***If you would prefer to listen to this post, you’ll find an audio player below where you can hear the podcast version, which covers both part four and five***
One of the most comforting things about Judeo-Christian ethics is that in one sense it’s easier. There is an authoritative being who tells you what you should and should not do. There is no urgency to wrestle over the nuanced and difficult ethical issues that every culture faces in this case. Just do “what the Bible says.”
However, when you consider the fact that Christianity is not the only religion believing in some kind of transcendent authority, then it starts to get complicated. And when you consider the fact that within each religion there are differing ways to view sacred teachings and traditions, it gets even more complicated.
Where does this leave any of us, religious or not? How do we live our lives when we are all just trying to piece together what is right?
Remember as a teenager how you were constantly on the lookout for avoiding trouble? Sometimes I would do a thing, knowing that thing would probably result in a reprimand or punishment, but I proceeded anyway after asking myself two questions: what are the chances that I will get caught? Will the punishment outweigh the enjoyment of the actions?
Fortunately, we become adults and have the opportunity to stop thinking only in terms of punishment. As we get past an understanding of ethics that is only based on not getting caught doing something bad, we can start thinking of how a moral life can not only make our lives more satisfying, but can also contribute to improving the lives of those in the world around us.
There will always be difficulties in the venture to define what is good, whether you are religious or not. Even though I’ve left Christianity behind, I believe that the words of Jesus (along with other great spiritual teachers) can give us vital direction to live by. I don’t think we can live consistently satisfying and fulfilling lives without an intentional effort to define what is good for ourselves and humanity at large. I live by an ever-evolving definition of good that is centered around human flourishing and is determined to prevent unnecessary suffering for all creatures. Is this a perfect, comprehensive credo? Of course not. It’s more of a center axle for the wheel, supporting the spokes.
I appreciate the way the Humanist Manifesto encourages us to “derive our ethical values from human need and interest as tested by experience” and to be “committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.”
As a final thought on this, I want to agree with those who say that basing your morality on religious beliefs will give you an incentive to behave in a certain way, and the end result can be good. There are countless examples of this.
But what if that incentive was taken away?
What if you came upon undeniable evidence that the God you believe in did not exist? How would you live? Would you start injuring others or indulging in every primal desire? How do you think that would go for you? Would you be satisfied with this kind of existence? Would it be sustainable in the long term? Of course not. That’s because there is a basis in reason to live morally, and probably as a survival mechanism within us, we naturally hesitate to act in ways that violate the more basic moral guidelines. Religion isn’t required for you to discover the many individual and societal advantages of contributing to the wellbeing of others and refraining from satisfying every passing desire.
The moral shape of our lives and our society has to depend upon the difficult ethical work that all of us must do; it’s not being figured out in advance and handed to us on a silver platter from anyone else.