How could a man forget ethics?

columnLiessmann: Religion is not a variant of ethics. Ethics classes for everyone would therefore make sense

The popular initiative “Ethics for ALL” was not granted a particularly great success. Hardly surprising in a country, one might think, in which corruption has become an everyday occurrence and in times of pandemic the search for opportunities for enrichment, advantages and loopholes has become a popular sport. Another explanation for this lack of interest would be the relief that with the recently passed law to introduce ethics at upper levels as an alternative compulsory subject to religious instruction, an endless phase of school trials could finally be concluded. For many this annoying thing seems to be over.

The political compromise nevertheless contains some factual inconsistencies and practical imponderables. Only those who withdraw from religious instruction or do not belong to any religious community are referred to ethics lessons. Under no circumstances should this be misunderstood as a kind of substitute religion lesson for atheists or agnostics. The fact that the curricula and study plans for ethics lessons and for the new teaching degree “ethics” emphasize the relationship between this discipline and philosophy make it clear that in a comprehensive sense it is about the rational foundations of our norms and value systems, as in the pre-Christian one Antiquity and then above all
in the Enlightenment and in the 19th century.

One will not deny respect to the social and cultural dimensions of religions. However, their commandments, regulations and rituals, which are intended to regulate coexistence, can only apply to believers. The framework of ethics is broader than that of a religiously determined morality: ethics manage without being linked to transcendent truths. Ethics don't need gods. What some perceive to be a deficiency is an advantage. From the beginning, philosophical ethics had the aim of critically reviewing moral concepts and looking for sensible, comprehensible justifications. Only then is the dialogue between people of different beliefs possible.

Religion is not a variant of ethics. Contrary to a widespread opinion, a universalistically conceived, reason-based morality is not one of the core pieces of religions. When things get serious, no one knew better than the Danish philosopher and theologian Sören Kierkegaard, faith will allow, perhaps even require, to suspend morality. In this sense, one could reverse a famous sentence from Fyodor Dostoyevsky: If there is a god, everything is allowed. However, even secular dogmatic ideologies are not immune to this ruthlessness, and with reference to the supposedly good, they are also not afraid of trampling human rights underfoot.

An ethics lesson worthy of its name will not neglect these aspects any more than the reservations expressed by critics of morality such as Nietzsche or Marx about an attitude that uses a displayed good disposition as a fig leaf for sinister political intentions. That is why ethics classes should dispense with consensus rhetoric and feel-good didactics. In any case, it does not make sense to play off religion against ethics lessons. Nor should the question of which subject could be “more attractive” for schoolchildren, even if this competition will take place in practice. In principle, it would be appropriate to introduce ethics as a compulsory subject for everyone, without thereby restricting the right to denominational religious instruction. If you understand the current solution as a pragmatically motivated step in this direction, you can live with it for a while.

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