In a recent “Skeptic’s Collection” column, I proposed deriving ethical principles, not from some religious or theological or generically “metaphysical” source, but instead from the very act of ethical reflection itself. I called this strategy “anthropic ethics” because it emphasizes that the very act of ethical reflection itself presupposes, purely as a matter of logic, certain ethical “first” principles”, e.g., “Life is good”, “Free inquiry is good”, “Rationality is good”, etc., etc. (The analogy was with the anthropic principle, which states that the existence of life in the Universe implies that certain antecedent physical constants must have certain values.) Denying any of these principles ultimately works against the health and survival of the human community as such, and if the human community does not survive, no human being is going to be doing any ethical reflection. There were certain issues that were addressed only tangentially, and I want to have another go at dealing with them more directly now, the objections that: (1) the argument is circular because it uses the concepts of “good” and “evil” to talk about good and evil; (2) defining good and evil anthropically leaves large tracts of ethical issues unresolved and maybe irresolvable; (3) in any case, the tradition of religiously validated ethics is by now so deeply ingrained in human culture that it cannot be successfully challenged. I will answer these objections in order.
(1) The argument is circular: it presupposes the categories of good and evil in order to circumvent them
This is not so much an objection as it is a complete missing of the point. Two responses: first, the whole point of the argument about the alternative of anthropic ethics is, not to presuppose terms like “good” and “evil”, but to redefine them in a way that detaches them from religious conceptions. Above I said that “the very act of ethical reflection itself presupposes ... certain ethical first principles”. Another way of rephrasing this, and perhaps making it clearer, is to assert the converse: whenever we engage in ethical discourse we at least implicitly belief in certain ethical principles. Second, I propose defining terms like “good” and “evil” in terms – not of religion, not of ethics religiously conceived – but in terms of what human beings have learned about what makes human communities tick. Species homo sapiens sapiens has been around for, in round numbers, about 200,000 years, or a little less. During that time, we have learned, usually the hard way in the “school of hard knocks”, what conduces to the survival and flourishing of human communities and what does not. We have learned that that taking care of each other is good, that approaching the world rationally is good … good in the sense that, if we deny and fail to put into practice any of these principles and practices, then over time the entire community will be less viable, less likely to cohere, even less likely to reproduce – and consequently, more likely eventually to just die off. Religion has nothing to do with this. It is a matter of long-term survival and flourishing (“flourishing” understood in the sense of surviving in such a way as to develop more reliable and effective means of implementing these values and priorities, e.g., using antibiotics instead of shaking bone rattles and sacrificing chickens). Granted, we do not know everything or have literally exhaustive knowledge of what makes human communities survive and flourish. But then we also do not have literally exhaustive knowledge about all the factors that make for a great NFL quarterback or team. But we do not, for that reason, stop drafting college players or suspend the football season. That does not mean that the NFL draft or football schedules are in any sense “circular”, only that we are smart enough to do what we know to do at the time – which may, for a long time, actually mean rattling bones and sacrificing chickens -- while learning to do better with experience.
(2) Defining good and evil anthropically does not cover all cases, and leaves certain critical ethical issues unaddressed
Well, of course it does! So does ethics done from religious presuppositions. To take an especially obvious and contentious example, think of the contemporary controversy over “life” issues – abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, stem-cell research, etc., etc. – in which most of the controversy, on all sides of the issues, usually starts out from the standpoint of religious axioms. Think also of issues of war and peace, the morality of nuclear weapons, of issues surrounding poverty, capitalism, and the role of government in society, etc. Even done religiously and from a standpoint based on some Divine fiat, issues remain that have been unsettled for centuries, and that will most likely remain unsettled into the indefinite future. Anthropic ethics would be no different: there would still remain expansive room for vociferous, even acrimonious, disagreement. But anthropic ethics would at least allow us to concentrate on areas that are genuinely problematical, instead of getting sidetracked and squandering our energy in arguments about non-problems.
Two perfect examples of the tendency of religiously grounded ethics to divert energy and work toward non-problems are the women’s rights and gay-rights issues. Denying women equal rights has severe and obvious adverse consequences “anthropically”: society basically divorces itself from the creativity, work, and energy of half the population by suppressing women’s education, political activity, etc., etc. But for decades, religious objections about “submission”, “the place of women,” and related issues were used to frustrate efforts to recognize equal rights for women. Similar remarks pertain about the rights of gay / lesbian people and other sexual-orientation minorities. The man who, to a greater extent than any other individual, basically invented digital computing, cybernetic code-breaking, and provided the technological infrastructure for Bletchley Park that was largely responsible for breaking Nazi military codes, etc. – Alan Turing – was quite literally hounded to his death by the homophobic laws, grounded in sheer religious mugwumpery, that prevailed in the United Kingdom until midway through the 20th century. Only with Supreme Court decisions like Windsor and Obergefell did the struggle for constitutional rights begin to gain unstoppable momentum – and this was only one battle in a larger war for LGBTQIA rights. And all for what? To mollify the middle-Bronze-Age religious sensibilities of people who sublimate their own sexual anxieties in the form of restrictions placed on others to the detriment of society as a whole … thus solving a pseudo-problem that never existed in the first place. With an anthropic approach to ethics, the only question that matters is Does this practice / priority / value – suppression of women’s rights, restrictions on the rights of sexual-orientation minorities, et al. – promote or impair the existence and flourishing of the human community? In practice, we will probably never be able to answer that question in all the forms and all contexts and in all cases in which it occurs. But at least we will be asking the right question. Asking the right question is half the battle, and that in itself is significant progress.
(3) The tradition of religiously validated ethics is by now too deeply ingrained to change
This objection is, not so much excessively pessimistic, as historically near-sighted. There was a time when slavery was assessed as being so deeply ingrained in human culture that slavery was believed to be permanent -- until the middle decades of the 1800s, and, in the US, the civil-rights movement a century later. (See the "Cornerstone Speech" of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, delivered at the Athenaeum in Savannah, GA, 21 March 1861, only a few weeks before the bombardment of Fort Sumter.) Similar remarks apply about religious diversity and tolerance for same, a whole host of gender and sexual-orientation issues, etc. In virtually all such cases, the illusion that there was a problem to be solved, a pathology to be avoided, and a status quo supposedly inscribed as indelibly in the Universe as the value of pi, turned out to be illusory, the product of asking the wrong questions -- What does God say? What does the sacred Canon say? What does the Authority say? -- instead of the right question What practices, attitudes, and values promote the growth and flourishing of the human community? Most -- I am sorely tempted to say "All" -- social, political, and cultural progress, at least in the West and certainly at least since the end of the great religious wars in the middle 1600s, has been attributable to this turn from asking religious and metaphysical questions about social and political issues to asking anthropic questions about what priorities and practices support the growth and health of the human world.
Finally, the following statement may surprise you at this point: religion is not bad. Mostly, it has just been misused. Of course, certain types of religion are bad. The late Christopher Hitchens was right in many cases: (certain types of religion) do "poison everything". But not religion per se. Not religion tout court. Religion becomes harmful when it is misused to solve certain foundational nuts-and-bolts problems about human society and culture when better ways have become available, and to address issues that, by their very nature, are not susceptible to the "one-size-fits-all" paradigms religiously grounded ethics tends to gravitate toward. In terms of furthering the psychological and emotional health of human beings, or enhancing our common and inborn capacity for awe and curiosity ... religion can be vital, even necessary, even from a strictly anthropic standpoint. Religion is not what it has been used as for most of human history: a kind of cognitive Swiss-Army knife. Least of all is it a hammer, and least of does human culture comprise only nails.
James R. Cowles