17

According to Aristotle, you will be deemed as living well if you experience worldly pleasures while still being morally upright and virtuous.

How can you identify what is morally right without the help of religion? Doesn't morality depend on religion?

  • @Eff: The exact moral position is irrelevant, as long as Carl has a moral position on something. Even if that moral position is the opposite of the majority's position on the topic. Immorality is not the act of intentionally doing what is outside the bounds of morality. Immorality is apathy towards morals and thus doing whatever you see fit, with no overarching guideline or rule. As long as Carl has any rule that they swear by and always act on (even if it's something like "kill all blond people"), then Carl has a sense of morality. Just not your morality, but that's beside the point. – Flater Feb 14 at 12:50
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Geoffrey Thomas Feb 14 at 18:34
  • 2
    Is religion possible in the good life? Is the good life possible with religion? How can you identify what is morally right without internalized knowledge, opinion and logic? Doesn't morality depend on understanding and reason? – phresnel Feb 15 at 12:05
  • 1
    Morality does not depend on religion. Religion is shaped to fit morality. – Kapten-N Feb 15 at 16:21
  • @Rusi. The answer was removed because it turned on etymology, not philosophy. There was nothing offensive about the content - that was not the reason for deletion - and the answer was short. It was, however, considered not to be to the point philosophically. Etymology cannot answer philosophical questions. – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 4 at 8:50

12 Answers 12

36

From a Deontological point of view, I think that ethics are naturally identifiable by virtue of reason alone, that is : There is something in us humans that belongs to our nature, and that has this ability to identify what is right, what is wrong and what might be suspected to be wrong.

How can you identify what is morally right without the help of religion? Doesn't morality depend on religion?

I think not, consider this thought experiment :

Suppose that Joe is an atheist (who was raised without any religion) and he wants to convert to Islam, Christianity or Hinduism (let us call it Religion R).

All Joe cares about is ethics, since he wants to convert to Religion R, he needs to verify whether the religion itself sets deontologically true moral laws or not.

As Joe started to read the Holy Book of R, he stumbled upon a verse : 30. Lo! Ye shalt not steal, for stealing is wrong.

Now, what reference should Joe use to verify whether the Book of R tells the truth? Does he just have to accept the claim, given the premise Morality depends on religion is true?

But remember that Joe is in the process of verifying religions and comparing them to find which is morally better

What if Joe were to choose between two religions R and S : R asserting that stealing is wrong, and S asserting that it is right? Which one can this unfortunate atheist choose? and on what basis?

From the previous thought experiment : it is obvious that whether we love a religion or hate another based on morals and ethics, is based on a deeper deontological level of ethics, and not on religions themselves.

It is also clear that if religions were the ultimate reference of ethics, Joe should accept any religion without a second thought, even if he is unlucky enough to meet a preacher for religion S (which states that stealing is right).

Edit

If morality depends on religion, then it follows that Joe cannot convert to any religion based on ethical comparisons and moral judgements, since he would not have any moral system to rely on to judge which religion provides the best moral system.

So, If MORALITY_DEPENDS_ON_RELIGION then JOE_CANNOT_COMPARE_RELIGIONS

Since Joe can reasonably compare and distinguish right from wrong religious ethics, it follows that the consequent in the previous conditional (i.e JOE_CANNOT_COMPARE_RELIGIONS) is false.

Therefore, using Modus Tollens, it follows that the antecedent is also false : MORALITY_DEPENDS_ON_RELIGION is false.

  • 2
    I think it might be also interesting to prove other direction - that following religion makes it impossible to properly reason about what is moral :) – Artur Biesiadowski Feb 15 at 13:39
  • @ArturBiesiadowski I agree, thank you ... where are the other comments that were here? – SmootQ Feb 15 at 17:27
11

One secular philosophical principle ethics can be derived from is the principle of humanism.

There is quite a lot of literature about humanism, but the concept of humanism can be grossly oversimplified as "The world would be a better place when everyone would be nice to everyone else, so we should generally all try to be nice people". Humanists consider actions morally right when they cause more good than harm and morally wrong when they cause more harm than good to everyone affected by the action.

This might seem a bit vague compared to the more concrete moral advice provided by religious dogma. While a religion might provide simple and easy to understand rules, like for example "Thou shalt not commit adultery", the answer to the question "Is it morally acceptable to have an intimate relationships with a person I am not married to?" is a lot more difficult for a humanist. The humanist needs to estimate how it would make them feel, how it would make their lover feel, how it would affect potential other people they or their lover have interpersonal relationships with, the good and bad consequences of having an illegitimate child, the risk and consequences of spreading sexually transmitted diseases, etc. A humanist needs to look at the consequences of every decision they make and then make a judgment call if the potential benefits outweigh the potential suffering or not. Depending on the circumstances, the humanists could come to the conclusion "I am single, they are single, we are both consenting adults, the risk of pregnancy and STDs can be largely mitigated if we use condoms, so let's have fun!" or "I am married to a very jealous person who would divorce me if they find out and drag our children through a stressful divorce and my lover might not really want it anyway but only do it to spite their partner who has anger management problems and does martial arts. This is a very bad idea!".

That makes moral decisions a lot more difficult for humanists than for religious people. While a religious person only needs to follow the dogma of their religion, a humanist needs to constantly evaluate all the consequences of their actions and is then responsible for making the ideal decision not just for them but also for the world around them. But on the other hand, giving that much responsibility to the individual also protects the world from actions which might be moral according to religious dogma but only have negative consequences in practice. A holy book cannot cover every possible situation in life, so following its advice might lead to suboptimal results in some situations.

  • 1
    This answer oversimplifies things, and presents religion in a strawman form. "While a religious person only needs to follow the dogma of their religion, a humanist needs to constantly evaluate all the consequences of their actions". For example, Jesus stated multiple times that humans have conscience and need to evaluate the consequences of their actions, and they should not "blindly" follow dogma. I could cite literally dozens of passages from the New Testament which are all about doing the right thing instead of blindly performing rituals or following the strictest interpretation of laws. – vsz Feb 15 at 7:12
10

The questions are:

How can you identify what is morally right without the help of religion? Doesn't morality depend on religion?

If one focuses on moral obligation, moral duty or moral right and wrong rather than Aristotelian ethics which does not have these, the obligation and duty part may require a divine lawgiver to whom one owes this obligation or duty and religion may help identify what that obligation is. However, if one merely wants to assess whether something is done well or not, an Aristotelian ethics may be adequate.

This is what G. E. M. Anscombe argues for in "Modern Moral Philosophy". She goes further and claims that the attempts to keep such obligation and duty around without the lawgiver is "harmful". Here is how she describes her second thesis:

The second is that the concept of obligation, and duty - moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say - and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of "ought," ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives of survivals from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it.

So, for Anscombe moral obligation depends on the existence of the lawgiver to whom one owes this obligation. If we wanted to retain such obligation without the lawgiver we would need an "adequate philosophy of psychology" on which to ground this obligation which is "conspicuously lacking".

There may be other approaches to the issue of moral obligation and the help of religion to identify what that obligation is. Anscombe's answer provides a perspective to assess those other approaches by clarifying what's at stake with regards to morality and religion.


Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). Modern moral philosophy. Philosophy, 33(124), 1-19. https://www.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/mmp.pdf

7

There is really no neutral answer to this perfectly interesting question. Those who believe that religion, all religion as such, is false can hardly allow any role for religion in the good life, save as it affords self-comfort at the price of self-deception. I shall not pursue this line because I prefer to see, if only as an exercise in philosophical conjecture, how religion might have an essential place in the good life.

The good life and character

If we take our cue from Aristotle* and regard a certain state of character and set of dispositions as integral to the proper 'functioning' of a human being, and hence intrinsic to and definitory of the good life, then religion can play a part in the formation of character and the acquisition and exercise of dispositions which we can properly call 'virtues'.

For a Christian the good life, from one point of view, consists in having a character informed by the theological and the moral virtues : the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love together with the four cardinal moral virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice. This draws out a discussable connection between religion and the good life.

*Aristotle emphatically did not connect the good life (eudaimonia) with religion. I am simply and experimentally re-locating his view of character and virtue to a religious context.

Endnote - morality, religion and the good life

I do not suggest that the good life and the moral life are identical. I do not deny the identification but do not question-beggingly assume it. Nor do I suggest that 'morality depends on religion'. At most my answer involves the possibility that the good life, if (IF) religion is necessary for it, contains morality through the four cardinal moral virtues - at least in the case of Christianity.

4

Religion is not necessary,

  • neither to find what good life consists in

  • nor to behave according to the finding.

Your reference to Aristotle points to a system of ethics with a purely philosophical basis (e.g. Nicomachean ethics). It does not depend on religion.

But the problem about ethics seems to me much deeper than the question: Is religion necessary for ethics? Because in my opinion, we do not „identify what is morally right“. Instead we decide what to establish as morally right - of course by a rational choice on the basis of arguments.

  • 2
    The problem I have with this is what you mean by "morally right" and "establish". Was the holocaust morally right because for a time it was established based on rational choice and arguments? I think we need to use other words besides "morally right" if we want to avoid such problems. – Frank Hubeny Feb 13 at 13:00
  • @Frank Hubeny I mean "to establish" in the sense of "to lay down rules". I took over the term "morally right" from the question. My answer implies that "morally right" is a relative concept, not an absolute one. - But which term do you propose instead? – Jo Wehler Feb 13 at 13:12
  • Regarding alternate terms to "moral right or wrong", Anscombe suggests taking a lead from Aristotle who did not need them. Perhaps just doing something well or poorly? – Frank Hubeny Feb 13 at 14:25
  • @FrankHubeny You see it as a problem, but (sadly) not everyone will. For Jo's answer, yes, some people would say the holocaust was morally right, provided the good life, etc.. Such reasoning is disgusting, obviously, but the purely philosophical reasoning used by some does lead to that. That is part of the problem with suggesting that morality can change from one person to the next, that what is "true for you" might not be "true for me," rather than suggesting that things can be universally right or wrong with people merely having mistaken beliefs. Malleable morality opens Pandora's box. – Aaron Feb 14 at 21:16
4

Is Religion necessary for the Good Life?

No, it's not necessary. But some people who follow religion may help you to lead a better life even though you didn't follow their religion.

'To be morally upright and virtuous', this is the important thing we must have. When a large group of people practice this, it may create a culture similar to religion [Eg.Some religions in India].

You just ask these questions to yourself and try to find out the answer:

'Didn't the people who lived in this world lead a good life before religions were originated? Was it impossible for them to lead a moral life?' [While trying to answer these questions, don't forget the fact that a moral life is a life in which one is dedicated to a particular philosophy of interrelation. And that need not necessarily be religious]

4

How can you identify what is morally right without the help of religion? Doesn't morality depend on religion?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is, in fact, the other way around. Religion quite obviously encodes the prevalent morality at the time of its creation and then updates throughout, but doesn't evolve morality.

Case in point: All three "book religions" of the Abrahamic branch show very clearly that their moral rules simply follow the customs of their time. Slavery, patriarchy, monarchy and the death penalty for minor offenses are supported in all three books, and all three are famously slow in adapting to changes in the social standards. Equality of the sexes, for example, is accepted as morally right everywhere in the western world today, and the catholic church is one of the last holdouts where sex-based discrimination is considered acceptable.

Also note the source of your claim. The ancient greeks had a very different attitude to their gods. This was caused by their gods being more human-like, including weaknesses and moral ambiguity (Zeus was famously unfaithful). While they considered their gods as powerful, superior beings, they would not consider them the definition of morality. Your statement would strike Aristotle as quite odd, given that most of his gods broke what he considered to be virtuous on a regular basis.

2

No, but it might be helpful for the good death!

What we see and know without religion can guide us to knowing how to benefit others and make the world a better place. But we don't naturally see anything beyond a person's death.

How could we know anything about a space we can't see? I suppose that there are only two possibilities: induction and revelation.

Under induction, I'm not aware of any clear knowledge that we have about what happens to a person after death.

Revelation into these things can only be provided by supernatural means, and so whatever interest we have in obtaining "a good death" must be exercised in terms of religion.

1

See, we land on other problems positing such questions in addition when the word religion is taken in traditional manner. Religion if defined to be set of beliefs then

How can you identify what is morally right without the help of religion?

The questions don't stop here. If morality is defined according to religion then which religion is true? or in other words which version of morality defined by various religions acceptable to you? Who will tell which one is the correct one?

Doesn't morality depend on religion?

If the answer to this question is true then we should not encounter any religious person in jail sentenced for murder, rape or robbery as these three are sins agreed by almost all the religions. But on the contrary we encounter therefore No; morality depends upon self-control or one's own nature (compassion, kindness etc), upbringing, ignorance etc.


But there is way to redefine religion which has been done by Jiddu Krishnamurthy. Religion if defined to be an attempt to arrive at the truth then,

So, obviously, religion is not ceremony. Religion is not dogma. Religion is not the continuation of certain tenets or beliefs, inculcated from childhood. Whether you believe in God, or don't believe in God, does not make you a religious person. Belief does not make you a religious person, surely. The man who drops an atomic bomb and destroys in a few minutes thousands upon thousands of people, may believe in God; and the person who leads a dull life and also believes in God or the person who does not believe in God, surely, they are not religious. Belief or non-belief has nothing to do with the search for reality, or with the discovery and the experiencing of that reality, which is religion. It is the experiencing of reality that is religion; and it does not lie through any organized belief, through any church, through any knowledge, either eastern or western. Religion is the capacity of experiencing directly that which is immeasurable, that which cannot be put into words; but that cannot be experienced, so long as we are escaping from life, from life which we have made so dull, so empty, so much a matter of routine. Life, which is relationship, has become a matter of routine, because inwardly there is no creative intensity, because inwardly we are poor, and therefore outwardly we try to fill that emptiness with belief, with amusement, with knowledge, with various forms of excitement.

So the question is what is the foundation of morality?

  • "So the question is what is the foundation of morality?" - Definitely not religion or law at this point. – Overmind Feb 15 at 6:34
1

I have written on a piece of paper that I am alive. That is a correct and verifiable fact. I am indeed alive.

  • Does this mean that I am now alive because this paper says so?

No.

Similarly, just because religion describes morality does not mean that it is the source of morality or that without this religion, morality could not possibly exist.

  • If I rip the paper in two, does that mean I cannot possibly be alive anymore and thus die?

I assume you agree that this is not the case. So if we do away with religion, does this then mean that morality ceases to exist? The same answer applies: no.

Inferring that you're a religious person, does ripping up your religious scriptures mean that you are incapable of still being moral? Do you lose your sense of morality if you have not read your scriptures recently? I suspect you agree that this is not the case.

  • If I had not written on this piece of paper, would I not have been alive now?

I assume you agree this is not the case. So if we had not created religion, would we therefore have no concept of morality either? The answer, just like for the piece of paper, is no.

Based on your question, I assume this is where you disagree. Your question is built on the premise that morality can only come from religion (or it at least asks to verify that this is indeed the case).


Let's explore your assertion. Let's suppose that without religion, morality cannot possibly exist. This leads to several consequences.

  • Atheists therefore are either universally immoral, ...

I know many atheists who have a sense of morality, including those who have never been raised in any religious context. I am one of them.

  • ... or they are faking their atheism by secretly still using religious morals.

I cannot conclusively prove a negative (whether they're faking their atheism or not).

However, if this is the case, it makes no sense to then call them atheists, as they are intentionally living by religious morality. They may not openly admit it, but this invalidates the claim that they are atheists.

  • Animals have no cognitive capacity, no religion, and are therefore universally immoral.

If that were the case, then why do mothers of all species have an innate instinct to fight to the death to protect their offspring?

How are we able to tell a feral animal from a domesticated one, if not by observing that domesticated animals follow guidelines they have been taught? Is being a well-behaved pet not a form of morality?

Why do my pets specifically avoid harming me? If they are immoral, they should be wholly indifferent to me and whether they harm me or not. I'm not saying they should be actively trying to harm me, but they should at least be uncaring as to whether something affects me or not.

  • One cannot change their sense of morality without altering the religious scriptures.

That is provably incorrect. Human morality has changed over time much more than any scripture has.

  • Everyone who (genuinely) follows the same religion therefore has the same sense of morality.

I do not particularly know how to conclusively disprove this to you, I can only offer anecdotal evidence.

Consider yourself. Think about things you may find immoral (e.g. drugs, speeding, infidelity, domestic violence, ...). Have you ever met a person who follows your religion, yet did something that you find immoral?

Them having done so willingly proves that they do not find this act immoral, and therefore have a different sense of morality than you.

  • Religion explicitly describes every facet of human morality.

Because if it didn't, then you would have to agree that some human morality was not prescribed by religion, and thus does not have a religious origin.

Consider a modern ethical issue: eugenics. The intentional genetic selection in order to create biologically specialized humans (or other creatures).

What is your opinion on the matter? Should it be allowed? Prohibited? Allowed but regulated? What would you consider as an unacceptable application of eugenics? What if I decide to genetically enhance my children to excel at combat, basically creating super soldiers? Do you think that crosses a moral boundary?

Once you've answered these questions, now please point to your religion's scriptures and explain why they explicitly include your moral stance on eugenics.

If you cannot, they this means that your moral opinion on eugenics did not come from your religion, it came from you.

  • Atheists are unable to be prosecuted for their behavior (in a Western judicial system) as they are considered unfit to stand trial (insanity defense) as they are genuinely unable to tell right from wrong.

This clearly is not the case, or otherwise everyone would be claiming to be atheist when on trial.

1

Religion is helpful but not necessary for those who know the purpose of religion. The rules laid down by religion are only meant to satisfy that purpose. One who has not known the purpose and yet practiced religion would probably have been happier if he would have known the purpose of it.

Religion is a highway to peace and not the only way to it.

Secondly, morality can come from conscience and need not come from religion. As per Nisargadatta Maharaj, in I Am That, "morality is nothing but using ones higher knowledge." A broader perspective.

0

It is absolutely possible to have a good life without religion. Ironically, the best proof of this comes from Buddhism. For this explanation it's necessary to approach Buddhism in a particular way, not as a religion, but as a natural philosophy, like one might do with Stoicism, Kantian and Aristotlean ethics. One of the core Buddhist principles is to have empirical evidence for what it states, which allows the principles themselves to be observed independently of the religious side. In other words though the explanation comes from a religion, the explanation is not dependent on the religion. It's why we can have a secular version of that religion.

The short answer is yes, but only if you do it right.

When you ask about the good life, you define it as experiencing "worldly pleasures while still being morally upright and virtuous", which has the two components of "worldly pleasures and "morally upright and virtuous". The flow of the logic of "morally upright and virtuous" goes something like this:

  • Buddhism states that our experience of life is plagued by suffering, dissatisfaction, and negative mental states.
  • These are caused by our internal mental states, such as sadness, depression, guilt, anger, jealousy, etc. This is evidenced by how we feel and behave when we're these mental states. These states generally aren't pleasant, and when we are in them, we are more likely to hurt others (lashing out when upset).
  • If these negative mental states are internal, they are within our control by our actions and thoughts.
  • By contrast, positive mental states are also internal and can be gained the same way, by our control of actions and behaviours. These tend to lead to positive personal and communal outcomes (you are much more likely to be generous and kind when feeling well.)
  • If negative states lead to pain, and positive states lead to happiness, we can conclude that positive states correlated to "the good life". If we identify what CAUSES the negative states, we can reduce and remove them from our lives.
  • Negativity is caused by negative thoughts (judgement, blame, negative self talk, etc) and positivity by positive thoughts (loving kindness, compassion, etc).
  • Negative thoughts are the cause of three primary causes: greed, hatred, and ignorance. Squash those, and you have room for the positivity.
  • The way to remove greed hatred and ignorance, is with a proper morality. Broadly, treat others well, treat yourself well, and focus on paying attention to your behaviours to see what is causing you issues.

Here, in this flow, we see that feeling well is connected directly to doing 'good', in a way that can be applied whether one is Buddhist or not. If you focus on feeling well, you find that morality is a good way to do this, but it's not the only component.

The second part of enjoying "worldly pleasures", it would say, in moderation. Worldly pleasures have a tendency of absorbing you into entitlement and gluttony (negative mental states). Enjoy what you have, but don't crave or attach yourself to them. The "good life" should include an acceptance that bad things exist and are a regular part of life. A common phrase I hear in the personal development community is "the struggle is real, success is not". It doesn't mean you can't enjoy what you have, or have lots of things you enjoy, but not if their absence leads you to dive back into wanting and suffering.

protected by Eliran Feb 14 at 23:47

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.