Saturday, 16 April 2011

Godless Morality

That's the title of Richard Holloway's book on ethics. The subtitle: Keeping Religion Out of Ethics. I'm looking forward to reading it, because it seems to mesh with the kind of enlightened moral law approach that our world desperately needs to affirm.

The concept of moral law is, of course, a Christian inheritance. The idea is that we all, deep down, affirm core common values, in principle if not in the working out of the finer detail, and that this knowledge has nothing to do with 'special revelation.' Following on from this is the necessity for all people of goodwill to be able to dialogue without special appeals to God, gods or Karl Barth.

God's views may be disputed, but Barth and Hauerwas would certainly disagree, and I suppose we'd all be disappointed if they didn't. Holloway is, himself, a former bishop of Edinburgh, so no slouch when it comes to confronting wooden-headed Reformed theology. Calvin apparently affirmed the existence of moral law, and it's only in the post-World War II years that a contrary view has gained traction, especially so among Reformed theologians. Catholics seem to have wisely ignored those developments, and it's good to see many Lutherans resisting the urge to descend down the rat-hole to oblivion that other Protestants have already bolted down.


  1. Well, I suppose you can, theoretically, have "enlightened moral law" without God in the picture. But, why would you want to?

    And, it seems to me that taking God and religion out of the system removes any and all authority that such morality might have?

  2. Sounds like a fun book.

    You said, "The concept of moral law is, of course, a Christian inheritance."

    I think the notion that morality is part of the genetic package is an insight thinking people can observe. It just so happened that those thinking people where Christians. I dare say there were probably Indian and Chinese philosophers who also believed in "Natural Law" (which is what you mean, right?). So to credit Christians with this insight is very misleading, IMHO.

    Looking forward to hearing your eval!

  3. We've been through this all before with Eugene Khutoryansky and Objective Morality (although, certainly, he has his critics). No, if we look at the Richard Holloway book reviews on, we find that the real issue is... wait for it... sex.

    OK, then. The lads in the Lutheran Church will remain stalwart and the Roman Catholics simply dash off to the confessional after their mortal sin encounters to get ready for the Eucharist. The rest of the bunch don't really have any where to go except to ignore Scripture and find their own way through human reasoning to support their liberal agendas. And that's OK: We've already decided that the Bible is irrelevant to modern Christianity anyways, so what's the big to do?

    I suspect it's how to allay all those fears and guilt of teens, particularly those who wake up some morning and find they are gay. We wouldn't want to disturb their tender psychys by telling them they are bad or evil. It might ruin them for life, and, not to put to fine a point on it, their lives might be mighty short, since this sort of conflict has been known to push them over the edge, sadly, to suicide.

    What to do, what to do?

    Let's leave God and Scripture out of morality. Even if He does exist, He doesn't know much and has made all those mistakes with humanity. That's why He had to send a kinder gentler Jesus to be killed off miserably, so someone could explain people to Him. It's better this way: Everyone wins, our teens are saved and certain lifestyles are validated.

    And here's the thing: It's the sensible thing to do. Decades ago, most religions dropped "flee fornication" from the Bible and it's OK as long as it's hetero. Let's take things one step further and rid ourselves of those pesky irritating troublesome sins which so easily beset us. Fornication is fornication and it is so widely accepted that it is NOT an issue any longer.

    Which begs the question: If that is true -- and if you don't believe it, you haven't turned on your TV for three decades or seen the news or talked to your neighbors -- then why is this book necessary in the first place? Hasn't Religion been kept out of Ethics for a long time now, particularly in the Armstrongist churches where ethics has always been totally irrelevant and they wouldn't know ethics if it coiled up and bit them on the backside?

  4. And one more thing, though I wouldn't want to be wearisome:

    Studies still show that deliberate lying kills brain cells by the billions. How's that for an objective measure?

    And, ah yes, those fun lads at the University of Toronto have found the secret to executive ability: You have to learn how to lie effectively and persuasively by the time you are age five, or your path to be an effective executive or directive are completely scotched.

    So there are tradeoffs here.

    Either you set aside your Victorian Morality and live a simple but rather austere life of hard work and deprivation, OR you can have a wonderful fulfilling life filled with prosperity and all the good things of life if only you sear your conscience at an early age and relegate those quaint ethics questions to theorists who have lost relevance to the modern world. You can be a top Corporate Executive, make the dough and have the good life, or you can be some backwater schmuck.

    And we can't even tell you if the choice is yours because no one knows if determinism is what makes the Universe work or not. Well, not for sure.

  5. It would be interesting to derive "Love your enemy" from such reasoning.

  6. Douglas said: "if we look at the Richard Holloway book reviews on, we find that the real issue is... wait for it... sex."

    Douglas, Douglas, Douglas... judging a book by Amazon reviews is even worse than judging a book by its cover.

    Okay, you can't discuss morality without mentioning sex. In fact that's all some folk think morality is. Holloway covers sexuality issues too (how could he not?), but that's not his emphasis as all.

    Mind you, what would I know, I've only actually read his book.

    The problem for a lot of folk - who DO believe that morality is about what you're NOT doing below the belt - is that Holloway challenges their assumptions; he doesn't tell them what they want to hear, despite using sweet reason, logic and common sense (along with a Christian perspective.)

    If anyone's idea of morality is rigorously keeping the Ten Commandments, then Holloway will come as a bit of a shock.

    You might "been through this all before with Eugene Khutoryansky," but the name is new to me. A quick Google tells me that he's coming from a very different place to Holloway (though there are bound to be similarities too, as you'd expect.)

    Concluding thought: some of the best books I've read have had some awful Amazon reviews. Reviews often tell you more about the reviewer than the book itself.

  7. Douglas wrote: "Either you set aside your Victorian Morality and live a simple but rather austere life of hard work and deprivation, OR you can have a wonderful fulfilling life filled with prosperity and all the good things of life if only you sear your conscience at an early age and relegate those quaint ethics questions to theorists who have lost relevance to the modern world."

    Or you could break out of the straight jacket of this either/or paradigm... just sayin'...

    Maybe I should post some excerpts from the book...

  8. Ooops, before us mundane commentors get lost in the Douglas-Gavin insider banter, may I ask:

    When you say "moral law", are you meaning the same as "natural law" (wiki or SEP) or Kant's work with that title?

  9. Gavin, Gavin, Gavin. Trying to understand what I'm really thinking from what I post is like understanding a book by reading reviews. This time around it's all fun and games.

    As for the comment about either/or, the reference is about being a good liar so you can be a Corporate Executive. While there may be exceptions, as far as anyone I know can see, and dependent upon such luminaries as the CEO of BP... oh, darn it all, pick a major company, the requirement for being an effective executive stands.

    You must admit it made for a stimulating time....

  10. Actually, my view about morality -- having taken two courses on ethics -- has little to do with sex. It has everything about lying and / or trying to be honest under difficult circumstances (with the caveat that honesty can mean a lot of different things). I think more of the business world, as in "Moral Mazes" by Robert Jackall and "The Management Trap" by Dr. Chris Argyris.

    I would suppose that there is a good deal about lies (or, shall we say, negated truth?) in Richard Holloway's tome.

    Yes, there are many things way beyond the 10 Commandments even within Scripture, for example, kidnapping -- which strictly doesn't necessarily fit within the 10 -- at least as a nice neat package.

  11. In the end, I agree with what I believe to be Richard Holloway's main point: Morality based solely upon authority is indefensible.

    In fact, most of the evils I believe I see in today's world originate in some authority based rule, tradition or law, without regard to sensitivities and sensibilities of people who should be served by it.

    Dr. Stanley Schmidt points out how ridiculous it is for a requirement for men to take off their hats when entering a building. He refuses to comply. Why should he? Who made up that stupid rule? Why? What good does it do?

    What may seem to make sense in a relgious realm often makes no sense at all in the scientific realm. Like Dr. Schmidt, I think we would all do well to question the assumptions of moldy morality. We will probably live better lives as a result and not get sucked in by con men who seem to have the truth but ply us with rubbish once we've accepted what they sell us on the coattails of something which might seem solid, but has a core of destructive delusion.

  12. Another book to consider is "Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality" by Laurence Tancredi.