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Ethics don't require God

By Kourosh Ziabari - posted Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Roger Crisp is a Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Oxford's St. Anne's College. His fields of expertise are metaethics, normative ethics and applied ethics. In addition, he is Chairman of the Management Committee of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

Prof. Crisp is the author of several articles and books on various issues pertaining to morality and ethics.

Kourosh Ziabari: Your field of expertise is ethics and you're of course familiar with the ethical teachings and principles of different religions. Why do some ethicists such as Nietzsche refute and disprove religion altogether while all of the existing religions in the world in general, and the monotheistic religions in particular, emphasize on morality and ethics as their theoretical basis and invite their followers to think and behave morally and ethically?


Roger Crisp: The reasons for this depend on the particular thinker. So some atheists will not be persuaded by the arguments for the existence of God (the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, and so on), and will assume therefore that it is more parsimonious not to assert the existence of God. Nietzsche of course didn't accept these arguments. But he also had an account, based on human nature and the history of humanity, to explain or debunk belief in God. There's also a philosophical reason for not basing ethics on religion, which Plato expressed very clearly in his dialogue "Euthyphro". Consider some moral principle, such as that it is wrong to cause undeserved suffering for amusement. If one believes in God, one has to answer the question: are such actions wrong because God says they are wrong, or does God say they are wrong because they are wrong. Linking morality to religion to the first option here seems to make morality highly contingent. So if God had said that walking clockwise around a tree is wrong, it would be.

KZ: How much do the mass media affect people's moral and ethical attitudes and behaviors? Can we say that the expansion of new media and the acquaintance of people with other cultures may undermine their moral values? At least in a developing nation such as Iran, parents are extremely worried that the access of their children to internet or foreign TV channels may influence their sense of morality. What's your viewpoint?

RC: This is a very big question! Think about the invention of printing, which is perhaps the only event analogous in human history to what is now happening with the internet. That changed life hugely; both in the West, with the Reformation, and of course the East in a lot of ways too. What must make the difference is what is available on the internet, and also other sources of ethical education. If children are receiving poor education from their parents or their school, and then watch many violent videos on the internet, we should not be surprised if they turn out to be villains. Myself, I think that it is moral education rather than censorship other than of extreme images, which is important. We should educate our children properly so that they find boring violence and pornography what it is -- boring.

KZ: Do you see any relationship between ethics and culture? Can we say that certain cultures are more inclined to moral and ethical values than others? Do the globalization and integration of cultures influence people's moral behaviors?

RC: A link here is undeniable, but I think the bases of ethics are probably pre-cultural and to some extent genetically transmitted. So as human beings we are predisposed to co-operate and to sympathize with others -- to some extent. But the specifics of any particular morality will be determined by culture. And some cultures are certainly more 'moral' than others. Consider the famous case of the tribe called 'the Ik', discussed by Colin Turnbull. Sure, some of his data is thought dubious. But it seems undeniable that life in that society was much more brutal than in many other societies. My hope would be that globalization might enable greater sympathy of human beings for one another, so that politicians who try to persuade populations to engage in e.g. imperialistic wars might be prevented from doing so by sympathies which in the past could not be engaged. And of course I have the same sort of hope for global poverty, climate change, and so on.

KZ: Some thinkers with a liberal mindset believe that moral and ethical behavior does not exist at all because it cannot be distinguished that what is morally good or bad. As long as a social behavior does not violate the freedom of the other members of the society, it would be acceptable and permissible. As a professor of moral philosophy, what's your viewpoint about such notions?


RC: My own view is that there are right and wrong ways to act, and that we can determine this using our reason. The position you describe (a kind of relativism) also sounds self-contradictory, since it seems to place a universal value on freedom. Now it is true of course that there is much disagreement about right and wrong. I think the best way to approach the truth here is to discuss these questions as calmly and rationally is possible. They won't be decided properly by the use of political or military power.

KZ: One of the main questions discussed in the area of meta-ethics is that "what the meaning of moral judgment is." How is it possible to issue a defensible and strong moral verdict? Is moral judgment contrary to logical judgment? Can we persuade people to accept moral judgments only because they are morally guaranteed? In this turbulent era which we live in, people are less willing to accept a statement or judgment that stems from morality, because they believe that morality is devoid of logic and reason. What's your take on that?

RC: Moral judgments certainly can be illogical - your previous question seemed to mention one that contradicted itself. But they needn't be. I believe that many people will converge on certain moral truths -- such as the example I gave above. Consider a case in which some sadist inflicts horrible suffering on some child over a long period, just for the sake of his own enjoyment. Surely most people will agree that this is wrong? So there is some basic core for morality, and we have then to engage in discussion to find out what other moral principles there are.

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About the Author

Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist, writer and media correspondent. In 2010, he won the presidential medal of Superior Iranian Youth for his media activities. He has also won the first prize of Iran's 18th Press Festival in the category of political articles. He has interviewed more than 200 public intellectuals, academicians, media personalities, politicians, thinkers and Nobel Prize laureates. His articles and interviews have been published in such media outlets as Press TV, Tehran Times, Iran Review, Global Research, Al-Arabiya, Your Middle East, Counter Currents, On Line Opinion and Voltaire Network and translated in Arabic, French, German, Turkish, Italian and Spanish.

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