Laws of Life and secular morality
Most Christians I have encountered do not believe that secular morality works. They tell me that only with God can there be real
morality, for otherwise, values would be up to people, with no one more
qualified than another to say what is right, or what is wrong. They point
to the necessity of an outside moral authority, and deduce that the only
viable one is God. This is a perplexing issue, one that seems at first
to weigh in favor of the Christian, as it is true that for rules to work,
they must be external to those following them. Yet examination of any
religion-based morality reveals its own problems, such as which religious
source to follow, which interpretation of that religion is correct, how
to know if your understanding of that interpretation is accurate, etc. Even so, the Christian claim is that secular morality, since it's
not based on an outside authority such as God, cannot succeed because
it is ultimately subject to the changing whims of its human creators.
This is a misunderstanding of secular morality, for a real secular morality
does have an objective foundation. A good moral code, like a good scientific
theory, should be based on objective, observable and verifiable information.
And in the case of morality, we need look no further than life itself.
The Laws of Life
Humans and animals share these two traits:
1) they want to live
2) they require a quality of life.
These two things I call the Laws of Life. The Laws of Life are the most
basic rules by which all animals (including the human animal) live, and
we follow them because we cannot do otherwise. These laws were not handed
down from an ancient text, nor are they ideas someone dreamed up. They
are observable behaviors, they are how we are, they are our most basic
instincts. And even though we may not be able to say how it came to be
this way, we know that it is. So for secular morality to work, this must
be "believed:" that life is the most precious thing we have,
and preserving it, and its quality, are the most important things for
us to do. But unlike religious laws, proof is offered before we are asked
to believe. Just as we believe in the law of gravity only after it has
been demonstrated time and again to be accurate, we believe in the Laws
of Life because it is observationally obvious that they are true.
Law #1 needs little explanation. It is the thing that we all are most
concerned with--to live. It is the reason we eat, why we breath. It is the reason why any drowning animal or person will fight to its last breath to stay alive. Law #2 is also
quite self-evident. Both I and my dog would rather eat something we like,
and prefer to sleep in a safe and comfortable place. Every other normal dog and
human is the same way. Mere survival is not enough. We could all survive
in a cage, but would not want to. Our instinct is not merely to live,
but to attain a quality of life.
So is this a sufficient basis from which to construct a viable moral system?
Yes. Good and evil can now be defined, not based on some metaphysical
idea of God's character, but on observable phenomena. Good becomes "that
which promotes the Laws of Life," and evil "that which opposes
it." Perhaps the easiest way to see this is to try it out. Let's
look at some challenges to a secular moral code that Christians often
If there is no God, then why not just do whatever you want?
Since secular morality generally regards "good" as what is good
for people, some have made the mistake of thinking that this equals "whatever
makes you happy." Though the pursuit of happiness is a very important
part of human existence, it is not the only consideration, and can actually
run counter to the Laws of Life. For example, if what makes you happy
is stealing, then secular morality can legitimately say that what you
are doing is wrong. Why? Because stealing from others opens the door for
them to steal from you. And that can lead to many other harmful things,
including violence between the thieves and their victims. All this contributes
to the destabilization of society, and threatens everyone's quality of
life, including the thief's. Therefore the Laws of Life provide a solid
reason why stealing is wrong.
If morality does not come from God, it can only come from humans and
their opinions. In that case, on what moral grounds can secular morality
oppose things like rape and murder, since it's only a matter of one person's
opinion over another?
Rape and murder are wrong for the same reason any act of violence toward
another human being is wrong: it ultimately threatens everyone's life
and quality of life. If one person is allowed to rape and kill, then others
can do so too, either out of revenge, or because they can choose to. Not
only does this threaten everyone's safety (we all become potential victims),
but it threatens a peaceful society. And a peaceful society is necessary
to maintain quality of life. Once society is thrown into chaos, basic
necessities such as food production and even shelter are threatened. Who
will be left to farm and build houses, if we are all busy fighting eachother?
Far from being subject to individual or collective whim, a secular morality
based on the Laws of Life provides solid rules (and reasons for these
rules), that transcend individual interpretation as effectively as any
religious morality can.
How would you oppose Hitler and his treatment of the Jews? After all,
what the Nazis did was legal in their own country.
Not all laws are moral, and those that are not should be opposed. Remember,
secular morality is not merely what people legislate. There must be a
reason why something is moral or immoral, or legal or illegal. And these
reasons must be grounded in fact, not opinion. Given the fact of the Laws
of Life (inasmuch as the law of gravity is a fact), what Hitler did was
immoral. For by declaring that one group of humans could be oppressed
and killed, he threatened all of humanity. If we accept the persecution
of one group, we all become at risk for oppression. Certainly the European
countries would have been most aware of that, with the imminent threat
of Nazi Germany taking over the entire continent. But who's to say which group
would be threatened next? And even the Nazis themselves would ultimately
be threatened, for if they lost the war, as they soon did, there would
be nothing to stop someone from doing the same to them. The behavior of
Hitler and his Nazis blatantly violated the Laws of Life, and a secular
morality could easily justify opposing it.
If morality means what is good for the most number of people, why not
get rid of the weak and the sick?
First, we must remember to define right and wrong in the context of the
Laws of Life. Therefore killing the weak and the sick is wrong because
it threatens their lives, and it threatens everyone else's life too, because
we will all become weak or sick one day. Plus, killing the weak and the
sick comes at a price: we sacrifice a certain amount of our empathy and
compassion when we do this. And empathy and compassion are necessary in
individuals and society to maintain a good quality of life. With too little
empathy from others, our very lives can be at stake.
These are but a few of the moral issues one could address with this sort
of secular morality. Not being a philosopher, I cannot tell you just which
school of thought this Law of Life thing falls under. I'm sure it's been
developed much more fully by philosphers somewhere. Plus, there is the
whole issue of our moral responsibility toward animals that is not covered
here. But I believe this Law of Life idea provides a sufficient beginning
from which to build a solid human morality based on reason and observation,
and shows that secular morality can be quite viable, and even more viable,
than the religious alternative.
For a far more indepth and comprehensive look at morality, check out this excellent article called "The Ineffable Carrot and the infinite Stick."