Ethics (or morality, I use the terms synonymously) – is essentially criteria concerning the rightness and wrongness of human actions aimed at understanding what constitutes a good life.
A significant component of most religions is an ethical vision that is directly tied to that religion’s larger worldview. And while each religious tradition has its own ethical flavor – the common elements stand out – love your neighbor, be kind, don’t steal, live according to your word, care for yourself and your family, and help those who can’t help themselves.
In our age of increasing atheism and the general cultural decline of organized religion, the question becomes pertinent – is religion necessary for a cohesive ethics? Does one need God to be good? What is the essential nature of human morality?
The Natural Law Moral Tradition
The earliest roots of Western culture birthed what has come to be called the Natural Law tradition of ethical reasoning. Originating with Greek philosophy, later taken up by Roman thinkers, and finally integrated into the Roman Catholic tradition of Christianity – natural law ethical reasoning is a philosophical approach to moral analysis and understanding moral truth.
The roots of the natural law are in philosophical anthropology – the main assertion of the natural law being that moral truth is practical and entwined with human nature; good and bad are relative to human flourishing – that which aids human wholeness and well-being is good, and that which hinders it is bad.
The natural law tradition rests on the notion that human nature is more or less a fixed reality, and although circumstances and cultures will change, the essential features of what constitutes a human person – their nature – will not change.
Despite our imperfect nature, the human person can, by their intelligence, reasonably determine right from wrong through reflection on their own nature and the goods and situations that lead to its flourishing and betterment. Individual conclusions are gradually socialized, debated, and refined through sustained argument and discussion.
The emergent principles and norms have been spoken of in terms of laws (in a general sense), thus the notions of the laws of nature, in the case of morality, the laws of human nature – implying a sense that the moral law or moral order, is engrained and derived from human nature itself.
From the natural law perspective, morality is not imposed on humanity or revealed by a deity or religious authority, rather it is an integral part of our natural identity. Our moral responsibilities and rights arise from our nature (a reasoned teleological reflection on such) and our relationship to others. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.
Additional philosophical reflection yields insights that human persons possess a natural, ontological dignity. Human beings by their nature possess an inherent dignity to which love/affirmation offered with prudence and wisdom is the appropriate response.
This intrinsic dignity does not depend on any circumstance, stage of development, or potential, and no human community can grant or rescind it. A foundational insight of human dignity is this – human beings must always be treated as an end and never used solely as a means.
Further claims of justice and concerns of responsibility (basic notions of human rights) flow from the inherent dignity of the human person as a rational, emotional and free subject.
Finally, recognition of the social nature of the human person begins to outline a social ethics – humans are naturally, inherently social animals – we cannot exist without community; we engender culture with our very being. Our interconnectedness bespeaks our mutual responsibility to one another. The human family can only truly flourish when all people flourish; what we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we do to ourselves. We must stand in solidarity with all people of good will and create a culture that affirms life and human dignity.
Natural law ethics provides a formal framework within which to conduct moral reasoning – it is a method of thinking about right and wrong. Natural law ethics does not provide a list of goods or actions that lead to human flourishing. Intelligent people of good will can engage in proper natural law reasoning and reach different, conflicting conclusions. In such cases, appeals can be made to empirical evidence, psychological evaluation, and sociological and cultural studies conducted over time, to help determine claims of flourishing and betterment.
Despite differences in theory and approach, there is not tremendous variety of opinion concerning what goods and states of affairs lead to human thriving – few argue against the positive nature/morality of proper nutrition, education, shelter, and so forth, while few argue in favor the positive benefits/morality of stealing or killing.
Religion, God, and Ethics
The above ethical analysis and its resulting framework do not rely on God, revelation, or religion. Moral insights are a philosophical, not theological matter. While religion may offer powerful narratives and a particular context for thinking about our behavior and way of living, it seems to be that, strictly speaking, God and religion isn’t necessary for sound, thorough moral thinking – or ethical behavior, for that matter.
For those who argue that ethical truth is grounded ultimately in God, my question is what does this assertion gain us? If the answer is some sense of “moral absolutes”, the term may be comforting, but human nature alone is enough to explain and ground moral truth. The more or less enduring aspects of human nature adequately provide the foundation for the obligatory nature of morality. Arguing that humanity needs some supernatural moral anchor offers nothing of value to the conversation and nothing of value for the practical business of living a good life.
What about the Bible? Don’t the scriptures contain an elevated moral vision? I’d assert that while ethical themes were certainly a concern for the Biblical authors, the Bible is not a moral text book. In fact, its lack of systematic approach and its sometimes contradictory moral messages make it a poor choice as a moral guide. Yes, the overall themes may be love of neighbor, but one must approach the text from an already reasoned approach to ethics in order to make such judgments in the first place. We morally judge the scriptures; we read our values into the text in an ongoing dialogue. The text can inform our thinking, too, but it’s not a one way process where the Bible trumps reason or serves as the source of our moral truth. I’d argue that there are no moral truths in scripture that cannot be arrived at through reason, without religion.
Your thoughts? Comments? Complaints?