The Ottawa Citizen has a unique Ask the Religion Experts section. What makes it cool is that one of the Experts on their panel is a humanist from CFI-Canada. I don’t have all the details, but Kevin Smith and CFI had approached the paper at some point and
complained made them aware of the fact that ethics and morality and other things religious leaders like to claim to be experts on are important to everyone, regardless of belief system. It would, therefore, behoove the paper to include a humanist perspective so the paper wouldn’t look so slanted and bias. It would be nice to see more local or national papers do the same.
Anyway, the question. Their Baha’i scholar, Jack Maclean, doesn’t answer it. All he really says is individuals who already follow Baha’i have had ethical and moral conundrums in the past and,
Bahá’u’lláh’s voluminous sacred writings and their authorized interpretations by his appointed successors, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921) and Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), cover a wide variety of true-to-life ethical situations.
These writings are supposed to be used to determine what a person should do in a situation. Plus, a nine-member Universal House of Justice in Israel legislates and monitors changes in the ethics and moralities of the believers today when they differ from the authorized interpretations. Times change and responses need to change to reflect that.
The Hindu expert, Radhika Sekar, reminds readers that appropriate behaviours will vary from culture to culture but Hindus believe there is an absolute truth at the heart of it all, independent of cultural relativism.
while specific ethical and moral guidelines may vary, the general ethical and moral principles that underlie them do not. These are informed by the five principles: non-violence, truth and refraining from sexual misconduct, greed and possessiveness, that are enshrined in the fundamental Yama-niyama code.
Again, not really answering the question. If you’re not Hindu, are you ethically obligated to do as they say here? No. Still, you have to admit it’s good advice that people probably should take to heart, though.
I think the Anglican priest, Kevin Flynn, answers only as a Christian in this position can: follow Jesus to the letter and you can’t go wrong. We get our ideas from those who came before us and taught us and Jesus was the bestest teacher evar!!1eleventy1. End of story. He’s closest so far to answering the question, mind you:
Yes, one must make up one’s own mind in a given situation, but there has to be a mind there first.
Our consciences are always formed by someone. Who has shaped yours?
That would be my parents and my school teachers and anyone else I might have admired enough to want to emulate.
Rabbi Rueven Bukla does even better:
Yes, they have the right to define what is ethical, but they do not have the right to impose that definition, and you have a right to disagree. And if they are sharing with you what is ethical for you, it only has currency if, in their own lives, they live by the same ethics at least. Otherwise, telling you what is ethical for you but ignoring it for themselves is pure hypocrisy. People have a right to be hypocrites, but having a right does not make it right.
Then the Rabbi comes up with something even more interesting. Maybe the real question that needs answering is, is it right to let others define what’s ethical for you? He suggests that we kind of have to allow people to offer advice and the like, but since we can find a variety of viewpoints on an issue (like this one), that gives us the chance to decide for ourselves which of those answers will be the best for our situation.
Onto Kevin Smith, our humanist. He takes a legal stance. Laws are made with the intent of them benefiting the entire society, regardless of what moral or ethic background people are coming from. There are going to be clashes but the law is the law and in order to be fair to everyone, everyone has to agree to abide by them.
This framework does not and could not prohibit the personal ethics of individuals or those of multicultural and multi-faith groups as long as the laws, created by all society, are followed.
In fact, it is from these multi-ethics that humans have adopted those that best protect our rights and freedoms, allowing us to live in harmony.
It is critical for the survival of our species that these flexible, pan-human created codes of conduct supersede an assortment of God-given absolutes that serve to benefit a narrow segment of society.
There are a few other writers that weigh in, mostly from the Christian sphere, but there’s a Buddhist perspective to highlight still, offered up by Ray Innen Parchelo. He takes the legal angle also, and our willingness to let certain people or groups make larger decisions for us, be it our doctors, or law makers or what have you. We have to accept the fact that there are people who might “know better” than we do and should be given greater responsibility in terms of making decisions that will affect us. Should we automatically assume our priests are part of the “know better” group of folks that will determine our ethics? According to Parchelo, hell no.
Within the tradition of Buddha-dharma, the answer would be a clear and emphatic “no”. Buddhist clergy hold their positions because of their willingness to take on a leadership role, their openness to have their lives and actions scrutinized publicly and because of their determination to grapple with teachings and interpret them fairly and practically for the community. Buddhist clergy (and I suspect this is true for most faiths) never set ethical standards, but interpret existing traditional teachings for concrete situations.
He gives the example of eating meat. Depending on where they’re coming from and how they want to interpret the writings available, you get some that are completely pro-vegan and others who think a bit of meat’s not a bad idea at all. Who are you going to listen to when the advice varies to such extremes? There are no moral absolutes, he writes, just interpretations.
For my answer, I’d say yeah, ethics have to be defined but they need to be defined by a variety of people from a range of backgrounds and ideologies and a consensus needs to be reached in a way that will keep things fair. Scientific research is pulling way ahead of religions in terms of where they stand on ethics, for example, but the research should still be done even if a church disagrees with what might wind up being the outcome. If the results of research have more pros than they do cons, why continue to speak against them?
Condom use comes to mind here. We know the good they do (as contraceptives and disease barriers) so why does the Catholic church still condemn the things? Because they run counter to edicts created by the Church, based on interpretations and traditions. They set an ethical standard that has had horrible repercussions in some cases. “Proper” Catholics feel morally obligated to follow that rule but should they?
Should the Catholic Church be allowed to assume it deserves to have complete control over everyone whether they are Catholic or not? Why should any religious group be allowed to think they can have that much power over people? That’s completely the reason to push for a division between church and state. So they can’t have that power.