Secularism and Humanist Morality

June 21, 2010

While talking about humanist morality, a distinction is essential. Social morality should be distinguished from cosmic morality on the one side and personal morality on the other. Cosmic morality asks questions like, "What's is all for?" and "For what higher purpose are we here?"  Personal morality asks questions like "Why should I be moral?" and "How can your ethics be justified to me?"

Social morality is instead concerned with how morality actually exists and functions in the real world. From the secular perspective, unlike any supernatural perspective, morality is primarily a social matter. Where does morality exist in the real world? It exists in all of our daily lives, as we have learned how to live them. Before any cosmic or personal questions could be asked or answered, a person learns social morality in childhood and lives it in adulthood. You live out a social morality every minute of every day, in your habitual conduct towards others and in your choices about how to live your lifestyle. But those are all personal matters, you might be tempted to say. However, there is nothing merely personal in your social relationships with all the other people you interact with all the time. Try telling someone whom you have betrayed or injured that it's just a personal issue. Try telling that to the judge, next.

You are a competent adult because you live out a social morality, a (very large) set of considerations and rules that guide how you treat others. Your social morality changes over time, and no two people's social moralities are identical. That is why we all notice the personal dimension to social morality -- sometimes my choices of social interaction are different from the choices of others. That personal dimension hardly makes morality entirely personal or subjective -- anymore than the fact that baseball players all play a little differently means that there are no social rules for how to play baseball.

There can also be a cosmic dimension to morality. We each live in a society having lots of common moral ground, but other societies can moralize differently. When we notice that our social moralities drift and evolve over time, and when we wonder about so many kinds of moralities around the world, we take a cosmic stance. We can take a long view of things, and then a wide-angle perspective, asking why human morality even exists the way it does and whether the cosmos cares for one morality or another. Is there any better "fit" between the ways of the cosmos and the ways of humans? If we could know "what is all for" then maybe we could adjust morality to harmonize with the greater whole, or with a creator that designed the whole. If we could learn what the ultimately valid principles of ethics really are, then we could easily determine which social morality is the most correct.

The profound questions posed by personal morality and cosmic morality must not be tangled up with the jurisdiction of social morality.  Especially when humanism is explaining and defending social morality, humanism must not feel that it first has to answer such profound questions. After all, social morality has long existed and served humanity without any consensus on those profound questions. Those personal and cosmic questions arise for any questioning mind in a natural way, even though some people like supernatural answers. Religions offer various answers about why we should try to be moral, and why the whole cosmos or its creator needs us to conform ourselves to its ways. We are so used to hearing from religions about cosmic and personal morality that humanists might suppose that they must similarly tackle those questions first before discussing any specific issues, like what is going on around us today, and how we can make things better.

I've heard too many atheists fall into this trap of excessive philosophizing, that this one philosopher must raise a loud warning and protest. No, humanism does not have to first explain how a secular ethics "fits" or doesn't "fit" with some great cosmic perspective. Nihilism can't find any overall cosmic plan, so it announces "All is suffering and death" and "All is in vain!" But nihilism is just posing religious questions without reaching religious answers. Nihilism suggests a personal morality of "Only I make value and meaning and morality" and "Bothering to be moral is all up to me!" but this opposite extreme has already fallen into alien presuppositions too. No, humanism does not have to justify why a person must have any morality at all. If you doubt whether having any morality is worthwhile, you do not need humanism -- you need more friends and possibly professional help as well.

And no, humanism does not have the exclusively "true" ethical principles certified by cosmic approval or by pure Reason. Atheists demanding to first be told about such guaranteed ethical principles are again falling into the religious stance. Humanism offers the world some wise ethical principles, tested by long human experience. Such practical wisdom is objective, but not absolute -- worthy of global consideration, but deserving only further experimental testing. This is the empirical scientific spirit applied to real world morality.

Humanism is first and foremost about social morality. Social morality is not premised on secure and certain answers to either cosmic or personal questions. Again, a sports analogy: the game of baseball, and thinking about good ways to play baseball, do not depend on having prior guaranteed answers about whether the cosmos approves of sport in general, or whether there is a proof that each person should want to play baseball.

Humanism is unsure about whether there is any cosmic meaning, and instead focuses on all of the valuable meanings we can pursue here and now. Humanism is unsure how to persuade someone to be moral in the first place, leaving that to parents raising children and to professional mental health experts if things go badly later in life. Humanism deals with morality's usefulness in this world, and tackles tough ethical questions about making moral rules (and legal laws) work better for everyone. Humanism is positive and progressive, and requires our best efforts.

We are all players in the game of life. Social morality is already here, and you are on its field. You could instead retreat in solitude to contemplate your navel or try to commune with a God. And humanism can suggest ways to think about cosmic meanings or personal ethics. But while you are here with us, humanism is here for you.