On the Legitimacy of Secular Morality

Occasionally religious moralists, and especially those of a fundamentalist bent, can be more logical than their secular counterparts.  The basis for the legitimacy of their moral systems is, of course, God.  Things are Good, or not, because God wants it that way.  Remove God and that ultimate sanction disappears.  As they have never been diffident about pointing out, without a God secular moral systems are left floating in air with no visible means of support.  The same logical and seemingly obvious conclusion has occurred to many outstanding thinkers in the past.  They have included, for example, our own Benjamin Franklin, who alludes to it in his autobiography as a reason for promoting religious faith among the masses, lest they turn to evil for the lack of any reason to prefer the good.

Secular moralists typically counter such arguments by pointing out that their own moral systems promote the Good because it can be demonstrated that, if only everyone would act according as prescribed by these systems, some attractive goal, such as “human flourishing,” will be achieved.  The problem with such arguments is that there is no essential connection whatsoever between the Good and whatever more or less attractive ideals or goals these people happen to be promoting.  To credit them at all, it is necessary to simply ignore the evidence, increasingly weighty and compelling in light of recent research, that human moral behavior and perception of good and evil are the expression of evolved behavioral traits.  If human morality is an expression of something evolved, then, like every other evolved trait, it exists because it happened to promote the survival and reproductive success of individual packets of genes.  As such, it did not come into existence to serve any conscious purpose or goal.  The attempt to connect it with such goals or purposes after the fact must inevitably be arbitrary and illogical, regardless of how many people happen to agree that those particular goals or purposes are attractive.  It is also extremely dangerous, because human nature, of which human morality is a part, will stubbornly and persistently remain what it is, regardless of what we might happen to want it to be.

Why dangerous?  Because no Good comes without its complementary Evil.  Good Christians come with evil heretics and witches, good Moslems come with evil infidels, good proletarians come with evil bourgeoisie, and good Nazis come with evil Jews.  For every ingroup there is an outgroup, and persecution of the outgroup has ever been as characteristic of every new moral system as promotion of the ingroup.  Do you really believe the promoters of the latest secular moral systems have no outgroups?  Just read their books!  The more self-righteous these people are, the more they wear their hatreds and animosities on their sleeves.

I suggest that we finally recognize morality for what it really is and climb off this treadmill once and for all.  I suggest it, not because I want to establish yet another new moral system, but because I would prefer not to suffer the potential inconvenience of dealing with people who are trying to kill me because I’ve been unfortunate enough to land in their outgroup.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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