The first necessity of life is justice
The text below is a summary that I wrote for Orkut, of a newspaper article written by Susan Neiman. People who read some other posts in this blog won't be surprised to see that the theme of this article is justice in relation to religion and ethics... ;-)
Kant was thinking about the question if universal moral laws exist, independent of culture, religion etc. He didn't give a direct answer, but used a parable.Imagine a man who can't resist the temptation to go in, each time he passes by a brothel. He tries to resist the temptation, he knows he shouldn't go there, but he can't help it. Kant says that we can easily understand that he can't resist the temptation. Now what if in front of the door a gallows is put up. Every man who has visited a whore is killed. Now it's not so difficult anymore to resist the temptation to go there. No matter how big his desire for sex is, his desire to stay alive is bigger. Now imagine this man is summoned by a dictator. An innocent citizen will be killed by the dictator, but the dictator first forces the man he summoned to write a false statement that the citizen is guilty. If the man refuses to do so he will be killed himself. In this case it's difficult to predict what the man would do. Maybe he decides that he wants to stay alive at all costs. But there's a kind of moral appeal that he shouldn't be responsible for the death of an innocent person, even if it means that e will die himself.When this man feels this dilemma, when he really thinks about the two options and which choice would be the best, he experiences his freedom. Not a desire for egoist satisfaction but a desire for justice can bring people to deeds which are able to conquer one of the strongest natural desires; the love for life itself. These examples can be understood by everyone, also by business men, women and school youth, according to Kant. What is universal, is not an objective ethical thruth, because that doesn't exist. It is only the ability of human beings to make a distinction between right and wrong, the freedom to choose (and at the same time responsibility for the choices you make). Truth is a matter of what the world is like, ethics is a matter of how the world should be. People all over the world will never agree about how the world should be, but what is universal is that they all think about it. Now what do you say to a sceptic who asks why he would do an deed of altruism? According to Kant you have to talk about heroes. Virtues are worth more when the effort / the costs are high. Heroes exist, people who are willing to give almost everyhting to achieve justice. The examples of Kant show that a moral attitude is possible. It's a thought experiment that everyone can make. The universality of the experiment gives it power. The world view that human beings are only moved by material desires is more and more denied. What people are missing in the material world is not irrational: it is because we want to determine the world instead of that we are determined by the world. One could call this a desire for transcendence. We are born and we die as part of nature but we feel most alive when arise above / out of it. Human dignity is very important. Human life gains meaning when we experience that we can decide not to accept the world as given / unchangeable.
Susan Neiman says that especially a fundamentalist religion fullfils this need. Religion fullfils the human need for the meaning of life. Religion gives us a stable place in the world, it tells a story about our lives which are often short and painful. Secularists often see religion as a way not only to make life easier for the believers, but also to make them passive. But religion doesn't make people only passive. It offers the possibility of transcendence out of the daily life, it's a spiritual stimulance in a world of slowness and indifference. This is the point where religion meets ethics. No matter how often the priests have mobilised their herds with promises about heaven and warnings about the hell, these manipulations are political, so they play only a side role in religion and ethics. In the way in which religion can show / give a meaning to life, it has got strong moral roots. From the outside it seems that religious fundamentalists gave up their own thinking for their belief, but from the inside to believe is itself a choice which means that you reject a life lead by the rules of the consumption society. Religion and ethics are both determined to show that a better world is possible than what we see now.
All three western religions know a fundamentalist authoritarian direction. They say that believing means that you have to stop using your intellect. But it's hard to deny that religion is always a matter of interpretation, which means that the intellect is needed. Authoritarian religions will obedience to God and his replacers on earth. In the end fundamentalists will deny that human reason can decide about issues of truth and justice. But holy books are written in codes that have to be interpreted. Old principles cannot directly be applied to modern times. Much of the wisdom that arose in ancient times came into existence out of a need for moral judgements. Reason is needed to make those judgements. So apart from the fundamentalist views there are also rationalist religious views in our western traditions. In those views our ability to reason is not considered to be a threat to the obedience to God. If human reason is a gift of God, it should also be used. We didn't get our ability to give a meaning to life for nothing. So we should stop dividing the world along secular and religious lines, with secularism representng reason and religion representing faith. If you believe in the existence of God or not is less important than your ideas about what your belief means to you. Is your belief telling you what to do or does your belief ask you to think yourself? Every religion has signs that point to both directions. In the Old Testament both directions are clearly present. When God demanded Abraham to sacrifice his own son, the meaning is clearly that God's orders should be followed unconditionally, also if the sacrifice is incredibly big and also if Abraham doesn't understand why he should do that. But Neiman also gives other less known examples with a different message. Before Abraham goes to the mountain Moira, he travels to Sodom and Gomorra. There God shows him the plan to destroy both cities. Then Abraham asks him: what if among the sinners in Sodom there are 50 innocent people?
He who is the judge of the earth cannot be so injust as to kill 50 innocent people. God agrees, if there are 50 innocent people in the city, he will give the city forgiveness. But what if there are less innocent people, asks Abraham, what if there are 45? The answer is clear, in that case the city would be saved also. When Abraham convinced God that 10 innocent people is already enough to save the city, he stops the negotiations. This is a very strong example to show that according to rationalists, God stimulates that human beings use their ability for reason and ethics. Abraham is concerned about the innocent people in Sodom, although he is not related to them, it is not in his own interest that he support towards God. And he is determined to fight for justice, he goes on until the end, although he knows that God can destroy him with one glance. Why does he do that? It would be much more safe to keep his mouth shut, God could easily become angry, why does he care about the people in Sodom? But he's not afraid and he stands up against God firmly. Neither his fear, neither his reason prevents him from doing so. In this example God cares more about that people follow their conscience than that they use the right rituals. God prefers to have a good discussion above proving that he's right.