Theology and Ethics in Catholic Morality

In the week that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles settled 508 lawsuits brought by victims for £323 million, a pay-out for abuse cases against Priests and Religious, which shatters every known record for Church liability, Rocco Palmo wrote in The Tablet 21 July 2007. In the same paper Catholic commentator Clifford Longley takes issues with the Catholic way of doing morality which, he says, makes the victims invisible. What Longley is talking about here is the way sinful actions are responded to theologically. The main concern is saving the sinner who has an immortal soul endangered by their actions, hence the need for confession through which the sinner may repent and find forgiveness. But, Longley argues, where is the victim in this process? Where is the justice? There was a crime done against those children who were abused, as well as against God. It is not just the soul that is in danger but the victims dignity and wellbeing. Yet they do not feature in the process.

Longley argues that there is a lack of rights and justice morality which is concerned for the dignity of the human person, rather than the sinner. Ironically this is something the Church did express during the Vatican II council, which re-clarified Church doctrine. On the first page of the Declaration of Religious Freedom, the Church says the following, “A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man.” (Paul VI, 1965). The Dignity of the human person, the rights of people not to suffer injustice or abuse, is central to catholic thinking on social justice. This concern for dignity and the rights of all people is present in those Vatican II Declarations but Longley can be forgiven for not really noticing them, when it comes to the abuse scandals, many of which took place after this time.

An area where the Church shows very active concern for the dignity of the human person is in matters of abortion and euthanasia where the idea of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person are bound together with the Church prohibiting both in the name of human dignity. It is not that the Catholic Church has ignored the issue of dignity and human rights, but according to Longley, it has not trickled into the issue of abuse against children by Priests and Religious.

Catholic morality would do well to look back over its shoulder at some of the things it said during the 1960s. Systems of morality must be applied throughout in an organisation like the Church, especially when it comes to issues within an organisation, otherwise the claim of double standards will be made. Very many Christians throughout the centuries were moved to defend those who were downtrodden and oppressed.

In the same week that the settlement was made, a TV documentary was shown following the politician David Steel returning to Kenya where his father was a minister during the troubles that led to independence. Through his research he uncovered a mass of evidence showing how his father had petitioned the British authorities to stop the illegal detaining and beating of thousands of Kenyans, often indiscriminately, at a time when Britain was not prepared to let go of the last of the colonies. David Steel’s father had a profound sense of the injustice being done against the people he ministered and as a matter of Christian conscience he acted. Christian morality is a powerful tool for the defence of the most vulnerable and it was with the most vulnerable of his time that Jesus spent much of his time. Church authorities would do well to reflect on these values and the prophets of Christian history who were prepared to stand against any injustice, even that of the Church or individuals within the Church. This challenge for the Catholic Church, illustrates the need to engage both theology and ethics when making sense of Christian morality.

Against Human Rights!

Mary Warnock is not a fan of human rights. In fact she would rather we did not talk in terms of rights. In her book, Making Babies: Is there a right to have children? (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2003) she puts forward her case that she would rather people didn’t talk in terms of rights at all. The advances in reproductive technology are one thing but there are side effects. People seem to demand medical and remedial treatment as if it were a right and now they are demanding children as if a child was a right, rather than something they dearly wanted.

Warnock argues that rights only make sense if someone has a duty to meet those rights. It is meaningless to talk in terms of a right to a child because that is not always possible. Even talking in terms of rights spoils the relationship between doctor and patient. There are limits to what a doctor can give us. There are things which we once saw as something which we were lucky to get which we now see as something we have a right to. Take education. We used to be grateful for the education we got. Now we have an idea that we should be supplied with an education and that someone has a legal duty to provide it. People say they have a right to be told the truth in their relationships. The language of human rights is aggressive and self-centred and can undermine other ethical concepts such as agape love – unconditional love which is freely given, rather than demanded by right.

While this seems rather conservative, on the matter of homosexuals’ access to reproductive technologies, Warnock is surprisingly libertarian. She argues that there is clear evidence that children brought up in care are much more likely to be damaged. In principle, there is no reason to presume that children brought up in a loving homosexual family will be as likely to be damaged. If children can flourish in that situation they should be allowed to do so.

Warnock’s contribution is important, both in particular reproductive issues and wider questions of ethical theory. She provides a clear warning against the commodification of children, which the idea of a right to a child has a tendency to do, and also against the application of a very individualistic idea of rights ethics which fails to think sensibly about the relationship between rights and duties.

Rights Talk

Human rights are constantly in the news in one way or another. It has become the main way of talking about ethics in public. People frequently refer to rights as the absolute moral norm, the universal moral truth. Human rights offer something which no religion can. They have been signed up to by almost all countries, crossing boundaries of culture and religion, and they are frequently backed up by laws in countries themselves, such as the human Act in the UK. They seem to represent a universal morality, a common agreed code. However, there are problems with this approach Firstly, some say rights are culturally conditioned, that they represent a European or Western perspective on human dignity which clashes with ideas of human dignity from other parts of the world. In other words, human rights are tainted with a kind of moral imperialism. Rights are used to measure and judge the activities of other cultures, but if they represent a certain cultural perspective, is this indeed imperialistic? Secondly, how about the fact that the existence of human rights doesn’t seem to stop very large numbers of people have nasty things done to them. Rights are given to people by countries but they are taken away whenever a country decides it wants to. Religious laws are perhaps more difficult to change. They don’t depend upon the government giving you your dignity, but more often than not it is God that gives people their dignity. Thirdly there is the question of all the other aspects of morality which seem important but don’t seem to be covered by rights. What about acting according to conscience – taking responsibility and going on regardless of what some power or authority thinks. Many of the good people in history showed their greatness by being prepared to go against what most others and sometimes the government thought was right. Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King to name but a few, can all be seen as standing up to a kind of ‘accepted normal morality’ and challenging it. If Morality is all about following rights, and that means following the Law then what happens when the Law is wrong? Aquinas said a bad law is no law at all and Joseph Fletcher was very concerned about legalistic Ethics choosing a much more situational and personal approach. If all our moral talk is of rights, then perhaps we are adopting a legalistic way of talking and limiting our moral scope. Perhaps we need to expand our moral language beyond discussions of rights.

Religion Opposing or Engaging Human Rights?

When religion and human rights are mentioned together the main narrative, or story, in Europe and America is that of opposition between the two. Religion is opposed to human rights. Religious ethics are based on divine sources and their authority is found in those sources, while human rights are man-made secular or humanistic ideas. Religion tended to support the ruler of society while human rights have encouraged democracy and multiple participation. Religious ethics place God or some other divine force at the centre of the ethical system and good and bad are calculated in terms of obedience or alignment with the will or rule of this divine force. Human rights, on the other hand, place human begins at the centre of moral concern, human interests, human needs and so on. Human rights are seen as a liberal force that is permissive. It allows people freedoms which religion in the past prohibited. This is seen in the restrictions placed on women by patriarchal religious authorities, and in general social order is conservative. So religious sexual ethics are restrictive, limiting sexual activity to ideas of marriage or parenthood determined by sacred texts and religious traditions, while human rights sexual ethics are permissive because they encourage freedoms through access to contraception, abortion services, recognition of same-sex relationships and so on.

This way of seeing the religion human rights relationship supports a view which says that basically religion is an undesirable feature of history that is best kept out of modern political debate. Religion is quite conservative and backward-thinking and relies on unchallenging sources such as revelation, the voice of God and so on. Religion empowers the forces of community order against the freedoms of the individual.

However there is a quite different way of telling a story about religion and human rights. In this story, religion engages human rights. This story acknowledges religious exclusivism and intolerance but sees human rights struggles as struggles within religions as well as other features of life. So the struggles for individual freedoms, women’s liberation and democratic participation, are not forces opposed to religion but forces both within and across religions. The battles around human rights are between particular ideologies, extremist views and reformers. It is not about a battle between secular rationality, a non-religious logical and justifiable way of thinking, and an irrational, traditional, narrow-minded and superstitious system. Thomas Banchoff and Robert Wuthnow, in their book Religion and the Global Politics of Human Rights (Oxford, OUP, 2011) argue instead that it is:

“rather the outcome of deliberation among like-minded thinkers and activists from both religious and secular back-grounds, each drawing on the elements within their traditions that emphasize universal human dignity – religious traditions provide vital resources – most centrally the belief in the transcendent equality and dignity of all human beings – for reflection on the foundations of rights and how to secure them.”

This view gives legitimacy to the involvement of religious views in political life. Religious rights then have this wider sense of religion being allowed to have a voice in decisions about public life. The other view sees religious rights as limited exclusively to freedoms to believe and worship.

There are many examples of a much more positive role of aspects of religion in human rights. There are many examples of religiously motivated human rights campaigners in the anti-slave movement throughout the last five centuries, and in the present era, religiously sustained pro-democracy human rights movements, such as in Burma. Pope John Paul II wrote extensively on human rights and worked to support anti-Soviet movements in Eastern Europe, following in the footsteps of Pope Leo XII who at the end of the nineteenth century wrote powerfully in favour of worker’s rights in industrialized and industrializing countries.

The view also reveals an essential element of human rights thinking – the role of belief in the worth of every human being irrespective of any action or attribute that they have. Without this belief it is difficult to provide an argument for human rights. It is for this reason that some view the role of religion as essential for human rights, though Banchoff and Wuthnow hold back from such a step.


To explore the complexity of the engagement between religion and human rights compare the following statement from the English and Welsh Catholic Bishops on the Church and human rights at with this review of a book criticizing that link

Then read this paper on Buddhism, human rights and Burma and compare with this Wikipedia article on the persecution of Muslims in Burma by

Rights and Religious Tolerance

The BBC has reported that Lillian Ladele, a Christian registrar who was disciplined because she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnerships has lost an appeal against the ruling. Ms Ladele argued that she could not carry out such ceremonies as a matter of religious conscience. The QC representing Ms Ladele explained that she had no wishes to undermine the human rights of people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender communities, but she felt that laws must protect those people who have committed views about marriage. However Corinna Ferguson, from Liberty argues that, “Freedom of conscience is incredibly precious but other people have rights and freedoms too” and in the final case Lord Neuberger said: “The legislature has decided that the requirements of a modern liberal democracy, such as the United Kingdom, include outlawing discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on grounds of sexual orientation, subject only to very limited exceptions.”

Read the whole story on BBC News:

For more discussion see:

Virtue School

It has been reported in the news that a policeman has transformed his town, reducing antisocial behaviour by half, by setting up a night school to teach children about medieval notions of respect and chivalry. More than a hundred children have taken the course which he says instils, �a sense of personal pride, of mannerly and compassionate behaviour and of respect for others.� This teaching of virtues is something Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair Macintyre might be proud of. Anscombe wrote in 1958 that it had been a mistake to focus on good actions rather than good people. MacIntyre felt that we need to go back to the traditional virtues in history and recover an idea of the things which a good person should have. For people to be morally better they need to cultivate certain patterns of behaviour informed by certain characteristics, virtues. If we want good people, we need to help people learn to be good. Aristotle thought that people should practice at certain characteristics and they should have them in just the right amount. Virtue theory then is different from traditional teleological ethics which is interested in the end or result, when deciding what is right, or deontological ethics, which thinks certain actions are just plain right or wrong. Virtue history is a person centred approach and interested in human moral development. Sgt Gary Brown seems to capture something of that in his course for children in Spilsby, Lincs. Nevertheless, there are some problems with this approach. We may be interested in developing good people but our moral abilities are challenged by actual situations, actual options from which we must choose courses of action and others will judge them right or wrong. How will those actions be judged? Traditional virtues are often expressed or passed down by communities but sometimes people stand out for being moral by going against the norm, by resisting peer pressure. How can we be sure the community virtues are the right ones to have? Perhaps virtue theory adds an opportunity to think about the moral person as well as actions or ends or other aspects of moral thinking, rather than replacing them.

Challenges to Ethical Thinking about Abortion

Ethical debates about abortion tend to circle around questions of the rights of women and the status of the embryo and foetus. Debates are also marked by powerfully divergent views on these issues, with strong religious arguments against abortion and strong libertarian arguments for a woman’s right to choose. Both positions tend to be focussed not simply on the specific act of abortion, but also by a view of the world that should be. For libertarians, the world should be a place in which women are not discriminated against and not denied access to family planning clinics and the full range of possible services. A world which criminalises abortion necessarily leads to women being unfairly treated by being forced to bear the children of rape, being forced out of careers and so on. For religious conservatives who object to abortion on absolute moral grounds, they also argue for a world in which women who have children out of wedlock are supported and not discriminated against in conservative societies, where unwanted babies can be easily adopted, and where back street and dangerous abortions would not need to happen.

Both sides have a vision of the world that is not a mirror of the world as it is, but rather a world they want to work towards. When the ethical question is translated into a question of public policy, in other worlds what laws we should have and how people will respond to the situation, the rather unpredictable dimensions of politics and human psychology come into play. This seems to be the case in recent research published in The Lancet which found that there was a link between higher abortion rates and more restrictive legislation. Abortion rates were lowest in Western Europe, at 12 per 1,000, and highest in Eastern Europe, at 43 per 1,000. Western Europe is more liberal and secularised and Eastern Europe more socially conservative and religious. The research does not explain why these differences are there but it presents a challenge for those who want to reduce the number of abortions. Is it better to argue for more restrictive legislation that better reflects your moral position, if that in turn leads to higher actual rates of abortion, through the back street illegal abortion market? Additionally it is these kinds of abortions that are more likely to lead to the death of the mother. In 2008, 47,000 women died from unsafe abortions and 8.5 million had serious medical complications.

Of course religious conservatives do not want women to die of unsafe abortions and of course they want lower rates of abortion. If the research is accurate it leaves us with a challenging question. What is the best public policy – the best set of laws? Is it the one that leads to the least number of actual abortions or the one that best reflects the moral view that abortion is wrong? Of course it might be that the long term moral battle is to take steps towards the better world and so short term statistics are not helpful, but long term trends more important. It might be that in going for the more conservative moral legal situation, there may be higher abortion rates in the short term but in the long term there is a better chance of society becoming the kind of place that does not require those rates.

Questions to consider
1) Should moral conservatives who oppose abortion, support liberal and permissive laws if it can be shown these in fact reduce the number of abortions?
2) Should ethicists focus on the current picture of human behaviour or plan to build towards the kind of world they want in the future, even if in the short term there are serious negative consequences?

Further reading online

Marriage, Freedom and Diversity

Some issues present particular challenges for ethicists because they appeal to diverging ethical principles. Forced marriage is a case in point. A forced marriage takes place when one or both participants are coerced against their will into a marriage. That coercion may involve psychological, emotional, or physical threats and / or abuse. A forced marriage can be contrasted with an arranged marriage in which both participants agree for the marriage to be set up with family relatives.

A forced marriage is ethically unacceptable because it involves unreasonable violence, threat of violence, or other form of force, and leaves the woman in particular, profoundly disadvantaged. She has little control over something that has a profound impact on her life. It violates human rights which state that marriage should be freely and consensually entered into, and undermines a woman’s right to choose her spouse. This is something central to her life, dignity and equality as a human being. Forced marriage contradicts the ideas of freedom, equality and dignity that underpin human rights. It causes great harm. This account comes from the website

“I’m from a Pakistani background where forced marriages are common… In Pakistan, when one of my sisters refused to marry, I saw my Dad put an axe to my sister’s throat. They had to go through with the marriages and today none of them has worked out… When I was 15, my Mum said: ‘We’re going to Pakistan and I want you to get married.’ I tried to get them to change their minds but they told me I had to go. My Dad threatened me by saying ‘If you run away, we’re going to kill you.’ I was so confused and angry about why my parents would want to do this. The most important decision you’ll ever make in your life is to marry someone and I was going to get married to someone I had never met. All I knew about this man was that he was 21.”

Forced marriage is a particular blight on the lives of women which comes about because of patriarchal power found in some cultural traditions. Patriarchy gives particular power to men over women and can be found expressed in ideas that place men at the head of a household, or make some roles and responsibilities only accessible to men. It can also be expressed through beliefs that women’s roles are completely defined by motherhood and domesticity. In other words children, care of the family and care of the husband fully define what it is to be a women. Patriarchy is the force which ensured for many centuries that women had no ability to take leadership roles in public life. Forced marriage remains a problem in Britain with over 1,000 cases reported in Britain each year (

Patriarchy is the kind of thing that the campaign for women’s rights, exemplified in the suffragette movement and the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill’s essay On the subjugation of women. This movement is one of the social and philosophical and political movements that underpinned the twentieth century development of universal human rights. An issue like forced marriage is a straightforward ethical one.

However, human rights ethics become rather more complex in matters of cultural diversity. Charles Taylor, argues that cultural groups have rights of recognition. In other words there should be some cultural tolerance to diverse ways of living. This is justified by the claim that cultural groups explore different ways of working out the best way to live and that the human ‘experiment’ (the human forms of civilization that we have discovered) are test case ways of living. If some diversity of difference is not allowed then we may never find the best way to live. Human rights are a case in point. They have changed over time as new forms of suffering have been discovered and they sought to eliminate these forms. If no diversity is tolerated then systems of living and ways of life will no longer be tested and we may settle for a second best civilizational ethic.

We are left with an ethic that argues for the rights of recognition and an ethic that argues for universal human rights. How do we reconcile these two different principles in the case of forced marriages? Taylor is unlikely to ever want to defend forced marriages or, no doubt, a number of other practices that are immoral but persists because they are culturally embedded. While the rights of recognition allows for some tolerance of diversity it is not unlimited tolerance. There are some boundaries to what is acceptable. How can these boundaries be determined? Perhaps the boundaries can be established by thinking about the values that underpin human rights, rather than the rights themselves. In this case we have been thinking about the ideas of freedom, equality, and dignity. There are different arguments within culture and religion about degrees of personal freedom and equality of roles in life, but dignity, the idea that a human being has some degree of intrinsic worth because of what they are, not because of what they do or could do, is a powerful idea in many traditions. Within Christianity and Judaism it can be seen in the idea that human beings are made in the image of God and within Christianity it is also seen in the doctrines that human beings have within then a Divine spirit, an image of Christ. In Islam there is the idea that a human person is the vice regent of God, a being who acts for God on earth. There are other religious traditions that see in human beings a divine spirit or force. There are also philosophers who give human beings inherent worth, such as Kant who argues that human begins should never be treated only as a means to an end, but always as an end in itself because it has an inherent worth or dignity. This is quite different to ideas of dignity which suggest dignity is merely something that means we are doing the ‘proper’ or ‘socially acceptable’ thing. The kind of dignity we are talking about is more profound and fundamental.

An idea such as dignity, found across religions and philosophies, might provide a way of resolving the tension between the rights of recognition and universal human rights. It seems to be at the base of these two ethical ideas, a foundational value. Forced marriage seems to directly deny the dignity of the human person, because of what happens to them in the process. They seem to no longer be able to flourish, and their integrity as a human being with spiritual significance, seems not be recognized in forced marriage. In this case, the boundary of morally acceptable diversity is transgressed by forced marriage because human dignity is undermined. Human beings, especially women, are humiliated, and humiliation cannot be allowed under the terms of the rights of recognition.

Are there theoretical or practical weaknesses in this argument? If you are convinced by this argument, test the theory against other issues which are defined in terms of cultural difference vs universal human rights. Are the conclusions in these other cases equally convincing?

The Ethics of Love and Finding a Life Long Partner

On average a marriage lasts 11 years. Over a hundred years ago this was also the case. Then the reason for the short life of a marriage was mortality rates. Women were much more likely to die during or after childbirth. Men were much more likely to die at a younger age at work. The fact that people live much longer now, means that a greater proportion of couples than every before have to learn how to live together for much longer. Today the short marriage span is due to separation and divorce.

Lori Gottlieb, author of Settling for Mr Good Enough, believes women who refuse to marry unless they can find someone whom they feel a deep romantic love for, are consigning themselves to an unhappy and lonely future. She now wishes she settled for a good enough husband. The idea that we are all going to find the partner of our dreams is a myth propagated by Hollywood. We are conditioned to believe it will happen, we idealize marriage and then we walk away from relationships which are not quite inspiring enough to match the dream. She argues that marrying Mr Good Enough is a viable option, especially if you are looking for a reliable life companion. A good marriage is not just about the romantic side of things.

Anouchka Grose, in her book No More Silly Love Songs, makes a similar sort of argument. She argues that the idea of everlasting love and never-ending desire is a menace. We need to lower our expectations where loved ones are concerned. Affairs should not be treated as the end of a marriage. She says “sexual fidelity has acquired a sanctimonious moral importance”. At the same time she is in favour of monogamy saying that, given the challenge of it, monogamists “may find themselves at the cutting edge of experimental romance”.

In his book To Raise Happy Kids, Put your marriage First, David Code argues that pushy parents should focus their attentions on each other rather than their children. Families that are centred on children create anxious and exhausted parents and demanding children. Self-fulfillment and the marriage relationship go out the window. The emphasis on children makes them the focus of our emotional needs not the spouse or partner.

Consider these three approaches to relationships and family life. How would you respond to each of these authors? What insights might different philosophical and religious traditions offer to the issues discussed in these three books?

So What is Wrong with Plural Marriage / Polyamory?

Polyamory is a modern word (1992) to describe a loving sexual relationship involving more than two people. Plural marriage is where a spouse, usually a husband, takes more than one wife. Religion is often linked to views that marriage should be a committed relationship between two people, usually of the opposite sex but there are some notable deviations from this. In the Hebrew scriptures, Abraham and Sarah think they are too old to have the children that the Lord God says they will have and they think Sarah is barren, in any case. So the younger servant girl Hagar is the surrogate wife and Abraham sires Ishmael with her. But Hagar is not Abraham’s wife and when Sarah miraculously falls pregnant with the son who is to be Isaac, the result is that Hagar leaves the household, though the Lord looks after her. The story does not suggest that this situation is God’s will and in fact the insecure status of Hagar may well have been the experience of many serving girls who found themselves pregnant with their master’s children.

Islam has within it a tradition that more than one wife may be taken but that each wife must be treated equally by the husband. This is a significant improvement for the women, compared with Hagar’s experience and it is interesting to note that traditionally the people of Ishmael are thought to be the forefathers of the first people of Islam. Such a precondition is not an easy one to fulfill as the full implications of equality mean different bedrooms, sometimes different houses, an equal sharing of time and absolutely no preferences on the part of the husband. While Muslims are not compelled to take more than one wife, and many Muslims would feel that it is only an exceptional possibility, it is permitted in some Muslim countries and takes place even in countries which outlaw the practice. An ethical argument in favour of the historical use of this practice is that in ancient Arabia many women were widowed and therefore were vulnerable if they did not marry again and so such plural marriages enabled them to be cared for in a socially accepted way that secured them. Muslim feminists oppose such practices today.

Taking more than one wife has continued in some other modern religious traditions. In the 19th century Mormonism approved of polygamy, and while contemporary Mormonism rejects this, some sects continue its practice. A number of ethical issues arise about the continued practice. The religious traditions that practice this form of marriage come under criticism from feminists who point to the male-dominated patriarchal nature of most religious traditions and the inequality of allowing a man to take more than one wife while not allowing a wife, more than one husband. One response to this is that such marriages should not be forced or arranged but entered into freely. If they are freely entered into, then surely that consent should make such arrangements morally acceptable. The consent ethic is a powerful one in sexual ethics. Sexual crimes involve a lack of consent, and in a more permissive modern liberal age, consent is often identified as the key ethical principle in any sexual relationship. So if two or three people consent to such a relationship, and assuming no-one else is harmed, what is the problem? However, this calculation gives no account for the prevailing social and political climate and needs to scrutinize the idea of a free choice. How can we be sure that the power relationship, which often benefits the man in religious and cultural traditions, will enable a woman to choose freely? If a husband asks his first wife about wanting to take an additional wife, will she not feel pressured to allow it if their religion permits it. She may fear losing her husband if she says no, or indeed fear that he will commit adultery. So in what sense is she truly free to choose? The risk of this occurring is enough for many feminists to oppose it on principle in any setting, religious or secular.

There is also a question of the ethics of equality and the fact that religious traditions that practice plural marriage tend to allow the man to take many wives but not the other way round. Perhaps the practice of women taking many husbands is uncommon because only the woman can give birth and possibly, somewhere in the religious traditions of plural marriage, having large families is a key social or indeed economic advantage. Of course it also smacks of double standards and a world in which men are happy to have many wives but not happy to share their wives with other men.

However, if two people genuinely felt they loved the same third person, if that person loved the other two and all agreed to live in such a relationship, setting aside religious arguments, is there a non-religious ethical argument against? One possible objection could be made if it was shown that human beings are pairing creatures, from the perspective of human evolution and psychology. It could be argued that in the case of a life-long paring, the relationship works in part because of the complete trust and total commitment that each party gives the other. This total commitment is often expressed for better and worse for richer and poorer, acknowledging that life may be difficult at times and one may come to depend utterly on the other, for example if faced with serious illness. It is a trust allowing long term plans, including the raising of children, the development of a working life and the building of a home. It can be argued that this kind of total giving is simply not possible in a polygamous relationship, where space must be made for a third person. In the Hebrew scriptures, Genesis presents a picture of the relationship in terms of the two becoming one. It uses the phrase ‘cleaving together’ to describe the union that is established in the committed, loving relationship. There is a powerful sense of that union in the physical life of the couple. This includes not simply the sexual life but also the wider life of physical affection and the experience of drawing together two life-lines so that they intertwine with each other with the associated friendship, intimacy and partnership that this brings. Perhaps Genesis offers a wise reflection on the human condition and the nature of human love and life.

Putting Ethics Back into Business

In their book Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work, Fischman, Solomon and Gardener (HUP, 2004), writing before the current financial collapse said:

“It would be comforting to think that the acts of corporate malfeasance which had come to light in the United States at the start of the twenty first century are isolated events, and that the world of work is generally of an unacceptable behaviour across professions and in a variety of workplaces.” (p.1)

Before the financial collapse they were able to list scandals at Enron, Arthur Anderson, WorldCom and other corporations. We now know that considerable failings have become endemic in the systems of global capitalism. What has changed is just how far human beings can pursue their greed:

“It is not that humans have become any more greedy than in generations past. It is that the avenues to express greed had grown so enormously” (Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan quoted by Fischman, Solomon and  Gardener on p1)

Stephen Green, of HSBC, has written a book entitled Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World (Allen Lane, 2009). The author is chairman of HSBC and has been an ordained priest in the Church of England since 1988.

The word value is commonly found in two areas. On the one hand there is the ethical world of values; principles or moral rules for living by, perhaps informed by profound beliefs about life or God. They influence what people believe to be good and bad and how they act. On the other hand ‘Value’ is used to define a range of food stuffs in a popular supermarket chain that are cheap. These food stuffs tend not to have Fairtrade labels, or free Range labels. It is curious that the word value has become synonymous with lowest price or best deal. Perhaps this is a symptom of the moral crisis that some think have driven the global economic system into meltdown.

The recent collapse in global capitalism and the resulting recession has left many people reflecting on truths of business. There was a view that the market system should be left free to do whatever is necessary for business and that by bringing in other factors, such as morals or regulation is simply bad for business. However, the actions of a very small people have left millions of others facing economic hardship. What some did has caused long lasting economic harm for others, the destruction of business, the loss of retirement savings and the by-products: stress, unemployment and family difficulties.

The view expressed by some people, that business is just business and any talk of right and wrong is a luxury, has come back on itself. It would appear that selfishness and greed bring about economic catastrophe, not just erosion of goodness or the soul.

Stephen Green as a banker, may not appear to be the first person of choice when it comes to getting advice on what to do now. But he is both a banker and he is a priest which explains some of his thinking. His book sets out a series of relevant questions

How should we create wealth in societies, and why is it necessary to do so?
What improves the lives of the largest number of people?
And how do we, living in a globalised world caught in an age of financial and ecological turbulence, respond to the differing needs of individuals and institutions?

He still believes that capitalism is the best system by which to improve human wealth, but that the drives for exploration and exchange must be aligned with spiritual and psychological needs. He argues that businesses – and especially banks – have a duty to society that goes beyond the creation of profit.

He notes that for some people the only factors in business are:
Is there a product?
Is there a market in which to sell it?
Is there a profit to be made?

Answer yes to each question and that is all you need to justify the business. But he adds a further question.

Does the business contribute to the common good?

If the answer to this is no then the business should not go ahead. The idea of the common good is found in a number of philosophical and religious traditions. Here it is being used to describe the moral concern that we might normally apply in our personal relationships, applied to public life. Green thinks we must not compartmentalize our morality – reserving it for our private sphere but not business:

“Compartmentalization – ‘dividing up life into different realms with different ends and subject to different rules’ – is a besetting sin of human beings. [It] is a refuge from ambiguity. One of the most obvious and commonplace manifestations of the tendency to compartmentalize is seeing our life work as being a neutral realm in which questions of value (other than shareholder value) or of rightness (other than what is lawful) or of wisdom (other than what is practical) need not arise.”

Seeing work as morally neutral is damaging and corrodes society. He notes:

“The discovery in late 2006 that in modern Britain 70% of three year olds recognize the McDonald’s symbol but only half of them know their own surname, or that the average 10-year-old is familiar with between 300 and 400 consumer brands but would be unable to name 15 wild birds, was poignant evidence for our fears. What sort of people were we becoming?”

Ultimately work, money and wealth is not enough for the common good:

“We cannot fulfil ourselves in business through power or work or wealth.”

While this approach seems laudable in the light of the financial collapse and the actions which brought it about, there are strong cultural factors which need to be overcome to bring about any kind of change. Firstly, the idea of the common good is one which will need to be strongly embedded in social and cultural life. The individual ‘me-me-me culture’ is not going to lie down easily. Individualism has bred an attitude of self-interest which dominates every aspect of our life with personal mobile phones, personal computers, personalised approaches to life choices and an attitude that your individual feelings are all that matters.

Secondly, the competitiveness that drives companies to compete in the market place, is also what drives workers in those companies to do whatever it takes to beat the others. If I take a moral approach to my business, how can I be sure you will take such an approach to your business? If I fail to make my financial target because I am worried about moral consequences, will I miss the bonus payment or lose my job? Will my virtue lead me to business failure?

An additional sort of challenge is even harder to address ‘exactly what do you mean by the common good’? What precisely does that mean? A sense of the common good is likely to be based on some kind of view about what makes for a good life and on this issue people seem divided. Religious and philosophical opinions differ on what a good life would look like. Therefore some process of discussion needs to take place before we can really apply the idea of the common good to our moral decision making business.

Green may be right, but putting the plan into action presents enormous challenges.

Media, Government, Banking & Trust

In May 2006 a poll for the BBC, Reuters and the Media Center found that 41% of British adults trusted the media ( By July 2011 that had fallen to 20% ( The News of the World phone-tapping scandal opened a new fissure in the trust crisis that is inflicting many professions in Britain. The media joins bankers, and their actions, which contributed or caused the financial crisis now ravaging world economics, with MPs and the expenses scandal. Trust, it would appear, is an endangered commodity. Yet it is crucial. Sissela Bok wrote “Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.” (in Lying, New York: Pantheon Books, 1978, p.31n). Without trust the things that really matter become unsafe. This seems to be the lesson of the last five years with the economy, the political system and now the thing which we rely upon to keep a check of goernment and business, all being holed below the water line. British western society seems to be lacking in trust.

Onora O’Neill began her 2002 Reith Lectures with the following:

“Confucius told his disciple Tsze-kung that three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can’t hold on to all three, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Trust should be guarded to the end: “without trust we cannot stand”.
What can we understand by trust? Annette Baier (1986) comments that while Plato states, in his Republic, that the majority of citizens should trust their philosopher king to rule wisely over them, he does not list trust as a virtue, and neither does Aristotle. Christian philosophers extol the virtue of faith as something like trust in God, and in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, the covenant is linked to the trust between God and his people. Baier observes that for us to put trust in others we need good grounds to do so. It is a matter in part of how vulnerable we feel and whether we have good grounds to believe that others will not take advantage of our situation. This is why we find abuses by parents, nurses, doctors, teachers and ministers of religion so objectionable. If a person in a position of care for another abuses their trust, then this shows the most vulnerable abused by those who should be most trusted.

Trusting, according to Baier is allowing for someone else to care about the thing I care about. We trust them to use their choice and power in our interest. In trusting we hand over to another.

Is there a contract in trust? Are we equally trustees to be trusted as well as trusters to trust? This seems not to be the case. While trust in God is absolute trust in another person may only ever be conditional. On the other hand the trust of a child is over-complete which is why the betrayal of such trust can have such devastating consequences, as with betrayal in a committed relationship, be it sexual or of a close friendship. Yet we also trust people we never or hardly think about – the tube train driver to take care of the signals, the postman not to pry. Hobbes would warn us about relying on such a virtue and instead points to the need for a powerful overseer to enforce moral behaviour. The more we think about trust the more it becomes apparent that it is interconnected with all the relationships and all the contacts we have with others.

Onara O’Neil suggests that we need to encourage good governance and we need to limit deception. In the fifth of her Reith Lectures she turns to Kant and his classical notion of autonomy. She notes:

“Kantian autonomy is a matter of acting on principles that can be principles for all of us, of ensuring that we do not treat others as lesser mortals – indeed victims – whose abilities to share our principles we are at liberty to undercut. If we deceive we make others our victims, and undermine or distort their possibilities for acting and communicating… the most common wrong done in communicating is deception, which undermines and damages others’ capacities to judge and communicate, to act and to place trust with good judgement. Duties to reject deception are duties for everyone: for individuals and for government and for institutions and professions – including the media and journalists.”
In 2002 O’Neil seems to have predicted the issue which was to become the defining moral concern of our countries state, a decade later. The issues of deception, good governance and the centrality of trust must surely be at the heart of any road back from our present troubles.

To consider:

1. Compare John Stuart Mill’s notion of individual autonomy, and its connection with the harm principle, with Kant’s concept of classical autonomy, and its role in the categorical imperative. Which do you find more helpful in making sense of trust and why?

2. What might the Situationist thought of Fletcher add to a conception of trust? Consider his notion of love as Justice and unconditionality.

3. To go further read the 2002 Reith

Markets Need Morals

According to Gordon Brown (reported in The Guardian, markets need morals. The financial crisis has taught us that we need values. The kind of values Gordon Brown talks about are hard work, fair play, a responsible approach to risk, loving your neighbour as yourself. He describes these as common values found in all religions and therefore a global ethics is possible for the world to live by. Earlier this year he gave a speech in which he suggested that on a whole range of global issues, agreed global rules were needed:

“what all these challenges have in common is that none of them can be addressed by one country or one continent acting alone. None of them can be met and mastered without the world coming together. And none of them can be solved without agreed global rules informed by shared global values.” (Gordon Brown, Speech and Q&A at St Paul’s Cathedral,

A values free, rules free market has brought us to disaster. He used the word values 44 times in that speech but values are slippery things. Values can be principles which we agree to for different reasons or they can be things we believe in at a foundation level. They can be shared principles or common moral beliefs. I may believe that a human life is sacred and that may motivate my moral choices much more powerfully than a general rule which has to be interpreted and applied. According to the Tony Blair Foundation, the solutions of the global recession could be found in the teachings of faith traditions ( A series of seminars on this topic have been hosted by The Guardian( Ken Costa at the first of those seminars wrote:

“But what about the values of our workplace? More specifically, what are the values that guide the relationships in our workplaces? My question is not just “is faith compatible with globalisation?”, for it obviously is. My question is the deeper one: “can the global economy do without faith?” Our wealth creation, important as it is, must be trammelled and, indeed, upheld by values that arise in the context of relationship to other humans. These values arise as obligations that are due to other humans qua human beings. They have the character of law, if you like. But it is the Spirit, that gives life, that enables us actually to live these values, day to day and to work in co-operative interdependence with each other. Thus a culture of trust in the workplace is generated, and sustained.

Rights in Conflict over Religion and Homosexuality

A Pentecostal Christian couple have lost the right to be able to be foster parents because of their beliefs which meant that they could not tell a child they might foster, that homosexuality was an acceptable lifestyle.

Lord justice Munby and Mr justice Beatson at the High Court have ruled that the laws that protect people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation “should take precedence” over the right not to be discriminated against on religious grounds.

They have ruled that if children are placed with carers who object to homosexuality and same-sex relationships, “there may well be a conflict with the local authority’s duty to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare’ of looked-after children”.

The couple, who consider themselves to be moral people, had wanted to offer a loving home for a child in need of care. According to the BBC they said:

“We have been excluded because we have moral opinions based on our faith and we feel sidelined because we are Christians with normal, mainstream, Christian views on sexual ethics. We are prepared to love and accept any child. All we were not willing to do was to tell a small child that the practice of homosexuality was a good thing.”

For some, this is an important victory for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual rights to equality. For others this is discrimination against Christians with a common Christian moral belief. Should gay rights trump religious rights?

BBC Report:

Editorial in the Church

Related stories in the

Read the full ruling here:

The Morality of Military Intervention

When a people rise up against a dictator but the dictator fights back with superior forces, what is the moral case for other countries to intervene? Is there a right to humanitarian intervention? Should the West intervene in Libya?

One argument says that if a dictator commits crimes against humanity then there is an argument that other countries should intervene. 900,000 people were killed in Rwanda and in that example the international community did not act and genocide took place. In Kosovo, NATO bombed to stop mass killings and it worked. The threat of mass killings of innocents is surely an argument to carry out military intervention.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC, is a member of the UN’s Justice Council and author of Crimes Against Humanity. He argues there is a moral case:

“As Colonel Gaddafi, with his army and air force, his tribal supporters and his propaganda machine, begins to counter-attack, only one thing is certain. He is a man utterly without mercy. The history of his regime demonstrates how he deals with opponents: hanging them from lamp-posts, sending death squads to assassinate them as ‘stray dogs’, killing them in their jail cells… # Will the world stand idly by once he starts to deliver on his threat to ‘fight to the last man and woman’?”

He asks, is there a right or a duty to use force to relieve a humanitarian nightmare? The UN charter bans “the use of force against territorial integrity or political independence of any state” but in the event of a breach of the peace the Council may “take such action – by air, sea or land – as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace or security”. He argues that for such intervention to be lawful there must be a request of potential victims, for the purpose of stopping crimes against humanity. There must be no question of ulterior motives, such as gaining oil or land. It must be proportionate so no greater force should be used than necessary to achieve a reasonably obtainable objective.

His full argument can be read here:

Two other views may be considered:


Which is more convincing?

The Ethics of Torture

An investigation is underway by the UK Intelligence Services Commissioner into whether or not the British government was complicit with the torture of insurgents in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Article 3 of the European convention on human rights states “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. The organisation Liberty, which campaigns for human rights, believes that the British government has tried to sidestep, ignore or undermine its legal and moral obligations to prevent torture. The convention was written with the atrocities of World War Two in mind, and the terrible acts of barbarism and inhumanity that marked the treatment of many prisoners. Britain signed this convention and therefore is bound by it. It is International Law.

It is claimed that insurgents, people arrested or captured on suspicion of being involved in preparing for, or carrying out, terrorist acts, were moved to locations where CIA operatives in Guantanamo Bay or in third countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Morocco, carried out interrogations in which the conditions of the convention were broken, and British secret agents were in some cases present or in other cases complicit with acts of torture to retrieve information.

British involvement in this was reported in the Guardian newspaper on 6 December and 12 September, 2005. Airports at Biggin Hill, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Brize Norton, Farnborough, Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton, RAF Mildenhall, Northolt, and Stansted allowed CIA or CIA-chartered jets to land temporarily since 2001.

Former detainees of Guantanamo Bay who have now been released have alleged that they were tortured. Military trainers at Guantanamo Bay since December 2002 ran classes which used resources produced from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist torture techniques used during the Korean War. This study detailed methods of obtaining confessions. A chart showed the effects of “coercive management techniques” including “sleep deprivation”, “prolonged constraint”, and “exposure”.

Three British Muslim prisoners were released from Guantanamo Bay in 2004 without charge. Known as the ‘Tipton Three’ they alleged torture including acts of sexual degradation, forced drugging and religious persecution by US forces.

Setting aside the human rights legal framework, and the question of whether Britain has broken any international laws, and the political implications of breaking agreements we have made with other countries, there remain a number of ethical questions.

– Is a brutal act against one person justified if it saves many lives?
– Should ethical principles about the treatment of prisoners ever be sacrificed for pragmatic needs?
– In a just war or conflict, are there limits on what can be done to win?
– If brutal processes are adopted by just states, will those processes corrupt the state and undermined the principles it holds dear?

Utilitarians may offer a justification for torture, for a justification may be made that in certain individual cases, the benefits of the information found out through torture could save lives. Think of the disrupted terrorist attack where many innocents are saved. The pain and suffering of one, could surely be justified by the good of the many. If the person being tortured is innocent then this is unfortunate but perhaps that individual can be sacrificed for the many.

Utilitarians might think there is a principle that is greater than the good of the potential lives gained, however. They may argue that the onset of torture brings about a world in which authorities use torture systematically, and that the greater good of a just society for all is lost. Rule utilitarians may be particularly concerned that permission to do these sorts of things will ultimately bring into being a worse world.

The key features of a Kantian approach must seek to apply the categorical imperative. It must treat the person never only as a means to an end but also as a end in his or herself. It must apply norms universally. It must base moral decisions within a view of the hypothetical kingdom of ends. When considering torture, there are distinct ethical elements including both the question of the acts of torture, and any complicity in them, and also the possible justifications for those acts. The acts of torture affect both the tortured and torturer. One can imagine a world in which people routinely torture and it is a terrible vision.

Torture based on some greater consequence would run into difficulties with Kant’s approach to human persons. The detainees must be treated as ends in themselves as well as means. Kant thought the human person was incredibly important, of a worth beyond price. Torturing a human being seems to be a specific example of treating a person as only a means to an end – the end being the information that might stop a terrorist attack. One might try to argue that it is for the detainees own good that he or she is tortured – perhaps we could imagine that if the atrocity is not prevented the detainee will then feel remorse and may than realise the wrong they have done.

However the universalizability test throws up its own difficulties. Torture is something that is justified by particular extreme circumstances. If one was to universalize the possibility of torture, it would become routine and the very world that is trying to be avoided through the use of torture, would in fact come about. Ethical theories based on deontological rules, such as natural Law, might find it difficult to ever break these rules, though exceptions may be made if a ‘self defence’ argument can be made. Perhaps the torture of a person can be thought of as a proactive self-defensive act. If a terrorist is captured and he or she has knowledge of a forthcoming atrocity, perhaps torturing him / her is an act of self defence. However, in the case of torture there is a special danger. If torture is self defence, then what are the limits of what a government can do to an individual? Many philosophers were very concerned about precisely this problem and the danger that individuals would be treated badly by those who have power. The question of torture becomes a question about how much the state can be trusted. The outcome of the investigation will give some indication of this for Britain at least.

Does Religion Cause Violence?

For many this question hardly needs asking. Of course it does – it is obvious isn’t it? All those different religions fuel beliefs that they are right and the others are all wrong. This topples over into violence when the ‘stupid’ non-believers just don’t get it. William Cavanaugh, Associate Professor of philosophy at the University of St Thomas, suggests that there is some sloppy thinking going on here.

First he sets aside a couple of common criticisms of the view. There are those that suggest behind religion are political or economic factors that get dressed in religion. Also there are those who suggest the people being violent are not properly religious – they are being un-Islamic or un-Christian. This is not the argument he is going to make.

Conventional wisdom suggests that religion  is prone to violence, rather more than ideologies that are non-religious or secular. In fact these sorts of distinctions are much more difficult to make. He suggests that in the West progress is thought of in more secular terms and that we have a blind spot when it comes to seeing secular states as the cause of violence. So Western liberal countries are peace bringers while cruel Muslim countries are violent war makers. Of course, arguably the reality is often the opposite. It was the liberal secular democracies who launched the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the vast majority of people killed were Muslim. He writes,

“Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peacemaking, and necessary.”

Since 11 September 2001 there have been a flotilla of English language books about the violence and evil of religions by many different writers. These books link religion with a sort of primitive way of thinking, an irrational, an illogical approach to life.

However, Cavanaugh wants to make a more subtle point. He suggests that what people think about as being religious and secular is much more blurred. For example, how could ‘religion’ be removed from Roman or Aztec culture and society? All the different subtle elements of ritual and life would need unpicking in a very difficult way. How would one decide when a cultural and religious practice was interwoven, which side it should go? This blurring is more apparent on issues of patriarchy and feminism where there are bitter disputes between theologians, bishops and scholars about which element is religious, and which is cultural.

Cavanaugh acknowledges that some will say that there is enough about what we could see as a religion to be able to say, well the corners are fuzzy but there is an essential core which means you can spot Islam, Christianity and so on. Those who hold this view will point to examples of divisiveness caused by religion. In a book by Martin Marty, Politics, Religion, and the Common Good, Marty cites cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were attacked, beaten, tarred, castrated, and imprisoned in the USA in the 1940s because of their belief that followers of Jesus Christ should not salute a flag. Cavanaugh criticizes Marty for not drawing the obvious conclusion that zealous nationalism can cause violence. Instead of this Marty concludes: “it became obvious that religion, which can pose ‘us’ versus ‘them’… carries risks and can be perceived by others as dangerous. Religion can cause all kinds of trouble in the public arena.” In short religion here means Jehovah’s Witnesses refusal to the ritual vowing of allegiance to a flag. Cavanaugh sees the danger in the secular ideology and its rituals, rather than the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Some have tried to get round this argument by expanding their definition to include secular ideologies and practices. Here the problem is a kind of religiousness which tends towards absolutism. But perhaps one could dispense with any reference to religion altogether – maybe it’s just absolutists who are the problem.

Cavanaugh thinks that these double standards are at play throughout.

“Sam Harris’ book about the violence of religion, The End of Faith, dramatically illustrates this double standard. Harris condemns the irrational religious torture of witches, but provides his own argument for torturing terrorists.”

Cavanaugh concludes:

“[T]here is no coherent way to isolate ‘religious’ ideologies with a peculiar tendency toward violence from their tamer ‘secular’ counterparts. So-called secular ideologies and institutions like nationalism and liberalism can be just as absolutist, divisive, and irrational as so-called religion. People kill for all sorts of things. An adequate approach to the problem would be resolutely empirical: under what conditions do certain beliefs and practices — jihad, the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, the sacrificial atonement of Christ, the role of the United States as worldwide liberator — turn violent? The point is not simply that ‘secular’ violence should be given equal attention to ‘religious’ violence. The point is that the distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and should be avoided altogether.”

To read the whole argument go here:

Are Religious People More Likely to be Moral?

Now atheists might immediately get rather irritated at this suggestion but before tearing it down with all sorts of references to examples of immoral religion or religious, consider a different argument which does not come from any theology. In his Guardian Blog Andrew Brown ( presents a different argument  for this. He suggest that there is a lot of research that suggests people behave better when they are being watched. This should not come as a shocking surprise. If you have been tempted to commit a minor indiscretion and then notice you are being watched perhaps you suddenly felt societal breaks on your freedom and found the strength to resist temptation. Maybe those speed cameras which display your speed, instead of photographing you, work because other drivers can see how fast you are going so you slam on the breaks and slow down. Brown gives an illustration of a free world where some are shackled to objective morality and others feel free to do as they please.
“Some will be as upright and thoughtful as Mary Warnock, and others will have the morals of the unregenerate Jonathan Aitken. When a Warnock does business with a Warnock (or marries one), their levels of trust are preserved. Similarly, when an Aitken transacts with an Aitken neither feels they must revise their estimate of human nature upwards. But after transactions between a Warnock and an Aitken, the level of trust in society generally must diminish. The Warnock must either withdraw from the group or retaliate in kind. Either way, the norm for the group will become worse; and, since most people in the middle follow the norm, a vicious circle is set up.” (Brown, 2nd October 2009, The Guardian Comment is Free)

Questions to consider:
1. How convincing do you find Brown’s argument?
2. Can you think of any opposing arguments?
3. Is it better, morally speaking, to have people who believe in an objective morality than people who believe morality is subjective?
4. Are there any alternatives to religion as a basis for objective morality?

Conspicuous Signs of Religion

PC Gurmeal Singh, a Sikh Greater Manchester policemen, has been awarded £10,000 compensation by an industrial tribunal for being required to remove his turban while on a riot training course. The tribunal found the police force guilty of indirect racial and religious discrimination and harassment when a trainer said “Can you not take that thing off… this is what you signed up for,” The Guardian reported.


In the UK, the law permits Sikhs to wear turbans on motorbikes and they are excused from standard police helmets. In France the situation is very different. In 2004 France prohibited the wearing of conspicuous signs of religion at school and children are not allowed to wear them. Sikhs must also remove their turbans for passport photos. In Belgium schools have banned the Muslim headscarf and Sikhs are worried the rule will apply to them.

The universal declaration of human rights states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” (Article 18)

European countries apply this right in quite different ways when it comes to conspicuous signs of religion.

Religion and Gender: Religion and Women

Religions really don’t seem to do very well when it comes to women and equality. Equality is usually understood to mean both equality of value and equality of opportunity. So we say that a human boy is of the same value as a human girl. Gender does not make one greater or lesser. In modern thinking, the belief that we all share an equal human value should lead to everyone having the same opportunities, especially when it comes to questions of power and authority.

An astonishingly brief history of gender

Of course in “past times” men were in charge, women had few rights, little legal recognition and tended to be seen largely as property to be passed from father to husband to son. Men dominated positions of public authority while women might be given authority over the home. Usually this idea was bound up with their role as mother and came laden with expectations of production of heirs (most importantly boys of course). Of course women were lifted up to positions of great importance in these contexts (defined by their reproductive capacity) and there is no doubt that the role of the ‘mother’ is highly valued in all religious traditions. So women were given a ‘not equal but extra special’ status (in fact this argument is still common today). In the past, women had less access to, or status in political decision-making or legal processes and society at large – this much is difficult to deny.

religion and women

So when religions suggest that women are equal but different and special, and this then is used to justify limiting their ability to be priests, bishops, popes, imams, rabbis, lamas, etc. (there are exceptions in some denominations but this is largely the case) we might ask a few questions of religion. This sounds as if religion has not moved on with the rest of society. Is it acceptable to move from ‘equal but different’ to ‘equal but cannot be in charge’? We can accuse religion of seeming to be adrift from the values of society, but should it? Religions may consider themselves to be counterpoints to commonly accepted values. They may seek to challenge accepted ideas which have come about in this world, with reference to another contact point such as God.

Then there are some dubious specific religious practices which religions have to work very hard to explain away. For instance we might ask Buddhism why a woman should be first reincarnated as a man, before reaching enlightenment? (this is a widely held belief). We might ask why so many Churches do not allow women to hold positions of authority. We might ask why Muslim women seem to have so many special rules for which there are no male equivalents, such as dress codes.

Religions can respond to these sorts of problems in one of three ways:

1) Yes it is true, women are not as valued as men (on the whole this argument is not used!)

2) The practice is misunderstood, needs to be seen in context, and in fact there are other teachings which show how important women are and balance out the fact that these practices seem a bit unequal. This is common among more conservative wings of traditions who want to stay true to the traditional interpretation of the teaching. So, for instance, Christians may argue that the New Testament presents a revolutionary idea of the role of women, has women at the centre of some of the most powerful stories (for instance the Nativity, the woman at the well, the empty tomb). St Paul may have suggested women should not speak up during services, but he also said that we are all united in Christ.

3) These practices are wrong, are inherited from times past, social or cultural practices, which are not part of the received truth of the religion and can be dropped. This tends to be the case in liberal wings of religions. For instance, Tariq Ramadan argues that many of the restrictions placed on women in Muslim societies are cultural but directly contrary to Islamic teaching. For instance, he argues that women should have as much access to education as men, should have as much of a right to go to work as men and that this is clearly Islamic.

Assuming that we can discard ‘1’ when considering ‘2’ and ‘3’ we have to look at the repercussions for religious authority in doctrine and dogma.

Conservative approaches to religion are going to find it more difficult to change because they tend to place a great deal of importance on the teachings and practices of religion as they have been. On the other hand liberal interpretations which adapt religious teaching and practices for modern times appear to rewrite sacred truths. Obedience to authority is important and truth is important – these are values which should not be pushed to one side.

Liberals find it easier to adapt to modern values and reinterpret sacred texts and traditions, or discover truths previously hidden. Some religious groups allow for women leaders (priests or rabbis for instance). However, as one Evangelical Christian friend once said to me – once you start down that path, how do you decide which doctrine you can change and which you can’t? Are they all up for grabs, in which case, is your religion just a reflection of the current age, rather than a reflection of some ultimate truth?

The website Religious Tolerance has some useful articles on this topic. The site strives to be representative of different perspectives within different religious traditions.

For perspectives on the role of women in society see:

For the question of the role of women in positions of leadership in religion see:

It also has a news feed on women’s issues:

The Right to Die

The Times, May 10th 2006, reported a survey which showed that three quarters of the medical profession opposed a change in the laws affecting euthanasia, even for the small number of patients who are terminally ill and in considerable suffering. Among doctors who specialise in giving palliative care, care designed to relieve suffering, 9 out of 10 are opposed to the proposed change that the UK Government is making. The Government wants to give the right for someone who is terminally ill and in considerable distress to ask for and be given a lethal injection. British citizens who want physician assisted suicide must travel to countries such as Switzerland, without the assistance of a friend or a doctor in this country as such helpers could be prosecuted.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Conner of the Roman Catholic Church for England and Wales, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams and the Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, wrote a joint letter to The Times expressing their concern about the proposal. In this letter and in public broadcasts they argued that physician assisted suicide is not simply a matter of personal autonomy because it has implications for others. The law should not be determined by a few extreme cases as it influences culture and social attitudes that affect the many, not just the few extreme examples. Many disability groups have also been opposed to the change. Supporters of the Bill have argued that it gives people the possibility to die with dignity and argue that the extreme suffering of the few should not be ignored because of some greater common good.

This debate crystallises an important difference in the idea of dignity. Those arguing in favour of assisted suicide build their case on the idea that freedom is right at the heart of dignity. Our right to choose is the key consideration in what makes us human. Church groups and others have a different perspective on dignity. Dignity for them is related to the wider community in which the individual is situated and the rights that an individual has, has corresponding duties for others which also bare on dignity. For many Christians, human dignity comes from the fact that humans are created by God with a specific purpose. Autonomy is important, but it is not the core determining feature of dignity. This can be expressed in a more secular way if, at the humanitarian, core, there is something sacred by virtue to the fundamental nature of what it means to be human, apart from free action.
Human rights are based on the dignity of human beings (see the Universal declaration of human rights) but where people have different views on what dignity itself is based on, differences emerge in how human rights are applied. The right to die illustrates this ambiguity.

Human-Animal Embryo

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority ( has the responsibility for regulating treatment and research for initiatives related to human reproduction. They are a committee of medical specialists, interested members of the public and others with specific concerns and experience of the field. They issued a statement on the 5th September, 2007 ( about the question of the licensing of human-animal hybrids and chimera research. This is a sensitive area, a taboo for some, and so they undertook a public consultation. They have concluded that:

“there is no fundamental reason to prevent cytoplasm hybrid research. However, public opinion is very finely divided with people generally opposed to this research unless it is tightly regulated and it is likely to lead to scientific or medical advancements.”

They go on:

“This is not a total green light for cytoplasmic hybrid research, but recognition that this area of research can, with caution and careful scrutiny, be permitted. Individual research teams should be able to undertake research projects involving the creation of cytoplasmic hybrid embryos if they can demonstrate, to the satisfaction of an HFEA licence committee, that their planned research project is both necessary and desirable.”

While the Authority has not made any decision on broader hybrid and chimera research because evidence of benefit is lacking, this is the first step along a possible line of medical developments. The moral question can be phrased in different ways.

Is there something about the human embryo which means it is not a quantity of material to be used for other purposes but of unique worth? Is a potential unique human person more than some flesh to be used to advance science? That argument has already been lost in as much as embryo research already takes place. But more is implied here.

Is there something about combining animal and human embryos which undermines human dignity? Theologians and philosophers frequently make reference to the fact that humans are distinct from other creatures of the animal world. For instance they have capacity for rational thought and moral decision making, and are separate and uniquely special because of this. Does the use of human ’embryonic material’ with animal diminish the dignity and status of humanity? On the other hand, are we just reacting to a ‘yuk’ factor of the idea of mixing human and animal? Of course these embryos will never be placed in the womb, but what could come next?

There is of course the tantalising possibility of fantastic benefits in the alleviation of terrible suffering brought about through the use of human and animal embryos in this way. Is medical advance more important than concerns about ideas of dignity or sanctity? Who decides when to allow changes in law to permit new procedures? What is the role of religion in that consultation process? To what extent should the experts represent the medical community, political groups or special interest groups such as religions?

Doctors and scientists may argue that the potential benefits for the good of humankind far outweigh misplaced taboo beliefs, while religions will be extremely nervous to let go of the normative and deontological beliefs about human life.

Animal Experimentation

In recent years there have been a series of direct action campaigns by animal rights activists aimed at intimidating investors and backers of pharmaceutical companies involved in developing medicines requiring animal testing. Farms involved in breeding animals for experimentation, share holders and universities seeking to develop facilities in conjunction with companies have all been the target of different sorts of demonstration and in some cases intimidation.

Ethically there are a number of factors at play. There is the question of the law, which allows these experiments to take place. There is the question of the beliefs of activists which are powerfully at odds with the law. There is the benefit of developing medicines which help to alleviate suffering. This aspect is much debated by activists who claim, against established scientific wisdom, that experimentation is not necessary or safe. There is the status of animals and human responsibility towards them, and there are the actions themselves, the experiments and tests. This issue involves justice, belief, ends, means and the nature of animal life. Let us briefly consider the challenges each element of the moral dilemma presents.

Animal testing and experimentation is legal under certain circumstances and is required by law in the production of medicines. However, being permitted by law does not make something moral. Aquinas wrote that an unjust law is no law at all. This is not a justification to overrule laws we disagree with, even if we have strong beliefs that the law is wrong. To act on our beliefs is a sign of integrity, but to use those beliefs to act against the law is a step further in a liberal democracy. In liberal democracy people are involved in the selection of legislators by a majority process and an independent judiciary assures the fair application of those laws. If our beliefs  lead us to oppose a law, the civic response is to generate political support for a change, not take law into our own hands. Most people with strong views on animal rights stay within the law though they may use quite uncomfortable methods to make their point. Part of a free democracy is living with people who will sometimes demonstrate against the things we think are lawful. However, breaking the law, threatening and causing anxiety cannot be justified in a liberal democracy because it represents the exercise of power over the will of others, rather than the exercise of reason and persuasion.

It is difficult for non scientists to understand or argue convincingly against the case for the necessity of animal testing and its usefulness in science. But it is difficult to argue against the development of drugs which save lives and alleviate suffering. Animal life is sacrificed for the benefit of human life. It is commonly felt that the end (the alleviation of human suffering) is justified by the means (the sacrifice of animals). If your house was on fire and you had to choose between saving your pet or your baby brother, you would not hesitate. That is the fundamental difference in the value we place on human life. Of course many would find it difficult to stomach the reality of the sorts of things that are actually done to animals, but the argument from squeamishness is always weak. There are many necessary unpleasant things that take place in life and it is only our sheltered modern existence which distances us from some of the brutal aspects of life.

Ultimately, it must be through the democratic process that laws are changed and the moral view of the nation expressed. There will always be areas where someone’s individual beliefs fall outside the majority view and sometimes that will affect things of great importance, even human life, as in the dilemmas surrounding abortion and euthanasia. Even in these cases it cannot be right to abandon the democratic process and adopt violence, fear and anxiety as tools for establishing right.

God Goes Green

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, was established in 1988 to assess information relevant to the understanding of climate change. They survey research, scientific and economic data to make projections on what is likely to happen. They recently produced a report and it is damning. It would appear that James Lovelock was right. We are in trouble. Human activity is causing Global climate change. Temperatures will probably rise by between 1.8 and 40°C by the end of the century, sea levels by up to 43cm and heat waves will increase in number. There will be more intense tropical storms. The situation is bad.

Politicians seem unable, or unwilling, to show leadership to make unpopular changes. The recent protest against the introduction of road pricing with almost 2 million people signing a petition illustrates the difficult political situation for democracies. If the people living now are unwilling to suffer then the future generations will suffer much more. Any government taking action might be voted out. Politicians and the public seem to be unable to do the moral thing and put the interests of the future ahead of those of the present. Short-termist moral thinking is threatening the planet.

However religions are not democratic. They do not need to worry about the votes. They have a position of authority that transcends the popular. They are in a position of moral leadership and could act and yet, according to Mark Dowd in recent articles (, they are not. The world’s major religions have said almost nothing about our duty to protect Earth and the life that depends on it.

Some Christians understand the biblical creation story as giving them dominion over the world, which means a duty to exploit it as much as possible. Few Muslims espouse green ideas. The Catholic Church is not responding. The Vatican, according to Dowd, is studying the problem, using low energy bulbs but sending officials thousands of miles around the world by air. While Hinduism teaches that the divine spirit is present in every molecule many Hindus are fatalistic and interpret disasters as nature’s way of keeping the population under control and in balance with other life on earth.

There are individual believers who want a change in the tone of the voice from the leadership. Mark Dowd interviewed Father Sean McDonagh, a Columban father who is desperate for leadership from Rome. The Church isn’t like Tony Blair, worried about losing votes because of some backlash over introducing carbon taxes. It must have a prophetic voice and take risks.

Religions might be the only global organizations not under the influence of economic immediate self interest, or the whim of a shallow electorate. Their moral responsibility is, as a result of this position, much greater, and likewise their moral culpability if they fail to act.

There are signs of change. Evangelical Christians in America have moved from a position dominated by “dominion theology” (lord over it and use it) to a split with a growing concern for respecting God’s creation. In America Christians have political strength and have formed the Evangelical Climate Initiative. Climate change is becoming an issue of moral important for Christians in the same way abortion is. Environmental ethics are fast becoming the overriding religious ethic.

Mark Dowd argues that we need a human species wide call to self-limitation. If our politicians won’t lead, then people of faith and faith leaders must step into the vacuum. There is considerably voice over issues of sexual ethics or reproductive ethics. Will religion demonstrate the moral authority to recognize the whole picture?

The Planet is Angry

The planet is sick, and Humanity is to blame – James Lovelock and the Gaia hypothesis
(The revenge of Gaia – Penguin: Allen Lane, London 2006)
Gaia represents the combination of geosphere and biosphere. The biosphere represents the living material of all kinds which exists on the surface of the planet. The geosphere is the non-living material that makes up all the rest of the material on and beneath the surface – the hard material of the planet. James Lovelock uses Gaia as a metaphor for these two spheres and considers them as a single entity, almost alive, building on historic classical associations coming from ancient ideas about the earth as a god, to more geological associations made by James Hutton and T H Huxley in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

It is important to note that Lovelock’s theory does not require a belief that earth is some sort of mystical being. He argues that the only way in which Human beings are likely to pay attention to the ethical obligations thrown up by the bio-geosphere, is by thinking of it in terms of and treating it as if it were such a being. Much ethical debate is either person centred or God centred, so thinking about planet earth in its totality as a quasi god-person is a tool more likely to bring about the kind of moral responses necessary.

The principle message of his latest book is that the earth has reached a tipping point. It is as if humankind was on a boat near the edge of a waterfall and the motor is about to fail. The actions of humankind have degraded the survival system upon which we depend. We need to live sympathetically with our surrounds but we have grown and polluted far beyond the stage which the planet can sustain us and itself and we are reaching a point where catastrophic change is inevitable. That is the grim message of Lovelock’s new book, The revenge of Gaia (Penguin: Allen Lane, London 2006). Lovelock writes as a planetary physician. Gaia’s health is declining and our lives depend upon an improvement in Gaia’s health. Lovelock argues that we need to think about the planet as a person because it is only then that we really appreciate the extent to which our activity harms the planet. Lovelock is critical of two common positions. On the one hand is sustainable development, the idea that we can continue more or less as we are if we change the way we develop and the way in which we develop. Lovelock argues that this does not account for the real fundamental nature of the crises we face and that continuing development is simply not possible. Sustainable development might have been an option a century or two back but not now – managed, sustained retreat is more realistic. On the other hand there is the view that global warming claims are a fiction and that morality should be focussed on people not the environment. Traditionally Christian ethics has been focussed on people, rather than the natural world, and this remains prominent in some Christian thinking though there has been a considerable shift in recent years.

Humanity has become so obsessed with the idea of progress and betterment of society that it rarely looks beyond human beings to consider anything else. The love affair with the city must end and the love affair with nature must be rekindled. While there are one or two sceptics, the vast majority of all scientists are now convinced. There is virtual unanimity. The extent of change required will demand a massive investment. Windfarms and using clean forms of transport are only tinkering at the edges. The degree of change is far more fundamental and will require going nuclear, at least temporarily, while other methods of a controlled reduction in our rate of development is found.

This makes a powerful claim for the centrality of environmental ethics as the centre of all ethics, if not the only ethic that really matters; it is the totality of all ethics. If Gaia is not allowed to recover, and sustain the human civilisation, there may be no more ethics of any kind because human civilisation as we know it may no longer exist. It is as if any ethical system or issue which does not account for Gaia is no ethical system at all.

This environmental ethic then situates itself on a scientific and historic premise. The human species is dependent on planet earth. Unchecked, humanity will bring about events which will lead to the diminishment or destruction of human civilization, if not the species itself. The Gaia ethic is the ultimate ethical trump card that displaces all other considerations. The possibility of goodness and rightness cannot exist without sentient moral creatures. The revenge of Gaia and the destruction of a habitat that humanity can survive in, destroys those moral creatures, excepting the possibility of intelligent moral life elsewhere within or beyond the confines of our universe, and excepting the possible existence of angels or human beings beyond this world.

Of course some religions may interpret the cataclysmic disaster as punishment for the unrighteous, a second flood to wipe the slate clean, or a method of allowing only a select few to survive. There are possible religious ethics which can offer an alternative priority list. However non-religious ethical systems or values systems will not have this option and mainstream religions seem to be tending towards embracing the environmental ethic, rather than rejecting it. In Roman Catholic Christianity, for example, there has been the development of a notion of the value of creation in its own right because of its sacred status as made by God, rather than the more traditional notion of humanity having dominion over all. There is also a backlash in the American evangelical association with a fast growing group among the leadership of the Evangelical Churches being influenced by the notion that the destruction of the environment directly harms the young and the generations to come so conflicts with the ethic of love of others.