The relationship between Religion & Ethics

Religion has been defined as a system of Faith & Worship.  Judaism is believed to be a revealed religion. 

Ethics/Morality (these words are interchangeable) is the attempt to arrive at a view of the nature of human values, of how we ought to live and of what constitutes right conduct, by force of reason alone and not by revelation.  In order to arrive at a view, it sets goals and assesses actions by the extent to which they further these goals, e.g. if happiness is a goal then the action which produces most happiness to all affected is the right one.
 
Revelation too, through the written and oral law, directs people to an understanding of the nature of human values, of how they ought to live and of what constitutes right conduct; such teachings and examples are scattered amongst various verses and sources.  Examples of such moral teachings are:-
 
You shall do right and good (beyond the call of duty)
Love your neighbour
Correct behaviour between man and man
Discipline or training of character under the law
Piety beyond the law
The need to be respectful, earn a living; engage in learning and culture and so forth.
 
It can be seen that whilst both the secular person who wishes to behave ethically and the religious person who wishes to behave in accordance with the revealed code may do similar good deeds in order to achieve similar good and worthwhile objectives, their motivation is quite different.  Indeed, there is some debate as to whether the religious person is behaving ethically in the strict sense of the word.  Ethics is a branch of philosophy that deals with ideas such as Right, Good and Duty and these concepts were discussed in ancient Greece by Plato and Aristotle in the 3rd & 4th Century BCE.
 
The role of philosophers is to accurately try to define and promote these concepts based upon logic and reason.  A religious person on the other hand, follows his code of conduct because he believes that it is proper behaviour and reaction to the varying challenges and circumstances which arise during the course of life.  The word “ethics" does not appear in the Jewish language, nor did it appear in Judaism until the beginning of the 19th Century.
 
Immanuel Kant, although himself a religious person, stated that moral acts depend upon the motives.  An Act which is moral is done for its own sake; an act which is done in self-interest is non-moral.  Since a religious person does his good deed not necessarily for its own sake, but because he has been instructed to do so by God, then, by Kant’s definition, his act is non-moral.  Kant’s definition is a challenge to religion for it suggests that one can be both irreligious and moral.  Acting autonomously, doing right for its own sake, suggests that a person has the right to choose what is right.
 
A challenge by Plato to religion is posed by the dilemma:-
a)  X is right because God has commanded it, or
b)  Does  God command X because it is right?
 
If we accept (a) we have the arbitrary morality of “might is right".  If we accept (b) it indicates that God too is bound by morality and, therefore, in one sense, morality preceded God.  This poses the stronger challenge to religion for it indicates that secular morality pre-dates and is independent of, religion and is a basic necessity of the “good" life.
 
There are modern Jewish religious philosophers who would also agree that ethics have no part in religious behaviour. Professor Leibowitz is a leading exponent of this view.  He says that Jews agree on nothing except the revealed code of conduct.  (Hallachah)  Judaism is about ordinary life and Torah has no utilitarian value.  We need to know only why we have been given the Torah in order to know what to aim for in life.  He maintains that:-
 
1)  We must choose either religion or ethics and
2)  We must receive no benefits from religion, e.g. if one gives to charity and at the same time prays for the renewed health of a loved one, the gift ceases to be a Mitzvah and the prayer an expression of one’s selfishness and not a service to God. Professor Leibowitz’s view appears to be a minority one.
 
Other modern Religious Jewish philosophers put an opposing view and do combine revelation with ethics.  One such exponent is Rabbi Louis Jacobs.  He says that one needs to know the underlying value of the revealed code of conduct so as to help set priorities where conflicting demands each have underlying ethical reasons.  Another reason for knowing the underlying values is to help create legal fictions to circumvent the law for ethical reasons.
 
Another modern Religious Jewish philosopher who opposes Professor Leibowitz is Rabbi Dr. David Hartman.  In his book, “A Living Covenant", he uses a chapter analysing and criticising Leibowitz’s point of view, relying heavily on the writings of Maimonides.  He concludes the chapter by saying that revelation “constitutes a God-given challenge that must be met in every generation by a covenantal community that trusts its own autonomous rational and moral judgement in applying the Torah to life."
 
Whilst there is friction in the relationship between religion and ethics at the theoretical level, it is more acute at the practical level.  An example is to be found in the cause of animal welfare.  Peter Singer, a modern philosopher, expounds a fundamental principle of equality based only upon his reasoning and logic, namely “the principle of equal consideration of interests," and states that this principle cannot be limited only to Human Beings.  In practic, this means that if both an animal and a Human Being are suffering,  we try to evaluate the degree of suffering of each before deciding whether to help the animal or the human on the basis of such equal consideration  of interest, although he does concede that facts other than just suffering, must be taken into consideration.  This contrasts to religious teachings which state that whilst one must show every care, kindness and consideration to animals, the welfare of man takes priority.  Here the decision is reached in accordance with the perceived revelation and reason is only a marginal factor.
 
Other situations which highlight the friction between religion and ethics are those concerned with suicide and euthanasia.  A leading exponent against suicide was Thomas Aquinas who said that it offends against:-
 1)  The duty to oneself because it is contrary to natural law.  Everything loves itself.
2)   Duty to the community because it injures the community.
3)   Duty to God.  Life is God’s gift to man and suicide offends against God.
 
Aquinas believed in God and Duty.
 
The philosopher Hume, in opposing Aquinas’s view, replies to the three points as follows:-
 
1)  If one may not offend against natural law then man should do nothing to protect himself from the adverse effects of any natural causes.
 2)  A person’s duty to the community is reciprocal therefore, man should unilaterally be able to withdraw from the community.  But even if man does have a duty to the community, then there must be a limit to such a duty.
 3)  If one believes in God and one should believe that everything is in the hands of God.  If, therefore, someone commits suicide, it is God’s will.
 Hume believed in autonomy and maximising consequences.
 
Mainstream modern Jewish philosophy teaches that in man’s behaviour he must assume full free-will and must be responsible for his actions.  The religion teaches that suicide is wrong.  These teachings are generally implied from the scriptural texts “surely your blood of your lives will I require" and “you must guard your body and not injure it."  The first quotation is to be found in Genesis Chapter 9; verse 5.  Its meaning is not immediately clear.  Rashi implies from it a prohibition of suicide but Ibn Ezra believes  it to be a prohibition of taking human life and has no reference to suicide.  If Ibn Ezra’s view is correct,whilst one can understand the revulsion which prompts the religious teachings against suicide, it nevertheless puts a question-mark on whether such teachings are soundly based.  One would have thought that for such an important principle, the Torah would have expressed the prohibition more explicitly.
 
Events in history too, prompt one to question whether the absolute prohibition of suicide is as strict as it is stated to be.  Jewish theology teaches that one should give one’s life, and  presumably also take one’s life, in preference only to committing murder, incest or idol worship.  However, King Saul was believed to have committed suicide for reasons which are not absolutely clear and his action is generally condoned.  We are told of some 400 young boys and girls who committed suicide because they feared that they might become the victims of sexual assault and again their behaviour is condoned.  Throughout Jewish history, whole communities have committed suicide as acts of martyrdom in order to prevent themselves being tortured, murdered or sold into slavery.  Very often these communities were led by their Rabbis.  Some question whether such acts of martyrdom can be justified by the Halachah but presumably the Rabbis who led the mass suicide, were aware of the Halachah and acted as they did.  Since such acts of suicide have happened all too frequently over thousands of years, then these acts in themselves must surely establish the Halachah.  Although Rambam says “Pain is better than no life", the martyrs who foresaw torture and slavery obviously thought otherwise and we say that they sanctified God’s name.
 
It has been said that these communal acts of martyrdom were an Ashkanazi syndrome and whilst Halachicly correct, could be understood in the context of the Crusades.  This is not so.  In Andre Chouraqui’s book, “Between East & West", he describes similar acts of martyrdom under similar circumstances in the North African communities which also occurred during the Middle Ages,
 
When comparing the relationship between religion and ethics on the subject of suicide, we arrive at an unexpected result. Judaism teaches suicide to be absolutely wrong but finds it difficult to find strong support for this teaching from the Sources, whilst history has produced Martyrs who have committed suicide for many reasons apart from the three permitted reasons mentioned above, i.e. murder, incest and idol worship.
 
The ethical secularist justifies suicide on the grounds of autonomy.  Ethics however teaches that an act is ethical only if it is autonomous but it does not teach that every autonomous act is ethical.  Suicide may well be an autonomous act, but it is not necessarily an ethical act.  Does it for example, measure up to “the principle of equal consideration of interest"?  Is it an act which “produces most happiness to all affected"  The suicide may well have family, business acquaintances and community who may all be adversely affected to a greater extent than the benefit to the Suicide and, therefore, by the standard set by ethical secularists, unless the act of suicide measures up to the standards which they set for themselves, the act is not ethical.
 
In the matter of euthanasia, the difference between Ethics and Religion, whilst not absolutely clear cut, is much clearer.  For Ethics, so long as the “victim" is subject to voluntary euthanasia or non-voluntary euthanasia, the presumption is that the “victim" wants or would have wanted his death; this death has utilitarian value and it is an autonomous decision.  Ethics would not approve of involuntary suicide.  Religion, on the other hand, forbids killing absolutely.   It does not distinguish between killing healthy people or sick people, and, in any event, would find it difficult to draw the line between them.  It also forbids both active and passive euthanasia.
 
There are, however, two grey areas.  The first is highlighted by the stories of Rabbi Chanina and Yehuda Hanassi.  Rabbi Chanina, in an act of martyrdom, was being put to death by fire.  Nevertheless, he refused to do anything which would hasten his own death, namely suicide, but allowed his executioner to speed up his death, namely voluntary euthanasia.  The story of Yehuda Hanassi relates how his handmaiden disturbed a group of Rabbis, causing them to cease praying for Yehuda Hanassi’s continuing life and during the cessation of the prayer, the soul of the Rabbi departed; involuntary euthanasia.  Both Rabbi Chanina and the handmaiden are commended for their behaviour.
 
The second grey area relates to the life of a Goses - a person who is considered likely to die within the following 72 hours.  In such cases, no action should be taken to speed up the death but nothing need be done to prevent it.  For a Goses, Judaism does distinguish between active and passive behaviour.
 
In Rabbi Jacobs’ book “A Jewish Theology", in the chapter dealing with Jewish ethics. Rabbi Jacobs writes “there is no escaping the conclusion that a thing is not good because it is in the Torah.  It is in the Torah because it is good.  But in that case, what is gained by having it in the Torah; the record of Revelation?  The believer may reply that, although Revelation does not function in order to define good conduct, it does serve as its guarantee."
 
In Peter Singer’s book “Practical Ethics" in the chapter headed, “Why Act Morally?" he states "Why act morally?" cannot be given an answer that will provide everyone with overwhelming reasons for acting morally.  Ethically indefensible behaviour is not always irrational.  We will probably always need the sanctions of the law and social pressure to provide additional reasons against serious violations of ethical standards."
 
Peter Singer makes as good a case for religious teachings as any religious teacher could wish for.
 

 February 1990