Life is the story of the fight for love and glory.Billie Holiday, As Time Goes By
Religion alone is not enough to explain. Philosophy alone is not enough to explain. Science is a wrong tool to begin with. Human thriving is rather ineffable and out of reach for science to grasp.
I am interested in the foundations of ethics or morality. While both religion and philosophy are interested in the good life, their interpretation of the good life may surely differ.
But within each domain, morality and ethics are addressed nevertheless. This is to say that, over eons and epochs, and centuries, religious people have informed philosophers, and philosophers have informed religious people. Some religious people were philosophers, and some philosophers were also religious.
Where a river flows into the ocean, fresh and saltwater mix. But it is all water after all. No domain of knowledge, religious or philosophical, can claim that it is the sole origin of all wisdom.
Religious people, that is people of faith, largely justify morality by explaining what morality is from God’s point of view − a divinely revealed view.
We got the 10 Commandments of the Old Testament, as given by God to Moses, and the New Testament with its more recent commandment ‘to love God and your neighbor as yourself.’ All of these commandments, akin to rules, have undoubtedly made a considerable difference in the lives of people − for better and worse.
Authority and Obedience
Religion requires a level of obedience to these commandments, as well as acceptance of the authority of those representing these commandments. Loyalty to authority and obedience to commandments have been the staple glue of ordered societies in the past and continue to organize humanity in the present.
Despite all the known and unknown abuses of power committed by religious authorities over the past, many people prefer the cultural and political stabilities that communities characterizable by authority and obedience may offer.
The more recent biblical commandment ‘to love God and your neighbor as yourself’ sounds like a rule to be inscribed in the heart – and thus transcending the appeal of authority and obedience. Yet, the New Testament does not clarify very well what love is, other than what it does or not in a short chapter of 1. Corinthians, or how it works in the many diverse situations and circumstances that humans encounter in modern, daily life.
Augustine, bishop of Hippo, tried himself on exploring the phenomena of love. As both a theologian and a philosopher, he penned the famous Confessions and other mighty, heady works. Human love, in the end, got a bit of a bum rap in Augustine’s elaborations. For him and subsequently, for much of Christianity, it was God’s love that won out. But again, Augustine could not clarify very well what human love is (stigmatizing it as craving) and how it operates in the various situations and circumstances that humans encounter on a day-to-day basis.
Is ‘love’ or ‘loving’ virtuous? “I love my car, don’t you drive it.” “The creator loves us, even though the earthquake killed hundreds of people.” “I overcame my cravings to be more loving.” “Do you love me, my dear, or just oblige me?” What is love? Aristotle did not say enough.
For that reason, religious educators often lean on Greek philosopher Aristotle’s virtue ethics in their curriculum. It is simpler to talk about virtues and vices than love.
Eastern religions are perhaps less ‘commanding,’ yet still impart practical wisdom for the benefit of humanity. More on that some other times.
Humanistic people, that is people of academia, largely justify morality by explaining what morality is from humanity’s point of view − a rational and/or empirical view.
Philosophy is not just some hair-splitting mental exercise about irrelevant matters, like that of the difference between the noumenal beyond − that is, about the realm of things ‘as they are in themselves,’ and the phenomenal here and now. Surprisingly, philosophy does have very practical aspects.
3 Key Moral Philosophies
Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime.
1. Virtue Ethics
Famous philosopher Aristotle and other ancient Greek thinkers inspired virtue ethics, which is an approach to morality that focuses on character development and less on rules.
Virtue ethics assumes that people acquire virtue, that is moral excellence, through practice. By practicing being honest, brave, just, and generous, a person develops a lasting, honorable, and moral character − so it is hoped. By honing virtuous habits, people will likely make the right choice when faced with ethical challenges down the road.
Virtue ethics works well for raising younger generations, including religious youth.
German philosopher Immanuel Kant, yet, promoted rules-based ethics. Famous is his categorical imperative to ‘act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.’ Kant’s material is very heady and perhaps too inaccessible to ordinary folks.
Rules, especially those in question regarding promises, duties, and obligations, are processed cognitively, not intuitively, and at a considerable mental effort to a conscientious person. Talking virtues and vices are much easier.
As such, moral and ethical rules provide the foundations for law and order almost everywhere in Western-style public life. Just ask a lawyer or government official.
Consequentialism is an ethical theory that judges whether or not something is right by what its consequences are.
Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, whose work explores the consequences of a thoroughgoing empiricist outlook, judge consequences by a “greatest good for the greatest number” standard. Utilitarianism considers the interests of all humans equally, thus it is often favored by those with a strong sense of social justice on behalf of the less fortunate, and resisted by those who have, over time, made something out of themselves by virtue of delayed self-gratification.
The concept of utilitarianism has been applied to social welfare economics, the crisis of global poverty, and many more situations.
Pragmatists like William James and John Dewey say that most contentious topics—such as the nature of knowledge, language, concepts, meaning, belief, truth, and science—are all best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successes.
James warned that “nothing practical or useful is held to be necessarily true nor is anything that helps to survive merely in the short term” to shield against the temptation of favoring expediency over principle. Pragmatism, then, is a method of reflection to render ideas clearer by not only looking into the rearview mirror of history for commandments and principles but also looking forward to the future for possible outcomes − good and bad.
Troublesome to religious sentimentalities perhaps, pragmatism also advocates replacing obedience to the Divine (whether in the shape of a deity, monarch, or nature in itself) with consideration to “a law one gives oneself,” as Rousseau and Kant had already said.
Hedonists believe that pleasure, or the absence of pain, is the most important principle in determining the morality of a potential course of action. Pleasure can be things like “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll,” but it can also include any intrinsically valuable experience like watching a heart-warming movie. German philosopher Schopenhauer emphasized getting rid of pain instead of primarily seeking pleasure.
Hedonism is characterized as egotistical since it more often than seems to emphasize a person to consider only his or her own pleasure in making choices. Yet, hedonism can also be altruistic − and as such much less noticed by religious people − when it brings about the creation of pleasure for all people or when the creation of pleasure for all people is taken as a proper means to measure if an action is moral.
Regardless of the type of hedonism, critics fault it as a guide for morality because hedonism ignores all other values, such as freedom or fairness, when evaluating right and wrong.
Consequentialism has a great deal of appeal in these days of statistical analysis and AI-powered probabilistic.
However, because it is difficult, or even impossible, to know what the result of an action will be ahead of time, consequentialism is criticized for being hypothetical or inherently uncertain − at least as much as people and the future are.
Commandments, virtues, rules, practical sense, and consequences are, in short, the cardinal lights guiding human behavior. However, no one person is just following or responding to only one light and not another. Life and people’s natures are too fluid to be characterizable by any one style − even over only a short time.
I wish, sometimes, that understanding the 10 Commandments would be enough to make a good living and society. But then again, I do not even remember what all the 10 Commandments are.
In any case, an answer to the question of morality depends largely on a view of human nature. Again, there is the religious view of human nature, and there is the humanistic view of human nature. Over much of history, one view borrowed elements of insights from the other and so on.
Philosophers like Spinoza and Descarte were still religious at heart, even though they began to explain their philosophical views in non-religious terms. System builders like Kant and Hegel, following in the footsteps of Spinoza and Descarte, were great idealistic rationalists as well.
In contrast to idealism, empiricism took off with John Locke and David Hume. I believe that people of faith are well-advised to acquaint themselves with the basics of Hume’s work to gain a better perspective on the aboutness of life and human nature.
Human society and culture only get more and more complex.
Understanding how that happens makes it less intimidating.
First, there were just the early civilizations of the Golden Crescent (Egyptians, Hebrews, and Babylonians), then came the Greeks and Romans, who were followed by the Europeans. Oh yes, I know that I am ignoring a lot of other people: indigenous folks, Africans, Asians, etc. Now, in this interconnected world, all peoples have to deal with each other as they are. There is no more hiding.
American Philosopher John Searle cares to explain how acts of speech make and have made a difference.
Being an ordinary person, I watched his presentation multiple timHume rightly showcases his pioneering account of justice. In the Treatise, he emphasizes the distinction between the natural and artificial virtues. The natural virtues—being humane, kind, and charitable—are character traits and patterns of behavior that human beings would exhibit in their natural condition, even if there were no social order. The artificial virtues—respecting people’s property rights, fidelity in keeping promises and contracts, and allegiance to government—are dispositions based on social practices and institutions that arise from conventions.es in order to get it.
As David Hume already said, there are natural virtues and