Secular Morality

Ultimately, the best secular basis or reasoning behind teaching a formal moral philosophy can be summed up as ‘Reverence For Life’.

Human brains, scientifically speaking, are the most complex, surprising, and unlikely things anybody has ever seen. Just from a physical perspective, the amazingly complex calculating power of the neuronal activity in a brain makes it a unique phenomenon. The fact of consciousness, that brains feel as unique and complex as they appear to be physically, is something so unexpected and yet so significant and fundamental to our reality that it’s not just natural, but inevitable that we assign it a special value or significance to our personal world view. As far as we can tell, any mind that exists is the result of an otherwise unprecedented phenomena created by unprecedentedly complex physical processes. Human brains and their associated minds seem to be the ultimate demonstration of the power and sensitivity that a naturally occurring rational machine can have on the world around it.

So minds, especially human minds, owe the richness of their existence to the seemingly impossible results that can emerge from large sets of physical events working in a complex harmony. Any mind capable of understanding this fact must agree that not just the subject’s mind, but all minds in general seem to share qualities of similar rarity and value. Arguments can and are made for various relative values we attribute to different people or species, but the fact is any mind and associated brain/physical processes is such a unique and significant phenomenon that they are collectively in a league of their own in regards to complex and intricate causal relationships and interactions with the rest of the world.

So we have a set of dual obligations, rationally or cognitively speaking, that can be inferred from the physicality of minds. Individual minds are as unique, important, and significant as they seem to be subjectively, but owe those very qualities to the fact that other minds exist and can have a level of influence on the world similar to our own. This is both uplifting and humbling, “You’re a unique individual, just like everyone else”, is how some comedian put it, I think. As a person with a mind, you are an amazingly rare and wonderful thing, but any unfounded personal bias based on pure subjectivity is inaccurate. In other words, other minds are as important as your mind generally speaking; and collectively they can be as much or more of an impact as your particular mind is in determining the details of your specific reality.

The bottom line to this chain of reasoning leads us directly to the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is the linchpin to all forms of morality both secular and spiritual and all due to the common belief they have of revering life. Every major religion has a version (you can read about the ubiquity of the Golden Rule as well as read some specific examples from various religious texts here. )

So here is where all major forms of moral philosophy have common ground. All major religions have the golden rule as part of their basic teachings, and we also have solid secular reasons why the Golden Rule isn’t just advisable, but how it also reflects the most accurate and objective view of reality. Also, since adherence to the Golden Rule is very beneficial for the civilizations and cultures created by the people who practice it, it seems like a valid subject for society to officially endorse and encourage through education.

Morality as taught in a secular educational environment would teach that people in particular (and all life in general) is worthy of a special level of respect and value that applies to no other class of things. It would show how vast and diverse the benefits of cooperation, understanding, and respect can be and have been for every living person by demonstrating how every major human discovery and technology is ultimately founded on previous accomplishments achieved by others. It would teach that, all other things being equal, the best way to live one’s life is to be a positive influence on other individuals in particular as well as to society, culture, and civilization in general. It would teach that greed, deceit, misanthropy and hate were all undesirable things that should be minimized or avoided. It would teach that societal progress is achieved through exploiting various commonalities between individuals so understanding, cooperation, and empathy can interact with diversity, individuality, and personal freedom to create a delicate balance that is the best overall. The more diverse a society is, the greater the number traits that can be commonly shared, but the utility of these common traits is multiplied by their universality.

None of these concepts are exactly new, nor are they all that difficult to get the gist of, the problem is that modern society, especially in the public education sector, is completely silent on the entire subject. The separation of church and state we currently practice denies any endorsement of specific religions, and often this is also applied to all aspects of religion or spirituality in general. The subject of morality too often crosses the secular/religious boundary to be widely accepted as something that should be taught in our public schools. Because of this, moral principles, beliefs and practices are often viewed as quaint or superstitious when taken any further than the ethical boundary we set by our laws and social taboos.

This need not be the case, however. For the reasons I’ve just explained, there are objective, scientific, secular reasons for the validity of instilling the belief and practice of certain moral behaviors in our young people. Secular morality embodies a common, fundamental belief held by every religion, but is specific to none of them. Nor does it need to rely on any specific religion–or religion at all for that matter–for its validity. For religious or spiritually minded people, secular morality is just one more reason or valediction of something they already know and believe in. For secular and scientifically minded people, it fills a large and troubling gap in our education that was created when we eliminated the endorsement of particular religious dogmas, and does it without creating any church and state separation controversy. It also has the added bonus of being a sort of common criteria or litmus test for determining the moral value of various actions and decisions.

So in conclusion I just want to say that including Secular Morality (based on reverence for life and including the explicit endorsement of the Golden Rule) in the curriculum of our public schools can and should be implemented as an important part of improving overall ‘Mental Fitness’. It would be important as an explicit validation of, and argument for, the practice of moral beliefs that we more or less universally hold already anyway. It is completely independent of any and all religious entities and yet it is also in agreement with them on an important, fundamental level. Therefore teaching the objective, scientific, secular reasons for Reverence for Life-based morality is something of which everyone, theist and atheist alike, can approve.


~ by jneuhaus on June 21, 2008.

3 Responses to “Secular Morality”

  1. Howdy Jeff,

    Well said!

    I agree that basic morality should revolve around the sanctity of life. Do unto others… that’s a good rule. Seems simple enough, but i think we need to expand it. Although most folks will readily agree with the concept, it is the scope where the disagreement lies. Most folks are willing to apply the golden rule to their own social group, but a little reluctant to practice the same with everyone. Competitors, political rivals, and sworn enemies aren’t included.

    If this is really going to work, we need to take it to the max and honor the sanctity of all life. We need to understand that our morality must include respect for the environment, or the rest of it is moot.


  2. Yes, I agree with everything stated above. If this concept is included in,supported, and modeled by educators in all aspects, subjects of education, individuals would have more opportunities to see these ideals in motion.

  3. Thank you.
    I’ve made a copy of one of your paragraphs so that I can think through it a little more and work out how to structure my explanations for my class (at a 6 year old level!) I agree that its an area we feel concerned about dealing with as teachers, and your explanation has been very reassuring.

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