Comparative Ethics, Ideologies, and Critical Thought

Journal of Religious Ethics 36.2, 215-231.

Roderick Hindery

To get perspective, compare — two-thirds of what we see lies behind the eyes (1)

Yet more perspective provided by  Rafal Olbinski in his painting, “… “Kick Your Feet Up” (2)

Summary: Ethical awareness and decisions are often confined by unyielding walls within some religious and ideological thinking. They are also stifled by the process of thinking itself. Sometimes our insights overlap and jam our frequencies. They are best disentangled not in insular thinking, but by comparative dialogues with representatives of opposing traditions, ideologies, and viewpoints. In ethics as well as life, comparative dialogue is most productive when it resists both thinking which is centripetal, and ideologies which wash us away like tidal waves.  Cognitive criteria for authentically free agreements are best uncovered by recognizing how they interact simultaneously in three further dimensions: affective, moral, and pragmatic. My article explains these interactions more fully, as it seeks to expand comparative ethics to the ever burgeoning realm of ideologies which threaten critical thought.

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This essay was published in the Journal of Religious Ethics 36.2, 215-231 (June 2008) by Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK. The version below in fact differs from the published version only in that the published version adds an opening statement, the gist of which is that it is the first of three essays by scholars who published initial contributions to comparative ethics. The other two essays will be published eventually in the same journal by Sumner R. Twiss and David Little.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of James Smurl, a creative pioneer in comparative ethics. It is available here with the additional permission of the Journal of Religious Ethics.

Abstract.After the publication of my book and various articles about comparative religious ethics (Hindery, 1973-1982), obstacles in the field’s further development seemed to mount as swiftly as practical issues seemed to trumpet the need for global ethics more urgently. Driven by impatience, mixed in its value, I wondered if I were fiddling in unending discussion, while the planet burned. As others persevered and evolved productively in addressing developmental issues in the field directly, I began to work through the lens of a less direct, but complementary perspective: ideologies and critical thought. The following chapter seeks to connect my parallel approach to ongoing obstacles and solutions within the prolific evolution of comparative religious ethics, especially its urgent pursuit of common moral grounds sufficient to support peaceful coexistence and living.

Keywords: comparative ethics, comparative religious ethics, critical thought, fundamentalism, ideologies, indoctrination, propaganda, relativism, self-deception.

CHANGES IN MY THINKING ABOUT COMPARATIVE RELIGIOUS ETHICS since my first article and book about “exploring comparative ethics”appeared (Hindery, 1973a, 1978a/2004) are implicit in the title above. First, I have altered the phrase “religious ethics,” to “ethics,” not to exclude religions from the comparative grid, but to address them more fruitfully by expanding their comparative scope and context. Second the term “ideologies” is used in negative as well as positive connotations to suggest that comparative description and analysis may become even more germane, if positive religious advocacies are contrasted with negatively ideological elements which infect some religious traditions, old as well as new, and large as well as small. Comparison may also prove more fertile, if ethical teachings in religions are compared with religiously agnostic humanism and with ethical wisdom which emerges from the realms of law, politics, or business corporations. Third, the phrase “critical thought” points to possible breakthroughs for ongoing dilemmas and their solutions met within the development of comparative ethics.

Several obstacles and proposed solutions have been encountered in the comparative pursuit of consensus about values, rights, and norms. Each derives from and connects with the pivotal question “by what and by whose criteria?” How are Western and other provincial biases to be avoided? Are values, rights, and norms absolute or relative? Can they reach across fundamentalist, liberal, and conservative interpretations? Do they stem only from religious sources, or non-religious ones as well? After a brief review of these obstacles and proposed solutions,I will focus on religious and non-religious ethical claims within a broader framework: ideologies in tension with critical thought, a context which I ignored too long, like the proverbial elephant in the room.

1. A Review of Objections and Solutions

Compare by what and by whose criteria? Provincial and other biases

Seismological shifts in Western epistemology from Kant to Foucault continue to send aftershocks to theories about how our minds know and evaluate comparatively. Beneath postmodern tremors a foundational question remains, “How much of what we know is grounded outside the mind objectively and how much is filtered through our diversely idiosyncratic and societal prisms of perception?” Indeed, how much of this very question is fully universal, as opposed to provincially Western or Eastern? In June O’Connor’s rendition of a Chinese proverb, “Two thirds of what we see is behind our eyes…” in “the inherited assumptions” and experiences “that enable us to see anything at all” (O’Connor 2000, 210). Events, narratives, news stories, valuing, and attitude are in large part what we put into them; or what others ideologically program and indoctrinate into our comprehension, with variable degrees of our consent. For saving time and energy or for other reasons, few always resist the wry axiom: “Better orderly error than complex truth,” thereby oversimplifying given realities with subjective impositions.

Partial evidence for such narrative insertions exists in the decrease of new stories during weekends and summers when reporters take time off. Or when any of us think that we are too busy to reexamine and elaborate the subjective layers packaged in our valuations. The foundational query about objectivity and subjectivity in valuing has pursued answers within celebrated controversies about ethical absolutism and radical relativism.

Ethical absolutism and radical relativism

Interactions between diverse personal and social moral judgments have led philosophers and others to propose normative frameworks as disparate as ethical absolutism and radical relativism. Absolutists perceive values and norms with insufficient focus on subjective input. Because values are “out there,” they are alleged to be little altered by personal appraisals. Expressed normatively, absolutist notions of values allow few if any exceptions.

At an opposite pole, radical relativists, including many postmodernists, “absolutize” relativity. Indirectly, their challenge permeates ethical discourse overall. Among comparativists it has attracted direct focus in a review essay by David Little (Little 1999, 173-174). Radical relativists discount objective grounds as though human rights relative to genocide or violations of equal rights across gender and race are solely what we fashion them to be. In this radical, reductive view, common and important moral grounds which bridge diverse moral opinions are illusory. They masquerade behind provincial, class, age, or gender-centered impositions, even conspiratorial indoctrinations. All judgments are said to mask ideologies (Hindery 2001, 49-80). At best moral agreements represent not consensual, but pragmatic steps toward human coexistence. Differentiation prevails, not commonality. In radical relativism’s perspective citizens of relatively affluent countries and neighborhoods hemisphere cannot comprehend the experience or values of the poor or the homeless. Scholars who labor in relative comfort cannot empathize with the meaning or value of labor for those who risk their lives in mines.

Qualified relativism

A middle–not mediocre–path winds in between moral absolutism and radical relativism. Lacking a phrase with more zing, the path in-between has been called qualified relativism. Qualified relativists acknowledge cultural and moral diversity in tandem with relativity, especially as norms grow more concrete, specific, and complex. But they respond to both absolutists and those who “absolutize” relativity by two avenues of pragmatism. The first path I have described as a “chain reaction of interacting values” (Hindery 1973b). In this model, the existence of one value, such as free speech, promotes and supports the existence of related values, such as rights to fair compensation or creative work. Values are affirmed less consensually than practically, even reluctantly, for the sake of their positive and negative connections with other values.

The second path is affirmed more intuitively. To imitate Sallie King’s pragmatic phrasing of a cross-cultural golden rule, few want themselves or those they care for to be murdered, coerced, tortured, or belittled by others (King 2000, 137). Instead they wish them to attain related positive needs. Pragmatists add, why not proceed from what can be practically agreed upon, without endless waiting for inter-religious, inter-scholarly, and other intercultural consensus? In the weary experience of liberals as well as conservatives, biding time for consensus seems like waiting for Godot. The planet is not only warming. Like Nero’s Rome, it has reached the tipping point for conflagration

Pragmatic anxiety about procrastination in comparative ethics has not been sufficiently tested by controversy from opposing viewpoints. Some pragmatic agreements–contemporary political and military coalitions come to mind–may be worse than none at all. Decisions driven by emotionalism and a distorted sense of urgency can lead to disastrous consequences. With a twist of irony, democracy has been called the least satisfactory form of government, except for all others that have been tried. Analogously, democratic consensus in comparative ethics, rationally, inter-religiously, or inter-culturally global, may seem exasperatingly time-consuming. Yet when the dust settles, it survives as the least of evils.

Pragmatism vs. consensus

Pragmatism in tension with protracted pursuits of consensus represents diametrically opposing movements. Yet what if their collision were not side-stepped, but accelerated? By colliding nuclear particles at near-light speeds, matter has been exposed in illuminating, primal forms never previously encountered. A similar acceleration of free exchanges and collisions between opposing pragmatic activists and proponents of theoretical consensus in comparative ethics might also unleash creative insights. Pressure precipitated by a sense of urgency can distort workable consensus, while unduly patient neglect leads to comparable disaster. Let the exchanges begin, but, as pragmatists would add, let them proceed briskly, even singly, unimpeded by grand narratives (Rorty 1991).

Scholars in comparative ethics are not the only players in comparative dialogue. Public conversations about ethical issues already include academic activists, for example, the influential and engaging Vandana Shiva, nuclear physicist turned environmental author and activist (Shiva 2001; Cavanagh et al. 2002). Seething with diversity, increasingly large masses of work in comparative ethics are already being produced by scholarly specialists and activists in multiple fields. Such has been the case longer than some of us fully comprehend. To elaborate a theme developed by Bruce Grelle (Grelle 2000), scholars in comparative religious ethics need to join those larger collaborations more directly and with an eye for interdisciplinary connections. It is doubtful whether their comparative discourse can remain academically isolated in the fashion of detached historical, philosophical, or religious observations, since their subject is inherently public and dynamically social (Grelle 2000). As June O’Connor has concluded about the many tasks of and roles of the public intellectual, “scholars of religions as public intellectuals …generate the critical thinking of others in the public square” (O’Connor 1998, 907; see also O’Connor 2004).

Depending on how much comparative ethicists envisage their roles as detached or as involved in public issues, they may wish to restructure their job descriptions, what they see themselves doing or not doing. As a group of public intellectuals or in affiliation with ethical and other societies, comparative specialists may fruitfully inquire whether decisions not to take stands on public issues, like the war in Iraq, are stances of omission. Comparative specialists address public issues not only as citizens with public responsibilities as described by Grelle, but as scholars whose skills address matters contextually social, sometimes urgently so. While some academics in other disciplines, such as business, law, or medicine, choose to engage themselves in think-tanks, institutes, centers, and their publications, like the Hastings Center series (1980) on The Teaching of Ethics, notall specialists in comparative ethics feel qualified to join projects which at times require skills in public relations and fund-raising. In an unproductive attempt to launch a center in comparative and professional ethics at Temple University in 1980, I realized belatedly that I was expected to exercise such skills. In any case, an ethos of public concern, in variable degrees of involvement, arguably should permeate the approach of every scholar in disciplines such as comparative ethics. With a sensitivity to triage, comparative ethicists may adjust or reconstruct some of their analyses by beginning from the ground-zero where fundamentalism and terrorism meld.

Chasms between fundamentalists, conservatives, and liberals

In any cultural tradition, both conservatives and liberals may share characteristics attributed to generically fundamentalist approaches. Numerous features are ascribed to fundamentalism, positive attributes like zeal or loyalty, or negative qualities like claims to inerrancy, theocratic “intrusion” into government, or literalism. As these traits variously overlap one another, so do terms which describe them: ideological extremism, sectarianism, or an excessive sense of self-certitude. An inflated sense of moral infallibility has tempted not only political and religious institutions, but individuals as well (Hindery 2001, 49-77). However generically or narrowly described, fundamentalism does not emerge out of a vacuum; and its causes are multiple. In Malise Ruthven’s contention, today’s surge of fundamentalist movements is both “a response to globalization” and to anxieties generated in the face of cultural otherness, not to speak of economic and political imperialism globally (Ruthven 2004, 32-34, 195). Religious and other fundamentalist activists thrive not merely in the Islamic world. Similarly politicized movements have emerged among other religious and political groups. Fundamentalism thrives wherever ideological assumptions and alleged certitudes begin to replace evidence and critical thought (Hindery 2001, 69-77).

Fundamentalism and imperialism

Why fundamentalism sometimes provokes imperialist exploitation at one extreme or terrorist groups at another may be best surveyed through a multifaceted approach, rather than by analyses which are limitedly religious or philosophical. As for imperialism, a sense of religious chosen-ness may be interpreted to exploit other cultures or economies. The phrase “God helps those who help themselves” gets expanded to”who help themselves to what really belongs to others.” As for terrorism, its violations of the lives of children and other third parties (who are variously innocent of evils perceived), should be zoomed in on more fully in terms of the economic, political, and psychological roots of terrorism, whether it perpetrated by Muslims, Christians, or others (Hindery 2003a).

Terrorist activists are often young, idealistic, and disillusioned by their political and economic future. Suicidal destruction of others may derive from interpretations/misinterpretations of religious beliefs, such as the Muslim terrorists’ conviction about immediate entry into paradise. It may also explode out of moral outrage about grossly mismanaged distribution of goods and services. Citing Sayyed Qutb as their mentor, bin Laden and other Muslim terrorists aspire to rectify these injustices by what they see as their martyrdom (Hindery 2003a; Qutb 2003). The origin of their terrorist behavior may be further traced to complex interactions among phenomena like common jealousy, revenge, obsession with self- and other-destruction, or the wish not to be propagandized and otherwise dominated by Western and other values foreign to Muslim traditions. We abstract here from how propaganda by ideological extremists also high-jacks the mainstream of Muslim tradition.

Analyses and responses to terrorism invite a fresh look, depending on the degree to which terrorism is identified simply with rogue groups like Al Qaeda or is expanded to include analogous behaviors attributed to some corporations, the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, and other players accused of trampling on the rights of the innocent (Shiva 2001). Initially I found jarring Shiva’s equations between multinational corporations and the WTO, the World Trade Organization, with WTO as the “world terrorist organization.” Benefits from the latter groups seemed to outweigh their dysfunctions. If they sometimes ruin lives, they do so far less directly than terrorist incursions. The more I peer into specifics, however, the more I agree with Sumner B.Twiss and Manfred B. Steger (Twiss 2005, 44; Steger 2003. 113-35) that together with their positive benefits, present global institutions and corporations are bringing destruction to human lives, environments, and economies. Future ethical comparisons need to reprise and detail in tandem with their benefits the so-called indirect damages of corporate behavior and global institutions (Hindery 1980, 87-96). As the saying goes, the devil lies in the details.

Terrorism, fundamentalism, and their occasional merger into a single “ism,” may be analyzed additionally through the prism of what each co-opts from strategies commonly used by propagandists. That approach I have explored previously and will address further below. But by itself, this method is insufficient. Complexity at the origins of fundamentalism overshadows any single perspective. Fundamentalism’s intertwining roots are cognitive, economic, political, and psychological, within a list surpassingly more extensive and complex. The more closely the camera zooms in on its features, the more amazing is fundamentalism’s detailed complexity. Now and then its features can be detected among conservatives, as well as mainstreamers and liberals; for example, in the inflated self-certitude which has sometimes infected academic and other intellectual elites. In any case the chasms which divide fundamentalism from conservative and liberal viewpoints within each tradition invite as much attention as is required by ethical divisions at the surface of global religions and cultures. Two agenda in comparative discourse beckon with urgent priority: first, to expose fundamentalism in all its multiple roots; and second, to investigate if and how it overlaps a) with terrorist incursions by rogue groups and b) with analogous ruinations of human lives which are said to be triggered by multinational corporations, and global institutions.

Values in comparative ethics: religious and non-religious sources

Pioneering probes into comparative religious ethics by Sumner B. Twiss have developed in several interesting directions, two of which I would like to underline here. The first entails his leaving the door open to claims that fertile sources of comparative ethics can be culled from literature, classic and popular, as well as from scholarly tomes (Twiss, 2000, 2005). Moving on from methodological refinements, which can sometimes sidetrack or supplant critical discussion about issues, Twiss speaks positively about the values of moral imagination and empathy with the other. Striving for a similarly broad perspective, and in addition to the use of popular literature, I have attempted to call attention to additional fertile sources, such as theater and other performing arts, from the Hindu Ramayana and Mahabharata to past and present morality plays from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to contemporary film (Hindery 1976, 1977, 1978a a, b, and 1982). A second development is the focus by John Kelsay on universal values in the contexts of potential consensus (Kelsay 1994 and 2000,234) and by Twiss on human rights (Twiss 2000, 159-163, 171-172). Moreover, by including in their volume a critically important essay by Sally King on “A Global Ethic in the Light of Comparative Religious Ethics” (King 2000), Twiss and Grell highlight her focus on the relation of comparative ethics to studies of global ethics. As King reviews and explores efforts to develop global ethics, especially in declarations proposed by Hans Kung, Leonard Swidler, and their colleagues (Swidler 1993), Kung’s draft for the World Parliament of Religions in 1993 stands out in particular (Kung 1993). It seems to call for additions from a) cross-cultural points of view, supplemented from b) perspectives of the poor and oppressed as well as those relatively affluent and liberated.

In comparative discourse, public or professional, progress is enhanced by integrating non-religious contributions from medical, legal (Smurl 2000), business (Hindery 1980; Green 2000), and environmental ethics, where proposals are often as compelling as rhetoric is fierce (Shiva 2001. 2005). Deeply underestimated, in the view of psychologist Gerg Gigerenzer, are unconscious reasoning processes and “gut feelings” that are often expressed as moral “rules of thumb” (Gigerenzer 2007). Paramount as they are for future collaborations, psychological, environmental, and other normatively moral contributions are too enormous to consider further in this brief survey. Whichever professional and global perspectives are engaged, they need to be disentangled from their ideological aspects.

2. Ideologies and Critical Thought

Disputes since Marx about the meaning of ideology come down to disagreements in assessing its positive and negative elements; also to individual resistance to admitting that ideological elements might infect even our own religions or politics. “Ideologies may be defined as bodies of thought or propaganda which affect everyone else but me.” This wry phrase adapted from philosopher Terry Eagleton’s studies about ideology (Eagleton 1999) invites everyone to examine freshly the possibility that their own perspectives may be infected with negative elements of ideologies and propagandas such as: inordinate self-interests, flights into abstraction, and emotional overkill. The positive features of ideologies are as welcome as the supportive features of myths. They are vital to forms of rational thought which are suffused not with emotionalism, but with impassioned feeling. Functioning in positive ways like myths, ideologies provide tentative scaffolds to convictions, which ultimately must reach beyond exterior structures to become individually appropriated. Negative ideological features, on the other hand, are difficult to acknowledge, for example, binary thinking, literalism, excessive driven-ness, and the extreme self-certitude which can infest fundamentalist and other ideological domains (Hindery 2001, 49-80).

Propaganda and Indoctrination

The terms propaganda and indoctrination are often used convertibly and in association with ideologies. They connote systematic mass suggestion or the manipulation of individuals through logical subterfuge, emotional exploitation, or both. Indoctrination, whether it is religious, political, or academic, is coercive, sometimes violent to the point of terrorism. It is interlaced with denial and self-deception, for example, in neo-liberal claims that profits for the wealthy automatically trickle down to everyone or socialist dreams that workers can be motivated to work solely for future proletariats.

Even for those who know better, reminders are in order that anyone can be misled, not only by charismatic propagandists, but also by structures and patterns of thought which seem to take on a life of their own. To draw a comparison from quantum theory and cosmology, string theory evokes mounting criticism, because it rests ultimately on mathematical elegance and intrinsic coherence rather than on external evidence. As a set of facts, allege its critics, it is “not even wrong” (Woit 2005). Comparable thought paradigms can dominate other subjects and disciplines as well. They exhibit a coherence, pulse, and propulsion of their own. Writers who contribute to disciplines associated with comparative ethics are not exempt from the mesmerizing power of dominant paradigms. Like composers of melodies that seem to have no end, they too can be deluged with spills of ideas. Whether their insights and associations emanate from themselves or from others, their ideas often seem to write themselves. Concepts cascade and flow in overlapping waves propelled by their own energy.

Within this power and strength there also lies vulnerability. Whenever the muse thrives, it may also control. Wherever bodies of thought seem to cruise on their own, they may dominate their creators more than their creators and proponents control them. At that transformative point, they become ideologies. They bring even their proponents to subjection. Ideologies grow yet stronger, when they are fortified by mass suggestion, led by charismatic propagandists who, like Goebbels and Hitler, become the primary victims of their own propaganda. Either at mass cultural levels or within smaller academic terrains, much of the hypnotic strength within ideologies thrives when it appeals to adventure and novelty, whereas an opposite ideological hypnosis promotes comfort with the familiar. “Better orderly error than startling or complicated new truths,” to adapt John Kenneth’s Galbraith’s wit, even if retention requires mounting half-truths, evasions, self-deceptions, and appeals to feelings which are unduly isolated from logic.

Ideologies in comparative ethics

The galvanizing power of ideologies in comparative ethics is not to be underestimated. It resembles melodies whose relentless presence our minds seem helpless to dispel. Ideologies can become so entangled with our thought-patterns that in some circumstances, by no means all, it is better to leave long-time “true believers” undisturbed than to urge them to quit cold turkey. What we cannot hope to replace effectively, may be better left alone. We use such brackets frequently, though not always, when we avoid expressing viewpoints deeply opposed to those of our friends, associates, and colleagues. However, to leave ideological elements among their convictions unidentified is to risk involvement in morally dubious if not tragic consequences. At the very least, each of us needs periodic check-ups for ideological seepage into our own assumptions and methods in comparative ethics and elsewhere.

Undue insularity from contributions made in philosophical analysis, non-religious humanism, and applied ethics has resulted in positive and negative effects. On the positive side, it has quarantined specialists in comparative religious ethics from contagious ideological elements which permeate those fields. On the negative side, this separation has deprived them of positive contributions made in these fields, vast bodies of work set forth by a) non-religious philosophers from Nietzsche to contemporary analysts, b) skeptical and sometimes agnostic humanists (Shermer 2007, Dennett 2006; and Harris 2004). Both specialists and everyday participants in comparative ethics proceed more effectively, if they refuse to spread themselves too diffusely, while they strive to retain an overview of increasing paths that intersect their own. By interacting with non-religious philosophers and agnostic humanists, they demonstrate that they do not merely coexist with them, like voyagers in parallel universes.

Philosophical analysis

Isolation of comparative ethics from philosophical analyses has delivered minuses as well as pluses. The downside of ignoring philosophical contributions risks deprivation of their enormous bodies of insights about values and norms. On the upside specialists in comparative ethics have succeeded in end-running obstacles met in recent linguistic trends. They have avoided ideological reductions of ethical content to analyses concentrated merely on linguistic nuances and clarity. In addition, while some philosophical analysts and postmodernists have viewed the self and freedom in a myopic role as merely external observers (Honderich 1993), many normative moralists have avoided such objectification. Instead, they have assumed that the existence of self and its freedom are best affirmed not as outside rational observations, but as experiences from within (Nancy 1993, 56 and Hindery 2001, 81-116).

Skepticism and agnostic humanism

Just as most ethical positions and issues can be revisited afresh in the framework of ideological indoctrination and propaganda, they also exhibit new hues in the light of constructive skepticism (not the pessimistic and negative kinds of skepticism). Doubt can be healthy and productive, as Jennifer Hecht has argued in her lengthy history of doubt (Hecht 2003). It is also provides necessary armor against indoctrination and self-deception. Negatively, some, not all, skeptics succumb to pitfalls like the assumption of infallibleness. They inflict themselves with exaggerated certitudes. Such is the case with some atheists and agnostics, whose “I do not know,” slides into “and no one can know, ever!” Both atheistic and agnostic humanists have incurred this error. Their religious and ethical doubts are proposed as ideologically normative for everyone (Dawkins 2006 and Dennett 2006). Those unwilling to admit past mistakes are condemned, to borrow Santayana’s phrase, to repeat their errors. Specialists in comparative ethics can learn from these errors in three ways: first, by emulating honest doubts about religious and other values at the risk of religious, academic, and other social exclusion; second, by eschewing stubborn, ideological postures of infallibleness; and third: by pursuing common moral agreements with non-religious humanists, whether they are postmodern or neo-Marxist. Comparativists fare better if they dialogue with philosophical and skeptical partners who share unavoidably in the religious, cultural, or pragmatic quests for a global ethic.

Ideology in religious ethics and other academic disciplines

A search for ideological dimensions within religious ethics should examine not only suspicious-looking cults, but established religious traditions, not excluding our own or ones we favor. From Roman Catholic perspectives, for example, some have inquired whether magisterial suppression of free dissent does not itself embody an ideological departure from a broader Christian heritage (Hindery 1990). Each tradition and its leadership enjoys equal opportunity for the same liberating cross-examinations that it approves for other traditions (Hindery 2007). Regarding ideological viruses which plague religious, academic, and other intellectuals, I have been puzzled about why intellectuals seem particularly vulnerable to ideology, in spite of their special skills in scientific verification and falsification. I have answered “why not?” (Hindery 2007). Comparativists and other intellectuals are subject to the same emotions which everyone experiences: enthusiasm, joy, hubris, fear, and Nietzchean “ressentiment.”These feelings pressure everyone to succumb to the ideological (Hindery 2003a, 18-19). At the same time, sensitivity to these feelings not only helps protect comparativists and others from ideology, but enables them to advocate normative positions with greater, not less, objectivity.

I recall fondly my Temple University colleague, the late Isma’il al Faruqi, whose good-humored yet impassioned advocacy–about ethical issues across Christianity and Islam–invited and even incited opposing positions and thereby critical thought (Hindery 1973c, 1982, and 2003b, 18-19). Impassioned presentations like his might revitalize involvement and excitement about comparative religious ethics. For this evolution, however, two critical conditions remain indispensable: first, to certify that our thoughts are truly our own rather than ideologically programmed; second, to encourage constructive expressions of opposing viewpoints.

Critical thought: interactions between cognitive, affective, and moral criteria

In two chapters about critical thought and feeling and about strategies for combating self-deception (Hindery 2001, 159-209), I have outlined in detail some suggestions about critical thought which may be applied to comparative endeavors. To avoid negative ideological viruses like circular allegations about one’s certitude and inerrancy, I have proposed that the results of comparative work are tested by cognitive standards which are not isolated from, but are interlaced with affective, moral, and practical criteria. First, I investigated cognitive bases, such as competent familiarity with facts, intrinsic coherence, breadth, and the kind of scholarly brevity and clarity often demonstrated in the Oxford University Press series, Very Short Introductions. Second I attempted to describe how moral and practical measures for fruitful comparisons are also involved. Examples which I offered spoke of honest and fair disclosure of one’s opening assumptions, silence, listening with empathy and respect, and encouraging the expression of opposing positions. Practical criteria listed correspondence with facts and social relevance. Comparative ethicists may model for others engaged in public discussions, how multiple affective, moral, and practical standards weave in and out of effective critical comparisons. As I invite readers to examine papers in my brief website, Propaganda and Critical Thought and my book’s (Hindery 2001) two chapters which elaborate my ideas about critical thought with feeling in detail, I repeat Wittgenstein’s wish: “I should not like my reading to spare other people the trouble of thinking, but to stimulate them to thoughts of their own” (1997 Preface).

3. Conclusion

I conclude by appending a few suggestions learned more from life’s school of hard knocks within controlled environments, than from the pleasure of reading colleagues in my field.

1. Multiple and interacting systems control us more than we control them. From nuclear, cellular, cardiovascular, and other bodily systems to social and global systems, our freedom resembles a mere slit in a mile-long spectrum. Minute as freedom is, it is to be defended vigorously, if not ferociously, from those who would manipulate our thoughts and feelings.

2. Freedom is circumscribed not only by impositions from others, but from the limits of our thinking from within. Insights about connections overlap, and entangle one another. Our frequencies get jammed, ever challenging us to isolate and clarify them. While ideas sometimes spill over and override our control, at other times they are excavated as painfully as nerves in root canals. More than by analyses alone, they are disentangled and nourished in comparative dialogues with the ideas of others.

3. In a career winding down to closure, I hand on two enduring interests–about uncovering ideological assumptions and about freedom from outside impositions in comparative thought–as a small, slightly maverick baton; though not, I hope, as a final will and testament. My first article and books offered descriptively structural categories to facilitate comparison, such as ethical validation, central ethos, or the interplay between individuals and institutions. Now with an eye to the normative I add: may tensions abide, not to be smothered by prematurely irenic attempts; but also not to be prolonged by neglecting pragmatic approaches and scientific collaborations with other specialists. Comparative ethics evolves not only by way of planning ahead, but also through improvisation in the doing. Excessive optimism should be avoided, either that consensus will prevail or that it will be heeded in practice. Nevertheless, I repeat and rephrase my earlier adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s celebrated line (Hindery 1970): unless we sprint to counter the impact of ideologies on critical thought and comparison, this is the way our time may end, “not with a bang, but a whimper.”


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