There are several different types of views about moral right and wrong, and several ways of categorising them. I will here present one rather important distinction I have observed: between what I’ll choose to call humanist and rule-based ethics, which terms I just made up.
One place I remember running into this distinction was in an article by Leila Jylhäkangas (“Religion and Dying”; see below, but as far as I know, it’s only available in Finnish). It is not quite a distinction Jylhäkangas herself makes, but it can be observed in her study. She had studied writings voluntarily submitted on the topic of euthanasia. The thing that caught my attention was that the comments against euthanasia were never about the concrete possibility of it being misused to get rid of sick people, which is sometimes mentioned as at least a possible issue. (Only one comment categorised as “vacillating” mentioned this clearly.) The only reason anyone in the admittedly probably rather small pool of material had to reject euthanasia was religious. Of course, there were also religiously motivated accepting comments, which shouldn’t be that surprising.
And what was this religious motivation? There was talk about how it is in God’s hands to decide when a human’s life ends, about the Fifth Commandment not to kill, and about how a human being, every human being, even an old and feeble one, is the image of God and therefore valuable. Basically, it was about the value and sanctity of a human life. A noble motivation, isn’t it? Except…
But wait, before going further into that, what were the arguments of those who thought euthanasia should be allowed? Admittedly, especially reading Jylhäkangas’s analysis of them, these people might have been exaggerating a little about how easily a life would become not worth living, maybe out of some fear of impurity that wasn’t entirely rational. But beyond that, the overriding basic idea was this: when life contains nothing but more pain before it ends, or an empty existence with no personality left, there’s no sense in maintaining it. They wanted to respect the autonomy and experience of the individual.
This might now look like there’s a conflict between important values, between life and autonomy or something, but these things aren’t really in the same category or way of thinking at all. My guess is that when someone says that God values every person, even one who is old and sick and dying or something, the one saying it may really think they’re also respecting that person more than someone who’d allow euthanasia. But remember we’re not talking about not trying to heal old, sick people because they’re useless, or anything like that. If euthanasia really is considered as a moral option, and, you know, not by fascists or anything, we’re talking about maybe a situation where someone has only a short time left to live, and all of that’s going to be in pain, and they want to end it already. Here’s the question: what are you respecting in that person when you say they are too valuable for euthanasia? You’re not respecting their chance to live a meaningful life from there onwards, because that almost certainly won’t happen anyway. You’re not respecting their right not to suffer, because, otherwise necessary or not, your choice for them will only increase the suffering. You’re not respecting their interests, because those could only be served by death at this point. You’re not respecting their autonomy, because you are denying their wishes.
You are respecting their life. But this does not mean a life worth living. It does not mean most of the things it would mean if you were defending a person with a life ahead of them, or trying to stop such a person from committing suicide because they still have a chance at life no matter how it now feels. It does not mean anything that makes the life valuable for the person. It means respecting the simple fact of their continued existence over their pain and pleasure, interests, wishes and maybe dignity. It does not mean respecting the person at all. It means using the person as a tool to preserve the abstractly sacred life, which in some such cases is seen as belonging to God and not them, so that they are obliged to keep it intact through otherwise useless suffering.
The same thing can be seen in other contexts. Such noble words, and I’d guess many of the people using them believe them, too, and take genuine outrage at those disagreeing. But what do those words mean?
Anti-abortionists: Not killing babies. Except that this can mean even small clumps of cells that are in no way like humans. Again, it’s just the crossing of the borders of human life the wrong way that seems to be the real problem. An article about this suggested they can even implicitly see the difference themselves; that for all that they cry murder, they don’t believe abortion should be punished like murder. (For me, that page loads very badly on Internet Explorer and not at all on Firefox.) Meanwhile, as their opponents like to point out, the same people (as in, many American conservatives) may not care one bit about taking care of actual persons who are already born.
And more: Family values, or the sanctity of marriage. Only, you know, family and marriage are actually important to us because of things like the closeness and positive value they can bring to our lives and in the case of marriage the social recognition of a relationship. The people who speak in terms of the above terms, though, may completely deny there being a right for human beings to marry just because they love each other and want to be together officially. I remember (you’ll have to excuse me, maybe a little vaguely) Päivi Räsänen — the head of the Finnish conservative Christian party that the church here doesn’t even particularly like and that’s been profiling itself as anti-gay — saying, probably quoted in Helsinging Sanomat, that she supported the right for marriage because it’s an established institution, one between a man and a woman, and therefore she also did not support gay marriage. Of course, this was just one briefly quoted comment, and perhaps she did not really mean it, how would I know… but taking it at face value, it implies she would not even support the right for a man and a woman to marry if it didn’t happen to be an established institution. That they might be in love and want official recognition for it would be completely irrelevant by her logic, which contains no reference to the well-being of those affected; no compassion, no empathy, no charity. You just have to do things this one way, just because. The only “party” whose “interests” are taken into account is… tradition.
Straight people seem to have a tendency to find gay relationships kind of icky, for cultural reasons if nothing else. There have been excuses made for how perverse that stuff is. Now we know better. It’s basically like straight relationships, only not straight. But still for some people, you have to make some excuse to oppose them.
So this is the rule-based morality. You have to do things in a certain way just because. You have to respect some borders about what to do, and that’s morality. The terms in which it is expressed tend to be noble-sounding, but in cases where it differs from the humanist view I will soon explain, it turns out what actually happens to people as a result of the choices made, whether someone is or isn’t hurt, is completely irrelevant. Excuses may be made, but behind all this seems to be a sense of wanting to preserve the order of things. That might be why you can hear comments about family values disintegrating if gay marriage is allowed, or people marrying their dogs next, even though neither idea makes any sense whatsoever, completely missing the point of the underlying (humanist) ethical ideal. The reason it makes no sense is because there is no “natural” order of things such as these views imagine there to be. It’s just societal values. But for some, it’s an implicitly sacred order breaking which in any one way will lead to chaos.
Preserve the sanctity of life, or marriage… and actual human individuals can just sod off. Or die of AIDS, as they apparently are doing as the result of the Catholic Church’s campaign to prevent the use of condoms in Africa. Because I guess it’s really more important in practice for the Vatican to disapprove of sex with prophylaics and preach (not actually bring about, because that’s just not working) abstinence as a solution instead, than it is to stop millions of people from dying. (I have read quite a lot about this previously, but I haven’t got a source in front of me right now, so I may not be getting all the details right on this. Unfortunately, I believe the general idea is as I present it.)
Humanist ethics, on the other hand, is based on an actual understanding of the world and of people. Understanding yourself and society is a nice start. To know that some feelings about what is morally right or wrong (usually wrong) are just cultural artefacts. God didn’t teach you that, your parents did. If it now just feels plain wrong, perhaps you should think just why you feel that way, and whether you should, and not just take your subjective feelings as a supreme arbiter of truth. You may complain about human reason being made the arbiter, but at least it tries to be objective, whereas intuition or “word of God” is just posited to point to a real truth external to us when it’s really believed for subjective reasons. Sanctity of life, for example, is usually fine — but usually there is content in the life being saved that is worth saving, and a person behind it whose interests involve living. If you really understand the matter, you will see this distinction and heed it. Oh, and also, if you are guided by real compassion, you won’t choose an option that hurts someone else while benefitting no-one just because you feel there is a rule. You will treat people as subjects, not objects. Someone might say that killing someone to escape a life truly not worth living is treating or letting them treat themselves as an object, but no: it’s only their abstract “sacred” life, as understood without any of the qualities that make it worth living for, or their similarly abstracted self without any needs, desires, or anything else that makes a person what they are. Rule-based ethics honours abstractions but may treat persons properly understood as objects.
I’m not saying you need to be completely utilitarian, by the way, to only care about the overall outcome of what you do. People have rights that need to be respected, and there can be a need for rules that are followed out of principle. What you need to do is beware of ever setting the rules above actual reality in importance. The balance between deontological and utilitarian considerations is its own question, though strict deontology slips to the side of rule-based morality, even if it starts with an attempt at reason.
Don’t think believing in a God establishing morality automatically gives you licence to go for rule-based ethics, either. You will then be choosing to believe in a God that just tells you to do certain things for no external reason, instead of one who expects you to learn about the world to act wisely and compassionately. One to whom making arbitrary distinctions in his honour is more important than what actually happens to people. Why would that be the obvious choice? (In the Bible, for example, the Old Testament is full of God dictating strict arbitrary rules and killing people left and right for offending him, but the Gospels are full of Jesus doing and saying the exact opposite. It’s your choice, and you don’t get to hide behind anyone.)
One more thing. Those following rule-based ethics may think those following humanist ethics just run around doing whatever wrong thing they feel like, or spouting touchy-feely nonsense and trying to be nice and not demanding or forbidding anything. So let me briefly state what kind of things humanist morality does demand. You shouldn’t do harm unless it’s absolutely necessary to prevent even greater harm. This means that for example lying, cheating, stealing, or physically or emotionally harming others is wrong. It means killing an actual person with an actual life ahead of them is certainly wrong. It means that in your relationships, sexual or otherwise, you should be responsible and not break trust, and they should be based on mutual consent. (There’s a reason you can’t marry your dog right there. In what perverted way are those thinking who don’t notice this when they see it as having something in common with gay marriage?) It means that you should respect other people’s rights. And so on. The only thing that is making it “immoral” is that it doesn’t involve policing other people’s private choices that harm no-one. In other ways, it often demands more than rule-based morality, as it’s more complicated than worrying about invisible borders of conduct.
So humanist ethics arises from understanding the real-world implications of moral choices and from respecting persons. Rule-based ethics is based on just drawing certain lines that must not be crossed — usually not understanding where they come from, because realising you got something from your culture or other personal biases might just make you reconsider whether to consider that notion so sacred after all. I don’t think this kind of rule-based ethics really deserves to be called morality or ethics at all. It’s just glorifying, even deifying, your own biases, and, yes, using people as means rather than ends.
- This is basically the ethical side of the divide between “humanist” and “traditionalist” views that I wrote about in “Man as the Measure of All Things?”
- (Added in November 2012) The story of someone who actually believed in “saving unborn babies” realising that the “pro-life” movement does not even act to that end, at all: “How I lost Faith in the “Pro-Life” Movement”.
- While a little vague, this article illustrates the distinction, referring to experience of human suffering as a source of insight for why certain notions of rule-based morality are unconvincing and, well, wrong: “War on the Modern World”.
- Not really about different overriding ethical views, but nevertheless, this offers an example of how actually seeing and understanding someone’s condition can affect ethical judgements: “Our unrealistic attitudes about death, through a doctor’s eyes”.
- (Added in November 2012) “What If Religious Fanaticism Killed Someone You Love?”
- (Added in October 2013) About hiding behind “God’s word”: Salon: “No, America is not a Christian Nation”
- (Added in December 2014) Why do some religious people associate things like gay sex and things like bestiality?: Love, Joy, Feminism: “So you say you don’t hate gay people, Part IV”
- (Added in April 2015) Euthanasia, choice, treating people as things, and Terry Pratchett: Patheos: Daylight Atheism: “Never Quote Discworld to an Atheist”
- (Added in October 2016) Huffington Post: “White, Conservaive, Christian Friends — I wish You Really Were Pro-Life”
- The article I was referring to is “Uskonto ja kuoleminen” (“Religion and Dying”) by Leila Jylhäkangas, pages 312–352 in Uskonnon paikka. Kirjoituksia uskontojen ja uskontoteorioiden rajoista. Eds. Outi Fingerroos, Minna Opas and Teemu Taira. Suomen kirjallisuuden seura, 2004.
- Again, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes. The section “Morality and taboo” in the chapter “Better angels” actually gives an account of psychological studies on different kinds of ethics that make this distinction I am making look a little crude, so for even better understanding, it’s a good place to go. What I’m talking about actually has more to do with the expanding circle of empathy and the role of reason in morality that he also discusses, than with what he identifies more explicitly as kinds of morality.
- If you want to get more theoretical, the metaethical basis for saying things like “this isn’t a kind of morality at all” is explained pretty well in Robert L. Arrington’s Rationalism, Realism and Relativism. Perspectives in Contemporary Moral Epistemology, specifically in terms of what he calls conceptual relativism, though note that “conceptual relativism” may be used with a different meaning in ethics elsewhere.