I have long held the view that one of the short comings of most religions is that they judge people based on what they believe. Further to this, most religions believe that God will judge is all on the basis of what we believe. They contend that believers will see the kingdom of heaven and non-believers will not.
Ultimately, we are only as good as our intentions – no matter who dies
I contend that this is entirely unjust because no-one chooses what they believe. No one just decides one day that they believe in God, or believe in karma, or believe in aliens. Beliefs are formed involuntary on the basis of the many influences of on us through our lives.
The influence of our parents and broader family, friends and media, along with life’s many experiences shape our beliefs. Beliefs evolve over time as we evolve as human beings
Because none of us choose our beliefs I am strongly of the view that we cannot be judged for them. I was always of the view that we can only be legitimately judged for what we are responsible for and the only thing we are truly responsible for is our behaviour.
I put this argument to a friend who in addition to being, a reader in philosophy at Cambridge University, is a Uniting Church minister. I may not surprise you that he did not agree with me. What might surprise you however is his reason for not agreeing with me.
My friend, the minister, agreed fully that we are none of us responsible for our beliefs. He took the view, like me that beliefs are formed involuntarily. He did not agree with my proposition, however, that we should be judged on the basis of our behaviour. He made the point that our behaviour is very often not entirely within our control, as it is influenced by our capabilities, which in turn are often well beyond our control. A man who behaves in a culturally insensitive way because he was not aware of the culturally appropriate behaviour should not be judged entirely on that behaviour.
My friend, the philosopher contended that we should be judged only on the basis of our intentions. How did we intend to behave? What outcome did we intend to cause? How did we intend to make people feel? What was our intention when we behaved in a particular way. He argued that if our intentions were honourable then we should be judged as being honourable. He argued that if our intended outcome was positive we should be judged on that outcome more so than the actual outcome, if indeed, they are not the same.
Curiously, given his religious vocation, or perhaps not so curiously, given his academic vocation, this view is entirely consistent to that articulated in the late 1700s by Immanuel Kant. Immanuel, one of the leading philosophers of his time had rejected both religion and the notion of a God but embraced fully the morality that was said to lie at the heart of organised religion. He believed that moral behaviour was important and that the morality or otherwise of a behaviour should be judged on the basis of intention.
Kant contended that, ‘the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfil our duty.’ He further contended that, ‘the goodness of any act must be judged on the intended outcome, not the actual outcome, whether or not the two are the same’.
Ponder this for a moment. It really makes a great deal of sense. Morality is related much more to what you are trying to do, than it is to what you actually do. Your control over your intentions is absolute, while your control over your behaviour is much less, in most cases. This thinking is called the deontological moral theory.
Kant also believed in what he called the Categorical Imperative, that there is ‘an unconditional moral obligation binding in all circumstances and is not dependent on a person's inclination or purpose’. He also contended that, ‘one should only do what can and should be accepted as a universal rule and as such could be done by everyone, without negative consequences’. In other words, and without religious reference ‘do unto others as it would be acceptable for them to do unto you (or for everyone to do unto everyone).
In other words, only cheat on your partner, if it would work universally for everyone to cheat on their partner, and if it would not work for every, including your partner, to cheat on their partner, then it is not a moral act. This notion, is one of many that demonstrates that morality and religion are entirely independent of each other, a contention my minister friend would and does readily agree with.
Kant helped me understand firstly, that I can and should be held responsible for my intentions not my behaviour, no matter how good or bad the outcome, and that every act should be judged for its morality on the basis of whether it would be acceptable and feasible to apply it universally.