Monday, October 30, 2006

religion is NOT ethics

Not only is it wrong to claim that ‘objective’ ethics presupposes religious belief (just google ethics and atheism and you will have enough to keep you busy for a day), it may have the issue completely backwards. The real question is not whether an atheist can be commited ethics, but whether a person of religious faith can ever be committed to any ethic. In "Fear and Trembling" Kierkegaard assumes that ethics is the goal of achieving the universal good, which can brook no compromise. If this definition is true (see previous discussion here), Abraham’s desire to sacrifice Yitzchak at the akeidah must be deemed unethical and an act of attempted murder. Since this for Kierkegaard (and I think for any religious Jew) a reductio ad absurdum, he concludes that there exists some higher law which transcends even the universal good of ethics, namely religious faith. Obedience to ethical principle can be suspended to achieve the telos of obeying the higher law of G-d’s will – the teleological suspension of the ethical. Does that mean faith does not impose ethical standards? “This was not to suggest that from a religious point of view moral standards and principles could in general be abrogated or overruled. It did mean, on the other hand, that within that perspective they took on a radically different aspect, one where they possessed a relative rather than an absolute status and where it was the individual’s own relation to God that was paramount, assuming precedence over all other considerations” (article here, also see here).
Avi Shafran writes, “If our perception that some deeds are good and others are not is but a quirk of natural selection, none of us need feel any commitment to morality or ethics.” Quite the contrary – if ethics is a product of natural selection, we inherently and unequivocally will be committed to its principles the same way we obey other biological drives. However, faith always carries the trump card saying “Yes, your ethical argument makes sense, but G-d told me to do otherwise!” To rephrase Shafran, the atheist might say that if an ethical norm like not murdering is obeyed simply by quirk of its coinciding with G-d's will, none of us are truly committed to the ethic of not murdering, as we will not hesitate to abrogate it when our subjective assessment of G-d's will dictates otherwise.
I'm not out to debate this issue at length - Kierkegaard can be rebutted and many other views offered. All I know is that offering simplistic answers is not the solution to rebutting the claims of atheists or defending the richness of yahadut.

21 comments:

  1. The Torah does demand that we surrender our personal sense of ethics to its dictates when it comes to such things as "ubiarta hara mikibecha."

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  2. Religion is not congruent with ethics - except according to the Chazon Ish, and I am surprised you do not note his position - but there are can be no ethics without a God.

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  3. "Religion is not congruent with ethics - except according to the Chazon Ish, and I am surprised you do not note his position - but there are can be no ethics without a God"

    But isn't the fact that Hashem is good underlie everthing including Chukim? I think rachamim is higher than din, also see Ramchal that Hashem created the world for good.

    In other words, chukim are also "ethical",or not contradictory to ethics, because they are part of a merciful purpose of creation.

    This makes many questions moot. I may try to explain slavey, mechiyas amalek, etc., in a way that people influenced by modern egalitarian values can understand, but ultimately the answer can be that Hashem is a
    "meitiv", and that this must be merciful, just as we don't understand the Para Adua (perhaps this has to do with Rambam re: shiluach hakein)

    I used this on CC thread regarding role of gentiles, and women(two different issues) in Yahadus. Even if one cites "negative"( or sensitive) sources, I still say that this doesn't contraddict a merciful Creator, who assigns a role to everyone in the universe.

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  4. R' YGB
    on what do you
    base this sweeping assertion?
    beware of absolutes & circularity.
    you need to provide substantiation for
    the principle. If we take these as mathematical postulates, can you say the converse is true? If ethics=G-d, then how can one claim to believe in G-d while being devoid of ethics? We see it all the time -- from Inquisitions to progroms, to book burnings, to seemingly religious individuals cheating (sometimes others of their ilk)

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  5. To BH:

    The existence of a concept of lifnim me'shuras ha'din indicates that ethics and religion are not coextensive. Moreover, we all know, although it is not often discussed, that there were Gedolim who were not Ba'alei Mussar. The Mussar is the Ethics.

    To my dear sister:

    Certainly not all religions are ethical. It is difficult for me to comprehend how a truly pagan religion can be ethical. However, the innate sense of ethics that all peoples possess (if only to their selected core group) is indicative of a common source - God.

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  6. Another great post. Lousy comments though. Religious fundies will define 'ethics' as being that which God declares, by definition, whether or not it jives with what we feel to be good. Hence Islamic Jihad can blow up little babies and feel good about it. Atheists and religious moderates will define 'ethics' as what we feel is good, hence they typically won't blow up babies. Which is the more dangerous system? Seems pretty darn obvious that believing in God based ethics, based on some ancient texts which can't be proven true can be very dangerous indeed. Then again, Communism and Nazism were pretty bad too. Bottom line: People can be stupid and evil, hopefully wisdom and common sense will prevail. Hashem Yerachem

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  7. >>>However, the innate sense of ethics that all peoples possess (if only to their selected core group) is indicative of a common source - God.

    Or maybe it is indicative of us all desceneding from a common evolutionary branch.
    Or indicative of a common humanism that seperates us from animals.
    Or indicative of the common need for social order we all possess.
    I could go on, but you get the point.
    And XGH, we have discussed the issue of competing truth claims before, so I just note my disagreement with that particular point in passing.

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  8. yehuda1:15 PM

    Take any universal value or admired trait/characteristic.The Cofetz Chaim could of (1)had a whole book written about how he excelled in it(2)an entire book based on his writings could be compiled on how to excell in it.And that is just one small part of the CC.As before I'm unaware of any other ideolgy that produced such a person.Based on a stasitical ratio the world should produce thousands each generation.These are my last comments on this issue.

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  9. I would distinguished between moral behavior, which is therefore defined by the merit of the actions; and ethical attitude, which in turn drives behavior.

    Without G-d providing man a higher calling, how is ethics possible? All that's left is self-interest; or interest in one's genome duplicating, if one is really serious about trying to derive ethics from evolution. All that separates a hedonist from an atheistic ethicist is how enlightened is his self-interest.

    Whether belief in G-d means a correct identification of that higher calling, IOW, whether one's map actually matches the terrain, is a second question.

    And yet, the atheist may still act morally for emotional reasons. He may care about the survival of democracy (for example), more than his own survival. But is he being ethical about it? Does he have a reason for preferring an ideal over his own genome?

    -mi

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  10. >>>All that's left is self-interest; or interest in one's genome duplicating,

    Or human freedom, the betterment or society, or the attainment of virtue, etc. as is discussed by many secular philosophers over the ages, and for which many noble humanists would willingly sacrifice their own selfish self-interest.

    >>>Does he have a reason for preferring an ideal over his own genome?

    Yes. The fact that one can rationally argue that freedom, the betterment of mankind, etc. are noble goals. Just like the man of religion prefers serving the higher good of oberying G-d because of his subjective preference to do so.

    >>>I'm unaware of any other ideolgy that produced such a person

    Please. Ask any Catholic about the Saints of his religion. Or read any book about claims of their theology.

    Again, just google atheism and ethics and dig in. All these arguments have been debated before.

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  11. Chaim B. said...
    However, the innate sense of ethics that all peoples possess (if only to their selected core group) is indicative of a common source - God.

    Or maybe it is indicative of us all desceneding from a common evolutionary branch.


    There is no evolutionary rationale for altruistic ethics, only pragmatic ethics.

    Or indicative of a common humanism that seperates us from animals.

    Evolution does not differentiate humans from animals in any way that should make us altruistic.

    Or indicative of the common need for social order we all possess.

    Why would we need social order?

    I could go on, but you get the point.

    I do, but it's wrong.

    R' Yaakov Weinberg demonstrates this idea from the Medrash on "Hofia Mei'Har Paran." V'dok.

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  12. You misread my entire comment. To repeat and clarify, I am not a diehard evolutionist like Richard Dawkins, and am thus perfectly content to consider other sources for ethical behavior, such as aspiration for personal virtue, human freedom, or simply the pragmatic ends of a better society (thougha quick google search will also get you plenty of evolutionary explanations of altrusim as well). Many people hold these ideals so dear they are willing to altruisticly sacrifice their lives for the cause - e.g. 'Give me liberty or give me death' (actually, Patrick Henrey's skills as an orator were learned from a preacher, but that's another story). Altrusim stems from a committment to some higher ideal than one's own selfish existance; that higher ideal need not be a belief in G-d. To quote R' Ahron, 'But that surely is not to say that we therefore ought to dismiss totally the possibility or the reality of secular morality.'

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  13. And you totally misunderstood me.

    I am not saying that people who do not profess a religion are not moral, ethical or altruistic.

    Aderaba. And the only reasonable explanation for that is that there is a Creator who imbued them with these traits.

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  14. >>>And the only reasonable explanation for that is that there is a Creator who imbued them with these traits.

    And they would say that these traits spring from their humanism, from their rational thinking, from the development of culture and society, from evolution, or forced by consequence. So without proof, why should I be convinced by your declaritive statement?

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  15. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Biological Altrusim http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/
    Closing sentence:
    Contrary to what is often thought, an evolutionary approach to human behaviour does not imply that humans are likely to be motivated by self-interest alone. One strategy by which ‘selfish genes’ may increase their future representation is by causing humans to be non-selfish, in the psychological sense.

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  16. And they would say that these traits spring from their humanism, from their rational thinking, from the development of culture and society, from evolution, or forced by consequence. So without proof, why should I be convinced by your declaritive statement?

    1. What is "Humanism" if there is no God? We are just more intelligent monkeys.

    2. Why is it rational, absent some Higher Purpose to be anything but a self-centered narcissist?

    3. Why would culture and society have developed in such a stupid direction?

    4. How do you evolve into anything more than ensuring your own survival and success?

    5. What consequence?

    Why are you arguing an indefensible position?

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  17. > 1. What is "Humanism" if there is no God? We are just more intelligent monkeys.

    So what? Humanism is about preserving and being nice to the smart monkeys.

    > 2. Why is it rational, absent some Higher Purpose to be anything but a self-centered narcissist?

    Because people have innate, evolutionary based desires to do good.

    > 3. Why would culture and society have developed in such a stupid direction?

    See answer to number 2 above.

    > 4. How do you evolve into anything more than ensuring your own survival and success?

    You evolve into a better society and world.

    > Why are you arguing an indefensible position?

    Why are you arguing an indefensible position?

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  18. > 1. What is "Humanism" if there is no God? We are just more intelligent monkeys.

    So what? Humanism is about preserving and being nice to the smart monkeys.


    Why should a dumb monkey be nice to a smart monkey - or a smart monkey be smart to another monkey? The entire concept of "nice" is irrational in the absence of Higher Purpose.

    > 2. Why is it rational, absent some Higher Purpose to be anything but a self-centered narcissist?

    Because people have innate, evolutionary based desires to do good.


    What's "good"? Evolution knows no good. It knows self-serving interest. (It actually knows nothing whatsoever, it is not an Entity, but l'saber es ha'ozen.)

    > 3. Why would culture and society have developed in such a stupid direction?

    See answer to number 2 above.


    Ditto.

    > 4. How do you evolve into anything more than ensuring your own survival and success?

    You evolve into a better society and world.


    More irrationality. Without Higher Purpose there is no "better" - unless you are referring to ever "better" Hedonism and Selfishness.

    > Why are you arguing an indefensible position?

    Why are you arguing an indefensible position?


    Ditto.

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  19. One strategy by which ‘selfish genes’ may increase their future representation is by causing humans to be non-selfish, in the psychological sense.

    (Sarcasm Alert!)

    Gee, how did all those primordial electrons, neutrons and protons become so smart...

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  20. >>>Gee, how did all those primordial electrons, neutrons and protons become so smart...

    It would pay to read Dawkins because you have no understanding whatsoever of his position. 'Smart' means that through trial and error this behavior has become dominant as it leads to the gene pool of the parent being passed on with greater frequency. There is a whole literature out there on why that should be the case...."The evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson, in a 1985 paper written with the philosopher Michael Ruse, put the point starkly: Ethics "is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate," and "the way our biology enforces its ends is by making us think that there is an objective higher code to which we are all subject." (from one of the reviews of Dawkins' book)

    >>>What is "Humanism" if there is no God? We are just more intelligent monkeys.

    You answered your own question. It is that intelligence itself which leads to the development of social order. "Since human beings are by nature rational beings, it is morally appropriate that they should behave in a way that conforms to their rational nature." The source of that rationalism is entirely irrelevant to the discussion. One can be an avowed secular evolutionist like Edward Wilson of Harvard, yet still believe in 'scientific humanism' which leads man to act morally (he coined the term). One can also believe G-d created man but left him with the freedom and intelligence to determine his own ethical course without interference - man behaves rationally because he is given the freedom to choose to do so. The issue of evolution vs. creationism has no bearing on the issue of ethics at all.
    These are all old arguments - don't know why we have to rediscover the wheel here.

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  21. Reb Chaim,

    At this point I think anyone who wants to see will see that the sheer nonsense of quotations like the one you cite from Ruse. I am stupified (and not a little upset) that my brilliant (and that is most certainly the case) BIL can cite such stuff as if it made sense.

    YGB

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