I’ve been thinking about ethics and morals over the past week, as preparation of a sort for writing this post. I’m not quite sure what got me started on this topic in the first place though. It would be more accurate to say that it is the basis for ethics and morality is what is interests me.
Religious people don’t have an issue, really, because their religion sets the rules for interactions with others, and any such rule is inviolate because it is supposedly handed to humans by “the powers that be”. The rule base is generally given as the word of god.
Laws underscore ethics and morals, as they define what should happen if a person offends against another or the state or establishment. If it is not ethical to steal from another, what should be done? A law defines both the crime and often the punishment.
In the past, when religion had total control of peoples’ lives the religious establishment, the priests or other religious officials generally administered the secular laws and at the same time administered religious matters. In fact there was little difference.
The laws of those times, at least in England and Europe and probably in most of the rest of the world reflected a vengeful deity. The basic ethic was “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth“, with the added spice of an implication of sin.
Sin is an offence against god, so trumps the mere earthly transgression of the theft or whatever itself, resulting in penalties which would seem far too harsh in this day and age. For instance amputation for theft, deportation, banishment, or death for similar offences was common. Apart from the punishment of the perpetrator, a reason for the severity of the sentences was intended to underline the power of the establishment and to deter others from committing similar crimes.
In Christian and Jewish religions there are the Ten Commandments (or Sayings in Judaism). To Christians they are the ten commands of God, and in Judaism they are ten of 613 commandments of God.
There are three parts to the Ten Commandments.
Firstly, there are four commandments relating to God. From an ethical point of view, if you believed that God was overseeing your life, then you had better do whatever you could to make him happy. A good start is to believe in Him, and then to keep Him happy by worshipping him in appropriate ways.
Secondly, there is a commandment relating to parents and teachers, in other words, those with authority over one. Again, it makes sense to keep those in authority happy.
Finally, there are five commandments relating to relationships with other people, things such as stealing from them, sleeping with their wife and daughters and so on.
Outside of the Ten Commandments, it appears that the early Israelites had some ethical beliefs involving animals, as the tale of Balaam’s donkey reveals. Balaam’s donkey complains in a very human way expressing her hurt at Balaam’s treatment of her, and Balaam apologises to her.
So a religious person has a basis for his assessment of what is right and wrong from the above framework. It was considered right to follow the teachings of the Ten Commandments, and this was reinforced by the society of the time.
As with all ethical frameworks, there are times when the framework doesn’t quite seem to fit the situation. When you are starving could it be wrong to steal a loaf of bread, particularly if the bread in question will otherwise go to waste? When your family is starving, could it be wrong to steal to feed them? Obviously if the rules are applied strictly it IS wrong, and often, in the times when religion was paramount, they often were.
Of course, those who do not have a belief in a deity can still be guided by the Ten Commandments, if they are in fact relevant to them. So let’s have a look at the Ten Commandments from a secular point of view.
Obviously, the four commandments relating to God, don’t apply? Or do they? In dealing with religious people, a non-religious person should be aware of and make allowances for the non-religious person’s belief, so long as they don’t cause a conflict with the non-religious person’s belief. For instance a non-religious person may happily attend a wedding but may object to any attempt to indoctrinate his children with religious beliefs through the child’s schools.
An unquestioning following of the fifth commandment may also conflict with a non-religious person’s ethical beliefs. While a non-religious person may accept the authority of the government and of the police, he or she might disagree with the correctness of their actions. Occasionally, though, a non-religious person will disagree with the authorities so much that he or she will rebel against them.
The rest of the commandments deal with relationships with other people, and a non-religious person may well believe that these are ethically correct instructions. They describe how a person might want others to behave towards them, so ethically that is how a person should treat others.
This ethical principle, of “do as you would be done by”, has a long history and is sometimes known as “the Golden Rule“. There is a second part to this principle which “do NOT treat others in a way that you would not like to be treated”. This principle is the basis for the two characters, Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, from the story “The Water-Babies” by Charles Kingsley.
The Golden Rule seems to be a very good basis for a set of ethical rules. Of course it is too simple to explicitly and accurately cover every eventuality, as the example above of the starving family demonstrates. It also does not make allowance for differences in beliefs, and there are others issues with it, but it can be seen that it is implied in the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments themselves inherit the issues of the Golden Rule. As given, one should not harm another person, but what if you need to harm someone to save their life? Surgeons do this every day, but one can extend this to the killing of someone. Few people would argue that a policeman who guns down someone on a killing spree, as happens fairly often these days, has acted unethically.
Nevertheless, the Ten Commandments and through them the Golden Rule, provide useful hints and guidelines to good ethical behaviour, even for a non-believer.