champion, and enforcer of moral justice, rather than thinking that justice is a conceptual ideal, as are notions of right, wrong, good, bad, duty, and obligations.  These are concepts about how things should be for people and how people should act and what they deserve or do not deserve.  It is important to be a deserving person even if one does not get what one deserves, and it is important to know what the ideals are for which to strive.  There does not need to be the personification of these concepts as being derived from God any more than there needs to be the personification of acts of nature or human emotions as being represented by, or derived from the powers of, the Greek gods and goddesses.

But even when people do not believe that ethics stems from a deity in the form of the commands of a person, it is difficult (but not impossible3) to imbue reverence for right without the imagery developed with that idea over the centuries.  Reference to God in many speeches and documents shows the important solemnity and significance attached to the ideals and promises linked to the invoking of His name.  As Bellah points out, George Washington said in his farewell address: "Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." But I would go a step further and say that even when people do not believe that God is literally what makes morality true or meaningful, that even when right and wrong are not just about justice and reward or punishment, and that even when people with minds refined by education or their own intellectual discoveries believe morality has meaning and authority without God, or beyond God, the beauty and power of ethical language couched in religious terms used for centuries can be most appropriate, concise, powerful and persuasive.  Even if the rhetoric of religious morality is not taken literally, it is still powerful, and perhaps most unconsciously compelling -- and still speaks the truth when understood figuratively and translated into non-religious language4.  And even if one wants to go beyond, say, Biblical passages to make a moral point, it is rhetorically powerful and psychologically persuasive to begin with the Biblical passage and then interpret or expand upon it, as Abraham Lincoln did to argue against slavery by reference to Genesis 3:19 in the following passage from;view=fulltext:
From "Fragments of a Tariff Discussion" (December 1, 1847?)
"In the early days of the world, the Almighty said to the first of our race 'In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread' [Gen. 3:19]; and since then, if we except the light and the air of heaven, no good thing has been, or can be enjoyed by us, without having first cost labour. And, in [as] much as most good things are produced by labour, it follows that [all] such things of right belong to those whose labour has produced them. But it has so happened in all ages of the world, that some have laboured, and others have, without labour, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue. To [secure] to each labourer the whole product of his labour, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government."
According to the source from which this is cited, Lincoln's interpretation of Genesis 3:19 is a "revolutionary" one, taken to be a "moral imperative" not just "a description of the human condition". (However, in 2 Thessaloneans 3:10 it is written: "For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.'" So it is not clear Lincoln's interpretation of the moral imperative is that revolutionary.)  He could have made the same point without the Biblical reference -- that slavery is essentially the theft of the fruit of a person's labor and that it is therefore wrong.  But that would lack the rhetorical power and persuasiveness of how he did say it.

And even just using the Biblical style of imagery and rhetoric, with or without actual Biblical passages, adds a powerful rhetorical resonance to a moral point, as in Lincoln's second inaugural address:
"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
This doesn't mean that any particular moral idea or principle that is put forth or even accepted as an ideal is actually right, whether that idea or principle stems from religion or from a combination of intellectual logic and moral sensitivity.  Moral reasoning and morally sensitive consciousness, whether from original thought or interpretation of other works, is not always easy, though it is not as difficult as we make it for historical, sociological, and psychological reasons which tend to foster, retain, and too often revere, mistakes in moral reasoning and beliefs.  Bellah quotes Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, to the point that specific religions often have dubious precepts mixed among their better ones:
"I never was without some religious principles5. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world and govern'd it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing of good to men; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded either here or hereafter. These I esteemed the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho' with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix'd with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote or confirm morality, serv'd principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another."
Secular ethics is no less susceptible to error.  The history of moral philosophy is replete with erroneous principles along with good ones, as is the history of law with detrimental or wrongful practices (sometimes among good ones) and even with entire forms of government.  Contemporary social thinking and conventional views of ethics are no less immune from error, and perhaps even more susceptible to it, as rational and ethical public discourse becomes more scarce, as what passes for it becomes more shallow, and as both liberal and conservative idealogical assumptions and proclaimed principles become more entrenched and more extreme.

Plus, even when good laws or principles are used and recognized as ideal, that can depend on mistaken, often unconscious or unrecognized assumptions about conditions  presumed to be permanent but which are fragile or temporary.  For example, when colleges first organized sports teams of student athletes, their participation was voluntary and for the most part strictly amateur just for enjoyment of sport and friendly, even if fierce, competition.  As some sports, such as football, became more popular and even profitable, colleges awarded scholarships to student athletes, which seemed to be a fair, even generous, recompense for their time and for the money and publicity they brought the schools.  But currently television has multiplied the popularity and profitability of sports such as football and basketball exponentially, and competition in football has become a big business, making much more demands on the time, energy, and work athletes have to put into it, so it is no longer clear that a scholarship is sufficient fair recompense for the value the athlete contributes to a university's coffers.  The matter in this case is one of fairness to the athletes.  Factors present today, not present one hundred years ago, show that the assumptions about student participation in sports then were peculiar to the times, not universal ones.  It is one thing to "pay" athletes nothing or with a scholarship when sports is not their prime concern at college and when the colleges are not making that much revenue or gaining that much prestige from sports, but quite a different matter when sports becomes more of a fulltime job and the employer is making huge revenues from the work of the student athletes.  One can apply the same correct principles about what constitutes adequate compensation for student athletes today as one hundred years ago, but the deductions from those principles will yield different results because the conditions were different.  E.g., if athletes should be paid collectively, say, 20% of the revenue the sport earns, that would make no payment necessary when the sport was not earning revenues, and would make college scholarships generous when receipts barely covered the costs of the sport.  But it would not necessarily mean scholarships were sufficient in today's market for major sports such as NCAA football and basketball, perhaps particularly men's basketball if it brings in substantially higher revenue than women's basketball.  But instead, what tends to happen, is that one hundred years ago since it was obvious that there was little or no money generated from football, there was no reason to pay athletes who were playing for the fun and glory of it, athletes were not paid and the operating principle then mistakenly became "student athletes should be considered amateurs and not be paid", rather than some principle of reasonably sharing with them any revenues they generated.  Instead of a principle of paying in proportion to revenue or value generated, the conclusion of the application of that principle for the times and circumstances was mistaken for the principle, and it is what became the rule.

Or consider one of America's noble ideals as expressed in the following portion of Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus" inscribed on a tablet in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
It is theoretically possible, and has always been a fear of some, that if America welcomed all immigrants who wanted to come to it, that they could overwhelm and potentially damage or ruin, through sheer numbers, the culture, the language, the living conditions, the laws and the very ideals of the country, insofar as any of their activities and beliefs conflict with American ideals, rather than being compatible with them and blending in. They could potentially even democratically change the form of government into a non-democratic one. I would think that the sentiment expressed by Lazarus depends, fairly clearly if one thinks about it, on America's capacity to absorb and assimilate immigrants into the culture and the economy, and on the willingness of immigrants to assimilate into American culture, civil ideals, and language, without fundamentally diminishing them even if modifying and supplementing them, sometimes or often enriching them in the process.  And that even if they found it difficult to learn the language, they would make sure their children learned it fluently. While some people, because they are xenophobes or racists, do not welcome immigrants from some countries or races, one does not have to be either in order to fear a cultural breakdown from overwhelming numbers of immigrants who cannot be assimilated, particularly in a democracy where laws are made by majorities.  If I am right about this, and if the idea expressed in the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty is contingent, not absolute, it might be that the contingency was not expressed at the time of the poem or the dedication of the statue because it was not thought of, or because it was dismissed since America still had plenty of room for immigrants, particularly if they did not permanently settle in concentrated areas of cities in numbers and ways that fostered or triggered conflicts or unrest with previous residents.  By the time then that the contingent nature of the expressed sentiment or ideal becomes fully obvious, it then is in conflict with the accepted, conventional ideal as originally stated or misstated by incompleteness. 

Or consider the modern conflict between the privacy and autonomy rights of the mentally ill on the one hand, and the security of the public on the other.  This secular issue is raised every time some person with a history of mental illness or strange behavior and threatening pronouncements ends up as a mass murderer, and the public doesn't understand why they weren't committed or arrested beforehand or at least prevented from buying mass-assault weapons, and the mental health industry defends the rights of the mentally troubled to liberty and autonomy prior to committing any crime or harming anyone -- in part because psychiatrists supposedly cannot distinguish which mentally ill people are a real threat and which are not.  But as one reader of the New York Times pointed out or implied in a response to such a defense, it is too reductionist to consider people who make homicidal threats to be merely mentally ill in the way someone is who is plagued by anxieties in ways that make them less effective socially or less successful financially than they want to be.  The fact, when it is a fact, that a mass murderer may have been mentally ill, does not mean that the morally relevant dichotomy is between those who are mentally ill and those who are not, but should be between those who are reasonably clearly potential (more likely than normal) homicidal threats and those who are not.  It is not being a loner or a social misfit of any sort that makes one likely homicidal, and so those kinds of traits are not grounds for involuntary commitment, arrest, or even surveillance of any sort, or searches for weapons -- particularly weapons of mass mayhem, but making public threats should be.  It is not that one should have no right to buy a gun if one is mentally ill or even was once involuntarily committed to psychiatric care -- as long as the mental illness being treated is not one that likely is dangerous or destructive.  And it is not that one should have every right to buy a gun if one was not voluntarily committed before, if one is in fact a likely danger.  The only issue should be whether there is evidence or not one is a real threat to commit violence; and surely, public threats and declarations to do so, particularly persistent ones, should count as evidence.  One does not, and should not, have to wait for the gun to be pointed and the trigger begun to be pulled for a threat to be recognized and for preventive, defensive commensurate action to be justifiably taken.  And although the conventional, but insufficient, principle is that a threat should be imminent to justify a forceful response, the devastation and significance of any real and reasonable potential threat needs only to be inversely proportional to its imminence as well; threats that are more likely catastrophic need not be as imminent to warrant the same necessarily forceful intervention.

The fact is that most people in America today have a minimum of ethical understanding -- having instead what I call simplistic Sunday School moral education, though the problem is not just relegated to religious education, but to any simplistic moral education6 that doesn't nurture ethical understanding beyond the views that students have in grade school.  Simplistic moral education basically lets students know how to behave socially appropriately in normal situations and tells them in such situations not to steal from people, not to murder people, and not to commit adultery, where stealing, murder, and adultery are clearly defined (though whether "lust in one's heart" is adultery or not may be debatable even among the religious).  But the minute that any subtlety is added to the conditions or the minute conflicts arise between two cherished precepts, people tend to be at a loss to take them into account or know how to analyze or evaluate the issues.  The simplistic solution is often a wrong one in a complex or subtle situation, and so although simplistic moral education helps socialize people properly in simple cases, it is counterproductive, often dangerously and fatally so, in those situations and dilemmas that require rational, deeper thinking about morality. Simplistic religious and/or secular moral education are an enemy of good ethics, not a help for doing it well when there is any complexity involved.  For example, the Bible forbids theft but condoned slavery7, and many people in early America just accepted the passages that condoned it, even though as Lincoln pointed out, slavery is theft of a person's labor.  Or many people today consider paying a person in desperate economic circumstances a barely minimal fraction of the money s/he helps them earn as just "good business", not theft.  And they tend to consider all looting to be theft even if it is necessary for the survival of innocent people trapped, through no fault of their own, in a war or natural disaster where there is no way to purchase necessities for oneself or one's children or one's neighbors' children, necessities that are otherwise just sitting, even rotting, on the shelves of shuttered, and unattended stores.

But there are conflicts throughout life between rights and utility (doing the greatest good), between one right and another, between rights and fairness, between utility and fairness.  These are not always easy to evaluate or agree about, but most people do not have the tools even to begin to reach reasonable conclusions about what is right. In general any ethical decision should involve at least the following considerations in some appropriate relationship to each other, and any conflicts between or among them need to be resolved reasonably and appropriately: 
1) how much deserved good it does
2) how much undeserved harm it prevents
3) the significance of the good it does and of the harm it prevents
4) how fair it is to all involved, including the person who would have to do the act
5) whether any rights are being violated, and what makes them actually be rights
6) whether it tries to do unnecessary harm or not
7) whether it is too risking of harm or not
8) whether the distribution of benefits and burdens is reasonable and fair or not
Notice that none of these are religious in nature; nor are they just about following simple rules or maxims.  They have to do what is best and/or fairest and most reasonable for deserving people (or, more accurately, deserving sentient beings, to include God and also animals or, if we should ever have contact with them, aliens).  Ethics is about the best way to live and why, but that does not necessarily mean pursuing the happiest or most materialistically successful life.  You have to have good reasons that stand scrutiny, to justify any claims about what makes the best or right life, or to justify any particular ethical decision.  (My Introduction to Ethics explains this further and introduces, explains, and supports a general principle that helps keep these in mind in a way meant to appropriately weigh them against each other when there are conflicts.)

But at least in America today, ethical analysis and discussion do not often incorporate more than one or two of these above eight qualities or concepts, and they do not explain or adjudicate well conflicts among them.  That is unfortunate.  I teach introductory college level ethics, but these days that is a misnomer, since most students could not understand an introductory course in ethics conducted at a true college level.  In the past a college level course in ethics could assume students had basic ethical sensitivity, basic reasoning skills, and basic interest and practice in making sense of experiences they had or heard or read about. That doesn’t mean everyone agreed, or had the right answers to ethical questions, but it meant they knew how to look for right answers in a reasonable way and could normally understand clear explanations of their errors. No more.  Teaching introductory level ethics today is not about honing basic skills but about trying to explain what ethics is and how it ought to work to students who have no real basic understanding of right and wrong other than what they like or dislike and no real understanding of logic other than what they believe or disbelieve.  They vehemently cling to cherished ideas and think the fervor of any of their beliefs is evidence for its truth.

This is hardly a new phenomenon.  The Platonic dialogues show that Socrates met with it constantly when discussing ethical or philosophical issues with leaders of the Athens community. But the youth of the community, whom Socrates was accused of corrupting, and then convicted and executed for that supposed crime, seemed to understand his reasoning and the concept of following the rational evidence to derive a justified conclusion.  Many college students today seem even worse at reasoning than the worst of the older, often successful and prominent, stubbornly overly-self-assured people questioned by Socrates in the dialogues.  Often in the dialogues, those being questioned by Socrates could tell they were in logically untenable positions, though they thought they were being tricked by rhetoric somehow and simply being made to look foolish. Students today see nothing wrong with their own views or their logic even during and after discussing them.  They simply think anyone who disagrees with them is too liberal or too conservative, and they move on, ignoring any reasons given against their beliefs and claims.  So-called conservative and liberal students are afflicted with the same reasoning flaws though holding opposite simplistic views resistant to evidence or reason.

Here are some of the mistaken beliefs about ethics students today cannot imagine being false, even after you discuss them and point out the problems with them.  Some of these are mistaken beliefs of every generation, but today's students seem to be particularly enthralled with these to the point of obstinacy, no matter what evidence is presented to them.  Don’t worry about the fact some of these contradict each other; the students don’t.  This is not the place to go into a full analysis of these claims, but in the brackets following each I give initial reasons to show the claims are at least suspect if not clearly false. 

1) There are no right or wrong answers.

[There are certainly plenty of wrong answers and answers that are quite unreasonable.  And even in cases where it is difficult to know an answer is wrong ahead of time, consequences in hindsight might easily show it was a wrong choice to have made.  Consider the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt, whether an accurate historical account or not. While it took Pharoah apparently ten plagues, including and culminating in the loss of his eldest son, any reasonable Egyptians of the day probably would have thought they should let the Jews leave by at least the fifth plague, though as Jon Stewart pointed out (June 2, 2014), there are always those who think one should at least wait to see what the eleventh plague is.  And during World War II, probably at some point any reasonable Japanese citizen figured out their government made a mistake in attacking Pearl Harbor.  Clearly there are wrong answers, choices, decisions, and acts.  Why it is held that "there are no right or wrong answers" is likely because the people claiming it don't know what the right answer is or how to determine or recognize it, and that they cannot get others to agree with whatever they think is right, or with each other.  But these things happen in all kinds of factual, objective problems too, without its meaning there is no right answer.  If students were left to determine the right answer to a difficult math word problem, they would not likely be able to reach agreement or know what the right answer is either, but that would not mean there is no right answer.  Same with regard to any difficult scientific or engineering problem.  Not knowing what the answer is to a problem -- such as a cure for a complex disease -- does not mean there is not one.]

2) Everyone has a right to his/her opinions.

[Some opinions are reasonable in light of evidence; others, not.  So not all opinions are equally good, let alone equally right.  The right to do anything or to have an opinion does not mean that it is therefore right to do that thing or that the opinion is right.]

3) Everyone has a right to do what they want as long as they don’t hurt anyone else – the principle of autonomy.

[Again, the right to do something doesn't make it therefore right to do.  One has a right to squander all one's talents and skills and lead a totally dissipated life, but that hardly makes it right to do so.  One might have a right to hold people to an agreement they voluntarily made that ends up taking advantage of them, but that doesn't make it right to take advantage of them that way.  Plus, one doesn't have the right to harm oneself or even risk harm to oneself or others. As the public service ad says "Friends don't let friends drive drunk" and that is even if the only person they are likely to harm is themselves -- if say, the road is deserted, but is curvy, narrow, and mountainous.]

4) Who are we to say what is right or wrong?!  We are not God. 

[In the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham debated right and wrong with God about destroying everyone in those cities, and changed God's mind, so it seems that even to believers in the Bible, what is right or wrong is independent of what God thinks or proclaims, even if He is normally right. For Judaism and Christianity at least, it should be clear that just because God is said to make a moral claim or judgment, that doesn't mean He is right and that it is true, because if one believes God's moral pronouncements are automatically true, then it would make no sense to believe it right for Abraham to argue with God about killing the innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah, and it would have made even less sense for God to change His mind as He did, and save Lot's family.  So why should one have to be God to know what is right and wrong?  Isn't it everyone's duty to figure out what is right and wrong insofar as one can, so that one tries to avoid wrongdoing and tries to do what is right? 
Now a question that Socrates directed to a man named Euthyphro, in the Platonic dialogue by that name, is normally considered to be a definitive proof that ethics is not about what God says; but that is not quite valid as it stands.  When Euthyphro said essentially that the right thing to do was what the gods commanded, Socrates asked whether that was because they commanded what was right independently of their command or because their command made it be right, say, in the way a superior officer's lawful command is said to be "right" (or at least necessary to obey) just because it is an order (or at least a lawful order) given, even if it were to be stupid or unfair, etc.  The argument is that if what is right is independent of its being commanded and it is therefore commanded because it is right, then we should be able to figure out what is right and wrong in the same way God does, and if ethics depends just on whatever God commands, then ethics is arbitrary and it would be right to kill people or rape, rob, and torture people if God says to do that.  It is difficult to imagine that morality is arbitrary and dependent on God's mood.  To paraphrase Dave Barry's comments about his accountant's income tax service for him, one shouldn't have to hope that God gave the 10 Commandments on a day He was feeling prankish.

But it could be that ethics is such that although independent of God's commands, people are too limited to figure it out, and it takes an omniscient mind such as God's to tell us what is right and wrong, and a benevolent being such as God, to want to tell us what is right and to do that -- just as parents have to tell two year olds what to do so they don't hurt themselves because they don't realize the consequences of many possible actions they might be prone to do.  Good parents do not make the right acts be right, but they try to make sure their young children know to do what is right or at least know what to avoid doing that would be significantly wrong or harmful.  Hence, it would not follow that if what is right is independent of God's commands, we should be able to figure it out; it might take God, for example, to tell us not to bet on California Chrome to win the Belmont even if we are only betting a reasonable amount for the entertainment value of anticipating winning and the social value of participating in the festivities, and are not risking what would harm us to lose.  Classical Greek dramas and myths give many examples of the limitations people have in trying to avoid wrongdoing only to cause exactly what they are trying to prevent, as Oedipus' parents did in trying to have him killed as a baby so he could not fulfill the prophecy of growing up to kill his father and marry his mother.  But the person they entrusted to kill the baby Oedipus didn't do it, and instead gave the child away to someone who found a good home for it.  Thus Oedipus did not know who his biological parents were, and they did not know he was their son, and they all ended up fulfilling the prophecy because of that. (Now infanticide was not the most noble attempted prevention of the oracle's coming true, and contracting the infanticide to someone else to whom the baby was no threat, was probably not the brightest way to bring it about, but the point of the story is that a logical measure of self-defense ended up not only failing, but fostered what it was trying to thwart.)  So we can't always know the consequences of our actions.  But an omniscient being does, and can thus tell us what we should and should not do.  So it would seem then that Socrates' posed dilemma is not as definitive as it is usually taken to be.
But that objection to Socrates' argument only refers to our not always being able to know the actual, as opposed to the intended, consequences of our actions, not to being unable to know whether an ethical principle is correct or not.  We can, for example, know (all other things being equal in regard to rights and fairness, etc. in different options available to us) we should do the most good or prevent the most harm as in the list of considerations above, but not always be able to know which act or choice will bring about the most good.  Human limitations about some factual knowledge do not imply limitations about knowledge of ethical principles, and they do not imply limitations about all factual knowledge.  In the debate between God and Abraham about Sodom and Gomorrah, God cannot rightly say it would be okay to kill the innocent along with the guilty, but it would be okay for Him to have told Abraham, if it were true, that there were no innocent people in those cities. Abraham's objection was only the hypothetical -- which turned out to be true -- that if there were some innocents, they deserved to be saved.  That was open for him to know, even if it was not open for him to know whether there were any innocents or not. So we can know in principle what is right or wrong, but we can't always know it in practice with regard to the overall good or ill of the consequences of our options.  In the Oedipus story, Oedipus' parents Jocasta and Laius surely had more moral options than infanticide.  At the very least, Jocasta should have known never to remarry if Laius was killed; and instead she remarried right away -- a stranger, no less, whose biological parentage she could not have known.  However, insofar as the baby was seriously believed to be a real threat to the life of King Laius because of the belief in the oracle's prophecies, and if the prophecy was taken to mean that 'if the baby lives, it will kill his father and marry his mother, there may not have been a workable prevention for that other than the death of the child, as ignorantly gullible or superstitious, gruesome, and heinous as that sounds to us today. Since we don't believe in the inevitability of fate that is out of all human control, particularly control of our own acts -- such as Jocasta's voluntarily marrying a second time -- it is difficult for us to see their contracting the infanticide as being moral, whether they could foresee the consequences or not.  But in everyday events we make choices all the time with the best of logic and intentions only to see that we mistakenly made the wrong choice because we could not accurately foresee the consequences we were sure of.]

5) We don’t have the right to make that choice; only God does.

[This is usually said about capital punishment, even though at the same time God gave the Ten Commandments at Sinai, He also gave 603 others without making any distinction about their relative importance, many of which not only delegate the right to execute people for certain crimes, but require it.  Plus, if there is really good reason why certain acts should be considered punishable by death, why would we not have the right to make that judgment?]

6) Having the right to do something makes it right to choose to do it.

[Explained above in 2 and 3 as being false.]

7) Quoting someone else, especially a religious source, that agrees with me means I am right.

[No, it only means the source agrees with you, not that either of you is right.  What we need to know are the reasons the act should be considered right.]

8) Quotations (from any source) do not have to take into account the context, do not have to be complete passages. 

[This is basically just unreasonable, if for no other reason than that it may not be what the source quoted even has in mind.  "In case of fire, pull this alarm", for example, doesn't just mean "Pull this alarm."  You cannot just take something out of context or a partial sentence or paragraph and claim it means what it says as standing alone.  That is like Adam and Eve's ignoring the "Don't" in "I'm going out of the Garden of Eden for awhile.  Do whatever you like but 'don't eat the fruit of that one tree over there'" as if discussing it after God went out and concluding: "God said something about eating that fruit, so let's do it."]

9) A source can be an authority that substantiates my beliefs even if the source also contains statements and principles I do not believe.

[The logical fallacy of "appeal to authority" or "argumentum ad verecundiam" has been written about for centuries, but in this particular version is problematic in addition because one cannot reasonably pick and choose among the pronouncements of someone as an authority, since the whole point of considering them to be an authority is to hold they must always be right in their field of expertise, not just sometimes.  If you hold they are wrong sometimes, then you have to have a way to distinguish between their true pronouncements and their false ones. And thus, in short, you need to be able to explain in the first place what makes your view right about the issue in question.  Quoting the alleged authority is of no use for doing that if you cannot believe everything the authority says; and should be unnecessary if you have a way to justify your view as true, whether it is the same as the authority's or not.]

10) The way most people actually behave is justification for believing what they do is right.  If (nearly) everyone does it, it must be okay.

[This seems clearly false, since people throughout history have held incorrect, sometimes quite egregious, moral views.]

11) This is what I was taught as I was growing up, so it is what I believe, and will continue to believe. 

[This is just an argument for obstinacy, not learning to correct one's mistaken beliefs.]

12) This is the way we do it in the military (or in medicine, or in business, or in government, or in whatever profession I was trained). 

[That doesn't mean it is right even in those contexts, let alone in the current one under consideration, particularly if there are cogent reasons given against its being right. Often, "business ethics" or "medical ethics" are mistakenly considered to be independent forms of ethics, separate from (general) ethics, but they are not. They may involve special circumstances, but still have to conform to general ethical principles, not just ignore them.  The point of business ethics is to conduct business ethically; and the point of medical ethics is to treat patients and research subjects fairly and right.  All too often "professional" ethics of one sort or another is not really about ethics, but is about what is deemed by professionals in the field to be acceptable, usually to them, rather than about what is fair, just, right, and best for clients, customers, suppliers, vendors, or patients and research subjects.]

13) There is no way to determine what is right or wrong. 

[Similar to 1 above.]

14) There is no principle that will cover this because it depends on the circumstances and everyone and every situation is different.

[Principles can often accommodate different circumstances; that is one point for discovering good principles.  E.g., baking different cakes may require different cooking times, but there could still be the principle for considering "doneness" that involves whether a toothpick stuck in the middle of them comes out clean or not.  Or different size turkeys may require different amounts of cooking time, but the principle for knowing they are done might be the same internal temperature for all -- under similar roasting conditions. In physics, there are many formulas that apply to all kinds of seemingly different phenomena on the surface.]

15) People disagree about this all the time, so there is no right answer, or Not everyone will believe that, so it must not be right.

[Addressed in 1 above.]

16) You should do what you believe is right.

[Not if your belief is wrong.  There is an ambiguity in this claim.  One should normally do what seems most reasonably to be right, because the most reasonable thing will more often be right; but it may be mistaken in any particular case.  One should not do what is mistaken; and one should also not do what is negligently believed or is believed unreasonably. But also, one should follow one's conscience, but if and only if one's conscience is informed and non-negligent.  If you are going to get into trouble, it should at least be for doing what (you are sure) is right, not for doing what you thought was wrong in the first place.]

17) You should do what you believe is right for you.

[What is right for you may not be what is right for others.  And insofar as this means you should do what you believe is right, see 16 above.]

18) You should do what (you believe) will do the most good for the most people. 

[First, you may be wrong that it will do the most good for the most people; second, even if you are right about what will do the most good for the most people, it can still sometimes conflict with a basic right or with fairness; e.g., it might to the most good to kill an innocent person -- e.g., throwing someone on the tracks to stop a train to keep it from hitting five people further down the track, but that doesn't make it right.  Or it might do the most good to let a simple numerical majority always do whatever it wants, but that might not be fair to others in the group.]

19) That is the way it has always been done, so there is nothing wrong with it.

[Again, history is filled with wrong policies and practices; that is often why we pass new laws and amend old ones.  The claim of innocence by virtue of following standard practice was one of the attempted justifications offered by former Vice President Spiro Agnew, when he was indicted on charges of corruption involving bribes and kickbacks as governor of Maryland.  He said he had not done anything different from former governors or other officials in other states.  The idea that using public office in the ways he did for private gain could be wrong no matter who or how many people have done it, or for how long, seemed to have escaped him.  Agnew was disbarred after pleading no contest to the charges against him, and he later had to repay some quarter of a million dollars he was accused of having taken while in office.  Citing his lack of moral understanding,the Maryland Court of Appeals said in prohibiting former vice president Spiro Agnew from practicing law: “It is difficult to feel compassion for an attorney who is so morally obtuse that he consciously cheats for his own pecuniary gain that government he has sworn to serve, completely disregards the words of the oath he uttered when admitted to the bar, and absolutely fails to perceive his professional duty to act honestly in all matters.” (,1018542)

While it is true that laws and accepted standards (mores), may change over time, morality doesn't change, even though what is recognized as being morally right or morally wrong may.  But even in a nation of laws, one cannot depend on the protection of bad laws to defend against criminal charges one should morally have known were wrong, for zealous prosecutors can often find novel uses of other laws that can be interpreted in ways your behavior will have transgressed; and you can successfully be prosecuted under them. Given that you can be in legal (not to mention just social) trouble tomorrow for what is legally accepted today, it seems to me it is always better to to do what you can reasonably justify as being intrinsically right rather than doing something you should know is intrinsically wrong, but legal or tolerated.]

20) It is the law (or the rules, or in the professional code of ethics) so it is what we should do.

[But there have been bad laws in the past; and this doesn't explain what the law should be in the first place anyway. And it would mean no law should ever be changed. See also "Morality and Law" as well as 19 just above.]

21) It is what we voted, so it is what we should do; it is what the majority wants.

[The majority don't always want the right thing, but at best they want what they think is best or right, and at worst want and vote for just whatever benefits them the most even if harming others about whom they don't care.  And there can be a tyranny of the majority. Also see 18.]

22) I should treat others the way I want to be treated. 

[Others may not want to be treated the way you do.  And even if they do, it might not be right for any of you.  People want to do things that are not necessarily good for them or right for them to do.  Plus it is unnecessarily convoluted to imagine yourself in other people's circumstances to know what you would want if you were them; why not just figure out what they need or want in the first place.  My father one time told people visiting the synagogue for the first time about the front rows having earphones to help the hearing impaired hear the service.  The people were old and hard of hearing.  I asked him why he told them that, just to see what his response would be, and he said it was because he would want people to tell him that and he was following the Golden Rule.  But I pointed out he was not hearing impaired and would not need that information.  He said if he were, then he would want to know that information.  I pointed out that, given he knows that without being hard of hearing, he therefore already knows that hearing impaired people would want to know that information because it would help them hear and enjoy the service, and that since the visitors were hearing impaired, they needed to be told it.  He didn't have to go through the Golden Rule and think about being hearing impaired himself to know what was right to tell them.

And it doesn't help when you get it wrong about yourself anyway.  When Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) questioned Anita Hill's continuing to work for Clarence Thomas after the time she claimed he made inappropriate remarks, she said it would be difficult to find work in her field of Constitutional law if she didn't.  He pointed out that he could always find good work if he quit a job, implying that if he were her, he would not want to continue to work for Judge Thomas and that she therefore should have quit. But he was an old white, powerful, male millionaire with lots of contacts.  She wasn't.  So the fact that if he were her, but with all his current characteristics and advantages, he would not have kept the job where the boss was inappropriate, doesn't mean that it would have been right for her to quit her job.  The problem was that he could imagine being her and how it would affect his decision, but he couldn't imagine it right, because he didn't understand her plight and problems in the first place.  If he did, he wouldn't have to imagine being her to know she was in a pickle that would not apply to him.]

This is not to lament that students (or anyone) sometimes has a mistaken ethical idea.  Probably no one is immune from that.  The problem is that people today, even intelligent, otherwise educated people, can’t follow the reasoning that shows their errors, or they dismiss it without any real consideration. Instead they have a wealth of information among which they freely associate but without any real logical connections.

The following paragraphs are part of a story in the April 10, 2011 edition of the NY Times that illustrate at various levels the way people seem to operate today.  The reporters and the physicians in this story have as much difficulty as the woman who serves as the example of the problem being reported.

The whole article is at:

The mother got the call in the middle of the night: her 3-day-old baby was going through opiate withdrawal in a hospital here and had to start taking methadone, a drug best known for treating heroin addiction, to ease his suffering.

The mother had abused prescription painkillers like OxyContin for the first 12 weeks of her pregnancy, buying them on the street in rural northern Maine, and then tried to quit cold turkey — a dangerous course, doctors say, that could have ended in miscarriage. The baby had seizures in utero as a result, and his mother, Tonya, turned to methadone treatment, with daily doses to keep her cravings and withdrawal symptoms at bay.

As prescription drug abuse ravages communities across the country, doctors are confronting an emerging challenge: newborns dependent on painkillers. While methadone may have saved Tonya’s pregnancy, her son, Matthew, needed to be painstakingly weaned from it.

Infants like him may cry excessively and have stiff limbs, tremors, diarrhea and other problems that make their first days of life excruciating. Many have to stay in the hospital for weeks while they are weaned off the drugs, taxing neonatal units and driving the cost of their medical care into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Like the cocaine-exposed babies of the 1980s, those born dependent on prescription opiates — narcotics that contain opium or its derivatives — are entering a world in which little is known about the long-term effects on their development. Few doctors are even willing to treat pregnant opiate addicts, and there is no universally accepted standard of care for their babies, partly because of the difficulty of conducting research on pregnant women and newborns.

Those who do treat pregnant addicts face a jarring ethical quandary: they must weigh whether the harm inflicted by exposing a fetus to powerful drugs, albeit under medical supervision, is justifiable.

Tonya said that at first she “didn’t believe in” methadone treatment during pregnancy and that doctors had to persuade her that it would not hurt her fetus. She had experienced wrenching withdrawal when she stopped using painkillers after learning she was pregnant, she said, and the doctors had warned her that “when I was feeling that bad, he was feeling 1,000 times worse.”

Tonya said that in a previous pregnancy, she quit using drugs altogether and miscarried a month later.

“That was the last thing I wanted to happen this time,” she said.

The following is my analysis of this.  The purpose, though, in giving this analysis is not to claim that I am right about my solutions, for I may not be, but to show there are problems and issues not being considered above that need to be. However, the issues here are not religious ones, but ethical ones that today's ethical platitudes don't properly address.

First and foremost, it would seem that if Tonya really didn’t want to miscarry again because of drug withdrawal or drug usage, she would not have been using drugs or she would not have been having sex that risked pregnancy while she was.  She and her physicians are now trying to make the best of a bad situation instead of preventing the bad situation from occurring in the first place.  Having to make the best of bad situations typically are the most difficult ethical dilemmas, because none of the options are desirable or satisfying in a way that makes choosing it feel right even if it is the best and most just and reasonable thing one can do and is right.  The best of  a bunch of only bad options is not, by definition, going to be a good option, even if it is the right option.

Insofar as she had a previous miscarriage because of drugs and was addicted to them, steps should have been taken to insure she wouldn’t get pregnant again while on drugs.  Doctors and the law after the first miscarriage should have required her to have a form of birth control not likely to fail.  She should have wanted that herself.  But if she didn’t want that, blind acceptance of the principle of autonomy means she will not be forced to accept it, even though in this kind of case she is putting another person – a potential baby – at risk.

The reporters state the problem as being a set of temporary symptoms that cost a lot of money to try to overcome.  That is hardly the main problem, which is not an economic one, but the human one of having brought into existence a person whose life begins at a serious disadvantage which may be difficult or impossible to overcome, and who may have a miserable existence because of it, not just a temporary miserable existence of going through withdrawal, but a permanent one caused by serious developmental impairment from the beginning of life.

How serious the impairment should either be known by now, or readily known soon, because surely there have been babies born over the years to women on methadone or babies born with neurological development problems similar to those of the babies in the article.  Do these babies ever develop normally or not?  If not, the problem is more than economic.  But the mistaken mindset in modern American medical research is that control studies need to be done in order to understand consequences, and since it would be morally wrong to experiment on human beings in ways blind control studies would require, there is what is referred to in this article as “the difficulty of conducting research on pregnant women and newborns”.  But there is no difficulty in doing research to find out what has happened in the past to pregnant women on methadone and their newborns in  the past -- and thus knowing what happens to them.  There is no need to do a double blind random control study to find out what happens to the control group.  The "control groups" have already been done, just not as control groups. If you count as research, which you should, simply tracking the developmental results of babies born with these sorts of problems when there were no options available, there is no moral problem of experimenting “on” babies or pregnant women for the mere purpose of research.  History and nature provided what are essentially control groups in many cases -- patients and victims who did not receive the new treatment being tested, not because it was intentionally withheld but because it was never available or thought to be a potential cure, partial remedy, or  effective palliative.  Therefore treatments do not need to be withheld to see what happens for we will already know what happens without treatment or with treatments that have already been tried for theoretical expectations of their being helpful.  The full article does address the difficulty of separating drug or drug withdrawal consequences from those associated with poverty and poor parenting by addict mothers, but it seems that there must be plenty of instances of addicted babies born to women who are neither poor nor poorly educated from which to draw at least some preliminary conclusions.  And there must be some evidence available that can distinguish whether babies born addicted to opiate derivatives, to poor, uneducated women do as well or not as babies who are not born addicted but who are born to poor, uneducated women.   What is being sought is reasonable evidence whether babies born with these kinds of impairments can lead normal lives or not, or whether they will always be severely impaired in ways that are inhumane and/or dangerous to themselves or others. The worse the risk or severity of the consequences, the more stringent the preventive or treatment measures should be.  Otherwise, doing nothing allows and even causes more and more future lives to be created and ruined for no good reason other than 1) the mistaken ethical view that autonomy is always more important than preventing harmful consequences, no matter how serious, severe, or even catastrophic, and 2) the mistaken medical view that all human life needs to be preserved no matter how impaired or low quality it might be in ways that cannot be overcome.

Now surely, we already know that autonomy is not paramount, if for no other reason than because we know “friends don’t let friends drive drunk”.  And this is true even if there is no one else on the road for them to hurt.  Friends don’t let friends risk their own lives any more than they let them risk the lives of others. We don’t let people commit suicide.  We don’t let people jeopardize the lives and safety of others. Yes, there are borderline cases where it is difficult to tell whether autonomy is more important than consequences, but generally we know that autonomy is wrong if the consequences of allowing it would be bad and irreparable and if the person whom we let cause the problem would regret having done so and being allowed to do so after the consequences (or the punishment for the consequences) of his/her choice occur.

And, again, I am only saying all these things should be part of the discussion, not dismissed as being unimportant because we somehow “just know” that "women should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies" and that "physicians should honor a patient's autonomy" and just deal with the consequences of it in ways that preserve life, no matter how terrible that life might be.  But that discussion is difficult if not impossible to generate in a modern American ethics course, because students are sure of their intuitive answer which is normally the same as the conventional wisdom prevalent in the culture, or at least in the culture of their generation and/or region, and because so many of them agree with each other.  A culture, even a nation, does not always correctly identify the "ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged" which deserve "the subordination of the nation" -- whether the people in that culture or nation are operating from religious commandments or from secular principles.

Potential Cases of Religious Ethics
I want to raise two possible exceptions to my claim that God's commands are not necessarily right because He commands them.  The first is that God created us out of love and we therefore should do what He asks out of acknowledgement of our debt to Him, and out of due respect for Him.  But it seems to me that we don't owe a creator any more than we owe our parents who conceived and raised us out of love for us (and each other).  That doesn't mean we should do everything they ask or demand no matter what it is.  It would not be right for us to murder someone they ask us to murder or, upon their order, to steal things they don't need from people they don't like.  While we do have special obligations toward those who are kind to us, that does not extend to ignoring or overriding higher ethical obligations.  Shouldn't we respectfully decline to honor wrongful requests, demands, or commands, and invoke the higher obligations as the reason?  I would think so.  And shouldn't God be proud that we do?

The second case is where God tells us to do something that seems clearly to be wrong, but wants us to trust Him and to do it anyway.  Moreover, there is the implication of reward if we do and severe punishment if we do not.  Take the case, for example, of His commanding Abraham to sacrifice his and Sarah's son, Isaac.  The conventional religious moral of the story of the binding of Isaac is that it was a test of Abraham's faith in God and Abraham passed the test, and God then rescinded the command and spared Isaac.  However, there are problems with that interpretation or taking that moral from the story.  First, why should Abraham have been so obedient and obsequious when he was willing to argue with God years earlier about the sparing of innocent lives in Sodom and Gomorrah?  Surely Isaac's life was just as deserving and innocent as anyone's might have been in Sodom and Gomorrah.  And even if Abraham were willing to make the sacrifice of Isaac for himself, how could he subject his faithful and loving wife Sarah to that torment and travail, after she had done everything possible to provide him with the son he had always wanted, including giving birth at age 80 (and thus taking care of a two-year-old at age 82, neither of which were small tasks). 

Second, what if the test were not of blind loyalty but of Abraham's willingness to stand up to God over a matter of ethics and show Him that he still knew what was right and wrong.  What if it were a test of Abraham's righteousness, moral understanding, and moral integrity?  Didn't Abraham fail that test!  Wouldn't Sarah have thought so!  One can easily imagine that Abraham asked Isaac on the way home that afternoon not to tell his mother about his being on the altar with the knife raised above him; it was just a kind of game that she wouldn't understand or appreciate.  "Let it just be our little secret, son."

And the fact it turned out okay for Isaac and Abraham does not justify Abraham's willingness to comply without knowing that would be the result.  In the Greek legend of the Trojan War, in the Iliad of Homer, Agamemnon is in charge of the Greek forces that are to sail to Troy to retrieve Helen, his brother Menelaus' wife.  All the armies of Greece are martialled, but there is no wind, and for days and weeks they cannot sail from the harbor.  The troops are disenchanted and threatening to abandon the futile enterprise and go home.  Agamemnon has his prophet Calchas find out why they are becalmed and Calchas says that Agammemnon needs to sacrifice his young daughter Iphigeneia to appease the deity Artemis whom he has offended.  Agamemnon complies, and the expedition is able to set sail successfully.  So even though that pleases Artemis and turns out well for the expedition and for Agamemnon's leadership, it is typically considered in Western culture to have been a despicable, barbaric act -- usually by the same people who claim Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac was a justified, loving, honorific act of faith.  You cannot have that both ways, because Agamemnon and Abraham were acting under the same directive -- to sacrifice their child.  The result turned out to be favorable in both cases at the time (other than to Iphigeneia and her mother, Clytemnestra, who kills Agamemnon when he returns from Troy after the war), but neither man knew it would be as each prepared to carry out the command.  Abraham and Agamemnon have the same intentions and motivation to do the same act and are morally either both culpable or praiseworthy for the same reasons. 

Moreover, we dismiss people today without question as being crazy, not lovingly faithful to God, when they kill or try to kill their children at the behest to do so from the voice they think is God's that they hear in their head.  And it seems most reasonable that if you were ever to hear such a request or command that you would take it as a sign you are in need of mental help and institutional commitment rather than as a test of your faith from God Himself.  And even if it were a test, is it not a cruel test?  Is it the test of a benevolent God who loves you and wants what is best for you?  It would hardly seem to be.

Before I proceed, consider the following question:

You and a group of 9 others, all innocent friends of yours, are invaded and captured by a hostile group of evil people who tell you that you must choose and kill one of the others or they will kill you.  What should you do and/or say in response? and why?

What if they had said instead that you must choose and kill one of your friends or they will kill all of them (or all of you) and that the choice and responsibility for everyones' lives is yours?  What should you do and/or say in response? and why?  Explain and justify your answer.
My answer to these questions is the following:

I would say this to the captors in both cases, and the justification for saying it is given in the answer itself:

A person who would give me such a choice is so evil as not to be trusted to tell the truth.  If you would kill innocent people, you would lie, since lying is itself the lesser evil.  So from where I stand, no matter what I do, my life and the lives of everyone here are in your hands, and you will likely kill me or all of us anyway. You only want the satisfaction of first turning me into the monster that you are, so that I will die as evil and as weak as you are.

You can say I am responsible for the choice, but that is not true, since it is an artificial responsibility imposed by you and that is within your control and responsibility.  You can kill me or us if you wish, and I cannot prevent that, but I can prevent you from making me your accomplice; I can prevent you from turning me into the same evil scum that you will be if you kill any innocent person.  These people are all innocent and do not deserve to be murdered.  It is better to die an innocent and deserving person than to be someone who kills them and who is thus neither innocent nor deserving.  Do what you wish; choose whatever kind of person you wish to be, and become that kind of person.  The choice is yours to be decent and civilized or to be even more reprehensible and evil than you were in giving me this choice. 

If you have killed innocent people before or forced them to be killed, I cannot undo that and neither can you, but you have a chance here to turn your life around in at least some small way and become less evil than you will otherwise be. If you have not killed or forced a killing like this before, you do not need to start now. The choice is not mine; it is yours.
It seems to me that Abraham should have said something similar to God, though in a more respectful tone, basically saying that he would not murder the boy and that if God wanted Isaac dead, He would have to take or kill the boy Himself, but that it would be wrong for him (Abraham) to slay the boy (particularly as his father, responsible for his child's care, nurture, and well-being), and no reward for doing so or punishment for not doing so could make the act be right or convince him to do it.  Basically I don't see how the command by God, if there is an implied threat or bribe in it, is any different from the order of the commander of the hostile enemy.

Therefore I don't see that either of these cases shows that there can be religious ethics that is somehow different from secular or non-religious, "civil" ethics or that should trump secular or non-religious, "civil" ethics.  And I don't see that ethics is dependent on religion or even the religious language in which it is often couched.  That language can be seen as simply the personification of characteristics about ethics that can be stated in non-religious terminology.

Furthermore, one cannot abdicate or avoid responsibility for determining what is right to do and knowing whether God, or anyone else, is right in "telling you" what to do.  It is no different from the stereotypical case where a child does something wrong (and usually stupid) that his friends tell him to do, and when he uses that as his excuse or justification, his mother says "And if they told you to jump off the roof, you would do that too?"  Your mother would not be any happier if you had said God told you to play in the mud puddle or jump off the roof, or kill your sister.  You are responsible for whatever you choose to do -- including choosing to follow any order or commandment.  "I was just following orders" is no excuse for doing a wrong act, particularly a heinous wrong act -- including doing what you think God tells you to do, even if He did.  Since you could have chosen not to obey a command or commandment, you are responsible for the acts of those you do choose to follow.  You cannot avoid your responsibility to do what is right, but merely shirk or ignore it, if you follow an order to do a wrongful act.  Blind obedience is neither a virture nor an excuse or justification for doing the wrong thing, even if you designate it "loyalty" or "faith".
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1In this essay, I will use the words “morality” and “ethics” interchangeably as being synonymous, even though some writers consider morality to be what are often considered cultural mores, which are not always morally right.  (Return to text.)

2While slavery, for example, is anathema to most Americans today, it was obviously not always so.  Lincoln and others had to fight a war, enact laws and decrees, and use powerful rhetoric, to abolish it and make its abolition be an ideal -- make its reprehensibility be a consensus of the (vast) majority.  That doesn't mean everyone now accepts it, but most people do.  Similarly, many colonists in America did not want to declare independence, despite the powerful language of the Declaration of Independence now considered an ideal.  While cultural and civil ideals can come into existence, it is not always an easy task, and they are not always obviously as ideal to the vast majority of people before their acceptance as afterward.
(Return to text.)

  3This "secular" passage by Clarence Darrow in his autobiography is a powerful rhetorical admonition to be good to others.  "The best that we can do is to be kindly and helpful toward our friends and fellow passengers who are clinging to the same speck of dirt while we are drifting side by side to our common doom."  Another is from John F. Kennedy's speech at American University, June 10, 1963: "For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal."

My contention is that all moral claims of religion that are true can be supported by non-religious evidence and any religious moral claim that cannot be supported by such evidence is probably not true, or at least not reasonable to believe.  All knowable moral truths or edicts and laws in religion can be shown to be true without religion by sensitive moral reasoning and evidence open to anyone, whether of that religion or not.  And that is subconsciously how or why people accept or reject the religious beliefs they do. For example it is generally true that stealing is wrong, and that has been known before the Ten Commandments were given and in societies where the Ten Commandments were unknown. But we reject today the commandment also given at Sinai (Deuteronomy 21:18ff): "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city,....'he will not obey our voice....' Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones."  And we reject Exodus 31:15 (New International Version, NIV):  "For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death."

The Talmud shows different possible interpretations and arguments about the laws and passages in the Old Testament, and takes some 6200 pages to explain and interpret the Old Testament. That is 6200 pages to explain at most 1000 pages of the entire Old Testament, and mostly the 190 pages or so of the first five books of it: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Many of the interpretations conflict with each other. But you cannot reliably  interpret anything whose interpretations cannot be be confirmed by the speaker or writer if and when there there are other, conflicting or different, plausible interpretations available as well. If for example, I tell you we will meet at 8:00 tomorrow, and do not specify either 8am or 8pm, then  you have no way to know which I meant if it is known that I often schedule night meetings and  morning meetings  and there is nothing in the context of our discussion that would indicate which I had in mind.

But mostly, it is pretty clear that what people do – if you look at the Rabbinic interpretations given in the Talmud, or if you look at the reasons different denominations of religions separate themselves from others in the same religion, you will see that people tend to have different interpretations of what God’s word means, and I would argue that the way they justify their interpretations is through something like the following logic:

1) Passage A is God’s word.
2) God would not be wrong.
Therefore 3) Passage A must be true.
However, 4) Passage A can be interpreted in various ways, call them X, Y, and Z.
5) Y and Z are bad rules and are false statements about what is right to do, because …..
6) X, on the other hand is a good rule and is true because…..
Therefore7) Passage A should be interpreted to mean X, because X is true, and God would only have commanded what is true and right.

But notice, the reasons alluded to in premises 5 and 6 for saying that X is right and that Y and Z are wrong, are precisely the kinds of “human” reasons to be examined in ethics, and those are the reasons we need to know and that you should state.  In doing that you will be doing moral philosophy, and that is the point of this paper.  If you are going to do moral philosophy, do it to justify the belief that X is right and that Y and Z are wrong and false.  If you then want to go on to use it to justify a particular interpretation of a passage in the Bible as being the word of God, you can do that in your religion, but it is unnecessary to do in an ethics discussion.  What we are interested in here is what you think is right or wrong and why, not whether you also think it is what God meant or not.  If you use the above kind of reasoning, then you have philosophical, non-Biblical reasons for believing that X is true and is therefore what God meant, and it is those reasons that are important in deciding what is right and wrong.  By the way, it seems to me that if you interpret ethical pronouncements in the Bible in this way I claim -- by imputing to God your own beliefs and interpretations, then you are actually creating God in your own image.

But the problem of just quoting supposed authorities is not just a religious one.  Consider the following exchange between a student and me, where the student quotes the Declaration of Independence to argue against capital punishment. The problem that week in class was if it is okay, if necessary, to use lethal force to save the lives of innocent hostages being held by someone threatening their lives, why should it be wrong (as some people would claim) to use execution to punish someone who has actually killed one or more hostages? Isn't murder a worse crime than threatening murder, and shouldn't the punishment for the more severe crime be at least as harsh if not harsher, than the response to the lesser crime?   I am leaving the students' misspellings in as he wrote them.  His answer is in black font, with my responses in red:

I believe that the man who holds the hostages has fofitted his rights to life by threatning to take the lives of others. As an American i justify this using the declartion of indepedance which gurantees life,liberty, and the pursuit of happiness which where considered unalienable rights to all men. But Americans put people in jail, thus stripping them of their right to liberty or even the pursuit of happiness.  So are you against prisons too?  And if you weren't an American, would this be a true statement?  Being an American doesn't make your beliefs necessarily true.  Do you not see that you simply pick and choose among your beliefs, with no real regard for consistency, even among adjacent sentences?  You believe in three unalienable rights listed as examples in the Declaration of Independence, and yet abandon all three by saying the threatener has forfeited his right, and you believe in prison so you throw out the other two rights as well for the actual murderer.   Having said that, I don't believe it is okay to take the life of the man who has already committed the murder.  I believe that this in itself is a althogther wholly different situation.  In the words of Macbeth "whats done is done". I agree with the Rehabilitve Therioes on punishment for a crime previously commited.  If the murder has already taken place looking back to the past and killing the perpatator solves nothing it does'nt bring back the life of the victim. But you don't understand from me or the textbook, that is precisely what is wrong with a solely rehabilitative theory of punishment.  Moreover, why punish the person at all, if "what is done is done"? You are never concerned with actual committed crimes, but with potential future crimes.  It is surely false, is it not, to think that potential future crimes are worse than past actual crimes and are all that need to be addressed. (Return to text.)

There are nonethical uses of religious words which also can be translated into secular meanings, though again, that takes away the power and poetry of the expression.  For example, in talking about Christians, say, being united through the centuries in Christ.  I think that can be less poetically understood to mean that Christians throughout the centuries have experienced many of the same ideas, thoughts, experiences and feelings in coming to their understanding of Christ, and thus are part of a brotherhood that spans generation after generation.  But this would be just as true of any tradition passed down through generations, such as the American, typically father/son, tradition of coming to understand and experience the glories of baseball or fishing together.  There is a kindred spirit developed by sharing traditions and similar experiences together, such as those, or even such as soldiers feel for each other who fought in wars, no matter which war, and sometimes no matter (after sufficient time has passed) even which side, because there are many common human reactions to being in a war and serving in combat.  (Return to text.)

5As pointed out by Bellah, Franklin's characterization of religion in general here matches part of Rousseau's: "In chapter 8, book 4 of The Social Contract, he [Rousseau] outlines the simple dogmas of the civil religion: the existence of God, the life to come, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and the exclusion of religious intolerance." (Return to text.)

6There is usually a significant and problematic difference between theology as a serious, intellectual, reasoned study of religion and religious tenets on the one hand and religion as all too often simplistically preached from the pulpit or practiced in sanctuaries.  It is not religion that causes shallowness in ethics, but the way it is often taught to the public in normal or conventional religious institutions.  Similarly there is a significant and problematic difference between moral philosophy as a serious, intellectual, reasoned study of ethical principles and the shallow way many families and schools teach children to behave using simplistic rules, often with little or no rationales or explanations of them. It is not true that everything you need to know (about ethics at least) can be learned in kindergarten or by the fifth or ninth grades in America.  Perhaps the closest we come to serious analysis of right and wrong with proper understanding and significance of nuance is in the study of law, but unfortunately law is not always the same as morality, and so the study of legal nuance is not always helpful, and often is detrimental to the understanding of moral nuance. Those wedded to simplistic, "black and white," often absolutist, rules decry any complex analysis of an ethical issue as splitting hairs, seeing imaginary gray, and rationalizing relativistic ethics.  Unfortunately, that is sometimes true, and is true often enough to give the serious understanding of important and necessary distinctions in ethics a bad name to those who do not know better. (Return to text.)

7as long as the slaves are not Israelites: Leviticus 25:42 “Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.” Leviticus 25:44 says “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” And in Leviticus 25:46 “You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” The New Testament also condones slavery, as in Ephesians 6:5: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ," in 1 Timothy 6:1 "All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered,"in 1 Timothy 6:2 "Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves", and in Titus 2:9 "Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them..." (Return to text.)