The rules that guide us were created by us
04 March 2023
TUMBY BAY - Michael Dom and Paul Oates took issue with a comment I made about ethics and religion following an article by Chris Overland about the inexorable rise of stupidity in the 21st century, ‘The inexorable rise of the 21st century stupid’.
In my comment I wrote that you don’t “necessarily need religions to decide on what is right and what is wrong. All you need is a functioning brain."
I also added that you don't “actually need any codes to guide you. It's more of an innate or instinctive thing.”
Michael took a semantic view and argued that my reference to right and wrong was misplaced in a religious context.
He said that religion should not be considered to be concerned with right and wrong but rather with what is good and what is not good.
It is an interesting subtlety because it suggests that for the religious a basic ethical concept can be malleable depending upon the circumstances.
There are, of course, many examples of this concept in religious coda.
The Old Testament and the Koran (Quran) are good examples of where fundamental ethical principles are ignored for what is perceived as a greater good.
Chopping off the hands of thieves or executing murderers, for instance, is seen as serving a greater good in preventing such crimes even though the punishments are contrary to the ethical principle of doing no harm to fellow humans.
I’m happy to take Michael’s point, but I suggest that in making it he is in fact supporting my view that religion is not much use when it comes to issues of what is fundamentally right or wrong.
Paul takes a different tack and argues that an agreed code of ethics is required to determine right from wrong.
His position, I think, is that religion and its derivatives provide such a code.
I’ve got no problem with that idea but I would argue strongly that such codes were not invented by religions, nor are they something gifted to humanity by various supernatural beings or gods.
With respect to the idea that religions invented our ethical codes I would refer readers to Alain De Botton’s excellent book, ‘Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion’ (Hamish Hamilton, 2012).
De Botton discusses the process of religious colonisation:
“Early Christianity was itself highly adept at appropriating the good ideas of others, aggressively subsuming countless pagan practises … the new faith took over celebrations of midwinter and repackaged them as Christmas.
“It absorbed the Epicurean idea of living together in a philosophical community and turned it into what we now know as monasticism. And in the ruined cities of the old Roman Empire, it blithely inserted itself into the empty shells of temples once devoted to pagan heroes and themes.”
De Botton argues that, if you accept the idea of religious colonisation, it becomes apparent that “the many rules ascribed to supernatural beings were actually only the work of our all-too-human ancestors.”
Our remarkable success as a species has been dependent upon our ability to live together cooperatively. To do that has required rules from the very beginning when we were all hunters and gatherers.
That is, we retrospectively made up our gods to fit around what we intuitively knew were the differences between right and wrong and good and bad.
In that sense, we never needed a god or a religion to tell us what is ethical because that resides in each and every one of us no matter whether we are religious or not.
Paul asks: “Whose code do you follow and how can you not have chaos when there are no agreed rules?”
The short answer is that you should follow your own code.
And maybe obey the law, or at least those parts of it you think are just and right.
Christianity is an ethical religion based on teaching of Christ whom we Christians believe is the son of God and the second persona in the trinitarian God.
Morality or ethics goes better in the Christian religion where moral philosophy and theology find their rightful place.
Morality or ethics virtually mean the same thing and are taken from from the Greek 'ethonos' and the Latin 'moras', which means good customs or traditions.
Ancient philosophers including Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Diogenes and others defined ethics (morality) as a principle of common good that should should benefit all people.
Socrates was so convinced his reasoning was right that he refused to recant and was burned to death because his ethics challenged the established system of that time.
Sir Thomas More was put to death because of his firm belief that King Henry was wrong to start his own Anglican church and married other women. More is known as the father of positive law and moral justice.
And we also have people like Martin Luther King, Indira Gandhi and others who were devoted to ethics and morality as they sought to create a just society.
Ethics and morality interact with religion, each supporting the other. We should embrace both.
Posted by: Philip Kai Morre | 14 March 2023 at 04:58 PM
Ha, Phil! You have just enunciated your modus operandi. What would the world be without the full range of alternatives on the table.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 07 March 2023 at 09:19 AM
That's why we need blokes like you around, Phil.
All systems are fallible.
Perhaps an alternative mantra is 'Try for the good and right will work itself out'.
Posted by: Michael Dom | 06 March 2023 at 07:51 PM
Michael and Paul - I'd suggest that if people didn't buck the system now and again we'd never make progress and would probably still be living in the dark ages.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 06 March 2023 at 02:24 PM
It is my fear that for anyone starting out in life or trying (as we often do) to get their life onto a better pathway, what Phil suggests (to follow your own code), is unhelpful at the beginning, dangerous towards the middle and disastrous towards the end.
At its very worst rationality is an intellectuals source of pride and questioning your own may be likened to an assault on the god of self.
As a plan for human societies to coexist productively, I suspect that Phil's mantra would not work very well and does not work well for very long in personal or communal relationships.
We should probably read history with an understanding that in the ultimate struggle for supremacy, the monotheistic Judeo-Christian religion held out as 'the best option available' for human progress on the most part and, when the Western world merged the most helpful parts (mostly good) into democratic systems, allowed people of diverse cultures (I'll do it my way folks) and religions (what master do you serve folks) to also live together relatively well.
That's not to say that the process of arriving here was clean nor that the end result is spotless perfection.
(And so my semantics, good not right.)
Much like for the discovery and ownership of Australia, arguing over who's right and who's wrong would not help anyone today. Better try to make Australia as good as you can instead.
Regarding the creation of gods, I think this was a necessary part of the process of arriving where we are now, at least in terms of making some good progress through much of human history without utterly destroying everything (but give us a chance, eh laka).
Also, I suspect that the process of creating gods is ongoing in the human psyche and in human society.
Perhaps Phil argues from the vantage of one who has freed himself from that burden, like
And that bloke is often confused as a god though he never said he was one.
Posted by: Michael Dom | 06 March 2023 at 08:21 AM
Your last two paragraphs appear to be in potential conflict Phil. The first says follow your own code and the second suggests it also might be a good idea to follow the law.
How would you choose which course of action to follow if there is a conflict?
In a complex society, if everyone did their own thing, how would you know who is law abiding and who could you trust?
There is no doubt that any code of ethics and law originates on Earth, no matter what some may claim to the contrary.
What is good or bad or merely one of the many shades of grey will always depend on the eye of the beholder.
If you know what those in power over you are most likely to think however, due to an agreed and predetermined set of codified parameters, it's a fair bet you'll have a better chance of having a more sedate life.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 04 March 2023 at 09:02 PM
The thorny topic of what is right or wrong, good or bad, fair or unfair has taxed the minds of philosophers for several thousand years.
They tended to arrive at different conclusions because, amongst many variables at play, they often lived far apart and came from very different cultural backgrounds.
Consequently, the way in which Plato regarded the world and determined what constitutes a good life was inevitably at variance with the ideas of Confucius.
All monotheistic religions start from the premise that there is a supernatural being who created the universe and has set down certain rules for living.
These rules often are discovered in a moment of divine inspiration which comes upon a person who subsequently is regarded as a great prophet.
People as diverse as Moses (Judaism and Christianity), Mohamed (Islam), Joseph Smith (Mormonism) and L Ron Hubbard (Scientology) all claimed to have delivered a set of ideas about what constituted a virtuous and pious life either directly from God or from his duly appointed representative.
As a non-believer in supernatural beings, I regard such claims with extreme scepticism, but many people uncritically accept them and the rules for living that they defined.
My personal view is that there is no way that you can determine rules for living that are not subject to a long list of caveats or qualifications.
Murder is undoubtedly a terrible crime and rightly condemned as such, yet there clearly circumstances where killing someone else may be justified or even righteous.
Some of us justify to ourselves the appalling mass killing in warfare as an evil necessity or, in some circumstances, the moral rightness of killing those who have a belief system other than our own.
We humans seem to find it very hard to accept that uncertainty and ambiguity are the hallmarks of the universe within which we live.
We therefore construct belief systems that offer a purportedly coherent explanation of that which is fundamentally inexplicable.
For me at least, it is very liberating to understand that there is not now and never will be a universally applicable explanation of life or its meaning.
The truth is that life is its own meaning. Our DNA drives us to replicate our species because that it what it and we exist to do. There is no other grand mission for us: the rest we have to make up for ourselves.
Religion or philosophy seek to fill this gap. We seem to be quite bad at this task because our track record is one of greed, malice, stupidity and violence.
As an historian, I tend to think that we have improved over time but at a glacial rate.
Strange as it may seem the last 70 years or so have been amongst the most peaceful in human existence.
The current Russo-Ukraine War is an ugly reminder that truly stupid ideas still have potency and can result in the inflicting of great harm upon many people.
Sadly, we have yet to find a way to entirely prevent us from being our worst selves.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 04 March 2023 at 04:50 PM
This makes Brother Stuey's statement during the Robodebt inquiry quite interesting, especially his stance on cabinet solidarity, which was effectively an elective dictatorship rather than a mechanism of representative democracy.
"A healthy loyalty is not passive and complacent, but active and critical" - Harold Laski
"A State divided into a small number of rich and a large number of poor will always develop a government manipulated by the rich to protect the amenities represented by their property" - Harold Laski
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 04 March 2023 at 04:14 PM
Codified laws were designed to have populations behave in a reasonably cohesive manner and to create behavioural orderliness for the betterment of these groups.
These laws arose from early religious beliefs but it is commonly believed that the formal English system is based upon the rules and laws established by the Roman Empire.
There is a group of people who call themselves 'sovereign citizens' who believe that government-set laws impinge upon their rights as individuals to decide what's best for themselves.
Sometimes these people are called 'Karens' and they tended to come to prominence during the strict Covid requirements of recent years.
I prefer some sense of predictability about human behaviour.
Posted by: Ross Wilkinson | 04 March 2023 at 03:45 PM
The codes certainly give us a wide choice. Take for example the codes for getting along with your neighbours.
The bible says (Matthew 22:39) "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself".
The Koran says (Pickthall translation 9:123) "Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you and let them find harshness in you".
Posted by: Chips Mackellar | 04 March 2023 at 11:38 AM
Thurgood Marshall was an American civil rights lawyer and jurist and became the first African-American justice appointed to the US Supreme Court.
His loose legal philosophy was quite interesting: "Do what you think is right and let the law catch up."
He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. It is his personal bible that Vice-President Kamala Harris used during her swearing-in ceremony.
Thurgood Marshall was not perfect, and nor would he claim to be. But he was fair and sought to champion the rights of those who had few champions with political power.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 04 March 2023 at 11:28 AM