Is ethics possible without religion?

Sim Kwang Yang

Modified 5 Jul 2008, 5:40 am

We are all condemned to be moral agents. When we choose a course of actions, we make the decision according to whether it is morally good or bad.

In this confusing and increasingly secular world, a pertinent question would be: Is ethics possible without religion?

If this question is one on matter of fact, then the answer is a resounding "yes". In Socrates and Confucius, we have two great philosophers who have expounded their ethics without recourse to any supernatural being.

The authority of Socratic system of ethics is his Form or Idea of the Good, which can be achieved by his epistemological method of dialectic. Many of his tenets have since haunted the Western world. Is it really true that ethics can neither be legislated nor taught? Is it really the case that to know the good is to do the good, and nobody does bad things intentionally?

Confucius too, teaching around roughly the same era as Socrates 25 centuries ago, derived the commanding authority for his system of ethics from his idea of "humanness". He never made any reference to a personal god. In fact, he advised his followers to "respect and avoid ghosts and spirits"! When asked about death and the possibility of an afterlife, his cryptic answer was: "how do we know anything about death, when we have yet to understand life?"

In the end, Confucius' most memorable teaching has been his canon that "we must not do unto others what we do not want them to do unto us". It echoes the teaching by Jesus Christ for us to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Then, closer to our modern age, there is utilitarianism, first proposed by Jeremy Bentham, and later modified and refined by JS Mill, and Henry Sedgwick.

Again, without appealing to the authority and the existence of a Supreme Being, Utilitarianism exalts the value of happiness as the greatest good in the life of the individual and the nation-state.

Since then, utilitarianism has become the moral ideology for the political, economic, penal, social, and moral transformation of the industrialised West, and increasingly in the rapidly developing countries of the Third World. Despite our charade of being a deeply religious society, I suspect most Malaysians of all races are utilitarian at heart, some without realising it.

Question of justification

Therefore, the question of whether ethics without religion is not a question about a matter of fact, since secular ethics has existed in various parts of the world for millennia. Rather, it is a question of justification: can ethics without religion be justified, ultimately?

This question is central to revealed monotheistic religions of the world, covering probably nearly half of the world's population. For worshippers of the Islamic, Christian, and Judaic faiths, there is only one God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Holy of Holies, the Beginning and the End of all Things in the Universe. God is the ultimate justification of all morality. The teaching of his Word on the destiny of man as revealed in his prophets' holy books containing the rules to a good life is the final authority on moral and ethics. Any transgression of those numerous rules on all aspects of man's spiritual and mundane earthly living will condemn him to the eternal damnation of Hell's fire.

One immediately thinks of the Ten Commandments.

Since God is worshipped as being absolutely good, all moral judgements must use God's absolute goodness as a standard. Since what is absolute is eternal, necessary, and universal, it is not subject to the vagaries of space and time.

Without this absoluteness, secular morality tends to be situational, relative, and contingent. It lacks the authority of religious ethics to command people to do the good and right things. It cannot command all men because its justification is weaker than the justification in the absolute command of God. For Christians, Muslims, and Jews, morality without religion is indeed unthinkable.

Therefore, the debate on whether ethics without religion is possible will only arise between people who have embraced monotheistic faiths and others who do not share their faith, especially the atheists and the agnostics.

Such a debate is obviously futile, because not only is it impossible to arrive at any consensus, it is doubtful that it would improve goodwill between the two groups of human beings.

For instance, a learned secular moralist will argue that even within the ambit of monotheistic theology, it would be impossible for any mortal human being to know about the nature of God. According to St. Anselm for instance, whatever you think God is, God is greater than that, or else he is not the God revealed by the prophets. That is why you need faith, when knowledge does not serve you anymore. As Immanuel Kant said, he had to deny knowledge (of God), in order to make room for faith.

To the rejoinder by the religious faithful that at least they have their holy books as the words of God, the atheist or the agnostic would say books give you imprecise words and quotations accompanied by their contexts. You have the space between the sky and the earth for interpretation of those words and their contexts. Can the fluctuating slippery language of human beings really reveal the eternal universal and holy truths about God?

And then, the opponent of religious ethics will simply say that since the only thing to compel anybody to follow the ethical system of any organised faith is precisely faith, and since the God of monotheism has decided to give human beings their free will, then the free thinker is merely exercising that right not to believe, and therefore morality is possible without religion.

This is the sort of endless argument engaged by undergraduate students in western universities for hours on end; it is a welcome distraction from the boredom of studying books for too long. But at the end of the day, nobody would be swayed by the argument on either side. Either you believe in a personalised monotheistic god, or you do not.

In the business of living a good life though here in multi-religious Malaysia, the question of whether ethics is possible without religion does underlie people's attitude to their own faith, and to others who have other forms of religious affinity.

To Christians and Muslims alike, is it necessarily the case that they are the chosen people of God, and all others who do not share their belief are "infidels", "pagans", and therefore immoral sinners, predestined and condemned to eternal damnation?

There are many ways to skin a cat, and this question can be answered many ways by different religious scholars and clerics quoting profusely from their holy books.

We have to appeal to lived experience. Religious belief remains as a very personal thing. People will worship whatever they want to worship, and our Federal Constitution does guarantee a certain degree of freedom of religion.

'Paganism' in Malaysia

In Malaysia, there are numerous forms of "paganism", and there are those who are steadfast in their conviction that God is but a figment of the human imagination. Yet they are generally good citizens and good human beings, obeying all the laws of the land, and observing all the mores prevailing in the Malaysian society. They do not set fire to houses, rob other people, or commit murder. In other words, they have perfectly working morals, and they can distinguish what is bad from what is good, most of the time.

Of course they will hold various views on contentious social issues of the day, such as abortion, homosexuality, same sex marriage, euthanasia, the death sentence, prostitution, premarital sex, and such other matters that bear on personal behaviour. But by and large, generally speaking, Malaysians seem to be quite a tolerant people. Whatever their personal conviction on these matters, they seem to be relatively liberal to people who prefer to live a different lifestyle.

A young friend who used to write columns for the Chinese papers and who is studying for a PhD in New York recently declared himself to be gay. As far as I am concerned, that is his personal business, and none of my business. Most Chinese commentators seem to share my feelings. His problem is that he is also a self-professed Christian, and the various Christian denominations do not look kindly upon so-called sexual deviations from the norm.

For my Christian friends, I can only appeal to the spirit of Christ's teaching, as embodied in the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us".

Then, whether there is ethics outside of religion is no longer an important question.

P.S. The writer wishes to thank Mr. Lim Boo Choong, a personal friend and a faithful reader, for suggesting the topic for this article.