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Ethics in religion

Ethics in religion

Ethics is a branch of philosophy dealing with right and wrong in human behaviour. Although it involves the application of human reason, it is not a science. All religions have a moral component, and religious approaches to the problem of ethics historically dominated ethics over secular approaches. From the point of view of theistic religions, to the extent that ethics stems from revealed truth from divine sources, ethics is studied as a branch of theology.

Table of contents
1 Greek and Roman religious ethics
2 Ethics in the Bible
3 Jewish ethics
4 Ethics in the Apocrypha
5 Christian ethics
6 Hindu ethics
7 Buddhist ethics
8 Chinese traditional ethics
9 Islamic ethics
10 Shinto ethics
11 Animist ethics

Greek and Roman religious ethics

This section will deal with classical Greek and Roman religion, and its relationship with classical Greek and Roman ethics. (Please contribute to this section!)

The classical Greek and Roman notions of ethics heavily influenced the Mediterranean and European world, from ancient times, to the enlightenment, to today.

Ethics in the Bible

Western philosophical works on ethics were written in a culture whose literary and religious ideas were based in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament. As such, there is a connection between the ethics of the Bible and the ethics of the great western philosophers. However, this is not a direct connection; significant differences of opinion in how to interpret and apply passages in the books of the Bible lead to different understandings of ethics.

The subject of Ethics in the Bible has its own entry, containing a detailed study of ethics in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha (deuterocanonicals) and the New Testament.

Jewish ethics

Jewish ethics is based on the fundamental concepts of Judaism, which holds that ethical duties of all mankind can be derived from the Hebrew Bible. The starting point is the belief in the unity and holiness of God, in whose image man was created. This section has its own article, Jewish ethics.

Ethics in the Apocrypha

Ethics in systematic form, and apart from religious belief, is as little found in apocryphal or JudŠo-Hellenistic literature as in the Bible. However, Greek philosophy greatly influenced Alexandrian writers such as the authors of IV Maccabees, the Book of Wisdom, and Philo.

Much progress in theoretical ethics came as Jews came into closer contact with the Hellenic world. Before that period the Wisdom literature shows a tendency to dwell solely on the moral obligations and problems of life as appealing to man as an individual, leaving out of consideration the ceremonial and other laws which concern only the Jewish nation. From this point of view Ben Sira's collection of sayings and monitions was written, translated into Greek, and circulated as a practical guide. The book contains popular ethics in proverbial form as the result of everyday life experience, without higher philosophical or religious principles and ideals.

More developed ethical works emanated from Hasidean circles in the Maccabean time, such as are contained in Tobit, especially in ch. iv.; here the first ethical will or testamentis found, giving a summary of moral teachings, with the Golden Rule, "Do that to no man which thou hatest!" as the leading maxim. There are even more elaborate ethical teachings in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, in which each of the twelve sons of Jacob, in his last words to his children and children's children, reviews his life and gives them moral lessons, either warning them against a certain vice he had been guilty of, so that they may avoid divine punishment, or recommending them to cultivate a certain virtue he had practised during life, so that they may win God's favor. The chief virtues recommended are: love for one's fellow man; industry, especially in agricultural pursuits; simplicity; sobriety; benevolence toward the poor; compassion even for the brute (Issachar, 5; Reuben, 1; Zebulun, 5-8; Dan, 5; Gad, 6; Benjamin, 3), and avoidance of all passion, pride, and hatred. Similar ethical farewell monitions are attributed to Enoch in the Ethiopic Enoch (xciv. et seq.) and the Slavonic Enoch (lviii. et seq.), and to the three patriarchs.

The Hellenistic propaganda literature made the propagation of Jewish ethics taken from the Bible its main object for the sake of winning the pagan world to pure monotheism. It was owing to this endeavor that certain ethical principles were laid down as guiding maxims for the Gentiles; first of all the three capital sins, idolatry, murder, and incest, were prohibited (see Sibyllines, iii. 38, 761; iv. 30 et seq.). In later Jewish rabbinic literature these "Noachide Laws" were gradually developed into six, seven, and ten, or thirty laws of ethics binding upon every human being.

The Mussar Movement is a Jewish ethics movement which developed in the 19th century, and which still exists today.

Christian ethics

Christian ethics developed while early Christians were subjects of the Roman Empire. Christians eventually took over the Empire itself. Saint Augustine adapted Plato, and later, after the Islamic transmission of his works, Aquinas worked Aristotelian philosophy into a Christian framework.

Christian ethics in general has tended to stress grace, mercy, and forgiveness; it stresses doubt in human (as opposed to divine) judgement. It also codified the Seven Deadly Sins. For more see Christian philosophy.

St. Paul teaches (Rom., ii, 24 sq.) that God has written his moral law in the hearts of all men, even of those outside the influence of Christian revelation; this law manifests itself in the conscience of every man and is the norm according to which the whole human race will be judged on the day of reckoning. In consequence of their perverse inclinations, this law had to a great extent become obscured and distorted among the pagans; Christian understand their mission as, to restore it to its pristine integrity.

Ecclesiastical writers, as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine of Hippo all wrote on ethics from a distinctly Christian point of view. Interestingly, they made use of philosophical and ethical principles laid down by their Greek (pagan) philosopher forbears.

The Church fathers had little occasion to treat moral questions from a purely philosophical standpoint, and independently of Christin Revelation; but in the explanation of Catholic doctrine their discussions naturally led to philosophical investigations. This is particularly true of St Augustine, who proceeded to thoroughly develop along philosophical lines and to establish firmly most of the truths of Christian morality.

The eternal law (lex aterna), the original type and source of all temporal laws, the natural law, conscience, the ultimate end of man, the cardinal virtues, sin, marriage, etc. were treated by him in the clearest and most penetrating manner. Hardly a single portion of ethics does he present to us but is enriched with his keen philosophical commentaries. Late ecclesiastical writers followed in his footsteps.

A sharper line of separation between philosophy and theology, and in particular between ethics and moral theology, is first met with in the works of the great Schoolmen of the Middle Ages, especially of Albert the Great (1193-1280), Thomas Aquinas (1225- 1274), Bonaventure(1221-1274), and Duns Scotus (1274-1308). Philosophy and, by means of it, theology reaped abundant fruit from the works of Aristotle, which had until then been a sealed treasure to Western civilization, and had first been elucidated by the detailed and profound commentaries of St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas and pressed into the service of Christian philosophy.

The same is particularly true as regards ethics. St. Thomas, in his commentaries on the political and ethical writings of the Stagirite, in his "Summa contra Gentiles" and his "Quaestiones disputatae, treated with his wonted clearness and penetration nearly the whole range of ethics in a purely philosophical manner, so that even to the present day his words are an inexhaustible source from which ethics draws its supply. On the foundations laid by him the Catholic philosophers and theologians of succeeding ages have continued to build.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, thanks especially to the influence of the co-called Nominalists, a period of stagnation and decline set in, but the sixteenth century is marked by a revival. Ethical questions, also, though largely treated in connection with theology, are again made the subject of careful investigation. We mention as examples the great theologians Victoria, Dominicus Soto, L. Molina, Suarez, Lessius, and De Lugo. Since the sixteenth century special chairs of ethics (moral philosophy) have been erected in many Catholic universities. The larger, purely philosophical works on ethics, however do not appear until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as an example of which we may instance the production of Ign. Schwarz, "Instituitiones juris universalis naturae et gentium" (1743).

Far different from Catholic ethical methods were those adopted for the most part by Protestants. With the rejection of the Church's teaching authority, each individual became on principle his own supreme teacher and arbiter in matters appertaining to faith and morals. The Reformers held fast to the Bible as the infallible source of revelation, but as to what belongs or does not belong to it, whether, and how far, it is inspired, and what is its meaning -- all this was left to the final decision of the individual.

Philipp Melanchthon, in his "Elementa philosophiae moralis", still clung to the Aristotelean philosophy; so, too, did Hugo Grotius, in his work, "De jure belli et pacis". But Cumberland and his follower, Samuel Pufendorf, moreover, assumed, with Descartes, that the ultimate ground for every distinction between good and evil lay in the free determination of God's will, a view which renders the philosophical treatment of ethics fundamentally impossible.

In the 20th century, some Christian philosophers, notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer questioned the value of ethical reasoning in moral philosophy. In this school of thought, ethics, with its focus on distinguishing right from wrong, tends to produce behavior that is simply not wrong, whereas the Christian life should instead be marked by the highest form of right. Rather than ethical reasoning, they stress the importance of meditation on and relationship with God.

Criticism of Christian ethics

In some ways the futility question is illustrated well by this situation: as Catholic philosophers debated and deplored the rape and extermination and enslavement of the peoples of the New World, it continued without limit, especially in South America, often with the participation of the Church. Of course, it very often protected native converts and shielded them from harm, where it could. A particularly harsh critic, Friedrich Nietzsche, called the Christian ethics a "slave ethics" for counselling submission to enslavers, invaders, authority.

Hindu ethics

Hindu ethics are related to Hindu beliefs, such as reincarnation, which is a way of expressing the need for reciprocity, as one may end up in someone else's shoes "in a future life". However Hindu beliefs may help excuse not helping someone in distress, due to both fatalism and the teaching that one deserve's the life one gets. In part to compensate for this, a cardinal virtue in Hindusim is kindness.

More emphasis is placed on empathy than in other traditions, and women are sometimes upheld not only as great moral examples but also as great gurus. An emphasis on domestic life and the joys of the household and village may make Hindu ethics a bit more conservative than others on matters of sex and family.

Ethical traditions in Hinduism have been influenced by caste norms.

In the mid-20th century, Mohandas Gandhi undertook to reform these and emphasize traditions shared in all the Indian faiths:

Buddhist ethics

Gautama Buddha adopted some elements of Hindu practices, notably meditation and (within limits) vegetarianism. Like Aristotle among the Greeks, who emphasized a "Golden Mean" or moderate choice in ethical matters, the Buddha advised moderation in all things, even moderation itself.

The Noble Eightfold Path still serves as the most important guide to Buddhist ethics.

Calm is a cardinal virtue of Buddhism, and is believed to lead to enlightenment.

Criticism of Buddhist Ethics

Buddhism is concerned with reducing attachment in order to sever one's connection with an illusory world. It therefore cannot encourage one to be good (for example), because one would then be attached to goodness.

Instead, they advocate a "middle ground" in which one does enough that there could be no just criticism of one's actions. This is unsatisfying for many westerners.

Chinese traditional ethics

Chinese traditional systems of thought are both varied and mixed, so it's difficult to point to a single, central structure to Chinese ethics. In addition, there is always the question of whether beliefs form behavior, or behavior forms beliefs -- in other words, whether an ethical system is something that people try to follow, or just a description of what they do. However, this being said, it is nonetheless true that there are several basic threads in Chinese traditional ethics.

Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism emphasized the maintenance and propriety of relationships as the most important consideration in ethics. To be ethical is to do what one's relationships require. Notably, though, what you owe to another person is inversely proportional to their distance from you. In other words, you owe your parents everything, but you are not in any way obligated towards strangers. This can be seen as a recognition of the fact that it is impossible to love the entire world equally and simultaneously.

This is called relational ethics, or situational ethics. The Confucian system differs very strongly from Kantian ethics in that there are rarely laws or principles which can be said to be true absolutely or universally.

This is not to say that there has never been any consideration given to universalist ethics. In fact, in Zhou dynasty China, the Confucians' main opponents, the followers of Mozi argued for universal love, jian'ai. The Confucian view eventually held sway, however, and continues to dominate many aspects of Chinese thought. Many have argued, for example, that Mao Zedong was more Confucian than Communist.

Confucianism, especially of the type argued for by Mencius (Mengzi), argued that the ideal ruler is the one who (as Confucius put it) "acts like the North Star, staying in place while the other stars orbit around it." In other words, the ideal ruler does not go out and force the people to become good, but instead leads by example. The ideal ruler fosters harmony rather than laws.

There are many other major threads in Chinese ethics. Buddhism, and specifically Mahayana Buddhism, brought a cohesive metaphysic to Chinese thought and a strong emphasis on universalism. Neo-Confucianism was largely a reaction to Buddhism's dominance in the Tang dynasty, and an attempt at developing a native Confucian metaphysical/analytical system.

Laozi and other Daoist authors argued for an even greater passivity on the part of rulers than did the Confucians. For Laozi, the ideal ruler is one who does virtually nothing that can be directly identified as ruling. Clearly, both Daoism and Confucianism presume that human nature is good. The main branch of Confucianism, however, argues that human nature must be nurtured through ritual (li), culture (wen) and other things, while the Daoists argued that the trappings of society were to be gotten rid of.

The Legalists, such as Hanfeizi, argued that people are not innately good. Laws and punishments are therefore necessary to keep the people good. Actual governing in China has almost always been a mixture of Confucianism and Legalism.

Islamic ethics

Islam is monoetheistic and emphasizes submission to Allah (God). It sees all of natural law, including that revealed by science, as an aspect of that law. Indeed, everything in the universe "is Muslim" but does not necessarily know it. This tradition informed and spurred the development of most, late medieval science in the West.

Muhammad founded a tradition of ethics built on knowledge. Later Muslim thinker developed this with the investigation of alternatives, the "ijtihad". Early Muslim philosophy applied it with decreasing diligence, eventually ossifying into a legal code, the fiqh, that served the purposes of the Ottoman Empire. A five-century gap followed while ethics as such was seen only as blind mimicry, or taqlid, using these traditional schools and categories. The hadith, the sayings of Muhammad, filled a popular role in ordinary ethical disputes, and in the mosque where they were usually resolved by a shaikh ("judge").

The Shia branch of Islam built a hierarchy and rigid ethical codes, while Sunni Islam did not, and relied much more on local figures and traditions. It is critically important in Islam to develop an al-urf, or "custom", to adapt Islam to local conditions, leading to situated ethics.

Also important is neighbourliness and khalifa, or "stewardship" as a land ethic. This tradition continues in modern Islamic philosophy.

Shinto ethics

(To be written.)

Animist ethics

We need someone familiar with animist religions to describe their ethical philosophies here.

See also: Ethics in the Bible