Ethics, Metaphysics, and Religion

Any discussion of ethics, whether in the business domain or elsewhere, runs the risk of devolving into an argument over religious beliefs. This is at least partially because the distinction between the two isn’t well appreciated by many. A recent exchange on a LinkedIn Business Ethics group illustrates this, and my response was meant to somewhat gently point out that ethics and religion, though related, can’t be identical if civil discussions of ethical matters are to succeed.

Sheila wrote:

My thoughts are that I feel I am subjected to tolerate and forced to watch all sorts of lifestyles and belief systems that are very different from mine both on TV and in public but yet when I speak up and share my lifestyle of Christian faith and the biblical ethics I struggle to uphold, I am made to feel like I am doing something socially wrong…??? I can’t understand where that is acceptance? I feel that if a school system can have events that discuss alternate beliefs and lifestyles that are not biblical in nature and expose our children to things that we do not feel are the way God wants us to live, why can they not also hold youth bible studies as well.. And the funniest part is that all the things that society feels are good character and leadership traits, are all taught and displayed in the bible as well. So why would we not want our future generations to be exposed to that as well? It seems to me that Christians are now the ones being persecuted and segregated to me. But what is there to do, just be silent and not share the good news out of fear? Is that what God wants us to do? Hasn’t it always been this way and God tells us to not be silent no matter the cost?

-Just trying to find my real purpose and determine what example I need to be setting for my children and others….

My response to her:


As a former pastor (though of a pretty progressive bent), I understand how you might feel that your views are dismissed, but I suspect this is a mis-perception. You should try to understand the dismissal of your views in terms of what Bellah, et. al., called “civil religion”. Nearly everyone is happy to discuss any ethical proposition based on shared beliefs, but not so much a religious one. For example:

Person a: I think that the only ethical thing to do is to protect children from violent imagery because it desensitizes them to real violence, and that leads to a society in which violence is more likely to be tolerated.

Notice that this person is making an argument based on a shared set of values (violence is not a good thing). According to Bellah, there’s a relatively limited set of propositions that the vast majority of people in the west agree on regardless (and this is the important bit) of what the underlying religious, spiritual, or metaphysical basis for those beliefs might be. You can hold any religious or spiritual beliefs that you want, but the basis of our ability to discuss ethical principles in public is the fact that we agree on this set of ethical principles (e.g., theft is wrong, violence is bad, using people for your own gains is wrong, altruism is, generally, good, etc.) regardless of our religious (or lack thereof) commitments.

My guess is that two issues factor into your feeling of discomfort. First, rather than sticking to that abstracted “civil religion”, you advocate for your ethical beliefs based on their religious and metaphysical underpinnings. This immediately puts people off because they feel that if they don’t share your religion, they can’t/shouldn’t agree with your ethical view. If you think about it, instead of making your argument stronger, relying on your Christianity actually weakens it by restricting the number of people who are going to be sympathetic to it. The best you can hope for from non-Christians is indifference to that line of reasoning, which you’ll agree is not really a strong rhetorical position.

The second issue is that often when religious people (Christians and Muslims, particularly) feel they are not being treated respectfully is when they are arguing ethical propositions that are outside that set of civil religious propositions. I notice these frequently being in the realm of sexual morality or economic justice. These are ethical positions that are not at all universally held, and often, as above, the people advocating for these positions use their religious beliefs as justification, e.g. “we shouldn’t allow pornography to be available because it isn’t in keeping with Biblical values” or “the Christian tradition of marriage is of one man and one woman, etc.”. Again, rhetorically, that’s just going to alienate people who don’t share your view of the Bible.

I guess I’m saying that if you want to make ethical arguments about how people should conduct themselves, it’s most likely to be effective and least likely to offend people if you don’t couch it in religious terms and if you express your positions in terms that don’t alienate people. The sense that you are “doing something wrong” is probably just people who have different religious views from you objecting to the use of religious language in an ethical discussion.

(N.B. I know there is an argument that you can’t divorce the religious from the ethical but I myself, having held various, evolving metaphysical/religious beliefs throughout my life with more or less constant ethical/moral views, find that argument unconvincing).

Finally, and as an example of what I’m saying, I don’t think the fact that other people live their lives as they wish equates to you being “subjected to tolerate and forced to watch all sorts of lifestyles that are different from mine”. Right there you’ve made those who differ from you seem as if they are intentionally trying to offend you. Again, you that’s where you might want to look for for the social pressure against your views that you are feeling.

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