2.5 Moral Relativism & Objective Ethics

Back to 2.4 The Basis of Secular Ethics

2.5.1 Whether or not ethics is subjective or objective has long been a point of debate. Most religious people see ethics as objective, as they are decreed by their god/s or by the cosmic order described in their belief system. Secular humanism has been criticized for its lack of belief in objective ethics. Televangelist John Hagee has described secular humanism in terms of, "if it feels good - do it." In his book, Why America Needs Religion, self proclaimed former secular humanist Guenter Lewy envisions secular humanism in the same subjective light. Lewy points out that Jerry Falwell has referred to secular humanism as "freedom from any restraint" and then claims that this is "not very far off the mark." In supporting this claim, he uses a host of quotes from independent authors who he admits are speaking only for themselves. He also acknowledges that there is no "official" humanist doctrine on specific issues and one of his strongest criticisms, that of justifying bestiality, comes from a person he admits is not even part of the secular humanist movement. In all of his examples, Lewy either notes writers with a position so extreme that it does not represent the majority of humanists, or he criticizes more central documents on general issues such as abortion and birth control, simply for stating them, as if the immorality of their position was self evident.

2.5.2 Lewy made many claims about secular humanism that can also be heard from a number of other sources. He describes secular humanism as having a "preoccupation with individual self-fulfillment and gratification." He says that secular humanism has a "single minded pursuit of self interest... no matter what the consequences for the moral quality of society..." (emphasis mine). I don’t know what Mr. Lewy had been before, but he seems to have a number of misconceptions about secular humanism. Like Lewy, I will use a few sources to discredit this perverse distortion of secular humanism. However, unlike Lewy, I will not have to dig through piles of old magazines because I will be using major sources and examples which exemplify the foundational principles of secular humanism.

2.5.3 While Lewy is correct in stating that there is no official humanist doctrine, there are some documents which come close. Namely, the Humanist Manifesto II and the Humanist Manifesto 2000. Some people use Humanist Manifesto I in their criticism but this document was superseded by II so I will not waste time defending outdated documents. Humanist Manifesto III is being written by the American Humanist Association as I write this treatise. I will also refer to author Paul Kurtz, who helped to write Manifesto II and wrote Manifesto 2000. Kurtz’s books have focused on general principles and foundational themes in secular humanism and, while he does not speak for all humanists, his works are considered central. While Lewy mentions these works in his introduction to secular humanism he, for unknown reasons, does not use them as a main source of critique.

2.5.4 The Humanist Manifesto II was drafted in 1973 in order to revise the first 1933 draft in the light of historic advancements and retrospect (this is the difference between dogmatic attachment to documents and open-minded adaptability). It has since been signed by thousands, including several prominent and respected writers, philosophers, scientists, Nobel Prize laureates, etc. It, as much as any document can be said to be, is representative of the general humanist worldview. It states that a society should be a tolerant one "Without countenancing mindless permissiveness or unbridled promiscuity..." It also states that, "We will survive and prosper only in a world of shared humane values."

2.5.5 The more recent Humanist Manifesto 2000 states, "Using reason and cognition will better enable us to appraise our values in the light of evidence and by their consequences." It goes on to say, "We judge [ethical principles] by their consequences for human happiness and social justice." (emphasis mine) In a later paragraph the conditions of toleration are explained, "...the defense of individual self-determination does not mean that humanists condone just any kind of human conduct. Nor does humanists’ toleration of diverse lifestyles necessarily imply approval... They recognize that all individuals live within communities and that some actions are destructive and wrong." (emphasis original) A recognition of our responsibilities and duties to others are also stated clearly in Manifesto 2000. Compare this with Lewy’s unfounded claim that secular humanism has a "single minded pursuit of self interest... no matter what the consequences for the moral quality of society..."

2.5.6 In his book, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism, Paul Kurtz goes into great lengths on some "common moral decencies" which, although they apply in different ways depending on the circumstances and society, have an overall objectivity and "universality" to them. This he calls "Objective Relativism." In discussing our obligations to others he states, "Here ethical issues are at the forefront, for they concern a person’s relationship to other beings... Every individual has a number of duties to discharge based on his interpersonal relationships and prior commitments." Kurtz also states, "[Ethical responsibilities] are deeply rooted in our fidelity to the well-being of the community - both the local level and at large - in which we are nourished and sustained." Is this a philosophy which, as Lewy states, has a "preoccupation with individual self-fulfillment and gratification?"

2.5.7 Clearly, in the Manifestos, the writings of Kurtz, and several other summaries and writings by the major authors and institutions, there is a profound sense of "right and wrong." One cannot criticize female genital mutilations in some countries, lack of access to birth control in others, or discrimination in our own nation without a sense of the objective in ethics; and these are all causes for which humanist organizations are known to be involved in. If everything were simply a matter of opinion, then there would be no need for convincing argument or the presentation of evidence - which is at the very core of the humanistic approach to ethics. We would be caught between two unappealing alternatives: do nothing or pick up the sword and exterminate those with the "wrong" opinions. However, the latter approach has more often been the tactic of the religious zealot, than the philosopher. Indeed, it is the habit of secular humanists to treat ethical deliberation as a science - testing ethical principles by their consequences, or at least anticipated consequences according to the evidence. If the universe were not an objective reality, then the scientific method would be useless and there would be no need for science. Likewise, if ethics were subjective, there would be no manner in which we could test principles or observe consequences - we could not treat ethics as a science, as many secular humanists propose.

2.5.8 So, without a belief in god/s or belief in an afterlife, what then is the objective basis for ethics upon which secular humanists rely? Let me take a hypothetical story to illustrate. Imagine a few people who find themselves in a room. In this room is everything they need to survive. They don’t know how they got there or why they are there and have no memory of anything previous to the room. So they go about living day by day. Eventually one of them decides that he would like the other’s food, so he kills him and takes it. The others are alarmed but they are not in danger themselves so they calm down after a time. The next day, a different person decides she will kill for another’s possessions. After this second incident everyone starts to see a pattern forming and no one feels very safe. They all decide to agree with one another that there will be no more killing. This is their first ethic, "Thou shalt not kill." After a while they make more agreements, such as not stealing, lying, etc. This representation of ethics is simply a social agreement who’s rules are the product of our collective experiences, traditions, and behaviors (the classical "social contract"). This is in line with the definition of ethics given in 2.1. So, with this conception of ethics we shall move on.

2.5.9 There are practically an infinite variety of ethical philosophies we might live by or invent in the future - a multitude of ways of living with one another as human beings. Some of these would end in self destruction rather quickly while other may allow us to survive without being very happy. Still others have allowed a pretty good degree of happiness and prosperity, although not a utopia by any means. The fact is, for each and every cultural trait, including ethical norms, the survival and prosperity of our civilization, and every individual, is affected in some way.

2.5.10 If we were a minor god or sorts with only two powers, we might be able to see this first hand. Suppose that we had the ability to arbitrarily and immediately set ethical norms in a society. This would not mean that everyone would always obey them, but simply that our rules would be considered by everyone to be the socially accepted behavior, and it would not change over time, unless we ourselves magically changed it. For our second power, imagine that we are able to travel forwards and backwards through time at will. Now we set the ethical norms in a particular manner, according to what we think best, then we travel 1000 years in the future to see how things have come along.

2.5.11 Since omniscience and omnipotence are not within our power, we would probably discover that there are some things that had occurred historically which we didn’t care for or anticipate. Perhaps they have a wonderful respect for the ecology now but a terrible problem with poverty. So then we decide to go back 1000 years and make some adjustments to the ethical norms. No matter how many times we do this, we would probably never get everything perfect, since we cannot know what effects even the smallest of changes would have 1000 years down the line. Nevertheless, each time we made a change in the ethical rules, this would have an objective effect on the society, for better or worse. While we would not have our utopia, we would have one set of ethics that we had tried, and gotten the best results. Maybe if we tried a hundred more times we might even find a better set than that.

2.5.12 What this fantasy points out is that our ethics have objective effects on the ability of human beings to thrive and survive and this, as we have established, is the functional purpose of ethics for Homo sapiens, whether aware of it or not. It therefore stands to reason that, at least in principle, there are one set of behaviors that yields the greatest likelihood of prosperity for the species, with all other factors being equal - hence objective ethics. Let us, for convenience, call this hypothetical set the Ideal Ethical System (IES). One thing to point out here is that the IES would not be merely a simplistic list. It would very likely be an entire philosophic system of ethics, taking into account various situations and conditions. For example, a specific moral rule in one culture may be okay for that culture and environment but not all right for another. How do we determine this? If the rule concerns marriage we might make arguments based on the male/female ratios. If the rule concerns the economic system we might look at whether or not the society is post industrial. The possibilities are endless. However, in each of these cases, we are getting at the same general principles: those things which help or hinder the survival and prosperity of a people are directly tied to what is "ethical" for them. It is this collection of general principles that we are attempting to distill when we speak of the IES. As such, it would be the ideal behavioral blueprint for Homo sapiens social interactivity. If this sounds a little like utilitarianism, the Socio-Personal Principle (2.11) will explain why simple utilitarianism alone is short-sighted.

2.5.13 The compatibility of ethical Objectivism and cultural relativism can also be illustrated with the following analogy: In the design of tires for vehicles, there is a great degree of variability in the tread. Some treads are deep, some shallow. Treads also vary in their angle, width, and design. Different treads are better for different surfaces (or environments) yet, would one say that tire tread design is completely subjective - that there can be no objective measurre or rules for which tread is superior to which? No. The tread of a tire has an objective effect on the friction and efficiency of that tire - it’s design and the rules governing it is entirely an objective phenomenon. On a flat dry surface, a racing slick might be best while on a muddy surface a deep tread would be preferred. This variability with respect to environment does not render the design of tire treads subjective. In all cases, there is an overriding set of physical laws in place which dictate where and why the treads are to differ. To measure the usefulness of a tread design, we look at the results. In other words we compare how the tire performs according to its purpose. Likewise, we know what the purpose of ethics are for Homo sapiens (see 2.1) and we can measure the effectiveness of various ethics by their ability to serve that purpose. Since human society is much more complex than a tire, it takes some informed guesswork and logical argument to make a case, which must be tempered by general consensus. Nevertheless, the principle is the same. So, the fact that different ethics may be fitting to different environments and conditions in no way indicates subjectivity because, in all cases, there are general overriding principles through which these differences become "right" in their respective cases.

2.5.14 Another important thing to point out is that, because of our limitations as human beings, we may never grasp the IES entirely. This does make ethics subjective in one sense. However, not on a case by case or whimsical basis. Ethics are like many other Human aspirations, they change and develop as we search for the answers together. Given the limitations of Homo sapiens, our faults, our intelligence, our instinctive urges, etc., there probably isn’t a "perfect" set of behaviors but merely a "best" set for Homo sapiens - the IESh. Even if we had the two godly powers in the example above, we might try our thousand-year experiment a million times and never fully deduce the true IESh.

2.5.15 Let us review five basic properties and conditions concerning the IES:

1) Complexity and completeness: Not merely a list of simple universals but a system of ethics, which are general, universal and complex enough to guide the more specific ethical principles given different environments and conditions for Homo sapiens. If accurately composed, there would be no exceptions since all exceptions would be included in the system itself as part of a structural whole. For example: "Thou shalt not kill" would be more accurately described as, "Killing is not permissible except in conditions x, y, and z - and here’s why..." Paul Kurtz also approaches such generalized principles and IES-thinking with his "common moral decencies" (see 2.5.6).

2) Imperfection: Because of our own limitations and imperfections as a species, it is unlikely that the IES would yield a "perfect" human society (that’s why its not called the PES). More likely, the IES would yield the best possible configuration of interactions, given the physical, emotional, intellectual, and resource limitations of Homo sapiens.

3) Unfathomable: Given that we cannot run through history over and over, and that we cannot fully comprehend or anticipate the multitude of factors that might play a role in such highly chaotic and complex systems such as human civilization, it is likely that the one true IESh will forever be unfathomable to human beings. Although we may get closer to it over time, and use historical evidence and logical persuasion to promote one ethic over another, we will probably never reach the actual IES. Even if we did happen to stumble upon it by accident, we would never know for sure if we had, and would likely drift off of it through the course of our history. Add to this the fact that there will always be competing contenders for the IES and the problem becomes even more obvious.

4) Not inhuman: The IES would not treat human beings as robots. In other words, the IES is not necessarily the most "efficient" means of human operation for doing work, production, fighting enemies, or exploring space. Most likely, humans who lived by the IES would suffer some inefficiencies in these areas (i.e. doing the "right thing" when it conflicts with efficiency). The reason being that, in order to be fully applicable to Homo sapiens, the IES must take into account those things which Homo sapiens value, live by, and thrive on, concerning their material and emotional needs. Oppressive systems will often fail because they blindly try to build a system which is incompatible with the elements which make it up (individual human beings). Such systems seem "efficient" on the surface, and probably would be for a population of robots, but eventually collapse in on themselves because they do not appreciate human individuality, dignity, rights, and compassion.

5) Under-utilization: Because the IES would be unfathomable, there would likely never be full agreement on it because no one could ever be sure that they alone had the complete IES. On the individual level, regardless of how well people are raised, there would always be imperfection in individuals’ abilities to adhere to or live by the IES. Full utilization of the IES would not generate a true utopia, because of it’s second property (imperfection). Its fifth property, under-utilization, would further diminish its impact. Nevertheless, the closer to IES we were in our cultural norms, the better off we would be, both as individuals and as a whole.

2.5.16 The list of properties for the IES may come off as sounding similar to ancient lists of properties for gods. Perhaps this is no coincidence since the concept of god embodies the human ideal of all that is good and right. The problem with the dogmatic mind, however, is that it cannot accept the third property of the IES (unfathomable). It is then necessary for many religions to invent a god or gods to tell them what the IES is in detail. This way, they don’t have to do any of the hard work it takes to discover it and they don’t have to worry about the insecurities of not having it. Obviously, this presents a problem when two peoples come together who’s idea of the IES clashes: someone’s god must be inferior! Next come theocracies, inquisitions, holy wars, etc.

2.5.17 When I approach some nonbelievers and tell them I believe that ethics is objective, their main fear seems to be that if we acknowledge an objectivity in ethics, then the next step will be someone claiming to have the one true IES and damnation to all those who disagree or doubt. However, claiming that ethics is subjective has several logical shortcomings, usually associated with postmodernism, which secular humanists often disagree with. If ethics were subjective (i.e. the IES does not exist) then one of the following two conclusions would have to be true...

1) The universe is not entirely objective.
2) Ethics serve no functional purpose to Homo sapiens.

Number one flies in the face of the scientific method, which has already proven to be the most effective means at gaining information about our world. It would mean that we could not claim that anything were "right" or "wrong" including religious wars, oppressive governments, human rights violations, etc. It would also mean that we could not approach the field of ethics as a science (note: this does not mean the study of ethics from an anthropological view - it means the development of new ethics and argument for or against certain behaviors via the scientific method. These are two very different things).

Number two would mean that the entire field of ethics is meaningless to begin with and whether or not something is ethical is irrelevant. If ethics does have a functional purpose, then this opens the door for ethics to be quantified according to their degree of functionality within that purpose. The IES would then be that set of ethics which best fulfills its purpose.

2.5.18 The solution to resolving fears on both sides thus becomes obvious. To say the IES exists in principle is not to say that any of us can ever know that we have it. But acknowledging its existence avoids the pitfalls of ethical subjectivism and also gives us a rational basis upon which to argue for or against various human behaviors and on which our arguments can be evaluated. Basically, the above properties of the IES prescribe at least these five imperatives of ethical deliberation...

1) Tolerance: Given that the IES is unfathomable, we cannot ever merely assume that our ethics are compatible with the IES, no matter how strongly we feel. Therefore, we must remain tolerant of other viewpoints, other cultures, and other’s rights. Indeed, the tolerance of both individuals and governments is essential to keep the marketplace of ideas open. This is the only way we can advance as a people and continually move closer to the IES. The only exception to this is case is the tolerance of intolerance itself. Where the marketplace of ideas is shut down, all advancement toward seeking the IES is halted. This is why the fight for freedom of speech and thought must be universal and continual. Also note: "tolerance" does not imply acceptance or approval.

2) Open mindedness: Tolerance alone falls short in that it does not imply open consideration that our own views may be flawed. This is where open mindedness comes in. We must be genuinely willing to entertain the possibility that we are wrong and we must be allowed to address others in this respect as well. But in entertaining this possibility, we must require evidence and detailed argument without logical fallacy. We must also require that the sufficiency of our evidence and/or the fallacy in our logic be shown clearly. It is our willingness to hear and consider these points and, if warranted, change our conclusions, which constitutes open mindedness.

3) Objectivity: True ethical deliberation between people and nations is not possible with hidden agendas and favoritism. Such tactics, be they conscious or not, will certainly not move us closer to the general precepts of the IES. Fairness and objectivity is logically consistent with distilling general principles as applicable as those of the IES must be.

4) Integrity: Since ethics are judged by their consequences, we must have integrity with respect to our data. We must be honest and truthful with all information including surveys, statistics, etc. In addition, we must have scholarly integrity and be sure that our data collection methods are scientifically accurate and verifiable. This data is essential in determining such things as how various policies and practices of human beings effect crime, poverty, health, justice, education, psychological well-being, cooperation, the environment, etc.

5) Rationality: Once we have the raw data, we must stay true to rationality and all it entails, including logic and skepticism. We cannot be swayed by transient cultural tides, trends, or rationalizations. Nor can we be hampered in our efforts by emotions, traditions, "political correctness", or taboos - be they those of others or ourselves.
After Rationality, there is a continual loop which takes us back to Tolerance. This is because, as soon as we come up with a new hypothesis or theory, we must immediately be open to it’s modification or even possible nullification in the light of new evidence. It is through the general consensus of the public that moral and ethical progress has been made and these imperatives assure its continuation. This circular process is akin to the scientific process and this is what is meant by treating ethics as a science.

2.5.19 This is why we first developed ideas of justice, banns on murder, fairness, etc. then later developed a democratic philosophy, then later ended slavery, then started becoming aware of equality issues. Recently, the environment and the treatment of animals have become ethical issues. Its not that we are being more and more "ethical". You see, these ideas did not even exist as ethical concepts until they were "discovered" through free thought, new information, cultural evolution, and general consensus.

2.5.20 If I were to go back in time and complain to an ancient king about the treatment of women or minorities he would barely even grasp my point. In ancient times people didn't feel the least bit guilty about having slaves because their ethics were at a primitive level and that was unfortunately considered the natural (and good) order of things. Later, Western slavery took on a different form and, fortunately, consciousness began to arise about it. This is not to say that all "evil-doers" are simply uninformed and trying to "get along" as best they can. It is true that some individuals knowingly and truly have evil intentions. To be sure, ethical advancement has had its set backs and dark ages. The Nazis, for example were severely off course but did not gain consensus because their evil was plainly evident (and the world went to a great deal of effort to "communicate" this to the Nazis). Fortunately, despite setbacks, Humanity has been advancing over the long haul and is heading in the right direction in its development of ethical ideals (although we may not be actually living by those ideals as strictly as we should).

2.5.21 It would be nice if we had a magic mirror to tell us what to do but my main point is that, just because we don't have absolute ethics within our grasp doesn't mean that they are "up in the air" for us to just live as we will. A good person is one that seriously thinks and considers right and wrong and makes a commitment to live by those standards, even if this occasionally calls for sacrifice. Good people may not always agree but the more obvious the issue, the easier it is to agree (such as for murder, for example). In this way, we as a people reach consensus and become more ethically responsible and mature as a whole. History has proven this pattern when looked at on the long term and there is good reason to assume it will continue overall in the future. Our goal should simply be to help it progress as smoothly as possible and to avoid as many "setbacks" as possible, not to mention that we must do more than talk the talk - we must actually live by our ethics.

Continue to 2.6 Intelligence And The Religious