Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, and director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life, came to talk at Canterbury as part of our public lecture series. His title for the evening was 1914-18: Was Britain Right to Fight? It was a fantastic lecture followed by some interesting questions and he argued cogently for the justification of a just war.
The starting point for just war self defence or the protection of the innocent?
He distinguished Christian just war theory as having a different starting point from the analytic philosophy starting point. The analytic philosophy starting point is the UN an self defence. The Christian starting point is in protection of the innocent. He argued that self defence is not always a moral justification. For instance, Germany’s self defence at the end of the second world war as the allies pushed forward was not morally justifiable. Self defense is not a good in its own sake. It depends what you are defending, for what, and at what price. Protection of the innocent is a stronger staring point for just war than self defense.
A just peace?
Another standout discussion was around the price of peace. This comes right out of the notion in moral theology that inaction can be wrong – the sin of omission. He spoke about the west’s decision to withdraw after pushing Saddam out of Kuwait in the first Iraq war and the consequence for the ethnic minorities he then slaughtered. The point being that when we talk about peace, whose peace do we mean? Do we protect our peace by not intervening, which allows another to enjoy peace whilst they end the peace of a third party and do terrible things? When we use notions of peace a key question is who enjoys that peace?
A fascinating talk.
You can listen to Nigel Biggar debating some of these issues on Premier Christian Radio from a link here.
What about the argument that the current study of ethics does not help develop and understanding of religion? This seems to be behind some of the thinking of the consultation. It is striking that the proposal of a systematic study of religion includes moral principles of that religion, apart from the section on philosophy, ethics and social sciences. It is almost as if a notion of the secular and sacred underpin the proposed changes. I am not sure if this was concious but it is clearly there.
One answer to this would be to strengthen the position of religious ethics inviting specifications to include religious understandings of dignity, religious rules and principles, social justice, duty and conscience, virtue and compassion, freedom and divine determinism for instance. These could be studied from the perspective of one (or two) religious traditions along with ideas of acts, ends, absolute and relative truth, ends and means etc, although it would require substantive curriculum time.
I think it could resolve the question of whether ethics addresses and explores religious life as well as the pursuit of the good life.
I was asked this question on Facebook. Here is one answer.
I think there are lots of arguments related to popularity and teacher expertise. But I think we need an educational argument to be a clincher, rather than a market or professional argument (as both are always compromised one way or another). So the clincher argument for me is based on a presumption that the study of religion is the study of doxy and praxy, belief and action. My basic starting point is that some forms of some religions lean more towards belief as the main defining focus of what they are, others lean towards action but many have both components. I would suggest it is impossible to understand Christianity without studying action. Indeed the nature of love and the good is a central focus of Christian texts and Christian thought over time. So the question is could religious studies safely ignore moral discernment and action (ethics) without taking a major feature away from the lens of study. For a study of religion not to have a focus on action means it is missing a substantive element of what it means to be religious in many religions and many belief systems. I can’t speak so confidently for geography. Maybe you can enlighten me there. However I would argue you cannot disregard ethics. Note I am not arguing that all students must study ethics at A Level at this point, but they should have an option to study it in depth alongside doxy. Note that I am not arguing our ethics specifications are perfect. They could certainly be improved considerably. But here my case is simply that the study or religion must include doxy and praxy and that ethics is key to praxy.
I have tweeted (@bobbowie) a couple of times recently about the ethics of software. Increasingly, we see examples of software controlling machines that can be involved in life or death situations. This could be the weapons that choose which target to strike (see the New York times piece here or autodrive cars that might have to decide between a manoeuvre that leads to the death of the driver (hitting a wall) and hitting a person in the street. (See the BBC Radio 4 programme, The digital human)
This hits a number of ethical issues.
(1) What is the moral culpability of programmers? If you programme the software that makes that decision are you responsible for any deaths?
(2) Should those codes be determined by a en ethics committee, such as you find in hospitals, that approve or prevent the programme? Who should sit on that committee?
(3) What does this say about the nature of freedom and morality in ‘pre’ conscious robots?
(4) Should life taking be reserved for human action? Is there any moral difference between the soldier controlling a drone by remote and the technologist programme the remote to seek out targets?
This weeks ethics starter for ten!
I am making a case for depth of study – the sustained study of a subject that has intrinsic value in RE and more widely is for the common good, irrespective of the destination of the 24000 students that do it. Philosophy of Religion and Religious Ethics are two different disciplines. Combining them weakens them. To do ethics properly you need to be able to be able to do enough different theories to understand the main features of the theoretical landscape (acts, ends, virtue, free will, conscience and authority, self interest) to be able compare them (one of the higher level skills). This allows a student to critically evaluate the theory in conceptual terms.
Then you can compare how they might apply to different kinds of moral problems (personal, societal and global), so at the very least you want to study three kinds of ethical problem. All of these interconnects completely with religious systems of ethics but also include non religious humanistic systems.
Incidentally, the current question frames used by exam boards have not helped to draw out these expectations of depth and analysis adequately, in my view. Greater attention to how questions are set and how specifications are framed is the key issue here.
A student progresses not just by studying more topics but by studying things that create new patters of meaningful interconnection and this is what happens in a disciplined study. I am not sure what kind of depth you can get to in jumping to a multi disciplinary study, but I am pretty confident you can’t get depth by combining topics from different disciplines. To me the PoR / Ethics combination undermines depth of study and rigour.
I think that the text paper has a lot of potential for depth of study and rigour and the Religion paper might (many different disciplines and kinds of topics are being combined here too but I am thinking that one through). The Philosophy/Ethics/Social Sciences paper does not, as it stands, have depth of study and rigour, in a way that will improve on the current separate modules on PoR and Ethics.
I also think it raises a key question about the kind of specialist who might be able to teach both of these topics. I wonder how many of our teachers have studied both PoR and Ethics at degree level. I would speculate that many of our subject specialist difficulties and indeed many of the pressures felt by teachers in general, come from having to teach subjects they are not so confident in. I worry that we might be deskilling our workforce by an unfortunate exercise in “combining”.
My proposal is based on my analysis that the ethics component is really weak (see my earlier blog) indeed in the second section. It is weaker than philosophy of religion at AS and much weaker at the full A Level. The “Philosophical, Ethical and Social Scientific Studies of Religion” section at the moment is much less well developed than equivalent bullets in the other two areas. The whole section feels lighter than the others in demand and coherence.
Changes in the AS provision
Add a new first bullet to paragraph 11
“An introduction to philosophical and ethical language and thought through key concepts and foundation thinkers, illustrated in issues or debates in philosophy of religion and ethics.”
This would provide some ground rules for then exploring the theories and issues listed in the ethics line and the philosophy of religion line. This would allow for the teaching of a bit of Plato and Aristotle, say, a bit of absolutism and relativism, a bit of teleological and deontological ethics, so students had the language set to then explore issues and theories in the next two paragraphs. It would make clear what the ‘rules’ are. We would have more coherence. Without this addition students will have to jump into some theories and issues with no disciplinary framework. In my judgement this would weaken the intellectual credibility of the subject.
I would amend another bullet point in paragraph 11
“two ‘contrasting’ normative ethical theories such as such as utilitarianism, Kantian ethics or virtue ethics and their application to issues of importance to religious belief such as matters of life and death, poverty and world development, or scientific and technological development.”
This makes sure the ethics studied as AS are normative whilst the ethics studies at A Level are meta-ethical. It also allows for crucial ethical contemporary debates in science to get a hearing such as the ethics of surveillance and online privacy.
I would amend the final bullet too
“two contrasting approaches to explaining issues addressed in ethics, religion and religious experience chosen from the fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology”
This is much stronger and would make space for psychological accounts of conscience for instance as well as religious experience.
Changes to the A Level section
Add a new bullet to paragraph 12.
“how ethical language in the modern era has changed; the challenges posed by meta-ethical theories; and a consideration of two different developments in ethical issues or thought that have had particular impact on religious moral thought.”
This would strengthen the place of ethics at A level to an equal position with philosophy of religion. It would engage with the ethical language development. It would strengthen the focus on religious ethical thought.
Dr Bob Bowie, Principal Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University and author of Ethical Studies (www.ethicalstudies.co.uk)
The government has announced a consultation on the revised A Level and GCSE guidance for examinations boards. The consultation period ends 29th December 2014.
A striking feature of this proposal is the downgrading of the systematic study of ethics from the options available. For over twenty years, the English curriculum authorities have made it possible to study moral philosophy, ethical theory and application, as half of Religious Studies at 16-19 level. It has been one subject among many others, which have included sacred texts studies, theology, and studies in a number of specific religions. However, ethics has been far and away the most popular by all accounts.
The systematic study of ethics includes the study of ancient, medieval and modern philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Bentham, Mill, Kant, Ayer, Moore, Hare, and MacIntyre. It includes the theories of natural law, utilitarianism, libertarianism, absolutism and relativism, virtue theory, conscience and modern meta ethical debates around the nature of the language of morality and systems of religious ethics. Alongside these theories, students have been required to study personal, social and global ethical issues including medical ethics, human and animal rights, environmental and business ethics, war and peace, poverty, justice and punishment.
This describes a clearly bounded, in-depth field, with an internal coherence and discipline within Religious Studies. Students who have explored Islam or Judaism, John’s Gospel or Romans, have had the option to also study the history of western moral thought, and the application of thought to the troubles and challenges of our times.
There has never been any need to search for justification around this area of the curriculum. It is quite clearly a common good for all young people and all citizens to consider questions of morality and moral thought in preparation for future work, whether they choose to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, economists, environmental scientists or technologists, and of use for all in their preparation for the questions they face in their personal and social lives.
This subject has been incredibly popular. Whilst only 5-6000 students took A Level in the 1990s over 23000 take it now (see here for the data).
Ethics has been a unifying area of common interest across religious and non-religious populations. It has enabled students to investigate areas of life they feel passionate about. It has facilitated the education of the most ethically literature generation the nation has ever had.
It is difficult to know what impact these hundreds of thousands of ethics educated citizens are having, and no research has been done (that I know of!) on what those adults think now about the opportunity their schooling gave them to study ethics. It is interesting that so many students have gravitated to a subject that has “religious” in the title at a time of increasing secularisation and skepticism about religion (A recent Huffington Post survey of 2000 people found more than half of British people think religion does more harm than good).
It is difficult to imagine that the possibility of studying ethics as half of an A level has not contributed to this popular growth of RS among teenagers, and it seems eminently sensible that students in our schools have the option to study ethics, given the general social good we might think ethics education provides. Even if this is not the case, it is clear that this popularity is market driven, which in a time of concerns about values across whole areas of public and private life, is quite reassuring.
The popularity of this particular module has had an interesting impact on RE departments in schools. The growth of A Level numbers at 16-19 level, has meant that many RE departments have thrived at upper school level, at a time of decline in religious participation and all the associated questions around the purpose of a subject that could be viewed otherwise as marginal. This has strengthened the position of RE throughout the rest of the school as it has meant the subject could attract secondary teachers and have bigger departments with stronger groupings of professionals than would be the case without those A Level numbers. The possibility of teaching at A Level is a common motivator for students to apply to train to teach RE. It is commonly mentioned in the many thousands of PGCE RE interviews I have undertaken in my time as an RE PGCE tutor. In a time of significant subject turbulence, this has given the subject some stability.
In Higher Education we can also see a knock on effect. At a time when philosophy departments have struggled to survive in English universities, theology and religious studies departments have changed and placed ethics in the titles of those degrees (See Lancaster, Birmingham, Heythrop, Bath Spa, Canterbury Christ Church, Nottingham, Gloucester, Winchester, Chichester, Manchester and Exeter, for examples). It would appear that philosophy is surviving in those Theology or Religious Studies departments, and those departments are surviving because the word ‘ethics’ pushes buttons among the student population.
Given all of this, it is quite striking that the English long running experiment in ethics education is apparently about to come to an end, if the proposed changes to A Level come to pass. The new guidance on A Level specifically remove the possibility of the systematic study of ethical theory and practice and absorb it in a generalised section called “Philosophical, ethical and social scientific studies of religion”. The breadth of study of western ethical and moral theological thought has been reduced to two ethical theories, two areas of ethical issue, and the thought of two scholars in ethics. This reduction has been to allow some social scientific study of religion instead. The proposed new curriculum has selected ethics, unquestionably the most popular part of the A Level Religious Studies portfolio of modules, for substantial downgrading.
There have been concerns voiced at subject conferences about the decline in the proportion of students doing the other modules that focus on, say the study of the New Testament, or the study of Hinduism. I have never been sure if those numbers have actually declined or whether the study of the more philosophical subjects have grown. In other words, perhaps A Level RS has attracted new audiences in addition to the old ones?
It is certainly worrying that so many students choose to study both philosophy of religion and ethics and do not engage in a non-philosophical study of religion at A Level. One response to this is to accept the choice of the market (ruefully) and ‘encourage’ combinations that keep a foot in another study of religion. A more instrumentalist approach would be to change the structuring of options to only allow only one philosophical study of religion. To hollow out the most popular module in the subject is strikingly brutal.
It is hard to imagine that this change will not have a major impact on recruitment to A Level, especially in the current time of skepticism about religion. For university Theology and Religious Studies departments, their reorganization, revalidation of courses, rebranding and attempt to remain relevant might now be undermined. Will they sustain their numbers? Will the A Level growth the subject has seen continue with this new vision? WIll people still come forward to teach the subject if A Level student numbers revert to the pre 2000 situation? Will we benefit from a less ethically educated population? Could we not imagine a new, better A Level Religious Studies that still allows a pathway for half of it to be a systematic study of ethics?
I sometimes feel that there is a basic divide between Christians. Some see their faith principally as defined by the acceptance of a set of propositions and the main debate in their religion is about what those propositions should exactly be. This could be characterised in terms of whether or not your Christian faith is defined by the “I am the way the truth and the life” quote and the “who do you say I am?” Question. I might, a little unfairly, characterise this as playing the ‘have you got the right ideas in your head?’ game. I am being a little unfair as of course these Christians live a life committed to those ideas and there are all sorts of implications for what that lived life looks like because of those ideas.
Another group see their faith principally in terms of how they are to other people. They see the moral relationships they have with the world around them as the heart of the Christian message. For them, the critical quotes are more likely to be “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me” and the Good Samaritan parable.
If the first group are centred focussed on whether people do or do not say Jesus is Lord, the second group are focussed on the people who society ignores and need most help. Being good to your neighbour is recognising Christ standing before you. Helping those in need is seeing Christ in them. These are not metaphors. God really is in them. The main debate is, therefore, how to be good.
To have one of these without the other is a problem given the centrality of the social dimension to the gospel and the Christology is the link. Being good to others is recognising the lordship of the other in need and through them, the Christ before you. So I would like to see a Christianity that brings these two together more often.
However, it does mean that there is an interesting question about whether I see Christianity as a moral thing over and above anything else. Being Christ like is about being good and I am with St Paul on the point that faith without love is no use at all. This is how I get to the conclusion that the study of morality and ethics is of primary importance in RE. It is not an add on or an optional extra. The whole edifice of the Church and theology rests on this and is the gateway to it.
The UK government has announced that there are going to be changes to Religious Studies A Level to make it more challenging in line with other A Level developments. So what do I think we should be thinking about regarding ethics?
Ethics has long been a mainstay of the A Level offering a theoretical and practical rigour but there have been some clear problems in recent years that need addressing:
1) Crude simplification of ethical theories that dislocate them from the philosophy and leave them as a seeming random list of principles. So, for example, many learn to recite Kant’s categorical imperative without realising how it relates to his philosophy of the person and that it is his philosophy of the person that leads his thought to reject utilitarianism. So we need to have questions that really dig into to the theory and not simply seek to test theory through application.
2) Crude use of testing theory through application. This is the kind of question that says apply utilitarianism to war, for example. Of course a particular war or other ethical issue with some details would make an interesting case, if we had case studies, but the tendency to simply name an issue topic in a question encourages the issues outlined in 1, above, and also leads to a poor treatment of the ethical debate surrounding ethical issues in their own right.
The only way to deal with 1 and 2 is to have better questioning in the exam papers and better marking by people confident in the literature, beyond the summaries of revision guides. We need questions that get candidates to explore the frameworks in ethical theories critically, as well as look at issues.
3) what about ethical problem solving? To encourage innovative deeper thought, I propose an element of the exam which poses ethical problems to solve for candidates to draw from across their religious and philosophical thought to resolve. This would help avoid the boring reciting of standardised answers and reveal depth of understanding.
So case studies, case studies, case studies…. This would be a fine innovation for a levels.
4) should we keep ethics? Of course! But I would say that as I write ethics books. But more importantly than my own self interest, with so much RE devoted to what I see as phenomenological features of religion, and so many problems in life related to moral problems, I believe ethics is simply too important not to keep centre stage as an option for A Level RS. Personally I would love to see more scripture studied at A level, and schools do have the option to combine a philosophy paper with a textural one. So that option balance should remain.