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Storming the atheist ethic

Neil Ormerod |  27 April 2010

The recent stripping of Melbourne Storm of two premierships and three minor premierships over longstanding and extensive salary cap rorts is indicative of a major ethical breach somewhere within the club. Perhaps a case could be made that some of their senior executives might benefit from taking part in the NSW trial of ethics classes for school children. The question for discussion could be posed, 'Is it alright to do the dishonest thing as long as you don't get caught?'

More broadly a different storm around the teaching of ethics in schools has morphed in various blogs and letters to editors into a debate around the relative merits of religious ethics versus 'secular ethics'.

Religious ethics are based on belief (and hence are inherently irrational according to their opponents) while secular ethics are based solely on reason. One can be ethical without God and so religion has nothing to add beyond irrational superstitions and ignorance. The Enlightenment narrative of the triumph of reason over the forces of irrationality (i.e. religion) is not far from the surface, even as post-modernism denounces reason as simply a mask for the will to power.

There is almost a sense of incredulity among some that the myths of religion still persist in the face of advancing science and human rationality.

However, the claims that one can develop a secular ethics without God also need to be subjected to inquiry. Certainly one can be ethical without God. But can one develop a coherent ethical system without recourse to the divine? That is a different question.

Certainly the great Enlightenment philosopher, Emmanuel Kant felt it necessary to evoke the divine for the operation of his ethical system. While denying that God's existence could be known by reason, God's existence was a necessary postulate for practical reason in the development of his ethics.

The trouble one has in the development of a rational ethics is the problem often attribute to the Scottish philosopher, David Hume. Hume is of course a favourite among atheists for his supposed demolition of religious appeals to the miraculous. However, he also argued that one cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is'.

Reason, he notes, might be very good at telling us what is the case, but not all that good at telling us what we ought to do. For Hume it was not reason but sentiment that determined our actions. Kant's appeal to God as a postulate of practical reason was an attempt to ground ethics in reason, not personal (and arbitrary) sentiment.

Of course, as Alasdair MacIntyre points out in After Virtue, Hume was not completely right. One can in some cases derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. If I know that a clock is a device for telling the time, then I can derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. If this is a clock then it ought to tell me what time it is. If it fails to do so, it is not a very good clock. The difference here is that the clock has a purpose. It exists in order to do something.

The question is, do human beings have a purpose? Is there a point to being human, some goal towards which we 'ought' to move? Richard Dawkins repeatedly proclaims that there is no purpose beyond what we ourselves might create. Evolution is blind and purposeless and even morality can be reduced to this blind watchmaker implanting something within us.

But if the only purpose is the purpose I create for myself then ethics is irreducibly individualistic. You have yours and I have mine. Our ethics then boils down to a set of arbitrary (and hence non-rational) personal preferences. This is not a coherent rational ethics. It is the denial of the possibility of finding a coherent rational ethics.

So to develop a coherent rational ethics one might need to speak about a purpose to human living, a purpose which is not arbitrary or a matter of personal choice, but is nonetheless a purpose one 'ought' to choose. Where might we find such a purpose? Those who propose a secular ethic have already identified such a purpose. We ought to be reasonable; we ought to live according to standards of reason that go beyond personal preferences and place a moral obligation upon me and everyone else. This is part of the purpose of being human.

But what reason do we have for being reasonable, for living according to the canons of reason? Does the universe care? Does our commitment to reason have some ultimate purpose? Would it matter if I fell short from the moral obligations reason imposes upon me and simply indulged myself every now and then? Would there be a reason to sacrifice such indulgence in face of the obligations of reason itself?

Perhaps it was to address questions such as these that Kant felt it necessary to restore God as a postulate of practical reason!

Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University. He co-authored with Shane Clifton, a Pentecostal theologian, the book Globalization and the Mission of the Church (T&T Clark, 2009).



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Submitted comments

I really enjoyed reading your article. However it seems to me that you're merely re-wording the classic, "Can we be good without God" and "Should we be good without God" arguments.

Jayson D Cooke 01 May 2010

Perhaps the secular world realises the futility of Neil Ormerod’s quest. A purpose-based rational ethics is only possible within a community of values. And that is what we no longer have. We have numerous communities of value in our modern globalized, multicultural, multifaith world.

The second problem is that of the suppressed diversity within Neil Ormerod’s own tradition. He speaks from within a monotheistic Christian framework. However, if we go beyond the ‘Emperors Choice’ and look at the polytheistic forms of Christianity in the Early Church, we discover alternative values.

According to the beliefs of the Ancient Christian Church of Marcion, a god of pure love observes that the Biblical Creator God is torturing his human creatures with eternal hellfire, so this god of pure love sends his son, Jesus Christ, to save those souls. The Marcionites rejected Old Testament values.

In the Christian Gnostic Valentinian sects we find a godhead comprising of thirty gods, with the Creator God deemed unfit for salvation.

David Miller, Existentialist Society 01 May 2010

Hi Pastor Peter,

it was the most amazing POL i have ever attended. Neil Omerod whole persona was like an angel, in fact when he spoke there was such a hushed silence that the convenor said when he (Neil) had finished that never before had he witnessed such a cathedral like silence the whole time he spoke. Not only that when it came for q&a he (Neil) was ready by God's grace not to succumb/answer those trick questions which they tried on Jesus to unsettle or distract him. He just quietly affirmed I am here to discuss 'atheism----=" and the questioner had no where to go. It was just brilliant! We give God the Glory!!! Hallelujah! The other speaker Jane Caro was all about feminism and how all religions denigrate women she was 'careful' i believe when someone asked her what she thought of Jesus that she replied He seemed an alright person.or something to that effect. And she even admitted that she sends her 3 daughters or children to scripture classes at an Uniting Church because it doesn't oppose the ordination of women.

m freeman 24 October 2010

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