2.4 The Basis Of Secular Ethics

Back to 2.3 Religion And Ethics

2.4.1 Ethics are not absolute in a sense that they are independent of society, they are an invention of human beings. Every invention has its purpose and the purpose of ethics is to provide a stable standard of interpersonal behavior so that society can function smoothly and people can interact in a productive and cooperative way. human beings are basically social animals so this fulfills a deep instinct and acts as a survival mechanism (since humans survive better through cooperation). Does this mean that ethics are meaningless or unimportant? No.

2.4.2 Ethics are meaningful because we give them meaning. In modern society, humanity is often belittled with phrases like "he's only human" and with beliefs that place human beings in the position of being helpless and needy. The pyramids need not have been built by space aliens, they were built by Human beings with hard work, intelligence, engineering, and ingenuity. What people fail to realize is that things that are created are real too, just as with airplanes and bird nests and we can create things. Although not the only way things can exist, creating is one event that brings things from non-existence to existence. Since we created ethics, ethics necessarily exists. "Meaning" is a useless word unless it refers to who it has meaning for. Things that we create can have meaning for us.

2.4.3 Ethics are important because of the reasons I mentioned earlier. Ethical behavior is crucial to the cooperation (and therefore both individual and collective survival) of humanity. This was obvious the first time two Humans decided to help each other. Individually speaking, ethical behavior encourages others to be the same toward us, it makes for good relationships which we can enjoy and benefit from, and most of all it makes us feel good about ourselves and provides a stable, psychologically well-balanced, and healthy mind. This is because Humans have an underlying instinct for empathy and need for mutual love (a survival mechanism for any social animal).

2.4.4 This concept is not entirely incompatible with religious concepts of morality. Any believer when asked "Why does god want to restrict me and spoil all my fun?" will answer "god doesn't give us these commandments to restrict us, he does it to protect us. He knows how the world IS and he knows what will give us the most pleasurable life." All I'm saying is that we as human beings can also see how the world is (to some extent) and we can see that ethics protects us and helps us prosper for the same reasons. Theists and atheists simply differ over why the world is the way it is (and why it is at all).

2.4.5 The realization of this concept is a component of reaching the highest level of moral maturity. In his book, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics Of Humanism, Paul Kurtz reasonably outlines the general stages of moral development. I will paraphrase them here...

a) Infantile amorality: Instant gratification with no sense or right or wrong. Mostly represented by infants, psychotics, and some of the gravely handicapped.

b) Obedience to rules: Obedience to commandments based on a system or rewards and punishments, much like animals are trained. Every child must go through this stage and, sadly, much religious morality never gets past this level.

c) Moral feelings for others: The development of an internalized empathy for the needs of others. A normal progression of healthy Human social instincts, it may flourish or be muffled by upbringing and/or psychological defect. Nevertheless, an important basis for the beginnings of true moral development.

d) The ethics of self interest: Adherence to a moral code only to the extent that it yields self-gain. Breaking of moral decencies may occur if one can escape detection. We all experience such temptations, and some do it to excess. Although this level represents a serious problem with selfishness and a sad lack of empathy, integrity, and social perspective, formulating some certain choices on the basis of self-interest does not, in itself, imply a lack or moral concern for others and therefore would not be meant as a description of this level.

e) Union of moral feeling and rational self-interest: A genuine feeling of empathy and loving concern for others to the extent that it fits within feelings of self interest. Here altruism is planted in one’s cognitive and affectional attitudes.

f) Humanistic ethics: A fully developed ethical system that involves a concern for the broader community on a more universalistic basis. There is devotion to general ethical principles, not to be broken without just cause, an inward feeling of moral sympathy and a desire to not needlessly hurt other human beings, reason is used in guiding one’s conduct in terms of the moral excellences and will involve concern for both the individual and the whole, and ethical considerations to the whole of humanity will exceed allegiances to one’s inner circle, smaller groups, etc.

Although these levels are not reached at the same rate (or even order) for everyone, they illustrate the basic point explained by Albert Einstein...
"A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectively on sympathy, education and social ties and needs; 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."
Fortunately, many have proven that human beings can lead moral, meaningful lives based on humanistic ethics and this shows that the same process on a social level would be just as equitable, at least. Humanity has the potential to grow up and start making decisions for its own well-being.

2.4.6 Unfortunately, religion’s alleged monopoly on morality leaves no avenues for nonreligious people to mature through, thus creating the popular image of the "lost soul" which lingers in depression, crime, drugs, and abuse - the perceived result of a lack of religious belief. Were secular ethics more accessible and well known, more of these "lost souls" could gain greater happiness without the need to cage their minds.

2.4.7 As an atheist, I believe that the importance and significance of ethics can be seen by the way human beings have adorned them with beliefs of their supernatural origins. According to belief, God didn't command that we shall put our left sock on before the right, he commanded that we not kill. The very reason why believers assign holy significance to ethics is because of how important they are held to be by humans (not the other way around as theists believe).

2.4.8 In a similar organization to moral maturity models, I often present four general answers to the question of, "Why should I be good?"

Given the fact that we live in a society made up of human beings like ourselves, it should be obvious that people will not respond well to being lied to, stolen from, or harmed. If you think you can get away with evil deeds undetected, ask yourself if you've ever done anything long term without making a mistake of some kind eventually. If you lie, for example, people will tell each other that you are a liar and not to be trusted. Whether we admit it or not, we all need the support and cooperation of others to get along in the world so the social consequences of treating others badly are bad enough. To add to that, however, there are often legal consequences for more extreme behaviors. The risks to your reputation, possessions, and even freedom make unethical behavior extremely unwise and costly. You may think you'll never be caught but, in the long run especially, that is very unlikely.

Believe it or not, most people like goodness and hate evil - including evil people! With the exception of severely psychotic persons, most people dislike evil, even when they themselves are committing it. Hating evil is not really a matter of choice, that's just human nature. This is why many criminals do things which are self destructive. Deep down, even if unconscious of it, they hate themselves. People who lead unethical lives ultimately loose respect for themselves and become very unhappy. But when we do what is right we nearly always feel a great sense of self worth - even if no one ever knows about what we did. This higher sense of development is what justifies being good, even when no one is looking.

Humans are, by nature, social animals. Like many other social animals, humans normally have the instinctive emotion of empathy. Sometimes the ability to experience empathy can be dramatically suppressed by early abuse or neglect. However, in a well rounded individual, empathic emotions cause us to involuntarily experience the emotions of those we see around us. This is one reason why movies and books are so much fun - we automatically put ourselves in the place of the characters, experiencing joy or sadness as they do. If empathy is nurtured properly in a child, s/he will grow up to be an adult who will feel guilty when causing harm to others and feel happy when helping others. This emotion can be a powerful driving force to being a good person. In cases where empathy has been suppressed, long and difficult counseling or other psychological measures may be effective. Religion has been used as a tool to help reform such people but secular or philosophic counseling has also been effective. Furthermore, religion only works if the person believes it. The placebo effect of religion does not in any way support or suggest the truthfulness of any of it's beliefs. There are many ways to help people reform without the need to promote superstitions.

Once a person has fully understood the first two reasons and is under the influence of the third, a natural tendency is for them to become more concerned about the greater good of the world. At the highest level of moral maturity, individuals see themselves as part of a larger whole. This doesn't mean they live for the good of that whole necessarily, it only means they are aware of it and often are concerned as to how all of our individual actions "add up." The contributions we make to others around us in the world are part of what gives meaning and continuity to our lives. A fully developed moral person will get enjoyment from such contributions. Some may scoff at this reason as not being of interest to those who might ask why they should be good. However, it should be noted that, for many who have become more sensitive to moral issues, the first reason (self interest) is often of less concern in ethical decision making.

2.4.12 As I said earlier, each of these reasons may only be important to a person at a certain stage of his or her life. Some people never reach full moral maturity. Often, it is authoritarian and simplistic nature of much religious doctrine that suppresses moral development, holding it's members to such a childish level of morality, that they cannot comprehend why a person would be good without the threat of punishment or reward in an alleged afterlife. This is similar to a third grader wondering why an adult attending junior college should do his or her homework, since there is not an ever-present parent forcing them to. In general, you will notice a direct correlation between wisdom and goodness. The fact is that ethics are what's best for us, and it takes no supernatural sanction to justify this inescapable conclusion.

Continue to 2.5 Moral Relativism & Objective Ethics