STATEMENT ON RELIGION AS A FOUNDATION FOR ETHICS
Some students enrolled in the course in past years have expressed dissatisfaction with the secular tone of the course material and format. They have interpreted this as a rejection of their own religious views, according to which religious teaching is the only sound basis for ethical wisdom. In extreme cases they have felt that their religiously-grounded ethical opinions were not welcome in the group discussion and were ridiculed either by faculty preceptors or by their fellow students.
This statement is an attempt to help all students see how religious views on ethics may best be handled in the course, and particularly to help students with particular sorts of strong religious commitments reconcile those commitments with active participation in a secularly-based ethics course.
The statement assumes two models of ethical reasoning:
Absolute Model. According to this model, ethics must be based in absolute truth, not mere human opinion. The source of absolute truth is the word of God as revealed through one's religion.
Pluralist Model. According to this model, either there is no absolute truth about ethics, or else we imperfect humans can have no confidence that we know what it is. Instead we find that different religious and secular views on ethics exist in our society. It is a part of the founding principles of our society that we should respect the rights of others to hold their own views. Ethical wisdom in this model is based on the rational discussion of all points of view on an issue, and the adoption of that position which seems best supported by logical reasoning.
It is very important to note that the "Absolute Model" describes only one way in which religious faith may underlie and inform one's moral views. Many deeply religious people would have no problem subscribing to the Pluralist Model. However, because it is the Absolute Model which seems to stand in starkest contrast to the way that the Ethics Module is organized, this statement will concentrate on that model.
We can now make several points based on these models.
1. Clearly, the course design and materials are based on the Pluralist Model. This is in keeping with the role of a public university, since in the U.S., one is required to respect religious differences of opinion. Basing the course on an Absolute Model would amount to declaring that one particular religion is to be taught as the state-approved creed, since we could not effectively teach the model without supplying some version of what the absolute moral truth consists of. That in turn would amount to using state power to try to impose one religious view upon others against their will.
2. Also, clearly, it cannot be taught in this course that the Absolute Model is wrong or evil; for that would be a fundamental violation of the duty to tolerate diverse religious viewpoints. If a student feels that he or she is being ridiculed or rejected for adhering to an Absolute Model, the student should forthrightly challenge that in the group discussion. (It is critical to note here that holding to an Absolute Model for oneself is not the same as using an Absolute Model as justification for imposing one's own ethical or religious views on others. All students should distinguish carefully between statements such as, "I would like to explain my own moral position on this case, which is derived from my religious faith and religious teaching," from statements such as, "I know that my view is right and your view must be wrong, without offering any reasoned arguments, because my view comes from my religious teaching." The second statement conveys disrespect for others' opposing views; the first does not.
3. There are two reasons why one may applaud the fact that this course is based on the Pluralist Model. If one believes that the pluralist model is the "truth" about the foundations of ethics (or maybe the lack of foundations), then it's obvious why one should adhere to that model. However, one may also believe that the Absolute Model is true, but that one cannot reasonably, in a pluralist society such as we happen to live in today, conduct all of our ethical discussions and decision-making according to an Absolute Model. (This may be attributed to human error and fallibility; perhaps in the future the truth of the one correct revealed religion will finally dawn on all people; but that is not the time in which we live.) Even those who hold the Absolute Model realize what sort of world they have to live in. You cannot be sure that your patients, or your physician and nurse colleagues in the local hospital or clinic, will all share your religious convictions. Learning how to engage with them in reasonable, mutually respectful ethical dialogue is a valuable skill. The student could be very glad that this course teaches that skill, which could only be accomplished by using a Pluralist Model; even though the student individually adheres to an Absolute Model.
4. Students who believe in an Absolute Model and a Pluralist Model may still have one thing in common-- they can in some ways learn much more from ethical discussions with those who disagree with them, than from discussions only with like-minded people. When you try to convince or explain your position to a person who disagrees, you are forced to become much more clear and precise about just what your moral position is. Even if your opponents never convince you that you were wrong in your moral beliefs (and which of us does not have at least one or two possibly erroneous beliefs?), you can still learn a lot from your opponent.
That's another argument for organizing the course around a Pluralist Model. Ideally understood, the Pluralist Model does not merely tolerate opposing religious and moral views. The Model should be seen as actively encouraging the expression and investigation of
differing moral views, because differences in viewpoint are a source of ethical wisdom for all sides.
The student who adheres to an Absolute Model may feel threatened by this approach, if he or she makes the mistake of thinking that encouraging the exchange of differing views means that one is obligated to respect all the views that are put forth, or that no view is any more or less correct or valuable than any other. But a Pluralist Model is not saying either of these things. You may learn from opposing views even while feeling strongly that your own view is superior, and that there are good reasons why your view is superior.
5. A practical problem in course discussions seems to have been mutual assumptions of disrespect. Students who adhere by preference to a Pluralist Model may assume that anyone arguing from an Absolute Model is trying to "force their religious views down my throat" and hence don't respect others' moral views. The students who try to appeal to an Absolute Model in class discussion, only to be rejected or ridiculed by other students, feel that they are being treated disrespectfully. Obviously, no real dialogue will occur until we establish a tone of mutual respect. Both sides can contribute to this.
Students who base their views upon an absolute position should be aware that some in our society who argue from that stance do intend disrespect for others' moral views and do intend to try to convert others to their own religion. The students can therefore try to help other students understand that this is not what they intend to do. Students can demonstrate this by carefully stating their moral framework and making clear that it is being offered as a contribution to the discussion, not as a "trump card" designed to end the discussion. Also, it helps to cultivate a real curiosity about other students' moral frameworks. After all, there are many issues about which religious and secular ethics seem to come to the same conclusion, even if they start from different premises.
Students who prefer a pluralist approach, before condemning or rejecting a religious-absolutist opinion, might ask just what you are asking of your fellow students who have deep religious commitments. Are you asking that they park those beliefs outside the door as they come to class? Are you asking them to misrepresent their own views by talking only in a secular ethical language, when the true origins of their moral opinions are elsewhere? Also, these students might develop a greater curiosity about religious bases for ethics. There is usually great wisdom and experience contained in religious teachings that have persisted for centuries or for millennia.
Conclusions. These thoughts suggest some guidelines for being a "good citizen" in the ethics module:
1. Consider differences in moral positions and basic moral commitments not merely as something to be tolerated, but as a positive source of wisdom for all.
2. Distinguish carefully between an appeal to moral authority as a means of imposing one's views on others, and an appeal to moral authority as an honest report of the origins of one's own moral thoughts.
3. Show respect for others through a commitment to offer good reasons in defense of one's own moral positions. (This includes the need to offer reasons in defense of moral pluralism, when that view is challenged by religious absolutist positions; moral pluralism cannot assume it is a privileged moral view that need offer no defense of itself.) Respect likewise requires that one listen respectfully to the reasons offered by others with different views; though listening respectfully does not require that one end up agreeing with or endorsing those views.