Moral teaching after ‘Humanae Vitae’

Not all religions have imposed moral precepts upon their adherents, but all those known as “world religions” have made such a firm connection between their practice and the practice of the moral virtues. Living a morally upright life is, in the teaching of any of these religions, essential for salvation, however the particular religion conceives of it.

A tight connection between religion and morality may be held to distinguish the advanced religions from more primitive ones such as the religion of classical Greece, greatly to the credit of the advanced religions. But these religions do not merely exhort their followers to live virtuous lives, they lay down what they take to be the correct principles of morality. These may be challenged by philosophers and others: the philosopher Bernard Williams asserted with satisfaction that no one now regards chastity as a virtue. It is a mistake to believe that there is a universal morality shared among all human beings, or all civilized human beings. There is, no doubt, a consensus about the right way to behave in everyday life, not toward other people in general but toward those regarded as equals, but this covers only a few of our actions. Beyond that, religions differ almost as much in the moral principles they proclaim as in their beliefs about the world and the destiny of men and women.

Christian morality is distinctive, and goes back to apostolic times. In sexual matters it is severe, demanding monogamy, unlike...

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About the Author

Michael Dummett was Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University until his retirement in 1992. He has taught at Stanford University, Princeton University, the University of Bologna, the University of Ghana, and Harvard University.