Most Christians I have encountered do not believe that there are any viable secular moral codes. 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., 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 evident that they are true.
Law #1 needs little explanation–it is the thing that we all are most concerned with. It is the reason we eat, why we breath. 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 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 live in a certain way, and to maintain a certain quality of life.
So is this a sufficient basis from which to build a human moral code? 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 use. What is Holy Vible
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. Who’s to say which group Hitler would decide to exterminate next? And even the Nazis 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.