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Religious Ethics

The term ethics actually comes from the Greek word meaning "character." Ethics can be defined as "The human concern for what is right and wrong, good and evil." In short, ethics is a means of answering such questions as What should I do?  What should I think? What is right? etc. Ethics seeks to uncover the reasoning, ideals, values that are the basis for the decisions people make.


We should point out that there is a similarity here to our study of ritual.  In that unit, we discovered that you can have ritual that is not necessarily religious.  It is impossible however, to have religion without some sort of ritual - whether the ritual is seasonal or a ritual of reenactment. In a similar way, it  is possible to have ethics that are not necessarily religious. In fact, every day people in every culture and society probably make decisions without any conscious reference to their religious beliefs. For example, people may argue that it is important to tell the truth simply because healthy relationships must be based on openness and honesty.


While it is possible to have ethics without religion, it is impossible to have religion without ethics.  By its very nature religion impacts one's thoughts and deeds.  Religions provide a worldview - an understanding of the "way things really are." It therefore follows that religions also prescribe a way of life that is in harmony with this view of reality.  We have already seen how ritual reflects this world view and seeks to bring participants into the sacred order.  Religious ethics also provides a way for people to harmonize their lives with the realm of the sacred.. Indeed, it is not pressing the point too far to say that the actions and attitudes prescribed by the ethics of a religious tradition provide a way for people to participate in and draw near to Ultimate Reality. 
"How do people decide what they should do?" In general there are two types of norms or principles that can be used to apply religious ethics. These norms are the the reasons one would give for deciding that a certain action is correct. For convenience we can label these norms or reasons as laws and consequences. Decisions that are based upon laws or rules follow a deontological approach; decisions that are made primarily by considering the consequences of one's actions are following a teleological approach. Each of these will be considered in some detail.