A Short Primer on Secular Ethics

Paul Kurtz

Increasingly, world civilization is becoming secular; that is, it emphasizes worldly rather than religious values. This is especially true of Europe, which is widely considered post-religious and post-Christian (though with a small Islamic minority). Secularist winds are also blowing strong in Asia, notably in Japan and China. The United States has been an anomaly in this regard, for it has suffered a long dark night in which evangelical fundamentalism has overshadowed the public square with its insistence that belief in God is essential for moral virtue. Interestingly, this is now changing, and secularism is gaining ground. Even President Obama recognizes the existence of unbelievers; at least 16 percent of Americans do not belong to a religious denomination. Young people today are more secular, with up to 25 percent nonreligious.

Accordingly, we may ask, what is secular ethics? Although secularists are nonreligious, they may also be good citizens, loving parents, and decent people. Instead of religion, they look to science, the secular arts, and literature for their inspiration. They point out that religious belief is no guarantee of moral probity, that horrendous crimes have been committed in the name of God, and that religionists often disagree vociferously about concrete moral judgments (such as euthanasia, the rights of women, abortion, stem-cell research, homosexuality, war, and peace). As I have pointed out, secular ethics needs to be internalized within the life of a person to be effective.

The ethics of humanism traces its origins back to the beginnings of Western civilization in Greece and Rome, through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific and democratic revolutions of the modern world. Secular humanists today affirm that every person should be considered equal in dignity and value and that human freedom is precious. The civic virtues of democracy are essentially humanist, for they emphasize tolerance of the wide diversity of beliefs and lifestyles, and they are committed to defending human rights. The conjunction of secular and humanism brings both of these intellectual and moral forces together.

But “How can you be ethical if you do not believe in God?” protests the believer. Perhaps such a person should enroll in an elementary course in ethics, where he or she would discover a rich philosophical literature dealing with this question. The good is usually defined as “happiness,” though there are differences between the eudemonistic (emphasizing enriched self-development) and the hedonistic (particularly American) brand of intemperate consumption. Perhaps a harmonious integration of the two theories can be achieved. I would call it rational exuberance. Philosophers have emphasized the importance of self-restraint, temperance, rational prudence; of a life in which satisfaction, excellence, and the creative fulfillment of a person’s talents is achieved. It does not mean that “anything goes.” Humanist ethics focuses on the good life here and now.

Secularists recognize the importance of self-interest in a person’s life—many of them are libertarians. Every individual needs to be concerned with his or her own health, well-being, and career. But self-interest can be enlightened. This involves recognition that we have responsibilities to others. There are principles of right and wrong that we should live by. No doubt there are differences about many moral issues. Often there may be difficulties in achieving a consensus. Negotiation and compromise are essential in a pluralistic society.

However, there is now substantial evidence drawn from evolutionary biology that humans possess an innate moral sense. Morality has its roots in group survival: the moral practices that evolved enabled tribes or clans to survive and function. This means that human beings are potentially moral. Whether or not this moral sense is realized depends on social and environmental conditions. Some individuals may never fully develop morally—they may be morally handicapped, even sociopathic. That is one reason society needs to enact laws to protect itself.

There is also of course cultural relativity, but there are, I submit, also a set of common moral virtues that cut across cultures—such as being truthful, honest, kind, keeping promises, being dependable and responsible, avoiding cruelty, etc.—and these in time become widely recognized as binding. Herein lie the roots of empathy and caring for other human and sentient beings. Such behavior needs to be nourished in the young by means of moral education (and cultivated throughout life). In any case, human beings are capable of both self-interested and altruistic behavior in varying degrees.

Secular humanists wish to evaluate ethical principles in the light of their consequences, and they advise the use of rational inquiry to frame moral judgments. They also appreciate the fact that some principles are so important that they should not be easily sacrificed to achieve one’s ends.

To say that a person is moral only if he or she obeys God’s commandments—out of fear or love of God or a desire for salvation—is hardly adequate. Ethical principles need to be internalized, rooted in reason and compassion. The ethics of secularism is autonomous in the sense that it need not be derived from theological grounds. Secular humanists are interested in enhancing the good life both for the individual and society.

Today, a new imperative has emerged: an awareness that our ethical concerns should extend to all members of the world community. This points to a new planetary ethics transcending the ancient religious, ethnic, racial, and national enmities of the past. It is an ethic that recognizes our common interests and needs as part of an interdependent world. It is rather urgent in our global world that we develop morality applicable to the twenty-first century and beyond.

Postscript: Secular ethics, in my view, will not be fully effective unless it can be applied to personal morality.

 


A Personal Invitation from Paul Kurtz

In order to deal with these questions, I have embarked upon a research project concerning secular ethical wisdom. I welcome your input. If you would like to be involved in this inquiry or learn more about it, please contact me at Paulkurtz@aol.com or send correspondence to:

Paul Kurtz, Chairman
Prometheus Books
59 John Glenn Drive
Amherst, NY 14228-2197

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.


Increasingly, world civilization is becoming secular; that is, it emphasizes worldly rather than religious values. This is especially true of Europe, which is widely considered post-religious and post-Christian (though with a small Islamic minority). Secularist winds are also blowing strong in Asia, notably in Japan and China. The United States has been an anomaly in …

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