Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach, 1517.

In most social and political disputes religion plays no role – we defend our views by appeal to values which transcend religious differences, such as community well-being, as well as values of honesty, fairness, freedom, justice, compassion and respect for human dignity which constrain this aim. There are exceptions – opinions on same-sex marriage, euthanasia and abortion reflect church doctrines but most of the time, on most matters, religion takes a back seat in our public debates.

This is not surprising if the primary aim of religion is spiritual not political – to tell us how we should live our lives rather than define the social institutions and policies we should adopt.

These two realms – which some philosophers distinguish as ethics and morality (in practice usage varies and the terms are largely synonymous) – are connected in important ways, but there remains a lively debate between and within political parties which ignores religious ideas and doctrines.

How does this debate and the ordinary, everyday values it draws on relate to arguments which appeal to religious authority? The choice of words is deliberate; ‘ordinary’ is better than ‘secular’ because the latter is widely understood to deny the existence of God, whereas the values in point are, if not universal, at least ubiquitous – they figure in the arguments of believers, agnostics and atheists alike. ‘Quotidian’ may be a better term, but it is not one familiar in this context.

A simple descriptive account is likely to understate the role of these values; it will highlight the interests, preferences and beliefs of different groups, and the mechanisms for resolving disputes, including the laws and institutions which give them effect. But this sociological approach will capture only the surface of the community’s political life; much more important is what goes on in the minds of participants – especially the role of values in judging which interests and whose preferences take precedence, and the ideas and assumptions which influence these judgments.

To understand this one must be a member, with an ‘internal’ perspective, and a sense of what values mean, since no one begins with a blank slate. This sense of values may be more, or less, informed or mature and may change over time. The evidence suggests that, where the facts are not in dispute, we argue over two matters in particular: we argue over how abstract values apply to concrete cases and we dispute their importance when they argue in different directions. We disagree, that is to say, over their interpretation and their weight.

Political parties distinguish themselves by the importance they give to certain values, and in modern democracies by the prominence given to ideals of fairness and social justice on the one hand and principles of freedom and personal responsibility on the other. While egalitarian ideals largely define the Labor Party they are ignored in Liberal Party charters – perhaps because taking them seriously means constraints on certain freedoms. However that may be, a healthy system will highlight extreme views; but often the debate is ideological – one side says property is theft, the other sees taxation as theft; each highlights the moral cost of the other’s commitment.

Religious doctrines may guide the interpretation of values and explain, for example,the role of Quakers in prison reform and the history of the Catholic Church on issues of social justice for workers. But while the authority of the church might be invoked to support humane conditions for prisoners and fair wages for employees one might also act, as the Good Samaritan acted, from a sense of humanity or justice – this is a commitment to values not to authority.

It is possible to suggest, even on such a brief sketch, how ordinary moral argument differs from religious argument on most social and political matters. The latter looks to an authoritative source for an answer – to a sacred text, person or institution, or perhaps all three, whereas the former sees values of fairness, welfare, compassion, honesty, dignity, and justice as important in themselves, not because the church commends them, or because some philosophers (utilitarians) think we will be happier if we take them seriously.

While this difference between institutional morality and a morality of values seems clear – one appeals to authority the other to principles – it is also clear that a good deal of religious reasoning, including most Protestant reasoning, is not institutional in this sense; it treats conscience as an ultimate test of moral duty. There is, however, a plausible argument that acting on conscience is the same as acting on principle, that is, acting on one’s own sense of values and this claim, if it is correct, highlights the ubiquity of values noted in the third paragraph above.

The idea that values are important in themselves is difficult to reconcile with institutional morality, including theories whose supporters believe their church speaks with the authority of God. The Jehovah Witnesses’ prohibition on blood transfusion rests on ancient biblical texts, but the idea there might be a duty to sacrifice an innocent life is so repugnant to the moral sense of most people that even church members reject it – likewise passages in the Koran cited to justify, in the name of Jihad, the killing of innocent people.

The same distinction between religious doctrines and moral values may throw light on the institutional abuse of children. The primary abuse is shocking but not, when all is said and done, a mystery. By contrast the secondary abuse,the failure by church officials to respond appropriately, was arguably a failure to understand what was clear to ordinary citizens – that the reputational and financial interests of a church, which are not moral values, cannot justify ignoring the law, much less victims. Once this is clear so is the priority of the duty owed to the children.

The question posed by this tragedy is how well-meaning officials – men of some distinction in public affairs and theological scholars, could be blind to this responsibility. Is it a case of becoming habituated to a way of thinking which repressed natural sentiments of justice and humanity? Such a criticism, if merited, draws its force from the fact that abstract values become empty phrases if we cease to care about real-life cases. But we also cite these values to justify a duty to take care.

Some philosophers, faced with this relationship between values and moral sentiments, argue for a concept of moral truth which aims for a ‘reflective equilibrium’ in which judgments are justified by values and values tested by the judgments they entail. This is not an esoteric idea, but a feature of reflective thought; our opinion of someone will be influenced by the impression he makes on us, but this impression will be read in light of our understanding of human nature and our previous knowledge of this person.

However that may be, the distinction between interests and values is part of the logic of moral argument; it rules out self-interest as a justification for harming others and – as the central idea of international law – rules out national self-interest as a reason for war. It explains the categorical nature of Kant’s Imperative because his criterion of universalizability is the clearest statement of this distinction we are likely to find. Interests and preferences, which differ between individuals, cannot be Kantian reasons, hence cannot justify harming others.

The only reasons which satisfy the test are those based on values, such as the doctrines of international law; so perhaps Kant was right to suppose his Moral Law included but went further than the ‘golden rule’ of Christianity – he sensed the conceptual logic underlying an intuitive sense of fairness.

What does all this mean? It means that those who believe their moral world is governed by religious doctrines as interpreted by church authorities must – like Jehovah Witnesses – reconcile these doctrines with the ordinary, everyday values discussed above; at least they must do so if they believe these values are important. For Christians this should be easier than it seems because important values, such as compassion and love for strangers, are exemplified in the life of Christ. This is, however, an ideal no political community is likely to attain and illustrates the difference, mentioned earlier, between private ethics and public morality – We may be inspired by Mother Teresa, but do not expect this selflessness from ordinary citizens.

In the realm of public values – values which govern social relations and political arrangements – the standard is a lesser but more realistic one of respect. In political theory this translates into a duty of equal respect, that is to say, equal concern for the interests of all citizens, and equal respect for each citizen as such. If we had to choose one political principle this ideal of fairness would be a prime candidate; if, for example, we believe in the priority of freedom, then fairness argues for conferring its benefits on all citizens – one cannot disentangle these commitments.

In contrast with these ‘natural’ values are the rules and doctrines which obligate members by virtue of their institutional authority. The difference is accentuated when the latter come under the scrutiny of the former and are rejected, qualified, or ignored; religious examples include rules to attend mass on Sundays and against eating meat on Fridays, working on the Sabbath, divorce, re-marriage, sexual intimacy outside wedlock and contraception, abortion and same-sex unions – in times past these were mortal sins, which meant eternal suffering in the flames of Hell.

When it comes to reconciling these doctrines with the morality of values there are two further matters to consider. The first is exemplified by the recurring debates within the Catholic Church over the relative importance of pastoral concerns, with a new Pope calling for a greater focus on poverty and social justice. It illustrates a point easy to miss: that when doctrinal issues become the subject of criticism within the church, the reasons are likely to appeal to the same ideals of justice, humanity, and respect for others shared by all members of the community. Denmark’s recent ban on religious slaughter for halal and kosher meat has outraged Muslims and Jews, who see it as a violation of human rights; their argument, however, is not that the Minister is ignoring God’s law, but that cutting the throats of animals is not cruel.

The second is a theological question which follows from the first. It is another version of the question raised by Galileo Galilei in his response to a charge of heresy for asserting that the earth orbited the sun. There were, he reasoned, conflicting sources of evidence; the first was Sacred Scripture and the second the Laws of Physics as deduced by man’s Reason. Because these are also Divine gifts one must, he believed, read the former in light of the latter.

The analogy is clear enough: it is perfectly rational for anyone who believes in God to suppose that the values in point are as much His creation as mankind, the laws of physics and the world itself, a conclusion which also answers two perennial questions which, while they continue to attract philosophers and theologians, are ignored in most social and political debates – where do our values come from and why are they important?

I hope it is clear from this last comment that nothing in the paper is intended to question a religious view of the world or the role of faith in supporting it. I trust no one will find support for a Humean view that reason alone can explain the miracle and mystery of life. Cicero said‘the question of the nature of the gods is the darkest and most difficult of all…. So various and so contradictory are the opinions of the most learned men on this matter as to persuade one of the truth of the saying that philosophy is the child of ignorance…’