The relationship between religion and ethics is a perennial problem in philosophy of religion. In one sense, it seems redundant to say that a particular action is required or prohibited on both religious and moral grounds. If God is perfectly good, it follows that what He desires from us is moral.
However, there are several cases where an action may accord with the strict Halakhah but we have a strong intuition that it is nevertheless wrong. We also recognize that there are many people who live morally praiseworthy lives devoid of any religious beliefs or commitment. This only makes sense if the terms “religious” and “ethical” mean different things. But how different can they be if they both ultimately lay claim to how we ought to live our lives?
Part of the difficulty is that religion and ethics each make absolute demands. To say that a given action is unethical or immoral is to say that one should not do it, even if it is efficient, pleasurable, or beautiful. Religion similarly demands strict obedience. God’s will must be performed without regard to cost. (This is not to say that practical considerations have no bearing, but Halakhah has internal mechanisms for weighing those considerations; at the end of the day, whatever appropriate interpretation is deemed correct must be followed.)
R. Shalom Carmy, in his essay, “Pluralism and the Category of the Ethical”, discusses the tension between the absolute nature of both ethics and religion. If both claim supremacy, one solution is simply to say that ethics, while important, is subservient to God’s command. I suppose a similar argument could be made the other way around. As R. Carmy writes:
Both Halakhah and the ethical lay claim to absoluteness over all over spheres of value. But if Halakhah reigns supreme then the ethical must, in principle, submit and be dethroned: “two monarchs cannot wear the same crown” of absoluteness.
I think there is a way to allow both religion and ethics to both reign supreme because they ultimately come to mark the same territory. They indeed wear the same crown because the King of kings is Himself perfectly good. R. Walter Wurzburger articulates this idea nicely in his Ethics of Responsibility:
One might contend that for the religious believer, there is only one criterion: being willed by God. Hence, for such a person the ethical imperative commands authority only because it is willed by God. This being the case, compliance with an ethical norm because it is commanded by God would in no way differ from compliance with a ritual law, which is likewise obeyed not because of its intrinsic properties but because it is legislated by God.
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[T]he belief that an ethical norm should be obeyed in response to a divine imperative rather than for purely ethical reasons by no means detracts from the intrinsic moral character of the norm itself. Judaism demands total commitment to the service of God. Every action, be it self-regarding or other-regarding, be it inspired by self-interest or ethical concerns, ideally “should be performed for the sake of God.”
It may be argued that this type of theocentric orientation results in a state of affairs where the intrinsic ethical properties of our norms become totally irrelevant, since ethical duties are performed solely as religious obligations. But to affirm the primacy of the religious dimension does not entail the repudiation of moral authority. Since for Judaism God represents the highest possible moral authority, obedience to his command is not merely a religious but also a moral requirement.
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Once God is defined as the supreme moral authority, obedience to divine imperatives emerges as the highest ethical duty.
R. Wuzburger’s formulation avoids the Euthyphro dilemma by conceptually distinguishing obedience to God from ethics. The good is not good simply because God commands it. What God commands is already intrinsically good. Yet, that’s not to say the divine command plays no role in morality. God is a moral authority, not merely a religious one. As C. S. Lewis says beautifully in The Problem of Pain:
[W]hen we have said that God commands things only because they are good, we must add that one of the things intrinsically good is that rational creatures should freely surrender themselves to their Creator in obedience. The content of our obedience – the thing we are commanded to do – will always be something intrinsically good, something we ought to do even if (by an impossible supposition) God had not commanded it. But in addition to the content, the mere obeying is also intrinsically good, for, in obeying, a rational creature consciously enacts its creaturely role, reverses the act by which we fell, treads Adam’s dance backward, and returns.
In Man is Not Alone, R. Abraham Joshua Heschel expresses a similar idea: “Man cannot be good unless he strives to be holy.” This doesn’t mean that one cannot live a moral life without religion because what it means to be moral is to be religious. It’s that the highest moral virtue is itself cultivating a relationship with God, who is perfectly good. “What does the Lord your God demand of you but to revere the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul” (Deut. 10:12).
At the end of the day, the two kings, ethics and religion, each demand our absolute loyalty not because they are the same, but because the actions they demand are the same. They share one crown because, while they have distinct bodies, they are attached at the head.