The Case for Secular Morality

Published by timdean on

“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.

  1. Religion is not fit to be the foundation of morality; it’s reliance on the supernatural and faith stifle enquiry and make it prone to error in its understanding of the natural world, resulting in unreliable moral judgements.
  2. Atheism also isn’t a viable alternative; it’s a negative thesis and doesn’t provide an alternative moral system of its own.
  3. Science also can’t be the foundation of morality because it’s descriptive, not prescriptive; it’s about how things are, not how they should be.
  4. Yet any moral system must be compatible with the latest scientific knowledge; even though science has its limits, it’s our best tool for understanding of the universe in which we live.
  5. At the global level, the next century will be pivotal to the future of humanity, with issues like climate change, sustainability, overpopulation, resource consumption, genetic engineering, transhumanism, artificial intelligence and many others affecting the long term prospects of humanity on this planet. These are not only political or practical issues, they are moral issues, and we need an appropriate moral framework to deal with them.
  6. Furthermore, on the personal level, a combination of waning religious adherence, the rise of individualism and spread of moral relativism in the late 20th century, has meant that it’s largely fallen to each individual to provide their own moral compass.
  7. However, this presents too great a burden for most people; thinking through the convoluted moral alternatives and natural/scientific facts necessary to put them into context is a life’s work – and people have more important things to do, like getting on with life.
  8. As a result, many people have resorted to hedonism, consumer culture and pursuing fleeting sensory pleasures.
  9. Yet, we’re no happier than we were 100 years ago despite drastic increases in freedom, wealth and security, a fact reflected in increased rates of depression, suicide, mental illness and a growing sense of alienation amongst many people.
  10. We need help to guide us towards living a good and fulfilling life, something that can replace religion not only as a moral compass, but as an institution.
  11. Moral philosophy has not been much help in providing this a secular morality: pre-1900 moral philosophies were based on flawed assumptions about psychology; 20th century moral philosophy (post G.E. Moore) has been more concerned with the definition of good than how to live a good life, and is still obsessed with meanings rather than practical matters.
  12. Philosophy should branch into pure philosophy, which continues as it is today debating meanings and definitions, with no pretension for practical matters; and applied philosophy, which uses the tools of pure philosophy to deal with real world issues, such as developing secular morality.
  13. One of the greatest tasks for applied philosophy this century is to develop the notion of secular morality, not based on the supernatural, and in full accordance with the latest scientific knowledge, which can replace religion as our moral compass and guide to living a good life.
  14. What this morality will look like, I don’t know. But it needs to be free from supernatural justifications and be based on our best scientific knowledge. It will also need to be flexible and open to revision as our scientific knowledge grows and changes. Yet it needs to be packaged in a way that is digestible by everybody, yet open for anyone who wishes to challenge or scrutinise it. (I picture a Little Book of Answers and a Big Book of Questions approach.)
  15. There needn’t be only one secular morality developed. In fact, I fully expect there to be many, and while they’ll agree on many points, they’ll disagree as well.

That’s about it. There’s a lot of controversial stuff here that remains to be justified. I acknowledge that.

Furthermore, I agree that we have “evolved a built-in sense of morality that gives most of us a feeling of what’s ‘right’ and what’s ‘wrong'”, but this is no reason to believe moral issues will just sort themselves out. For we also have evolved a built-in sense of selfishness, greed and violence. These, too, lent our ancestors a selective advantage, and it was only the evolution of a moral sense that enables us to temper these tendencies enough to live in the civilised world. As Thomas Huxley said in 1893: “Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the ‘cosmic process’, and still less in running away from it, but in combating it.”

Much, much more needs to be written on this topic. But I see it as being of critical importance to each individual and humanity as a whole, and one that deserves far more attention.


J. Q. McClintic · 30th March 2009 at 8:33 pm

As far as what an ethical system should look like, the approach is simple: make up some axioms, definitions, and specify a system of logic. So long as your axioms are independent, the system is formed. The more interesting task at this juncture, then, is to explore the consequences of those choices and whether or not we want to live by them. Odds are the answer to the latter is “No”.

Tim Dean · 31st March 2009 at 5:29 pm

One could also say that of a scientific system, say meteorology. However, there’s no guarantee whether the system of axioms, definitions and logic will accurately represent the actual phenomena it’s trying to model.

Likewise for secular morality, it’ll be more of a matter of empirical investigation coupled to rational enquiry that will produce a workable system, not logic alone.

There’s also no guarantee that there even is such a thing as an objective morality that is unitary and consistent. It’s entirely possible that morality is a psychological construct and will be multifaceted and even include some contradictions and internal tensions. Such a thing probably couldn’t be represented with axioms, definitions and logic, but will be fuzzy and complex.

Tom Rees · 1st April 2009 at 2:08 am

All good stuff. I think it’s clear that morality cannot be absolute, in any formal sense. But it can be put on a much more rational, evidence-based footing. I would take issue with two points that are only tangentially relevant.

Re 9: In fact we are happier now than we were before. See Ingelhart 2008 – data analysis from the World Values Survey.

Re 10: One reason that we are not as happy as you might expect, given the improvements in our living conditions, is the hedonic treadmill. This is a psychological effect and relates to habituation. A permanent improvement in your circumstances provides only a temporary improvement in happiness. In other words, we are never going to be much happier, because that is not the purpose of happiness from an evolutionary perspective.

Tim Dean · 1st April 2009 at 10:13 am

Hi Tom. That Inglehart paper looks interesting. I’ve downloaded it and I’ll give it a read. I like this notion of the ‘hedonic treadmill’ too. I’ll have to read up on that as well.

Paul · 15th December 2009 at 6:01 am

I have to disagree with commentator McClinitic. Religions continue to survive because they change, and a set of axioms will just reproduce the uselessness of 20th century analytic moral philosophy. An ethics devoid of some sort of religion will likely fail, for psychological reasons. People unconsciously build narratives in their lives, about who they are and what they have done and what the meaning of these things are. If a secular morality or religion is to be efficacious, it needs to inform people of just exactly who they are, and just exactly what meaning the events in their life have. It is only around such a system that people will start to change their behaviors to better fit the narrative that they have in their heads, because it feels bad knowing that you are a bad Christian, for example. Axioms are just way too inflexible for this task. However, a quasi-transcendent purpose, that is to say a purpose that elicits feelings of elevation, can provide the narrative heft that is needed for a truly efficacious secular morality or religion. Then people can work it out for themselves, given their diversity of personalities and situations, what behaviors make sense for them in their own context. Good luck on finding such a purpose or experience.

Paul S · 5th January 2010 at 10:22 pm

I think you pose some interesting ideas. I will be clearly biased in my statement, as I am a Christian, but I think that there are some very interesting ideas thrown out here:

1. Religion as a generator for a system of morality is flawed. Which I completely agree with. However, as many of those previous to this comment have noted, your thesis must expand past the realm of morality because morality is inevitably tied to origins, purpose, and destiny. Which I find fascinating (and devastating to the idea of ever finding a truly “secular” morality–this becomes a religion in and of itself).
2. Popular “secular” worldviews, such as athiesm, agnosticism, etc. also fail at formulating a system of morality. This is absolutely fascinating to me because evolutionary biology would fight against morality, as “survival of the fittest” would disagree with the past and current moral values. I see, however, that many cultures and societies are submitting to this relative moral compass and that we will inevitably see evolution take place in a moral realm.

I see there is a dilemma in the system, however: If we “create” a moral compass, who is to keep us from breaking it? When/who changes it? I feel as this is the single most important issue of morality, since we all base our moral compass on the authority of that person or group. Perhaps, then, that goes back to religion all over again.

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