On ends and means

Iain Benson explains how freedom of religion underpins ethics.



Iain Benson explains how freedom of religion underpins ethics.


Freedom of religion is foundational to cultures. It’s essential because it frames our deepest conceptions of right and wrong, meaning, what gives us purpose. One of the important realisations is that all means, all techniques – the Greek word tekna – all means are related to telos, the Greek word for end. So purposes have to be understood in order to evaluate means. And one of the real problems we’re seeing in contemporary ethics, contemporary culture, on many, many levels – whether it’s bioengineering, whether it’s the nature of politics, whether it’s even the role of religion itself – is because we’ve lost an idea of the purposes inherent in and between disciplines.

Interviewer: Many secularists would say there are no purposes, there’s no telos.

Yeah, it’s true there are people nowadays who say there’s no purposes and there’s no telos, but this is defeated just by observing life, observing why they get up every morning. You know Viktor Frankl, who wrote this famous book emerging out of his work … his life in Auschwitz as a doctor, and then later his work on logotherapy which was a psychiatric/psychological framework, he used to ask patients, what is it that keeps you from committing suicide? And on the basis of what it was they identified that gave them a reason for living, he would then work to discover what their purpose was.

Chesterton – the great writer G. K. Chesterton, who himself became a Roman Catholic – Chesterton deals with this in his novel Man Alive, which is, why are we alive, why bother? And in a very important scene in that book, the young main character, Innocent Smith, marches his Cambridge professor out on a balcony at pistol point and gets him to renounce his entire sceptical philosophy, proving that in fact the guy did cling to life, even while purporting to say it was meaningless.