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The "moral capital" move

The "moral capital" move that I explored here showed up again in today's Observer (article here). On page 25, Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, suggests that perhaps modern atheist do-gooders are nevertheless living off the moral capital built up by earlier religious generations (and when that capital finally runs out, then where will we be?!):

"...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 essentially been built up by our Christian heritage... How far are we living on moral capital?" (p.25)]

Harries credits Charles Taylor with making this point, though the U.S. neo-cons seem to have got there before him (see below). I have not read Taylor's "magesterial" A Secular Age yet. Will do shortly. Anyone out there read it?

Earlier uses of the move

Daniel P. Moloney of First Things:

Religious people are the first to admit that many religious people sin often and boldly, and that atheists often act justly. They explain these ethical atheists by noting that when atheists reject the religion in which they have been raised, they tend to keep the morality while discarding its theological foundation. Their ethical behaviour is then derivative and parasitic, borrowing its conscience from a culture permeated by religion; it cannot survive if the surrounding religious culture is not sustained. In short, morality as we know it cannot be maintained without Judeo-Christian religion.

Irving Kristol (so-called "Godfather" of neoconservativism) agrees:

For well over 150 years now, social critics have been warning us that bourgeoise society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy.

Gertrude Himmelfarb (who, incidentally, is married to Kristol) also favours the view that we are

…living off the religious capital of a previous generation and that that capital is being perilously depleted.

So too does Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert K. Bork:

We all know persons without religious belief who nevertheless display all the virtues we associate with religious teaching…such people are living on the moral capital of prior religious generations… that moral capital will be used up eventually, having nothing to replenish it, and we will see a culture such as the one we are entering.


Steelman said…
Whenever I read statements that attribute complex social conditions to a single root cause, especially in such diverse cultures as exist in the U.S. and U.K., my pseudo-social science alarm bells go off.

Richard Harries: "How far are we living on moral capital?"

Indefinitely, provided these humanists pass the good values they learned from their parents on to their own children (this time without touting any religious authority), and their children pass them on to future generations as well. If there are good reasons to be moral without religion, why retain the religion (other than for keeping bishops employed)? Being moral offers demonstrable practical advantages without the need to back up the practice with supernatural beliefs.

Daniel P. Moloney: "[Atheists] ethical behaviour is then derivative and parasitic, borrowing its conscience from a culture permeated by religion; it cannot survive if the surrounding religious culture is not sustained. In short, morality as we know it cannot be maintained without Judeo-Christian religion."

I find "Judeo-Christian" an interesting term. Is it a term that practitioners of Judaism also use, or only Christians whose tradition makes a habit of historical footnotes in it's nomenclatures by combining the name of their newer religion with it's antecedent (Old vs. New Testament is another example). I have to think that there are quite a few Jews who would view Moloney's values, and religion, as "derivative and parasitic." I think those who agree with Moloney's views stated above, in the interest of full disclosure regarding ethical behavior inherited through exposure to religion, should say it's Zorastri-Judeo-Christo-Manichean religion that's maintaining morality as we know it.

I wonder if Moloney would also claim that Hinduism in India must be maintained in order for atheists who were raised in that religion to continue to trade on its moral capital?

Irving Kristol: "For well over 150 years now, social critics have been warning us that bourgeoise society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy."

Well, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, don't we? Nevertheless, I feel I should pay my own way, so to speak, so I'll leave the religion out of it and continue with "traditional moral philosophy" (does it have to be really old to be traditional, or can it just be what a lot of moral philosophers are doing...traditionally?). I mean, as long as I'm actually critically analysing and perpetuating moral behavior myself, I can't see how I'd be living off of another's moral trust fund.

Judge Robert K. Bork: "We all know persons without religious belief who nevertheless display all the virtues we associate with religious teaching…such people are living on the moral capital of prior religious generations… that moral capital will be used up eventually, having nothing to replenish it, and we will see a culture such as the one we are entering."

Over 80% of the U.S. population is Christian, including nearly all members of the three branches of the federal government, yet we're on the brink of cultural disaster!? I guess things were better in the "good old days" when our nation was young, and an even higher percentage of the population was Christian...and women were second class citizens, and Africans weren't considered quite human (and if they were, there were plenty of religious folks about who would explain how it was better they die in the U.S. as Christian slaves, destined for heaven, than free and hell-bound heathens in Africa). It's a good thing that particular account of religion based moral capital has run dry.

I think one way to replenish the moral capital of culture is to "display all the virtues we associate with religious teaching" (i.e., compassion, honesty, charity, etc.) and cut out the vice of religious faith, or at least, as some liberal and humanistic Christians have, transform the doctrine of faith to include the tenet that religious teachings may be critically examined and modified as human knowledge increases. Of course, being a morally derivative and parasitic atheist, I'd prefer the former. :)
Elentar said…
The moral capital argument mistakes the expression of morality in religion for the discovery or invention of it. In fact, the expression of primitive morality in religion, codified in scripture, poses a stumbling block to further refinements of moral principles. For example, the mention of figures like Martin Luther King or William Wilberforce ignores the thousands of now forgotten ministers and preachers who fought a rearguard action in defense of slavery against the progressive attempt to abolish it. This goes on to this day: Edgar Ray Killen, responsible for the murder of three civil right activists in 1964, was a part time Baptist minister. It is far more likely that civil rights advocates had to advance religious arguments precisely because their strongest adversaries worked in the religious sphere. It was a cross, after all, that the KKK burned on black lawns.

Benjamin Franklin, finding the ideas of a Quaker friend quite edifying, asked him why the Quakers did not write them down. His friend told him that they were engaged in an ongoing discussion. Writing them down would fix them in place, and would be more of a hindrance than an aid to future generations. Far from providing moral capital, the entrenchment of early iron age ethics in religious texts serves as a potential moral quagmire, a black hole that threatens to swallow the very civilization that the moral capitalists claim was built upon it.
Larry Hamelin said…
This is the problem of reasoning (or trying to reason) by analogy and metaphor. What precisely is "moral capital"? I know what economic capital is, and it's actual physical stuff I can touch. I certainly can't touch moral "capital", so at the very least I need a more precise account before I can discuss the concept intelligibly.

If the analogy is to "intellectual" capital, i.e. building on the ideas of our predecessors, the analogy does not work to religion's favor: intellectual innovation, regardless of the positive contributions of the past, proceeds in no small part by ruthlessly ripping out the errors of past. Nobody's saying Newton was a moron, but Einstein couldn't have proceeded without "disrespectfully" ripping out the notion of absolute space and absolute time from Newton's physics.

Fundamentally, the "moral capital" the religious are referring to has nothing to do with the particulars of our moral philosophy (90% of which were blatantly stolen from pre-Abrahamic societies) and everything to do with the notion of absolute, unquestionable authority.
David B. Ellis said…
The problem with the moral capital argument is pretty obvious.

If humanists were simply borrowing the values of their christian predecessors then why do we humanists consistently reject as immoral so many of the things they were taught by christian parents?

As a humanist who was raised christian, I reject many of the moral teachings I grew up with. That a Hell of eternal torture is just. That homosexuality is a moral evil. That belief on faith is a moral good. I could go on and on with other examples.

There is overlap in the moral commitments of christians and humanists, that's certainly true.

But equally obviously, given the many disparities in moral views, humanists are not borrowing their values from christianity. They emerge from a distinctly different central moral premise and in every case I can think of where humanists and christians diverge on morality its because humanists are evaluating a moral judgements strength in the light of one central principle---does the thing in question promote or impede human welfare. The christian, on the other hand, asks only if it is the Will of God or consistent with the teachings of the Bible.

With only a little reflection its obvious that humanism, far from borrowing its values from christianity, is proceeding from a very different central commitment in judging moral questions.
jeremy said…
Though I think the "moral capital" move is virtually devoid of merit (notice how it is almost always simply stated, without any justification), Daniel P. Malony's quote caught my eye.

He seems to think that an atheist's morality is not only stolen from religion (his religion, of course), it is somehow only made possible by a surrounding milieu of True Believers.

I'm afraid I don't agree with the second part either. Thus, he's exposed a further problem: even if religion is the founder of morality, an atheist would be living proof that the moral principles can be abstracted from the original religion. In other words, you still wouldn't need to be religious to be moral - you would only have to follow the same guidelines when it came to morality.
Anonymous said…
BB's point about analogy is well taken. I suppose that Harries was in fact intending a loose analogy with economic capital, which, if you "live off it" ie spend it rather than invest it, gets used up. Presumably he proposes a world in whioch moral idea get gradually more frayed at the edges and unviable.

I used to take this line of argument somewhat more seriously (since I don't really think that "look we are atheists and have strong moral views" is by itself a sufficient refutation) until I worked out that our sense of morality and indeed the hwole concept of morality is based in our evolved psychology.

Yes, undoubtedly there is a lot of indiviudal variaiton and a lot of cultural overlay, but the basics are inherent.
Anonymous said…
One problem that I've always had with the line of thought that claims Christianity is the source and building blocks of our modern culture is that is appear to assume that this culture or at least the better parts of it are in fact built upon Christian teaching rather than being the result of the opposition to it. Which leads to the rather obvious matter that a lot of the ideas that have build our current culture have come from vastly differing sources. And that's before we even start to acknowledge that Christian thought itself is build on earlier works.

My initial though is that religions are starting to witness the commoning point where they are no longer required, they perceive it as a threat and so they are attempting to build a narrative in which they still hold some sway. If this is the case then I think they are going the wrong way about it. But what else can a monotheistic outlook really do in such a situation except come out fighting.

The idea of moral capital rests on some extremely shaky premises. Unfortunately it is those premise that a large sway of the population hold as truth. As such we will no doubt be seeing the idea of moral capital raise its head more frequently.

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