Through a glass, darkly: Ethical Intuition and Cultural Relativity

In a world increasingly characterised as post-modern, with a dominant secular perspective developing a view of humanity as residents of a global village, the question of the relationship of ethics to culture is one seemingly marked by a determined effort to establish a moral homogeneity. Speaking on BBC Radio, for example, John McMaster, observed

All the great faith traditions of our world are concerned with moral and ethical formation. In our global city we need to find a shared global ethic. Such an ethic will humanise our life together; develop a more sustainable environment and enable us to live at peace with ourselves and the planet. In the words of a Jewish prayer “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” [1]

At the root of the demand for a pan-cultural global ethic lays the question of origin. Are ethics created or discovered? Do men and women in response to their world forge moral and ethical demands, or are they to be apprehended, as it were, in the mind of God, received and subsequently mediated by and related to the cultural conditions of the day? Certainly the dominant view in Western society is that, like other aspects of political and social life, ethics are a human creation, inherited from previous generations and developed so that they retain relevance to an ever-changing world.

Even in some current Christian debates the idea of deity as the originator of ethical principles has been conceded in favour of a democratic imperative that demands ethical values be understood as the creation of a humanity that has come of age. Don Cupitt, for example, whilst holding on to what he perceives as the social and psychological benefits of religion, has developed a post-Christian theology that rejects the supernatural elements of the tradition in favour of a post-modern celebration of existential transience. In turn, he has developed an understanding of ethical value as wholly human creations. Similar homocentric ideas can be seen in the theology of John Spong and Richard Holloway [2].

Notwithstanding the seeming paradox of seeking a human-created global ethic in a multi-cultural world notable for its extraordinary social complexity and diversity, as well as competing aims and concerns, the reduction of ethics as a solely human activity remains problematic. Some writers, for example, focus on what appears to be an essential mismatch between the secular requirement for a human-centred ethic and the human perception of a transcendent origin. For example, as Iris Murdoch observes

There is something about the human spirit which seems to some thinkers to demand a search for “deep foundations”. Herein, it is often felt, there is something essential; and this essential thing must be built into the explanation at the start, or else it tends to fly away and become problematic and remote and extremely difficult to integrate. On the other hand, if it is built in at the start, the thinker may be accused of an unwarrantable act of faith or intuition, since there remains something fundamental of which he appears to be saying: well, it is so. [3]

Philosophically this observation is both brave and honest. It is brave in that it offers a defence, or at least a recognition of the ‘unwarrantable act of faith or intuition’ that has in academic debate become increasingly marginalised and honest in its recognition that it is the a priori requirement for acceptance of the non-verifiable as a given truth that makes such marginalisation seemingly inevitable [4]

In relation to the ‘unwarrantable act of faith’ this essay is a discussion of the nature of ethical intuition. As such it attempts to offer both a defence of ethical intuition and a framework by which ethical principles can be seen to be discovered or apprehended intuitively and recreated through the dialectic interface of ethical form and human culture. It takes as a baseline the explanation of religious belief offered by Peter Berger in his book. The Social Reality of Religion and the nature of the creative dialectic relationship between man and society that he initially recognised and then discussed further in A Rumour of Angels. [5] After establishing the possibility of an apprehension of meaning with realities external to the social the essay will expound the thesis that an ethic is an objective platonic form. Further, as such it is essentially discovered by the intuitive faculty of the human mind and recreated and informed through its own dialectical journey as it both interacts with, informs and is informed by the cultural filters through which it is perceived.

In The Social Reality of Religion Berger attempts a purely sociological explanation for the phenomena of religious belief. As he observes; ‘Society was there before the individual was born and it will be there after he has died....Man cannot exist apart from society’ [6]. To this end sociology can demonstrate how belief is arrived at by virtue of an analysis of the social and cultural context of the individual. Whilst there is plenty of room for the evolution of belief, or variety of beliefs, within the constraining parameters of society, ultimately all possibilities depend on what is made available through cultural transmission.

As Berger also observes however, the communicative and evolutionary nature of transmitted culture is, of course, a dialectical one. Indeed, if it were not, the human condition would be devoid of creativity and man would function wholly through natural law.

Society is a dialectical phenomenon in that it is a human product, and nothing but a human product, that yet continuously acts back upon its producer. Society is a product of man....Yet it may also be stated that man is a product of society.[7]

Berger examines the implications for society if the more important reality is the one which individuals confer on the external universe. For him it follows that the conference of reality and meaning onto the universe is entirely subjective. All men at all times construct universes of meaning which depend for their continuity on the extent they remain not true, but plausible, and that depends to the greater extent on social and cultural support. In short, religion is the enterprise of giving meaning to the universe and God is a required element of the social condition simply because he is a social artefact, a part of cultural facticity.

So where lay ethics? In such a radically sociological construction as this, of course, one might effectively read ‘ethics’ for ‘religion’ (or even for ‘God’) and ethical principles are themselves seen as derived from social transmission or social interaction. For example, for the majority of people a literal view of the Bible as the revealed ethical requirements of God is no longer commensurate with their understanding of the world as received through a scientific description. However, as ethics are themselves a method of ascribing meaning, value and order to existence they are not jettisoned as historical anachronisms but rather, through the dialectical element of human creativity, they are remodelled to allow new socially relative meanings to be found. Thus ethics exist because both society and the individual require value and meaning. Ethics are a social fact.

In depending upon the ubiquitous ‘dialectic’, however, Berger glimpsed the essential problem in constructing a purely social explanation for human existence. If man is indeed open to spontaneous experience ‘through notions that derive directly and instantaneously from our own sense experience’ [8] then regardless of whether or not culture clothes and makes meaningful these experiences it can not be denied that their origins lie beyond the social. The example Berger uses to exemplify this idea is that of mathematics. Simply stated he observed that man’s mathematical apprehension did not seem to be a merely a projection placed upon the perceived universe, but is rather a reflection issuing directly out of man’s consciousness that corresponds to an objective universal reality. As he observes;

...there is a fundamental affinity between the structure of his (man’s) consciousness and the structures of the empirical world. Projection and reflection are movements within the same encompassing reality [9]

The next logical step is, of course, a simple one; if participation in a metaphysical or external mathematical reality can be considered as a possibility, so to can participation in a religious or ethical one.

How then might such a possibility be structured? Ontologically it would seem to require a dualist or pluralist cosmos. If one is to contemplate a universe pregnant with meaning offering cues to human experience and behaviour through an external ethical reality then presumably these ethics can’t be floating around in the ether independent of a creator. This, of course doesn’t altogether preclude a monistic conception of a Brahma type being emanating in different forms, but the problem is that the ethical drivers in any monistic ontology must ultimately come from within human experience rather than from without or else the essential oneness of being is compromised. This is not to say that people with monistic conceptions of the universe don’t intuit ethics, but rather, as will be discussed later, that the form the ethic takes within society is fashioned by its interaction with the particular culture.

The idea of externality leads to a further preclusion, namely, that ethics are in any sense ‘Jungian archetypes’ [10]. The idea of the collective unconscious acting as a warehouse of symbols that can be translated into ethical codes by intuitives for succeeding generations has appeal in both psychological and sociological constructions of ethics. It also goes some way to explaining why different people in different cultures have at times constructed similar ethical codes. However, it is rejected here because of its essential reducibility to human experience. If we are to develop a model that allows the human to access reality beyond the social then the aspect of externality is central.

At the core of the thesis lies the idea that ethics exist as platonic forms. For each human experience or action the ethic that informs it is apprehended through the intuitive faculty of the human mind. Existing beyond culture however, the form of the ethical principle interacts with the cultural precepts of the intuition to create a conditioned cultural response relative to the experience. This is in essence a recreated ethical form and through the nature of human intuition and interpretation may itself degrade to an inauthentic or inadequate ethical response (which would explain why different people accessing common reality have different ideas on ethical actions). Or, it may, given its inevitable refashioning by its interaction with culture, reflect adequately the essence of the pure form. The problem, of course, is the essential unknowability of the original ethical form, which is lost in its recreation in the human mind. But this is not to reduce the idea. It is in analogy perhaps, similar to the mystic’s experience of God. Here the mystic does not see the face of God, perhaps ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality’, [11] but sees the face of God filtered through culture and interprets accordingly.

At the social rather than the individual level we might further suggest that rules or laws that govern society are themselves the product of intuition by being the codified form of that which is or was commonly intuited. Here then rules can be seen as a socially created attribute that are derived from original intuitions. Thus that which was in essence discovered (an ethical principle) becomes a created social law through the dialectical interaction of the perceived ethic and the culture in which it is perceived and later codified.

If ethical intuition is to be offered as a way in which an objective external reality is apprehended we might look for clues in the world that support such an idea. In this respect we would presumably be looking for common concerns or attitudes that transcend culture and history, which have no other obvious driver and whose social expressions are different. Some concerns do seem universal, murder, theft and anti-social violence are obvious examples. However, the example we shall examine is that of animal welfare as this offers cross-reference to cultures that are about as far removed from each other as cultures could be in that we can observe responses from the Jain and modern European communities.

Jain culture has long been associated with animal welfare; they are noted in the Indian sub-continent for the setting up of welfare centres where sick and injured animals, or those that have no future working life and have been abandoned, are taken in and cared for. In the West, compassion for animals has also long been a feature of many societies; none more so than the present pan-European one that has increasingly concerned itself with animal rights and the humane treatment of animals sent for slaughter. It can be counter argued, of course, that the Catholic doctrine that animals have no soul and can be treated howsoever a human being chooses gives lie to the example. However, despite this doctrine and the legal implications it has given birth to, it remains the case that Western people are by and large disposed towards the compassionate treatment of animals where possible and Catholics appear no more or less disposed than other Christian groups.

The interesting feature in this example is how the basic concern for animal welfare expresses itself in the different cultures. In Jainism ahimsa (the doctrine of non-violence) is taken to its logical extreme and all forms of killing are precluded. Jains therefore minister to the needs of sick animals but do not practice any form of mercy killing to alleviate suffering for to do so would not only compromise their doctrine but also disallow the animal the opportunity to suffer now and discharge its karma before its next reincarnation. In the west, of course, a different ontology, a different understanding of the nature of God and his creation, and a different idea regarding the acceptability of mercy killing makes allowance for the practice.

But the point at issue here however is not the cultural form that animal welfare takes but the fact that despite its local difference the baseline ethic is one of compassion for animals. Do we here glimpse an ethical intuition experienced across cultures and dressed accordingly? The problem, of course, is cyclical and we return again to Murdoch’s ‘unwarrantable act of faith or intuition’. It is however, an act tempered with possibility. As discussed earlier, to take the social imperative as the a priori referent disallows or ignores the intuitive or spontaneous aspect of man’s intellectual faculty. And if that faculty is indeed responsive to cues beyond the social then ethical demands that impinge upon his emotional social development, but which do not necessarily fashion or further the economic environment would seem to constitute a likely experience.

What then might be argued against such a thesis? Given its essentially platonic base and dualist / pluralist ontology we might discuss three problems identified by Peter Singer as being typical of those encountered in any ethical intuitionist theory. The first is that the underpinning conception that allows for metaphysical correspondence is itself flawed. The second is that if we were aware of ethics through intuition it would be ‘utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else’. [12] And the third is the simple objection that the very idea that problems are solved by having an intuition represents ‘a travesty of actual moral thinking’. [13]

Singer’s argument against metaphysical mathematical correspondence allowing space (literal and intellectual) for an ethical external reality is based on the counter argument that mathematics, rather than reflecting an all-embracing reality, actually comprise no more than a series of tautological statements (i.e. one and one make two simply because of the value ascribed to the terms). When seen this way the very idea that mathematics have a reality beyond their social construction collapses, and the possibility of objective external ethical realties follow. special intuition is required to establish that one plus one equals two - this is a logical truth, true by virtue of the meanings we give to integers “one” and “two”... So the idea that intuition provides some substantive kind of knowledge of right and wrong lost its only analogue [14]

This idea however, can itself be challenged. For surely the claim of mathematical tautology can only be directed at a symbol system devised by man. The point of the argument of structural correspondence is that one plus one equals two because of the nature of the reality in which it participates, not because of an elaborate anthropomorphic exercise in semantics. In this respect Singer might find a more productive line of argument in an endeavour to establish the dominance of formalist conceptions of mathematics over that of Platonist. Until he does so the counter argument against his tautological one (i.e. that mathematics is itself an exercise limited by culture) can always be raised.

The second problem outlined above; namely that ethical intuition represents a different way of knowing appears to depend upon an extremely narrow epistemology and an idea that is simply unverifiable. Human intuition is a widely experienced phenomenon. Indeed, it would probably be difficult to find someone who had not, if only for a moment, through the intuitive apprehension of beauty, enhanced the quality of existence or ennobled humanity. The question is, of course, does such an apprehension offer knowledge as well? If it does then ethical intuition sits broadly in an epistemology that understands or accepts the possibility of wisdom arising through the experience of art. True, it is not necessarily a wisdom upon which society constructs its rules, but it would appear at least to appeal to the same intuitive aspect of mind. Indeed, if one accepts the Platonic conception of art then counter-arguments based on qualitative difference are simply invalid.

The final problem is in effect answered by the idea that dialectic interaction between the ethical form and human culture produces an interpretative ethic that is carried forward and developed within a social framework. For Singer the idea of solving problems by intuition is a travesty. However, if the intuition points not directly to an answer applicable in any pan-social context, but rather acts as the catalyst to allow the construction of an ethic based on an objective form, any notion of travesty is effectively forestalled. Indeed, perhaps the argument can be reversed, for if no objective value lies at the heart of any ethical dialogue then how much greater a travesty occurs, for we are then effectively reduced to ethics by committee.

It would seem that at face value the idea of ethical intuition has much to offer as it provides an objective basis for the development and legitimising of social moral codes through accessing an external ethical referent. That referent however is also its greatest problem, requiring as it does an a priori acceptance of an aspect of reality that is neither observable nor verifiable, but simply ‘just is’. Whether clues to such external aspects of reality exist is again itself an interpretative exercise, but in common aspects of ethical behaviour found across culture and across history where emotional rather than environmental factors dictate social patterns arguments may be brought to bear in favour of just such an interpretation. Social and psychological imperatives are undoubtedly the predominant drivers in the social development of man, but ultimately perhaps human intuition points beyond itself to an explanation of ethics and ethical behaviour the origination of which transcends the ‘merely’ social.


[1] McMaster, J. Politics of Integrity (BBC Radio 4, Thought for the Day, 13 June 2001)

[2] See Cupitt, D. Solar Ethics (SCM, 1995), Spong, J. S. Beyond Moralism, (St. Johann Press, 2000) and Holloway, R. Godless Morality (Cannongate, 2000)

[3] Murdoch, I. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, (Penguin, 1992, p55)

[4] Singer, P. Ethics, (OUP, 1994, p160ff).

[5] See Berger, P. The Social Reality of Religion, (Pelican, 1969) and Berger, P. A Rumour of Angels, (Pelican, 1971)

[6] Berger (1969, p3)

[7] Berger (1969, p3)

[8] Berger (1971, p50)

[9] Berger (1971, p64)

[10] Westcott, M. R. Psychology of Intuition, (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968, p32ff)

[11] Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets, (Faber, 1979, p14)

[12] Singer (1994, p161)

[13] Singer (1994, p162)

[14] Singer (1994, p8)

Trevor Greenfield,
Study of Religions Department,
University College Chichester, UK

Emerging Church Economics

There are too many errors in this book for unsophisticated readers. McLaren’s book has value only to readers who recognize the mistakes but are willing to learn about a position that springs from ideology and a theological framework. For me, the emerging church movement is enough to consider by itself without flawed economics intertwined

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