Reason and Morality.
How do we know Right from Wrong?
This is at the core of all questions about morality and ethics. How do we determine the answers to what we should do, or how we should act, when faced with a moral dilemma.
Recently I heard a story from someone who was brought up outside of any religion. Both her parents were Atheists and she did not attend any form of religious education. She was asked how she had learnt right from wrong since she hadn't been involved in a church. At the time she was so surprised by the question, that now looking back, she feels that she did not respond eloquently enough. She felt that her explanation that her parents taught her to be moral, was not sufficient to explain why she was able to be a moral person without the influence of religion.
In a Secular Democracy like Australia where many people do not hold any religious beliefs and are not affiliated to any form of religious institution, many of us can find ourselves in a similar position. Unless they have had the opportunity to study philosophy or history, many people do not know how to answer this assumption, that it is only through religion that we can understand morality. It is one to the positions of authority that religions have claimed ownership of throughout most of human history. Religious morality was based in a sacred belief system that could not be challenged.
This is exactly what influenced some ancient Greeks to rethink the concept of morality, basing it on rationality rather than religion. With multiple religions all claiming unchallengeable beliefs that were contradictory, both between each belief system and internally within those systems, these innovative thinkers created what we now call Western Philosophy. The rational pursuit of knowledge based on evidence and the lived experience of humans. This was also the beginning of the scientific approach that we take for granted today.
There are many schools of philosophical thought that emerged from this time and each of them offers differing ideas about how to approach the core question of what sort of thinking and what sort of actions lead to human flourishing. From Aristotle's ideas about building character through habitual action, to the Epicurean idea that ethically, the only good is pleasure, philosophy has created a conversation about how we, as humans should live, that continues to this day.
When someone suggests that only religion can offer us guidelines for deciding moral questions they are usually talking about the Monotheistic religions which emerged in the Middle East. The current incarnations of these religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam cannot claim that their ideas are unique to their creeds. That is because their ideas evolved in the same timeframe as rational philosophical questioning , and both of these approaches influenced each other. In fact, this was the same timeframe when Asian scholars and thinkers developed their ideas. Buddhist and Confucian philosophy arose within this same period.
The ancient world was a lot more connected than people imagine, and ideas travelled along the silk road along with goods. Questions of morality and ethics were examined and answered by scholars from many different traditions through rational enquiry and argument. This is still the best way to approach questions of right action, of what is the right thing to do in any situation. There are good pragmatic reasons why it is wrong for people within a community to commit murder. It does not take too much examination of the consequences of rampart violence on the lives of a community, to recognise its a bad idea. Add to this our human capacity to empathise with others, and you don't need a commandment to stop you from killing your neighbour.
And so it is with the smaller and more intimate questions of morality within our daily lives. Engaging our rationality and our empathy, talking to those we trust and respect, and using our own experience of similar situations, will provide us with the answers. For some, this will include consulting the tenets of their religious beliefs, and for others is will be reflecting on the values that they have been given by their families and communities.