Dr Ivo Coelho – Do we have to be religious in order to…


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Do we have to be religious in order to be moral?
First published in Live Encounters Magazine. A special thanks to Dr Ivo Coelho for taking time out to write this exclusive.

The question proposed to me by the Editor of Live Encounters is:  How does one define right from wrong? Does it have to be religious based or is there any other yardstick?

Let me begin by noting that every one of us is capable of making moral judgments, distinguishing right from wrong. How exactly we make such judgments is, however, the question. I believe we have what Aristotle called physis, which is translated as ‘nature,’ but which really means inbuilt principles of motion and of rest. One such principle is our desire to know: this desire, which manifests itself in questions, keeps us moving till we attain a satisfactory answer, and rests only when that answer is attained. The other familiar principle is what we call conscience. We are hopefully all familiar with good conscience and bad conscience; where the desire to know deals with matters of fact, conscience deals with right and wrong, good and bad. The good conscience is the conscience at rest, whereas the bad conscience is the conscience that is restless. When our conscience is at rest, we feel we have done something that is good, or that we have reached a decision that is good, that we have hit upon a good course of action. When instead our conscience is restless, we know that we have either not arrived at a good course of action or a decision, or that we have decided or done something that is bad. This is conscience as physis, as inbuilt principle of motion and of rest.

The smart person will, however, be quick to point out the utterly subjective character of conscience as described here. Are we to rely merely on the restfulness or restlessness of our conscience? Will not each one of us, and each of the different traditions that have formed us, arrive at different moral judgments? And this is true, which is why the Catholic tradition defines the criterion of moral judgment not just as conscience, but as the well-formed conscience.

At this many will be tempted to cry foul. Is not the Catholic Church subtly inserting itself into the picture here? Is it not pushing itself inside as the teacher of conscience, as the one who forms conscience? Perhaps. But it might give us pause to remember that it was Aristotle who defined the criterion of the moral judgment as the good conscience of a virtuous man. Not just ‘good conscience,’ but the good conscience of a virtuous man. This, as Bernard Lonergan liked to say, is infuriatingly circular. For how is one to become a virtuous person, if not by making good moral judgments? And how is one to make a good moral judgment, if one is not already a virtuous person?

Like most vicious circles, however, this one also, insoluble on the logical plane, is easily broken on the practical plane. Solvitur ambulando. In the old days, when one did not have sugar in the house, one could borrow it from the neighbours. So in the case of the moral judgment: if one does not yet have the virtue or the wisdom to make a correct moral judgment, one always has the possibility of borrowing. Borrowing here is learning, being willing to learn, from one’s neighbours, from one’s family, friends and society, from one’s tradition, religious or otherwise. And we learn till such time as we ourselves have become masters. This is a common phenomenon which we do not have to argue about: there is a continuum that leads from learning to mastery, and we all have experience of it in different fields.

But here rises another question. If, in order to make moral judgments, we are in a very vital way dependent on the formation of conscience provided by our societies and our traditions, what guarantee do we have about the soundness of those cultures and traditions themselves? This is a much larger question, one that cannot be solved simply by appealing to the inbuilt principles of movement and of rest that we are endowed with. There is a way, however, something that has been called, by Etienne Gilson and others, the experiment of history. The theory is that traditions that have become bankrupt lead in the direction of self-destruction – not necessarily in the short term, but certainly in the long term. Sound moral choices, in other words, have healthy long term consequences, whereas unsound choices have unhealthy and destructive consequences. Does this sound too pragmatic? I will certainly have to think about that. But for the time being, for more on this phenomenon, one could look up Lonergan’s book, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, especially chapter 7 where he discusses the shorter and longer cycles of decline rooted in what he calls ‘group bias’ and ‘general bias,’ group bias being what we usually call the prejudices accumulated by social groups, and general bias being the inbuilt tendency of common sense to concentrate on the short term to the detriment of the long term.

But there is also another way worked out by Lonergan, a way that he calls dialectic. Dialectic recognizes that radical differences in opinions and conflicts, including those in the moral area, are rooted not so much in the area of logic and argument as in basic options that we either inherit or drift into, or else make deliberately. Dialectic encourages conflicting parties to recognize this fact, and to engage in steps that will bring these basic options to light. And when these roots have come to light, there opens up the moment of dialogue. Dialogue here presupposes deep mutual respect and peaceful feelings. Friendship, as Aristotle pointed out so long ago, is the condition for doing philosophy. Within such an atmosphere of friendship, parties might make bold to gently invite one another to change. I might be able to say to you: you know, I think your basic option is problematic. Why don’t you have a look at this other possibility? And you might be able to say the same or something similar to me.

This kind of procedure seems to be dealing with individuals in conflict, but, as might easily be imagined, individuals operate inevitably from the womb of the traditions that have formed them. And so it is traditions themselves that are called into question, the deep roots of traditions in philosophical, moral and religious choices that are brought to light.

Is this a foolproof solution? No, certainly not. At the heart of the human condition there lies a mystery, which is the mystery of option, of choice. There is a deep truth in the postmodern recognition of fissure, brokenness, difference. But governing all this, I believe, is the providence of a loving God. Non-theists might not be comfortable with this kind of language; but I have found non-theists also willing to believe that at the heart of the universe there is something that works for good.

The universe works for those who are in deep harmony with it. Whatever: I believe, with Lonergan, that authenticity is a prized human possession. The method of dialectic is built upon this premise. None of us in our saner moments wants to be deliberately unauthentic. Often it is a question of expanding horizons beyond oneself, beyond the narrow confines of one’s group, beyond also short term needs and concerns. Under the guidance of a provident God, in a world that has been basically redeemed, I believe there is hope for humankind. And signs of this hope are not lacking.

Human beings have made great strides in recognizing mutual humanity across cultures and traditions over the last several hundred years, and this despite the very real wounds, wars, genocides and conflicts.

So back our initial question: is it possible to make moral judgments without being dependent on religious traditions? My answer is: there is really no such thing as a self-enclosed individual. The myth of the self-enclosed atomic individual was born in the modern period of the West, with roots perhaps stretching back, according to some like Richard De Smet, to Duns Scotus. This atomic individual replaced a very much more organic conception of the human person that is found in thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, and also, for that matter, in the ancient reaches of the Indian tradition. The atomic individual is a myth, and it is high time that it be recognized as such. In reality, it is impossible to grow up without constant interaction with a tradition. We grow up into the persons that we are in what has been called by Lonergan a process of mutual self-mediation through a tradition or traditions.

Our traditions, in other words, are not to be seen as obstacles, hindrances, prejudices. They can of course become such, and history is full of examples that they have in fact been such. They need not. More to the point, it is quite impossible for anyone to get rid of all influence of traditions. The best we can do – and here we have the backing of greats like Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer – is to become aware of the fact that we are constituted by our traditions, and that the only possible way of rising somewhat ‘above’ them lies in such irenic and humble recognition of our historicality, our situatedness.

This is not to say that we should each one of us indulge in blind worship of the tradition or traditions that have formed us historically. I am merely making a plea for serene recognition of their inevitability. There is place for being critical: that is the prerogative of the human spirit. Only, criticism cannot be done on the basis of a pretended access to a non-existent Pure Reason.

So yes, our moral judgments are inevitably coloured by our religious traditions. I would go further to say that these traditions can often be a positive help in the formation of our consciences, though they have also sometimes been dreadful scourges. Perhaps the mutual interaction of traditions over the last several hundred years has itself been part of the experiment of history. The experiment of history is Lonergan’s dialectic worked out in history. Or perhaps it might be truer to say that Lonergan’s dialectic is method that is worked out on the basic of the inbuilt dialectic of history.

And what if one does not lay claim to any particular religious tradition? Obviously conscience still functions, and can function well, even very well. All of us have experiences of non-theistic persons who are deeply moral and utterly committed to the welfare of human beings. Only, I believe it is incumbent on the non-religious or a-religious person to recognize that she is still not exempt from the human condition. She does not and cannot lay claim to Pure Reason. She is as conditioned as anyone else – not, perhaps, by religious traditions, but by some traditions nonetheless, secular or civil or philosophical or whatever. And it might be good here to keep in mind something that I think the Italian philosopher Croce used to say: We are not Christian, but we certainly cannot call ourselves non-Christian. Croce was alluding to the fact that religious traditions have played large roles in the shaping of what we today regard as secular traditions. Meaning is constitutive of reality. It cannot be simply wished away. Integrity, therefore, demands recognition of the contribution of the religions to secular traditions, just as it demands also that religious traditions freely recognize the way they have themselves been challenged towards growth and purification by non-religious, rational, or secular traditions.

So the Christian tradition is not wrong when it holds that the criterion of moral judgment is the well-formed conscience, and when it lays claim to the formation of conscience. It will, however, recognize today that it is far from being the sole agent in that formation, and that it is called upon to recognize the positive role of both religious and secular traditions in this regard. The formation of conscience, in other words, is itself on the way to becoming pluricultural, with all the traps and pitfalls that this involves. So once again we are back to the need for something like Lonergan’s dialectic, or simply intercultural and interreligious dialogue. We need, in other words, to talk. We need conversation. If there are no self-enclosed individuals, there are no self-enclosed traditions anymore either. We are in this together.

In the end, I would like to believe that life is not all that complicated. In most cases, our conscience serves us quite well in the making of moral choices. What Gandhi called the ‘inner voice’ mostly speaks loud and clear, especially when confronted with the Face of the Other. Then of course there are cases that are not quite as clear, cases where there are endless disputes. That is where, I guess, all that I have been saying kicks in.


Father Ivo Coelho earned a PhD in philosophy at the Gregorian University, Rome, for his work on “The Development of the Notion of the Universal Viewpoint in Bernard Lonergan: From Insight to Method in Theology” (1994). He was principal of Divyadaan: Salesian Institute of Philosophy (1988-90), Rector (1994-2002), secretary of the Association of Christian Philosophers of India (2000-02), and provincial of the Mumbai province of the Salesians of Don Bosco (2002-08). Currently he is Rector of the Studium Theologicum Salesianum in Jerusalem, while continuing to edit Divyadaan: Journal of Philosophy and Education. Among his publications are Hermeneutics and Method: The ‘Universal Viewpoint’ in Bernard Lonergan(2001), “‘Et Judaeus et Graecus e methodo:’ The Transcultural Mediation of Christian Meanings and Values in Lonergan” (2000), and “Lonergan and Indian Thought” (2007). He has recently edited Brahman and Person: Essays by Richard De Smet (2010), and Violence and its Victims: A Challenge to Philosophizing in the Indian Context (ACPI vol. 11, 2010), while Understanding Śaṅkara: Essays by Richard De Smetis in the press.

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