What is ethical behaviour in respect of metaphysics – those untestable beliefs, both religious and scientific, that we must decide upon for ourselves? Does freedom of belief allow for aggressive evangelism? Or is it child abuse for parents to raise children in religious traditions? These questions fall into the realm of the ethics of metaphysics.
We must begin by asserting once again that freedom of belief is the bedrock upon which all other freedoms rest. Religious traditions grant this freedom on account of the necessity of free will (which is God-given in theistic traditions), while secular traditions provide it as a matter of common agreement – as embodied in article 18 and 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As a result, when we talk of ethics of metaphysics, we are considering the ethical consequences of metaphysical choices, but we are not denying people’s freedom to choose their own metaphysics.
Problems arise chiefly when one’s metaphysics result in a denial of this right to other people. This, I contend, is the primary issue in the ethics of metaphysics – and one that requires urgent attention.
Prioritising a Metaphysical Future
One particular problem in the ethics of metaphysics is
easiest to observe in the Abrahamic traditions, particularly Christianity. This
is the tendency to place excessive focus on a future state which is
metaphysical in nature, and thus to overlook the importance of the world around
us. We see this most commonly in certain strains of evangelical Christianity
(most commonly found in the
This is a strange situation for Christians to find
themselves in, as it seems a highly restricted interpretation of Jesus’
teachings. Jesus ministry was focussed on how to make the physical world “a
Much of the modern evangelical Christian viewpoint rests upon matters recorded solely in the Gospel of John (the only gospel with a decisively cosmic, and hence metaphysical, flavour), which offers eternal life to those who believe in Jesus. Absent in the verses that espouse this view are the threats of eternal torment to the unbeliever which have become synonymous with certain strains of evangelical Christianity. In fact, Jesus does not talk much of hell. As Samuel Dawson has observed, the idea of hell in its modern form originates in later Catholic theology, and does not have a sincere basis in the source texts for the Bible at all.
Irrespective of these issues, the fact remains that there are people who have chosen to believe that the threat of eternal damnation is the key message of the Bible, and they are entitled to these beliefs. It becomes problematic when the behaviour of such people towards others becomes so abusive that their ethical behaviour in this world has become inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching of compassion. This includes tactics designed to terrify children not only into maintaining their own faith, but into urgently attempting to convert others. These behaviours cannot be considered ethical by Kant’s yardstick or by any ethical system except the Consequentialist (outcome-focussed) view that “the ends justify the means”, which it is a virtual certainty that Jesus would (or, depending upon your perspective, does) condemn.
The tragedy of modern Christianity is that its public face – the side of Christianity the media most often chooses to portray – are those Christians who seem the most confused about the metaphysics of their own religion, and in doing so frequently behave in an manner ethically inconsistent with their own religion’s teachings. By prioritising the importance of a metaphysical future state over the need to act for the good in the present world, such Christians commit ethical infractions (by the standards of their own values) on behalf of metaphysical justifications. This behaviour is not only unethical, it is distinctly unchristian.
Because our modern society does not prioritise philosophy, a
great volume of valuable discussion on metaphysics and ethics is effectively
lost to common culture. Evangelical Christians could gain a great deal from
study of the great Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, for instance, who
berated the “devilish wisdom” that would seek salvation in single-minded
willing, irrespective of what is being willed. Exploring the idea of
double-mindedness (developed from James 4:8, “purify your hearts, you double-minded”)
he asserts that when one fails to take the moral action because of
subordinating the good to extra-moral goals (i.e. the reward for doing so, or
avoidance of punishment for not doing it) one is double-minded,
precisely what James warns about. Kierkegaard insists we should will one thing,
and that (for Christians, at least) what must be willed is the good, and it
must be willed for its own sake – never for the fear or promise of a
metaphysical future reward or punishment.
It is worth remembering that Christianity is by no means the only belief system to produce problems in respect of a metaphysical future. For instance, the nonreligion (secular ideology) of Marxism has issues in regards to its belief in a metaphysical future – in this case, a communist utopia that is alleged to be the result of the abolition of social classes. It may be less immediately clear that this is metaphysical, but since it holds beliefs about future political consequences (issues which are untestable), it is clearly not an empirical matter. Regardless of the motivating belief system, the same kinds of problem can occur if an individual prioritises their metaphysical future vision over the freedom of the individual.
Behaviours which place a metaphysical future end (or goal) above mutual respect can never be ethical by Kant’s yardstick; we must respect what other people have chosen as their ends, and by asserting the dominance of our belief as to what the future holds we fail to do so. Such behaviour cannot be universalised, since it denies the autonomy of will which Kantian ethics consider foundational – in effect, we are foisting our own metaphysics onto other people, and this is not and cannot be ethical behaviour.
It follows from this that any aggressive form of proselytising is unacceptable behaviour in ethical terms, although peaceful expression and teaching of ones beliefs is acceptable. The desire to convert everyone to the same ideology (whether religion or nonreligion) can only be justified by an appeal to the principle that what is judged the correct end (a solely metaphysical decision) can be pursued by any means necessary.
In fact, any ethical system which allows that “the ends justify the means” in this way falls prey of prioritising a metaphysical future – since this maxim assumes our ability to accurately predict the future consequences of our actions, and the ultimate beneficence of the end in question. This is not a plausible state of affairs. We may be able to estimate some of the consequences of our action, but we cannot see the future with perfect clarity, and to behave as if we can is therefore unethical. An outcome-based ethical system is not wholly untenable, and indeed may occasionally be a necessary resort when other ethical systems are indecisive (consider the Trolley Problem), but we must not use our commitment to a particular cause as justification to overrule the autonomy of others. To do so cannot be considered ethical behaviour.
Confusing Metaphysics and Science
A second problem in the ethics of metaphysics is treating matters of belief as matters of fact – that is, confusing metaphysics and science. The domain of science is the empirical – the testable – and this domain is separate from the domain of religion, which is not in any way empirical. Nonetheless, conflicts between these two types of tradition do occur, with the most famous examples being Creation Scientists, on the one hand, and certain Neo-Darwinist atheists on the other.
While it is certainly a scientific error for Creation
Scientists to use theological beliefs as premises in their scientific
literature, it is also trivially easy for anyone to recognise that the papers
published by such people mistake metaphysics as matters of fact – in this
regard, Creation Scientists do not represent a plausible threat to science as a
tradition since the only people who will take their “research” seriously are
those with the same metaphysical stance. Everyone else is more than capable of
dismissing any such papers on the basis that they are not empirically grounded.
Freedom of speech allows them to have their say, and arguably little harm would
be done if that was where the matter ended.
However, the Intelligent Design furore brings the issue into a political context. It is worth noting that Intelligent Design is not science, but metaphysics, but that this is not an argument for not teaching it in schools – why should we not teach philosophy in schools? If we did, political conflicts such as this one would likely become unnecessary! The issue at task is whether the political pressure to add Intelligent Design to school curricula represents movement by a minority to impose their metaphysics on a majority – if this is the case, then the movement is unethical in Kantian terms.
To understand why Intelligent Design has become such a
sensitive issue it is necessary to look not only at the intrusion of
metaphysics on science, but also at the intrusion of science into metaphysics. It
is arguable that the reason for the Intelligent Design proposal in the first
place is a tendency for certain prominent scientists to behave as if science
could “disprove God” – another absurd metaphysical confusion. Science as a
method can only be agnostic about metaphysical issues, as all that science can
offer in this regard is the assertion that the truth values of such matters are
either unknown or unknowable.
Most attention has been focussed on Richard Dawkins in this context, since he established himself as a lightning rod for the issue by publishing his inflammatory book “The God Delusion”. In this book, Dawkins claims that God is a legitimate area for scientific investigation, and that the conclusion in this regard would be that “God almost certainly does not exist”. The logic behind this conclusion is quite flawed, however; Dawkins demonstrates that Intelligent Design is not science, and then attempts to use this as proof of the invalidity of all notions of God without actually exploring the relevant theology. As Alvin Plantinga shrewdly observes, Dawkins presumes materialism (the idea that only matter exists), and then deduces that God does not exist – circular logic, since the conclusion is inherent in the premise.
Dawkins position becomes unethical in Kantian terms when he
denies the right of parents to raise their children in their own religious
traditions, calling it a form of “mental abuse”, and thus denying mutual
respect. What kind of society would it be if parents did not have the right to
raise their children in their own cultural traditions? This suggests a world in
which the State has the right to interfere in the freedom of belief. In fact,
what Dawkins proposes seems to violate article 18 of the United Nations’
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion.
While this agreement is by no means universally accepted (some Muslim
countries refused to ratify it), it is troubling to find a secularist who
denies certain human rights on the basis of his personal metaphysics.
The great evolutionary essayist Stephen Jay Gould proposed a solution to these “territorial disputes” between science and religion, which he termed Non-Overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA. He contended that science’s proper subject was the empirical, while religion’s proper subject was the ethical, and that these “magisteria” did not overlap.
Dawkins disputes Gould’s suggestion, claiming it is an
attempt to shield religion from criticism and scrutiny, and even going so far
as to suggest that Gould did not believe in his own suggestion! That certain
individuals, such as Creation Scientists and Dawkins, do not respect the distinctions
between religion and science cannot be used as evidence against Gould’s
proposal, however, as the proposal is not a matter of fact, but a suggested
“peace treaty” to put an end to this kind of squabbling.
Gould’s model of Non-Overlapping Magisteria is, however,
fundamentally in error. While it is reasonable to say that the domain of the
empirical is the proper object of science, and that the domain of the ethical
is a proper object of religion, there is still one domain that both science and
religion occupy, namely metaphysics. However, the metaphysics of science is not
science, per se, but merely “thinking outside the box” in the hope to further
science. (Evolutionary theory was, as Popper noted, a metaphysical research
program before it became legitimate science). Conversely, metaphysics of
religion is an intimate domain of religion. It is this conflict that requires
resolving, but since metaphysics are untestable, the only reasonable course of
action is to allow each individual to believe what they like in the domain of
metaphysics. If we do not extend this freedom of belief to everyone, then there
is no freedom of thought and all our other alleged freedoms are empty.
This idea of separating metaphysics from science was proposed by myself as an extention of Popper’s philosophy, and contrasted to the alternative: Feyerbend’s suggestion that there are no lasting boundary conditions to science, and thus that policing science to eject “what is not science” is a fool’s errand. Either solution is acceptable, but one or the other must ultimately stand if this conflict is ever to be resolved.
Realism is Unethical
All of the examples thus advanced have one thing in common.
Whether we are dealing with evangelical Christians abusively enforcing their
metaphysics, or bigoted atheists advocating religious intolerance on the basis
of theirs, all of the belief systems that lead to a violation of the ethics
express a particular form of philosophical realism. ‘Realism’, in this
sense, means that reality is mind-independent; this is generally contrasted
with anti-realism, with individuals taking more-or-less realist or anti-realist
positions with respect of specific issues, such as aesthetics, science and
This is, alas, a complex philosophical issue with troublesome
overloaded terms and hopelessly convoluted debates. Let us therefore define a
new term for clarity – arrogant realism – by which we shall mean
behaving as if one’s own belief system is the only accurate portrayal of
The tendency towards arrogant realism is quite natural, and I will not argue that such a position is disallowed – freedom of belief allows people to hold whatever belief system they choose. But in treating metaphysical issues as objective truths, arrogant realists risk creating situations that breed intolerance and bigotry, which denies mutual respect and is therefore unethical in Kantian terms.
Religious realism, when it falls into arrogant realism,
denies free will by not openly permitting the adoption of alternative
theological or metaphysical models. When one approaches religious metaphysics
with humility, one comes to accept that our religious metaphysics are, at best,
our attempts to grasp in words immensely abstract issues that perhaps are
inherently beyond our capacity as mere humans to fully comprehend. Our
metaphysical models are therefore always imperfect, and there may well be (as
the Sufi believe) inherent truths in all religions – the apparent incompatibility
of different religions being a product of our human imperfections. To put this
in theological terms is to claim that no-one understands the mind of God, and
to behave as if we do is hubris.
Scientific realism, when it falls into arrogant realism, confuses the explanatory and predictive value of scientific theories with descriptions of objective reality, and then proceeds to deny any metaphysical idea incompatible with the particular theories the individual upholds. Because scientific theories by definition describe empirical phenomena, non-empirical concepts are summarily rejected, or constrained to more palatable formulations. The confusion that results comes from mistaking science as something that produces a specific epistemological position (that happens to correspond with one’s own beliefs) and not as a method of investigation. This view has decreasing significance within philosophy of science (instrumentalism and confirmation holism being increasingly more relevant), but alas scientists are not taught philosophy of science, and are frequently ignorant of its implications. Matthew Cromer sums this issue up neatly: science is a method, not a position.
It is overstating the matter to suggest that “realism is
unethical”, but arrogant realism logically leads to bigotry – since to be a
bigot is to be intolerant of differing beliefs and cultures – and it is hard to
see how someone whose own beliefs tend towards arrogant realism can behave
reasonably towards others when they know with certainty their belief system is
The alternative need not be a collapse into relativism or
solipsism, but rather the acknowledgement that humans are biologically incapable
of ascertaining Truth perfectly, and that when it comes to metaphysical
matters, a vast array of different approaches and opinions exist; we have no
reason to presume that our choices in this regard are in any way superior to
other people’s. If we must judge a person’s metaphysics, it should be by the
behaviour of the individual – two Christians are no more likely to share
the same beliefs and behave in the same way as two scientists, and when we
assume otherwise we have succumbed to prejudice.
Ethics of metaphysics must rest upon freedom of belief – not
only must we extend the right for people to choose their own metaphysical
beliefs, but if we wish to be ethical (in Kantian terms, at least) we must not
abuse others by enforcing our beliefs upon them, nor fail to respect their ends
by prioritising our vision of a metaphysical future above their own wishes.
Confusing science and metaphysics seems to lead to further problems. It is unethical for a minority group to enforce their metaphysics on the majority in the teaching of science (if this is indeed the situation with Intelligent Design), and equally unethical to do so in the teaching of religion (as Dawkins seems to demand). As parents, we have the right to raise our children in our own cultural traditions; we do not have the right to enforce our cultural traditions on others against their will.
Arrogant realism – the belief that one’s own nervous system is better tuned to the universe than other people’s – leads to intolerance and bigotry, and it scarcely matters if this realism is of a religious or scientific flavour when the result is grossly unethical behaviour. If we wish to behave ethically in respect of metaphysics, it will be necessary to accept diversity of belief. Our best hope for the future manifests only when this freedom is honoured.
The opening image is Universal Paths, by Shoshanna Bauer, which I found here, and is used with permission. "Universal Paths" 2007 (c) coypyright Shoshanna Bauer All Rights Reserved.
I encourage other blog-authors interested in these issues to trackback this post so we can take the debate further afield and, as ever, I welcome thoughtful discussion in the comments.