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Religion, Morality, and Character

December 20th, 2010 · 20 Comments

This is a bazillion years ago in Internet time, but a quick note on a line from Sarah Palin’s recent book that occasioned some controversy a few weeks back, to the effect that “morality itself cannot be sustained without the support of religious beliefs.”

It may, of course, be true in some very narrow sense that the particular contours of some specific religious morality, including various dietary and sexual taboos, would not have much appeal without the support of the body of religious doctrine that gave rise to them. But when it’s used more broadly—as I think it normally is—to encompass within “morality” any set of principles that bind us to treat other people with some basic level of decency and kindness, I’ve always regarded this as a bizarre and chilling sentiment that ought to make us seriously doubt the character of anyone who utters it. Because insofar as it tacitly makes a claim about people’s incentive to behave morally, it amounts to an admission that the speaker simply cannot fathom why someone would treat others with consideration and respect (if it didn’t seem to be in their self interest to do so) absent an omniscient being brandishing a heavenly carrot and the stick of damnation.

In Lawrence Kohlberg’s famous schema of moral development, it betrays a mind stuck at stage I or II, conceiving the “bindingness” of moral injunctions purely in terms of personal reward and punishment. That sounds to me less like a proper morality than like a substitute for it, meant to elicit decent behavior from people presumed to be too wicked to restrain themselves without some external sanction, some watchful policeman. Insofar as such people exist—children mostly start out this way, on Kohlberg’s account—one supposes it’s just as well to have such fallback measures, but I’m always a little astonished when people shamelessly identify themselves as belonging to that group.

Tags: Moral Philosophy · Religion



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