Religion and Moral Judgement

In Response to Quora Question: "Have religions demonstrated that they have special or better competence in evaluating moral judgments?"

Pretty clearly yes. Although from some points of view, that competence would be restricted to the historical and cultural context in which those religions evolved. But creating a moral narrative and framework for social relations has been a central feature of nearly every religion, and therefore the question of efficacy becomes a chicken-and-egg proposition: did the prosocial advantage of certain moral choices become experientially evident to an authoritative group who then enumerated, encouraged or codified them via religious language, or did someone who demonstrated particularly potent insight 0r wisdom more spontaneously inspire others that certain prosocial attitudes and behaviors bore religious weight, and therefore should be embraced? I think it has probably been a little of both, but clearly the advantages of the values at the top of the hierarchy in religious teachings across many different cultures - values such as compassion, forgiveness, patience, self-control, generosity, humility, gratitude, etc. - have been persuasive enough that many non-religious perspectives can agree with their importance. At the same time, however, when the esoteric nature of, say, lovingkindness is abandoned in favor of dogmatic legalism, this is where religion seems to quickly lose its moral high ground. This (seemingly inevitable?) institutional and traditional consequence is, in fact, what many religious revisions and reforms throughout history have sought to remedy, often when what had been prosocially advantageous in some dominant tradition became egregiously perverted by proscriptive controls.

So we might say that institutional religious dogma has not proven itself particularly competent in its moral judgements, but that prosocial habits born of spiritual insight (i.e. the esoteric musings within religious traditions) have been quite useful - and universal - as ethical constructions. In the sense that competence equates beneficial utility, it would be difficult to argue against, say, the Buddha's take on the nature of suffering, or the Apostle Paul's characterization of agape, or Hafez's prescriptions for joy. But of course this is all from the outside looking in. The depth of moral efficacy regarding any religious instruction will be most evident to an adherent; for example, a Taoist will apprehend doing-without-doing experientially, while a non-Taoist will only apprehend it intellectually. So once again we return to context: ab extra evaluation will never obtain or fully comprehend ab intra veracity. Nonetheless, from the outside one can still offer the hypothesis that certain universal and causal prosocial principles offered by most religious traditions provide a sound basis for meta-ethical hierarchies.

But are these hierarchies "better" or "special?" Well that once again begs the question of subjective and intersubjective context, but if we can agree that prosocial behavior is "better," then spiritually derived moral evaluations do indeed seem to be "special" in their clarity, efficacy and universality.


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