Lather Up, Joe

I’ve been thinking some more about this idea of ethical commitments as the best argument for treating religion differently from other systems of thought. I didn’t make clear enough in yesterday’s post that both Amy Gutman and Jonathan Derbyshire think that argument fails, despite being the best one available. I’m not taking issue with Jonathan, I’m just trying to poke at the idea to see where it gives. One place it gives, as Jonathan mentioned, is the fact that religion is not the only source of ethical commitments. But I think there are other places.

For one thing – ‘ethical commitments’ sounds like an individual item. It sounds like something that goes with the self, and matters to the self. But ethical commitments are about what the self does to other people. So this idea – “ultimate ethical commitments of individuals -which may be religious or secular in their source- are an especially valued and valuable part of individual identity” – seems to need some poking. Though I’m not sure exactly what kind. It’s not that I disagree that ethical commitments are a valued part of individual identity; I’m sure they often are. I suppose I disagree (tentatively) about what follows from that. (And, again, I’m not disagreeing with Jonathan, I’m disagreeing with whatever nebulous body of opinion holds to that idea. Joe Lieberman, maybe. Yes, that’s it! He’s just the kind of person who thinks that kind of thing. Okay I’m arguing with Soapy Joe again.) Ethical commitments aren’t like clothes or haircuts, or tastes in music or books; they’re directly, not indirectly, about how one treats other people. Your taste in music doesn’t affect me unless you live next door and play heavy metal at top volume – in which case I have you killed. But your ethical commitments are likely to, if we have any dealings together.

Ethical commitments are for one thing about telling people what to do. Christopher Hitchens talks about this and about the way religion is used to back up what may be quite tottery in an interview on the Atlantic’s site.

However, if a grown-up says “I’ve just a heard a voice telling me what to do,” what they really mean is “I can now tell you what to do.” That’s what I don’t like. What I noticed when I was a kid wasn’t just that what the headmaster was preaching at sermon time was rubbish (which was easy to see), it was also that it seemed very important that the headmaster be able to invest his otherwise rather feeble authority with religious authority. In other words, I could see already when I was eight that religion is used to say, “You better listen to what I say. My power is not just of this world. I have divine right.” That’s where you have to say, “Say that again and I’ll burn your church.” That’s fascism. I loathe it. And I tend to loathe the people who believe it, because they are making a claim on me.

So, yes, ethical commitments feel like an important part of the self to many people, and so do the supernatural sanctions that are taken to back them up. But that isn’t necessarily a good argument for treating religion as special or deserving of consideration. It could just as well be an argument for doing precisely the opposite. For being quicker, not slower, to subject religious sources of ethical commitments to close scrutiny and sharp questions. Yes, it may be an important part of someone’s identity that he keeps women under control to please Allah, or that she tells children who play with their genitals that they will burn in hell, or that he whips his children for disobedience because the Bible says he should, or that she told her gay son to get out of the house and has never spoken to him since because she thinks that’s what Jesus would do. But what of the identity of the people subject to such ethical commitments?

I have more poking, but it’s rather long-winded, so…later.

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