Moral dilemma: what will replace the church as our compass?

'There's been a lack of emphasis on the notion that in the end it's the individual who's responsible.'

'There's been a lack of emphasis on the notion that in the end it's the individual who's responsible.'


If, following church scandals, the public is looking for common moral ground, where might they find it?

  GERARD CASEY Professor of philosophy, University College Dublin

“I can’t understand people losing faith because of scandals. I’m not making light of what happened, but for me it’s not where faith comes from. Religion and morality are not the same thing, but for most Irish Catholics the two are one and the same. When you tell them the moral code associated with Catholicism is pretty much the same as in any religion, they find it hard to believe.

“You have to get morality from reason – morals are either a set of conventions in a utilitarian way or a real code to live by. The problem with utilitarianism is that morality only survives when the going is good, otherwise it’s every man for himself. There is nothing specifically Catholic about natural law. When you look at what human beings are, you see they have needs and that means we know the kind of actions that are [morally] destructive.

“A classic way of looking at morality is from Confucian philosophy. “There are four concentric circles. The innermost circle is the basic, natural state where we individually are the centre of the universe. We understand this in children and find it quite cute, but it would be sinister in an adult. The next circle is the utilitarian level: we still want things for ourselves, but have to at least simulate an interest in others.

“The breakthrough comes at the next moral level – this is when you recognise that other human beings are exactly like you: each has hopes, dreams and fears. There can be a sense of shock when we realise this.

“The final circle is the transcendent, where the human world is understood in a larger context. Traditionally this has been religious, but it can be other things, such as politics, for example – anything that says there is a dimension above us.

“The key for us as individuals is to match up the emotional and the intellectual sides of our lives. It’s a developmental process and, to some degree, a pattern of habituation.”

ANN JAMES Secretary, Humanist Association of Ireland

“People are beginning to see that morality can’t be institutionalised, and to give power to an institution that claims the moral high ground is a mistake. Morality should be discussed and argued, otherwise society becomes closed. We’re seeing the whole of Irish society opening up to other views.

“I think there’s a basic morality aligned to empathy. The law is there to protect everybody, and quite clearly it has failed – nobody should be above the law, but also nobody should be beneath it.

“There are certain things that are pretty universal, such as measuring harm: if something does no harm, that’s a simple ‘good’. I want life to be good, so the best way to do is to make the lives around me better.

“Even on the issues that are the source of disagreement, such as abortion, there has to be an openness to discussing the morality of it. I just want a morality that respects people’s right to think for themselves, and doesn’t place one value system in law above one another.

“I regard it as unethical to try and take away freedom of speech, as the Government is doing with its blasphemy legislation.”

AILEEN FYFE Historian of science, NUI Galway

“In the 19th century, the time of evolutionary theory and thermodynamics, people like the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley were arguing strongly for science’s role in society. In Huxley’s time, it was widely accepted that morality stemmed from religion, but he was an agnostic – he actually invented the term – and wanted to show people that it was possible to say no to religion but still be an upstanding, respectable citizen.

“Today, morality and religion can be separated, and Huxley’s fears might seem paranoid. One reason for this is that as soon as Europeans discovered more about the rest of the world’s population, they started asking questions about what moral code people outside Europe had.

“The early missionaries sought to ‘convert the heathens’, but those who stayed abroad began to realise that while other cultures might not be Christian, most still look after their families, take care of older members of the community, and have restrictions on killing.

“This got early anthropologists thinking that morality might be a human construct rather than something that comes from a universal religious truth.

“Huxley believed in the idea of a non-religious moral code for society – and he believed that such a code would probably look quite similar to Christianity. One reason Christianity has been successful is that it helped meet the needs of human society. But, for him, ideally you wouldn’t base such a code on stone tablets, but rather look around and ask what is the best way to live.”

DAVID McCONNELL Professor of genetics, Trinity College Dublin

“Isn’t it remarkable that so many different societies have similar morals? What we call Judaeo-Christian morality is effectively universal. As a humanist, this says to me that it’s not that God created man but that man created God.

“Science has a lot to teach us about morality, but it has to be thought about. You can now construct a family tree of all life on Earth, for instance, and all people have a common human relative just 200,000 years ago. We do have a lot of information that says genetics affects behaviour, [but] I don’t know of a direct genetic explanation for ethical principles, and any that are found are unlikely to be predictive.

“Ireland has been dominated by Catholic ethics and, for the most part, they’re good ethics. The problems arise when we try to prescribe ethics in too much detail and exclude personal responsibility.

“The most difficult, and interesting, areas are when good people disagree. For example, there are two archbishops of Dublin, and one would allow for abortion in certain circumstances and the other would never allow for it.

“My thinking on this is that you must allow for substantial personal discretion – you can place various constraints on things, but each situation is actually different and must be analysed and thought about by the people most involved.”

MARTIN DOWNES Professor emeritus of biology, NUI Maynooth

“In many ways the church has been effective at giving guidance on specific issues, but not so good at encouraging people to develop their own sense of right and wrong. There’s been a lack of emphasis on the notion that in the end it’s the individual who’s responsible. I’m inclined to think individual conscience has to replace the church as our moral authority, though it seems an awfully big job to ask a nation to suddenly engage with questions of ethics that it hasn’t before.

“Is there some way that a country trying to underpin its economic, social and political development with clear principles could go about it? What would happen if the Government tried to get general agreement on how we are to proceed in terms of morality? Science changes our choices by producing more information, and the hope would be that by doing that it can enable us to make better ethical decisions. I don’t think science can provide much with regard to how you go about making decisions, though it may be that science has something to contribute, in terms of psychology, on where we get our sense of right and wrong from.

In conversation with Jason Walsh and Lenny Antonelli