Religions and Secular Ethics as Psycho-Technologies

In A Preface to Morals, Walter Lippman makes the point that religion doesn’t merely give people an ethical theory which describes how they ought to act, but also creates the motivational structures which elicit them to act according to the theory. In other words, religion is not merely a how-to manuel on how to act, to be evaluated alongside other how-to manuels, but is something more akin to a piece of magic – a psycho-technology which bores into people, spreads through groups, and tends to propagate itself while motivating certain individual and social actions for the group.

Post-religious ethics is only a few hundred years old. Immanuel Kant is often recognized as the first philosopher to take seriously the need to create a new ground for ethical motivation and moral choice after believing in God is no longer unquestionable enough to motivate moral choice unequivocally throughout a society. Kant may have written before the death of God was complete, but his project of creating a theology-free ground for ethical action is motivated by the warning signs that Christianity is on the decline in Europe. Moreover, it is motivated by Kant’s cosmopolitanism – his desire for different nations to live in peace, and he thought that if ethical action was no longer based on one’s particular God, but on one’s universal humanity, genuine respect for people outside the in-group was more possible. And, that’s still a good idea today.

However, the problem with Kant is that no one takes his actual project seriously. Kant not merely gave us a theory of how we should act, which could be evaluated alongside other ethical theories. No – he gave us an account of what the human being is, (after Heidegger we could say he gave an ontological account of the human being), and it follows from agreeing with Kant’s account of the ontological nature of the human, that you must act, or rather endeavor to act, according to the categorical imperative. It’s not a choice whether or not to follow the imperative for Kant – rather the nature of free choice itself is to act according to the imperative! If you “choose” to act according to the imperative or not, this means your actions are already heteronymous, motivated by desire rather than the form of the law.

But no one reads Kant this way. Everyone reads him as a “deontologist” – someone who believes ethics can be prescribed as a series of rules, and acting morally means following rules. And this is pretty strange, because Kant says the opposite – that you can’t make a series of ethical rules, because that would give ethical judgements heteronymous content. Instead, the only rule you can follow is the form of rule-giving itself – the moral law: act such that your actions could be the universal rule for all humanity. That’s not an order to create a series of rules, it’s an order not to create a series of rules, because any particular rule you create and distribute over many circumstances will not be universal, but be particular, and from its particularity will arise contradictions (this is why it’s so easy to ridicule Kant with the “would you lie to lead an axe murderer away from the child they are pursuing?). Aristotle already knew there was an inherent contradiction between law and universality – for every law, no matter how well devised in advance, there are situations where applying the law is unjust, and therefore wise human judgement must be used in those situations rather than blind application of the law. This is called the principle of equity, and Kant certainly knew about it. (My theory is that Kant is an Aristotelian, who read Aristotle similar to the way Heidegger read Aristotle in the early 20s, and this is why while you find references to other Greek thinkers in Aristotle, Kant shies away from directly attacking Aristotle – rather hoping his audience will assume that Aristotle falls amongst the stoics who Kant criticizes).

Now, the problem with this average reading of Kant is not that it is disrespectful of Kant and his philosophy (although, I think it most certainly is), it’s rather that it puts Kant into a basket with all the other modern post-religious ethical theories, which all make the same mistake: they assume that the standard for evaluating ethical theories is “how well would this work if everyone did it”. This is the assumed standard in every journal, as far as I know, where people debate which is the correct, or the best ethical theory. But it’s totally absurd – it makes no difference how well a moral system “would” work if everyone were to adhere to it, unless you have some account of how you are going to encourage everyone to agree with it.

Religion solves this problem by combining description with motivation. Or rather, for religion this was obviously a problem needing to be solved (and religions which did not solve it simply died off), whereas for secular ethics, the counterfactual “but if everyone did believe this…” is for some reason taken seriously as the hypothetical situation under which an potential ethics should be decided.

Other contemporary and post-religious political/social/moral movements have taken this problem seriously, and are more famous for their failures than their succeses. This might be because ethical theories which do not create the psychological motivation to actualize them never get the chance to murder thousands of people. Nationalism and Communism are both ideas, or sets of ideas, that not only tell people how to act, but create in them the motivations to start political movements and bring their ideas of proper arrangement of things into practice. This means that their ideas get tested in a way that secular moral theory never does – because it’s never applied.

Now, drawing the situation this way has serious implications for how we evaluate nationalism and communism (of course, there are hundreds of kinds of each, and I’m not in a position to make general approbations or condemnations of either kind of social theory in general). We should evaluate the particular ideas of nationalism or Communism, or the lines of analysis, not in terms of how we believe they would affect society if they were implemented in an ideal way – rather, we should evaluate how they in practice interact with other sets of motivations, and create real historical circumstances that affect people.

We should therefore condemn, to some extent, the ideas of Marx and Lenin for the crimes of Stalin. However – only to some extent, because if we recognize the contingencies of the world, we see that movements always have multiple possibilities, there are always different directions in which a line of analysis can go. But we should evaluate lines of analysis empirically – what is the actual effect on the society by the spread of some set of ideas through it?

The empirical evaluation of moral/prescriptive sociological theories should be extended to those theories which are currently judged on the standard of “what would happen if everyone believed this”. The result would be, people would stop wasting their time on theories which are hypothetically compelling, but which are not compelling to real people – and which create no motivation in people to act in such a way that the theory proscribes as “good” or “right” action. Ergo, the current atheist movement should not be judged on how compelling the arguments of Dawkins or Harris are when they claim that a coherent and superior secular ethics is possible, but rather on the actual growth and consequences of groups which are motivated by those atheist ideas.

We should take seriously the fact that pro-atheist sentiment is not rarely mixed with religious intolerance, especially in situations where it creates some kind of social movement. It takes quite a blindness not to see the interaction and cross-pollination between secularist thought and islamophobic thought. The fact that Christopher Hitchens spreads the “clash of civilizations” theory of international relations, an idea which I think is plainly Islamophobic, is not unrelated from his critiques of religious ethics and arguments that we can replace them with secular ethics.

Now, I’m a huge fan of critiques of religious ethical systems. The history of Christianity is a history of genocide, religious wars, and hatred towards the out-group (despite the fact that what is perhaps Christianity’s most important dogmatic differences from Judaism have to do with having respect for, even “loving”, people who are outside your in-group, i.e. your potential enemies). And people like Hitchens are great ones for pointing this out. He will often make the point, for instance, that many more civilians were killed in the retribution against the Paris Commune, than were ever killed by the secular revolutionaries in the French Revolution. And this is good – we should say this. But, religious ethical systems, or “ideologies” (I’ll discuss the usefulness of this term in a future post), should be judged no more harshly than we judge non-religious ethical theories.

In practice, it is difficult to judge secular ethics as harshly as we judge religious ethics, because no one believes in secular ethics – in other words, because secular ethics fails to create the shared motivational structures required to encourage people to actually dominantly act according to its prescriptions. But this should appear as a failure of secular ethics. The fact that it fails to create motivation is different from, but not obviously worse than, the fact that religions drive people to perversion in the process of creating the motivations which might actually create action according to the religious dogma. These are simply different kinds of failures of the system – one is a failure of the system to institute itself, and the other is a failure of the system to remain non-pathological and non-murderous after it succeeds in instituting itself.

If we are serious about ethics being the way people actually act in the world, and not armchair (or seminar, or academic journal) philosophizing, we should not look at secular ethical theories like hypotheticals – we should study them historically, we should study the actual ones that exist, try to find the best one (or lead horrid), and set to work trying to improve it.

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2 thoughts on “Religions and Secular Ethics as Psycho-Technologies

  1. I am sure this is way over my head Tris, but it seems to me that all human systems are meaningless without God, and fallible. God is not in the box, He is outside the box . People for centuries have tried to put Him inside the box…and explain, rationalize and minimize Him… or try to be like Him. Like the pottery trying to explain the Potter… no can do…

  2. Which god? Just one god, or many? And if you think the real one is yours, is that for reasons any different than why others think the real god is theirs?

    It seems to me that all human systems are fallible and meaningful whether or not God is involved. Something is meaningful just if it is the case that it means something to people. And every system that impacts people’s lives means things to people. And, every system is fallible – certainly including systems which claim that their authority comes from the divine.

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