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When I was a teenager, I went from being a devout Catholic to questioning all religion in the space of just under a year. Entering high school, I made some Jewish and Muslim friends. As I started to explore their belief systems, I couldn’t help but think that the only reason I considered myself Catholic was that I’d been raised by Catholic parents, not because I’d done a rational survey of the major religious alternatives. Since I also knew that most of my peers hadn’t done much more thinking than that, I became generally skeptical of religious belief.
I came to this conclusion because I’d discovered a simple version of an argument that’s been employed with great success by many critics of religion, from David Hume to Julia Sweeney.1 It works by pointing to the world’s vast diversity of religious belief as evidence that familiarity with one’s own religious tradition doesn’t rationally justify preferring it to the alternatives. These different religions all seem familiar to their adherents, but they can’t all be true, so familiarity is no rational guide to the truth.'. . . familiarity is no rational guide to the truth.' Click To Tweet
I know many who have had the courage to abandon religious belief when they too realized the provincialism of their own religious upbringing. I want to encourage them to take one more step. Too few secular people have thought to extend the same skeptical attitude toward another set of beliefs that is just as crucial to the way we live our lives, even though it is often packaged along with beliefs about deities. I’m referring to our basic beliefs about moral values. It’s time that more secular people decided to challenge the moral doctrines they’ve absorbed from religion along with the rest of its theology.
The need to scrutinize moral beliefs
We can choose whether or not to believe in God, but we have no choice about our need for some view about the universe if we are to navigate our way through it. The most scientific secularists reject a belief in the miraculous and adopt a naturalistic commitment to the law of causality, knowing that science relies on it to help uncover nature’s secrets. But should physicists use their knowledge to build an atom bomb for their government? Should biologists use their knowledge to clone human beings? Should political theorists use their knowledge to redistribute wealth to feed the world’s poor? In each case, it’s not enough to know the means to the end, the end itself needs to be evaluated. To navigate life, we need more than scientific principles of cause and effect; we also need scientific principles of ethics.
Many secular people who have thrown off the religion of their parents have scrutinized at least some of their most provincial beliefs about ethics. For instance, it’s likely that the Kinsey report’s revelation of the diversity of sexual practices helped weaken the hold of conventional Christian doctrines in favor of chastity and against homosexuality. It’s not an accident that as European cultures began to discover more about cultures around the world (and about their own ancient history), Enlightenment philosophers began to question traditional European moralities.
But sadly, this willingness to challenge traditional morality has not extended much further. Secular people will challenge the idea that God is the ultimate source of morality, but they are less clear about an alternative principle on which to base their ethics. Too often, it seems their moral views default to what they learned from a religious culture. For instance, those who reject a morality of chastity might still regard money-making as vicious on the principle that selflessness is a moral ideal. Yet that is the same ideal that Christians celebrate when they praise Christ for casting the money changers out of the temple and sacrificing himself on the cross. How confident are secular people that this is a doctrine they can neatly separate from the religious baggage usually associated with it?'How confident are secular people that selflessness is a doctrine they can neatly separate from the religious baggage usually associated with it?' Click To Tweet
We know that those who abandon religion don’t automatically abandon everything they picked up from religion. How many ex-believers still feel crestfallen that they might never experience an afterlife? I did. We also know that there are powerful incentives to hold on to religious views when alternatives are not available. Prominently, people have to make life choices and need some code of values to guide them.
If so, we should fully expect that religious ethics should continue to hold sway even for ex-believers who’ve rejected other elements of religious doctrine.
Unfortunately, those searching for a truly secular ethical alternative will find that there are few prominent options. At least when we look to what prominent secular intellectuals have had to offer, I would argue that they themselves continue to be under the sway of religious ethics.
Signs of parochialism in secular ethics
Some noteworthy critics of religion have lately made an attempt to offer secular alternatives in ethics. Admirably, “New Atheist” thinkers and other secular public intellectuals like Sam Harris and Michael Shermer have devoted significant attention to the question of how science can ground morality. But their approach amounts to looking for ways to reconcile most of our existing basic moral beliefs with science. A truly scientific approach does not seek reconciliation. Atheists don’t reconcile the idea of God with science, they reject the idea. And yet even the most serious defenders of science aren’t up to radically rejecting our culture’s morality.
The basic moral belief the New Atheists take from our culture is that morality consists in impartial rules that guide our behavior with others. In his recent book Rationality, Steven Pinker describes this as the idea that the perspective of an individual on his interests is morally irrelevant, the idea that “any argument that privileges my well-being over yours or his or hers . . . is irrational.” It’s an idea that is not far from the ideal of selflessness at the heart of Christian ethics.
Pinker is not the only popular secularist to make the claim. Harris writes a whole book that turns on the assumption that “we are not, by nature, impartial — and much of our moral reasoning must be applied to situations in which there is tension between our concern for ourselves . . . and our sense that it would be better to be more committed to helping others.”2 Likewise Shermer’s book on morality begins by invoking Peter Singer’s “principle of impartial consideration of interests” and goes on to quote Pinker’s endorsement of the same.3
What’s interesting about Pinker’s discussion of impartiality is the way he is self-conscious about the affinity between impartiality and Christian ethics. But rather than seeing this as a sign of parochial thinking about ethics, he presents that affinity as a strength. He suggests that variations of the impartial “Golden Rule” were “independently discovered” by “Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Baháʼí” as well as by a multitude of philosophers (Spinoza, Kant, and Rawls among others). By portraying different religions as having made this “independent discovery,” Pinker implies that even unsophisticated mystics were in a position to observe some obvious fact that secular philosophers had otherwise studied more systematically.
This interpretation of the affinity is, frankly, ridiculous. For one thing, it’s not at all obvious that each of these religions would really agree to the same “impartiality” principle he has in mind.4 Even if they did, there’s little reason to consider their views as based on “independent discoveries.” No social scientist would treat these as independent data, since we know they influenced each other (e.g., Judaism influenced both Christianity and Islam, Hinduism influenced Buddhism, etc.). Most importantly, Pinker gives no indication what rational methods these notably faith-based movements would have used or what facts they would have been observing to make their discoveries.
To a secular, scientifically minded thinker, the similarity between religious and contemporary secular moral views should generate at least some provisional skepticism. When we find out that most people in Poland have similar Catholic beliefs, we don’t assume that they must have all independently discovered some facts about the local water supply that make Catholicism true. We ask what cultural forces affected this part of Europe, but not Belarus, to lead uncritical people to absorb one dogma rather than another. And if a Polish secular figure comes along who supports Catholic antipathy to homosexuality and abortion, most secularists would not likely sympathize with the idea that he and the Catholics have independently converged on the same independent facts.
Of course, it’s easy to criticize Polish parochialism from non-Polish soil. It’s harder to see a blind spot that one shares with an entire intellectual culture that crisscrosses national boundaries. But there’s reason to think the coalition of religions and secular viewpoints that Pinker mentions, while extensive, is not exhaustive. The moral doctrine of impartiality is far from being universally accepted in the long history of ethics. Pinker and other secularists who equate morality with impartiality completely ignore a major contrary data point: the entire moral philosophy of ancient Greece.'Pinker and other secularists who equate morality with impartiality completely ignore a major contrary data point: the entire moral philosophy of ancient Greece.' Click To Tweet
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle founded the discipline of philosophical ethics and had an enormous influence on its history. Aristotle, for example, thought that the virtuous man is a “lover of self” or even “selfish” in some translations.5 He thinks that beneficence towards others is “most praiseworthy” when it is towards friends, friends being those one loves when they are like “another self.”6 There is nothing like the “impartiality” principle in his and other ancient Greek theories.7 On the contrary, all of the major thinkers in the ancient Greek tradition see a person’s own eudaemonia (flourishing) as the end of ethics.
That the Greeks held this view doesn’t mean they had the correct moral theory. But it does mean that we can’t take the more modern view of impartiality, which various religions share with other more recent philosophers, as expressive of a transparently self-evident truth. Just as encountering rival religious beliefs should lead us to question our devotion to ours, recognizing that not just others but some of history’s greatest philosophers had a different conception of ethics should cause a similar reckoning. That’s especially true when there’s a decent chance that the secular philosophers who adopt this theory of impartiality actually got it from religion.
Avoiding the rationalization of secular moral “theology”
Sometimes scientists do vindicate ideas superficially similar to those first entertained by thinkers who lack scientific rigor. The atomic theory and the theory of evolution by natural selection both had predecessors in ancient Greece which had only a weak basis in the evidence. Far from being disqualified by this similarity, we think modern atomic and evolutionary theory are some of the best confirmed scientific theories available. But here it’s crucial that the modern theories are based on a wide array of converging well-substantiated evidence. What can be said for modern arguments in ethics?
We can find a dizzying array of such arguments in modern philosophy. Eminent philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Henry Sidgwick, John Rawls and Derek Parfit (among many others) all give laborious, abstruse arguments for their conceptions of morality as impartiality.8 We can’t examine all of these in our limited space, but there are reasons to be skeptical that there’s an unconditional need to survey the entire dizzying array if we are interested in finding a scientific account of morality.
When we examine the most influential philosophical arguments in ethics, we find that many of their most prominent advocates share the conviction that scientific evidence about natural facts is simply irrelevant to questions of value. Figures like Kant, Sidgwick, Rawls and Parfit all agree, in one way or another, with David Hume’s idea that scientific observations about what factually is the case have no logical relationship to what ethically ought to be practiced. This should raise red flags for the arguments they go on to offer: if they’re not scientific, fact-based arguments, what are they based on and why should secular people otherwise committed to scientific naturalism care about this alleged basis?
Much of the time, the arguments are said to rest on what the philosophers call “intuitions.” In one use of intuitions, the philosopher considers a series of artificial imaginary cases (say, one in which various runaway trolleys careen toward unsuspecting victims tied to the track) and their unfiltered reactions to them.9 It’s thought that because intuitions are used in “thought experiments” which compare two cases with many variables held constant save for one crucial difference, they provide a “test” for various ethical theories.
But the method of intuitions is far from an approach that involves anything like the scientific method.10 A sign of this is how the reactions popular with Anglo-American philosophers turn out not to be the same as those of respondents from other cultures.11 One critic of philosophers’ reliance on intuitions notes that when intuitions conflict, there’s no way to dismiss some as artifacts while holding others as authentic, not if we don’t think there are observed facts that intuitions answer to. It’s more likely that all of them are artifacts of our theoretical commitments, of what we’ve come to believe through education and socialization, etc.12 To repeat the lesson I learned in high school, familiarity is no rational guide to the truth.'But the method of intuitions is far from an approach that involves anything like the scientific method.' Click To Tweet
Throwing up their hands about the unreliability of our intuitions about cases such as a runaway trolley, other philosophers propose that we should instead rely on our intuitions about very abstract principles (like about the rule of impartiality itself). But this ignores the centuries of Western philosophers who would have disagreed with these principles, let alone treated them as givens. It’s a classic case of explaining the already obscure by the even more obscure. Here again, the point is not that ancient philosophers disprove the modern view. It’s that if the modern view seems “intuitive” to many philosophers, it may stem from a parochial familiarity that is no rational guide to the truth.
An example of how a familiar-sounding principle may derive from something other than commitment to the truth can be seen in Kant. Pinker cites Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative as yet another instance of the doctrine of impartiality that Kant had “independently discovered” with the rest of its advocates: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” But Pinker does not cite Kant’s own explanation for what Kant himself thinks explains the intuitiveness of his idea of impartiality. His explanation doesn’t sound like a sincere attempt to put himself in touch with anything resembling reality. He thinks that when we act according to rules in which one has no personal interest, one is thereby acting with “a will free of sensuous impulses [by which] he transfers himself in thought into an order of things entirely different from that of his desires in the field of sensibility.” Kant thinks that only insofar as we are a “noumenal” being in a world beyond the senses do we have the true freedom of a rational being, whose dictates somehow provide the “ground of the world of sense and therefore also the ground of its laws.”13
Does that sound like scientific rationality, or overly verbose storytelling about how an immortal soul somehow channels divinely inspired commandments?
When we encounter arguments for conclusions like Kant’s, it’s worth keeping in mind a lesson from debates in theology. Before critically analyzing various arguments for the existence of God, religious skeptics will often point out that almost no one believes in God because they were first persuaded by the arguments. Most theists simply adopt the same beliefs as their parents or peers, which means that the arguments are “almost without exception post hoc rationalizations of beliefs already held,” as the atheist thinker A.C. Grayling, puts it.
Grayling’s point by itself doesn’t vindicate atheism. But it does point to a reason to suspect the rationality of theistic arguments. Because of what we know about how most people form their religious views, we know that many have a motive to find excuses for beliefs they’d have held even if they had no evidence or arguments. And to the extent that secular moral ideas resemble religious ones, when we know their secular advocates were raised in a religious culture, we should have a similar suspicion that they are just offering an excuse for something they want to believe, not making some “independent discovery” on the basis of “intuitive” data. (As it happens, Kant was raised and educated in a particularly devout sect of Lutheranism.14)
When philosophers treat their hot takes on controversial cases or even controversial principles as though they were scientific data, and work to systematize or make coherent as many of their hot takes as possible, all without reference to actual observed facts, it really does look like “post hoc rationalization” of something they want to believe because it’s familiar. That’s more akin to theological speculation than it is to scientific discoveries, such as the atomic theory and the theory of evolution.'When philosophers treat their hot takes on controversial cases . . . as though they were scientific data . . . without reference to actual observed facts, it really does look like “post hoc rationalization.' Click To Tweet
But, you may say, we have to make important life decisions and so we’ve got to start somewhere. So, we can’t just throw out everything we believe about ethics and start afresh, like some kind of Cartesian skeptic practicing methodological doubt! We might not know where our “intuitions” come from, but they’re all we’ve got.
It’s true we need moral guidance, but it’s not true that hot takes are all we’ve got to work with. Before the ancient Greek project of moral philosophy was interrupted by religion’s millennia of monopoly on ethics, the Greeks drew their theories from real observations, observations about human nature, about the impact that different choices have on our character and our lives. The very fact that we know we need to make choices is itself a crucial observation to take into account when formulating an ethics that can help guide those very choices.
Later Charles Darwin observed another fact that has important consequences for a modern scientific ethics: for living creatures, even slightly different courses of action can make a difference for whether they remain in existence or not (which explains why small mutations can make a difference for whether a species survives or goes extinct). This isn’t the conventional pop-sci claim that our knowledge of morality itself is somehow a product of evolution. If that were true we’d have no need to rethink it. It’s the point that if we’re going to rethink it, we should do so knowing that the kind of person we become can make a life-or-death difference.
I think one can assemble quite a rationally defensible ethical code on the basis of observations like these. But don’t take my word for it; continue your exploration of philosophical ethics by considering a few who make this case. Check out the modern-day thinkers who ground their ethics in naturalistic observations. You would do well to consider neo-Aristotelian thinkers like Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson who challenge Hume’s is-ought distinction and explore the important connection between biological requirements of survival and the nature of value. You would do even better to consider the work of Ayn Rand, who anticipated the Foot/Thompson point and integrated it with the fact that human beings live by reason and need guidance for the choices they make.
When I abandoned my parents’ religion as a teenager, I took quite seriously that my moral worldview was also a product of that same religion. For a period of time, I was thrown into something resembling Cartesian doubt about everything. But I knew I needed some kind of worldview to get by and my agnosticism did not last long, either about a godless reality or a rational morality. I encourage those who have taken the first step of challenging their belief in God to take the next step.'Question with boldness even the strictures of your morality.' Click To Tweet
As Jefferson wrote to a young friend, “fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”15 I want to add to that: question with boldness even the strictures of your morality. And if you value a homage to reason, the morality you abandon can be replaced by one that treats reason as our fundamental value, our guide to making the choices we need to remain in existence as human beings.
Do you have a comment or question?
- David Hume gave a version of it in the eighteenth century when he observed that believing religious texts about the miracles of Christ has no better grounds than believing texts about the miracles of Mohammed. Since accounts from different religions contradict each other, this has the effect of undermining our grounds for both. See David Hume, Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Section X, Part II, P.H. Nidditch (ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1777/1975), 121–22. More recently, in her popular talk recounting her own journey out of religion, “Letting Go of God,” the comedian Julia Sweeney recounts how it was a visit from Mormon missionaries, whose views she regarded as ridiculous, that got her to thinking about why her own Catholic views were any less ridiculous.
- Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 40.
- Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015), 18–19.
- Pinker’s reference to a saying from Rabbi Hillel (110 BCE–10 CE) does not show impartiality is really the lesson of the Torah. (Leviticus 19:18 [“Love your neighbor as yourself”], which he does not cite, might be a little closer, but is still far from his impartiality rule.) And the sole footnote he presents supporting that they each really had a version of this rule is not a work of scholarship on the history of religion or moral philosophy, but a strange self-published volume that features (unsourced) quotes and strange algorithms derived from them. The quotes appear in some but not all of the religious traditions he mentions.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 8.1168b23–31, Reeve transl. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2014), 167. See Gregory Salmieri, “Aristotle on Selfishness? Understanding the Iconoclasm of Nicomachean Ethics ix 8,” Ancient Philosophy, vol. 34 (2014), 101–20. Salmieri notes that Aristotle is not necessarily an ethical egoist. The fact that virtuous action and action that benefits the self are identical does not necessarily constitute ethical egoism. To be an ethical egoist one must think that the fact that an action benefits the self is what makes it moral, and it’s ambiguous whether or not Aristotle holds this position. While there may be some doubt whether the facts that make actions moral are independent of an agent’s interests, there can be no doubt that Aristotle thinks an agent has “overriding reason to do what best promotes his own happiness” (Terrence Irwin, The Development of Ethics, vol. I [New York: Oxford University Press, 2007], 125.). This is far from Pinker’s idea that “any argument that privileges my well-being over yours or his or hers, all else being equal, is irrational.”
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 8.1155a5–10; 1168b23–31, Reeve transl. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2014), 136, 167.
- The closest we get to a principle of impartiality in ancient Greek ethics is from the Stoics, who think virtue helps one to expand one’s understanding of one’s good to include our fellow citizens. But even this view is egocentrically focused on one’s own good. See Irwin, The Development of Ethics, 348–49.
- As with the different religions cited by Pinker, it’s far from clear they actually come to the same conclusion. Derek Parfit thinks that deontological, consequentialist, and contractarian theories are all climbing the same mountain from different sides of the peak, and famously argued for a “triple theory” according to which all three imply the same general ethical principles. (Parfit, On What Matters, vol. 1 [New York: Oxford University Press, 2011], 411–14.) There’s little consensus that his argument has succeeded. There’s also little hope that the method Parfit himself uses to reach his conclusion is one that would lead scientific thinkers to converge.
- The now infamous “trolley problem” is a notable case: Should you divert a streetcar careening toward a group of people stuck on a track if it means running over a single worker? We are supposed to have the intuition that we should: it just seems right that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. But if instead we’re asked to push someone onto the track to achieve the same end, we’re supposed to think it seems different. See David Edmonds, Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014). See my “Why Today’s Ethics Offers No Real Guidance,” New Ideal, November 18, 2020.
- A sign of this is how philosophers find ingenious ways to propose still more convoluted twists on the original scenarios to save their theories from refutation (a “method” that seems to render their theories unfalsifiable). Consider various ways the trolley problem is conceptualized. The trolley problem was originally proposed by Philippa Foot to challenge the “Doctrine of Double Effect,” the idea that there’s a difference between evil that is directly intended and bad effects that are foreseen but unintended (e.g., the difference between terror bombing of Hiroshima to force the Japanese to surrender, and the strategic bombing of military facilities in which civilians accidentally die). In Foot’s original use of the example, the Doctrine of Double Effect would allow for changing the train to save the larger number of people because this is merely foreseeing the negative result, not intending it (as one does when one kills a patient to harvest his organs). Foot proposed the Doctrine isn’t needed to explain what’s wrong with organ harvesting: there one faces the choice between violating a duty not to kill and simply letting the others who could use the organs die. So, she accepts the same reactions to the cases but simply offers an entirely different explanation — the data has made no difference. Likewise, consider Francis Kamm’s twist on the trolley case to save the relevance of the original Doctrine of Double Effect. Kamm posits that there’s instead a three-way distinction, between evils directly intended, negative effects foreseen but not intended, and also negative effects enacted because they are foreseen even though they are not intended. She invents a case in which the trolley driver must choose between running over five bystanders, or running over a fat man who is blocking the way to six of them. In this case one does not intend to kill the fat man as a means to the end of saving the six, but one still chooses to kill him knowing that diverting will save the five and not kill the six. It’s hard to know why we should count as data her idiosyncratic reaction that there’s a major moral difference between directly intending death in order to save a life (which is supposed to be worse) and acting on the knowledge that a negative consequence will result (which is supposed to be better). For more, see David Edmonds, Would You Kill the Fat Man?, 34, 53–56.
- See, e.g., cross-cultural differences in reactions to the trolley problem in Henrik Ahlenius and Torbjörn Tännsjö, “Chinese and Westerners Respond Differently to the Trolley Dilemmas,” Journal of Cognition and Culture, January 2012,vol. 12(3–4), 195–201.
- See Robert Cummins, “Reflection on Reflective Equilibrium” in Michael DePaul and William Ramsey (eds.), Rethinking Intuition: The Psychology of Intuition and Its Role in Philosophical Inquiry (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998), 113–28.
- Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, James W. Ellington (trans.) (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1981), 54–55.
- Schönfeld, Martin and Michael Thompson, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), “Kant’s Philosophical Development,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019).
- Letter from Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787.