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.
- 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.
- Atheism also isn’t a viable alternative; it’s a negative thesis and doesn’t provide an alternative moral system of its own.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- As a result, many people have resorted to hedonism, consumer culture and pursuing fleeting sensory pleasures.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.