How should we decide what is morally right and what is morally wrong? For much of human history, the teachings of religion were presumed to be a large part of the answer. Over time, two developments challenged this. The first was the establishment of the discipline of moral philosophy. Foundational texts, such as Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, and the growth of coherent, non-religious approaches to ethics, notably utilitarianism, served to marginalise the role of religion. And then the twentieth century saw the rapid growth of evolutionary biology with an enthusiastic presumption that biology was the source of ethics. What space do such developments leave for religion in ethics?
One can be most confident about the validity and worth of an ethical conclusion if three criteria are met. First, if the arguments that lead to the particular conclusion are convincingly supported by reason. Secondly, if the arguments are conducted within a well-established ethical framework. Thirdly, if a reasonable degree of consensus exists about the validity of the conclusions, arising from a process of genuine debate.
Traditionally, the ethical frameworks most widely accepted in most cultures arose within systems of religious belief. Nowadays, though, not everyone accepts religion as a source of authority. Kant, in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, argued that we should act only according to that maxim whereby we can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. In other words, we should never do those things which favour us merely because we are us. This forbids such actions as theft and telling lies.
Consequentialists hold that consequences alone are sufficient to let one decide the rightness or otherwise of a course of action. The most widespread form of consequentialism, utilitarianism, begins with the assumption that most actions lead to pleasure and/or displeasure. In a situation in which there are alternative courses of action, the right action is the one that leads to the greatest net increase in pleasure.
A rather different approach to the whole issue of ethics is provided by virtue ethics which focuses on the moral characteristics of good people. Virtue ethics has undergone something of a revival since the 1970s. Part of the reason for this may be connected with a somewhat instrumental tendency in much of the training of such professionals as doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants and so on, in which the idea of moral goodness features little. And yet many people who have to deal with such professionals (as patients and clients) want them to manifest virtues as well as be knowledgeable and technically skilled. Furthermore, when we look at various abuses in the professions, it is clear that many of these would have been much less likely to have occurred had those in these professions been disposed to behave virtuously.
I will return to virtue ethics below but first, let me introduce a very different approach to understanding what we consider to be morally right and to determining what is morally right.
One of the great triumphs of the last 150 years has been for us to realise how the theory of natural selection, as first brought into prominence by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, can explain so much of the natural world, including animal behaviour. Even though Darwin knew nothing of the mechanism of inheritance, he realised that natural selection might still be responsible for the evolution of worker sterility in the social insects. At first sight, such sterility deals a crushing blow for the theory of natural selection. Such individuals produce no offspring – so how can this be functional?
Darwin argued that sterility in such circumstances might evolve by a process he termed ‘family selection’, nowadays generally known as ‘kin selection’. In other words, natural selection does not have to rely on individuals having their own offspring; individuals can reproduce vicariously, as it were, via their close relatives. This can allow altruism – even extreme altruism in which individuals do not reproduce – to evolve and perpetuate.
Darwin’s insights lay dormant for a century until a PhD student called William D. Hamilton produced a more general, mathematical theory that encapsulated his insights about the origins of altruism. Advances came thick and fast and the 1960s and ‘70s saw an explosion in field work and in theoretical modelling in the disciplines that came to be known as behavioural ecology and sociobiology.
As is often the case when new disciplines arise, we can see with hindsight that those working in the field sometimes overstretched themselves and the work of Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson and others, particularly when extrapolations were made to human behaviour, had to be tempered by the work of Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and others. Furthermore, there are still areas of disagreement – notoriously with regards to the level at which selection operates, namely whether selection at the level of genes and individuals is all that needs be considered or whether selection operating between groups of individuals results in phenomena that cannot be explained solely by selection at lower levels. Nevertheless, advances were made and a new sub-discipline arose: ‘evolutionary ethics’.
Evolutionary ethics has proved to be extremely controversial. Considering evolutionary ethics as a science results in lots of interesting findings – ones that ‘make sense’. For example, consider ‘meiotic drive’. From the middle of the twentieth century, examples have been known from a range of species where one or more of the genes in a genome manipulate the process of meiotic cell division so that the genes in question are over-represented in the next generation. At first considered an evolutionary oddity, such behaviour is best understood by Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene view of life. The essence of this view is that to understand organisms we should pay attention to the interests of the genetic material that contributes to their structures and behaviours. Often, we can pretty much understand what is going on by focusing only on the phenotypes of organisms – that is, their appearances. Phenomena like meiotic drive remind us that we need to understand matters from the perspective of organisms’ genetic material too.
Back to animal behaviour: individual selfishness, kin selection and reciprocal altruism (where an organism helps another organism and that other organism subsequently helps the original organism) do indeed ‘make sense’. And to an evolutionary biologist so too does the everyday finding that the great majority of people are more concerned about the welfare of close relatives, reproductive partners or those with whom they regularly interact (enabling reciprocal altruism) than they are about the welfare of others.
Now, humans share much of our biology with our close evolutionary relatives. However, while it is always risky to attempt to identify the ways in which humans are unique, it is clear that one of the notable features of our species is the extent to which we can think about our actions and choose how to behave.
The importance of human rationality in our ethical thinking was made with particular clarity by the moral philosopher Peter Singer in his book The Expanding Circle. Singer argued that altruism began as a drive to protect one’s kin and those in one’s community but has developed over time into a consciously chosen ethic with an expanding circle of moral concern. In other words, what begins as pure evolutionary biology develops into something more than that. I think this is absolutely correct and much the same thing happens with many other areas of human thought and endeavour. There are probably biological explanations for the origins of music, dance, language, religion and mathematics, but one needs more than biology to understand the Brandenburg Concertos, The Rite of Spring, Ulysses, the doctrine of the Trinity and the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.
So, what is the place of religion in ethics? Our capacity for ethical reasoning had its roots in our biological nature but was then hijacked, though a sort of bootstrapping as the human mind became increasingly powerful and sought for internal consistency in its reasoning. The result is that humans (some of them, at least) increasingly became convinced by the validity of what John Rawls would later express as decision-making behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ – namely that we should make ethical decisions as if we did not know our own position (back to Kant’s categorical imperative). So, for example, laws about gender should be made by individuals genuinely setting aside whether they themselves are male, female or other; laws about immigration should be made without the presumption that one is or is not a migrant, and so on.
At first sight, it might be thought that this growth in human understanding about ethics doesn’t fit very well with insights from religion aside from generic religious injunctions to do as one would be done by. After all, most religions are rather ancient and contain something of a mish-mash of ethical injunctions and stories of the good in action. However, both for the believer and for the unbeliever, there are a number of reasons why religions have a major role to play in how we should behave.
The first is because religions manifest themselves in communities. None of derives our moral beliefs ex nihilo. If one is, for example, a Buddhist, one is likely to have, or at least believe one should have, a particular commitment to non-violence, to eschew craving and to demonstrate compassion. The internalisation and manifestation of this way of being is helped by the presence of others who share one’s beliefs. It is not a coincidence that the term ethics derives from ethos, i.e. custom or habit; we mostly exercise our behaviours in the presence of others with comparable values, and religions promulgate ethical values that are good for communities not just for individuals.
A second reason is because the world’s major religions have developed over long periods of time and have therefore gone through processes of refinement (for all that they often begin with one or more acts of revelation) that share some similarities with the testing and sifting of natural selection. In other words, we have reasons to place considerable trust in long-standing institutions that genuinely seek to do good.
Religions also have the capacity to lift us up, to help us do good and to become new people in ways that on our own we could not manage; they can help us to turn over a new leaf, to start afresh, to be born again. For Christians, there are a range of ways of understanding how to use scripture, the teachings of the Church and reason to determine what is ethical. Whichever approach is used, the accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus are at least important, for many they are determinative. Whether one goes by Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christor more contemporary, though often derided, bumper stickers or bracelets proclaiming ‘WWJD’ (What Would Jesus Do?), the notion that the goal of the Christian life is to be conformed to the image of God’s Son has scriptural warrant (Rom. 8:29).
This can be seen as a form of virtue ethics; that, however, much one fails, the Christian is called to model their life on that of Jesus of Nazareth, the risen Christ. Like any virtue ethics, there is the worry that right behaviour and action only makes sense within the confines of a particular time and place. But basing one’s ethics on the one whom Christians see as both the author of the universe and the subject of the New Testament has advantages. When we consider the problems that arise from human selfishness and other moral failings, there is much in the person and teachings of Jesus and subsequent Christian theology, beginning in the New Testament itself, that can lead to healing and wholeness, for individuals, for communities and for the whole of creation.
Michael J Reissis President of ISSR. This is an abbreviated version of the 2019 Boyle Lecture which he gave on 18 February 2019.