On universal morality (or not)

Nick Spencer explains why all religions and ethical systems are not the same.



Nick Spencer explains why all religions and ethical systems are not the same.


Simon Smart: There’s a tendency to say that all religions and ethical systems pretty much mandate the same thing – what’s right and wrong – and it’s more or less self-evident, and Christianity kind of codifies this. But is that true?

Nick Spencer: No. [laughter]

It’s certainly not true that all ethical systems, or even all religious systems, have exactly the same, identical, co-terminous ethical systems, let alone religious and secular systems. Now, that isn’t to say that they are radically divergent all the time – you will be able to find some version of the golden rule in a vast number of ethical systems. Think of them more like overlapping circles – there are certainly shared ethical concerns and creeds. But there are also differences.

One might be around forgiveness. Forgiveness might, in some, not be a good idea at all; in some, it might be an admirable idea, in self-interested kind of ways. Christianity is quite unusual in making it mandatory.

Think of the position of the weak; again, many ethical systems will have some view of honouring or at least protecting the weak but many others – and it’s not … this isn’t just Nietzsche who advocates this view – many cultures (perhaps not cultures that are particularly familiar to us in the West) see weakness as a sign of failure and certainly of vulnerability. The idea that weakness merited its own respect, which is one of the key messages of Christianity, was anathema to the ancient world.

So there’s overlap, there’s similarity, but they’re by no means identical.