More on Ethics in Schools

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At the risk of over-cooking this subject, I’ve become fascinated by the debate that this generally harmless proposal has created. See my earlier post on this.

In a recent article by Neil Ormerod, we see once again the arrogance of religious scholars on display.

What starts out as a reasonable discussion, quickly descends into the predictable hand-waving and faith-based assertions which are meant to sway the reader.

There is plenty of fancy footwork, quoting philosophers, using the words ‘subjectivism’ and ‘relativism’ a lot, leading to the crafting of the inescapable conclusion that you can’t have ethics without God. Except that it’s quite escapable if you boil down the bluster.

Go read it, but I’ll quote bits which I felt inclined to comment on.

Certainly there has been no agreement between them beyond bland generalities. Indeed the injunctions offered by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, such as ‘in all things strive to do no harm’, ‘live life with a sense of joy and wonder’ and ‘enjoy your own sex life’ are superficial and ineffectual in resolving significant moral issues.

How is ‘strive to do no harm’ any more bland than ‘love thy neighbour”? To me, it’s a fundamental principle, and boy can it be used to good effect.

The fact that the vast majority of religious believers live lives of simple virtue, despite some spectacular failures, may also be a ‘reason’ to seriously consider the contribution of religious ethics.

I can also assert that the vast majority of non-believers also live lives of simple virtue, despite some spectacular failures. How is your assertion a reason for anything? You have no evidence to make a sweeping statement such as this (no more than I have), and betrays the monumental arrogance displayed by some of those with faith, especially ‘scholars’ who trot out jargon and drop names to support their belief systems.

Even a secular ethics may find in this sufficient reason to at least dialogue with religious ethics; certainly it would be unreasonable to completely exclude such dialogue. I’m sure the St James Centre would agree, but I’m not sure their atheist supporters would.

Neil, you imagine that your statements are somehow persuasive, though I can’t see why. There is NOTHING in the previous to last statement which gives ANY reason for ‘dialogue with religious ethics’.

Finally any ethical approach must recognise the difference between moral reasoning and moral performance. Beyond appeals to self-control, moral reasoning cannot provide the empowerment we need in order consistently to perform as moral agents. Nor can it tell us what to do in the face of our own persistent moral failure.

This is simply your opinion. I simply don’t accept that. Are you saying that I can’t behave morally if I don’t understand the origins or proofs of the morals? If I teach my children not to harm others, because they wouldn’t like being hurt and because it’s important for society that we get on together, why do I need to appeal to some arcane moral reasoning? To use an analogy (so that I too can drop names), we can apply Pythagoras’ theorem every day, with needing to remember, or even be aware, of its proof.

We need something beyond moral condemnation and genuine moral guilt in the face of such failures if we are not to sink into despair. And so beyond ethical consideration there are questions of grace and forgiveness, areas where Christianity at least claims to know something worth knowing.

Who exactly is sinking into despair? I really resent your implication that I will sink into despair if I don’t adopt a religious moral code. All of us at times fail to live up to some ethical standard or other. It seems though that the most obvious transgressions belong to the church, do they not?

And ‘…grace and forgiveness, areas where Christianity at least claims to know something worth knowing’ . Huh? More arrogance. The church simply does not practice what it preaches here. Is it gracious to condemn people to burn in hell for eternity? Well, perhaps it practices forgiveness – with its own appalling priests primarily.

Religious ethics are based on belief (and hence are inherently irrational according to their opponents) while secular ethics are based solely on reason. One can be ethical without God and so religion has nothing to add beyond irrational superstitions and ignorance.

Right so far. You’re getting my hopes up…

The Enlightenment narrative of the triumph of reason over the forces of irrationality (i.e. religion) is not far from the surface, even as post-modernism denounces reason as simply a mask for the will to power.

Only to dash them on the rocks with this academic mumbo-jumbo.

There is almost a sense of incredulity among some that the myths of religion still persist in the face of advancing science and human rationality.

However, the claims that one can develop a secular ethics without God also need to be subjected to inquiry. Certainly one can be ethical without God. But can one develop a coherent ethical system without recourse to the divine? That is a different question.

You’ve already covered this. One word: Pythagoras.

Certainly the great Enlightenment philosopher, Emmanuel Kant felt it necessary to evoke the divine for the operation of his ethical system. While denying that God’s existence could be known by reason, God’s existence was a necessary postulate for practical reason in the development of his ethics.

Oh, well. If Kant says so…

But if the only purpose is the purpose I create for myself then ethics is irreducibly individualistic. You have yours and I have mine. Our ethics then boils down to a set of arbitrary (and hence non-rational) personal preferences. This is not a coherent rational ethics. It is the denial of the possibility of finding a coherent rational ethics.

Oh, so if the ethics are arbitrary, then they can’t be rational, and if they are personal, they can’t be coherent. Well, why don’t we look at it this way: You have your ethics and I have mine and each thinks they are rational, but let’s agree on a common set of principles by which to live, so that yours and mine are similar. Let’s do it via some mechanism – oh, I don’t know – what about a class in school for children, so that they can discuss ‘yours’ and ‘mine’. Voila! A coherent set of ethics emerges amongst the graceless savages!

Neil, this simple scenario has shown up your argument to be circular and self-serving. Your ability to twist the arguments to get the desired outcome is commendable.

So to develop a coherent rational ethics one might need to speak about a purpose to human living, a purpose which is not arbitrary or a matter of personal choice, but is nonetheless a purpose one ‘ought’ to choose. Where might we find such a purpose? Those who propose a secular ethic have already identified such a purpose. We ought to be reasonable; we ought to live according to standards of reason that go beyond personal preferences and place a moral obligation upon me and everyone else. This is part of the purpose of being human.

Again, says who? There is no point making statements like this without a line of reasoning. Why ought we? Why can’t we just work it out between us, without pretending that our invisible friend ‘told us to’?

But what reason do we have for being reasonable, for living according to the canons of reason?

Err, to enjoy our lives and those of our loved ones? To explore the world so that we may understand it better? To avoid institutionalised sodomy of children due to the repression of the natural urges of priests?

Does the universe care? Does our commitment to reason have some ultimate purpose? Would it matter if I fell short from the moral obligations reason imposes upon me and simply indulged myself every now and then? Would there be a reason to sacrifice such indulgence in face of the obligations of reason itself?

Perhaps it was to address questions such as these that Kant felt it necessary to restore God as a postulate of practical reason!

Yes, well, 2 or 300 years ago there were many gaps being filled by God. Something you can’t deal with or understand? – God did it, said it, thought it etc. As human beings have steadily filled those gaps with KNOWLEDGE, the big G has been squeezed into fewer remaining dark nooks. One of the last of those nooks is ethics and morals, and what you are trying to do, Neil, is to stop us from disturbing his hidey-hole by shining a torch there. You are understandably petrified that all we’ll find is a dusty corner.

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2 thoughts on “More on Ethics in Schools

    Taking Down the Religiati « rationalbrain said:
    December 24, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    […] like Neil Ormerod sneer in their pseudo-academic way at atheists, and draw on all manner of logic, reasoning, […]

    […] may recall an earlier piece or twoon the teaching of religion in schools. It seems that as well as some pending high court action […]

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