IMMANUEL KANT argued with great force and subtlety that
metaphysics, which claimed to provide knowledge of a supersensible
world, was impossible. Theologians were understandably alarmed. The
Church's creeds were audaciously metaphysical. Besides affirming
the existence of God and post-mortem survival, they made claims
about the internal structure of the Godhead. If metaphysics was
impossible, theologians had better shut up shop - or find another
line of goods to sell.
Kant suggested the alternative: ethics. Ethics was the one hope
left in Pandora's box after all the other functions of religion had
been secularised. Churches no longer had a monopoly on literacy or
education. People did not consult the Bible for information about
cosmology, or the origin of species, or even Middle Eastern
history. What was left for religion? Nothing, it seemed, in the
world of fact. If religion was worth anything, concluded, it must
be in the world of "value".
Theologians, therefore, seized on ethics as a more respectable
alternative to metaphysics - and were hoist with their own
In the late 20th century, religious practice plunged precisely
because people rejected Churches' moral authority, and what they
saw as Christians' attempts to force their values on others. In the
United States, there was a pushback against the Religious Right
(originally styled the Moral Majority).
But if the Religious Right's attempt to impose its socially
conservative agenda on the general public was offensive, the
Religious Left's arrogance was insulting. Church leaders on the
Left assumed that they were qualified to promulgate doctrine on all
manner of social and political issues about which informed citizens
believed that they were competent to decide for themselves.
So, for example, the Episcopal Church in the USA, at its General
Convention last year, established a commission to study the ethics
of genetically modified food crops in order to "guide church public
policy advocacy" on this.Who were they to make recommendations on
the development of GM crops, or any other complex issues? Church
leaders had no special technical expertise; so why should the
nation look to them for guidance, or support their advocacy
Church leaders who were watching religious affiliation decline
assumed that the problem was metaphysics. But it was not the
metaphysics that put people off - it was the ethics. And it was the
principle of the thing: not just the untenable code of sexual
conduct that conservatives promoted, or liberals' reflexive
political correctness, but church leaders' assumption that they
knew better than others did, and were in a position to teach.
Churches have ceded a range of projects to secular experts:
cosmology to scientists, Middle Eastern history to historians,
education to secular schools, social services to secular charities
and the welfare state. There seems no reason why they should keep a
hold on ethics or social policy.
Nowadays, metaphysics is booming. There is a renewed interest in
philosophical theology, and enough metaphysical work for any
theologians who want it. It might be time to give metaphysics
another look. It is, in any case, time to get out of the ethics
Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the
University of San Diego, USA.