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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



20 responses so far ↓

  • 1 the teeth // Dec 20, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    This presupposes that Palin actually gave considered thought to what she said, and actually meant it after thinking critically about its implications. It seems more likely that she’d heard things-n-stuff, somewhere, about morality needing religion, and figured that the idea (1) felt right, and (2) was a satisfying way to bait the ‘bad guys’.

    The phrase you quote certainly supports the interpretation you give: that ‘cannot be sustained’ bit does really stink of ‘but for God I’d be out raping and looting.’ I think that more often, though, when people say this sort of thing, they mean something like: Morality is an absolute universal Truth, which exists above or outside of human societies and mores; given that this is what morality is, we need something outside of existing human convention to define it. What could work better than God? I don’t at all personally buy the first proposition, but I think a lot of people would, at least intuitively if you asked them point blank w/o giving time to think on it much. And I’m not certain that the second must necessarily follow, but it seems plausible that it does. If you did believe this, the main reason to behave morally is hardly narrow self-interest — the reason you behave morally is simply “Because.”

  • 2 MBH // Dec 21, 2010 at 8:38 am

    Really well said.

    BTW: I use your Newsweek line on regulation again here as part of an objection to Roderick Long.

  • 3 MFarmer // Dec 21, 2010 at 8:58 am

    It’s basically the same idea which holds that society cannot be compassionate to the poor and disabled without a strong welfare State safety net.

  • 4 finzent // Dec 21, 2010 at 10:02 am


    That is basically not the same idea. One obvious difference: Commitment to a strong welfare state can be seen as (and actually often is) a consequence of certain moral beliefs or principles, or a practical application of them. The belief that what’s right is right because Jesus says so, on the other hand, is used as a justification for moral beliefs (albeit a very bad one). So, well, totally different ideas, not at all analogous.

    Hate on the welfare state if you want, I don’t care. But if you want to piss on those of us who think it’s basically a good idea for the state to help the poor and disabled, please make better use of your cognitive faculties.

  • 5 MFarmer // Dec 21, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    Finzent, you missed my point — the belief that the State is the ONLY religion/way, or the best, to care for the poor is the same as God/religion is the only way to practice morality. Don’t be so sensitive — I know it is heresy to challenge the State, but it’s actually incompetent when it comes to helping the poor.

  • 6 RK // Dec 21, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    I think you’re right that Palin’s claim about morality in general is way too broad. A more interesting question is whether the specific morality you and I believe in — a bourgeois, secularized Protestant morality — can be sustained without the specific religion that gave rise to it.

    Some of the people who’ve suggested that our moral code is an epiphenomenon of Christianity — Nietzsche or MacIntyre, for instance — seem to have advanced somewhat past Stage II. I don’t think they were just talking about dietary restrictions, either. In fact, that should be obvious just from comparing Carthage, c. 3rd century BC, 17th century Mysore, and Victorian England. These cultures may all reflect the Golden Rule or “treat[ing] other people with … decency and kindness,” but it’s clearly instantiated in very different ways. In other words, the question isn’t “Will morality survive?”; it’s “Which morality?”

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Dec 21, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Well, in the event that Palin meant to channel Alasdair MacIntyre, I retract my reply—that would indeed require a separate discussion.

  • 8 RK // Dec 21, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Hah, fair enough. As I said, Professor Palin’s claim was too broad — that is, too liberal. Even in conservative Republican circles, it’s considered somewhat impolite these days to attack non-Christians from a Christian standpoint. So you see these defenses of generalized “religion” where it’s obvious the writer is thinking of one religion in particular.

    That said, Palin’s wording is pretty interesting. She didn’t say that atheists were immoral. Nor did she make a weaker claim like “without God, everything is permitted.” (I think that’s Dinesh D’Souza’s viewpoint: atheists may behave morally, but they simply haven’t reasoned through the implications of their atheism. One of his many crazy beliefs.) She said that morality couldn’t be sustained without the support of religious beliefs. I’m obviously parsing her words more nicely than I’m entitled to, but that sentence can mean a lot of things, some of which aren’t trivially wrong.

  • 9 Noah Yetter // Dec 21, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    “…people presumed to be too wicked to restrain themselves without some external sanction…”

    This is PRECISELY the character of man that Christianity postulates. And it is shameful.

  • 10 Dr X // Dec 21, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    Christians who argue that religious belief or training are necessary for morality ignore their own scripture, which states that the law–the OT–is not needed for moral conscience because conscience is a given even in those untrained in religious law.

    Romans 2: 13-15

    For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)

  • 11 Mike // Dec 23, 2010 at 11:59 am

    One aspect you need to remember when understanding people with these viewpoints – they are also coming from a Christian definition of the nature of mankind. They believe that mankind in general is inherently sinful and prone to wickedness (and have plenty of examples to support that view) and that will color their perception of mankind’s ability to support any sort of moral sense without the counterbalance of not just religious teachings and faith, but the direct intercession of God’s will. The argument is less that they personally are sociopaths, but that mankind is *inherently* sociopathic.

    Most humanists are working from a different direction – mankind is either a blank slate, or a set of evolution-created mechanical systems. Either of these views, by the way, do encompass the idea that outside of a full indoctrination into the society’s moral system that a person will not inherently have morality. The jump then, for person with Palin’s religious mindset, is either that non-religious indoctrination is either ineffective or misdirected, or that the forms of knowledge are not enough with a personal revelation and connection with God.

    I grew up in a very religious Baptist town, and one thing that was consistent in my conversations with people is that they do not understand how atheists can live without knowing that there is a *purpose* to life. Similarly, if they *know* that the only reason they are able to be good moral people is because their religious faith is warring with their natural inclinations toward sinfulness, then how can they expect someone without that faith to do so as well? When you are taught and buy into the idea that something defines you and provides you your purpose, you don’t look for alternative sources for it.

    Very few people come to Christianity as a blank slate and say “oh, hey, good stuff on one side, bad stuff on the other, I guess I’d better be good!” Very few people are that calculating about it, it’s more just a part of the mythology.

  • 12 Mike // Dec 23, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Or, to put it more bluntly, Hell is where *other* people go.

  • 13 Justin // Dec 23, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    What’s hard about Palin, or someone like her is that she’s not putting enough thought in to pin a particular position on her. Does she believe that morality is metaphysically groundless without God or that religious belief somehow changes people for the better, or that fear of God’s punishment is an incentive for moral behavior?

    Is there really a reason to believe she was aware of all the different interpretations when she wrote that passage? (Or was it ghostwritten?) It’s a lot easier to imagine that she just has a good impression of religion, a bad impression of atheists, and so this comment just kinda sounds right to her.

    Also, I think you’re wrong about where her comment would place her on Kohlberg’s scale. Kohlberg’s scale concerns the reasoning that people use for moral decision-making. Her comments show her explicit theorizing about moral decision making. But there’s no reason that these should be the same. After all, people who maintain there’s no such thing as altruism still sometimes act altruistic, despite their claims about human motivation.

  • 14 Vern // Dec 28, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    I think you’re skipping ahead of yourself. The distinction here is not about the result, but the cause. Without God, there is no distinction between doing the “right” thing and the “correct” thing.

    This is really the topic best explored in a Clockwork Orange. We no longer need to postulate Burgess’ drug induced sickness effect as we better understand the neural functioning of brain cells. Once the decision is reduced to a purely physical process, can it really be said to be a “moral” choice?

    In fact, one could argue, without God or something supernatural, there is no choice or freewill period, and all discussion of morality is moot. If humans are entirely and only physical processes, then we simply do what the laws of physics dictate, the differences in outcome due entirely to randomness and chaos (mathematically speaking) in those physical systems. You might think that’s the only explanation needed, but it’s hardly “morality.”

  • 15 MBH // Dec 28, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Vern, that’s incorrect. Contemporary logic shows that both materialism and idealism are nonsense. That entails a world in which ‘preternatural’ is a senseless property. God is neither something we can belief nor disbelief, and yet — within the “space” of reasons (a “space” beyond causality) — some actions are right and some are wrong. That only takes logic; the “space” is irrespective of God and religion. In fact, if God and religion are to mean anything, they both necessarily fit within the “space” of reasons. Neurophysiology may correlate with what goes on it the “space,” but, like materialism and idealism, we dive head-first into gibberish when we start to assume causality.

  • 16 MBH // Dec 28, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    Should read: “God is neither something we can believe nor disbelieve.” Oops.

  • 17 RKS // Jan 6, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    You cannot really justify a thoughtful essay concerning a quote of Palin’s on intrinsic grounds, because it is not possible to legitimize Palin as a public. She is not a thinker; and it is probably questionable that she was even able to write anything approximating her book, had she been forced to do it independently, like real authors.

    That said, I suppose you could justify comments about the quote on it’s own merits, as a proposition, the way that you have. Whether I agree about Kohlberg’s stages and where this proposition lands is uncertain — something I would have to look at further. But I can say that is clear, based upon experience, logic, empirics or whatever you like, that moral intuitions, moreal concepts, and committed moral behavior can definitely result, and be upheld, without recourse to religion. Conservatives, especially those who accord the U.S. constitution inviolate Biblical status, should be able to think their way to this realization easily and without prejudice. The very notion of holding truths to be self-evident is proclaiming an innate human capacity to distinguish goodness at a fundamental level, unbesmirched by religious coloring. (Something like Chomsky’s innate language acquisition device applied to esthetics.) People who cannot distinguish morality from religion are too undisciplined to exercise their human capacity to entertain notions and feel the complex black, white, and grey of these notions moral colors. Fundamentalists are fundamentally backwards, and want to be told what is “right” and “true”, lacking the maturity to undertake the making of judgements.

  • 18 Dwayne Stephenson // Jan 16, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    I don’t think that’s fair. Morality is automatic-it’s an emergent property of human social systems. We learn how to behave well from a young age largely by interacting with friends and family, and it isn’t because someone is explicitly telling us everything that’s good and bad (the parental conceit) but because through an empirical process we see the consequences our good and bad behaviors have on people we care about. There’s nothing deeply conscious about moral development-it happens the same well all intellectual development happens.

    However, a big, successful component of religion has been its ability to coopt morality-to tell a story that explains why the things we already know to be good and bad are good and bad, to sell peoples’ own beliefs back to them in narrative form (it’s all just marketing, really). For most devout, to believe in religion is to believe in that story. If you really think the Hebrews didn’t know stealing, adultery, and murder were wrong until Moses came down with the tablets (a silly, deeply cynical thing to believe) then of course you are going to tell people you think religion is a prerequisite of moral behavior. But all that means is that the salesmen got to you.

  • 19 Moral Ubiquity « Think You Under the Table // Jan 20, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    […] Julian Sanchez on the assertion that morals require a religious foundation: …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. […]

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