The Difference Between Ethics and Religion

When academics talk about ethics, they are typically referring to decisions about right and wrong. As noted above, the study of ethical behavior goes back thousands of years to ancient Greece. Ethics are a branch of philosophy that investigates questions such as “What is good and what is bad?” “Is it just to reward one group with more benefits than another?” “What action should an individual or organization take if a client mistreats him/her/it?” In practice, ethics are decision-making tools that try to guide questions of human morality, by defining concepts such as good and bad, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.

Often, religion and ethics are treated as the same thing, with various religions making claims about their belief systems being the best way for people to live, actively proselytizing and trying to convert unbelievers, trying to legislate public behaviors based around isolated religious passages, etc. Of course, not all religions are the same, some are more liberal than others and some more conservative, but in general, all religious traditions believe that their faith represents a path to enlightenment and salvation.

By contrast, ethics are universal decision-making tools that may be used by a person of any religious persuasion, including atheists. While religion makes claims about cosmology, social behavior, and the “proper” treatment of others, etc. Ethics are based on logic and reason rather than tradition or injunction. As Burke suggests of the “hortatory Negative” of the “Thou Shalt Not”s found in many religious traditions that tell people how to behave by “moralizing," ethics include no such moralizing. If something is bad, ethics tells us we should not do it, if something is good, obviously there is no harm in doing it. The tricky part of life, and the reason that we need ethics, is that what is good and bad in life are often complicated by our personal circumstances, culture, finances, ethnicity, gender, age, time, experience, personal beliefs, and other variables. Often the path that looks most desirable will have negative consequences, while the path that looks the most perilous for an individual or organization will often result in doing the most good for others. Doing what is “right” is a lot harder than doing what is expedient or convenient.

Q: What are the basic differences between how religion makes decisions and ethics makes them?

Q: Are religion and ethics incompatible? Which one should take precedence over the other?

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