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A Post-Christian America and the Foundations of Morality

painted photograph of Cades Cove church isolated in Smoky Mountains

The trend of American secularization continues. A recent report by the Pew Research Committee notes the accelerating number of “nones” – those without formal religious affiliation – in the U.S., and finds that under several different scenarios America will be a Christian minority nation by 2070. The report estimates that as of 2020 approximately 64% of Americans identified as Christian. While explanations for the shift away from Christianity are multiple and complicated, it echoes patterns of secularization in Europe.

There are reasons to be wary of overinterpretation, as a lack of affiliation of formal religion does not mean that someone is not informally religious, spiritual, or otherwise wedded to a guiding belief system. Similarly, Christianity is no monolith and encompasses a wide array of sects with varying religious commitments (and varying levels of commitment to those commitments). But, big picture, the church as an institution is in demographic decline.

Religious practices organize people socially and culturally, not just theologically. And whatever its democratic woes, Christianity continues to have a powerful role in American politics, as reflected by recent Supreme Court decisions on abortion and school prayer.

Of particular philosophical interest, religion provides a (plausibly) objective basis to morality and many believers worry about the metaphysical foundations of ethics absent something like a god.

Put differently, what underpins morality in an irreligious society? And relatedly, what is the worry of having a moral system without foundations?

Questions of morality are familiar. Is killing wrong? What about in self-defense? Is it okay to break a promise? To tell a white lie? To collect and sell data from the users of an app? However, there are also questions we can have about morality itself. This is the domain of metaethics. One of the most prominent debates within metaethics concerns the objectivity and reality of ethical claims.

Consider a claim like: “murder is wrong.” A natural interpretation is that this statement is making a factual claim about the moral wrongness of murder, and the claim is either true or false. (This is the claim of moral realists. Though in another tradition in metaethics, called noncognitivism, ethical claims are not treated as being true or false at all.) Assuming the ethical claim is true (or false), the next issue is explaining what makes it that way.

One answer is that something in the world makes the ethical claim true. For a religious or spiritual person, this something is often that a god commands it.

But even within religious thought, such a move is not without difficulties. Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma asks whether something is good because it is beloved by the gods, or beloved by the gods because it is good. Nonetheless, religious traditions have additional resources to draw upon when it comes to the truth of ethical claims.

Absent religion, things get trickier. The Australian ethicist J.L. Mackie influentially argued that if morality is something in the world, it is an awfully strange thing. We know of no bits or bobs of the world that seem to constitute moral wrongness, we don’t know how to measure “ethicalness” or move it around, and there seems to be nothing physically different between lying to the police about what’s in your basement to save a refugee’s life or to save your heroin operation. What’s more, we might question what morality really explains. If asked to account for the actions of Adolf Hitler, one can appeal to his psychology, his politics, and the historical context. It is not obvious what additional information is provided by asserting that Hitler is also “evil.” This line has been argued most prominently by the philosopher Gilbert Harman.

Broadly speaking, an account of morality that places moral facts – the wrongness of eating meat, for example – out in the world appears somewhat out of step with our best current scientific accounts.

Evolution makes this concern more acute. Philosophers Sharon Street and Richard Joyce have both argued that evolutionary theory “debunks” morality, where debunking arguments are a specific kind of objection which attempt to show that the causal origin of something undermines its justifications. In particular, evolution is responsive to fitness, not responsive to truth, so the concern is that there is no reason to expect from our evolutionary history that we would have evolved with even an approximately correct set of moral beliefs. The idea is we evolved our general moral commitments because cooperative humans that did not kill and steal from each other constantly were reproductively successful, not because they were perceiving the moral structure of the universe.

This argument is especially powerful because it undermines the evidence on which one would build a case for the metaphysical foundations of ethics. Our everyday moral talk often treats morality as if it is true – we refer to murder as wrong and helping the needy as good. Ethicists take this seriously as (at least initial) evidence for the objective reality of morality, absent compelling reasons to think otherwise. However, if our moral intuitions can be effectively explained by evolution, then the evidentiary basis on which moral realism derives its plausibility evaporates.

These arguments have not gone unaddressed and the debate continues. For example, we presumably did not evolve to learn particle physics, and yet no one considers it “debunked” by evolution.

Other philosophers take completely different approaches. Immanuel Kant famously argued that our morality is rooted in our nature as rational beings that can act in accordance with reason. His work suggests that the truth of moral claims is not written in the stars. Instead, as free-willed rational creatures, it is our duty to recognize the force of moral law. The appeal of approaches like Kant’s is that there can be objective answers to moral questions, even if the foundation of morality lies in our own nature rather than some thing out in the world.

Still, we might ask why all these questions of moral foundations matter at all, and whether religion actually solves the problem. For those concerned by Christianity’s decline, the ultimate fear is likely an amoral world where nothing is right or wrong. Let us grant for the moment that if god/gods exist, then murder is really wrong (here using the time-honored philosophical practice of strategically italicizing words). It is not a glorified opinion. It is not wrong on the basis of reasons or political commitments. It is not only wrong for a given person, or a given society. It is not wrong because we are a specific species with a specific evolutionary history of cooperation that has given us a hard to shake set of psychological intuitions about morality. It is really, truly, against-the-divine-structure-of-the-universe Wrong.

Note that this moral fact does not depend on whether people are religious. It instead depends on the truth of some religious tenets. The popularity of religion is simply unrelated to questions of the existence of moral foundations.

Alternatively, our overriding concern might not be a philosophical one related to whether or not there is an objective basis to morality, but a social one regarding people’s belief in moral foundations. If no one believes that anything is really wrong, so the worry goes, then what is to stop absolute hooliganism? We need the belief in moral foundations for their salutary effect on behavior. This, however, is ultimately a scientific question about, first, whether the religiously unaffiliated are less likely to believe in objective morality, and second, if those who do not believe in objective morality behave less ethically (by conventional standards).

Some research suggests that religious people and secular people have slightly different ethical commitments and behaviors, but there is no evidence of general amorality. If anything, the rise of the “nones” spurs objections to some religiously motivated practices – like abortion bans – on explicitly ethical grounds. Changes in America’s religious landscape will result in changes in its moral landscape, but this does not entail Americans being generally less concerned with morality. And while philosophers and others may be fascinated by the (possible) foundations of morality as an intellectual project, it remains to be seen whether this project is genuinely socially motivated. We simply are, descriptively, organisms that care about ethics. Most of us anyway.

Religious Liberty and Science Education

photograph of empty science classroom

In November, the Ohio House of Representatives passed “The Ohio Student Religious Liberty Act of 2019.” The law quickly garnered media attention because it seems to allow students to get answers wrong without penalty if the reason they get those answers wrong is because of their religious beliefs. The language of the new law is the following:

Sec. 3320.03. No school district board of education, governing authority of a community school […], or board of trustees of a college-preparatory boarding school […] shall prohibit a student from engaging in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments. Assignment grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns, and shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.

Sponsors of the bill claim that students will be required to learn the material they are being taught, and to answer questions in the way that the curriculum supports regardless of whether they agree with it. Opponents of the law disagree. The language of the legislation prohibits teachers from penalizing the work of a student when that work is expressive of religious belief. This seems to entail that a teacher cannot give a student a bad grade if that student gets an answer wrong for religious reasons. In any event, the vagueness of the law may affect the actions of teachers. They might be reluctant to grade assignments correctly if they think doing so may put them at odds with the law.

Ohio is not the only state in which bills like this are being considered, though most have failed to pass for one reason or another. Some states, such as Arizona, Florida, Maine, and Virginia have attempted to pass “controversial issues” bills. The bills take various forms. Arizona Bill 202, for example, attempted to prohibit teachers from advocating any positions on issues that are mentioned in the platform of any major political party (a similar bill was proposed in Maine). This has implications for teaching evolution and anthropogenic climate change in science classes. Other controversial issue bills prohibit schools from punishing teachers who teach evolution or climate change as if they are scientifically controversial.

Much of the recent action is motivated by attitudes about Next Generation Science Standards, a science education program developed by 26 states in conjunction with the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Research Council. The program aims to teach science in active ways that emphasize the important role that scientific knowledge plays in innovation, the development of new technologies, and in responsible stewardship of the natural environment. NGSS has encountered some resistance in state legislatures because the curriculum includes education on the topics of evolution and anthropogenic climate change.

Advocates of these laws make a number of different arguments. First, all things being equal, there is value in freedom of conscience. We should set up our public spaces in such a way that respects the fact that people can believe what they want to believe. The U.S. Constitution was intentionally written in a way that provides protections for citizens to form beliefs independently of the will of governments. In response, an opponent of this legislation might say that imposing a set of standards for curriculum based on the best available evidence is not the same thing as forcing citizens to endorse a particular set of beliefs. A student can learn about evolution or anthropogenic climate change, all the while disagreeing with what they are learning.

A second, related argument might be that school curriculum and grading policies should respect the role that religion plays in people’s lives. For many, religion provides life with meaning, peace, and hope. Given the importance of these values, our public institutions shouldn’t be taking steps that might undermine religion.

A third argument concerns parental rights to raise children in the way that they see fit. This concern is content-neutral. It might be a principle that everyone should respect. Parents have significant interests in the way that their children turn out, and as a result they have interests in avoiding what they might view as indoctrination of their children by the government. Attendance at school is mandatory for children. If the government is going to force them to attend, they shouldn’t be forced to “learn” things that their parents might not want them to hear.

A fourth argument has to do with the value of free speech and the expression of alternative positions. It is always valuable to hear opposing positions, even those that are in opposition to received scientific knowledge, so that science doesn’t just become another form of dogma. In response, opponents would likely argue that we get closer to the truth when we assess the validity of opposing viewpoints, but not all opposing viewpoints are created equal. Students only have so much time dedicated to learning science in school, so if opposing positions are considered in the classroom, perhaps it is best if they are positions advocated by scientists. Moreover, if a particular view reflects only the opinion of a small segment of the scientific community, perhaps it is a waste of valuable time to discuss those positions at all.

Opponents of this kind of legislation would insist that those in charge of the education of our children must value best epistemic practices. Some belief-forming practices contribute to the formation of true beliefs more reliably than others. The scientific method and the peer review process are examples of these kinds of reliable practices. It is irresponsible to treat positions that are not supported by evidence as if they are equally deserving of acceptance as beliefs that are supported by evidence. Legislation of this type presents tribalism and various forms of pernicious cognitive bias as adequate evidence for belief.

Furthermore, opponents argue, the passage of these bills is nothing more than political grandstanding—attempts to solve non-existent problems. The United States Constitution already protects the religious liberty of students. Additional legislation is not necessary.

Education, in part, is the creation of responsible, productive, autonomous citizens. What’s more, the issues at stake are crucially important. Denying the existence of anthropogenic climate change has powerful, and even deadly, consequences for millions of current living beings, as well as future generations of beings. Our best hope is to create citizens who are well-informed on this issue and who are therefore in a good position to mitigate the effects and to construct meaningful climate policy in the future. This will be impossible if future generations are essentially climate illiterate.

The Ethics of Homeschooling

photograph of young girl doing school work in room

The National Home Education Research Institute labelled homeschooling one of the fastest growing forms of education in the US with an estimated two to eight percent rise in the population of homeschooled children each year over recent years. Although home-based learning as a concept is an old practice, it is now being adopted by a diverse range of Americans. This trend of homeschooling extends to countries around the globe including Brazil, the Philippines, Mexico, France, and Australia, among other nations.

One of the commonly cited motivations for homeschooling children is parents’ concern for their child’s safety. Homeschooling provides children with a safe learning environment, shielding them from exposure to possible harms such as physical and psychological abuse, bullying from peers, gun violence, and racism. Exposure to such harms can lead to poor academic performance and long-term self-esteem issues. Recent research suggests that homeschooled students often perform better on tests than other students. Additionally, homeschooling can also provide an opportunity for an enhanced parent-child bond, and is especially convenient for parents of special needs children requiring attentive care.

Homeschooling was legalized throughout the US in 1993, but the laws governing homeschooling vary from state to state. States with the strictest homeschool laws (Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont) mandate annual standardized testing and an annual instruction plan. But policing in the least restrictive states (Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana and Iowa) border on negligence. Iowa, in particular, has no regulations at all, and considers notifying the district of homeschooling merely optional.

Even though homeschooling is legal and gaining traction in the US today, it is not immune to skeptics who view homeschooling as an inadequate and flawed form of education for students. The prevailing critique of homeschooling has to do with the lack of social interaction amongst homeschooled children with peers, which is an important aspect of a child’s socialization into society. However, as most of homeschooled children’s social interactions are limited to adults and their family members, this could lead to the child developing issues in the future regarding learning to handle individuals with different backgrounds, belief systems, and opinions. Homeschooling advocates counter this critique by contending that the environment at home is superior to the environment children are exposed to at school, but it raises the question, at what cost?

Another aspect of homeschooling that is a point of contention is the lack of qualification of parents who choose to homeschool their children. While teachers have experience teaching students over the course of years and therefore develop action plans that work best with students, the same cannot be said for most parents who are not teachers by profession. Therefore, while homeschooling parents may have the best intentions for their children, they may be ill-equipped to provide the standard of education offered in public or private schools. Furthermore, the learning facilities offered by parents at home may not be on par with the learning facilities available in schools.

An additional issue that must be taken into consideration is that homeschooled children in states with lax regulations are at increased risk for physical abuse that goes unreported and undetected, as a result of children being sequestered in their homes. Approximately 95% of child abuse cases are communicated to authorities by public school teachers or officials. By isolating the homeschooled child, unregulated homeschooling allows abusive guardians to keep their abuse unnoticed. Isolating children at home also poses a public health risk as schools require students to be immunized, but this is legally required of homeschooled children in only a few states. Not only are unimmunized children vulnerable to a multitude of diseases, but also put other children and adults alike at risk of contracting illnesses.

Parental bias is an added complication that homeschooled children must deal with. Parental bias refers to dogma a homeschooled child may be exposed to on account of being raised solely on their parents’ belief systems. For example, most homeschooled children come from pious, fundamentalist Protestant families. Elaborating on the possible repercussions of unregulated homeschooling, Robin L. West, Professor of Law and Philosophy at Georgetown University Law Center writes in her article The Harms of Homeschooling, “[..] in much of the country, if you want to keep your kids home from school, or just never send them in the first place, you can. If you want to teach them from nothing but the Bible, you can.” Parental bias can therefore cause an individual to develop a skewed understanding of the world and can also pose issues in the individual’s life outside of home, when they are exposed to ideologies that are at odds with their own. If the homeschooled individual was raised in an environment with a homogeneous view on political, social or cultural issues, and if that is the only outlook that the child is exposed to, adjusting to the outside world with a plethora of opinions and values could cause internal dissension within the individual.

Given that one’s early experiences in life can shape our persona as an adult, going to a regular school instead of being homeschooled can serve as a primer to being better equipped at handling the “real world.” Furthermore, with the rising demand of homeschooling, it becomes essential to ask if the child is better off by learning about the “real world” while being sheltered by one’s guardians. If homeschooling is indeed the superior option, perhaps constructing a standard curriculum for homeschooling could address the concerns raised by critics of home-based learning.

The Ethics of Philosophical Exemptions

photograph of syringe and bottle of antiobiotics

While every state in America has legislation requiring vaccinations for children, every state also allows exemptions. For instance, every state allows a parent to exempt their child from vaccinations for legitimate medical reasons: some children with compromised immune systems, for example, are not required to be vaccinated, since doing so could be potentially harmful. However, many states also allow for exemptions for two other reasons: religious reasons, and “philosophical reasons.” While religious exemptions are standardly granted if one sincerely declares that vaccinations are contrary to their religious beliefs, what a “philosophical reason” might consist in varies depending on the state. For example, Ohio law states that parents can refuse to have their children immunized for “reasons of conscience”; in Maine a general “opposition to the immunization for philosophical reasons” constitutes sufficient ground for exemption; and in Pennsylvania “[c]hildren need not be immunized if the parent, guardian or emancipated child objects in writing to the immunization…on the basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction similar to a religious belief” (a complete list of states and the wordings of the relevant laws can be found on the National Conference of State Legislatures website).

Of course, not all states grant exemptions on the basis of any reason beyond the medical: California, Mississippi, and West Virginia all deny exemptions on the basis of either religious or philosophical reasons. And there seem to be plenty of good reasons to deny exemption except only in the most dire of circumstances, since vaccinations are proven to be overwhelmingly beneficial both to individuals, as well as to the community at large by contributing toward crucial herd immunity for those who are unable to be vaccinated due to medical reasons.

At the same time, one might be concerned that, in general, the law needs to respect the sincere convictions of an individual as much as possible. This is evidenced by the fact that many states provide religious exemptions, not only for vaccinations, but in many other different areas of the law. Of course, while some of these exemptions may seem reasonable, others have become the target of significant controversy. Perhaps most controversial are so called “right to discriminate” conditions that, for example, have been appealed to in order to justify unequal treatment of members of the LGBT community.

While there is much to say about religious exemptions in general, and religious exemptions to vaccinations in particular, here I want to focus on the philosophical exemptions. What are they, and should they be allowed?

As we saw above, the basis for granting philosophical exemptions to vaccinations seems to simply be one’s sincere opposition (how well-informed this opposition is, however, is not part of any exemption criteria). In practical terms, expressing philosophical opposition typically requires the signing of an affidavit confirming said opposition, although in some cases there is the additional requirement that one discuss vaccinations with one’s doctor beforehand (Washington, for example, includes this requirement). In general, though, it is safe to say that it is not difficult to acquire a philosophical exemption.

Should such exemptions exist? We might think that there is at least one reason why they should: if sincere religious conviction is a sufficient basis for exemption (something that is agreed upon by 47 states) then it seems that sincere moral or philosophical conviction should constitute just as good of a basis for exemption. After all, in both cases we are dealing with sincere beliefs in principles that one deems to be contrary to the use of vaccinations, and so it does not seem that one should have to be religious in order for one’s convictions to be taken seriously.

The problem with allowing such exemptions, of course, is the aforementioned serious repercussions of failing to vaccinate one’s children. Indeed, as reported by the PEW research center, there is a significant correlation between those states that present the most opportunity to be exempted – those states that allow both religious and philosophical grounds for exemption – and those that have seen the greatest number of incidents of the outbreak of measles. Here, then, is one reason why we might think that there should be no such philosophical exemptions (and, perhaps, no exemptions at all): allowing such exemptions results in the significant and widespread harm.

The tension between respecting one’s right to act in a way that coincides with one’s convictions and trying to make sure that people act in ways that have the best consequences for themselves and those around them is well-explored in discussions of ethics. The former kinds of concerns are often spelled out in terms of concerns for personal integrity: it seems that whether an action is in line with one’s goals, projects, and general plan for one’s life should be a relevant factor in deciding what ought to be done (for example, it often seems like we shouldn’t force someone to do something they really don’t want to do for the benefit of others). When taking personal integrity into account, then, we can see why we might want there to be room for philosophical exemptions in the law.

On the other hand, when deciding what to do we also have to take into account will have the best overall consequences for everyone affected. When taking this aspect into consideration, it would then seem to be the case that there almost certainly should be only the bare minimum of possibility for exemptions to vaccinations. While it often seems that respecting personal and integrity and trying to ensure the best overall consequences are both relevant moral factors, it is less clear what to do when these factors conflict. To ensure the best consequences when it comes to vaccinations, for example, would require violating the integrity of some, as they would be forced to do something that they think is wrong. On the other hand, taking individual convictions too seriously can result in significantly worse overall consequences, as what an individual takes to be best for themselves might have negative consequences for those around them.

However, there is certainly a limit on how much we can reasonably respect personal integrity when doing so comes at the cost of the well-being of others. I cannot get away with doing whatever I want just because I sincerely believe that I should be able to, regardless of the consequences. And there are also clearly cases in which I should be expected to make a sacrifice if doing so means that a lot of people will be better off. How we can precisely balance the need to respect integrity and the need to try to ensure the best overall consequences is a problem I won’t attempt to solve here. What we can say, though, is that while allowing philosophical exemptions for vaccinations appears to be an attempt at respecting personal integrity, it is one that has produced significant negative consequences for many people. This is one of those cases, then, in which personal conviction needs to take a backseat to the overall well-being of others, and so philosophical reasons should not count qualify as a relevant factor in determining exemptions for vaccinations.