Bankrupt Moral Capital

I see that yesterday’s Observer carried a piece by Richard Harries (ex-Bishop of Oxford, and now Lord Harries of Pentregarth) defending his friend, Richard Dawkins, against those who claim that morality is not possible without religion. He summarises some of the arguments that Dawkins has given to state that it is possible to be moral without God. Naturally, Harries, as a believer, then makes the sideways move of stating that:
…all of us, whatever we believe or do not believe, have been created in the image of God and this means we have an ability not only to think, but to have some insight into what is right and what is wrong.
A case of "heads I win, tails you lose", it seems to me.
But then he goes on to use another argument that I had not come across before (I lead a sheltered life): the argument of moral capital. He says:
First, many people who have strong moral commitments without any religious foundation were shaped by parents or grandparents for whom morality and religion were fundamentally bound up. Moreover, many of those in the forefront of progressive political change, who have abandoned religion, have been driven by a humanism that has been essentially built up by our Christian heritage as Charles Taylor has recently brought out in his magisterial study, A Secular Age. How far are we living on moral capital?
This does strike me as a rather shaky proposition. I am reminded of a somewhat similar argument used by those who are not in favour of same-sex marriage, because it will destroy traditional marriage. It’s as though they think there is only a fixed amount of love to go round… Moral capital seems to be an equally dubious idea. The philosopher Stephen Law examines the concept further here and here, and comes to the conclusion that:
…the most serious difficulty with this move is that it’s simply unjustified. Why suppose all these ethically committed atheists are living off the religious capital built up by previous generations, and that this capital must inevitably run out, with disastrous consequences? What’s the evidence for this claim? We are offered none. Except of course for some vague hand-waving in the direction of the moral malaise. But as it’s precisely the moral malaise argument that morality can’t be sustained without religion that this “religious capital” claim is supposed to salvage, the moral malaise argument can’t then be used to support the religious capital claim. That would be circular reasoning.  

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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2 Responses to Bankrupt Moral Capital

  1. Gelert says:

    My personal take, and one I’ve discussed with other believers who, not knowing me, immediately took it to mean I must be an atheist is this:  That ‘morality’ does not need God. It needs only early human societies that relied on each member for its survival. Any behaviour which threatened harmony, or food, or safety, or caused discord, and therefore threatened the well being of the group would be censured, leading to certain ‘good’ behaviours being accepted and ‘bad’ behaviours being discouraged. All you need for ‘morals’ to develop. Right?

  2. Geoff says:

    Right. Now, you will get some folks claiming that this doesn’t explain how morality extends to outside the group. E.g., in crude terms, whilst the Vikings may have had a moral code within their group, it didn’t extend to other groups, which they quite happily murdered, raped and pillaged… So I think that moral codes do certainly develop, and now can encompass the "other", but I still don’t believe that it needs God, or even necessarily religion per se.

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