Monday, March 04, 2013

Religiously situated ethics

Noticed at the last minute that the AAR's Comparative Religious Ethics Group and Teaching Religion Section are co-sponsoring a panel on, well, the teaching of comparative religious ethics. I don't do as much of that as I might but I do love it when I do. So I pulled out my Exploring Religious Ethics files and ramped it all up a notch. "Widening moral communities: A Framework for teaching comparative religious ethics" proposes that one might plot a trajectory from (1) moral communities beyond the human to (2) rethinking relationships and agency to (3) human ethics reframed, winding up with (4) challenges of pluralism.

You're familiar with most of it, I think. What's new is the idea that, once you've recognized non-human (strictly speaking: not living adult human) members of the moral community, you have opened yourself to radically non-reciprocal forms of relationship, and, in so doing, have expanded the category of agency well beyond the quirks and norms of human agency. Spirits, animals, totems, the dead, the unborn, rocks and trees, saints, deities, God cannot and do not act as we do, and are only poorly understood on analogy with our forms of agency. But once you acknowledge this, you're able to understand distinctively human agency as our part in a larger system of participation, enactment and care (and, in some cases I suppose, conflict).

And then, returning to the community of living human beings, you can see non-reciprocal relationships, and the existence of qualitatively different forms of human agency: think monks, but also shamans, reincarnated lamas, sacred kings, and, if you're looking for trouble, women and men. A merely interhuman ethics, especially one which applies equally to all, is seen as a subset of larger relationships and an island of precious parity. My current course engages several of these questions (not the non-human agency one), but it might be fun sometime to design a course that does this more ambitious and subversive thing - even if AAR turns out not to be interested!

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