Deriving morality

A student who took an internet quiz and got diagnosed as a “secular humanist” emailed me, asking me what I thought secular humanism was all about. Good question.

I said that “‘Secular humanist’ is most often a label adopted by people who are skeptical of supernatural entities, and who identify with political and moral views deriving from the tradition of the European Enlightenment.” I added that “Secular humanists are less interested in finding a unified functional substitute for religion,” and that “Agnosticism and atheism are positions regarding the existence of some sort of God. Most secular humanists are, indeed, doubtful about the reality of any God. But they also do not think a position on God is such an important thing as to tell us a lot about a person. Many humanists put as much emphasis on the ethical aspects of living without gods.”

Now, thinking about it, I didn’t add something that bothers me about some morality-talk by people who identify as secular humanists. And that’s the notion of having a moral outlook that is in some sense derived from rejection of the supernatural. It strikes me that closely linking morality to ones stand on gods and demons is (or should be) more of a theistic preoccupation.

I’d say that secular humanists—or whatever you want to call religious skeptics with roots in the Enlightenment tradition— don’t derive their secular liberal moral outlook from any metaphysical principles or such nonsense. This is a tradition of political and moral reflection, and much of what goes on with it is a product of a particular historical and cultural experience.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Taner Edis said:

    "Now, thinking about it, I didn't add something that bothers me about some morality-talk by people who identify as secular humanists. And that's the notion of having a moral outlook that is in some sense derived from rejection of the supernatural. It strikes me that closely linking morality to ones stand on gods and demons is (or should be) more of a theistic preoccupation."

    Atheism is not a metaphysical viewpoint, but the rejection of the metaphysical viewpoint of theism. Therefore, atheism is compatible with various metaphysical viewpoints (any viewpoint other than theism).

    Similarly, atheism is compatible with many different ethical theories (except for Divine Command theory, since there is no Divine Commander according to atheism).

    But Secular Humanism is something more like a worldview, and so it does narrow the range of compatible philosophical theories (metaphysical and ethical)more than atheism does.

    Secular Humanists believe in free will and hold democratic values, and they value the practice and results of modern science. All of this has implications for metaphysical and ethical theories, and none of this is required for a person to be an atheist.

    If one focuses on the distinction between Supernaturalism and Naturalism, then there is at least the following hypothetical implication for ethics:

    IF ethics is to be derived from something that is real, THEN it must be derived from something that is natural (since that is all there is from a naturalist viewpoint).


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