Morality and Religion

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MORALITY AND RELIGION . In the minds of many people, the terms morality and religion signal two related but distinct ideas. Morality is thought to pertain to the conduct of human affairs and relations between persons, while religion primarily involves the relationship between human beings and a transcendent reality. In fact, this distinction between religion and morality is a relatively modern one. Although tension between religion and morality is already evident in the writings of Plato and other Greek philosophers, the popular modern conception that religion and morality are separate phenomena is probably traceable to the Enlightenment. At that time, a number of thinkers, reflecting Europe's weariness with centuries of religious strife, sought to elaborate ethical theories based on reason or on widely shared human sentiments. In so doing they established the assumption that the norms governing conduct, morality, and ethics (that is, the effort to reason about or justify these norms) were separable from matters of religious belief.

This same cultural context also gave rise to a number of efforts to explain the relationship between morality and religion. Since it was now possible to conceive ways of thinking and acting morally that were not dependent upon religious revelation, it became natural to ask why these two phenomena have usually been so closely linked in human history. Answers to this question were diverse, but they might be broadly divided between those that were friendly to religion and those that were hostile. Kant's thinking epitomized the views of those who believed that religion and morality are mutually necessary: although he was willing to criticize religious excesses and fanaticism, he was convinced that belief in a God who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked was necessary to ensure full moral commitment.

In the hands of thinkers less friendly to religion, this claimthat religion involves the assumption of a morally governed worldbecame the simpler assertion that religion represents the effort to buttress morality by adding to its ordinary social sanctions a concocted series of supernaturally mediated rewards and punishments. This was not a new idea. It had already been stated in antiquity by some Greek, Roman, and Chinese philosophers. Although compatible with a respect for religious belief, it generally laid the foundation for a series of stinging critiques of traditional religion. Since morality could be understood in human or rational terms, it seemed to follow that the use of religious sanctions to support moral conduct was appropriate only where primitive, gullible, or morally weak persons were involved. By this reasoning, religion was at best useful during an early stage of human cultural evolution where it provided the "matrix" for moral concepts; in time, it was bound to be replaced by more rational modes of thought.

Some thinkers doubted the usefulness of religion in any context. A social critic like Marx, for example, viewed religion as the effort to support the moral norms and codes of privileged strata and ruling groups, while also masking worldly wrongs with the false allure of otherworldly rewards. Marx did not usually justify this view and his opposition to religion in moral terms. Indeed, he was equally critical of the moral systems and moral philosophies of his day, believing that they, too, were deeply involved with and compromised by the social and material conditions of the era. Yet, in many ways his attitude toward religion is similar to that of the critical Enlightenment philosophers: religion is to be rejected because it is ultimately opposed to the development of full human freedom and moral responsibility.

Decades later, Freud makes this point even more explicitly in The Future of an Illusion (1927), arguing that religion must be put aside because it undermines moral responsibility and encourages fanaticism. Individuals or groups whose only reason for being moral is fear of supernatural punishments cannot be counted upon to respect other persons once these fears lose their hold, as they inevitably must before the advance of reason. Furthermore, religious promises of forgiveness of sin and absolution are an encouragement to morally irresponsible behavior. For a mature and morally healthy world to emerge, Freud concluded, men and women of good will must meet together on the common ground of reason and atheism.

Not surprisingly, criticisms of this sort engendered a reaction. Often accepting the claim that religion and morality were only problematically linked, thinkers more sympathetic to religion like Friedrich Schleiermacher or Rudolf Otto sought to develop an abiding place for religion independent of its moral significance. Schleiermacher found this in the emotional state of "God-consciousness," while Otto found it in an essentially nonmoral sense of awe before the mysterious and transcendent. This reaction probably reached its zenith in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, particularly in Fear and Trembling (1843). Although Kierkegaard was fully appreciative of the value of morality, he believed that religious faith ultimately transcended ordinary human moral considerations. In the story of God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Kierkegaard discerned a "teleological suspension of the ethical," according to which morality was essentially subordinated to religious concerns. "Duty," he concluded, "is precisely the will of God."

Theoretical Assumptions of Western Ethical Theory

To an outside observer, these debates among Western philosophers and theologians concerning the relationship between religion and morality may seem culture-bound. The emergence of ethics as a separate field of inquiry, the effort to distinguish morality from religion, and the countervailing effort to reassert a place for religion in human life all arise from a very particular cultural and social context. Nevertheless, the fact that systematic thinking about ethics emerged in the West, and that it generated a series of divergent explorations of the relationship between religion and morality, does not mean that this thinking or aspects of these views have no validity across cultural lines. The physical sciences, too, have been most fully developed in the Western context, but the value of their findings, and even of their different hypotheses, is not limited to this setting. In trying to understand the relationship between religion and morality, therefore, it may be useful to employ concepts and approaches developed over the past centuries by Western philosophers, theologians, and social scientists. If one keeps in mind that concepts or ideas developed in a Western context are at best tentative efforts to penetrate complex realities and that they may not be wholly applicable to moral and religious traditions elsewhere, this approach can provide an interpretive guide through diverse religious and moral traditions.

Definitions of Religion and Morality

Surveying the modern body of thinking about religion and morality, one can identify a number of distinctive ideas. Foremost among these is an idea already mentioned: that morality and religion, however intertwined, are at least conceptually distinct phenomena. Religion involves beliefs, attitudes, and practices that relate human beings to supernatural agencies or sacred realities. It addresses what has been called the problem of interpretability, which includes such persistent questions as the ultimate nature and purpose of the natural world and the meaning of death and suffering. In contrast, morality has usually been thought of as a way of regulating the conduct of individuals in communities. It represents a response to the problem of cooperation among competing persons or groups and aims at settling disputes that may arise in social contexts. Force also represents a method of adjudicating conflict, but morality differs from force by appealing to principles or rules of conduct that are regarded as legitimate, that is, as having a justification potentially acceptable to each member of the community. The complex interrelationship between religion and morality is illustrated by the fact that moral legitimation may sometimes involve appeal to shared beliefs involving the supernatural or the sacred. But this is not a necessary aspect of moral justification, which can appeal to reason or to considerations of human welfare.

The Superiority and Logical Independence of Moral Norms

Philosophical analysis has also led to a series of more specific ideas about morality and ethics. For example, moral norms are regarded as among the most authoritative guides to conduct. This means that the dictates of morality are superior to and take precedence over self-oriented, or "prudential," considerations. The fact that something is morally wrong is thus held to be a sufficient grounds for refraining from doing it. Moral philosophers have disagreed over the questions of whether self-interest may play any role in moral decision and whether moral rules may ever be qualified or suspended to protect oneself or those one personally cares for. They have also disagreed over the larger question of whether these rules are absolute or permit exceptions. But that the dictates of morality have considerable authoritativeness and superiority is widely acknowledged.

A tradition of philosophical analysis, beginning with Plato's dialogue Euthyphro and culminating in the writings of Kant, has also insisted on the logical independence of moral norms and their conceptual priority over religious and other requirements. According to this line of thinking, human reason and conscience must be the final arbiter of right and wrong. Even religious norms and divine commands must be tested by the "autonomous" individual conscience. Recent discussions by philosophers and theologians have softened the contours of this view. Early rationalist claims that, to be acceptable, every religious command or requirement must conform to existing moral beliefs have been replaced by a recognition that religious teachings, in a dialogue with reasoned morality, can instruct and inform conscience. But the point made by Plato centuries ago, that human reason is the final forum of judgment, is still widely accepted, since to subordinate reason to other considerations is to renounce the very possibility of rational discourse and justification.

The Universality of Moral Norms

The writings of Western moral philosophers also reveal broad lines of agreement about the nature and content of morality. By and large, for example, these thinkers have not been impressed by the position known as "ethical relativism," which holds that basic moral principles or modes of reasoning differ substantially from culture to culture. While ethicists do acknowledge the truth of "cultural relativism," the view that accepted or prohibited modes of conduct vary among cultures, they have pointed out that this does not necessarily mean that fundamental principles are dissimilar. Different technical and social situations can cause common basic principles to yield different results in specific circumstances. For example, a general principle of respect for parents may produce a stringent ban on parricide in a technically advanced civilization but may lead to a custom of abandoning infirm or very elderly parents in hunter-gatherer cultures where there is no provision for sustaining the disabled and where dependency is regarded by all as shameful.

In contrast to the position of ethical relativism, most Western philosophers have subscribed to the essential universality of moral principles. This understanding, in fact, has several important meanings. First, it implies the descriptive point just made: at their most basic level, very similar basic moral rules and principles are understood and respected by human beings everywhere. Second, it implies the normative claim that not only is this so but that it ought to be so. There is a universal standard of morality to which all persons are accountable. This standard is sensitive enough to the reality of specific circumstances to justify broad tolerance of differing social practices, but even so there are limits. Thus, where a strict ethical relativist might conclude that "right" and "wrong" are definable only by the norms of a particular culture, nonrelativists have pointed out that certain cultural practices are so heinous that they cannot be judged morally acceptable without violating human beings' deepest moral self-understanding. For example, the fact that some societies have practiced genocide against minorities in their midst cannot be thought of as making this conduct right. Some things are wrong no matter how widely they are accepted in particular societies. Finally, morality has been regarded as universal in the sense that its rules and protection extend to all who are human. Precisely because it is a reasoned method of settling social disputes and, hence, superior to force or coercion, moral discourse remains the preferred method of relating to all who are capable of this method of social adjudication. G. J. Warnock has expressed the logic behind this view:

If conduct is to be seen as regulated only within groups, we have still the possibility of unrestricted hostility and conflict between groupswhich is liable, indeed, to be effectively ferocious and damaging in proportion as relations between individuals within each group are effectively ordered toward harmonious co-operative action. Thus, just as one may think that a Hobbesian recipe for 'peace' could securely achieve its end only if all Hobbesian individuals were engrossed within a single irresistible Leviathan, there is reason to think that the principles of morality must, if the object of morality is not to be frustrated, give consideration to any human, of whatever special group or none he may in fact be a member. (Warnock, 1971, p. 150)

Warnock and other philosophers who share this view would of course concede that it has more often been honored in the breach than in practice, but we shall soon see that the theoretical assumption that morality embraces the entire human community has special importance for the understanding of religious ethics.

The Moral Rules

Moral philosophers also display wide agreement on the most fundamental rules of morality. These include rules prohibiting persons from killing other persons, from inflicting injury on them, or from depriving them of freedom and opportunity. Other rules prohibit deception or the breaking of promises. All these rules presume that the recipient of the action in question has not voluntarily consented to it. Thus, a surgeon is not regarded as wronging a patient by cutting into his flesh, nor is a stage actor regarded as practicing immoral deception. In addition, these rules are clearly held to apply only where the persons affected by one's choice have not acted immorally in a way that necessitates breaking a rule with respect to them. While killing others or depriving them of their freedom is ordinarily viewed as wrong, for example, it may be justified when individuals threaten harm to others, as in criminal conduct or aggressive war.

These rules for personal conduct constitute only the minimum requirement for moral conduct. They are largely negative in character, prohibiting certain forms of behavior but not requiring positive efforts on others' behalf. In addition to this, however, ethicists recognize supererogatory actions, performance of which is an occasion for moral praise but omission of which does not ordinarily merit condemnation or blame. These actions include forms of mutual aid, generosity, and self-sacrifice. Along with respect for the basic rules, attention to these supererogatory requirements is ordinarily held to enter into the character ideals or standards of virtue that form part of a full system of ethics. Such ideals are separate from, but conceptually dependent upon, the understanding of right acts, since virtuous individuals are those who can be counted upon habitually to do what is right. Kant's famous statement that the only thing that can be called "good without qualification" is the morally good will is not meant to identify the norm of right or wrong conduct (for that, Kant believed, the test of the categorical imperative is required); rather, it is directed to the assessment of individual moral worth. In this connection, it is important to note that the intention of the agent plays a major role in evaluating conduct in terms of such character ideals. Since it is pointless to hold individuals morally responsible for the unforeseeable or uncontrollable consequences of their actions, the moral worth of persons is usually assessed in terms of what they intended to do, although morally acceptable intentions are ordinarily held to encompass reasonable prevision for consequences.

While moral theorists are widely agreed on at least the basic principles governing individual conduct and defining individual virtue, there is far less agreement on the norms or principles that ought to guide the conduct of social and economic institutions. At least for the context of industrialized societies, various competing theories have been advanced to justify everything from laissez-faire through welfare state societies to fully socialist and egalitarian systems. This is no place to settle a debate that continues to be one of the most heated in contemporary moral literature. It is important to note, however, that the very basic condition that moral principles be potentially acceptable to all persons tends to support views acknowledging a significant degree of social responsibility toward those who, through no fault of their own, are seriously disadvantaged. Thus, even thinkers who minimize society's responsibility for social justice tend to endorse efforts to ensure equal opportunity and hardship relief.

The "Moral Point of View"

Behind these specific rules, many philosophers have also discerned a way of reasoning that is basic to moral judgment. This involves, first of all, an element of imaginative empathy for the other persons affected by one's choices and a willingness to consider the impact of one's conduct on their welfare. In addition, it calls for a willingness to reason about moral choices in an impartial way, as though the agent were only one interest among all of those affected by a choice. This perspective of impartiality is sometimes called "the moral point of view." Various moral theories have tried to integrate this way of thinking into decision procedures for moral choice. Views that derive moral decisions from the presumed judgments of an ideal sympathetic spectator and those that see such choices as arising from the decisions of self-interested but impartial contractors are examples.

Why Should One Be Moral?

Delineation and justification of the moral rules have been the principal focuses of most moral theory. Yet, beyond specific normative issues, a series of persisting questions has stood at the far side of ethical discussion and has been dealt with increasingly by ethicists, as the nature and content of the moral reasoning process have become better understood. One of the most important of these questions is why one should be moral. Because this question can easily be misunderstood, its full significance and the difficulty of answering it may not be appreciated. If it is asked in the sense of why people in general should think and act morally, why morality itself should exist, then, to answer the question, it is necessary only to point to the general usefulness of morality as a method of settling social disputes. In this sense morality is in everyone's interests. Again, if one who has adopted the moral viewpoint of impartiality and empathy for others asks why he or she should obey the moral rules, then it is necessary only to point out that impartial persons would certainly advocate obeying the rules they would choose. But if this question is asked in its sharpest sense of why one should adopt the moral point of view in the first place, it becomes exceedingly difficult to answer. This is especially true whenever acting morally occasions serious loss for the individual agent.

Some philosophers have tried to answer this question in terms of the demonstrable longterm interest and welfare of the moral agent: they have argued that it is, by and large, advantageous to be a morally upright person and disadvantageous to be an immoral one. They point to the social and psychic costs that openly immoral conduct or covert and hypocritical behavior can entail. But others have rejected this approach either on the grounds that it is often not correct (immoral people sometimes do very well) or because it introduces essentially nonmoral motives into one's reasons for being moral. Some who argue this way have contended that no self-interested reasons should be given for being moral: that one's decisions to be moral must rest on a respect for moral reasoning requiring no further justification. For these thinkers the voice of duty, in the words of George Eliot, is "peremptory and absolute." Still others, rejecting both the appeal to personal advantage and the claim that no further justification need be given, have stressed the importance of various metaphysical or religious views in grounding, explaining, and justifying commitment to the moral life. These thinkers have argued that without at least some metaphysical or religious basis moral striving makes no sense. This basis may range from the minimal belief that morality is not pointless or futile, that one's efforts do make a difference, to the stronger belief that, however much it may appear true that good people suffer for their commitments, moral acts and dispositions are, in the ultimate scheme of things, acknowledged and rewarded.

It is noteworthy that discussion of the question "Why should one be moral?" returns ethics to basic matters of religious belief. Hence, the separation of ethical theory from theology and philosophy of religion, which ethical theorists effected during the modern period, has to some extent been reconsidered. It is interesting that this development was anticipated strongly in the work of Kant. To be sure, Kant is well known for his emphasis on the rational accessibility of moral norms and for his insistence that moral commitment must be autonomous, in the sense that it must be based on respect for the dictates of reason and conscience rather than on norms imposed from without and enforced by external rewards or punishments. Nevertheless, Kant's later writings, especially the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), were focused largely on questions concerning the philosophy of religion. In these writings, Kant developed the position that, to make sense, moral striving requires belief in a morally intentioned governor of the universe (this was Kant's "moral proof" of the existence of God), and he began to explore the relationship between ethics and themes in biblical theology. Foremost among these were the issues of sin, repentance, and the possibility of moral righteousness. Kant's discussions here are dense, but it can be said that, in perceiving the need to ground moral commitment in voluntarily assumed religious beliefs, Kant also recognized the difficulty of providing any clear and incontestable rational justification for being moral. Thus his work highlighted the difficulty of sustaining moral commitment and opened up, as never before, the prospect of rational persons' defecting from morality. Discussing this problem under the rubric of the "radical evil" of the human heart, Kant introduced themes that were later developed by Christian theologians like Kierkegaard, Barth, and Niebuhr.

Moral Theory and Religious Traditions

This body of reasoned reflection on basic issues in morality and ethics provides a useful background for exploring the variety of concrete traditions of religious ethics. Regarded superficially, these traditions display a bewildering variety of teachings and beliefs, making difficult any general conclusions about the relationship between religion and the moral life. But when they are assessed against the framework of concepts just presented, religious traditions display some common patterns. Moreover, identifying these common patterns also helps highlight some of the important differences between traditions. In approaching these concrete traditions with the framework of ethical assumptions as a guide, one should keep in mind one other important consideration: religious traditions are not static entities that display finished form at any moment in time; rather, like most human creations, they develop in the course of history. In his book Beyond Belief (1970), the sociologist Robert Bellah has suggested that religious evolution, like the evolution of other complex systems, often involves movement from simplicity to greater differentiation of structure (pp. 2050). In terms of moral ideas, this suggests a development of greater sensitivity to the full gamut of specific issues and questions identified by systematic ethical theory. We shall see that questions or distinctions barely occurring to thinkers or writers within a tradition during its earliest phases emerge as important issues later in the tradition's life. In addition to looking at traditions synchronically in terms of their structure at any given moment, therefore, we must also look at them diachronically over the course of their development.

The Superiority of Moral Norms and Independence of Moral Reasoning

As we look at the variety of religio-ethical traditions, it is striking that a sense of the distinction between religious, ethical, and even legal norms is often not present, and that when it is, it is often a late development. Furthermore, because the very distinctions are lacking, traditions do not always assert the superiority of moral norms over specifically ritual or religious requirements. This does not mean that these ideas are not present; often they are implicit and can be discerned only by a careful examination of how conflicts between norms are handled.

As I have already observed, most historical traditions tend to see the normative structures bearing on human life as an integrated whole, wherein moral requirements are fused with religious, ritual, and legal norms. In this respect it is often strained to speak of Jewish, Hindu, or Islamic "ethics." In Judaism, for example, the sacred norms for human life constitute halakhah. Incompletely understood as "law," halakhah is more properly thought of as sacred teaching or guidance, although it is also "law" in the sense that many of its specific requirements were upheld by public sanctions and punishments, when Jews were politically able to govern themselves. In all, halakhah discusses 613 specific commandments or normative prescriptions identified by commentators in scripture, including the Ten Commandments. While this body of norms does contain many requirements that are recognizably "moral," these are not clearly distinguished from what we would identify as ritual or religious norms. At a fairly late date in the development of the tradition, commentators would puzzle over why specific ritual commandments (for example, the requirement that only the ashes of a red heifer be used in a specific ritual of expiation) had been placed on a par with obviously important moral norms. But the early tradition tends not to make distinctions of this sort, and even later commentators who were rooted in this tradition agreed that all the norms of halakhah were equally sacred and equally incumbent upon the pious Jew. What is true for Judaism in this case, however, may also be said for sharīʿah in the Muslim tradition or dharma in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. In each case we have a legal-moral-religious teaching containing the totality of enjoined actions in an undifferentiated unity.

Neither can it be said that many traditions display ethical theorizing in the contemporary sense of an effort to work out and to justify moral norms in rational terms. Commentators on early Christian ethics have noted the striking difference between the tone of early Christian ethical writing and that of the surrounding Greco-Roman world. Whereas Greek and Roman thinkers were concerned with such questions as what constitutes "the good" for man and what patterns of conduct are most conducive to individual and communal well-being, Christian writers commonly established rules for conduct by citing biblical commandments, or by holding up as models for behavior exemplary persons in scripture. Throughout, it is the hope for God's approval (or the avoidance of his wrath) that is pointed to as the principal reason for living a Christian life. As is also true for Judaism and Islam, not human reason but God's will remains the source and sanction for moral conduct.

It is true that in our era each of the biblically based traditions has developed bodies of systematic ethical reflection, and it is also possible today to find treatises on Buddhist, Hindu, or Jain ethics. Yet the separation of moral reasoning from other dimensions of the religious life is largely alien to all these traditions. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the appearance of ethical theorizing initially represents a response to the authority of Greek and Roman philosophy. Thus, some of the earliest thinking about the relationship between religious and rational norms in these traditionsas for instance Sa'adyah Gaon's Book of Beliefs and Opinions (933 ce) and Thomas Aquinas's discussion of the forms of the law in his Summa theologiae (2.1.9097)emerges during the medieval period, when classical philosophy was rediscovered. Similarly, modern efforts to develop statements of Jewish, Christian, or Islamic ethics are very much a response to initiatives in philosophical ethical theory. The authority of Western thought has had a corresponding effect in stimulating thinkers in African and Asian religious traditions to develop systematic approaches to ethics. But in all these cases, writers are usually compelled to begin their discussions with the observation that the moral teachings of their tradition are inseparable from its theological, metaphysical, or ritual dimensions.

Are we to conclude, then, that the separation of ethics from these other aspects of religion is only a Western phenomenon, and one largely traceable to the classical philosophers of Greece and Rome? It is true that systematic, rational thinking about moralityethics in the modern sensedoes emerge primarily in the Greco-Roman world, although one might also speak of ancient Chinese ethics in this sense. Interestingly, in both these cases it was partly the breakdown of an older religious ideal that prompted rational reflection on the human good (a theme we shall return to later). But while ethical theorizing per se may be culturally localized, a sense of the independence, special significance, and even superiority of moral norms with respect to other normative requirements is present throughout many of these diverse traditions.

Criticism of purely ritual efforts to please God, for example, is one of the hallmarks of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. Amos 5:21ff. gives classic expression to the theme: "I hate, I despise your feasts, and take no delight in your solemn assemblies. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." In less impassioned but equally serious tones, Confucius would criticize members of the Chinese elite who believed that Heaven was satisfied with outward displays of piety and ritual in lieu of sincere efforts at righteousness and benevolence: "A man who is not good, what can he have to do with ritual? A man who is not good, what can he have to do with music?" (Analects 3.3). Neither the prophets nor Confucius, of course, would eliminate ritual from the life they believed human beings were called to live. For both traditions of thought, a fulfilled human existence was a moral and religious whole. But their opposition to efforts to reduce morality to one lesser aspect of the religious life evidences their sensitivity to the importance and relative priority of the moral norms.

This point could be further illustrated within a number of diverse traditions, but it becomes even clearer when we survey the historical development of religious thought. Not only do traditions tend to highlight moral requirements as they develop over time, but major religious controversies and schisms giving rise to new religious traditions usually effect dramatic ethicization of aspects of the older traditions, thus indicating how important the issue is for diverse religious communities. Many examples from the history of religions could be given: early Christianity's prophetic denunciation of Jewish religious observance and its replacement of the many ritual requirements of Jewish law with a simplified set of primarily moral norms; Protestantism's revolt against Catholic sacramentalism and against the idea that God's favor could be won by religious observance devoid of moral or religious sincerity; Buddhism's deliberate rejection of the heavily ritualized Indian caste order, and its replacement of that order with an ethicized hierarchy based on moral and spiritual attainment; and Daoism's repudiation of alleged Confucian formalism in the name of a simplified religious and moral ideal of spontaneous selflessness.

To be sure, each of these important moments of religious change involves more than moral reform (nor are the allegations of the "reformist" tradition always correct). But it is noteworthy that in each of these cultural contexts the effort to highlight and assert the priority of the moral norms is of such urgency that it could well be an important contributing factor to major religious change. It is also noteworthy that in these quite different contexts change is always unidirectional; religions do not efface the distinction between religious and moral norms as they develop, nor do they subordinate moral requirements over time. On the contrary, just as a theoretical appreciation of the importance of moral norms would suggest, traditions move toward greater clarity about the distinctiveness and relative superiority of moral requirements.

One final matter deserves attention: the claim that the basic derivation of norms in some traditions is religious, not moral. The supreme guide to conduct in these traditions, it is said, is God's command, and because this command is not always moral, these traditions are fundamentally opposed to any idea of the distinctiveness or superiority of moral norms. This viewpoint is associated with forms of divine command ethics in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Many believe it finds its strongest biblical support in God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gn. 22:119).

In fact, the issue of divine command ethics is a complicated one. Theoretical defenses of this position (as voiced by al-Ghazali in Islam and by William of Ockham, Duns Scotus, and Kierkegaard in Christianity) usually arise in contexts where the very authority of the tradition is under attack by rationalist critics. These defenses may seek less to represent the tradition in its integrity, therefore, than to place it beyond assault. Examined with less apologetic interests in mind, the traditions themselves do not necessarily support the religiously authoritarian reading they are given. While biblically based traditions trace their norms to God's will, this will is usually viewed in such ethicized terms as to render it unthinkable that God could ever require anything fundamentally wicked or immoral.

The Abraham-Isaac story in Genesis 22 is no exception to this rule. Readings based on this passage alone (such as Kierkegaard's) tend to omit the fact that, several chapters earlier, in Genesis 18:2333, Abraham has questioned God concerning the possible destruction of innocent persons along with the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah, asking boldly, "Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?" Abraham's willingness to question God in moral terms and God's willingness to enter into dialogue with Abraham do not support an understanding of the divine character as arbitrary or nonmoral. In many ways, the episode in Genesis 22 reinforces this impression: though a supreme demand is made, the sacrifice itself is not required. The God of the Hebrew scriptures, unlike deities worshiped by idolators, does not demand the slaughter of children. Indeed, this was precisely the lesson drawn by most later Jewish, Christian, and Muslim commentators. In this single text, therefore, we see both sides of the biblical tradition: its emphasis on obedience to God's will and its essential faith that this will is trustworthy and righteous. Taken together, these ideas do not suggest a religious attitude that would subordinate morality, but one that discovers moral intentionality at the tradition's highest level of authority.

Universality and the Moral Rules

We have seen that the term universality has several distinct meanings when used in reference to moral rules. It signifies the fact that at least the basic rules of morality are the same across cultures. It also signifies that these rules are to be regarded as applying across cultural lines presumably to every human being. All who are human are members of the moral community and bear the rights and responsibilities of this status. A survey of different historical traditions bears out the presence of these ideas, although historical development and other considerations sometimes render matters complex.

Common moral principles

One of the most striking impressions produced by comparative study of religious ethics is the similarity in basic moral codes and teachings. The Ten Commandments of Hebrew faith, the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and of Paul in his epistles, the requirements of sādhāraa, or universal dharma, in Hinduism (Laws of Manu, 10.63), Buddhism's Five Precepts, and Islam's decalogue in the Qurʾān (17:2239) constitute a very common set of normative requirements. These prohibit killing, injury, deception, or the violation of solemn oaths. C. S. Lewis has called basic moral rules like these "the ultimate platitudes of practical reason," and their presence and givenness in such diverse traditions supports his characterization. Also remarkably similar are norms bearing on social and institutional life, especially economic relations. While none of these traditions condemns private property (though common possession is sometimes viewed as appropriate for the religious elite, or is thought to have prevailed during a utopian era at the beginning of time), all are solicitous of the needs of the disadvantaged or powerless and, in different ways, all encourage active assistance to the poor. Judaism and Islam institutionalize this ethic through rules requiring tithing and charitable donation (indeed, zakāt, almsgiving, is one of Islam's Five Pillars of Faith). Christianity accomplishes the same end by encouraging extreme sensitivity to the plight of the weak or needy. Despite their other differences, Confucianism and Daoism share the Chinese conviction that the mark of just rule is a prosperous and happy peasantry. Both laud generosity by the rich and powerful, and both vigorously condemn economic oppression and rapaciousness. The caste system of Hinduism, though opposed to any notions of social equality, aims at ensuring a livelihood and a share in the social product for all members of the community. This was accomplished by means of the jajmani patronage system, involving the exchange among castes of services and goods at socially established and protected rates. Finally, while charitable giving in Buddhism goes largely to the monastic community and is directed toward spiritual attainment and not toward economic need, this community itself often has been a refuge for the poor and for orphans and widows. Furthermore, Buddhism espouses a vigorous ideal of shared prosperity in its conception of the duties of the righteous monarch (cakravartin).

Similar assessments of individual moral worth

Beyond these common moral principles, interesting normative similarities may also be identified with respect to the role played by individual decision and intention in the evaluation of moral worth. We have seen that while intention does not figure into the rightness or wrongness of a particular act, it is a crucial consideration in estimating the merit or blame of the moral agent. This aspect of moral reasoning, as well as the centrality of the individual agent as moral subject, is apparently well appreciated by the major traditions under discussion, although again some historical perspective is needed. Very often during their earliest periods, traditions evidence an objective assessment of moral culpability: individuals may suffer social or religious penalties for wrongs accidentally committed. Similarly, the earliest strata of some traditions at times display notions of collective guilt whereby all members of a community are regarded as meriting punishment for the wrongdoing of a few.

Characteristically, however, these less differentiated ideas give way over time to greater precision in the assessment or apportionment of blame. In the Hebrew faith, Ezekiel's rejection of collective punishment (Ez. 18:1ff.) represents a watershed in the development of biblical ethics (similar changes in attitude can be discerned in Deuteronomy 24:16 and 2 Kings 14:6). This process of differentiation becomes particularly apparent during moments of radical religious change. None of the "daughter traditions"neither Buddhism, Christianity, nor Islamdefends the idea of corporate punishment, whereas all put much stress on intention in assessing individuals' deeds. Jesus' criticism of religious and moral hypocrisy may not be fair to the Jewish tradition from which he sprang, but it is fully consistent with the spirit of greater interiority in the assessment of worth that marks the development of biblical faith. Much the same might be said of the Buddhist remolding of the doctrine of karman to the effect that karmic consequences are seen to derive from the willing of the agent rather than from the outward deed. The importance of intention (niyah) in validating religious and moral observance in Islam and of the kindred concept of kavvanah in rabbinic Judaism exemplifies this same process of increasing precision in the assessment of individual worth.

Differences between traditions

Despite all these remarkable similarities, there are also important differences among the codes and teachings of these traditions. Thus, the permitted range of sexual conduct differs from tradition to tradition, with the concept of sexual chastity apparently not ruling out polygamy in some cases (ancient Israelite religion, Islam, Confucianism) but requiring monogamy and even recommending celibacy in others (monastic Christianity and Buddhism). Wrongful killing, too, is variously defined. For Jews and Muslims, killing is permissible if done in self-defense or to punish wrongdoers whose conduct is believed to threaten the community. The New Testament, however, suggests a stance in which even self-defensive killing of other human beings is prohibited. Buddhism and Jainism take this position one step further by discouraging the killing not only of human beings but of all sentient creatures.

Differences of this sort represent an important object of study. Why is it that traditions whose moral attitudes and teachings are in some ways similar tend to differ in other respects? But the significance of these differences for our basic understanding of the relationship between religion and morality should not be exaggerated. For one thing, these differences are manifested against a background of basic similarities in moral teaching. It is sometimes assumed, because religious traditions hold widely different religious beliefs, that their ethics must correspondingly differ; what is remarkable, however, is that these great differences in beliefs apparently do not affect adherence to at least the fundamental moral rules. Furthermore, where moral differences do occur, they do so within the permitted range of moral disagreement. For example, even though Western religious moralists have vested sexual conduct with great importance (often intolerantly imposing their norms on other cultures), there are many different ways in which societies can organize sexual conduct so as to fulfill the more basic moral objective of protecting human beings from injury. In some circumstances the welfare of women and children might seem best accomplished by polygamous relations; in others, monogamy might be desirable. Changing circumstances within a single tradition can even recommend a movement from one pattern to the next, as has been the case for Judaism and, to a lesser extent, Islam. That traditions would differ over a difficult moral issue like this is almost predictable. What would be surprising, and what would throw open to question any claim that religions are basically respectful of the moral rules, would be teachings that permit rape or other violently abusive sexual acts. But no major historical tradition tolerates anything of the kind.

Some differences in these teachings are also traceable to differing moral ideals or standards of supererogation. We have seen that, above and beyond the basic moral rules (which are largely negative and prohibitory), there are a variety of positive encouragements to generosity, sharing, and self-sacrifice. Since views of what is "above and beyond the call of duty" normally differ even within cultures and between individuals, it is not surprising that differences among religious traditions should be marked. Indeed, some of the disagreements with respect to sexual conduct and killing just mentioned are also differences of this sort. New Testament Christianity, for example, would interpret self-sacrifice to imply celibacy, disregard for material wealth, and abstention from physical self-defense. Buddhists and Jains adopt very similar norms (possibly less for reasons of self-sacrifice or altruism than as part of a vision of spiritual self-cultivation), whereas Judaism and Islam tend to associate self-sacrifice with unstinting obedience to every provision of their respective religious laws. This may require extreme efforts at charity and the willingness to accept martyrdom in the name of the faith, though neither tradition advocates poverty, celibacy, or the renunciation of self-defense. As important as they may be for the study of comparative religious ethics, however, these differences with respect to supererogatory ideals are matters about which reasonable and morally well-intentioned persons can disagree, and they do not affect the traditions' agreement about the basic moral rules.


Probably nothing makes this agreement clearer than the ways in which diverse religious traditions communicate to their adherents the perspective I have called "the moral point of view." We have seen that this requires imaginative empathy for others, an ability to put oneself in their shoes, and the willingness to make moral decisions from a standpoint of objectivity and impartiality. The element of reciprocity here is aptly expressed by the Golden Rule of Christianity (Mt. 7:12). While Christians are justly proud of the moral wisdom represented by this simple decision procedure, the Golden Rule is by no means limited to Christianity. Jesus' teaching is initially drawn from Hebrew scriptures (Lv. 19:18). Within rabbinic Judaism a negative form of the Golden Rule ("Do not do unto others.") is presented by the sage Hillel as a virtual synopsis of the law. In the Analects (12.2), Confucius utters this same negative form of the Golden Rule, and variants of both the negative and positive forms are to be found in Buddhism's Dhammapada (10.129130). Parallels like these led early missionaries and scholars to speculate on the possibility of historical borrowing or even parallel divine revelation in the East and the West. But this similarity of moral perspective does not have to be attributed to anything more than the essential and universal logic of the moral reasoning process.

While the Golden Rule is an impressive intuitive guide to responsible moral decision, its focus is too narrow. In making moral choices, we must consider not only the immediate neighbor but all other persons affected by our conduct or choice. Hence the requirements of universality, objectivity, and impartiality in moral reasoning. In fact, the term impartiality, though widely used in moral theory today, is inappropriate, because it suggests detachment and distance in reasoning when what is really required is genuine empathetic concern for all those affected by our decisions. In this respect either omnipartiality or omnicompassion would be a better term.

When we examine the very highest reaches of religious thought, we are struck by the ways in which adoption of this perspective is encouraged. In the Western traditions believers are called upon to imitate God while trying to develop their own moral and religious lives. The various metaphors for God that express the traits to which believers should aspire convey this moral point of view: God is the creator and king of all the world, the righteous ruler in whom there is neither partiality nor injustice. He is also a parent who loves his creatures with tender mercy and concern. Modeling their behavior on God's, Jews, Christians, and Muslims are thus called to distance themselves from selfish interests and to adopt an omnipartial point of view. Some Asian religions share this teaching. Adherents of the bhakti (devotional) tradition of Hinduism find a model in the god (often embodied in the figure of Ka) whose love transcends social distinctions of caste, wealth, or gender. In the ancient Chinese and Confucian traditions, Shangdi ("lord on high") and Tian ("heaven") represent the standard of impartial justice. Knowing no favorites, Heaven judges by merit alone and casts out the unworthy.

Mystical traditions, which often place less emphasis on obedience to God and more on the adherent's experience of a transcendent reality, arrive at this standpoint in a different way. Characteristically, once a person has joined with or is in contact with transcendent reality (whether as brahman, nirvāa, or the Dao), the ego assumes reduced importance. No longer clinging to the self, one participates sympathetically in all of reality. In Mahāyāna Buddhism this experience eventuates in compassion (karuā) for all sentient beings and the desire to help extricate them from suffering. The Daoist adept, in achieving mystical insight into the Way, participates in its spontaneity, generosity, and support of all living creatures.

It may be objected that the picture of universal compassion presented here is one-sided: that while the historical religions sometimes counsel universality of perspective, they have also been seedbeds of intolerance, persecution, and cruelty, and that under the guise of religious devotion, all sorts of nationalisms and even tribalisms have flourished. Certainly these things are true. But once again, historical perspective is in order. One of the salient features of all traditional cultures is their tendency to view themselves as human, while outsiders, often all those beyond the narrowest boundaries of a local community, are looked upon as enemies, barbarians, or less than fully human. Frequently this assessment has a real basis in self-perpetuating conditions of conflict and vendetta that render every outsider untrustworthy and dangerous. To some extent, we see this mentality in the early strata of many of the literate traditions, although even there universalist elements are discernible. For example, Genesis contains many passages in which Yahveh is depicted as little more than a tribal deity who fights without quarter on behalf of his people, whereas other passages display remarkable universality of perspective. Sometimes the two impulses are joined. A poignant example occurs in Genesis 21 when the working of the divine plan on behalf of Isaac's lineage leads Abraham to expel Hagar and her son Ishmael into the desert. In a moving passage, Yahveh personally intervenes to save the lives of the abandoned pair. Though his first loyalties may be to Israel, the chosen instrument of his purpose in history, Yahveh reveals himself as a God whose compassion and concern transcend national lines.

As traditions develop, one finds an almost invariant movement from relative particularity to greater universalism. Examples include the lofty visions of prophetic faith, where Israel's chosenness comes to be viewed in terms of a mission of universal instruction and redemption; the emergence of bhakti, the devotional strain, in later Hinduism, with its perception of the sanctity of all human beings; and the development of various forms of messianism in Mahāyāna Buddhism, placing salvation within the reach of all and rendering every person potentially an enlightened being, or bodhisattva. If such development can be found within the traditions, it once again shows itself most dramatically at moments of decisive religious change. Christianity's abandonment of Jewish religious law, for example, opened its community, "the new Israel," to a membership drawn from the entire ancient world. Paul's statement in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek slave nor free male nor female" fully expresses Christianity's universalizing impulse. Similarly, Buddhism, by rejecting Hindu notions of caste, severed the geographical ties to India that had characterized Hinduism and, as a result, Buddhism became a world religion. By expanding the possibility of salvation beyond the narrow community of mendicants, religious developments in later Mahāyāna Buddhism merely accentuated a tendency implicit in Buddhism from the outset.

But probably no tradition better illustrates this tendency to universalism coupled with the possibility of intolerance than Islam. Over the centuries, Muslims' willingness to use the sword in defense of their faith has earned Islam a reputation, especially among Christians, as a paradigm of religious intolerance and persecution. In fact, Islam's record in this regard is much more complex than its foes admit. Not only is the idea of holy struggle (jihād) a less bellicose and more defensive concept in the classic Muslim sources than it is often thought to be, but in many ways Islam's record of religious toleration is enviable. And even if some Muslims have promoted their faith through violence, it must be remembered that, in its essence, this faith has the most universalistic aspirations. The object of Islam is precisely to bring all human beings, whatever their race or nationality, into submission to God's will. Islam would create one human community in which all share obedience to a high moral and religious standard and in which all merit the protection embodied by that standard. The fact that some Muslims have at times been prone to excess in promoting this objective may be thought of as an unfortunate consequence of the breadth of their moral and religious vision. This vision is representative of the tendency of other major world religions to fulfill the promise of universality implicit in the moral point of view.

Why Should One Be Moral?

Religions are not just bodies of teaching about right and wrong; they are total ways of life. As a result, it is not surprising that they provide answers, whether explicit or implicit, to some of the more urgent "transnormative" questions of morality, among them the questions of why one should be a moral person and how one can attain a morally estimable character. In many ways, these questions are central in religious teaching. While standards of right or wrong conduct are readily elaborated by traditions, efforts to secure full adherence to these standards are a major preoccupation.


Religious traditions commonly provide answers to the question "Why should I be moral?" by affirming the existence of an order in which moral retribution (reward and punishment) is assured. Those raised in the West are familiar with some of the standard forms of this belief: God is consummately righteous; he is the omniscient judge of human acts and intentions; he upholds the moral law by punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous; and, in some cases, he metes out reward and punishment directly in the course of a person's life. But since there is an apparent discrepancy between moral conduct and one's worldly fatetoo often the good suffer and the wicked prosperdivine retribution is usually consigned to an eschatological realm, whether a personal afterlife, a period of judgment at the end of history (the kingdom of God), or some combination of these two.

Although this retributive scheme prevails in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it is not the only one that religions (including these same Western traditions) have elaborated. The idea of eschatological retribution is absent from many nonliterate traditions, and even in biblical faith it is a relatively late development. More common is a perception of death as departure to a state where the discarnate soul suffers neither punishment nor reward. The principal expectation for virtuous conduct, therefore, lies in the hope of worldly prosperity, numerous progeny, good health, and long life, so as to "come in sturdy old age to the grave," as the Book of Job (5:26) says. It may be that more explicitly eschatological thinking arises, as it did in Hebrew faith, only after massive and repeated frustration of these expectations and, even then, only within a context of historical expectation and sustained reflection and writing about this experience.

Neither is the apportionment of reward and punishment always accomplished by a supreme, morally intentioned deity. In some traditions the sincerity of oath takers is tested by requiring them to undergo a quasi-magical ordeal such as ingesting a poison that is expected to prove fatal only if they are guilty of deception. (An instance of such an ordeal is found in Numbers 5:11ff., where an accused adulteress is required to vindicate herself by consuming a draft of "bitter waters.")

In many of the nonliterate traditions of Africa and in some Native American religions, lesser supernatural agents such as witches and sorcerers also play a roleindeed, a complex onein upholding the moral order. These agents are often "negative exemplars," embodying attitudes of selfishness and resentment that are the opposite of the open and generous attitudes expected of a good member of the community. Since witches and sorcerers can themselves expect to be punished for their behavior, the lesson to all is clear: avoid becoming persons of this sort. But the presence of these malign agents also reinforces the moral conduct of others. Anyone who neglects hospitality obligations and treats a stranger unkindly, or who deals unfairly with one of his several wives, or who fails to be generous to others while himself experiencing prosperity may easily fall prey to the destructive powers of a witch. Indeed, since witches and sorcerers are masters of deception, combining outward benevolence with inward wrath (and so, once again, are consummate examples of how not to be), it is possible that, if mistreated, one's nearest kin or neighbors may become a threat.

Among the traditions of India, moral reward and punishment are also the province of religious thought, but (at least in the post-Vedic period) they are accomplished by means very different from those in the West. In Indian thought the operative mode is the impersonal, natural-moral law of karman: the certainty of moral punishment or reward in combination with a belief in metempsychosis or the transmigration of the individual soul. In the world of karman, each act and each volition entails consequences for the welfare of the agent. In a sense, it is misleading to label these consequences rewards or punishments, since they do not result from the action of any judge but are part of the natural law of occurrences in the world. As such, these consequences may be experienced within the lifetime of an individual. More commonly they take many successive lifetimes to work their effect as one's karman "ripens." When morally caused suffering does occur, it is often suited to the crime. One who habitually lies, for example, may become the victim of slander in some future life; one who drinks to excess may be reborn insane. Just because it is an impersonal, natural law, karman is inescapable. As the Dhammapada (9.127) says, "Not in the sky, not in the midst of the sea, not if one enters into the clefts of the mountains" can one be freed from the consequences of evil deeds.

Belief in karman is so widely shared among the Indian traditionsJainism, Hinduism, and Buddhismthat it may be called the principal dogma of Indian religious belief. For these traditions, to reject karman is to put oneself outside the religious pale. Indeed, the one intellectual tradition of ancient India that did just this, the Carvaka or materialist school, lives on, like the Sophists of ancient Greece, only as an object of ridicule by the other traditions. It is further testimony to the centrality of this belief in Indian religion that Buddhism, whose doctrine of anattā ("nonself") opens to question who or what agent could be the inheritor of continuing karmic forces, nevertheless continues strongly to affirm the reality and significance of this natural-moral law.

One of the future tasks of comparative religious ethics is to better understand why retributive doctrines evolve and take the different forms that they do. It is also important to understand why, in some cases, religious doctrines of retribution lose their power or vanish altogether. To a large extent, but probably for different reasons, this occurred in ancient Greece and China.

In the case of Greek religion, confidence in a reliable religious-moral order may have been eroded, in an increasingly complex society, by repeated frustration of moral expectations. Furthermore, the traditional religion was based on a panoply of deities whose moral integrity and power had been open to question from an early date. The result was a withering of religious confidence and its replacement with an effort to ground moral obedience in an understanding of the relationship between virtue and personal welfare (eudaimonia). Thus the rational discipline of ethics, as found in the writings of the great classical philosophers, arose amid the crisis of a religious-moral culture.

In China an opposite series of events seems to have led to the same result. From an early date, Chinese religious thinkers correctly linked human well-being, in the form of a stable, secure, and prosperous society, to moral conduct on the part of rulers. Misrule, it was believed, would manifest itself in popular unrest, rebellion, and susceptibility to invasion. "Heaven sees and hears as our people see and hear" (Book of Documents 3.74) was the teaching of the various Chinese traditions. It may be that, in time, this direct, demonstrable, innerworldly link between virtue and welfare largely obviated the need for an impassioned affirmation of religious retribution (at least among the intellectuals who were shaping the tradition). In the Chinese experience, in a very direct and material way, virtue may have reasonably been thought to bring its reward. This was not always to remain true, of course, and at a later date Buddhist eschatology filled a void left by the earlier tradition.

In these respects, the course of Greek and Chinese religious thought contrasts markedly with that of ancient Israel, where an emphasis on religious retribution was magnified by successive and intense experiences of both failure and vindication of moral expectations. This leads one to conjecture that strong schemes of religious retribution are most likely to flourish where confidence in moral retribution is neither too secure nor too imperiled.

The uncertain link between moral conduct and moral reward has a further very important consequence for religious thought: it contributes to the development of sustained reflection on the problem of human sin and wrongdoing. Earlier, I noted how difficult it is to provide answers to the question "Why should one be moral?" If moral or immoral conduct were always followed by its appropriate reward or punishment, not only would this question be easy to answer but individuals would have little temptation to pursue selfish goals. The fact, however, that this is not the case, and that moral commitment may have to rest on uncertain religious beliefs or on metaphysical beliefs, leads to the recurrent possibility of moral weakness and moral failure.


It is important to note that strong affirmation by religious traditions of the existence of a morally retributive order, while it relieves this problem in some ways (by reinforcing confidence in retribution), accentuates it in others. It does so first of all because, in a world assumed to be governed by moral considerations, ordinary forms of suffering (sickness, famine, or premature death) are naturally attributed to moral and religious failures on the part of the individual or community. Not surprisingly, therefore, we find a concern with the expiation of sin present in many nonliterate traditions, and even the earliest documents of the literate traditions (such as the cultic ordinances in Leviticus, the gveda, or the Chinese Book of Rites ) emphasize these matters. But as traditions develop, a further problem emerges that often leads into the most subtle and paradoxical reaches of religious thought. Earlier I noted that moral reasoning, though it may lead to a recognition of the need for some confidence in moral retribution, is nevertheless opposed to basing moral commitment on crass considerations of personal benefit or gain. Indeed, not only are individuals who calculate their commitments in this way morally unreliable (since expediential considerations can easily lead them to be immoral), but they do not attain to the highest standard of moral virtue, in which a spontaneous and pure love of righteousness is the principal motivating ground of conduct.

But since religions inevitably hold out the promise of reward, how are they, at the same time, to lead their adherents into such an elevated level of moral attainment? Or, as the outward behavior of adherents becomes more refined, how are religions to prevent egoism from corrupting the inner core of intention? To answer these questions fully would require an extensive exploration of various traditions' conceptions of sin and redemption. We can, however, identify a very common direction taken by religious thought at this point. Simply stated, in coming to terms with this problem, traditions tend to qualify and soften their own insistence on moral retribution. The world may be a moral order, but ultimate redemption does not necessarily rest on the moral performance or accomplishments of the individual agent. The effect of this teaching is twofold: it relieves the inevitable self-condemnation of the morally conscientious yet knowingly frail person, but at the same time it eliminates any vestiges of cloying self-regard that might corrupt the moral life and make it an instrument of pride and self-assertion.

Traditions affect this qualification of the retributive scheme differently. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam emphasize God's grace and the recurrent possibility of repentance. Pauline Christianity takes this teaching to the extreme conclusion that salvation comes not by works of the moral and religious law, but through God's free, unnecessitated love. Similar conceptions are found in the devotional (bhakti) tradition of Hindu thought, but in the Indian-derived traditions the retributive order is more commonly qualified differently: ultimate redemption requires one to attain the consciousness that full liberation (moka, nirvāa) is open only to those who transcend attachment to sasāra, the karmic realm of merit and demerit.

On the surface, all these teachings appear to undermine the significance of morality and moral strivingindeed, of the very retributive order these faiths have affirmedand it is true that, at one time or another, teachings such as these have been taken to antinomian conclusions. But religious thinkers or traditions advancing such "transmoral" ideas often seem to have the opposite intent: namely, to free conscientious and morally committed individuals from the last vestiges of self-regard in order to make possible a spontaneous, joyful, and sincere moral life. Thus Paul, after stating his doctrine of justification through grace in Romans 5 and posing the rhetorical question "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" (6:1), replies "By no means!" To draw an antinomian or immoralist lesson from this teaching, in Paul's view, would miss the point that it both presupposes and aims at devoted moral commitment.

Hindus and Buddhists are equally vehement in rejecting the idea that, according to their teachings, the religiously liberated person acts immorally. Liberation may take one beyond the moral order of dharma, but it is by no means the same thing as adharma, or lawlessness. On the contrary, attaining liberation requires a disciplined, righteous life as preparation; for most Hindu and Buddhist thinkers, furthermore, it issues in the most consummately moral existence. Precisely because the liberated person has put all vestiges of egoism behind, he has attained a state of mind where, without regard for personal benefit, he acts out of a free compassion for other beings. This is exactly the state achieved by Arjuna in the Bhagavadgītā. Perplexed over the terrible implications for himself and his kinsman if he performs his warrior's duty, Arjuna is unable to act until, in a series of religious encounters, he learns from Ka-Visnu that one's true self is not stained by moral good or evil. This instruction frees him to do his duty and thereby help sustain the cosmic-moral order. Far from being antinomian or immoral, therefore, this teaching of "detached action" (niskama karman), as Max Weber observed, is one of the loftiest achievements of Indian moral and religious thought.


As far back as the historical record allows us to see, religion and morality have been intertwined. This collaboration has not always been fruitful. Such Western critics as Marx and Freud regarded the link between religion and morality as unfortunate. Among other things, they criticized it for producing immoral teachings (whether in the economic or sexual realms) and dubious or morally questionable eschatological schemes, for basing morality on fear of punishment, and for using doctrines of forgiveness for manipulative or immoral purposes. All these criticisms were valid, not just for Western religion in this late period but for all traditions at one moment or another in their history. Religions engage some of the most fundamental and most difficult questions of the moral life, and it is no wonder that their failure to deal adequately with these questions can have the most serious consequences. In the effort to transcend narrow tribalism, for example, a religion can contribute to the reinsertion of tribal attitudes at an ever higher and more dangerous level.

Nevertheless, this critical word is not all that can be said. Religions, whether nonliterate or literate, characteristically emerge and develop in a process of intense dialogue with the requirements of the moral life. They elaborate codes of conduct, procedures for reasoning morally, and standards of virtue. To support commitment to the moral life, they help configure the world as a moral order. Finally, they are prepared to qualify or refine this order so as to permit anyone to attain the highest level of moral excellence. In all these ways, religious traditions have contributed to human moral development and self-understanding. Religion is not reducible to morality, as some nineteenth-century thinkers argued, because religions address a variety of human interests and concerns. Aesthetic propensities, historical or scientific curiosity, speculative and ritual tendenciesall find expression in religious faith. But no one can deny that moral concerns in their fullest sense have been a central aspect of religious life.

See Also

Buddhist Ethics; Chinese Philosophy; Christian Ethics; Confucianism; Dharma; Enlightenment, The; Evil; Freud, Sigmund; Good, The; Halakhah; Islamic Law; Israelite Law; Karman; Kierkegaard, Søren; Law and Religion; Marx, Karl; Neoorthodoxy; Nonviolence; Otto, Rudolf; Relativism; Schleiermacher, Friedrich; Suffering.


Among the more important classical discussions of the relationship between religion and morality are Plato's Euthyphro, Thomas Aquinas's "Treatise on the Law" (Summa theologiae, 2.7.9097), Immanuel Kant's Critique of Practical Reason and Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, and John Stuart Mill's Three Essays on Religion. More recent discussions of the relationship between religion and morality include Religion and Morality: A Collection of Essays, edited by John P. Reeder, Jr., and Gene H. Outka (New York, 1973), W. G. Maclagen's The Theological Frontier of Ethics (New York, 1961), and W. W. Bartley II's Morality and Religion (New York, 1971).

Contemporary ethical theory comprises a large domain of views. Good, brief treatments of a number of basic issues can be found in G. J. Warnock's The Object of Morality (London, 1971), in William K. Frankena's Ethics, 2d ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1973), and in Paul W. Taylor's Principles of Ethics: An Introduction (Encino, Calif., 1975). Among widely regarded contemporary rationalist approaches to normative ethical theory are Kurt Baier's The Moral Point of View (Ithaca, N.Y., 1958), John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), Bernard Gert's The Moral Rules (New York, 1970), and Alan Gewirth's Reason and Morality (Chicago, 1978). For treatments of some key moral issues related to religious ethics, see the collections Ethical Relativism, edited by John Ladd (Belmont, Calif., 1973), and Supererogation: Its Status in Ethical Theory, by David Heyd (New York, 1982).

Much Western thinking about the relationship between religion and morality has focused on the question of whether morality may be based on a divine command. Two recent collections gather together many of the classical and contemporary discussions of this issue: Divine Command Morality, edited by Janine Marie Idziak (Lewiston, N.Y., 1980), and Divine Commands and Morality, edited by Paul Helms (Oxford, 1981).

Unfortunately, while there are a number of good specific discussions of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist ethics, relatively little work has been done on the comparative analysis of religious traditions in a way comprising not just their specific normative teachings but also their doctrines of retribution and their fundamental ways of relating ethics to other features of the religious life. Two classic discussions in this area are Edward A. Westermarck's The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, 2 vols., 2d ed. (London, 1924), and his Christianity and Morals (1939; reprint, Freeport, N.Y., 1969). These works provide a wealth of information about the moral and religious beliefs of preliterate and literate cultures, though the moral perspective is colored by Westermarck's moral relativism. Even more systematic comparative discussion of specific traditions can be found in Max Weber's pioneering studies of 19151919: Ancient Judaism (Glencoe, Ill., 1952), The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism (Glencoe, Ill., 1958), and The Religion of China: Confucianism and Daoism (Glencoe, Ill., 1951), all translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale. More recent treatments of comparative ethics include my own study Religious Reason (Oxford, 1978) and David Little and Sumner B. Twiss Jr.'s Comparative Religious Ethics: A New Method (San Francisco, 1978).

New Sources

Brown, Donald. The Evolution of Morality and Religion. New York, 2003.

McDonald, James. The Crucible of Christian Morality. New York, 1998.

Moody-Adams, Michele. Fieldwork in Familiar Places; Morality, Culture, and Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.

Oakeshott, Michael Joseph. Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life. New Haven, 1993.

Phillips, D. Z. Religion, and Morality. London, 1996.

Polkinghorne, John. Belief in God in an Age of Science. New Haven, 1998.

Richardson, W. M., and W. J. Wildman, eds. Religion and Science. New York, 1996.

Rudd Anthony. Kierkegaard and the Limits of the Ethical. New York, 1993.

Schweiker, William. Mimetic Reflections: A Study in Hermeneutics, Theology, and Ethics. New York, 1990.

Warner, Martin, ed. Religion and Philosophy. Philosophy and Religion series. New York, 1992.

Ronald M. Green (1987)

Revised Bibliography