To the degree that Free Inquiry has an intellectual platform, moral objectivity has been part of it. In his 1988 book Forbidden Fruit, Paul Kurtz influentially described a humanist morality that is neither the authoritative command of a divine law-giver nor a subjective matter of preference. “Secular humanists hold that ethics is consequential, to be judged by results,” declares the “What Is Secular Humanism?” page on the Council’s website. “This is in contrast to so-called command ethics, in which right and wrong are defined in advance and attributed to divine authority. … Secular humanists seek to develop and improve their ethical principles by examining the results they yield in the lives of real men and women.” All this is rooted in philosophical naturalism, which “warns us that knowledge gained without appeal to the natural world and without impartial review by multiple observers is unreliable.”
Ethics, in this view, is objective—a property of the universe we inhabit whose consequences inquirers can observe. The challenge of secular humanism is in part to discover which ethical system or systems best promote human flourishing in actual societies. Most recently, the position was defended in these pages by Ronald A. Lindsay, Paul Kurtz’s successor as president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry (“How Morality Has the Objectivity that Matters—Without God.” Free Inquiry, August/September 2014).
In this essay, Doug Mann, an experimental psychologist and author of our February/March 2019 cover story “The Science of the Evolution of Morality,” offers a challenge to the presumption of objective morality. Does he succeed? We look forward to hearing from readers.