Intro to Ethics: Religious Ethics

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 2, 2009 in Confucianism,Ethics,Intro to Ethics

intro_to_ethics

Welcome to my course on ethics. Last time, I explained the purpose of this course and what ethical philosophy is. This time, I’ll begin a brief history of ethical thought, which should help to put everything else in context.

In studying the history of ethics, we will learn many important things. We will, of course, learn about the major ethical thinkers in history and what they thought. You can’t read much ethics without reading references to Kant or Mill or Aristotle, and you’ll want to know what the author is talking about.

But this is not all we will learn. We will also learn that ethical philosophy can affect the way people actually act. The Church knew this when they forbade the works of Bentham. The English Parliament knew this when they banned Hobbes’ Leviathan in 1666. The Nazis knew this when they burned philosophical books.

We will also learn that ethical concepts have changed with social structures and worldviews. When the ancient Indian scriptures speak of धर्म (dharma), they don’t quite mean what we mean by “righteousness” or “virtue”, but there are similarities. Aristotle’s εὐδαιμονία (eudaimonia) can’t simply be translated as “happiness.” Or consider ἀγαθός, the ancestor to our “good.” But to be ἀγαθός is to be “brave, skillful and successful in war and in peace; and one must possess the wealth and (in peace) the leisure which are [both] the necessary conditions for the development of these skills and the natural reward of their successful employment.”1 Now, that is quite different from our notion of “good.”

The history of ethics will also reveal that, though there has been great progress in ethical philosophy – especially in the last century – all the major theories from the past are still in play in some form. Advanced forms of divine command theory, Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Hobbes’ contractarianism, Kant’s deontological ethics, and Bentham’s utilitarianism are still defended today, as are many other theories.

The early history of ethics

The earliest ethical systems in recorded history are religious ones. People were mostly concerned with pleasing the gods so that the gods would give them a good harvest or healthy children. This meant that sacrifices and rituals were highly moral, as was submission to the given social structure, and a separation from the practices of competing tribes.

But religions also provided moral codes similar to our own. For example, the Five Precepts of ancient Buddhism:

  1. No killing.
  2. No stealing.
  3. No sexual misconduct.
  4. No lying.
  5. No alcohol or drugs.

Or, consider Jainism, which advocates the cultivation of wisdom and self-control. Jainism was – and still is – quite progressive in that it respects the lives of animals, even insects. Strict Jains wear a cloth over their mouths to avoid inhaling gnats – not because they don’t want gnats in their teeth but because they don’t want to harm the gnats! Jainism’s five principles are similar to the ones above:

  1. Non-violence (ahimsa)
  2. Truth (satya)
  3. Non-stealing (asteya)
  4. Celibacy (brahmacarya)
  5. Non-posession (aparigraha), or detachment from people, places, and material things

ten_commandmentsA much later example is the list that Westerners are most familiar with, the Ten Commandments of the ancient Israelites. Though they appear as three different lists in the Jewish Bible, the most familiar version is this:

  1. Worship no other gods but Yahweh.
  2. Do not make or worship idols.
  3. Do not use God’s name wrongly.
  4. Don’t work on Saturdays.
  5. Honor your mother and father.
  6. Do not kill.
  7. Do not commit adultery.
  8. Do not steal.
  9. Do not lie.
  10. Do not covet.

As you can see, it’s a combination of tribal loyalties/traditions and ethical principles.

Exceptions

There were exceptions to religious ethics, but they were rare. One early example is Ajita Kesakambali (c. 550 BCE), who belonged to the atheistic school of Indian philosophy known as Carvaka. Kesakambali rejected moral values altogether, as many modern philosophers do:

Ideas like generosity are the concepts of a stupid person. He who speaks of their existence, his words are empty and confused; a cry of desperation.2

Confucious

confuciousOne highly influential thinker was Confucius (551-479 BCE), whose ethics focused on three things: (1) ceremonies for sacrifice to ancestors and various gods, (2) social and political institutions, and (3) daily etiquette. For Confucius, the most important things was empathy for others and social harmony, expressed in his ethic of reciprocity: “one must always treat others just as one would want others to treat oneself.” Versions of this “Golden Rule” appear in dozens of religions and ethical philosophies, before and after Confucius.

Ethical systems

Though religious and other pre-philosophical moral philosophies are still popular today, nearly all modern philosophers are more interested in developing a rigorous, systematic account of moral values, a practice that began with the Greeks. Even modern religious ethical theories have bowed to this approach, and it is to the Greeks we turn next.

  1. W.H. Adkins, Merit and Responsibility in Greek Ethics, pages 32-33. []
  2. See Ethics in Early Buddhism, pgs. 16-18. []

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk June 2, 2009 at 8:26 am

A Carvaka shoutout! Much impressed.

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Dace June 2, 2009 at 4:14 pm

“The earliest ethical systems in recorded history are religious ones. People were mostly concerned with pleasing the gods so that the gods would give them a good harvest or healthy children.”

That’s interesting. I would’ve thought that the first ethical systems would be deontological for some reason.

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faithlessgod June 3, 2009 at 1:32 am

I disagree that most if not early recorded ethics was religious in nature.

I know you are going to mention the Greeks in the next post but this is  parallel with not after most of the known texts (apart from Hammurabi which although based on his divine authority was pretty much a set of secular laws). Early Greeks such as Solon wrote his Ten commandments before Buddha was around (and before there is any evidence for the Jewish Ten Commandments being writtne). The Torah, which become the Old Testament of the Bible,  as we know it was formed pretty much around the same time (according to the JELP theory).

The exception to the earliest religious ethics is particularly telling – why not have quoted, say,  Solon instead?

Further the anthropological evidence indicates that the earliest tribal religions did not have much to say about morality. The connection came later wih the growth of Chieftan and City states (see Jared Diamond).

2,500 odd years ago was a very interesting time for both secular and religious ethics or, more simply ethics in  general.

P.S. Can you not switch on the preview facility? Why one earth does  wordpress not provide this most basic function by default  in their otherwise far superior comments system to blogger.

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Lorkas June 3, 2009 at 4:49 am

faithlessgod: P.S. Can you not switch on the preview facility? Why one earth does wordpress not provide this most basic function by default in their otherwise far superior comments system to blogger.

This isn’t a Wordpress blog, is it? Fooled me, if it is.

Preview would be good, but I can’t complain. It has lots of features I like, such as underlining in red any misspelled words.

It’s kind of hard for me to understand what you’re arguing in the rest of your comment. I can parse a bit of it, but I don’t really understand your nontraditional sentence structure. Alas.

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faithlessgod June 3, 2009 at 5:46 am

Lorkas: This isn’t a Wordpress blog, is it? Fooled me, if it is.Preview would be good, but I can’t complain. It has lots of features I like, such as underlining in red any misspelled words.It’s kind of hard for me to understand what you’re arguing in the rest of your comment. I can parse a bit of it, but I don’t really understand your nontraditional sentence structure. Alas.

If you look at the bottom of this page you can see what this blog is powered by ;-)

There is no underling in red of words provided by the comment system. That is a feature of your browser, as it is in firefox which I use.

Yes there were some typos and a few missing punctuation marks (a reason I like to preview before I publish) but what on earth do you mean by “nontraditional sentence structure”???

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Lorkas June 3, 2009 at 6:21 am

Thanks for the tech info, faithlessgod. :) I don’t remember, lukeprog, but are the comments managed by Wordpress as well? I remember you talking awhile back about changing the comments program.

Re: nontraditional sentence structure–I just can’t follow what you mean in the second paragraph. I can tell what the rest of the sentences mean, more or less, but they seem confused to me, probably because I can’t follow the second paragraph.

Are you arguing that there are secular ethical systems existing alongside religious ethical systems in earliest recorded history? That’s what I have been able to parse so far, although the details you give are a little muddled to me still.

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lukeprog June 3, 2009 at 7:33 am

Yeah, it’s WordPress comments, with the TinyMCE plugin to give us buttons for link, italics, bold, etc. I’m still not happy with the comments system; I’m working on it.

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faithlessgod June 3, 2009 at 9:12 am

lukeprog: Yeah, it’s WordPress comments, with the TinyMCE plugin to give us buttons for link, italics, bold, etc. I’m still not happy with the comments system; I’m working on it.

It would better than Blogger comments if you add the preview plugin, that in my view is all you need. (I personally don’t like threaded comments in blog posts). BTW your guest post on Unreasonable Faith has now spun out (due to issues with that comment system)  to my blog see Is Morality all in the Head?

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