March 2009 archive

The Case for Secular Morality

“Is a canonical secular morality necessary?,” asks Mike Treder of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. This comes in response to a recent post of mine about science, religion and secular morality. In that post I suggest:

The greatest philosophical endeavour of this century will be to find a workable, rational, scientifically-compatible moral and values system that doesn’t evoke the supernatural and can serve as a replacement for religion in our society. The Great Quest for a secular morality.

But Mike isn’t convinced.

Several readers who have left comments on Tim’s article seem to agree with me that there is no great need to develop a “secular morality” to replace the various religious moral modalities that have governed human civilization for the last seven thousand years or so. Not that we see any particular problem with leaving religion behind—high time for that, in my opinion—but to seek for an equally orthodox substitute seems simply like replacing an old car with a new one, instead of looking for an alternative, sustainable means of transportation.

So, I’d like to outline my full argument for secular morality, why we need it and what it supposed to do. By necessity, I’ll skim over the detail in favour of presenting the entire argument, but I’ll link to supporting material where possible.


Science, Religion and the Quest for Secular Morality

Note: for the record, I’m not particularly interested in engaging in the great science versus religion debate. For me, the debate is over; it’s a non-starter; an albatross around the neck of reasonable discourse. My hope is that we might one day become unshackled from it, and on that day thousands of able minds might be directed towards more fruitful pursuits. And I’m not particularly interested in trying to bend the will of dogmatic religious folk to my views. Others engage in such pursuits with great vigour such that my contribution is unnecessary. However, I am ever enthusiastic to engage with rational individuals in productive dialogue on where we might venture after the debate has passed into memory. It is to that end that I offer the following post.

Can religion and science co-exist peacefully? Many wish they could. But alas, it isn’t so. So says Jerry A. Coyne, evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, in his review in The New Republic of two books that hope to find some conciliation between religion and science. The review is lengthy, but ably weaved and dense with insightful analysis and observation. Well worth a read.

And it represents another sign that the debate is ready to move on – to the Great Quest of finding a secular morality that can replace religion as our moral and values compass in the modern world. But before I get to that, the review, and why science and religion will never get along:


Right-thinking as a Moral Foundation

I’ve finally had an opportunity to read through the challenge to Jon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory by Craig Anderson, of the University of Wisconsin, and I’ve found there are differences with my own similar challenge.

Craig suggests that truth/right-belief could be considered as a sixth moral foundation:

The central aspect of this morality is that people tend to moralize the beliefs that they hold to be true.  Not only do individuals care that they themselves have proper beliefs, but they further feel that others should share those same beliefs.

On the surface, this is similar to my claim that truth/honesty could be a sixth moral foundation. However, there is a significant difference that becomes apparent when you dig deeper into what Anderson is suggesting.

First of all, I’d disagree that “people tend to moralize the beliefs that they hold to be true.” That includes too much that isn’t moral. I believe it’s true that ‘in Australia we drive on the left-hand side of the road’. If someone thinks we drive on the right, I don’t experience moral outrage, although I may be prompted to correct them. Further, if they think we should drive on the right, again I don’t feel moral outrage in the same sense as if they’d said we should cheat on our friends or eat our children. We don’t moralise beliefs that we hold true, we do the opposite, which brings me to Anderson’s next point.

I think the key point that Anderson is making is encapsulated in the second sentence in the quote above, particularly that people “feel that others should share those same beliefs.” Anderson offers the following example:

A very clear example of this form of morality can be seen in the clash between religions, or even somewhat in the clash between the religious and the secular. People of each religious group see their own canon of beliefs as the truth, and that others are wrong, immoral, or sometimes even inhuman, just for not believing in the right god(s).

However, I would suggest that Anderson is not talking about a moral foundation as such, but he’s adroitly recognised an underlying characteristic of all moral discourse. What makes moral matters different to matters of convention is that morals feel categorical: they feel as though they should apply everywhere and to everyone.

Driving on the left or the right is a norm of convention. A relevant authority could overturn the norm and none of us would be left reeling in moral outrage. On the other hand, inflicting harm on others is a moral norm, and cannot be arbitrarily overturned by an authority. Morals are different in that we feel that they’re somehow universal, and that if they apply to me, they should also apply to everyone else. As a consequence, it’s fully expected that individuals would “feel that others should share those same beliefs.”

Why is this not a moral foundation? Haidt proposes there are “innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of ‘intuitive ethics’.” He’s talking about things like harm/care as one vector, in-group/loyalty as another, etc. But they are all categorical: if I believe it’s wrong to harm person X in situation Y, or to be disloyal to authority Z, then I believe it’s also wrong for others to behave the same way.

The categorical nature of moral norms cuts across all the moral foundations, and thus cannot be a discrete moral foundation in itself. Instead the categorical nature of moral norms is an underlying functional characteristic that defines them as moral norms.

To test this, we could try to tease right-thinking/categoricalness from the other moral foundations. If we could find issues that triggered on the right-thinking/categoricalness scale that didn’t trigger the other moral foundations, then it could be a discrete moral foundation. For example, if there were issues where it was impermissible for person X to do Y but not person Z to do Y. But I’d expect it would be found that there are no moral issues that are categorical without also being related somehow to another moral foundation. Further, I expect it would be found that all other moral foundations would also trigger right-thinking categoricalness.

In contrast, my challenge suggests truth/honesty as a moral foundation, distinct from the other moral foundations. As I mention in my earlier post, an example might be that it’s judged wrong for person X to lie even if it has a positive outcome according to one of the other moral foundations.

Now, Anderson does mention truth and lying, so there is some crossover with my challenge, but truth is really contingent to Anderson’s main claim about right-thinking. It’s just that people promote right-thinking/categoricalness only about things they hold true, not that being truthful is morally obligatory in and of itself.

The Failure of Freedom: Clive Hamilton’s Freedom Paradox

“The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.” –  Thucydides

Why, after two centuries of unprecedented expansion of wealth and liberty in the Western world, are so many of us left feeling unfulfilled? Were not these liberties meant to unshackle us from oppressions of mind and body and allow us to flourish according to our own unique capacities?


At least, that was the idea. Yet people today are on average no happier than their parents or grandparents, despite possessing many times more wealth. Major depression is also on the rise in developed nations, peaking in the United States, the very paragon of a free society. Odd.

This conundrum is the topic of Clive Hamilton’s latest book, The Freedom Paradox (unmistakable in its shockingly Spartan red cover), which I finished, and thoroughly enjoyed, reading recently.

Hamilton seeks to establish a ‘post-secular ethics’ – an endeavour that deserves much more attention than it currently receives – care of a re-imagining of the metaphysics of Kant and Schopenhauer. But while his analysis of contemporary popular culture is insightful, and his perspective on metaphysics refreshing, I feel his attachment to Kant to be a hindrance to his ultimate end. In fact, were it not for the taint of Kant, his views are strikingly similar to my own.


Making Philosophy Relevant

fig3Where, once, philosophers were respected members of society, offering counsel to world leaders and shaping the tone of public discourse, these days we’re not even ridiculed, we’re just dismissed as irrelevant. As a philosopher, the natural question for me to ask is: why? And my sad conclusion is: because of the desperately sorry state of philosophy today.

I say with all sincerity, and no small amount of regret, that the vast majority of contemporary analytic philosophy is pointless, and the vast majority of contemporary continental philosophy is meaningless.


20th Century: Not a Great Century for Philosophy

The discussion started here, sparked from an article here, and then spread to here. An interesting discussion, and a worthy – if trivial – pursuit to idle away the hours: who was the best philosopher of the 20th century?

So far Wittgenstein is in the lead, with Russell and David Lewis hot on his heels.


As I mentioned on Evolving Thoughts, I think the question is tricky – but I would say that, as a philosopher myself. We’re never happy with the question. (Although note that it never stops us from just flagging the gross inadequacies of the question, or language and definitions, and just plowing on regardless.)

By ‘best’ do we mean the ‘most groundbreaking’? Or ‘most innovative’? Or ‘most influential at the time’? Or ‘most influential today’? Or perhaps my preferred definition: ‘contributed the most to our understanding of the truth’?

If we take the question to mean any of the former, contenders burst forth like zucchini’s tumbling from a split plastic bag. And landing with as dull a thump, in my opinion.

Wittgenstein was clearly brilliant, and he did make advances. Although these were arguably in a negative way by cautioning us against certain approaches to philosophy and warning us about the flaws and limitations of our tools. Sadly, these days he’s more debated than developed. And I fear he precipitated the disastrous and deeply unproductive split from logical, systemic (analytic) philosophy into the realm of ‘mapping the phenomenal/language space’ (continental) philosophy. Yet, besides his work on the tools of philosophy, I can’t see that Wittgenstein substantially advanced the content of philosophy.

David Lewis – another clearly brilliant mind. Yet here, too, he made more progress on the tools of philosophy than the content of philosophy. And that whole modal realism guff – prime example of a reductio against the way we use ‘possible’ in every day language, if you ask me.

Some have suggested GE Moore should be higher in the list. But I wonder how someone who set back moral philosophy by a century could be considered to have advanced philosophy? It’s only now that people are reengaging with moral naturalism that we’re even asking interesting questions again.

Talking about ethics, we have Rawls. Interesting book, A Theory of Justice. And it has got people thinking about real world issues. Nice. But it’s so mired in Kantianism and so enamoured with reason and so detached from nature that it’s really just a good premise for a distopian novel. Even so, I’d at least consider Rawls for an honourable mention.

Then there’s Heidegger (with a respectable 9-10% of the vote). When someone can clearly articulate to me Heidegger’s great contribution to philosophy today, I’ll perhaps give him some more credit. Until then, as far as I can tell, all he did was reverse-engineer ‘being’ – or our use of the word and concept ‘being’ – and in doing so drove us down a winding cul-de-sac that goes nowhere.

Russell – well here’s someone I can vote for. He not only worked on the tools of philosophy, but the content. And not only philosophy, but other disciplines as well. He, in my opinion, was the last Great Philosopher. Since then have been great minds, but sadly, few have progressed philosophy significantly.

I remember a professor of mine in my undergrad years commenting – not without irony – that the two great philosophical developments of the 20th century were the Gettier problems and identifying ‘quantifying in’ as a problem. That’s it.

I think we should reflect on the 20th century and in all honesty admit it was a pretty abysmal one for philosophy. I do have opinions about how philosophy could reform, but I’ll save them for another time. But I do know that philosophy can’t afford to have another century like the 20th century.

Think about it. Are you happy with the state of philosophy today?