On Secular Morality

This brief missive came about from indirectly observing the argument of… we’ll say a friend of a friend, on Facebook. This individual was discussing morality, specifically the need for morality to be centered around religious tenets. Between his initial post, and a comment concurring with him, the gist seemed to be that without the structure of religious belief, and in particular, the fear of holy wrath, there was little to stop humanity from dissolving into mindless anarchy.

This is hardly a unique perspective, and it’s particularly prevalent among those with a religious background.

This initial Facebook discussion inspired me to dive down the internet rabbit hole… first of discussions for the need of religion to govern morality. Then I refreshed my memory of the history of secular morality, and typed up a quick response to the Facebook thread. After some consideration, I decided not to dive into the thread, but I thought what I wrote could be a decent primer for those who believe that a higher power is needed for human morality. This was written as a response to a conversation, so forgive the occasional lapses in the second person.

I will also note this is a HUGE topic, and this little rant barely scratches the surface. So if any reader would like more depth, please click on some of the links I added, and feel free to dive down the rabbit hole, too.

Anyway, here goes my response to the argument “religion is necessary for morality:”

Part of the problem is that your mental framework is still built around the concept that morality is a set of absolute rules enforced by a higher power. Without being able to even consider alternatives, you’re limiting yourselves. Instead of starting from a more open and flexible position, you’re opening the discussion with the assumption that the religious point of view is the right one, and you need evidence to change your mind. The thing is, that evidence already exists, and has existed just as long as religious justifications for morality. You just need to do the reading.

There is a massive trove of literature on secular morality, much of it dating to well before Christianity, and even before Judaism. Ancient thinkers and philosophers in the East have pondered morality without any sort of deity for millennia. Even Greek and Roman philosophers have covered this topic. Plato and Socrates both had good stuff to say on the concept of secular morality. Socrates’ (as written by Plato) Euthyphro dilemma takes a stab at inquiring as to what makes commands by god inherently good. Even today, the Euthyphro dilemma vexes religious scholars. Thiruvalluvar, a Tamil philosopher, wrote on ethics at least a century before Christ. His works were entirely secular, and never assumed any sort of deity as the backbone of his ethics. That framework of requiring a boss to lay the ground rules simply wasn’t there. Chinese philosopher Mozi discussed an early form of consequentialism (more on that later) 400 years before Christ – and no gods to speak of were involved.

Secular morality has a long and rich history, as I’ve already shown. One of the more straightforward concepts of secular morality can be explained via consequentialism, which is itself derived from utilitarianism. There are plenty of other schools of thought regarding secular morality, but if one has a handle on consequentialism, then that provides a decent starting point. As Peter Singer has described, consequentialists don’t start with the rules themselves, already handed down by god. Instead, they start with goals. What do we want to be happy, healthy, and productive? What actions will we require to live good lives? And from there, we work backward. Killing each other, robbing, raping, lying, committing fraud – none of these acts make for peaceful or productive communities, much less peaceful or productive individuals. We’ve known this since we’ve had communities. We’ve known this since before we developed writing. There is even some paleontological evidence that our hominid ancestors figured this out, even if they couldn’t articulate it. No gods needed here.

What a consequentialist is concerned with is the outcome. They ask, what behavior produces the best outcomes? Stone tablets and fear of eternal damnation aren’t as important as not wanting to live in anarchy. Eventually, this concept leads to community rules, which leads to ever-evolving ideas of laws and governance. That’s the structure you guys feel you need. Laws created by humans, for humans. Considering there is no evidence for an actual magic sky daddy, it’s reasonable to argue that god-enforced laws are just as man-made as any secular government.

And of course, as noted earlier, consequentialism is just one aspect to secular morality. But that’s partly my point. Morality without god is still vast in scope. Maybe larger than morality with god, since it isn’t constrained by rigid doctrines.

Meanwhile, adherents to religious morality – always in fear of the potential anarchy of secularism – don’t have a great historical track record themselves. Do I really need to go over the enormous number of atrocities committed in the name of enforcing one group’s notions of religious morality? Is Socrates or Jeremy Bentham really more of a killer than Richard the Lionheart or Hernan Cortez?

Indeed, it can be argued that religious morality requires a rather extreme form of coercion to work. Demanding obedience in fear of endless suffering is just as authoritarian as the worst dictatorships. Indeed, many supposedly secular tyrannies have used religion as justification for the misery they beset on their fellow humans. It could be argued that concentrating on the real-world results of one’s actions produces better outcomes in the here and now.

Bernard Williams (despite his criticism of both utilitarianism and consequentialism, his thoughts are still valuable here) discussed the need for a divine framework for morality thusly, “Either one’s motives for following the moral word of God are moral motives, or they are not. If they are, then one is already equipped with moral motivations, and the introduction of God adds nothing extra. But if they are not moral motives, then they will be motives of such a kind that they cannot appropriately motivate morality at all … we reach the conclusion that any appeal to God in this connection either adds to nothing at all, or it adds the wrong sort of thing.”

It frightens me to think there are potentially billions of people who believe the only thing preventing civilization from dissolving into something out of George Miller’s nightmares is a potentially imaginary religious fantasy. Is that really what one needs to keep from murdering and looting? Is that the “solid framework” morality is built on?

The devil is in the details, but your point of view requires the devil to provide those details.

Your position assumes one of two things –

  1. There is definitely a god of some kind, and your particular interpretation of its edicts includes all the necessary values needed to live a good life now.
  2. Or, you don’t really know or care if there is a god, but you believe humanity is too simple and savage to be able to handle moral lessons without fear of divine punishment.

Now, I shouldn’t have to tell you what’s wrong with both assumptions, but because I likely still need to do so;

Number 1 assumes that an inherently unprovable assertion is fact, without the necessary evidence to back it up. Number 2 is cynical and easily disproven, as I have done in the preceding paragraphs. It assumes the world is becoming a more dangerous and chaotic place as it becomes more secular, despite the fact that the contrary is true.

I have some homework for you. So you have a better understanding of what you’re discussing here, please check out some of the works from the following writers:

For overviews of utilitarianism, start with some of those who inspired utilitarian thought. Let’s go back to Epicurus, then jump forward to David Hume and William Godwin. Then for the origins of utilitarianism itself, check out Jeremy Bentham, first and foremost. Then take a look at works by John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, Elizabeth AnscombeR. M. Hare and Peter Singer.

After that, for secular morality of a different order, you can delve into works by the aforementioned Bernard Williams, Julian Baggini, and Greg Epstein. Sam Harris is problematic, but his 2010 work The Moral Landscape, might be one of the best modern arguments for secular morality, and can be largely compartmentalized from some of his major flaws.

And for an idea what is actually happening to the world in regard to human progress over the last few decades and centuries, there are three books I like to recommend:

Atrocitology by Matthew White

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook.

None of these works are philosophical in nature, but instead discuss the recent history of human civilization, and note the (admittedly slow and inconsistent) bias toward progress and higher standards of living for all of humanity.

Please do some research, and make sure you have an idea of the history behind a topic before discussing it with the assumption of authority. I myself am a dilettante in the area of philosophical morality, being self-taught, with no formal education. But it’s important to me to understand how the world works, and how societies function, so I still seek out that education, albeit in informal ways. I really know you guys can do the same, and I encourage you to do so. I can lend you some of the works I listed above, and can give you titles to check out for some of those I don’t have. There’s a lot of good stuff out there.

There’s much more to morality. So much more, what I wrote wouldn’t even amount to a decent introduction to any serious work of philosophy or ethics. Nonetheless, I would like people to consider that religion may not be the best starting point for morality. At least, it’s not the only one.

About hbreck

Writer, debater, contrarian, storyteller, occasional troublemaker. I'm mostly just making things up as I go.
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One Response to On Secular Morality

  1. Dilettante. Pfft.

    Looks like I have some reading to do. Starting with Jeremy Bentham.

    William Godwin, father of Mary Shelley, wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of my early guilty pleasures as a teen doubter of organized religion. And well, you know my fascination with anarchism and still seem to love me anyway. Must be my sexular morality. What? Did I misspell something? Heh. This blog is moar reason why you’re my favorite.

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