Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Ethics, Science, and Religion


This week I’ve had the very great pleasure of watching The Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Dawkins and Anthony Kenny debate the nature & origin of human beings thanks to a video posted online by Oxford University. I recommend you take some time to enjoy it too.

That debate prompted me to follow up by reading the entry on Ethics, Science, and Religion by Simon Blackburn in the Routledge Companion to Ethics. These topic are connected because both science and religion tell us about our lives and our natures and thus have bearing on how we ought to behave, which is the realm of morality.

Religion tends to claim that the source of values is divinity. The Euthyphro Dilemma that I’ve mentioned a few times now shows why this view is problematic, and Blackburn uses it too. Are the values we take to inform our morality merely the preferences of divinity, in which case why obey seemingly arbitrary diktats, or are they separate from divinity, in which case, why look to divinity to inform our morality? On top of this, we have the problem of choosing which favoured values of which divine power to chose, and addressing the issue that those values, as Blackburn tells us, are prone to change over time and place. As an ethicist I find lots to trouble me in the idea that values come from God, but that still leaves at least two significant areas of interest. One is the rather obvious follow-up question of where values do come from if not from a god, and the other is about the appeal of religion as a source of morality. Not being a sociologist or psychologist I’m not going to demonstrate my ignorance by trying to explain why faith is appealing, not least because I can’t really understand it myself. Blackburn though, suggests that one reason for the appeal is that religions must reveal important truths about ourselves. Humans need mechanisms for coping with fear and vulnerability, and religion provides mechanisms of hope and consolation in ways that are communal expressive of a culture. Another possibility is simply that without religious authority people fear that there is no morality – they need reassurance that the universe is not an immoral place and that the values of a community are shared by its members. Those are interesting theories, and I’m sure there’s more than a grain of truth to them, but providing functional explanations for religion doesn’t really tell us about the source of values, and this is where science supposedly comes in.

Blackburn introduces the relationship between science and ethics by speaking of the problem of deriving moral facts from natural facts (the ought-is distinction), and he makes the claim that the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ is incorrect. He provides the example that it seems perfectly natural to infer from the fact that a child is injured, and we are the nearest person able to help, that we should help the child. He writes ‘Good people will be guided by the fact to the appropriate belief about what they should do’. I’m not sure how goodness got smuggled in here; it seems to me that we need something more to tell us why helping is the appropriate response to need and why that makes us good. Rather than adequately explaining how he has inferred facts from values Blackburn simply slips into a virtue ethics account or right action. The discussion then moves on to whether science can uncover whether certain moral attitudes are universally held across cultures – whether certain moral values are an innate part of our nature. The Aristotelian virtue ethicists’ idea that there is a describable human nature that we should strive to act in accordance certainly appears to be influencing this line of thought. Blackburn does raise the spectre of the is/ought distinction again here, pre-empting any potential criticism, but then goes off on a foray into Humean understandings of the passions and at that point I lost the thread in his argument.

In the end I was rather puzzled by Blackburn’s conclusion. He argues that we need not fear the absence of morality if we deny religion because it is in our nature to be moral. Our nature determines our desires and needs, and the necessary conditions of harmonious social behaviour, thus ethics must be derived from interpreting scientific knowledge about human experience. He then goes on to suggest that which qualities help us live socially are self-evident (I presume this is because of the moral aspect of our human nature). Even the child knows which ‘endeavours are named with words of admiration and praise [and which] are talked of with dislike or contempt’. Blackburn’s position rather seems to beg the question about whether we should behave ethically towards non-humans, the environment, alien races and so forth. It also assumes cooperative endeavour is good, and relies upon the moral emotions that have evolved in us to derive values – explaining any that might lead to actions we disapprove of as being self-evidently wrong. It all looks a little flaky to me, but then this may simply be because I’ve missed or misunderstood something. Still, it’s another chapter chalked up, meaning I can devote some time to reading the copy of the Journal of Applied Philosophy that popped through my letterbox earlier.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

6 thoughts on “Ethics, Science, and Religion

  1. “He provides the example that it seems perfectly natural to infer from the fact that a child is injured, and we are the nearest person able to help, that we should help the child.”

    I see that quite a lot in discussions about religious vs secular origins of ethics but to me that’s unsatisfactory in that it’s a bit of a no-brainer. What I think is probably more interesting to discuss is edge-cases, where there is benefit from acting unethically and no danger of retribution. Why does the secular person choose the ethical path when self-interest would suggest a different course?

    • You assume that the only path open to atheists (not secular persons) is to pursue an ethics of self interests (such as ethical egosim). The response I’d make is to say that moral judgements are not matters of preference, and that one can say that there are moral truths without relying upon divinity. Moral truths are arrived at through reasoning – if I can show that there are better reasons to do X than to do Y then I should do X. Those reasons can hold regardless of whether I desire to do X, making them objective. So how do we prove that we should do X? Obviously, it’s harder in the tricky cases you mention, but we can demonstrate the possibility by looking at the simple cases. If you borrow £5 from me and refuse to pay it back even though you have lots of money and I really need that £5, then we can say that you act wrongly because you break your promise to me, you act selfishly, and you harm me. We can think of reasons why your actions wrong me – violation of trust, importance of promise keeping for society, harms to persons etc. On the other hand, it’s very hard to create a case that your behaviour is right – the weight of reasons appears to be on my side. And this seems like a pretty good form of proof. It’s certainly not opinion. Now all of that is slightly at a tangent from the possible sources of value – but it does give, I hope, an idea of how it’s possible to derive objective moral truths without recourse to divinity.

      • Why not “secular persons”? I would have thought it more accurate than the term “atheist” which requires the presence of a divinity (real or imagined) to oppose? When I use the term “atheist” I try to limit it only to those instances where a person is arguing against the existence of divinity. “Secular” (for me at least) has less of an (imagined) oppositional stance being of itself and not reliant on religion.

        However I wasn’t arguing the point (for once) of divinity being necessary for ethical values to exist. What I was trying to say is that the obvious cases are in my opinion both less interesting and less challenging in terms of ethical debate (religious arguments aside) than edge-cases.

      • I picked out that comment because it doesn’t seem to me that secularism is a moral theory that tries to explain the source of values. I admit that I’ve only thought of it as something that comes out of liberalism rather than as a stand-alone principle, but suspect that it deserves more considered thought.

        Easy cases do tend to be less interesting, but they also allow us to build the principles that guide us most of the time.

  2. I need to watch this podcast so I can get a better idea of the debate but if Blackburn is arguing that religion is obsolete or unnecessary for morality, he is arguing ad hoc in both cases. I suggest reading The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade. In it, he shows how religious behaviour came to develop. He argues that morality and religious behaviour both were programmed into our DNA via evolutionary means. He does not mean that it is solely genetic though. He claims that evolution helped set up the necessary mechanisms which were then added to by cultural and social elements. Thus, most of the worlds religions and moral systems have quite a bit in common. But for Blackburn to argue this, it betrays his settings. Prior to modern times no one would have dared to question the importance or relevance of religion. For Blackburn to do so and argue that it has been unnecessary, if that is, in fact, what he has done, then he is guilty of the ad hoc fallacy since this knowledge of biological morality is novel. Looking forward to watching the discussion this weekend though. Great post!


    • Sorry – I should clarify – the podcast is of an excellent debate between Dawkins and Rowan Williams, and the rest of the post covers a chapter by Blackburn that the debate prompted me to read. Thanks for the comment – I’ll take a look at Wade’s book when I have some time.

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