PAPERS Resources

AAR Annual Meeting
San Diego, CA
November 23-26, 2019

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Comparative Religious Ethics Unit

Statement of Purpose: 

While comparative assessment of the ethics of different religious groups is an ancient and widespread pursuit, the modern field of comparative religious ethics arguably dates from the founding of the Journal of Religious Ethics in 1973. (For the purposes of this statement, “ethics” as a subject will refer to reflection about how best to live as human beings; an “ethic” is one more or less determinate position on the best mode(s) of life.) While there have been a variety of motivations for the attempt to study “religious ethics” rather than or in addition to “Christian ethics,” one animating idea has been the growing recognition that people from numerous religions propound sophisticated and powerful moral visions, which possess intriguing similarities and differences and are not easily reducible to a common denominator. In addition, the variety and particular characteristics of such visions are historically and politically significant in the modern era of increasingly pervasive globalization. Indeed, comparative ethics may be desperately needed in our contemporary context of global interdependence, misunderstanding, and mutual mistrust. There are thus ample grounds, both social and purely intellectual, to suggest that this ethical variety needs to be engaged directly via rigorous comparison. Comparative ethics makes such diversity central to its analysis, which includes three main aspects:

• Describes and interprets particular ethics on the basis of historical, anthropological, or other data
• Compares such ethics and requires searching reflection on the methods and tools of inquiry
• Engages in normative argument on the basis of such studies, and may thereby speak to contemporary concerns about overlapping identities, cultural complexity and plurality, universalism and relativism, and political problems regarding the coexistence of divergent social groups, as well as particular moral controversies

Ideally, each of these aspects enriches the others; for example, comparison across traditions helps generate more insightful interpretations of particular figures and themes. This self-conscious sophistication about differing ethical vocabularies and the analytical practices necessary to grapple with them is what makes comparative ethics distinctive within broader conversations in religious and philosophical ethics. Comparative ethics as envisioned here induces conversation across typical area studies boundaries by involving scholars of different religions; all sessions in this Unit are constructed with this goal in mind, so that data from multiple traditions will be brought to bear on any comparative theme.

Call for Papers: 

Reflecting this year’s presidential theme of “The AAR as a Scholarly Guild,” our call for papers focuses on the transformation of comparative religious ethics since its emergence in the 1970s and the directions it is going in regard to subject matter, methodology, and forms of dissemination. Themes especially welcome this year include the following:

• The Limits of Enhancement
Given the recent advances in health care and bioethics, what can comparative ethicists say in regard to the plasticity of human nature and the Good in the context of technological advances? Are there limits to ideas of “perfection”? How do normative traditions reconcile spiritual ideals that seem to require more than what is given or “natural” with negative attitudes towards the uses of technology for enhancement?

• Postcolonialism and CRE
Much of the work in CRE does not explicitly address the legacy of colonialism not only in regard to how ethicists understand non-Western traditions but also in the very exercise of comparison that has historically been exploited for colonialist purposes. Are there specific methodologies or foci of comparison that could more responsibly bring into relief the legacy of colonialism? What can CRE learn from Postcolonial Studies?

• Sumner B. Twiss’s Contributions to CRE
Sumner Twiss has been a signal voice in the field of comparative religious ethics from its inception in the 1970s as a discrete academic subject to its maturation in the 21st century. Four decades after the publication of Comparative Religious Ethics, what has been the impact of Twiss’s work on CRE in regard to methodology, the self-understanding of the field, and the role of CRE within the larger academy.

• The Ethical Implications of Artificial Intelligence
The rise of “thinking machines” and artificial intelligence technologies in recent years raises a variety of ethical issues for religious ethicists, particularly as AI becomes more humanlike. Beyond public policy questions about the potential harm/benefit of AI, there are also philosophical questions about such matters as the moral status of AI, the relevant moral differences with human beings, the implications of superintelligence, and the ethics of AI algorithms.

• Civil Disobedience and Duties to Resist
What do moral traditions have to say about duties to resist unjust political orders or forms of oppression? When is it defensible to engage in uncivil disobedience? Are current protest movements (e.g., BLM, hacktivism, Antifa) expressions of democratic empowerment or threats to democratic sovereignty?

• Activism in CRE
To what extent can comparative ethicists assume the role of an activist? Do we threaten academic integrity when the political or normative goals of the scholar cannot be distinguished from his or her academic goals?

Proposer names are visible to chairs but anonymous to steering committee members
ChairSteering Committee