On Secular morality


The purpose of Republic of Lagrangia is the establishment of a secular, liberal and humanist republic. In this post we will discuss the topic of secular morality. We will argue that all meaningful ethical theories are necessarily secular. However, we will start by distinguishing secularism from atheism. Subsequently we will show that non-secular ethics is equal to moral nihilism. Then we will defend the harm principle as the core of secular ethics.

Secularism versus atheism

Some people (deliberately) confuse secularism with atheism. However, this two terms refer to two totally different concepts. Atheism is the ontological position that god or gods do not exists. Secularism, however, is the political position that politics and religion should be separated, or in other words: the state should be neutral in religious matters. This means that the state should not promote religion or non-religion; whatever one chooses to believe or not, is only his concern.

Not all secularists are atheists, and not all atheists are secularists. Many secularists are not atheists, but they are for instance agnostics, deists or pantheists. This three particular positions are (fundamentally) different from atheism. But most agnostics, deists and pantheists are secularists.

Why is secularism important? Secularism is important because different people has different beliefs, which cannot often be proved. It’s almost impossible to prove either the existence or non-existence of god(s). Since one’s personal believes does not affect other people, or at least they don’t need to, it would be better if we keep religious matters private.

What is morality?

Although theists, and creationists, often talk loudly about morality, they have often no clue what they actually mean with morality. There is a strong impression that for theists morality only serves as a last sanctuary for an increasingly collapsing god of the gaps.

The primary question one should ask in moral philosophy is: what is the purpose of morality? Most theists just presume the necessity of morality, and when they are asked the primary question, they either evade this subject or they claim that the need for morality is “obvious”. One should ask why the need for morality is obvious.

Zoologists have discovered “moral” behaviour in multiple species of social animals, and not only in humans. Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal is the one of the foremost researchers in this field. This raises the question why social animals do subscribe to a notion of moral behaviour? If we ask ordinary people what they think what morality is about, they will often explain morality in terms of altruism or caring about others. This justifies us to understand morality as altruism.

There is a simple naturalistic explanation for the emerge of altruistic behaviour in social animals. Animals who help each other, think about a group of wolves or lions hunting together, have a greater chance of survival. Since all evidence points in the direction that the sense for morality is determined genetically, it follows that (the need for) morality is simply the product of evolution. In fact we might conclude that only evolution is able to give us a proper explanation for the whole phenomenon of morality.

After all, why should a deity actually care about morality? Theists are unable answer this question, and often they claim because of god’s love. But we should consider that love can also be explained by evolution, since our capacity to love enhances our chance of survival (think about the love of mothers for their children). However, god is supposed to be unevolved, so how can he be able to love?

So we can conclude that morality is the set of behavioural attitudes which brings us to help/care about others, which increases the chances for survival of our species.

Why non-secular ethics is equal to moral nihilism?

The Euthyphro problem as formulated by A. C. Grayling:

Is an act wrong because a god says it is, or is it forbidden by god because it is wrong? (Grayling p. 105, 2013).

Grayling argues that if the first clause is true than anything whatever god might decide to be good, is therefore good. This include murder, rape among others. Certain acts are only bad or good because of the arbitrary whims of a deity. Therefore non-secular ethics is nihilistic, since good and bad have no objective, independent meaning.

If the second is clause is true, we need to develop a secular theory of ethics.

What kind of morality should we have?

Although evolution is able to explain why people have a sense of morality, it fails to tell us what specific moral rules we ought to have. The primary objective evolution impose on all living beings is their will to survive, and in particular on animals.

Although most humans are born with a sense of morality, many people have different set of moral values. According to Canadian-American moral philosopher David Gauthier argues that moral values are inherently subjective. Because different people have different preferences, there will be conflicts of interest among these people.

It seems from this point of view it will impossible to establish any kind of objective morality. In a literal sense this would be true, but we can say: why not construct a set of rules which enables us to pursue as much of our interests as possible? In fact such rule is possible: the harm principle. Although John Stuart Mill has introduced this moral rule for slightly different reasons, it’s quite useful for organising a society with many conflicting interest.

According to the harm principle individuals should be allowed to do what ever they want as long as no other person is harmed by such act. Therefore you can live your life by your own values, provided that these value do not harm others. And the main task for the government is to minimize the amount of harm in society.


Grayling, A. C. 2013. The GOD Argument. Bloomsbury, London.

7 thoughts on “On Secular morality”

  1. As a starting point we could, perhaps, impose the three laws of robotics on ourselves….

    A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
    A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
    A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

    1. The imposing of Asimov’s infamous second law upon ourselves would give some difficulties, since it would mean:

      A human being must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

      This would mean that everyone has to obey everyone else (Okay, they will not be allowed to harm each other), which could lead to absurdities: Alice orders Bob to clean the garage, then Bob commands Alice to retract her previous order and to clean the garage herself.

      Roger MacBride Allen has modified the original laws of robotics, to a more useful (for humans) version:

      1 A Robot may not injure a human being.
      2 A Robot must cooperate with human beings except where such cooperation would conflict with the first law.
      3 A Robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the first law.
      4 A Robot may do anything it likes, except where such action would violate the first, second or third law.

      However, I have contemplated the idea of installing the three laws of robotics in humans in the past. I have considered to write a story about a journalist who agreed with the implantation of a chip in her body which forced the three laws upon her actions.

  2. I read Grayling’s God Argument over the weekend and his 6 polemics titled Against all gods, both very interesting reads.
    Here is a quote I posted on my blog on principles of secularism that you might find quite interesting.

      1. I noticed you had seen the article when I wrote it.

        Plato, did get the gods away from morality, so that if we must have such a discussion, it must be in reference to man. How one man relates to another.

        Does the harm principle refer only to physical harm or does it include psychological as well? It is possible one could do something that doesn’t harm others physically but harms them in a different way though he may himself find it in order [I have to think of an example though]

        1. Mill’s original definition was about physical harm, but we have to keep in mind that in the mid-19 century psychology was not well developed, and the severity of psychological damage was not fully recognized back then.

          However, Mill did opposed a so-called “offense-principle”, e.g. the rule that should forbid mere offense. But I think Mill would have considered serious psychological harm on a similar level as physical harm.

Comments are closed.