Ethics and Religion

Steve Smith
Christian Center 19         601-974-1334
Office hours posted at

Religious Studies 2010
Fall 2019   T Th 12:50

The terms “morals” and “ethics” get mixed together a lot, but it’s useful to distinguish them. Let’s say that our sense of good and bad, right and wrong in relationships with others is moral, and our customary practice that fits this sense of things is our morality, while on another level ethics reflects on morality critically and figures out general truths or rules, trying to solve the problems our morality raises. This means that in any rational discussion “morality” will turn into “ethics.” Once rational discussion is underway, morality needs ethical validation. In turn, ethics always depends on morality. An ethical conclusion wouldn’t seem relevant or convincing if people didn’t have moral attitudes and patterns of conduct.

Let’s say further that “religion” refers not just to one religion, like Christianity or Hinduism, but to comparable basic situations, experiences, practices, and beliefs that appear in many religious traditions. As students of religion we hope to learn more about what religion consists of, noting significant similarities and differences across its range of possibilities.

In this course we’ll be studying different religious assumptions and ideals for the moral life, talking this out reflectively and systematically, discerning guiding principles and applying them to difficult moral issues—hence, “Ethics and Religion.”

Because we’ll be examining our own moral and religious commitments, this course has serious life-changing potential and I want to encourage you in all possible ways to take advantage of this opportunity for personal growth, not to treat the course purely as an academic cultural study. You’ll articulate your beliefs and your new insights in a personal journal and in communications with partners. You’ll have challenging realtime give-and-take with other moral thinkers so that you’ll learn more about how to be a colleague in a moral community. Don’t expect instant and total enlightenment—but do expect some moments of revelation.

Reading will be assigned in these three books available for purchase in the bookstore, plus the Bible, plus handouts:

The Bhagavad-Gita, trans. Barbara Stoler Miller
John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust
Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth

Grading will be based on short writings (20%), a take-home midterm exam (15%), a 3,000‑word moral problem investigation (30%), a take-home final exam (25%), and class participation (10%).

SCHEDULE subject to revision by announcement in class
Note: we will also screen one or more movies at times TBA

Aug. 27     Introduction to class

Aug. 29     Dimensions of ethics; the religious background of morality and ethics

Sept. 3       Ethical development in religious traditions: Hindu disciplines in the Bhagavad Gita. Read handout on origins of Hinduism and Gita teachings 1-4

Sept. 5       Gita, cont. Read rest of Gita

Sept. 10     Discussion of our Gita studies

Sept. 12     Ethical development in religious traditions: the covenants in Jewish and Christian scriptures. Read assignments in Hebrew Bible

Sept. 17     Jewish and Christian scriptures cont. Read assignments in New Testament.

Sept. 19     Discussion of our biblical studies

Sept. 24     Just war theory. Read Yoder, Chapters 1-4

Sept. 26     Yoder, Chapters 5-6

Oct. 1        Islamic ethics of war. Read Kelsay (handouts)

Oct. 3        Islam cont.

Oct. 8        Gandhi & satyagraha. Read Gandhi selections

View this week: Gandhi

Oct. 10       Gandhi cont.

Oct. 15       Gandhi cont.

Oct. 17       Other applications of satyagraha. Read Gregg (handout)

Oct. 22       Ethics of relations with nonhumans in a range of religious traditions. Read in Regan, ed. (handouts)

Oct. 24       Nonhumans cont.

Oct. 29       Nonhumans cont.

Oct. 31      Nonhumans cont.

Nov. 5       Sexual ethics in a range of religious traditions. Read (handouts)

Nov. 7       Sexual ethics cont.

Nov. 12     Sexual ethics cont.

Nov. 14     Sexual ethics cont.

Nov. 19     Class project. Read (handouts)

Nov. 21     Class project cont.


Dec. 3        Class project cont.

Dec. 5        Class project cont.




I ask you to keep a personal journal of your thoughts throughout the course. There will be intervals in class to write in it along with any other times that are available to you. The journal itself is private, but you will be invited to draw on it in communicating your thoughts to others.

When you highlight or make notes on your reading, and when you write in your journal, you will be reacting to moral appeals. In listening to moral appeals I suggest you listen for bells going off in your mind. You may hear (1) warning bells signaling that something has gone wrong in moral feeling or arguing, and (2) dinner bells, if that’s not too goofy an image, by which I mean signals of what is truly sustaining. To the hungry, how sweet the sound of the dinner bell! Keep trying to say what’s wrong and what’s right in the moral appeals of our world; and keep testing your conclusions. Of course, your negative and positive assessments of moral appeals will always be provisional. Your views may change. I hope they broaden and deepen.


Once a week, most weeks, you will exchange written communiqués with another class member about your negative and positive insights (the warning bells and dinner bells) in that segment of the course. Here what is interesting is not only what you are picking up in the way of course content, but how you express your judgments to another agent who you can not assume is coming from the same place you are. I’m inviting you to notice how your own toolkit of moral and religious expressions works, and how someone else’s works also. I’m inviting you to find out how two people can advance moral analysis together as a team, not necessarily by agreeing.

I’ll assign the teams after consultation. (We’ll redo the assignments at mid-semester.) I’ll want to see copies of all correspondence each week. The easiest way to handle it is entirely by e-mail, copying me on everything. Deadlines will be announced in class.

Your weekly communiqué ought to be at least the equivalent of a typed page, i.e. two or three substantial paragraphs. There’s no upper limit, but don’t get too carried away.


  1. Definition of the problem. By the end of your introductory paragraph, the reader should know what moral issue you are addressing in your paper. It should be an issue that you care about and that is worth everyone’s wrestling with. By the end of your second paragraph, if not the first, the reader should begin to see how the religious background of the issue is significant and possibly contentious also.
  2. Explanation of the problem. Now you get into the aspects of the problem that your readers probably need instruction on. You need to help us understand what makes this a hard problem and what crucial considerations need to be weighed by anyone who wants to think responsibly about it. You especially want to do justice to different ways of framing the problem (for example, abortion rights advocates frame the problem of abortion in terms of reproductive freedom for women while abortion rights opponents frame the problem in terms of the sanctity of human life). And since in this course we are studying the relevance of different general moral and religious perspectives to particular moral problems, you want to bring in these dimensions as well. (Obviously you have to use your judgment to concentrate on the general moral and religious issues that seem most relevant to your problem.)
  3. The real world component. In this section of your paper you will distill the highlights of your encounter with someone outside the class who is practically engaged in the problem (in the case of abortion, someone who does abortion counseling, for example). You will learn how that person relates his or her own moral judgments to his or her actions in this area. You will explain how that person’s ideas and rhetoric relate to the more academic considerations you’ve introduced in your study.
  4. Your recommendation. Don’t worry: you don’t have to solve all the problems in your area. But you’ve written an ethical analysis paper and this paper should shed some specific new light on the problem for your audience.

Remember to be reasonable. Don’t dogmatize, and don’t simply state an opinion.


All students are strongly encouraged to visit the Writing Center, which is staffed by student Writing Consultants trained to help you grow as writers. Writing Consultants work with all writers, in all disciplines, at all skill levels, and in all stages of the writing process. These consultations are most useful to students 48 hours or more in advance of a due date, and many students benefit from multiple visits during the writing process. Students may elect to send a session report summarizing their Writing Center visit to professors. If you would like to notify your professor of your visit, please inform the Consultant when you arrive at the Writing Center. Students may also request to share a session report after their visit by emailing Visit for more information about hours, locations, and upcoming events.


  1. Class Attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; come! But lateness counts as half an absence.

One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the third absence. (For example, someone who missed class 7 times would thereby lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.) The reason for this: our in‑class work is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

2. Electronic communication devices (phones, laptops, etc.). Electronic devices have become harmful Interrupters and Distracters in the current state of our social evolution. Their use is banned in our class. If you have special needs, discuss with me.

3. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will be granted only to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.

4. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances (as with the weekly communiqués), e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.

5. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgment—that is, passing them off as your own—is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism. It also misses one of the main points of being in college, which is to develop your powers of thought and expression. Plagiarism is an offense under the Academic Honor Code (see next page).

6. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.

7. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester. Here is this year’s statement from the Office of Accessibility Services:
Under the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504, accommodations can be made for students with disabilities or learning differences. If you require accommodations, please contact Katie Sorey to register with the Office of Accessibility Services. You may reach her via e-mail at or by calling 601-974-1235. Accommodations will not be granted until you have a meeting with Katie, your letters/documentation are processed, and you meet with your instructor.



Millsaps College is an academic community dedicated to the pursuit of scholarly inquiry and intellectual growth. The foundation of this community is a spirit of personal honesty and mutual trust. Through their Honor Code, the students of Millsaps College affirm their adherence to these basic ethical principles.

An Honor Code is not simply a set of rules and procedures governing students’ academic conduct. It is an opportunity to put personal responsibility and integrity into action. When students agree to abide by an Honor Code, they liberate themselves to pursue their academic goals in an atmosphere of mutual confidence and respect.

The success of the Code depends on the support of each member of the community. Students and faculty alike commit themselves in their work to the principles of academic honesty. When they become aware of infractions, both students and faculty are obligated to report them to the Honor Council, which is responsible for enforcement. A representative, but not exhaustive, list of academic offenses and violations covered by the Millsaps Academic Honor Code is provided at

The pledge signed by all students upon entering the College is as follows:

As a Millsaps College student, I hereby affirm that I understand the Honor Code and am aware of its implications and of my responsibility to the Code. In the interests of expanding the atmosphere of respect and trust in the College, I promise to uphold the Honor Code and I will not tolerate dishonest behavior in myself or in others.

Each examination, quiz, or other assignment that is to be graded will carry the written pledge: “I hereby certify that I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this assignment. (Signature)” The abbreviation “Pledged” followed by the student’s signature has the same meaning and may be acceptable on assignments other than final examinations.

The following is a representative, but not exhaustive list of academic offenses and violations covered by this Millsaps Academic Honor Code:

  1. Plagiarism
  2. Dishonesty on examinations and tests
  3. Using any outside material deemed not usable by the professor of the course
  4. Giving or receiving answers while taking a test
  5. Revealing the content of an exam before others have taken it
  6. Dishonesty on assignments
  7. Receiving unauthorized help on an assignment
  8. Submitting the same paper for two classes unless approved by the professors of both classes
  9. Interfering with another student’s course materials
  10. Lying about academic matters, including missed assignments or absences
  11. Unauthorized use of a computer file, program, user name, or password
  12. Unauthorized use of, tampering with, or removing community materials from laboratories or the library

It is the responsibility of students and faculty to report offenses to the Honor Code Council in the form of a written report. This account must be signed, the accusation explained in as much detail as possible and submitted to the Dean’s Office using the mailbox.

The Honor Council, 2019–2020

Student Members                                            Faculty Members
Emma Carter, Chair                                        Dr. Anne MacMaster
Alvin Joseph, Vice Chair                                Dr. Nathan Shrader, Advisor
Kaylee Snodgrass, Sergeant-At-Arms
Teja Gollapudi
Brenna Michael

One more undergraduate position will be filled at the beginning of the spring term.