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Ethics and Religion

To exemplify some of the problems in confusing ethics with other disciplines, let us return for a moment, to the question: Are there any conditions under which euthanasia is ethically justifiable? Rather than understanding this as an ethical question, some take it to be a religious question. Therefore, they think through the question using religious principles. They see some religious principles, namely, the ones in which they believe, as fundamental to ethics.

They argue, for example, that euthanasia is not ethically justifiable because "the Bible says it is wrong to commit suicide." Because they do not distinguish the theological from the ethical, they are likely to miss the relevance of the concept of cruelty. They are not likely to struggle with the problem. This may mean that they find it difficult to feel any force behind the argument for euthanasia in this case or to appreciate what it is to experience hopeless torment without end.

A commitment to some set of religious beliefs may prevent them from recognizing that ethical concepts take priority over religious beliefs when they conflict, as the former are universal and the latter are inherently controversial. Reasonable persons give priority allegiance to ethical concepts and principles, whether these concepts and principles are or are not explicitly acknowledged by a given religious group. Religious beliefs are, at best, supplementary to ethical principles but cannot overrule them.

Consider this example: If a religious group were to believe that the firstborn male of every family must be killed as a sacrifice and failed to exercise any countervailing ethical judgment, every person in that group would think themselves to be ethically obligated to kill their firstborn male. Their religious beliefs would lead them to unethical behavior and lessen their capacity to appreciate the cruel nature of their behavior.

The genuinely ethical thing to do in a society that propagates the above religious belief would be to rebel and resist what others consider to be obligatory. In short, theological beliefs do not properly override ethical principles, for we must use ethical principles to judge religious practices. We have no other reasonable choice.

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