2.1 Ethics Defined
2.1.1 One definition of ethics might be, "that which is handed down by god." Another definition of ethics might be, "that which any given culture happens to arbitrarily decide is ethical." Another might be, "that which the individual decides is right for him or her." And even another definition might be, "that which we know in our hearts to be the ‘right thing’ to do." However, none of these definitions is in sync with the epistemology described above, nor are they adequate.
2.1.2 An outsider to our world might look at human beings and easily describe ethics by the following sentence. Ethics is a system of behavioral rules, enforced by social pressures and laws and devised by a consensus of human beings in order to facilitate their interaction with one another, in an effort to enhance their mutual prosperity, happiness, and well-being. To itemize, ethics is...
a) a set of behavioral rules,
b) created by human beings, through general consensus,
c) regulating our interactions with one another,
d) for the purpose of mutually increasing overall long-term happiness, well-being, and prosperity,
e) and is enforced, in mild cases, through social pressures and, in severe cases, through legal enforcement.
2.1.3 The theist often has difficulty understanding the basis of a secular ethic which is not determined by a deity and carved in stone. The idea that ethics can change and are created by humans is frightful to entertain for them, because it introduces uncertainty into their world. Humanism is often mischaracterized as a system where each person does as they please. However, this is plainly unethical and not an accurate depiction of secular ethics.
2.1.4 Perhaps the best way to explain the nature of secular ethics, is through the analogy of language. Ethics is much like language because of the following points...
a) Ethics, like language, is created by human beings.
b) Ethics, like language, evolves over time to meet the needs of the society at that time and place.
c) Ethics, like language, must be functional. That is, it must work in a way that achieves certain goals: communication for language, cooperation for ethics.
2.1.5 The rules of spelling, grammar, and pronunciation are taught in classes and documented in many books. However, these rules are not usually dictated by a single authoritarian source. Instead, they are developed through common acceptance and consensus over time in more of a "grassroots" sort of process. As new words or variants of words become common usage, the dictionaries are updated to reflect this. Secular ethics changes in much the same manner: through general consensus over time.
2.1.6 Ethics must be flexible and allow for growth and development. Without such, we would have never been able to incorporate the ideals of antislavery, equal rights, environmental ethics, and animal rights issues. We would also not be able to improve our ethics as new concerns arise such as biotechnology and digital privacy issues.
2.1.7 What is interesting about the analogy of language is that it not only provides for this type of flexibility, but it also puts the same restraints on individual action that it should. For example, the points mentioned in 2.1.4 do not suggest that an individual person can just decide how to spell a word or make up their own rules of grammar. If they do, they risk their ability to communicate effectively. Likewise, an individual person cannot just decide what ethics they will or will not follow and expect their behavior to be validated by others. If they do, they risk their ability to cooperate and get along with others (at least). In other words, just as with language, the fact that ethics is created by people and changes over time, does not allow the individual to simply do as s/he pleases.
2.1.8 What an individual can do is to try to influence the culture at large by making arguments for or against certain ethics or the lack thereof. It was once taught that for slaves to disobey their masters was unethical. This flawed "ethic" was fortunately done away with, or at least became moot when slavery was abolished. When women’s rights were oppressed, people such as Lucretia Mott, Mary Wollstonecraft, Susan B. Anthony and many others worked to change society, which was as much an ethical development as a political one. Authoritarian ethical commandments are not capable of such innovation.
2.1.9 Because of the functionality requirement (2.1.4c), when individuals make such arguments, they should base their line of reasoning on the ability of ethics to fulfill its purpose (2.1.2d) more efficiently. While the assessment of the effectiveness of various ethical proposals may be difficult to determine, the basis of these arguments rests on objective questions of functionality for human beings.
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