Morals without God

Jonathan B. Wight

Frans de Waal, in “Morals without God,” argues against the view of some people of the cloth that without God there would be no morality.  Rather, morality arose for evolutionary purposes and is thus more ingrained in the human psyche than cultural and religious conceptions of right and wrong.  The evidence for this is in fellow primates.  De Waal states:

I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary….DeWaal

Chimpanzees and bonobos will voluntarily open a door to offer a companion access to food, even if they lose part of it in the process. And capuchin monkeys are prepared to seek rewards for others….  A dog will repeatedly perform a trick without rewards, but refuse as soon as another dog gets pieces of sausage for the same trick.

While God isn’t needed for morality, according to de Waal, religions serve important purposes in society that should not be dismissed.  Hence, de Waal is sympathetic to religions and their morals, which provide a framework for social advances over the centuries: Monkeys

And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch….

Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality….It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion.

Hence, this leads to the conclusion:

[W]hat would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.

De Waal thus provides a defense of religion as a foundation for justice, which it certainly is.  But there are other defenses that rely on the pleasure created by religious practice itself—as in mysticism.  That is a topic for another day.



Assessing Competence to Refuse Medical Treatment

Mark D. White

Last night I read a wonderful and concise article by Jillian Craigie (King's College London) from the latest issue of Bioethics (25/6, July 2011) titled "Competence, Practical Rationality and What a Patient Values." The abstract follows:

According to the principle of patient autonomy, patients have the right to be self-determining in decisions about their own medical care, which includes the right to refuse treatment. However, a treatment refusal may legitimately be overridden in cases where the decision is judged to be incompetent. It has recently been proposed that in assessments of competence, attention should be paid to the evaluative judgments that guide patients' treatment decisions.

In this paper I examine this claim in light of theories of practical rationality, focusing on the difficult case of an anorexic person who is judged to be competent and refuses treatment, thereby putting themselves at risk of serious harm. I argue that the standard criteria for competence assess whether a treatment decision satisfies the goals of practical decision-making, and that this same criterion can be applied to a patient's decision-guiding commitments. As a consequence I propose that a particular understanding of practical rationality offers a theoretical framework for justifying involuntary treatment in the anorexia case.

Craigie argues for assessing the procedure--in this case, practical judgment--by which a person comesto the decision whether to refuse treatment, rather than applying external standards to the decision itself or the reasons that led to it. She emphasizes that in the past, simply exhibiting a behavior and expressing a preference that was characterized as or associated with a mental disorder was taken as evidence that the patient was "irrational." In the case of anorexia nervosa (on which she focuses in the article), if the patient expressed an overwhelming desire to be thin, this was judged to be irrational simply because that was one of the hallmarks of the disorder. Craigie correctly identifies this as circular reasoning, akin to listing homosexuality as a disorder and then "concluding" that homosexual desires are "pathological" (or interpreting denial of a problem as evidence of the problem--for one of the most disturbing instances of this that I've read, see Deirdre McCloskey's Crossing: A Memoir).

Instead, Craigie recommends looking into the quality of the reasoning by which the patient forms the value or preference that leads to the treatment refusal. She considers several approaches of evaluating the process by which the patient comes to a particular conclusion rather than simply judging the decision itself, or the value or preference that led to it. I was gratified to see this approach, because that is what I argue in much of my work on paternalism and welfarism: assuming that paternalism is justified in cases of involuntary behavior, involuntariness must be assessed procedurally--based on how the individual came to "act" in a certain way--rather than judging the value, prudence, or wisdom of the act itself. Whatever external evalutors think of an action is irrelevant--all that matters is how she came to that decision, and if she acted voluntarily.

Craigie argues that there is some evidence--though perhaps not enough at this point--to suggest that anorexics form their overwhelming desires for thinness in ways that compromise their true autonomy, and compares this case to Jehovah's Witness who refuses blood transfusions, in which case she recognizes that the religious value leading to that decision may be a core value of the individual, and is therefore less questionable. This is in line with what I have argued elsewhere (including chapter 5 of Kantian Ethics and Economics), we should assume that individuals make decisions in their own interests, as complex and multifaceted as they are, and interference with them is only justified if there is evidence that a decision (or action) was not made (or taken) voluntarily. (And yes, I realize that voluntariness is a topic of discussion all in itself, but I think the point stands even without specifying it further.) Refusal of medical treatment is  fantastic application of this, and I am very happy Craigie raised these issues.

Conference: The Impact of Hinduism on the Economy and Business Management

Mark D. White

Upcoming at Fordham University...

Conference on the Impact of Hinduism on the Economy and Business Management

Subramanian Swamy
President Janata Party, former Harvard Economics Faculty,
IIT Delhi, Minister of Commerce, Finance, Law, and Justice

Srinivasan Kalyanaraman
Chennai, India, Former Senior Executive, Asian Development Bank

R. Vaidyanathan
Indian Institute of Technology, Bangalore

Mr. John Tognino, Chair, Fordham University Board of Trustees, will inaugurate the conference.

Sponsored by the Economics Department, International Political Economy & Dev’t (IPED), Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), Fordham University; Vijaydev Mistry Foundation, and Twaalfhoven Family Foundation.

Reception follows the conference. To reserve your seat, register for free at

For more information, please contact:

Dr. Hrishikesh D. Vinod
Economics Dept
Fordham University, Bronx,NY
Tel. 718-817-4065
[email protected]

Ethics and Religion: Special issue of Philosophical Investigations

Mark D. White

The latest issue of Philosophical Investigations (34/2, April 2011) is a special issue on ethics and religion, containing the following papers:

Timothy Chappell, "Glory as an Ethical Idea"

There is a gap between what we think and what we think we think about ethics. This gap appears when elements of our ethical reflection and our moral theories contradict each other. It also appears when something that is important in our ethical reflection is sidelined in our moral theories. The gap appears in both ways with the ethical idea glory. The present exploration of this idea is a case study of how far actual ethical reflection diverges from moral theory. This divergence tells against moral theory, and in favour of less constricted and more flexible modes of ethical reflection.

Lenn E. Goldman, "Ethics and God"

Philosophers like to speak of a “Euthyphro Dilemma” pitting divine fiat against a moral realism that soon fades to personal or social preferences. But Plato targets no such dilemma. The Euthyphro hints a complementarity of divine commands with human moral insights. Values are constitutive in ideas of divinity, and monotheism affirms only goodness in God. So, pace James Rachels, worship is not surrender of autonomy, as Saadiah and Maimonides' biblical and rabbinic ethics reveal. Chimneying more fairly models the dialectic of religion with ethics than does the contrived conflict between putatively arbitrary divine commands and presumptively self-certifying human moral creativity.

John E. Hare, "Ethics and Religion: Two Kantian Arguments"

This paper describes and defends two arguments connecting ethics and religion that Kant makes in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. The first argument is that the moral demand is too high for us in our natural capacities, and God's assistance is required to bridge the resulting moral gap. The second argument is that because humans desire to be happy as well as to be morally good, morality will be rationally unstable without belief in a God who can bring happiness and virtue together. The paper states and replies to three objections to each argument.

Michael McGhee, "Is Nothing Sacred? A Secular Philosophy of Incarnation"

Christian thinkers have recently expressed concern about the “silencing” or marginalisation of religion in public life, have affirmed the desirability of dialogue between the world of faith and the world of reason but have raised doubts about the feasibility of a moral language that refers to unconditional moral claims or human rights or the intrinsic dignity of human beings if it is not grounded in a transcendent or supernatural source of value. The present paper is an attempt to open a conversation about these themes from the point of view of a non-theistic humanism inspired by a notion of incarnation.

David S. Oderberg, "Morality, Religion, and Cosmic Justice"

I argue for a connection between morality and religion on the basis of a need for cosmic justice – a comprehensive system of rewards and punishments for good and bad behaviour, respectively. I set out the Argument for Cosmic Justice, discussing the nature of reward and punishment and how they differ from mere benefit and loss. A world without cosmic justice would be absurd and unacceptable to anyone who takes morality seriously in the way identified by George Mavrodes. I also consider a number of objections to the argument.

John Rist, "Morality and Religion: Some Questions about First Principles"

Challenged by moral nihilism we have three options: some sort of “Protagorean” conventionalism, a transcendentally rooted version of “naturalism” originally identified by Plato and fleshed out by Augustine, and a “virtual” morality cynically marketed as objective. Conventionalism, however, fails to ground obligation, which could thus be justified only by “Augustine's” alternative, which he developed from its original in three ways: by proposing a personal first principle, thus emphasising respect for every individual; by deepening our awareness of evil in reinforcing the notion of “crime” by that of “sin” against the nature and consequent commands of a personal God; and by locating us in no timeless sphere of pure rationality but in our particular historical space. Religion (so understood) and moral obligation stand or fall together.

A Moral Sentiments Perspective on Health Care

Jonathan B. Wight

Mark raised an important question, “Does health care have special moral status?”  Mark answers in the negative, using strong intellectual arguments.  These arguments are not wrong but I suggest here they are incomplete because they fail to consider important aspects of human nature.

There is a moral sentiments argument for health care that is plainly made by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (III-3.4):

Smith starts with the famous line: “Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake…” 

Smith says that a person of great humanity in Europe would care very little about this calamity if he were far removed from the suffering.  Hence:  “If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw [those suffering], he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren….” 

But Smith goes on to show that if offered the choice of sacrificing a finger to save those hundred million Chinese, the moral imagination swings actively into gear.  “Human nature startles with horror at the thought,” that if we could easily prevent suffering, that we would sit by and do nothing. 

Hence: “When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble?” (emphasis added).

The bottom line is: The obvious lack of health care in some citizens, when it is widely viewed as resulting in pain that could be easily prevented or ameliorated, produces emotional shock that leads to active engagement to address the problem.  The same is not true for most other products. 

Example:  Let’s consider the case of last summer’s Copiapó mining accident in Chile. A purely intellectual analysis might conclude that Chileans (and others from all over the world) should not have devoted all those massive resources to saving the lives of the 33 trapped miners nearly a half-mile underground.  The miners understood the risks of taking the job, and were presumably paid a premium for that risk. 

Using cost-benefit analysis, one could show fairly easily that the money used to save these miners could save far more life-years used elsewhere.  Yet the reason the miners were saved is because the moral imagination was aroused.  This can be inefficient (it certainly is) and unjust (it likely is)—but it is an integral part of human nature. 

Hence, the pure libertarian view fails to consider the “externality” effect that pain causes on other citizens.  A pure libertarian might say, “Let them suffer—they made their own choices.”  But that runs counter to human biology (our mirror neuron system) as well as to religious injunctions (see the parable of the prodigal son).  Health care really is different because of the moral sentiments it arouses.

Christmas, Religion, and a New God

Jonathan B. Wight

It’s Christmas Day, and snow is falling gently in Richmond, Virginia.  Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus—if shopping malls are any indication.

Santa rules, but is there a God?  This is the subject of John Shelby Spong’s latest book, Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell (2010).  Spong is the controversial Episcopal bishop and prolific author who argued in previous books that Christianity had to modernize or die. Religion’s dogmas are deadening because they conflict with science and current common sense.  “One cannot restore life by doing a facelift on a corpse,” he wrote, in one of the memorable lines (p. 142). 

This isn’t particularly new; what is new is that an Episcopal bishop (now retired) is writing this.  Spong is speaking tomorrow in Richmond at my church—and the church he previously led—historic St. Paul’s Episcopal.  This is the church where, according to local legend, Robert E. Lee set the tone for the post-Civil War society by kneeling alongside a black man at the altar to receive communion. 

Spong is also willing to break with the past to forge a new direction for understanding religion and ethics.  Spong’s conclusion is that there is no God, at least not one of heaven and hell.  Rather, we must understand God (or love) as an internal link with the evolving consciousness of humanity.  This conclusion ends up being startlingly similar to Teilhard de Chardin’s thesis in his remarkable work, The Phenomenon of Man (1955). 

One is reminded of Adam Smith’s doctrine that belief in an afterlife is required if people are to develop self control needed for justice.  Is that an outdated notion?  Will humanity outgrow needing the threat of an afterlife (whether in Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism), by adopting a new universal consciousness?

Merry Christmas and happy dreams for the future…

2011 ASSA Meetings: Economics and religion sessions

Mark D. White

Going through the preliminary program for the upcoming Allied Social Science Association meetings in Denver in early January, I decided to highlight sessions that I found interesting for one reason or another. (See this previous post for sessions that focus on economics and ethics.)

Below the fold are several sessions that touch on economics and religion (as before, I've omitted the names of chairs and discussants, which can found on the program):

Continue reading "2011 ASSA Meetings: Economics and religion sessions" »

New book: Crisis and Recovery: Ethics, Economics and Justice

Mark D. White

Crisis-recovery In a case of excellent timing with Irene's recent post, as well as Martha Starr's upcoming book, Consequences of Economic Downturn: Beyond the Usual Economics, I just received a new book edited by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Larry Elliott titled Crisis and Recovery: Ethics, Economics and Justice (Palgrave, 2010).

The contributors seem to be drawn from a wide range of fields, from academics and politics to the non-profit sector and the church, all commenting (as do Irene and the contributors to Martha's book) on the moral aspects of the current downturn. Chapters which looks particularly intriguing to me upon first glance are Phillips Blond's "There Is No Wealth But Life," Andrew Whittaker's "Culture and the Crisis," and the Archbishop's own "Knowing Our Limits."

The Practices of Happiness: Political Economy, Religion and Wellbeing

Mark D. White

I just received an email from Routledge about this book; I'm generally very skeptical about "happiness studies," given the enormous subjectivity and measurement problems, but the religious perspective of this volume piqued my interest:

The Practices of Happiness: Political Economy, Religion and Wellbeing

Edited by Ian Steedman, John R Atherton, Elaine Graham

There is growing evidence that rising levels of prosperity in Western economies since 1945 have not been matched by greater incidences of reported well-being and happiness. Indeed, material affluence is often accompanied instead by greater social and individual distress. A growing literature within the humanities and social sciences is increasingly concerned to chart not only the underlying trends in recorded levels of happiness, but to consider what factors, if any, contribute to positive and sustainable experiences of well-being and quality of life. Increasingly, such research is focusing on the importance of values and beliefs in human satisfaction or quality of life; but the specific contribution of religion to these trends is relatively under-examined. This unique collection of essays seeks to rectify that omission, by identifying the nature and role of the religious contribution to wellbeing.

A unique collection of nineteen leading scholars from the field of economics, psychology, public theology and social policy have been brought together in this volume to explore the religious contribution to the debate about happiness and well-being. These essays explore the religious dimensions to a number of key features of well-being, including marriage, crime and rehabilitation, work, inequality, mental health, environment, participation, institutional theory, business and trade. They engage particularly closely with current trends in economics in identifying alternative models of economic growth which focus on its qualitative as well as quantitative dimensions.

This distinctive volume brings to public notice the nature and role of religion’s contribution to wellbeing, including new ways of measurement and evaluation. As such, it represents a valuable and unprecedented resource for the development of a broad-based religious contribution to the field. It will be of particular relevance for those who are concerned about the continuing debate about personal and societal well-being, as well as those who are interested in the continuing significance of religion for the future of public policy.


Introductory essay: developing an overview as context and future John Atherton

Part 1: Political Economy

1. Economic theory and happiness Ian Steedman

2. Happiness, welfare and capabilities Carl-Henric Grenholm

3. Happiness through thrift: The contribution of business to human wellbeing Peter Heslam

4. Happiness, work and Christian theology Peter Sedgwick

5. Happiness isn't working, but it should be Malcolm Brown

6. Challenging inequality in a post-scarcity era: Christian contributions to egalitarian trends John Atherton

7. Fair trade and human wellbeing Michael Northcott

Part 2: Contributions to Other Social Sciences

8. Religion and happiness: perspectives from the psychology of religion, positive psychology and empirical theology Leslie Francis

9. Ethnographic insights into happiness Jonathan Miles-Watson

10. Institutions, organisations and wellbeing Tony Berry

11. Religion, family form and the question of happiness Adrian Thatcher

12. Mental health, spirituality and religion Peter Gilbert

13. The ‘one in the morning’ knock: exploring the connections between faith, participation and wellbeing Christopher Baker

14. Crime, wellbeing and society: Reflections on social, 'anti-social' and 'restorative' capital Christopher Jones

15. Supporting offenders: A faith based initiative Charlotte Lorimer

Part 3: Reflections on Foundations

16. Human happiness as a common good: clarifying the issues Patrick Riordan

17. Being well in creation John Rodwell

18.The ‘virtuous circle’: Religion and the practices of happiness Elaine Graham

19 Well being – or resilience? Blurred encounters between theory and practice John Reader