Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Morals Are Not Just Religious Practices

"That's fine for you, but don't impose your personal religious views on me."

In our highly freedom-centered culture, you've probably heard this line, or variations on it, used when telling others to keep their moral beliefs to themselves. This formulation might make some basic sense if morals were strictly a ritual practice complied with in order to show obedience to divine command. Examples of such a ritual practice might be the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on penitential days, or the Jewish dietary laws. I abstain from eating meat on Fridays in order to make a sacrifice in union with Christ's suffering on Good Friday. To the extent that I believe it would be good for everyone to be Christian and to offer up sacrifices in union with Christ, I think it would be great if everyone did the same. However the extent to which I think that others would be better off following my practice is simply the extent to which I think they too should be Catholic. I don't hold that there is, in and of itself, a life-enriching aspect to abstaining from meat on Fridays. Indeed, to the extent that I think eating meat is a good and enjoyable thing in and of itself, I think that eating meat on Fridays would be good -- it's simply that offering up a sacrifice (in this case of not doing a good thing) is a greater good which I embrace.

However, most Christian moral beliefs about what it is to live rightly are not like this. When Catholics say that it is wrong to have sex outside of marriage or to use artificial birth control to divorce sex from its reproductive aspects, we're making a claim about human nature and the nature of sexuality within it. This means that Catholics would necessarily believe that people would be better off, that they would live more completely and richly, if they complied with Catholic moral teachings on these topics regardless of whether those people are Catholic or not.

We're pretty comfortable with this kind of thinking coming from others so long as its not wrapped in the mantle of religion. We all have those couple friends who are very athletic, who eat well, and who eagerly share at every opportunity their beliefs about how exercise and healthy eating will help you feel more alert, be smarter, live longer, and develop will power. Those people have a set of beliefs about the human person which suggest that aspects of their lifestyle (exercise, healthy eating, etc.) would be beneficial to anyone who adopted them. We might well disagree with them, but it would be odd to describe their advocacy of the way of living which they believe to be best for all as "imposing their views on me".

When people advocate living a certain way based on some set of secular motivations, we are usually not surprised by their belief that these choices have universal applicability. Feminists think everyone should share their beliefs about how to treat women. Environmentalists think everyone should share their beliefs about how to use resources. Health advocates think everyone should follow their dietary and exercise advice. What secular people need to understand in return is that Christian's moral beliefs are no less universal. It is thus no more reasonable to tell a Catholic, "I understand you don't want to use birth control, but you should help me advocate that non-Christians use birth control because that will have effects that you like," than it would be to tell a feminist, "I know that you want to treat women equally, but I want to you to tell non-feminists to treat women unfairly because I think that unfairness will have some side effects that you will like."

1 comment:

August said...

This distinction is well known outside of Christianity and is perhaps due to the general dumbing down of Christianity since the revolutionary period and the proliferation of denominations. Most religions have practices, goals, etc...- the moral aspect is not, in itself a goal or a practice, but a necessary prerequisite.

Honest people, looking for religion, can look at Christianity today and not see it. In some quarters, people think that love songs- songs that would be bad pop songs if the name of Jesus wasn't used- are actually worship songs. I don't think the Buddhist have this problem, yet they have morals.