Secular Morality

It is a firm belief of the religious that secularism in general and atheism in particular lead to immorality.  They point to the crimes of the Nazis and Stalinists on the one hand and the breakdown of the family on the other and say: you see, this is what happens when you abandon religion.  And who can deny that they have a point?  Absence of an agreed upon moral code is the great weak spot of modern secular ideology.  After the excesses of the past, no secular movement that does not have a clearly defined moral stance is likely to succeed.  But just how to go about establishing a code of secular morality is far from clear.

Of course it could be argued that there is no need for a formal code of secular morality just because some people went to extremes.  Most believers in socialism did not endorse the crimes of the Stalinists, nor do most nationalists consider themselves members of a master race entitled to exterminate others just as they please.  It might even be that most atheists form enduring unions that raise healthy children, although this is open to doubt.  But since some people did go to extremes, the suspicion now exists that sooner or later those who cast off the restraints of religion will then cast off all restraints.  The only really effective way of countering this suspicion is to have a secular moral code that it is possible to live by and to be seen as doing it.

To be sure, it could also be argued that a moral code is no guarantee of a moral practice, as the history of religion amply demonstrates.  The Christians and Muslims have both murdered millions in their time, nor have they hesitated to turn to violence in disputes within the family.  Furthermore even when the religious do practice what they preach, their concept of morality is itself often open to criticsm.  But defective as they may be, the moral codes of religion nonetheless do command widespread respect and undoubtedly do act in certain circumstances to prevent people from wronging one another.  They are sufficiently well established that they cannot be replaced except by a secular moral code that is equally clear, equally explicit yet at the same time more conducive to a peaceful and prosperous world.

However some might say that morality is really just a matter of common sense.  There are universal ethical values, accepted by all human societies, such as honesty, loyalty and consideration for others, which are neither specifically religious nor specifically secular.  Why not simply affirm these values and leave it at that?  The answer is that morality is not just about enumerating desirable human qualities but must also concern itself with creating the conditions in which such qualities can thrive.  Only a secular morality can do this, because only a secular morality can tell the truth.

The trouble with religious morality is that it is based on wishful thinking.  In reality there is no king up in the sky that watches over us, nor is there a law of nature, as the Buddhists and Taoists maintain, that good deeds will be invariably rewarded and bad deeds punished.  Justice is a worthy ideal, but in practice it cannot be relied upon to create a desirable social order.  Only a clear conception of how society ought to be organized can do this, and for this a realistic understanding of human nature is necessary, one that only secular thought can provide.  People are animals who are good with their hands; peace and prosperity is what we crave.  Starting with a conception of what a peaceful and prosperous society might look like, the function of morality ought to be to encourage the development of those human qualities which best promote peace and prosperity.

Experience teaches that peace and prosperity must be founded on democracy.  As a political system democracy is based on the moral precept that one person’s opinion is as good as another’s.  As a statement of fact this belief is clearly not true.  Those who are well informed on some subject are more likely to have a sensible opinion about it than those who are not.  But who is to judge who is right and who is wrong on any given issue?  Even experts may be led astray by personal prejudice and false information.  The bottom line is that those who are affected by political decisions have the right to a voice in how those decisions are made.  If they are denied a voice, resentment will arise and the long term result will be strife and disorder.  One person, one vote is a moral ideal, but one which is based on actual experience rather than wishful thinking.

However, in order to function well, democracy as a political system must be grounded in democracy as a system of social relations.  Central to democracy in this sense of the term is the concept of equality of social rank.  A democratic society is one which rejects both excessive deference to those in positions of authority and arrogant contempt for those in subordinate positions.  Social differentiation to one degree or another exists in all human societies, but that is no reason to make an ideal of it.  The democratic ideal is equality not just of opportunity but also of status.  The more egalitarian the social relations in any given society, the less likely that an authoritarian political movement will be able to use a democratic electoral system to win power and then establish a dictatorship.

Over time the egalitarian thrust of democratic ideology has given rise to the concept of human rights.  This is basically a secular concept, but not one which lends itself to the elaboration of a code of secular morality.  Rights are concerned with what is permitted and what is forbidden, but morality also concerns itself with what ought to be.  No one speaks of a right to be honest, loyal and considerate of others.  It is true that the concept of rights can also be used to define social goals, such as the “right to an education” and so forth, but defining a goal as a right does not actually bring it any closer.  What is needed is a comprehensive understanding of both means and ends, and this only a moral code can supply.  So if the goal is a peaceful, prosperous society and the means is democracy, what are the moral principles that follow from this premise?

To begin with, it follows that secular morality ought to be based upon the principle that productive labor is the greatest good deed which anyone can do on behalf of the human race.  Productive labor can be defined, at a minimum, as the production and preparation of food, clothing and shelter, plus the tools and transport necessary to this end.  More generally, those who do the work necessary to perpetuate the human race have the first claim on its respect.  Respect for productive labor was an integral part of the democratic movements of early modern times, and it eventually crystallized into a distinct ideology in the form of the socialist movement of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Socialist ideology proceeds from a moral principle to a social goal.  The principle is that productive labor should be not only respected but remunerated in accordance with its value to the human race.  And as this had not happened under either the feudal or the capitalist systems, socialists called for the reorganization of society in such a way that it would happen.  Both cooperative ownership and state ownership of the means of production were advanced by various socialist thinkers as a means to this end, and both systems of ownership have in fact been instituted around the world to varying degrees.  Socialists also played an active role in the development of the modern trade union movement, which sought to improve the pay and working conditions of the working class within the framework of the capitalist system.  And although capitalism has proved itself, for the time being, a more successful system than socialism, this is in part because socialist activity has resulted in a very considerable improvement in the position of productive labor within the advanced industrial countries.

Along with respect for productive labor, socialist activity has also helped to foster another moral principle fundamental to secular morality, one which might be called “social mindedness”.  This principle has its roots in democratic “civic mindedness” but extends beyond it to embrace society as a whole.  Starting with the ambition to reorganize society along more rational and equitable lines, socialists became accustomed to looking at the big picture and asking themselves what would be the overall effect of any particular course of conduct.  Social mindedness could be defined as the opposite of individualism in that it places the long range good of the group above that of the immediate convenience of the individual.  Like civic mindedness, it is the difference between those who litter and those who pick up the litter, but extends also into the realm of economic and social relations.  Those who ask themselves what would be best for all concerned do not always come up with the right answer, but they are definitely asking the right question.

Yet although socialist tradition provides a firm basis for a code of secular morality, the socialist movement of the 19th century was never entirely secular in its outlook.  The socialist literature of that period abounds with references to socialism as “the new Christianity” or “true Christianity”.  From religious tradition the socialist movement took above all the ideal of justice, which the socialists sought to deliver in this life rather than the next.  No one can quarrel with justice as an ideal, but as applied in practice it is rarely very far from the thought of revenge.  And since centuries of oppression of working people, plus the violent opposition which the socialist movement often encountered, provided ample motivation for a desire to even the score, one wing of that movement gravitated towards belief in the need for “class war” culminating in the establishment of a “dictatorship of the proletariat”.  Advocates of this belief eventually became known as communists, and whatever may be said on their behalf, one thing which cannot be said is that they adhered to a humane moral code.  In practice the dictatorship of the proletariat turned out to mean the dictatorship of the Communist party, and in order to perpetuate that dictatorship communists not only murdered millions but sought to suppress any manifestation of independent thought under their rule.

The transformation of communism from socialist idealism to ruthless dictatorship shows the need for a liberal component of secular morality in the form of a right to tell the whole truth.  Most schools of thought, whether religious or secular, advocate telling the truth, but their normal practice is to tell only that part of the truth consistent with their own point of view.  To tell the whole truth requires knowing the whole truth, and that requires a degree of objectivity and a wealth of information which few possess.  Moreover, it is not even clear that a political movement which told the whole truth could hope to succeed.  But what is clear is that when someone does tell the whole truth they should be permitted to do so and not penalized on that account.  The notion that the cause of truth is best advanced by an adversarial procedure as in a courtroom is open to serious doubt.  Truth is most likely to be found by those who seek it, and that requires treating accurate knowledge of reality as a social value worth cultivating for the benefit of all.

As for murder, it is the consensus of mankind that it is legitimate to kill in self defense, but otherwise not.  The problem is how to define self defense.  Under Stalin, suppression of the slightest hint of dissatisfaction with the regime was considered self defense.  Worse yet, throughout history there have been imperialist conquerors, like the Nazis, who hardly bothered to try to justify their crimes but simply did as they pleased because they had the power to do so.  Indeed, were it not for the Communists, Europe would probably still be ruled by the Nazis, 80% of whose army was engaged in fighting Russia during the Second World War.  What is the point of preaching morality to a human race long accustomed to saying one thing and doing another?  Having achieved our present eminence through the domination of the natural world, how can we be expected not to strive to dominate one another by fair means or foul?

There are basically two good ways of answering this question.  The first is the liberal democratic argument that democracies do not make war on one another or oppress their own citizens because they are founded on the principle of toleration of difference and resolution of conflict through negotiation and compromise.  The way to prevent crimes against humanity is therefore to extend democracy to those parts of the world where it is not yet established.  This is a valid argument so far as it goes, but it leaves out of the picture the important fact that those countries where liberal democracy is well established are also the most wealthy, prosperous countries in the world.  They became wealthy through capitalist enterprise, but it is notoriously difficult for poor countries to achieve a similar level of prosperity in a global economic system already dominated by the large multinational corporations.  And without the cushion of wealth, resolution of differences through negotiation and compromise may appear to be a utopian ideal.

A second method of opposing tyranny and injustice is through the affirmation of the concept of nationality.  A nationality is a community of language and culture which may or may not take the form of a nation state.  Throughout recorded history large and powerful nationalities have sought to conquer and dominate or destroy smaller and weaker ones.  In opposition to this trend the democratic movement of modern times affirmed the right of national self determination, which is generally understood to mean that every nationality has the right to its own nation state.  This is an attractive goal, but for a variety of reasons, many or even most nationalities are still not directly represented by nation states.  Every large country contains within it many small nationalities, perhaps called “tribes”, that lack the attributes of a nation state.  In other countries, several nationalities may contend for power, often in a violent way.  And conversely, some large nationalities are divided into a number of nation states, none of which can speak for the nationality as a whole.

Ideally the spread of liberal democracy and of national self determination would go hand in hand, but in practice these two ideals may sometimes appear to conflict with one another.  Democracy means the rule of the majority, but this can easily be interpreted to mean the rule of large nationalities over small nationalities.  On the other hand, endangered nationalities may turn to authoritarian leaders in an effort to preserve themselves.  Moreover, deciding who is right and who is wrong in such situations is rendered more difficult by the tendency of the advocates of democratic rights and of national loyalties to split into opposing ideological camps, commonly called liberalism and nationalism.  These are the two dominant secular ideologies of our time, but neither provides a firm basis for a code of secular morality.

Individual rights and national rights are both legitimate ideals, but once these ideals are defined as overriding concerns they tend to become antagonistic.  Liberals frequently accuse nationalists of stirring up trouble between national groups and using loyalty to the nation as a way of suppressing dissent.  For their part, nationalists often portray liberals as agents of social dissolution and national weakness.  They are both right.  Innumerable wars and massacres have been caused by national rivalries, but wherever liberalism is well established, there we see the breakdown of the family, a declining birth rate and manifestations of extreme individualism.  A healthy democracy needs both respect for the individual and loyalty to the nation, but when these ideals are transformed into ideologies they often do more harm than good.

The great moral imperative that confronts the human race today is the development of an effective system of planet management capable of providing a decent standard of living for all people and creating a pleasant environment in which to live.  Globalization under the aegis of existing international organizations will not get the job done.  It will simply perpetuate the current system under which poor countries provide cheap labor and raw materials so that multinational corporations based in rich countries can manufacture consumer goods to be distributed to the minority of the human race that can afford them.  The current system has also caused a gradual degradation of the environment that affects rich and poor alike, although not in equal measure.  Only an international body with the power and authority to plan and direct global economic development can provide the human race with both the basic necessities of life and an attractive and healthy environment.

Some will say that this is a utopian goal, but the whole point of morality is to encourage people to do things which are in their long term interest but which they might not otherwise have done.  No one can say that planned prosperity is not in the interest of the human race, nor can it be denied that the scientific and technical basis for global prosperity already exists.  What is lacking is only the political will to change the existing international system in the direction of both greater democracy and greater authority.  Defining the creation of a new system as a moral imperative is a necessary step in this direction.

To summarize: peace and prosperity is the goal, democracy is the means and secular morality should be based on the principles of respect for productive labor, respect for the truth and respect for human life.  As for the universal values of honesty, loyalty and consideration of others, they too form a part of secular morality, but with one proviso.  Systems of morality that enjoin considerate behavior under all circumstances are not realistic.  As someone once said, “Those who are kind to the cruel end up being cruel to the kind.”  A more realistic standard is that of reciprocity: friendship for friendship, enmity for enmity, value for value.  But above all, secular morality means adopting the standpoint of the entire human race as the individual standpoint of each and every one of us..

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