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Secular ethics

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Secular ethics is a branch of moral philosophy in which ethics is based solely on human faculties such as logic, reason or moral intuition, and not derived from purported supernatural revelation or guidance (which is the source of religious ethics). Secular ethics can be seen as a wide variety of moral and ethical systems drawing heavily on humanism, secularism and freethinking.

The majority of secular moral concepts consist, on the grand scale, of the acceptance of social contracts, and on a more individual scale of either some form of attribution of intrinsic value to things, ethical intuitionism, or of a logical deduction that establishes a preference for one thing over another, as with Occam's razor. Approaches like utilitarianism and ethical egoism are considered rather more radical.

It must be mentioned that the concept of secular ethics is not necessarily opposed to or inherently contrasting with religious ethics. Certain sets of moral beliefs, such as the golden rule or a commitment to non-violence, could be held by each position and mutually agreed upon. As well, it must be mentioned that secular ethics have been developed differently given the different times and different situations faced.

Tenets of secular ethics

Despite the width and diversity of their philosophical views, secular ethicists generally share one or more principles:

  • Human beings, through their ability to empathise, are capable of determining ethical grounds.
  • Human beings, through logic and reason, are capable of deriving normative principles of behaviour.
  • This may lead to a behaviour preferable to that propagated or condoned based on religious texts. Alternately, this may lead to the advocacy of a system of moral principles that a broad group of people, both religious and non-religious, can agree upon.
  • Human beings have the moral responsibility to ensure that societies and individuals act based on these ethical principles.
  • Societies should, if at all possible, advance from a less ethical and just form to a more ethical and just form.

Humanist ethics

Humanists endorse universal morality based on the commonality of human nature, and that knowledge of right and wrong is based on our best understanding of our individual and joint interests, rather than stemming from a transcendental or arbitrarily local source, therefore rejecting faith completely as a basis for action. The humanist ethics goal is a search for viable individual, social and political principles of conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility, ultimately eliminating human suffering.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world-wide umbrella organization for those adhering to the Humanist life stance.

Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.[1]

Humanism is known to adopt principles of the Golden Rule, of which the best-known English formulation is found in the words of Jesus of Nazareth, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Also consider the quote by Oscar Wilde: "Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live." This quotation emphasizes the respect for others' identity and ideals while downplaying the effects one has on others.

Secular ethics and religion

There are those who state that religion is not necessary for moral behavior at all.[2] The Dalai Lama has said that compassion and affection are human values independent of religion: "We need these human values. I call these secular ethics, secular beliefs. There’s no relationship with any particular religion. Even without religion, even as nonbelievers, we have the capacity to promote these things." [3]

Those who are unhappy with the negative orientation of traditional religious ethics believe that prohibitions can only set the absolute limits of what a society is willing to tolerate from people at their worst, not guide them towards achieving their best. In other words, someone who follows all these prohibitions has just barely avoided being a criminal, not acted as a positive influence on the world. They conclude that rational ethics can lead to a fully expressed ethical life, while religious prohibitions are insufficient.

That does not mean secular ethics and religion are mutually exclusive. In fact, many principles, such as the Golden Rule, are present in both systems, and some religious people, as well as some Deists, prefer to adopt a rational approach to ethics.

Nature and ethics

Whether or not the relationships between animals found in nature and between people in early human evolution can provide a basis for human morality is a persistently unresolved question. Thomas Henry Huxley wrote in Evolution and Ethics in 1893 that people make a grave error in trying to create moral ideas from the behavior of animals in nature. He remarked:

The practice of that which is ethically best — what we call goodness or virtue — involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows... It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence... Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process.[4]</blockquote>

Famous biologist and writer Stephen Jay Gould has stated that "answers will not be read passively from nature" and "[t]he factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner". Thus, he concluded that ideas of morality should come a form of higher mental reason, with nature viewed as an independent phenomenom.[4]

Key philosophers and philosophical texts



Holyoake, secularist

George Jacob Holyoake's 1896 publication English Secularism defines secularism thus:

"Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable. Its essential principles are three: (1) The improvement of this life by material means. (2) That science is the available Providence of man. (3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good."[5]

Holyoake held that secularism should take no interest at all in religious questions (as they were irrelevant), and was thus to be distinguished from strong freethought and atheism. In this he disagreed with Charles Bradlaugh, and the disagreement split the secularist movement between those who argued that anti-religious movements and activism was not necessary or desirable and those who argued that it was.



Nietzsche, secularist

Friedrich Nietzsche based his work on ethics on the rejection of Christianity and authority in general, or moral nihilism. Nietzsche's many works spoke of a Master-Slave Morality, The Will to Power, or something stronger that overcomes the weaker and Darwinistic adaptation and will to live. Nietzsche expressed his moral philosophy throughout his collection of works; the most important of these to secular ethics being The Gay Science (in which the famous God is dead phrase was first used), Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil and On The Genealogy of Morals.


Immanuel Kant (painted portrait)

Immanuel Kant

On ethics, Kant wrote works that both described the nature of universal principles and also sought to demonstrate the procedure of their application. Kant maintained that only a "good will" is morally praiseworthy, so that doing what appears to be ethical for the wrong reasons is not a morally good act. Kant's emphasis on one's intent or reasons for acting is usually contrasted with the utilitarian tenet that the goodness of an action is to be judged by its results. Utilitarianism is a hypothetical imperative, if one wants _____ , they must do ______. Contrast this with the Kantian ethic of the categorical imperative, where the moral act is done for its own sake, and is framed: One must do ______ or alternatively, one must not do ______.

For instance, under Kantian ethics, if a person were to give money to charity because failure to do so would result in some sort of punishment from a God or Supreme Being, then the charitable donation would not be a morally good act.



John Stuart Mill, utilitarian

Utilitarianism (from the Latin utilis, useful) is a theory of ethics that prescribes the quantitative maximization of good consequences for a population. It is a form of consequentialism. This good to be maximized is usually happiness, pleasure, or preference satisfaction. Though some utilitarian theories might seek to maximize other consequences, these consequences generally have something to do with the welfare of people (or of people and nonhuman animals). For this reason, utilitarianism is often associated with the term welfarist consequentialism.

In utilitarianism it is the "end result" which is fundamental (as opposed to Kantian ethics discussed above). Thus using the same scenario as above, it would be irrelevant whether the person giving money to charity was doing so out of personal or religious conviction, the mere fact that the charitable donation is being is made is sufficient for it to be classified as morally good.



The mythological figure of Atlas is an icon of Objectivism.

According to Ayn Rand in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology,

A moral code is a system of teleological measurement which grades the choices and actions open to man, according to the degree to which they achieve or frustrate the code’s standard of value. The standard is the end, to which man’s actions are the means. A moral code is a set of abstract principles; to practice it, an individual must translate it into the appropriate concretes—he must choose the particular goals and values which he is to pursue. This requires that he define his particular hierarchy of values, in the order of their importance, and that he act accordingly.[6]

Thus, she stated in her book For the New Intellectual that her morality is contained in a single axiom. She described it as the fact that "existence exists— and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these." Objectivist ethics holds that the only true moral standard that is that a person should act to do what is in their rational self-interest in benefit of themselves. No other standard of judging behavior should exist otherwise. The twin related principles of reason and of free will are key in allowing an individual to determine their self-interest.[6]

Ayn Rand has also coined the phrase "I am, therefore I think" as a summary of the process. In the novel Atlas Shrugged, the character John Galt said that he based his actions on his belief that "I swear — by my life and my love of it — that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

See also


  1. Humanism's Unfinished Agenda
  2. Is Atheism Consistent With Morality?, paper (2001) by Mark I. Vuletic
  3. Interview with the Dalai Lama, magazine The Progressive (January 2006), scroll to Question: Apart from Buddhism, what are your sources of inspiration? The Dalai Lama: Human values.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Stephen Jay Gould. "Nonmoral Nature". Retrieved January 5, 2009. 
  5. Holyoake, George J. (1896). English Secularism. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Morality". Retrieved January 5, 2009. 

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