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Secular Ethics and Ethical Relativism

QUESTION: Secular Ethics and the Problems with Ethical Relativism


Secular Humanists recognize that ethical relativism has the potential to create problems among people. Although they believe that dogma unnecessarily restricts our pursuit of happiness, they do address the question of whether or not people will act responsibly in a society without rules and corresponding penalties.

Kurtz addresses the dilemma with these words: “Nevertheless, the humanist is faced with a crucial ethical problem: Insofar as he has defended an ethic of freedom, can he develop a basis for moral responsibility? Regretfully, merely to liberate individuals from authoritarian social institutions, whether church or state, is no guarantee that they will be aware of their moral responsibility to others. The contrary is often the case. Any number of social institutions regulate conduct by some means of norms and rules, and sanctions are imposed for enforcing them....Once these sanctions are ignored, we may end up with [a man] concerned with his own personal lust for pleasure, ambition, and power, and impervious to moral constraints.1

Secular Humanists refute the religious doctrine of original sin (because it is part of the religious myth), but most recognize that there is no guarantee we will behave responsibly once all laws and dogma are removed.

Secular Ethics – No Real Basis for Good and Bad
The biggest problem with ethical relativism is that anything can be construed as good or bad under the assumption that the judgment is relative to the situation in which we find ourselves. Even if we are striving to do the right thing, we may honestly disagree among ourselves what the right thing is if there is no absolute standard by which to judge. Baier explains, “Plainly, it is not easy to determine in an objective way what conduct is morally ideal. Hence even among people of good will, that is, among people perfectly willing to do what is morally ideal, there may be sincere disagreement.”2

Lamont acknowledges another aspect of ethical relativism, which in turn leads to another problem. “For the Humanist,” he says, “stupidity is just as great a sin as selfishness; and ‘the moral obligation to be intelligent’ ranks always among the highest of duties.”3 The implication of this statement is that only intelligent people are capable of making correct moral choices, leading to the assumption that intelligent people are to act as the moral compass for the rest of society. This amounts to giving power to a select few to create a dogma that all others must follow. And this is precisely what Humanists try to avoid when they disassociate themselves from absolute moral codes.


Rendered with permission from the book,Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews(Rev. 2nd ed), David Noebel, Summit Press, 2006. Compliments of John Stonestreet, David Noebel, and the Christian Worldview Ministry at Summit Ministries. All rights reserved in the original.

1 Paul Kurtz, “Does Humanism Have an Ethic of Responsibility?” Cited in Storer, Humanist Ethics, 15.

2 Morris B. Storer, ed., Humanist Ethics (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1980), 81.

3 Corliss Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism (New York, NY: Frederick Ungar, 1982), 248.

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