Advocates of the various religions claim that the ethical “contribution” of religion is the most pressing argument for its acceptance by society. Without religion, they argue, society is deprived of a universal “standard of ethics.” Accordingly, those who are not inclined to appreciate the supernatural aspects of religion should accept religion instead on the grounds that it provides a greater ethical “utility” to humanity than the “ambiguous” moralities of secularism and science.
Part I: “Utilitarian” Ethics
Religion has for centuries been retreating into a position of fideism (“belief based on faith”). Adherents of the various religions have intended to explain that, though acceptance of religious myths and rituals is irrational or indefensible by the criteria of contemporary science, these beliefs nonetheless can be pretended as having truth value. With regards to ethics the advocates of religion play on the contemporary prejudice that utility is something that can be considered separately from reason and evidence. The relationship human beings have with reality and the way in which they perceive this reality is, in the final instance, regarded as a kind of preference. The individual, as an individual, independently chooses what they believe, acknowledge or ignore. Even if ethical problems are associated with religious individuals or their ideas by secularists, those who criticize religion from a standpoint of abstract individuality do nothing to expose the actual social processes which underpin actions said to be carried out in the name of religion. Instead, such criticisms have the tendency to lapse into vindictive and stereotyped denouncements of those who hold religious views because those individuals have “failed” to choose a secular viewpoint. Upholding a general concept of preference in human perception or the plausibility of “subjective truths” as such harbors no conceivable social consequences for either religious dogmatists or for agnostic ones. Neither religion or secular ethics will make any headway against the other by arguing over which individual’s chosen reality should be preferred.
However much the resonance of certain religions doctrines and explanations have eroded, the unchallenged position of religion as a preference allows a considerable opening for religious views. Advocates of religion find themselves on even ground with the true believers of agnosticism when it comes to deciding what subjective set of morals and standards best serves the “utility” of society as a whole. Why is it that a debate on the social “utility” of religious views is considered a reasonable or useful debate, whereas most secular opponents of religion would consider debunking religious claims to be more of an act of cynical humor or of sanctimoniously “educating the ignorant?” The question of a religious ethics, like religious beliefs in other areas, is misrepresented as a question of “individual choice.” Secular critics of religion do not object to this premise, but merely to the various “choices” of interpretation presented by religion themselves, many of which violate well established facts in a way that inconveniences or offends individual secularists. Ethics, however, is something which raises for the faithful and the devoutly skeptical alike the question of why, and possibly how, a set of beliefs should be adopted by society regarding human behavior and not how little or how much evidence can be procured regarding the existence of miracles or of the gender of deities. The advocates of a religious ethics share with their secular opponents the mutual premise that the root of the problem of human behavior is in the thoughts of human beings and not in their relationship with society and nature. Both sides believe that, by convincing individuals to properly “choose” either a religious or a particular “secular” viewpoint on ethics, the real social and historical problems of society can be resolved. It is considered legitimate, under these circumstances, to ruminate about which set of beliefs – origins and factual accuracy aside – may best and most efficiently act as an incentive for people in general to improve their behavior. To assume, as such a discussion does, that individual thought can be separated or act apart from social processes is an irredeemable fallacy. All attitudes toward human knowledge which see it as a cause in nature and not as a result implicitly construct for themselves, in doing so, the concept of a metaphysical “ego” existing independently of reality. This is true both of nominally skeptical forms of egotism which currently pass as “secular,” or even “scientific,” and unrestrained forms like religion which follow from the same premises.
The various schools of thought which proceed from the assumption of human detachment from human activity each have found their own names for this premise. The “private space” of Existentialism, the “observer” of Positivism and the “individual narrative” of Post-Modernism all invoke an irreconcilable division between perceiver and perceived, and of thought from experience. What can be inferred from these labels except a duller reiteration of the “spirit“ invoked by religious perspectives? A realistic discussion of the social consequences of religious concepts can only take place on the basis of the search for the origin of ideas and thought in social and natural processes. In such an intellectual environment, however, the argument for an ethics derived from religious ideas and thought, and not from an assessment of social experience, would be perceived as another exercise in irrational futility, and therefore, of faith.
Part II: The “Utility” of Fear
What are the consequences of an attitude toward human existence which conceives causality in nature as a truth which is unreliable and forever secondary to personal preference owing to an imagined independence of thought from practical life? Such an attitude, however strongly felt, in no way alters the physical existence of the world around those who hold it. Society and nature alone determine every human behavior and all of human thought. What natural processes make thinkable for human beings is only their relation to those natural processes. The complete determination of the individual by greater processes in nature is reversed conceptually into freedom from them in the act of perceiving.
The religious form of this error of causality is to separate the imaginary ego of the individual from the “world of the flesh” by attributing to the ego an explicitly supernatural supremacy over nature. It is entirely logical that the confusion and limitations of the individual’s understanding of reality can result in a denial of reality altogether on the part of the individual. Human beings necessarily experience reality incompletely and partially. The practical question is whether to understand this partiality as a process of discovery or as a state of permanent alienation from nature. The wanting for self-understanding that is experienced by human beings can become a rejection of the complexities of real life. In the cases where it expresses itself this rejection serves to relieve the individual’s fears about experiences, causes and the individual’s relationships with them. It is the fear of the unknown that places an irresistible demand on the human individual to recognize and make known the ego, to deify and fantasize about it in all its lurid and dreamlike forms. If fear is understood as the human response to being unable to accept and understand the processes which occur in nature and society, then it is far from a mystery that the agnostic philosophies and reductionist sciences offer nothing but a quieter and less colorful escape into the recesses of the ego.
Part III: Ethics From Fear
The assumption of the independence of human thought from nature poses an ethical problem. The egotistical premise of knowledge and mankind’s relationship with nature is false to begin with. Inherent in such a perspective is a disregard and an incapacity for understanding casual relationships in society. It is necessary to accept society as a process in which the individual and events cannot be isolated. Every experience and human practice is incoherent “in itself,” and demands contextualization because it is only in relation to all other expressions of society and nature that human actions can be understood. The fear of being unable to comprehend an action invokes false causality in which single instances are removed from social processes and labeled according to current conventions of thought. Events are paired with ideas which most serve the individual to mitigate or eliminate the need to really comprehend what has happened or is happening around them. The apparent “individual choice” to perceive reality a certain way is instead based on the real experiences and corresponding needs of the individual and is in the final instance separate from intentions.
Different cultures and ideological traditions guide egotists of all creeds in identifying the name of an immediate action. A prepared “cause” or “factor” is found to place under that heading in the form of a fixed and generalized characterization. The characteristics expected and attributed preemptively to a social action appear to the individual employing them as an ineffable and obvious product of what is considered “human nature” in their society. Any concept of “human nature” must be taken directly from what is at the time assumed to be inherent defects and strengths of individuals which “cause” them, as individuals, to act a certain way, independent of any other consideration. Nothing is left of the human experience by imagining humanity has its own immutable and exclusive “nature” apart from the greater processes of life. The egotistic approach to knowledge is reflected in the reduction of the entirety of social understanding to the search for the collective and hierarchical “egos” of individuals living in society, but not placed in it.
The sweeping characterizations of humanity and its “nature” in each period of history appear “natural” and obvious only because they correspond exactly to the social structure, social conflicts and relationships of each period. Each stereotype and archetype of the imagined human essence that is particular to a specific period in human history is undermined and eventually made entirely absurd from the perspective of later generations as the social environment changes over time. The old stereotypes, however, are simultaneously traded for new ones better reflecting the social situation of the succeeding period. That these characterizations are also historically specific fails to occur to individuals. Both the abrupt and slowly gestating changes in the various ideas which have been considered to be “common sense” in human history are themselves explained by the latest variations. The defects of past conventions of thought are characterized as examples of present conceptions of “human nature” against a different backdrop.
There is nothing socially useful in deriving ethical considerations from a standpoint of individual fears and the various alleviations from them preferred by individuals over any thorough and open-minded assessment of social processes. The received opinions and “common sense” which enter into these “preferences” can do nothing other than conform with the prevailing assumptions of a certain section of society at the present moment. It does not matter, moreover, whether the individual would like to call these assumptions “sensible” truths or “revealed” truths. What all such viewpoints consequently entail is alienation from other individuals, from social processes and true self-understanding. Every response to events based on the fearful belief in a living world which is devoid of meaning outside of the individual’s own thoughts is destined to reproduce aversion to the complexities of those events. This manifests itself in the form of conscious or unconscious attempts to correct reality with ideas which are meant to provide the individual with comfort in the face of their terror. The warped nature of these efforts to establish causality where none is easily perceived is capable of achieving any degree of error in judgement, including superstition and hysteria.
The tendency of such thought is to resolve in practice into intolerance, apathy and indiscipline. Rationale can be found to hate, to be callous and indifferent and to exploit others. Individuals tend to apply to themselves that which they have learned to identify as negative casual “characteristics” in others. The “ethics” which follow from fear, its stereotypes and dichotomies, is an ethics of repression and mutual recrimination. It promotes social disharmony and certain types of caprice over others which lends itself to an illusion of personal comfort and achievement in the face of what is considered a meaningless world and an inherently brutal society. It never occurs to the egotists that their “free will” and the daily triumphs and downfalls of their “egos,” great and small, are only the self-satisfaction they have gained from perceived advantages over others in society, and from the limitations they have attributed to themselves. The egotistical approach to society requires that self-worth and the worth of others reflects relationships of fear and not of social fulfillment. Humans are social beings and exist only in society and nature. If their understanding of life is one built on fear and its alleviation they will know this fear and the means of alleviating it only through their relationships with others and with nature. Their individuality becomes a constant struggle to find for themselves a position of detachment, of superiority or of inferiority, from which their individual fears and social pressures can be explained, identified and realized in their day to day relationships.
The “ethics” promoted by religious dogmatists does not deserve recognition as anything other than a variation of the generally egotistical points of view which are embedded in the social structure of contemporary society. The self-hatred of humanity and its feelings of alienation as expressed in all egotistical points of view are also the essential starting point for religion and simply appear under their own titles. The “innate evil of humanity” and the falsehood of the “material world” are no more than synonyms for what is generally accepted by secular ethicists in different terms. There is therefore no advantage or even a significant distinction from existing ethics to be found in religious morality. Why favor one type of ethical pretense over another when all exist to justify particular interests, actions and attitudes created by the social conditions of contemporary society? Human activity does not develop from ideas but from social and natural processes. The morals of any society is conditioned by the realities of that society and not the “will” of the human ego. Justifications will be found which are sufficient to satisfy the individual and a given society. The argument for a “religious” ethics is an argument over terminology. The “contribution” of religion to ethics is the insistence that the feelings of personal egotism and personal guilt experienced by individuals be reinterpreted back into impersonal entities; gods, demons, virtues and sins.
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[…] perspective on the subject was given in the contemporaneous “Biography and Positivism” and “Ethics.” – TJM […]