Oh for God’s sake, Mister Folau

There exist a handful of highly dependable provocations when it comes to engaging young people with philosophy. Do we really have free will? (Yes) Is it reasonable to believe in God? (Sure) and, Where do our moral values come from? (Tricky, this one.) Those with not taste for formal philosophical diversions will often dismiss the whole game as a kind of intellectual chess, amusing for some but ultimately purposeless, but I’m unconvinced. Rather, I think important philosophical ideas take hold in populations often unexamined, and the resulting cultural and behavioural shifts are profound. I argue that developing the tools to examine the ideas we otherwise unthinkingly adopt is a crucial part of education. And over recent weeks an excellent, concrete example of this has been in the media. The extremely gifted Australian rugby player Israel Folau has caused a huge stir by publicly expressing his religious belief that practising homosexuality will earn you a place in hell. Local rugby players Brad Weber and T J Perenara have publicly denounced this stance, well done those men, while by and large the rest of the studiously apolitical playing fraternity have stayed quiet. (Ritchie McCaw, you want to be a genuine leader? Here’s your chance.)

Now, it will surprise nobody that I think Israel Falau is completely wrong. Wrong in his beliefs and wrong in his desire to express them publicly. And hence I find it completely and gobsmackingly wonderful that both Weber and Perenara have spoken out, and in particular think Weber, an up and comer with plenty to lose by taking a stand, and also the man who stood up first, something of a hero. New Zealand rugby culture is clearly homophobic (still waiting for our first openly gay All Black, what does that tell us?) and the Folau incident has been one of those key moments where a private conversation has become public and the reactionary forces within suddenly realise that time has moved on them, progress has been made and they can either change or be left behind. The mainstream public reaction in New Zealand has been heartening. We’re, in the main, proud of our open and welcoming stance when it comes to difference, and looked on in bemusement at the Australian contortions over same sex marriage.

But, here’s the interesting thing for a philosophy geek: if Folau is wrong to hold his views, then on what grounds? It surely can not be simply because his views are no longer those of the majority, for nobody wants a society in which minority voices are silenced. Nor can it be because we believe his views are harmful. For, to be fair, he undoubtedly believes our views are harmful, too. Not wishing to put words into his mouth, but presumably if a person holds a genuine conviction that a particular behaviour will lead that person to eternal suffering, then we who are encouraging such behaviour are doing immeasurable harm to a fellow human being. So the difference can not be one of motivation, for if we are to take the most charitable stance, both sides are motivated by a desire to help our fellow human beings. Nor can it be a case that a person should not be able to express their religious convictions, for in the end we all have meta-narratives in which our meaning is embedded, and so it is in some sense impossible to have a conversation about moral imperatives without bringing a metaphysical framework to the party, no matter how vigorously some rationalists dispute this point. We can not even dismiss the point of view on the grounds of coherence, for once the initials assumptions are accepted the case is not particularly incoherent.

If we wish to show a public figure like Folau is wrong to speak in this way, we are going to need to be able to claim a moral framework that is accepted by all those within the conversation. In a perfect world it will be accepted by those who hold these religiously-based anti-homosexual views, because if it is, then there is a genuine opportunity for conversation. The alternative approach is not to attempt to win over the converted, but rather to move the centre ground, such that young people growing up in a faith at odds with these values feels increasingly marginalised and out of step, and are more likely to abandon their belief set. I have two problems with this approach. The first is, it places too much faith in steady moral improvement, and allows the mood of the times to go unexamined, thus wrongly equating change with progress. I think an examined and critiqued journey the better option. But second, it uses conflict as a weapon and the chances of that backfiring (creating for instance a hardened core of resistance to change) seem high.

What, though, can be used as our framework? What, in other words, is morality to be founded upon? Clearly there are any number of competing ethical frameworks which all purport to do the job, and it is beyond both my scope and expertise to adequately analyse them. What we can see, however, is that in a case like this one, Folau’s heartfelt response falls into a category which would broadly be described as command ethics. That is, what is right and wrong is not reasoned towards, within a given framework, say a virtue, utilitarian or Kantian approach, but rather divined by way of a set of sacred teachings. To echo Socrates, we can ask, ‘Is the thing good because God wills it, or does God will the thing because it is good?’ In other words, for those who believe in a higher power, is discovering what is good simply a matter of working out what that higher power approves of, or is goodness reachable by independent means? Can we trust, for example, our moral intuitions, or think in terms of observable pragmatic outcomes for those affected by the decree? A great number of traditional religious approaches would endorse the latter viewpoint, and a good deal of religious scholarship concerns itself with discerning that which is good by means of reasoning. Hence, rather than seeing this as a difference between religious and humanist impulses, as many have been tempted to do, it is better to cleave the world into those who are drawn towards a command theory of ethics and those that aren’t. In this case many, if not the majority, or religious thinkers would sit squarely in the anti-Folau camp, and the problem, if we are to claim one, is not an adherence to religious teachings, but rather an adherence to religious teachings that do not allow that the good is discernable by human inquiry.

From here I would argue that the command theory of ethics contains a singular danger: that the good is not conducive to genuinely open conversation or inquiry. It precludes then the possibility of personal and collective growth through open hearted consideration of the views of others, and is sadly toxic to compromise. If we take as the aims of an ethical system the flourishing of humanity (and one mustn’t necessarily see this as the aim, but it is an aim that accords well with majority intuition) then this inability of the system to deliver up a peaceful manner of co-existing in a pluralist society is to me a fatal flaw. So, I would argue that there is something wrong with command ethics of all flavours, in that they encourage adherents to hold dear beliefs which are ultimately inscrutable, and when these beliefs then seek to export themselves out into the world, affecting the way others are able to live their lives (and make no mistake, a sporting hero effectively telling young homosexuals they’re going to hell brutally affects those young lives) that flaw is to me insurmountable. I have absolutely no trouble with people pointing out to me the way my behaviours and stances are hurting others or indeed me in demonstrable ways. Having them claim that my actions are hurting others in a way only discernable through the mechanism of their particular faith stance leaves me no place to turn. If I can not adopt that faith stance, then we two are implacably opposed, with no means of arbitration available. What’s more, as the world changes on such adherents, they are prone to feeling isolated and victimised, and their efforts to maintain their righteousness in a progressive society become increasingly stubborn and dangerous. The only riposte left them is the belief that we, the progressive majority, are evil – violence lurks in the shadow of such a world view.

Our responsibility then is not to decry the beliefs of Israel Folau because they are religious, but rather to clearly articulate the difference between those forms of religious belief which are at their heart peaceful, and those which are not. Folau, and those who would support his stance, is wrong because he would tolerate the harm of human beings whose existence can not be sanely questioned, in the name of benefit accruing by way of a metaphysical reckoning that can be neither challenged nor verified. In fact, the very notion of hell carries exactly the kind of punitive violence that opposes peace and forgiveness. Little wonder that even the Pope is losing his conviction on this one. There is hope.


4 thoughts on “Oh for God’s sake, Mister Folau

  1. Noeleen Shaw says:

    Thank you Mr Beckett, well written. My way of being is pretty simple really. I would like to have the opportunity to ask Mr Folau “Is your statement true? Is it kind? Is it necessary.” As did Socrates and some say from an ancient Arabian proverb.

  2. Burk says:

    Hi, Bernard-

    I must say I find this bizarre. If the criteria here were factual, one could assert Folau’s beliefs and claims to be false. But that is not the case here. Hell is a fantasy, and each person can fantasize it exactly how they like, from Dante even to Mr. Folau.

    The rest of the discussion treats a little of this issue, but in the end, the problem with command ethics are not only that they are cloaked from public, pluralistic analysis, but that what they cloak is not discernment at all, but some one’s opinions (clearly driven by neither compassionate nor particularly intelligent considerations) masquerading as fact. This whole area is another example of why religion is a primitive mode of thought / instinct that needs to be dropped as unworthy of mature people.

    (Incidentally, sacred teachings, not scared!)

  3. Hi Burk

    It is interesting to consider, perhaps, whether any ethical system can be founded upon something other than starting opinion, masquerading in some sense as public fact. Once those ‘facts’ are accepted, discernment within that framework becomes quite possible. Hence for me the key distinguishing feature of command ethics is indeed its lack of public accessibility, and the tribalism of many belief systems at times actively blocks accessibility. Hence we have good reason to be afraid of command ethics, but not religion per se, on purely pragmatic grounds. A pragmatic ethical system will always need at its base a means by which agreement on starting premises can be reached. While some argue that this is precisely the thing a religious narrative can provide, there is enough evidence to make me sceptical. How we should then ground our ethical systems becomes an interesting question.



    • Burk says:

      “It is interesting to consider, perhaps, whether any ethical system can be founded upon something other than starting opinion, masquerading in some sense as public fact.”

      Yes indeed it can- a system that does not masquerade as fact!

      This whole practice we have of one-upping each other by saying that my ethical principle is a fact, or my ethical principle is from the lips of god.. is absurd. This is true for the explicitly command-theory religions, but also for all the other ones with moral teachings, as far as I know, not to mention tha various other philosophies that cast morals as objective.

      None are really into human inquiry, as a final criterion, I think (other than human inquiry into the nature of God or other theological concepts). Judaism is a good example. It has one of the richest traditions of ethical discussion and inquiry, but in the end, it necessarily uses the Torah as the core source, which, however cherry-picked and interpreted in the later commentaries, must stand as authoritative. Perhaps after all the interpretation there is nothing left, and modern communities can go any way they wish, but the fact of this source makes it possible to have fundamentalism, which returns to the source more literally, whether taking it the command sense or not. Ditto for other theories of objective morality. What would be their point if everyone was free to disagree about the “facts” they claim to be objective? It would be like living in a fake-news world!

      I think we are totally in agreement here in substance, and particularly on your practical approach, but are just quibbling about the contribution that religion and moral-objective claims from other sources make to this discussion and to human well-being.

      Thanks – Burk

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