Objective secular morality

A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death. – Albert Einstein

This is the fifth of six parts of my critique of religious belief.

I should note that a more thorough and up-to-date description of my views on morality is given in my Morality essay under the Essays menu.

Defining Morality

What does “morality” mean? Unfortunately, dictionary definitions tend to be quite vague. The best I could find at Dictionary.com was “the quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.” This definition is vague because the words “right” and “good” refer to some unspecified standard of measure. For instance, someone who considers selfishness to be of moral value, might call a purely selfish act “good”, while someone who considers generosity and altruism to be morally virtuous might call the very same act “bad”. Thus an action, on its own, is not fundamentally good or bad, it is only good or bad according to a particular standard or metric. Commonly, people do not explicitly mention what standard they are using when identifying an action as good or bad, and this helps to maintain the illusion that everyone uses the same standard.

I prefer, then, to start with the one thing in life that is almost universally accepted as “bad”, namely suffering. There are few people who would disagree that suffering is unpleasant. Most people try to avoid it as much as possible. I must, however place an important constraint on the type of suffering included here. Principally, I refer to unnecessary suffering. Suffering may be necessary under certain conditions: examples might include the sort of emotional suffering that occurs when a parent disciplines a child. On the other hand, it seems clear that a child starving to death in Somalia is surely undergoing unnecessary suffering. I do not attempt to make any further judgment concerning what, exactly, constitutes necessary vs. unnecessary suffering, all I do is suggest that both exist. I therefore define a moral system as a set of prescriptive behaviors that tend to alleviate or avoid unnecessary suffering. To alleviate or avoid unnecessary suffering is essentially equivalent to promoting wellbeing, since wellbeing and unnecessary suffering cannot coexist.

But is it purely arbitrary to assert that the aim of morality should be to improve the wellbeing of society? Neuroscientist Sam Harris gave an interesting talk at TED in 2010 (TED is a forum for the sharing of ideas between various disciplines, see http://www.ted.com). In a written response to critics of his talk, Harris wrote the following:

What if certain people insist that their “values” or “morality” have nothing to do with wellbeing? What if a man like Jefferey Dahmer says, “The only peaks on the moral landscape that interest me are ones where I get to murder young men and have sex with their corpses.” This possibility—the prospect of radically different moral preferences—seems to be at the heart of many people’s concerns.

[Here, Harris cites the comments of one particular critic who compares science to morality, claiming that the aim of science, i.e. to obtain concise and powerful explanations of empirical facts, can be rationally defended, but the aim of morality, i.e. to enhance wellbeing, cannot.]

But we should also remember that there are trained “scientists” who are Biblical Creationists, and their scientific thinking is purposed not toward a dispassionate study of the universe, but toward interpreting the data of science to fit the Biblical account of creation. Such people claim to be doing “science,” of course—but real scientists are free, and indeed obligated, to point out that they are misusing the term. Similarly, there are people who claim to be highly concerned about “morality” and “human values,” but when we see that they are more concerned about condom use than they are about child rape (e.g. the Catholic Church), we should feel free to say that they are misusing the term “morality,” or that their values are distorted. As I asked at TED, how have we convinced ourselves that on the subject of morality, all views must count equally?

Everyone has an intuitive “physics,” but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter), and only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. Everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much intuitive morality is wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective wellbeing) and only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal wellbeing. Yes, we must have a goal to define what counts as “right” or “wrong” in a given domain, but this criterion is equally true in both domains.

So what about people who think that morality has nothing to do with anyone’s wellbeing? I am saying that we need not worry about them—just as we don’t worry about the people who think that their “physics” is synonymous with astrology, or sympathetic magic, or Vedanta. We are free to define “physics” any way we want. Some definitions will be useless, or worse. We are free to define “morality” any way we want. Some definitions will be useless, or worse—and many are so bad that we can know, far in advance of any breakthrough in the sciences of mind, that they have no place in a serious conversation about human values.

One of my critics put the concern this way: “Why should human wellbeing matter to us?” Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us? These are profound and profoundly stupid questions. No framework of knowledge can withstand such skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying. Without being able to stand entirely outside of a framework, one is always open to the charge that the framework rests on nothing, that its axioms are wrong, or that there are foundational questions it cannot answer. So what? Science and rationality generally are based on intuitions and concepts that cannot be reduced or justified. Just try defining “causation” in non-circular terms. If you manage it, I really want hear from you. Or try to justify transitivity in logic: if A = B and B = C, then A = C. A skeptic could say that this is nothing more than an assumption that we’ve built into the definition of “equality.” Others will be free to define “equality” differently. Yes, they will. And we will be free to call them “imbeciles.” Seen in this light, moral relativism should be no more tempting than physical, biological, mathematical, or logical relativism. There are better and worse ways to define our terms; there are more and less coherent ways to think about reality; and there are—is there any doubt about this?—many ways to seek fulfillment in this life and not find it.”

Another way of looking at this issue is to ask what word we should give to behaviors that are aimed at improving individual and community wellbeing. Is there any reason we should reject the word “morality”? Or should the word “morality” instead be restricted to definitions that contain no explicit reference to human wellbeing, such as “any behavior commanded by a deity”? It seems more practical to use the word “morality” to refer to behaviors that have a specific goal, rather than behaviors dictated from a particular source.

So, taking my definition of morality, how do we take the next step and actually find the prescriptive behaviors that would satisfy it? Apart from the requirement that they alleviate or avoid suffering (I henceforth omit the “unnecessary” qualification for brevity), I would impose one further constraint: they must be derived empirically and rationally, and must therefore be justifiable to anyone who questions them. A common religious view is that moral laws are handed down from God and that because of his authority, they cannot be questioned. The danger of such an approach is that it opens the believer to abuse by that authority, since any law he fancies can be imposed on his followers without fear of reproach. This brings up the Euthyphro Dilemma, which states that if the source of morality is, indeed, divine, then we are presented with the following two options:

1. A given action is good because God says it is good or

2. God says a given action is good because he observes that it is good.

Option 1 implies, as I have suggested already, that morality is ultimately subjective: it is decreed by an individual (in this case, God), and whatever this individual happens to decide is good, must be accepted by the rest of us as good. The second option implies that there exists some standard independent of the existence of God, against which actions can be judged as “good”. This is precisely the argument I make in this essay.

If Option 1 is the case, then religious people must rely on the perceived benevolence of God to justify their trust in his moral authority. However, there are two problems with this. The first is that the benevolence of God is, itself, taken as an article of faith instead of being verified empirically. The second is that even a cursory glance at the Bible reveals that God frequently fails to follow the moral teachings he requires us to follow, as discussed in the previous part of this essay. If, for instance, believers are to accept that God’s numerous acts of genocide and infanticide were morally justified, then they must either concede that genocide and infanticide are sometimes justified, or they must admit that such acts are moral for God, but not for us. This latter option renders believers guilty of the same moral relativism they so commonly attribute to non-believers.


If we wish to defend our morals rationally and logically, they must be derived rationally and logically: They must be based on facts. And if alleviation of suffering is to be the foundation for morality, it makes sense to look at the evidence of suffering and ask questions such as: Where does it occur? What behaviors are observed to alleviate it? How do societal interactions affect it? I will not go into detail concerning the specific moral laws that might arise from these questions. Most are familiar to any citizen of a modern democracy. Some are common to utilitarianism and humanism (see, for example, the most recent iteration of the Humanist Manifesto, reproduced at the bottom of this page). Some are even common to religious morals, or to the philosophers who proposed them before religions took them on board.

Often, identifying the best moral decision boils down to a question of balance: how much suffering will be incurred if each of the possible options were carried out? This is where suffering is sometimes determined to be necessary, namely if it avoids greater suffering associated with other choices. This applies to balances across time, too: it is often better to discipline one’s child, thereby causing short-term suffering, than it is to withhold discipline and set your child up for much worse suffering later on due to uncorrected behaviors that get out of hand.

A key property of the above approach to morality is that it is objectively derived. Dictionary.com defines “objective” as “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts”. Thus, in determining what behaviors will alleviate suffering, I cannot simply decide on a whim which I would like to include. I can only endorse those behaviors that are either observed to alleviate suffering, or for which a reasonable, logical case can be made regarding how they are expected to alleviate suffering when implemented (and in this case, the acceptance of such behaviors would have to be provisional only). Importantly, any observer who is asked to find these behaviors, will necessarily come up with more or less the same answers, because they must satisfy fixed requirements. Practically, of course, the real imposition of moral prescriptions is enforced by the state. In this case, whoever is responsible for making law will ultimately decide what behaviors are prescribed and prohibited. In a genuine democracy, much of this responsibility lies with the people, not with political leaders. This does not guarantee an optimal solution. But, of course, there is no reason why it should be easy to identify the best moral course.

Another element of objectivity is that it does not give one individual higher priority or greater importance than any other. After all, morality is about the interactions of multiple individuals, not just ourselves. (If there was only one person on earth, there would be no such thing as morality, because that person’s behavior would cause no harm – or benefit – to others. Theists usually appear to believe that morality still pertains in such a vacuum, but of course for theists a vacuum is not actually possible: God is always present, meaning that there is always someone we can harm by our actions, even if we’re ostensibly alone.) Scientific discovery has told us that all people’s ability to experience suffering and wellbeing is essentially the same. The evidence, then, tells us that a valid moral theory must treat all people equally. If I were to promote a moral theory that placed me above everyone else, I would be going against this evidence.

Ultimately, moral laws derived by the objective approach described above dovetail well with our instinctual moral sense. This is no surprise. Our moral instincts are the hard-wired products of our evolution as a social species. Consider, for instance, how human society might have arisen in the first place: only those individuals with genetic mutations that promote cooperation, altruism, mutual respect, etc., would have been able to function together as a unit. Such units would have held considerable competitive (and therefore survival) advantages over those unaffiliated with any group, and so the genetic mutations responsible for collaborative behaviors would be passed on more frequently than alternative genes, and would eventually come to dominate the gene pool. Furthermore, if several such societal groups arose, then those that were most cooperative, altruistic, etc., would, once again come to dominate the gene pool. Evolution has thus selected for the social traits we now consider to be basic moral values, such as helping neighbors in need, rejecting murder and theft, etc. Of course, evolution is not a process that cares about moral perfection (indeed, it cannot “care” about anything), and it has omitted the courtesy of removing from us those instincts that were useful as nonsocial creatures but which now chafe against our moral instincts. Hence the internal struggle between “good” and “bad” that all humans face.

Moral Obligation

The subject of evolution brings up another aspect of morality often touted by both believers and non-believers, namely that we are somehow obliged to be moral. In other words, it is taken for granted that the “is” of the available facts lead in a straightforward way to the “ought to” of the moral response to these facts. My understanding is that “ought” only makes sense if it is associated with an objective that the “ought” is intended to fulfill. For instance, if we want fewer people to die at the hands of murderers, we ought to criminalize murder. If we want to lose weight, then we ought to stop eating a tub of ice cream every evening. The word “ought”, then, describes an action that must be performed if the stated objective is to be achieved. It describes what mathematicians would call a necessary condition. What follows are some cases in which desired objectives result in “ought” statements.

We have evolved as a social species, which means we are heavily dependent on one another for our own wellbeing. In every aspect of daily life we rely on the work of others to thrive: things such as food, clothing, roads, and electricity are available to us only because other people provide them. In this sense then, our very survival depends on our interactions with others – if we wish to survive, we are obliged to behave morally. This is essentially a restatement of the above discussion of evolution, namely that societies only exist in the first place because evolution hit upon the sorts of behaviors – moral behaviors – that allowed them to flourish.

There are other instances in which we might be obliged to act morally. Perhaps the most practical one is that if, as citizens of a particular nation, we choose to act immorally, we can expect arrest and punishment. This provides a very real incentive to act morally.

Secondly, obligation can be self-imposed by choice. In other words, if a person decides to commit to a chosen set of moral guidelines, then she has assigned herself a set of duties, and she holds herself accountable for any failure to follow them. As an example, consider Catholic priests, who commit themselves to a life of moral leadership: they place upon themselves an obligation to act morally. This is one of the reasons that recent revelations of widespread pedophilia in the church are so shocking: priests who swore to uphold an extremely high moral standard have grossly violated their self-imposed obligations (and, of course, caused untold suffering in the process).

Ultimately, it is up to each of us to choose to live moral lives or not – no one is forcing us to behave in a particular way. However, there are very real repercussions for acting immorally because, in our close-knit society, our actions affect the wellbeing of others and we, in turn, depend on the wellbeing of others for our own wellbeing. In other words, it is in our own best interests to act morally.

Absolute Morality

I close with some remarks regarding one of the claims believers make about their morality, namely that it is “absolute”. To discuss this idea, it is important to use a clear definition. There are at least three that come to mind. The first is the definition given in the dictionary, for instance: “free from imperfection; complete; perfect”, from Dictionary.com. I have already argued that religious morality, or at least Christian morality, is not complete or perfect by any standard that we are familiar with today. To argue that Biblical morality is perfect would require us to sanction infanticide, rape, murder, and other atrocities.

The second definition of “absolute” used by Christians refers to some sort of ultimately “true” morality – one that reflects some deeply written truth about the universe. Unfortunately, this rather vague idea is never expressed in more concrete terms, and evidence is never offered to support it. As per the above discussion, it is clear that there are certain behaviors that promote the wellbeing of social creatures. These behaviors are observed to promote wellbeing regardless of who the observer is, and in this sense they can be derived objectively. But there is no reason to suppose that they are somehow “absolute” in the sense of having some greater cosmic significance, any more than objectively derived techniques for producing good golf swings are absolute.

The third, perhaps most prevalent definition of “absolute” refers to the perceived universal applicability of morality, namely that moral laws always apply in a straightforward manner independent of the details of the specific case being considered. It is understandable that such a view should arise: people want to have a firm foundation for their moral world view. While a firm foundation is necessary, I believe it should lie not in the specific behaviors prescribed by the moral system, but in the overarching aims of that system.  For instance, in the suffering-centered approach outlined above, a firm foundation is provided by the unwavering aim of reducing suffering or maximizing well-being, even if the specific behaviors needed to fulfill this aim take different forms depending on specific circumstances.

People are also attracted to absolutism because they have a strong negative emotional response to the idea that something as repugnant as rape, for instance, might, under very special circumstances, be the “right” thing to do. But while such ideas are emotionally unpleasant, they cannot, in principle, be ruled out.

Indeed, to refute absolutism it is necessary only to come up with a single counter-example in which, say, murder, becomes morally acceptable. I would go one step further and suggest that there is an entire class of examples in which it is deemed acceptable to commit what is usually seen as an immoral act. This class of behaviors can be described as follows: if committing a (normally) immoral act is the only way in which that same act can be avoided on a much larger scale, then committing it is morally acceptable. Consider the following example. A janjaweed militiaman in the Darfur region of Sudan takes me hostage, and threatens to subject an entire refugee camp of poor Sudanese people to rape and murder unless I assassinate a key government official who is working against the janjaweed. It is clear to me, based on the history of the militiaman and his cronies that they are intent on carrying this threat out: that I must, indeed, assassinate the government official if I am to save an entire refugee camp full of people. In this case, I believe, a single murder is the right thing to do, because it prevents hundreds or even thousands of other murders from occurring. Of course, I am not sure whether I would, in practice, be able to bring myself to go ahead with the assassination: my revulsion at such an act may overcome my desire to save hundreds or thousands of lives. Perhaps only if the number of lives saved were higher would I go ahead with it. But I would argue that most people, if presented with this situation, would agree to perform the assassination, provided a great enough number of lives would be saved by it. In principle, if not in practice, this number could be more rigorously determined by balancing the amount of suffering likely to be caused to all parties in both scenarios.

In summary, I offer that no moral law is absolute by any of the above three definitions. Morality is ultimately a practical issue. It has an empirical basis, and depends on the details of each specific case.

Next part of this essay.

Previous part of this essay.

Introduction to this essay.

An example of a non-religious ethical system:

Humanism and it’s Aspirations (the third iteration of the original 1933 Humanist Manifesto)

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.


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