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Can Morality Be Objective without God?

8. Impartiality in Ethics and Religion

I want to talk now about this idea of 'impartiality' as it has appeared throughout the history of moral philosophy and religious conceptions of justice. This is not a new idea. There is a strong philosophical tradition in incorporating this notion of impartiality as essential to the nature of ethics. Here are five prominent examples:

Book cover: A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume
  1. David Hume's (1711–76) Ideal Observer — For Hume, when we make moral judgments, we are trying to stand in the shoes of a dispassionate observer, without regard for self and our particular social group. Even though our judgments are fundamentally based on sentiment (that is, personal feelings), they are formulated from what he called a 'general' point of view.
    [David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature: book III, part III, §I; Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals: 228f]
    Henry Sidgwick, writing some 100 years later, called this the 'point of view of the universe'.
  2. Immanuel Kant's (1724–1804) Categorical Imperative — Kant tried to capture this idea of universality in his categorical imperative. This was his notion that a moral rule necessarily must be such that it is willed for all; that it be universally applied.
    [Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals]
  3. Richard Hare's (1919–2002) Prescriptivism — Hare built into his theory of universal Prescriptivism the idea that moral judgments are prescriptions that we want to apply to everyone.
    [Richard Hare, The Language of Morals]
  4. Henry Sidgwick's (1838–1900) Utilitarianism — Sidgwick and other prominent Utilitarians, such as and John Stuart Milll (1806–73), encapsulated moral objectivity with their 'principle of impartiality'. This famous principle is translated as the requirement for the equal consideration of all interests.
    [Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics; John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism]
  5. John Rawls' (1921–2002) Social Contract — Refining the work of earlier social constructivists, such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rawls put the requirement for 'impartiality' at the centre of his view of the social contract. For Rawls, our moral norms are rules agreed upon by actors communicating behind a veil of ignorance about one's wealth, gender, nationality, etc.
    [John Rawls, A Theory of Justice]

In addition to the significance and influence of these five giants in moral philosophy, a case can also be made for the pre-eminence of this concept of impartiality in the thinking of the founders of the major religions of the world.

In many religions, God is seen as the impartial judge. Consider, for example, the three Abrahamic religions:

  1. Judaism (Ezek 18:30): 'Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,' declares the Lord GOD.
  2. Christianity (2 Cor 5:10): For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive his due for the things done in the body, whether good or bad.
  3. Islam (Quran 2:281): And be conscious of the Day on which you shall be brought back unto God, whereupon every human being shall be repaid in full for what he has earned, and none shall be wronged.

Note how in these three religions, dispensing justice is about the nature of the deeds done, untainted by consideration of the judged person's particulars (e.g., gender, heritage, ethnic origin, position in society).

The Golden Rule is another excellent example of how this requirement for impartiality is embedded into our most central moral maxims. 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' is the maxim expressed by all of the major religious and non-religious world views when they are at their noblest. Going back to the most ancient of civilizations, we can find it in:

Book cover: Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science by Sissela Bok
  • Ancient Egypt
  • Ancient India [Mahābhārata Shānti-Parva 167:9]
  • Ancient Greece [Thales, Sextus the Pythagorean, Isocrates]
  • Hinduism [Brihaspati, Mahabharata (Anusasana Parva, Section CXIII, Verse 8)]
  • Taoism [T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien] and
  • Confucianism [Analects XV.24]

We can also find it expressed in:

  • Buddhism [Udanavarga 5:18]
  • Bahá'í [Bahá'u'lláh]
  • Judaism [Shabbath folio:31a, Babylonian Talmud]
  • Christianity [Matthew 7:12] and
  • Islam [Kitab al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 146]

[See Wikipedia entry on 'Golden Rule']

Note how the maxim makes no reference to God and is intuitively compelling as a way of acting for people of widely varying cultures and times. If you are going to expect others to consider your interests, then treat them with the same consideration. How can you expect any different? In dealing with others, your interests do not count for any more or less just because of who you are. This is the principle of impartiality that is at the core of what it means to act ethically.

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