Thursday, December 03, 2009

The project for a humanist system of ethics

I was reading in a Christian newspaper last weekend a criticism of "relativism" in the church. The author was expounding the view that Christianity is not just an ethical system but really about subjugation to the word of God and consequently the author tought it was terrible that anyone could be like Bishop Sprong and not think that the resurrection was central to belief.

Also last week the NSW Government announced a plan to trial an "ethics" class to be conducted at the same time as religious clases for non-believers.

The first of these observations, in separating Christianity from merely being an ethics system, highlights the fact that our system of ethics has for a thousand years diverged from the system espoused in the Bible. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out in the debate on whether the Catholic Church was a force for good, the moral code of the bible is not Ten Commandments - "the Jews the Torah has a total of 613 commandments which includes the ten from the Decalogue" - and the first three of the famous ten instruct us to fear God.

The wonder of some of these was best displayed in the West Wing episode screened on 18 October, 2002. It is a delicious irony that this link to it appears on a right wing site that lists it as a case of (left wing) media bias. The flavour of the scene is captured in the Bartlett quote "Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side-by-side?"

There are two problems with the proposed trial. The first is defining the content of a secular course in ethics, and the information on the course provided by its designers at the St James Ethics Centre provides little real guidance. The second is designing the actual content (or even pedagogy). Religious education in primary schools (as in Sunday schools) consists of three standard components. The first is a story - often straight from scripture but sometimes just based on it , secondly a craft activity to support the story and usually some singing and maybe even some acting (role playing). The churches between them have developed quite a number of highly developed curricula and support materials. In fact a scripture teacher actually has far more teaching material provided to them than teachers of the harder core subjects like maths and english (ever since the demise of the primary school text book).

What the humanists need - or the secular ethics project - needs is firstly its statement of ethical principles. Then it needs a massive effort to build the stories that can be used to teach these principles (and should feel free to pinch the stories used by the various religions). Most importantly it needs to be managed in a non-confrontational way. That is, state "these are the principles of humanist ethics - many of these principles are shared by the world's great religions. They are shared because they work".

That makes me think again about my first principles reposted yesterday and the thought of contrasting those to the ten commandments. These principles were really first constructed as principles for political action rather than principles of ethics (the boundary of which is collective versus individual responsibility, or power). The big prohibitions on murder and theft are actually covered by the principle of mutuality. This suggests a few more simple principles for inclusion;

The principle of respect This is the principle that all people deserve to be treated with respect, both as individuals in themselves or in regard to any position they hold. This sort of includes the whole honour thy parents piece, and the deferrence to "God" if you happen to believe in one. At a more subtle level it includes the extra respect that should be accorded judicial officers, etc. The way to read that is that the individual performing the role of judge is due respect because they at times have to divorce themselves from their own values to exercise the function that is being asked of them. Similarly we should respect politicians in a democracy because they are fallible individuals doing their best (which might well not be good enough) to reconcile multiple vires on multiple issues. If there best is not good enough the individual critic has the responsibility to either offer themselves as an alternative or work for someone else to be an alternative.

The principle of faithfullnes This really encompasses the adultery bit, but in a far more modern way. It is about being true to one's own commitments. The ethical wrong in adultery is not in the sex but in the betrayal of the commitment given to one's partner. In fact adultery often includes a double breach because the adulterer often makes promises to the third party they do not intend to keep.

The principle of honesty This is really pretty straightforward but needs to be included.

As I noted in my earlest post on this topic the order is important because that should cover the heirarchy for resolution of conflict. But it may not always. On my last post there was a cynical comment that we just need to ad Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics to be done. Asimov actually used the three laws in his I, Robot short stories to demonstrate very effectively how a moral code based on laws can have paradoxical outcomes. Examples include the robot that literally gets stuck going around in circles as the relative potentials of the different laws incease and decrease, and the case used in the movie of actually getting a robot to commit murder.

This really makes the point about the so-called "ethics" classes for primary school kids. Exactly what can you teach?

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