Three Dimensions of Morality

April 21, 2011

My post discussing the priority we should give to efforts to convert the religious attracted some critical commentary, both on and off our website.  A couple of different themes appeared in the critical comments.  The gist of some of these comments was that I have mischaracterized the relationship between religion and morality (or immorality), in particular, by underestimating the pernicious effects of religion. 

To consider and assess these criticisms adequately, I think we need to draw some important distinctions.  This may turn out to be a long post, so bear with me.

There are different aspects or dimensions to morality and these dimensions tend to be confused. When we call someone “bad” or “evil,” are we saying this person does not manifest the common moral decencies, that is, the person is a liar, is unkind, or uncooperative?  Or are we saying the person fails to treat members of certain groups (such as women or racial or ethnic minorities) with appropriate moral consideration?  Or are we saying that the person has a seriously mistaken understanding of the requirements of morality which leads him to do horrible acts (e.g., kill those who insult some “sacred” book)?  Depending on the person, we may mean to imply all three sorts of immorality when we call him “bad,” but notice they are distinct types of moral failings.  We need to recognize these distinctions if we are to have an appropriate understanding of the limits of humanism (or secular ethics generally) and the extent to which it can improve upon religious morality. 

A person with a good moral character manifests the common moral decencies, that is, those virtues which are important for successful, cooperative, day-to-day interactions with others. Among other things, that person is honest, conscientious, reliable, trustworthy, cooperative, fair and kind.

With respect to core moral character, let me suggest there is scant, if any, difference between religious people and nonreligious people.  I have detected none in my nearly six decades of life, nor am I aware of any empirical study that would establish a significant difference.  Rejecting religious dogma and embracing secular reasoning on such issues as assisted dying, stem cell research, the importance of free expression, and other public policy issues does not affect one’s moral character.  One can write eloquently and persuasively about the need to eliminate religious influence from our public policy while simultaneously being a selfish, spiteful, lying hypocrite.  Believe me; I have known at least a few such humanists.  As CFI noted on its Living Without Religion campaign website, one cannot predict a person’s core moral character from a person’s metaphysical views.

If either religion or lack of religion has no significant effect on a person’s core moral character, it follows that humanism has little to offer by way of improving this character.  One humanist organization, ISHV, is apparently embarked on a study of “personal morality” by which it means something similar to what I have referred to as moral character.  ISHV hopes to develop secular principles that will lead to improved personal morality.  Good luck with that.  Bad character is not a question of ignorance, of not knowing the correct moral principles.  A lying hypocrite knows what he is supposed to do—he simply will not do it. Assuming we have the standard neurological equipment (yes, brain anomalies can produce sociopaths), then our characters are largely a product of our upbringing.  Adult “moral education” can have only a negligible effect on one’s underlying character. 

But what about the failure to treat members of some groups with moral respect?  Is this something that is part of a person’s underlying character—and therefore something both unrelated to religious belief and extremely difficult to change—or are prejudicial attitudes amenable to change?  And are these attitudes influenced by religious beliefs? I do not think these questions admit of a simple answer. 

As Peter Singer pointed out in his classic work, The Expanding Circle, the scope of one’s moral obligations at one time extended no further than one’s tribe. Outsiders were not regarded as entitled to moral respect and could be killed or enslaved with impunity. (Even within one’s tribe or clan there could be degrees of moral status.  Women, for example, were treated by many cultures as half-people: entitled to protection against bodily harm but with limited autonomy.)   A person with a good moral character in such a tribe would be a reliable contributor to the tribe, but might be utterly ruthless in his conduct to outsiders. 

Slowly, over millennia, the scope of our moral concern widened.  In recent times, most of humanity has, at least nominally, accepted the view that the scope of our moral concern should be extended to all humans. 

The willingness and ability to regard members of another tribe, clan, nation, religion or race as appropriate objects of moral concern can be influenced by argument, but the adoption of such an attitude is unlikely to be solely the result of rational persuasion.  It requires the capacity to “see” the other as someone entitled to moral respect.  Indeed, the prejudiced person can be described as someone who is morally blind.  This person can act appropriately toward people in his own group, but he cannot recognize the humanity in others. 

And do such prejudicial attitudes have a connection to religion?  Yes and no. The “us versus them” moral perspective seems to have been too prevalent a perspective to attribute its inculcation solely to religion, but at least in some instances religion appears to have reinforced this attitude.  Moreover, religion—despite claims to the contrary—does not appear to have played much of a role in widening the circle of moral concern.  Furthermore, fundamentalist religions of various types still foster the view that women are entitled to only slightly more respect than cattle.  Admittedly, many religious now embrace universal human rights as readily as humanists, but humanist principles do provide a more secure foundation for including all humanity within the scope of our moral norms. 

To summarize to this point: moral character has no discernible connection to religious belief.  Moral blindness (the inability or unwillingness to extend moral respect to members of certain groups) may, in some cases, have a connection to religious beliefs.   

Let’s proceed now to the third dimension of morality, which I’ll call moral understanding. A person can carry out horrible, repugnant actions even while maintaining what he is doing is morally permissible, if not required.  Such a person’s understanding of the requirements of morality is seriously flawed. But note that such a person may have a good moral character in the sense that he is honest, trustworthy, and so forth. Moreover, the person may harbor no prejudice and may gladly acknowledge that his moral obligations extend to all of humanity. He just happens to think that it’s his duty to kill those who criticize the Qur’an.

 Basing moral judgments on religious dogma is one way that seriously flawed moral understandings come about—albeit not the only way. (Ideologies such as Marxism can produce similar results.) And all too many religious people still adhere to their religious doctrines (or to religious leaders who interpret the doctrines for them) as a guide for moral decision-making.

It is this third dimension of morality, that is, in the understanding of what makes an action right or wrong, that there is the clearest connection between religious beliefs and a “bad” person. Moreover, the pernicious effect of religion is seen not only in murderous individual actions (which are rare) but, perhaps more importantly, in the enactment of laws and regulations that reflect religious doctrine. As I said in my original post, “in the United States, religiously motivated individuals provide much of the support for continuing the ban on same-sex marriage, restricting or eliminating access to abortion, prohibiting stem cell research, teaching creationism in public schools, promoting abstinence-only sex education, and so forth.”

What is especially perverse about basing moral judgments on religious doctrines is that this subverts the objectives of morality, which are related to the furthering of human interests.  It makes no sense to adhere dogmatically to the musings of some semi-literate, god-intoxicated merchant or nomad from centuries ago.  Moral principles should be assessed by their consequences for humans, in particular, whether they facilitate cooperation, foster trust, improve our conditions, provide security, and so forth. 

Secular ethics is far superior to religious ethics if for no other reasons than it is focused on the good of humanity and its principles are subject to rational debate, testing and revision. 

In conclusion, there is no significant difference between religious and nonreligious individuals in terms of their moral characters. But, at least in some instances, religious beliefs can foster prejudice.  More generally, religious ethics can have a harmful effect on our moral understanding, which in turn can lead to mistaken adherence to certain principles and poor moral judgment.

Fortunately, at least in the West, many religious no longer rely on religious doctrines or religious institutions for moral guidance.  God is just an honorary member of their moral faculty. In addressing an ethical issue, they may throw the deity a bone by saying “we’re all God’s children” or some other such pablum, but then the God-talk is dropped.  Their reasoning about ethical issues becomes virtually indistinguishable from the reasoning of nonreligious individuals.  They accept secular reasoning in ethics just as they accept secular reasoning in politics. 

This observation, of course, relates to the argument in my earlier post.  Persuading religious people to drop religion entirely—although certainly not an undesirable occurrence—may not be one of the critical objectives of the secular movement.  Persuading them to accept secularism both in politics and ethics is.