Re­li­gions can be im­proved by hu­man­ist thoughts

The London Free Press - - READER TO READER - GOLD­WIn eMer­sOn SPIR­I­TU­AL­ITY & ETHICS

Moral­ity is a sys­tem of con­duct and be­liefs de­signed to guide peo­ple in the cus­toms, ta­boos, and mores of so­ci­ety. While the moral codes of one so­ci­ety may dif­fer from those of an­other, there is con­sid­er­able over­lap in the moral ideals of most so­ci­eties. For ex­am­ple, com­pas­sion, car­ing, trust­wor­thi­ness and hon­esty are com­mon moral val­ues, while mur­der, de­ceit, greed­i­ness, and vi­o­lence are com­mon moral ta­boos in most so­ci­eties.

Many philoso­phers and moral thinkers use the terms moral­ity and ethics al­most in­ter­change­ably.

For those who use the terms dif­fer­ently, moral prin­ci­ples arise from the ev­ery­day work­ing out of sit­u­a­tions that re­sult in har­mony within a so­ci­ety. For ex­am­ple, hon­esty is good be­cause it works out best in most sit­u­a­tions. In that sense, hon­esty is prac­ti­cal and so­cially use­ful.

On the other hand, ethics takes a slightly more cere­bral ap­proach in de­ter­min­ing which prin­ci­ples are the best ones to fol­low. Ethics at­tempts to seek out broad prin­ci­ples such as truth, jus­tice, eq­uity and fair­ness, while morals are more con­cerned with codes and rules that re­sult in an har­mo­nious so­ci­ety. Thus the eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples of Aris­to­tle and Plato dif­fer in em­pha­sis from the moral im­per­a­tives of Im­manuel Kant. How­ever, in the end, these dif­fer­ences may be more mat­ters of ap­proach than of sub­stance.

Kant’s moral sys­tem em­pha­sizes duty, re­spon­si­bil­ity and obli­ga­tion, a view that ties in well with the moral codes of tra­di­tional re­li­gions, which also em­pha­size du­ties, guilt, sanc­tions and re­wards. Re­li­gious be­liev­ers, rather than con­cen­trat­ing on a strictly cere­bral quest for higher eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples, are of­ten en­cour­aged to look to God through scrip­tures or prayers to guide them in finding good morals.

On the other hand, Kant’s sec­u­lar “cat­e­gor­i­cal im­per­a­tive” di­rect peo­ple to act in such a man­ner that their ac­tions could be­come uni­ver­sal moral prin­ci­ples. For ex­am­ple, when con­sid­er­ing whether or not an ac­tion is morally good, one also should con­sider whether it would work out suc­cess­fully if other peo­ple were to act in the same way. That is, could the ac­tion be­ing con­sid­ered be­come a widely held uni­ver­sal type of ac­tion? Should I cheat on my in­come tax? Not if such an ac­tion would not work well in a broader uni­ver­sal sense.

Kant’s phi­los­o­phy, though sec­u­lar, re­sem­bles the golden rule: “Do unto oth­ers as you would have them do unto you” — which can be found within many of the world’s ma­jor re­li­gions.

A sec­u­lar view of morals can be found in philoso­phies such as util­i­tar­i­an­ism, prag­ma­tism and hu­man­ism. The goal of these three philoso­phies is to bring about the great­est har­mony, the great­est hap­pi­ness or the great­est good for so­ci­ety. The em­pha­sis here is to ar­rive at good morals by observing and prac­tis­ing those ac­tions that will re­sult in a ben­e­fit to so­ci­ety.

Hu­man­ists be­lieve that, while sa­cred scrip­tures can guide peo­ple in moral prin­ci­ples, these scrip­tures some­times also can be di­vi­sive and de­struc­tive, such as jus­ti­fy­ing holy wars, re­ject­ing life-sav­ing blood trans­fu­sions or fos­ter­ing the be­lief that God favours one re­li­gious or eth­nic group over an­other.

So while sa­cred scrip­tures are a guide to moral be­hav­iour, we also need to be aware that too lit­eral or too nar­row an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of scrip­tures some­times can re­sult in im­moral be­hav­iour. A more nu­anced view of scrip­tures may help to set us on a bet­ter moral path.

One of the great gifts we have as hu­man be­ings is our abil­ity to re­flect upon our hu­man con­di­tion and use our free­dom to make choices about our ac­tions. The wise use of free­dom also car­ries re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, which we share with oth­ers. Hu­man­ists take this moral re­spon­si­bil­ity con­sci­en­tiously. We have an obli­ga­tion to con­sider how our ac­tions and choices af­fect the planet and hu­mankind.

Such problems as global warm­ing, pol­lu­tion, poverty, star­va­tion, home­less­ness and the spread of HIV are moral problems that can be un­der­stood and ad­dressed through sci­en­tific knowl­edge and a car­ing at­ti­tude to­ward peo­ple of all races and re­li­gions. A good start in fol­low­ing moral prin­ci­ples is the recognition that the problems of oth­ers are also our problems.

Re­li­gions, whether Chris­tian­ity, Is­lam, Ju­daism or oth­ers, can be im­proved by in­clud­ing, rather than ex­clud­ing, hu­man­ist thoughts.

We are all in this search for moral and eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples to­gether. Gold­win Emer­son is a Lon­don pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of ed­u­ca­tion with an in­ter­est in phi­los­o­phy and moral de­vel­op­ment. gand­je­mer­[email protected]

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