Secular Morality, or Why Ethics Matter

by TessaSchlesinger

Secular Morality is gaining a following; Unlike religious morality, secular ethics is situational and can be determined on an individual basis

As many different factors overwhelm our world, it becomes essential that we all follow a code of behavior that prevents warfare. Our weapons are simply too destructive to fall into angry and insane hands.Added to this, the world of business and power shows little regard for ethical behavior or any sort of morality. Can Secular Morality work, bringing agreement to both religious people and those who don't follow a spiritual path?

Defining Secular Morality

In religious morality, God tells the people what to do. This morality is not examined or understood. It is blindly obeyed. It does not matter what the consequences or outcomes of the action will be; it is considered moral simply to obey God.

Secular morality is different. It demands that before any action is undertaken, the outcome of that particular action is examined to see if it will cause harm to anyone. If the action will imput negatively on others, then it is unethical. 

Morality in the secular world is understood from the innate empathy that human beings feel for other human beings. While it is understood that there is enormous diversity within the human species with some being on the sociopathic extreme with no empathy towards others, and still others having so much empathy that the pain of rejection half kills them, the norm is for most people to feel pain for others. Increasingly, the evidence shows that other animal species also feel this empathy for those of their kind. 

It is this empathy that drives secular morality. When people care what happens to other people, they are not willing to do things that harm other people. So it is that people can examine their actions and their words before they act upon them and determine whether they will be harmful to others in the short term, medium term, or long term. 

Ethics are Rules to Ensure the Safety and Well Being of the Community

Ethics are rules that make life easier for everybody in the community. They ensure that the people inside the community don’t kill and hurt each other. They also try to ensure that as many people as possible are in a state of well being, i.e. being well fed, sheltered, safe, healthy, and happy. Of course, because earth isn’t paradise, it’s not going to be possible to do that for everybody, because one man’s meat is another man’s poison. So, the best rules (or ethics) are those that enable the greatest good for the greatest many over the longest period of time.


Situational Ethics

It is precisely because the same action in different situations can have vastly different results that situational ethics are the chosen road of secular morality. For instance, let's take a situation where  work needs to be done. If this work isn't done, then many will die. And there is so much of this work, that everybody needs to work just to get the task done. If someone is lazy, it becomes harmful to the group because it is threatening their survival.  Now imagine another situation where all the necessities have been taken care of. Machines are doing most of the work and only ten percent of the people are required to do the work. In this situation, if only the ten percent are paid, then ninety percent starve. So in this situation, it is the other way around. The well being of the group demands that even those people that are not working need to be looked after. This is situational ethics. 

Secular Morality or Ethics is About Cause and Effect

Sociology is the study of group behavior. It studies both the behavior and the outcomes of behaviour. So it's not impossible to determine the results of particular group actions. Much of this has been studied during the past century. Mankind is in a place where it has the tools to determine the outcomes of the various group behaviours and decide which are optimal for the survival of mankind and which are not.

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Goodness is Good Ethics

Many religious people fear that it is not possible to be good without God. Yet, upon examination of morality within religion, quite often, it's not so much about ethical behavior as it is about a reward or punishment for certain behavior. This has nothing to do with morality. Morality demands an understanding of outcomes. If there is no understanding of the outcomes of behaviour or responsibility for chosing behavior that has good outcomes, then the behavior is simply that of a child blindly following a parent or an adult blindly following an authority.

Bearing in mind that it is innate human empathy that drives morality (the desire to have good things for one's fellow human beings), there are many attributes that would be considered moral. These would include kindness, gentleness, and generosity. Why? Because they increase the well being of other human beings. Anything that increases the well being of human beings is the result of empathy, and morality is that group of behaviors that prevents harm and increases the good of others. In other words, goodness is good ethics.

How does this work.

Take kindness, for instance. People feel safer and happier when others are kind to them, and because kindness is catching, those people will, in turn, behave kindly to other people. This very quickly produces a community of people where stress disappears and things get done - even when they are not asked for!

Of course, kindness isn’t always the wisest thing. If, for instance, a murderer is roaming around, one might have to be careful who one is kind to. So, that’s why it’s important to know how to decide on an individual basis what is ethical and what is not. Each word and action needs to be run through one’s mind, and each needs to be decided on an individual basis, “Is this for the greater good or not? This is situational ethics!

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Cause and Effect: The Bottom Line for Secular Morality

Deciding what is ethical and what is not.

Sometimes, trying to decide what is ethical and what is not, can be complex. Is it ethical for a business to put profits first? No, it’s not, because environments can be harmed and the long term outcome may be that people can’t grow sufficient food as a result of enviromental damage, and then people starve. Another example might be that as a result of people being underpaid, many will become poor, and if too many people become poor, then the economic system breaks down, and if the economic system breaks down, then civil strife results. So, it’s good ethics for a business to ensure that before looking at the profits it can generate, it ensures that its staff are paid enough for their well being to continue.

Another example might be deciding if one should make a purchase on a credit card when one is already deeply in debt. Is the item essential to one’s health, and will one die if one does not have the item? If one will die because one does not have the item, is there another way one can obtain the item (ask the supplier if they will give it to one free of charge)? And if one will not die, and it’s just for fun, what happens if one loses one’s job. Will one be able to repay what one owes? If one cannot guarantee that, and one will need to default on the credit card, is that a very bad thing? Will it harm others? Yes, it will! If too many people owe too much money and everybody defaults, the economy will be in bad shape, and eventually people won’t have homes and won’t have enough money to buy foods. Sometimes, one individual action is not sufficient on its own to cause a lot of harm, but many people doing the same thing will eventually destroy the community.

How numbers affect morality.

Of course, the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak. It's quite common for people to do immoral and unethical things. If one or two people do them, there is no great consequence to society if there are millions and billions of people. The effects of the immoral action may only affect a few people. However, depending on the action, it can affect a great many people. 

Take Bernard Madoff, for instance. He stole millions from many people and organisations. His action was so vast that it affected the lives of an uncountable number. That's quite different from a homeless man who steals some toothpaste from a pharmacy (CVS in this instance) and gets killed by one of the managers! (This happened in 2010). 

One of the great shifts in morality came in the sixties. There was a lot of concern about young children born outside marriage as they were not accepted by others. It was felt that the children were unfairly punished for the sins of their parents. So there was a change in this perception. What happened, however, half a century on, is that most children in the United States are now born outside marriage. Most of them grow up without fathers. This has a negative effect on the socialisation of the children. Studies have shown that children who grow up without fathers are not as successful (or happy) as children with fathers.

Morality is never perfect. That is why it is the greater good that is the rule. Another term of this is the common good. And that is why following a moral or ethical life sometimes demands sacrifice.


Religion and Secular Morality

Secular morality only deals with the outcomes of this world. It would not be considered ethical or moral to try to influence someone else about religion as there is no proof of outcome in this world. Secular morality can only be applied when outcomes can be logically deduced from prior evidence.

Wisdom - Understanding Outcomes

Learning how to Make Moral and Ethical Assessments

So, there you have it. You can actually work out what the outcomes of your action will be. When you use your innate empathy to determine whether your action and/or your words will result in the good of those around you, you are acting in a moral or ethical way. Incidentally, wisdom is the ability to comprehend outcomes before they happen and so shape one's behavior on actions ahead of time by taking the outcomes into consideration.



Updated: 01/18/2013, TessaSchlesinger
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TessaSchlesinger on 01/18/2013

TerriRexson, the poorest group of people internationally, are single mothers. They don't have support from the fathers (and, yes, there are exceptions, but they are in the minority.) And, yes, some women are able to support themselves and their kids, but, again, it's something like a few percentage points. And, very definitely, like it or not, kids who grow up without fathers, don't do as well as kids that do.

However, a permanent relationship is a permanent relationship, and that is a marriage, whether there is a piece of paper to confirm it or not.

TerriRexson on 01/18/2013

Excellent article. I really don't understand why it's taking so long for secular morality to be the prevailing world view. As a humanist this is very much the way I see the world.

BTW I don't think the relevant point is that most children in the US are now born outside marriage. My kids were born outside marriage. A lot of people just don't get married these days. In our case because we find marriage just as irrelevant as religion.

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