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  1. Philosophy of Religion
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  3. Sigurd Bergmann - NTNU

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. 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. 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. 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.

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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.


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For these thinkers the voice of duty, in the words of George Eliot , is "peremptory and absolute. 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? 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 and Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone , 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.

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 , 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. 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. 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.

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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. 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.

Sigurd Bergmann - NTNU

In all, halakhah discusses 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. 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 traditions — as for instance Sa'adyah Gaon's Book of Beliefs and Opinions ce and Thomas Aquinas's discussion of the forms of the law in his Summa theologiae 2.

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 morality — ethics in the modern sense — does 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 ff.


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A man who is not good, what can he have to do with music? 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.

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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.