Ethics Without Religion


Domenico di Pace Beccafumi, Moses and the Golden Calf, c. 1536

by Philip Kitcher

Many people believe, like Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, that if ethical precepts were not grounded in God’s commands, then anything would be permitted. From Plato onwards however, the philosophical tradition has frequently questioned the idea of a religious foundation for ethics. Despite this, philosophers have yearned for a different source of absolute ethical authority, substituting the dictates of reason for any divine imperative, seeking, like Kant, the “moral law within.”

Charles Darwin outlined a different way of thinking about ethics, and we are now able to articulate more fully the hints he offered. Ethics emerges as a human phenomenon, permanently unfinished. To adopt this perspective provides a different perspective on many questions that now confront us.

Fifty thousand years ago, our ancestors lived, as chimpanzees still do, in groups of about thirty members, mixed by age and sex. To live in this way was itself a social achievement, one that required psychological capacities that are rare in the natural world. As primatologists have discovered, chimpanzees are able to recognize the wants and needs of other members of their species, and to react in helpful ways. At cost to themselves, chimpanzees sometimes give aid to an impaired relative, or carry out a task that another has tried without success. These altruistic tendencies make their social lives possible.

Nevertheless, these capacities for sympathy are easily strained. Chimpanzee social life is often tense, because loyalties are discarded and selfish impulses override their limited altruism. There is much breaking-up, and consequently making-up, and long periods of huddling together for mutual reassurance. This, too, would have been the lot of our ancestors, restricting their opportunities for cooperation and the size of the societies in which they could live.

We became fully human when we were able to find ways of inhibiting tendencies to socially disruptive action and ways of reinforcing our altruistic capacities. Practices of punishment may well have played a role at early stages of the process. The crucial step, however, consisted in internalizing the check on our behavior. We became able to formulate rules for ourselves, or to remind ourselves of exemplary cases of conduct: we invented a crude system of ethics.

This was both a psychological and social achievement, tied to the full use of language and to the ability to discuss potential rules for behavior with one another. So there grew up the rules of kinship still evident in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, rules designed to settle issues about alliances in cases of conflict and about potential mates – exactly those issues that cause trouble for chimpanzee societies. Yet this was only the beginning. Different bands could experiment with different systems of ethical rules, and the successful experiments were passed on. A product of this success was an ability to engage with a larger number of people, eventually, about ten thousand years ago, to form permanent settlements containing hundreds of inhabitants.

With the arrival of writing, we can see the ethical practices of our ancestors more directly, in the fragmentary legal codes of the earliest documents. These reveal a piecemeal adoption of new rules, designed to cope with unprecedented situations, rules that are passed on to other societies with very different religious beliefs. Instead of thinking that the same rules were announced by many different deities, we do better to think that the rules come first, as practical solutions to social problems, and that they are then absorbed within a religious framework that serves to give them extra force. For, as ancient societies discovered, the idea of an all-seeing being who scrutinizes conduct is a wonderful way to increase compliance.

Over the five thousand years of recorded ethical practice, there have been further significant changes. Some of these must surely count as progressive: we have become able to recognize the claims of those who look different, to repudiate the idea of slavery, to accept women as full members of at least some societies. Yet the primary cause of these advances has surely not been that human beings have understood the ethical project clearly, and have found reasons for improving it. Instead, the resistance of those who have suffered has finally proved overwhelming. Progress has been blind, and the result of force rather than of insight.

Understanding the historical roots of our ethical practices can help us to do better in going on from where we are. For the past refinements of our ethics might have been achieved more intelligently, by recognizing the consequences of maxims and policies. That recognition would not be the careful prudence of the self-interested agent, but an attention to the needs of all. Ethical debate requires both an understanding of the factual details, and the constant expansion of sympathies, and it cannot be reduced to the exchanging of dogmas from rival traditions, or to the simple acceptance of irreconcilable disagreement. We have to continue the project begun thousands of years ago, by working through the places at which our inherited ethical maxims conflict. The only tools we have for doing so are our ability to fathom, as precisely and thoroughly as we can, the impact of actions on people’s lives and our capacity to extend our sympathies and to view the situation from a large number of perspectives.

These tools are good enough to help with some of the troubling questions of our times. When societies debate whether small clusters of human cells might be employed to generate treatments for people who suffer debilitating diseases, we can set aside the conversation-stopping appeals to fundamental commandments that cannot be gainsaid. Scriptures do not actually pronounce on the status of small clusters of cells, but even if they did, we can, and should, view such pronouncements as residues of past responses to ethical predicaments, to be re-evaluated in light of our own knowledge and own possibilities. Expanding our sympathies, we can take in the situations of the disease victims who suffer, but we cannot find any perspective owned by a cluster of cells well before the stage at which a central nervous system will be laid down.

Similarly, if the Muslim extremist cites a verse of the Koran as a justification for terrorism, or if the American fundamentalist turns to the Book of Revelations to argue for the destabilization of the Near East as a means to the “end of days” and the return of the Savior, we should not only protest the tendentious interpretation of the texts, but also point out that these texts are responses to ethical predicaments of the distant past, possibly adaptive to their own times, but in need of reassessment in ours. Enlarged sympathy may acquaint us with the needs, material and psychological, of the people who urge violence, but understanding the terrible impact of the actions they commend will surely direct us towards peaceful ways of addressing what genuine concerns they have.

It may seem, however, that treating ethics as a human phenomenon, as a work-in-progress, undermines its authority. Without absolute commands, is everything permitted? Why, if the ethical maxims that currently govern our lives have emerged in this way, should we obey them?

Part of the answer is to appreciate a great insight of Plato’s. To say that ethics is founded in the command of God – or the dictates of Reason, for that matter – doesn’t help. Not every command should be obeyed, and it is crucial that the source of the command be a good one. Thus there must be some prior basis of goodness, antecedent to the source of the command, against which that source measures up. Failure to think in terms of that prior standard pervades the testimonies, offered in courtrooms from Jerusalem to Johannesburg, of those who protested that they were only following the orders of their powerful superiors. That sort of evasion is no more successful when the putative “superior” invoked is powerful beyond human comprehension.

In fact, viewing ethics as a human historical achievement does better at explaining its authority. It recognizes us as socialized into a way of practicing ethics, and thus raises the possibility of seeing ourselves both as drawn to continuing the ethical project and as able to see parts of it as confining. If someone protests the authority of an ethical maxim, that protest can be taken seriously, viewed as a call for dialogue, to be investigated by considering consequences and enlarging sympathies. The deeper form of skepticism comes from someone who aspires to reject the practice of ethics as a whole, a Nietzschean “free spirit”, perhaps, who demands a “revaluation of values”. Here, it’s appropriate to inquire what the “free spirit” has in mind. Challenges to current ethical practice are integral to the continuing ethical project, with its efforts at progress and refinement. But if the skeptic wishes to repudiate that project entirely, the only concrete possibility we can identify is the limited, and socially tense, world of the chimpanzees. Without some alternative, we can only regard skepticism as a repudiation of any recognizably human form of life.

We have inherited a complex ethical practice from those who came before us, and we take it to be authoritative except where we can find ways of improving it. Understanding where we have come from may help us to go on better, to search for new knowledge that will bear on the issues that perplex us, and, above all, to expand the range of our sympathies. For the reinforcement and extension of sympathy is, after all, where the human ethical project began, when our ancestors became, for the first time, human.

About the Author:

Philip Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. He is the author of The Ethical Project.