Sports Ethics
Catch Me if you Can

The Role of Ethics in Religion

Can we be Ethical without being Religious?

A longstanding debate has been whether ethics plays a role in religion. Most religions have an ethical component. Ethics, which is a major branch of philosophy, encompasses right conduct and good life. It is significantly broader than the common conception of analyzing right and wrong. Ethics deals with ideas such as Right, Good and Duty and these concepts were discussed in ancient Greece by Plato and Aristotle in the 3rd & 4th Century BCE.

A central aspect of ethics is "the good life", the life worth living or life that is simply satisfying, which is held by many philosophers to be more important than traditional moral codes. The ancient Greeks called it eudaimonia or happiness. The ancient Greeks believed happiness was brought about by living one’s life in accordance with virtue – positive traits of character. Virtue in the highest sense, in an adult who has been brought up well, will not just involve good personal habits such as courage and temperance, but also friendship and justice and intellectual virtue. The essence of virtue is in the wholeness of the person brought about by integrity.

The influential philosopher, Immanuel Kant defended the idea of God as a basic requirement of ethics. We ought to be virtuous and do our duty, he said. Kant believed virtue should be rewarded by happiness, and it would be intolerable if it were not so. Since it's clear that virtue often does go unrewarded in the present life, Kant argued that the soul must be immortal. Virtue must receive its due recompense in a future life, and there must be a God guaranteeing that it is so rewarded. The existence of God and the immortality of the soul were what Kant called the postulates of practical reason - the assumptions without which, so he claimed, ethics and a moral life would not be possible.

Revealed religions like Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam do prescribe some clear and unambiguous rules to follow. If their scriptures were authored or dictated by God, then the commands in them are God's own commands. They cannot be changed if human circumstances change or ethical ideas progress.

If religion has a role in moral decision-making, then what should be that role? In America, for many individuals, their religion is a centrally defining characteristic of who they are, such that they would be nearly incapable of making ethical decisions independently of their religious beliefs. 

Further, some of our most basic moral sentiments are directly connected to religious ideology.  For example, most people agree that things like murder and adultery are always wrong, regardless of circumstances.  Most major world religions echo these sentiments, and it can be argued that the ancient codes of conduct these traditions embody are actually the original source of our social intuitions.  At a minimum, we do seem to regard religion as a good source of basic moral guidance, making it unwise to argue that there ought to be no connection between religion and ethics.

The link between religion and morality is best illustrated by the Golden Rule.  Virtually all of the world’s great religions contain in their religious texts some version of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would wish them do unto you”. In other words, we should treat others the way we would want to be treated. This is the basic ethic that guides all religions. If we do so, happiness will ensue.  

I’ve studied other religions and identified the following religious tenets that speak to the Golden Rule:


Religion          Expression of the Golden Rule                                                       Citation 

Christianity     All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to        

                              you, Do ye so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.              Matthew 7:1

Confucianism  Do not do to others what you would not like yourself.

                               Then there will be no resentment against you, either

                                in the family or in the state.                                                             Analects 12:2

Buddhism           Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would

                                find hurtful.                                                                                           Udana-Varga 5,1

Hinduism           This is the sum of duty, do naught onto others what you

                                 would not have not have them do unto you.                                  Mahabharata 5, 1517

Islam               No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother

                            that which he desires for himself.                                                             Sunnah

Judaism           What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman.

                             This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.                           Talmud, Shabbat 3id

Taoism             Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your

                             neighbor’s loss as your own loss.                                                          Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien

Zoroastri-        That nature alone is good which refrains from doing

anism                  another whatsoever is not good for itself.                                          Dadisten-I-dinik, 94, 5


Some people, especially religious people, say that there can be no morality without religion. They say that without God, ethics is impossible. In my religion, Judaism, a revealed religion, ethics or morality is the attempt to arrive at a view of the nature of human values, of how we ought to live and of what constitutes right conduct. In order to arrive at a view, it sets goals and assesses actions by the extent to which they further these goals, e.g. if happiness is a goal then the action which produces most happiness to all affected is the right one.
Revelation too, through the written and oral law, directs people to an understanding of the nature of human values, of how they ought to live and of what constitutes right conduct; such teachings and examples are scattered amongst various verses and sources.  Examples of such moral teachings are:-
You shall do right and good (beyond the call of duty)
Love your neighbor
Correct behavior between man and man
Discipline or training of character under the law
Piety beyond the law
The need to be respectful, earn a living; engage in learning and culture and so forth.
The role of philosophers is to accurately try to define and promote ethical concepts based upon logic and reason.  A religious person on the other hand, follows his or her code of conduct because he believes that it is proper behavior and reaction to the varying challenges and circumstances which arise during the course of life. 
I end with two quotes. The first is from Kant: “In law a man is guilty when he violates the rights of others. In ethics he is guilty if he only thinks of doing so.”

The second one sums up, I believe, the moral challenges of our time. Archie Carroll, a noted ethicist said: “As religion and faith are being driven out of the public square, the Judeo-Christian ethical foundations that have sustained our country since its beginning, are being lost and are being replaced with a humanistic amorality, a self-centered, pragmatic indifference that will ensure that our moral compasses will fail to point us in the right direction in the future.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 4, 2012