Secular Ethics – Introduction to Moral Theory
Whether Secular Ethics or Theistic Ethics, Max Hocutt nails the issue: “The fundamental question of ethics is, who makes the rules? God or men? The theistic answer is that God makes them. The humanistic answer is that men make them. This distinction between theism and humanism is the fundamental division in moral theory.”1
Atheistic theology presents a special problem for Secular Humanists—namely, choosing a code of ethics. Humanists reject the unchanging moral codes posited by the Christian religion. In fact, Paul Kurtz, author of Humanist Manifesto II, states, “The traditional supernaturalistic moral commandments are especially repressive of our human needs. They are immoral insofar as they foster illusions about human destiny [heaven] and suppress vital inclinations.”2 Humanists find religious ethical codes such as the Ten Commandments too restrictive in that such codes do not allow us to fulfill our conception of the good life.
Secular Ethics – A Science of Ethics
When it comes to Secular Ethics, Humanists are working toward a “science of ethics” specifically in keeping with their beliefs in atheism, naturalism, and evolution. Kurtz, in The Humanist Alternative, calls for Secular Humanism to be “interpreted as a moral point of view.”3 Indeed, in the preface to Humanist Manifestoes I & II, Kurtz defines Humanism “as a philosophical, religious, and moral point of view.”4 Later in Humanist Manifesto 2000 Kurtz redefines Humanism as “an ethical, scientific, and philosophical outlook that has changed the world.”5
Can morality be achieved without the foundation of absolute religious beliefs? Humanists hope so, but they have difficulty agreeing what morality means without God. The need for a consistent Humanist ethical standard gave rise to a book edited by Morris B. Storer, entitled simply Humanist Ethics. Storer sums up the multitude of Humanist ethical views in his preface: “Is personal advantage the measure of right and wrong, or the advantage of all affected: Humanists differ. Is there truth in ethics? We differ. Are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ expressions of heart or head? Do people have free wills? Do you measure morality by results or by principles? Do people have duties as well as rights? We have our differences on all these and more.”6
Secular Ethics – Foundation of Humanist Ethics
When debating Secular Ethics, the differences among Humanists result largely from their disagreement over the foundation of morality. Kurtz believes in “a limited number of basic values and principles,”7 but he does not point to a specific foundation for ethical principles, saying only that they are “naturalistic and empirical phenomena.”8
Mihailo Markovic, another Humanist writing in Storer’s collection of essays, takes exception to Kurtz’s assumption about the origin of these principles, pointing out that Humanists have no unchanging standard that requires people to act in a certain way: “It remains quite unclear where this ‘ought’ comes from. It is one thing to describe a variety of actual historical patterns of conduct and moral habits. It is a completely different thing to make a choice among them and to say that we ‘ought’ to observe some of them. Why some and not others?”9
Markovic cuts to the heart of the problem Humanists face when discussing ethics. If we are is going to decide what we “ought” to do, then we must refer to a moral code, or foundation, which dictates this “ought.” Kurtz, when challenged by Markovic, admits, “I can find no ultimate basis for ‘ought.’”10
These differences over the foundation of ethical standards divide Humanists regarding the “absolute” nature of ethics. The problem according to Humanist Max Hocutt is that “[t]he nonexistence of God makes more difference to some of us than to others. To me, it means that there is no absolute morality, that moralities are sets of social conventions devised by humans to satisfy their need. To [Alistair] Hannay, it means that we must postulate an alternative basis for moral absolutism.”11
This lack of consensus about the foundation of ethics is problematic for the whole concept of Humanist ethics. Without a God who sets forth an absolute moral code, Humanists must believe either that the code is subjective and should be applied differently to changing situations, or that an absolute code exists, somehow outside of ourselves, but within the whole evolutionary scheme of things.
Hocutt maintains that an absolute moral code cannot exist without God, and God does not exist. “Furthermore, if there were a morality written up in the sky somewhere but no God to enforce it, I see no good reason why anybody should pay it any heed, no reason why we should obey it. Human beings may, and do, make up their own rules.”12 This view is more consistent with the Humanist view that life evolved by chance—otherwise, the Humanist has a difficult time explaining where an external absolute code originated. If we are the highest beings in nature and did not develop the absolute moral code ourselves, then what creature or force in nature did?
Some Humanists have gone so far as to cast doubt on the idea that we can even perceive what is right or wrong. Kai Nielsen, a signatory to Humanist Manifesto II, proposed a “no-truth thesis” that states that no question of the truth or falsity of moral values can sensibly arise. Nielsen’s thesis appears to be the logical conclusion for Humanists since they are unwilling to grant the existence of an absolute moral code. Without an absolute moral code, what standard do we have for judging actions as right or wrong, or moral beliefs as true or false? Humanists recognize the dilemma of being unable to determine the difference between right and wrong and have attempted to explain away the “no-truth thesis” in a number of ways.
Most Humanists dodge the “no-truth thesis” by claiming that they use reason to determine right and wrong in the context of ethical relativism. A general statement of policy issued by the British Humanist Association states, “Humanists believe that man’s conduct should be based on humanity, insight, and reason. He must face his problems with his own moral and intellectual resources, without looking for supernatural aid.”13
Many other Humanists echo this call for the use of reason and experience as a guide for moral conduct. Lamont says that as long as we pursue “activities that are healthy, socially useful, and in accordance with reason, pleasure will generally accompany [us]; and happiness, the supreme good, will be the eventual result.”14
Lamont’s optimism, significantly, is based on the “hope” provided by evolutionary theory. We can reason our way to the good and to happiness because evolution is constantly improving things, even humanity. Assuming that morals do not arise from God or exist independently of nature, evolution provides a plausible explanation for the source of ethics and is consistent with other Humanist concepts.
A serious problem is created, however, by Humanism’s desire to wed ethics to biology—this view allows Darwin’s concept of the struggle for existence to become the absolute on which moral decisions are based. Such a morality allows men like Friedrich von Bernhardi, in his work Germany and the Next War, to insist, “War is a biological necessity; it is as necessary as the struggle of the elements of Nature; it gives a biologically just decision, since its decisions rest on the very nature of things.”15 Most Humanists would rather avoid this conclusion, but it lurks in the background under the guise of social or ethical Darwinism.
Weikart explains the inevitable results of basing ethics in evolution: “Many argued that by providing a naturalistic account of the origin of ethics and morality, Darwinism delivered a death-blow to the prevailing Judeo-Christian ethics, as well as Kantian ethics and any other fixed moral code. If morality was built on social instincts that changed over evolutionary time, then morality must be relative to the conditions of life at any given time. Darwinism—together with other forms of historicism ascendant in the nineteenth century—thus contributed to the rise of moral relativism.”16
Secular Ethics – Conclusion
Because Secular Humanists disagree with each other so often, defining Secular Ethics as a conceptual whole is problematic. To remain consistent with their theology and philosophy, most Secular Humanists take the side of ethical relativism, but it remains difficult to standardize what exactly that entails. Because Secular Humanists are aware of their logical inconsistencies and the dangers inherent in an ethics of relativism, their inability to make ethical assertions may be a mixed blessing. For example, Paul Kurtz insists that Secular Humanists accept the Golden Rule and even the biblical injunction to “accept the aliens within our midst, respecting their differences.”17 Kurtz likewise insists that Secular Humanists “ought to tell the truth, keep promises, be honest, sincere, beneficent, reliable, dependable, show fidelity, appreciation, gratitude, be fair-minded, just, tolerant, should not steal, injure, maim or harm other persons.”18 Christians have no difficulty agreeing with him in these dogmas or values. What Kurtz and his fellow Secular Humanists fail to address, however, is why these values are worth defending as moral declarations.