Personal Morality

Paul Kurtz

Little did I imagine two decades ago, when I first proposed plans for new Centers for Inquiry, that developing them would be such an arduous, even treacherous task. In my book Eupraxsophy: Living without Religion (Prometheus Books, 1989), I said that it is important to provide secular alternatives to religious institutions, especially for nonbelievers. These Centers would satisfy emotional human needs and provide meaning in life without the trappings of credulous supernatural faith. The Centers, based on the sciences, would view the human species in the universe in naturalistic terms, and they would seek to provide ethical wisdom without relying on theology.

This project is moving along rapidly today; there are some forty centers and communities worldwide in various stages of development. We have called for a New Enlightenment: first in the use of the methods of science to examine the foundations of religious faith and second in the development of ethical principles and values by which we may live.

The first part of our agenda has been fairly effective in examining the grounds of religious faith—and many or most who engage in this task have become skeptics, agnostics, or atheists.

The second part, however—the development of ethical principles and values—is far more difficult and has a long way to go. In this essay, I wish to point out that we have not adequately addressed its relevance to personal morality, which should be at the very center of humanistic ethics. Regrettably, personal morality all too often is neglected by secularists who have devoted the lion’s share of their attention to liberating individuals from repressive institutions of church or state or to achieving social justice. Both of these goals are noteworthy.

Clearly, secular humanists need to support individual autonomy, freedom of choice, and the right of privacy. Those who are committed to the open, pluralistic, democratic society prize tolerance and respect diversity. Secular humanists actively defend human rights—for women, the handicapped, the elderly, children, the poor, racial, ethnic, or sexually repressed minorities—and they wish to extend the benefits of democracy to all sectors of society. However, this does not necessarily mean that all who support these goals are personally moral in their regard for others. It is a truism to observe that many who are committed to “humanity” in the abstract often are insensitive to the individual human being in the concrete.

It is foolhardy to ignore the development of good character and integrity in the individuals who make up society. We need to cultivate enlightened individuals who have achieved some measure of ethical maturity and moral virtue. Personal morality—internalized—is or should be at the very center of our humanistic concerns.

Religiously based morality, with its codes of absolute commandments and prohibitions—thou shalt or shalt not—issues inflexible rules that must be obeyed. There is a catalogue of the “seven deadly sins”: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth (some of these we surely agree are undesirable). The religious virtues are faith, hope (in God’s plan for us), and charity—the first two of which are rejected by secularists.

What, according to secular humanists, are the attributes of excellence for the individual? Surely high on the list are:

  1. reason and intelligence;
  2. self-control and temperance;
  3. creativity and good motivation;
  4. self-respect and esteem;
  5. joie de vivre and aesthetic appreciation.


The goal for the secular humanist is to maximize life here and now; to realize one’s potentialities; pursue an occupation or career; achieve sexual gratification and experience love and romance; and to seek a life of joyful exuberance. They are the goods of this life, not those allegedly beyond. This form of personal morality points to the fullness of life, the realization of the highest of which we are capable. But how this applies to other persons is a crucial question.

Permit me to make some rather blunt assertions:

First, to be a secularist or atheist is no guarantee of ethical high-mindedness or moral integrity. Evidence for this statement is abundant. The twentieth century is littered with the corpses of millions of innocent human beings who suffered at the hands of secular despots, such as Stalin and Mao, who were willing to sacrifice their victims at the altar of ideological absolutism. The dehumanization of human dignity was the cause of infamous crimes against humanity.

The most graphic illustration of this was the murder of millions of Cambodians by Pol Pot and his henchmen from 1975 to 1979. In a fanatical effort to turn Cambodia into a utopian peasant society, approximately 1.7 million were killed, religion and commerce were banned, and the educated classes were exterminated. The first international trial of senior cadres of the Khmer Rouge is at long last being convened this year.

Of course, one may retort that evil deeds committed by religious believers likewise unleashed moral horrors—the carnage wreaked across in Europe by fascists before and during World War II, genocides committed in Armenia and Rwanda by religious forces, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by a Judaic-Christian nation, suicide and terrorism by the disciples of the Qur’an, and countless wars waged historically in the name of God. So it cuts both ways. Personal morality is perhaps independent of religious piety or atheistic conviction.

Second, alas, I have found that nonbelievers can be as nasty, uncaring, and insensitive as believers. I have known many atheists who have been so embittered by what they loathe that they are all too willing to debase humanist ethical principles. Some have been so overwhelmed by hatred that they allow resentment, jealousy, and the quest for power and status to corrupt their moral commitments. They have betrayed colleagues and friends for their own self-interest. Perhaps they have succumbed to the same temptations of the surrounding culture that prizes self-aggrandizement and success in a competitive struggle to achieve, no matter what.


So, the question for the Center for Inquiry movement is: How shall we develop within the movement a respect for and appreciation of the principles of ethical humanism? Here I submit that it is essential that we cultivate and develop personal moral growth. How to do that is the question. Indeed, in my view this is the major challenge we face. We can hardly build viable secular communities as alternatives to theistic religions without developing the bonds of trust and collegiality among those who share its ideals.

May I list without elaboration some of the personality traits of the morally excellent person, as he or she relates to others. A person of goodwill shows kindness and honesty and is thoughtful, helpful, beneficent, generous, altruistic, empathetic, caring, sympathetic, cooperative, forgiving, fair-minded, and responsible. The authoritarian personality is avaricious, power-hungry, suspicious, prejudiced, conniving, cruel, ruthless, mean-spirited, selfish, demanding, resentful, insensitive, inflexible, and vindictive.

The person of goodwill needs to combine reason and compassion, the reflective mind, and the caring heart. The question to be raised is this: How can secularists committed to the principles of ethical humanism develop as persons of moral integrity?

I submit that we must begin first with the moral education of children, which should start in the home with a loving family; and it should continue in the schools throughout childhood and adolescence. Indeed, personal moral integrity is a worthy goal of the democratic society where the educated citizenry is the best guarantee of human freedo
m, social justice, and ethical progress.

It should be a primary goal of the Center for Inquiry to encourage the development of persons of moral integrity. If a predominantly secular community free from supernatural inducements or constraints fails to develop persons of high moral worth, then we may ask whether our humanistic ethical principles are themselves mistaken. What are the results thus far? Checkered at best, I am sorry to say. In my view, this poses a great challenge to the future of the entire Center for Inquiry movement.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Little did I imagine two decades ago, when I first proposed plans for new Centers for Inquiry, that developing them would be such an arduous, even treacherous task. In my book Eupraxsophy: Living without Religion (Prometheus Books, 1989), I said that it is important to provide secular alternatives to religious institutions, especially for nonbelievers. These …

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