Religious and Secular Ethics

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 4: Moral and Political Secularism

Religious and Secular Ethics

British philosopher Patrick Horace Nowell-Smith (1915–2006) is well known as the writer of a hugely successful introduction to ethics, published in 1954, in which he tried to analyze the central concepts of ethics and morality in a succinct and neutral manner.[187] This was all in harmony with the ideals of logical positivism, so much in vogue at that time.[188] As the writer of his obituary rightly remarks, Nowell-Smith will probably be remembered for this successful book on ethics that sold more than 100,000 copies. Nevertheless Nowell-Smith has another claim to fame which derives from the fact that in 1961 he wrote a crystal-clear and thought-provoking essay in The Rationalist Annual in which he sharply distinguished religious ethics from secular ethics.[189] In 1967 he elaborated on this distinction in his entry Religion and Morality for Paul Edwards’ The Dictionary of Philosophy.[190]

For our project Nowell-Smith is important because he explicitly connects the ideals of moral autonomy as expounded and defended in the work of Piaget and Kohlberg (discussed in the two previous sections of this chapter) and divine command ethics.

Nowell-Smith, never afraid to confront his readers, formulated the aim of his article in The Rationalist Annual as to demonstrate “that religious morality is infantile.”[191] He was well aware that most readers would find this statement absurd (who would agree that Aquinas never grew up?). Such a claim is “surely to put oneself out of court as a philosopher to be taken seriously.”[192] Nevertheless, so Nowell-Smith tells us, his thesis should not be taken as so radical. What he wants to show is that in the moralities of adult Christians, there are elements which can be set apart from the rest and which can be called “religious” and “infantile” at the same time.

Nowell-Smith makes clear that he does not oppose the content of Christian ethics (love, sympathy, loyalty), but the form or structure. Although he does not use those terms it might be enlightening to say that Nowell-Smith does not reject Christian “ethics” but Christian “metaethics.” Christian metaethics, although false, was hugely successful, Nowell-Smith claims. That appears from the fact that if you tell people that you have moral views but no religious convictions they ask you: “Where do you get your moral ideas from?”[193] The answer “From my father and my mother” usually does not satisfy the person asking that question. But that is strange. In fact, this is a pretty convincing answer as to the source of our moral ideas. Why are people not convinced by this “boring autobiographical answer,” Nowell-Smith asks us? It is because people in fact do not want to hear where our moral ideas come from, but on whose authority they are held. “He did not want to know from whom I learnt my moral views; he wanted to know what authority I have for holding them.”[194] Your parents may have a right to obedience from their children, but this right is always limited. Parents do not have the right “to make the moral law.” The whole idea of morality that is binding on the basis of being commanded is false, from the perspective that Nowell-Smith tries to argue for.

Morality, on this view, is an affair of being commanded to behave in certain ways by some person who has a right to issue such commands; and, once this premise is granted, it is said with some reason that only God has such a right. Morality must be based on religion, and a morality not so based, or one based on the wrong religion, lacks all validity.[195]

From there the whole standard repertoire of – to my mind successful – arguments against divine command ethics follows, and here Nowell-Smith reiterates what also has been stated by other authors, like Kai Nielsen (1926– )[196] and James Rachels (1941–2003).[197] We must be persuaded independently of his (God’s) goodness before we admit his right to command, Nowell-Smith argues against divine command moralists.[198] This affects the theistic concept of God, of course, because it challenges the idea that omnipotence, omniscience and perfect goodness are all in harmony with each other.

Nowell-Smith distinguishes himself from other critics of divine command ethics, though, by some bold generalizations he makes with regard to the spiritual sources of European culture. He contrasts the Greek tradition with the Jewish-Christian tradition, equating the first, roughly, with autonomous and teleological ethics and the second with heteronomous and deontological morality.

According to the teleological morality moral rules are considered to be subordinate to ends. They are rules for achieving ends and consequently to promote those ends. The deontological system is different. Here moral rules are thought of as absolute; as categorical imperatives in no way depending for their validity on the good or the bad consequences of obedience. Moral goodness is thought to lie in conformity to these rules for their own sake.[199]

The teleological tradition goes back to the Greeks; the deontological tradition goes back to Jewish sources. So there is a “Greek view of morality” and a “Jewish view of morality.”[200] In the Greek tradition morality is regarded as a set of recipes to be followed for the achievement of ends (teleological). In the Jewish (and subsequent Christian) tradition morality is seen as a set of commands to be obeyed (deontological).[201]

Besides the teleologic/deontologic distinction there is the distinction between autonomous and heteronomous ethics. Again the dividing line is that of the Greek tradition and the Jewish-Christian tradition. The Greek tradition is autonomous; the Jewish-Christian tradition heteronomous. Nowell-Smith ends with a clear-cut distinction between two traditions of thought within metaethics: the Greek tradition with its teleological and autonomous direction and the Jewish-Christian tradition with its deontological and heteronomous leaning. Obviously, he himself defends the Greek tradition against the Jewish-Christian one.[202]

Another characteristic of Nowell-Smith’s bold edifice of moral thought is the way he incorporates the psychology of Jean Piaget in his system. As Kohlberg had done, Nowell-Smith interprets the ideas of “heteronomous” and “autonomous” ethics not only in philosophical terms, but in psychological terms as well. Here he establishes a relationship with the ideas on the development of the child expounded by Piaget.

Piaget distinguished three stages in the development of the child. He made a study of the attitudes of children of different ages to the game of marbles. A very small child (first phase) handles the marbles and throws them about as his humor takes him. Although the child is playing he is not “playing a game” in the sense of being subjected to certain rules. Later on the child learns how to obey rules.

The second type of attitude is exhibited by children from five to nine. Here the child plays according to rules, but these rules are more or less sacrosanct. Rules are supposed to have emanated from adults and they are regarded as inviolable. Piaget calls this attitude “heteronomous,” because the child sees them as imposed from the outside and not allowing for any transgressions or alteration. This is similar to deontology in metaethics, Nowell-Smith contends. The child in this phase does not ask what the rule is for. Rules are considered to be absolute commands, in the way that people regarded legal and religious rules in primitive society.[203]

It is only in the third stage that the child begins to learn what the rules are for. Now the child also learns to critically evaluate the rules. This type of attitude is called “autonomous” by Piaget and this same attitude conforms to what Nowell-Smith had dubbed “teleological.”

The conclusion is clear: religious ethics is similar to the attitude of the child between 5 and 9 years old. It is far too concerned with rules that are experienced as sacrosanct, as deontological commands coming from above, instead of with rules as a product that should be justified and amended if necessary.

Sometimes Nowell-Smith formulates the central core of his ideas somewhat more cautiously, for example, in the words: “the religious attitude retains these characteristics of deontology, heteronomy and realism which are indeed necessary in the development of a child, but not proper to an adult.”[204] For Christians the fundamental sin, the fount and origin of all sin, is disobedience to God: “Not as I will, but as thou wilt.” What marks the essence of Christian morality is the total surrender of the will that is required. And here Nowell-Smith refers to the story of Abraham.

Abraham must be prepared to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command, and I take this to mean that we must be prepared to sacrifice our most deeply felt moral concerns if God should require us to do so.[205]

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[187] Nowell-Smith, Patrick, Ethics, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1954.

[188] Redford, Colin, “Patrick Nowell-Smith,” Obituary, The Guardian, February 22, 2006. See on logical positivism: Kolakowski, Leszek, Positivist Philosophy: From Hume to the Vienna Circle, translated by Norbert Guterman, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1972 (1968).

[189] It is widely anthologized. I quote from: Nowell-Smith, Patrick, “Morality: Religious and Secular,” The Rationalist Annual, 1961, also in: Eleonore Stump and Michael J. Murray, eds., Philosophy of Religion, pp. 403–412.

[190] Nowell-Smith, Patrick, “Religion and Morality,” in: Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. VII, Macmillan and The Free Press, New York 1967, pp. 150–158.

[191] Nowell-Smith, “Morality: Religious and Secular,” p. 403.

[192] Ibid.

[193] Ibid.

[194] Ibid.

[195] Ibid., p. 404.

[196] Nielsen, Kai, “Some Remarks on the Independence of Morality from Religion,” Mind, New Series, 70, no. 278 1961, pp. 175–186; Nielsen, Kai, “Morality and God: Some Questions for Mr. MacIntyre,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 12, no. 47 1962, pp. 129–137; Nielsen, Kai, “On Being a Secularist All the Way Down,” Philo, 1, no. 2 1998, pp. 6–21.

[197] Rachels, James, “God and Human Attitudes,” Religious Studies, 7 1971, pp. 325–37, also in: James Rachels, Can Ethics provide Answers. And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham 1997, pp. 109–125.

[198] Nowell-Smith, “Morality: Religious and Secular,” p. 404.

[199] Ibid., p. 405.

[200] Ibid.

[201] Ibid. Similar ideas are developed by Richard Taylor in: Taylor, Richard, Good and Evil, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY 1984; Taylor, Richard, Reflective Wisdom: Richard Taylor on Issues That Matter, ed. John Donnelly, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY 1989.

[202] See on this also: Murray, Gilbert, Five Stages of Greek Religion, Watts and Co., London 1935; Murray, Gilbert, Hellenism and the Modern World, George Allen and Unwin, London 1953; Murray, Gilbert, Stoic, Christian and Humanist, C.A. Watts and Co., George Allen and Unwin, London 1946 (1940).

[203] Nowell-Smith, “Morality: Religious and Secular,” p. 406.

[204] Ibid., p. 408.

[205] Ibid.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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