The Use of Reason
There are many ways to understand (not to mention practice!) ethics/morals. One thing that most will agree on is that ethics/morals are ‘worked out’ by way of (among other things) reason. Whatever our beliefs are, we all ‘work out’ what is moral/ethical behaviour. Of course, we don’t use this tool of reason all of the time. For many around the world, I suspect not much time/effort is given to reflection/systematization of their moral understanding/outworking. Even those of us who think about this kind of stuff all the time will likely be able to admit to just acting ‘impulsively’ from time to time. But the moment we begin to reflect (even in passing or for a moment) on why we do ‘this’ instead of ‘that’, etc.; we are reasoning about ethics/morals.
I want to suggest a (fairly!?) simple progression that I think represents the steps that we take (or should I say ‘have taken’) when we (or ‘before we can’) do such moral-reasoning. Now, I say ‘progression’, but actually, it may function more like an outward spiral (or something?) because I think there is continual interplay between all 3 steps.
- First, we all have a worldview. Worldviews are foundational. They provide the ‘lens’ by which we perceive reality (‘reality’ meaning all that is ‘real’; all that truly ‘is’; known/unknown).
- Based on our worldview, we all make value-judgments (we assess or perceive degrees of worth). We see/judge/deem some things (whether people, things or ideas) as worth more than other things. I suggest it is impossible to give a coherent and all-encompassing account of ‘morality’ without referring to (or assuming) a value-judgment.
- Finally, we all have moral/ethical standards (rules/patterns/understandings/practices/principles) which are (so to speak) ‘on the surface’. We use these (consciously or unconsciously) continually in the process of living in the world.
Without wanting (or needing) to ‘limit’ science, we can plainly observe that science does not provide any way to determine any distinctions or judgments concerning value or worth. This does not devalue science, it just means that our conscious value-judgments are not ‘scientific’ in and of themselves. Now, a) we may make scientific observations of (for example) the neurological phenomena which occurs during ‘judgment-making’, and b) we may well have our value-judgments informed (as opposed to ‘formed’) by science, but it still remains that when people (whatever their beliefs) make value-judgments, they are not being ‘scientific’, but being human (not that science in any way is in opposition to humanity). Buddhists, Muslims, Hindu’s, Jainists, Christians, Wiccans, Atheists, Jews, Agnostics, Pantheists or Sikhs – all make these non-scientific value-judgments because they are all human beings.
If values are the foundation for morality/ethics, and values are derived from viewing the world through the ‘lens’ of one’s worldview, I think in order to properly discuss issues of ‘morality’, it makes sense to focus on worldviews and values. For example, tired, polemic and overused claims that belief in evolution has the tendency to make one a violent or otherwise immoral person is completely unfounded. Evolution does not predispose a person to either vice or virtue. For example, depending on the place evolution has within one’s worldview, evolution could be used either to deny value or to demonstrate it.
Christian Worldview, Values and Morals
As a Christian, my worldview-based values reinforce my belief in a) the value of creation and b) the teleology ‘built-in’ to creation, and c) the unique role of humans (the most rational, potent and creative agents in the universe – that we know of) in creation. These beliefs provide a basic foundation for ethical/moral action, accountability and responsibility for Christians.
Some worldviews more easily lend themselves to similar values, while other worldviews do not (including – obviously – any versions of the Christian worldview in which creation and/or humans are devalued or unimportant). Indeed, many people who hold other-than-Christian beliefs share these kinds of values with Christians (though of course, not necessarily all).
Now (in spite of how unhelpful such labels can be) there is a worldview which is (fairly or unfairly) referred to as ‘materialist’. My sense is that those (often atheists) who are called ‘materialists’ (whether or not they accept the label – for example, Ken Perrott does not), generally are so-called due to their denial of a spiritual realm/dimension (spiritual being a very slippery word, of course). An example of this would be the view that ‘mind’ = ‘brain’ (roughly speaking) or that ‘spirit’ = ‘body’ (or that ‘spirit’ = nothing).
I’m curious to know how those with this worldview (again, often referred to as ‘materialist’) arrive at their value-judgments (and how their morals are built upon these values). Because science doesn’t give us ‘value’/’worth’ statements, my hope is that any such conversation would not be needlessly hindered by science, per se, but would rather focus on issues of worldview (how we view the world), and how our values are formed/derived from that.
We all ‘connect the dots’ (so to speak) from worldview to value – I’d like to talk about how we do this.