Objective Secular Morality

By: Dean Tersigni

One of the common criticisms of a secular world view is that, without a god, you can't have objective morality. In this article, I will illustrate what secular morality is and how it's objective by addressing the arguments made against it.

Argument 1: Secular morality isn't objective, because nobody can agree on it.

This is probably the most commonly used argument against secular morality, and it's often worded as, "You may think murder is wrong, but Hitler thought it was right, and since people can't agree, it's not objective." You could observe that no two religions have ever agreed on morality either, and by their own logic, they've proved that religious morality isn't objective. Of course, neither of these statements prove anything, because they're both using the term "objective" improperly. "Objective" seems to be one of those words that everyone knows how to use, but, when put on the spot, we have a hard time coming up a succinct definition; we all know a person's height is objective, while their favorite ice cream flavor is not, but it's difficult to say why.

The common explanation is, "Everyone gives a different answer for their favorite ice cream flavor, but anyone who measures my height will get the same answer," but suppose three people measure your height with a foot-long ruler, but each gives a different answer, 5'8", 5'11", and 6'1"! You compare their rulers of the first two people and they're the same length, but one person measured from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head, while the other measured from the tips of your toenails and the end of your hair. The third person's ruler is shorter than the first two, but they are convinced their's is the correct length. Since they can't agree, does that mean your height isn't objective after all? Of course not.

To understand why, let's define "objective" properly. Something is objective when you measure the same thing in the same way and get the same answer regardless of whether anyone can agree on a standard of what should be measured or how it should be measured. In the prior example, we know height is objective because, if the third person used the first person's ruler, he'd get the same answer as the first person, and if the second person measured the same thing as the first person, he would too. Likewise for the first person using the third person's ruler, or the second person's method, even though they're convinced the other people are doing it wrong. This differs from subjective measurements where measuring the same thing in the same way yields differing results, for example, if we ranked how much pleasure people enjoyed when eating various flavors of ice cream, they would change per person.

We will find that religious morality and secular morality differ both in what and how they measure, but before we address that, let's bring up a second very popular argument.

Argument 2: Secular morality is circular reasoning because it measures itself with itself.

This argument can be illustrated with a story, "Johnny's teacher asked him to measure his height, and he told the teacher he is precisely one Johnny tall. Johnny's statement, though true, doesn't yield any useful information because it is entirely circular: his height is how tall he is, and how tall he is is his height." The argument rightly points out that measurements are only useful when they are compared to something else, like a ruler. The same argument is then applied to secular morality which they may frame as, "In secular morality, murder is wrong because a person says it's wrong," which means, "A person says murder is wrong because it's wrong." This too, they point out, is based upon itself, thus circular, and therefore doesn't yield useful information.

But consider a religious version of morality you've no doubt heard many times before, "Murder is wrong because God says it's wrong." This utilizes the same circular structure as above, just substituting a person with a god. Additional steps may be added, "Murder is wrong because the Ten Commandments says it's wrong, the Ten Commandments were written by Moses, Moses got them from God, and God says it's wrong," but this only increases the size of the circle, it doesn't break it. The argument still distills to, "Murder is wrong because my god says it's wrong, and my god says it's wrong because murder is wrong." However, if you speak to someone with a little understanding of theology, they will rightly point out that, "Something is wrong because God says it's wrong," is a primitive definition, and real religious morality is more complicated than that. This is important to point out because it's the same problem with this argument's definition of secular morality. Anyone with a little understanding of philosophy will rightly point out that, "Something is wrong because a person says it's wrong," is also a primitive definition, and real secular morality is more complicated than that. So, rather than beat up straw men, let's get deeper definitions of each.

Argument 3: Morality is not a popularity contest.

This argument addresses cultural or "popular" morality. The argument is commonly phrased, "Murder is wrong, even if everyone in the world were to believe it's right," an argument which most people would agree is correct. From here, they can inject their personal sin du jour, "For that same reason, homosexuality is wrong, even if everyone believes it's right." Even if you disagree with that statement, it may be difficult to spot the logical flaw, but this is because we haven't addressed the real definition of morality.

A more scholarly interpretation of religious morality is, "God is the very essence of morality, so all actions must be measured against him to determine if they are right or wrong." They're essentially saying that their god is the ultimate moral yardstick against which all other moral yardsticks must be measured. Secular morality, on the other hand, could more scholarly be interpreted as, "Actions are good if they cause an overall increase in joy or decrease in suffering, and bad if they cause an overall increase in suffering or decrease in joy." In secular morality, the ultimate ruler is the well-being of thinking individuals. These two definitions break the previous circular argument by offering an external fixed foundation for morality. Neither foundation is based on popularity, but their foundations are noticeably different, and this is the root of their contention. Both secular and religious positions refer to actions as being "right" or "wrong" and use the term "morality," to describe the process, but they're ultimately talking about two entirely different ideas.

But even though they're different, the systems have a lot of overlap. Religious people believe virtues like justice and compassion are part of their god's nature, so actions like murder, torture, rape, and theft are considered bad. In secular morality, all of these actions can be shown to cause great suffering and decrease joy, so they too are considered bad. But the similarities between the two are not nearly as interesting as their differences. Wearing clothes woven from cotton and linen goes against the nature of the god of Judaism (Deuteronomy 22:11), and is therefore bad, but this taboo isn't found in secular morality because it neither causes harm nor decreases joy. Shockingly, slavery is consistent with the nature of the god of Christianity (1 Timothy 6:1-2), but secular morality views slavery as a massive cause of suffering, so it's viewed as bad. Allowing husbands to beat their multiple wives if they fear they might become disrespectful is part of the nature of the god of Islam (Surah 4:34), but wife-beating is bad in secular morality because it decreases joy and increases suffering.

Now that we've outlined secular morality, let's address some of the arguments against it.

Argument 4: People feel suffering and joy subjectively.

When morality is described in terms of well-being, a new religious argument arises, often phrased, "Most people hate being hit, but some enjoy it. Since all people feel joy and suffering subjectively, secular morality is subjective." This sounds like a valid point, especially considering my earlier example of a person's favorite ice cream flavor as an example of a subjective value. To see where this argument fails, ask the person, "If, in religious morality, hitting people is objectively wrong, doesn't that mean that sports like boxing and football are evil?"

Everyone already agrees that people feel joy and suffering subjectively, but the concepts of joy and suffering are objective. Secular morality isn't so much measuring the level of joy or suffering so much as the result of it. Or, put more simply, everybody hurts differently, but everybody hurts. To help illustrate this point, consider the Golden Rule. "Treat others the way you want to be treated," is a good sentiment, until you meet someone who enjoys being punched in the face and assumes you do too! But secular morality is better described with the Platinum Rule, "treat others the way they want to be treated." This is why it's not wrong for a boxer to hit another boxer in a match, but it is wrong for the same person to sucker punch them on the street.

Those schooled in philosophy will use a more complicated argument, "Suppose there is a sadist who derives more joy from hitting a child than the child suffers. With this definition of morality, you're forced to admit that the harm they caused to the child is not bad, but good!" The reason this is not a valid critique is because secular morality doesn't just apply to individuals, but to everyone. When we weigh all the fear felt by other parents and children toward such a criminal, their combined suffering is far greater than the sadist's joy.

Argument 5: Wellbeing is an arbitrary moral basis.

A further attack on objectivity is, "You've arbitrarily chosen well-being, but anyone may pick whatever they want as a basis for morality, it's subjective. For example, a selfish person could base morality on their personal desires: anything that gives them what they want is good, and anything that gets in their way is bad." The problem with this argument, is that it's not addressing secular morality, but rather creates an all new form of morality, one based on an individual. This is just like in the first argument when one person decided that height is a measurement of the toenails to the ends of our hair. They're no longer measuring the same thing. Remember, objectivity doesn't mean everyone must agree, it only means that, when you use the same system of measurement (i.e., well-being), you will get the same result. And when a selfish person uses the well-being of all people as a measurement, they too will come to the same conclusion.

Another variation of this argument is to say, "Secular morality isn't value-based. You can't get an 'ought' from an 'is.'" The idea is that secular knowledge can describe the universe, "Blood is necessary for people to live," but to provide a moral statement like, "people ought to be allowed to live," requires assigning value to life, something that you can't do with a purely naturalistic view of the world. Of course, this argument ignores the existence of secular morality all together. The whole point of secular morality is that it assigns value to aspects of life, and is does so in an objective way, using the well-being of thinking individuals.

To show how this works, consider a basis that is certainly arbitrary, like morality based on the color blue. That's not even a coherent sentence; it's like stating that justice tastes loud. The incoherence arises because the word "morality," like all words that we speak, has a particular use. Why is it not immoral for a rock to fall from a cliff and kill a bush? Because the bush had no desires, it had nothing to lose, in short, it had no values. Consider a secular answer to the question, "Why is murder immoral?" It may sound like, "Because it creates unwanted pain and suffering to the victim, their friends and family, and society at large." A religious answer may start with, "Because God's nature forbids murder," but, when followed up with, "Why do you think God's nature forbids it?" usually results in a response related to well-being like, "God doesn't want people to suffer." This is true even when a religious commandment has nothing to do with well-being. For example, in both the Torah (Leviticus 11:7-8) and Koran (Surah 2:173), eating pork is forbidden, and even though neither book gives a reason relating to well-being, Jews and Muslims tend to insert one; how many times have you heard a religious person say, "God tells us to avoid pork to reduce food-borne illness." Why do they do this? Because they know that the well-being of thinking individuals isn't arbitrary, it truly is the basis of morality, and it is the very definition of the word.

Argument 6: Secular morality can't give absolute answers.

Adherents often view religious morality as absolute, claiming, "With God, murder is always wrong, but with secular morality, everything is relative," but this argument confuses the word "relative" with "nuanced." Ask the following questions to religious people: "Is it murder if a parent knowingly exposes their child to a mild poison and the child dies from it 20 years later? What about 10 or 5?" "Is it murder if a builder purposely uses shoddy materials and their building collapses and kills several people?" "Is it murder to execute a serial rapist even when they're serving a life sentence without the chance of parole?" As you can predict, even people who claim to adhere to "absolute" religious morality will give different answers. This is because "murder" is a nuanced term. However, when you take the time to define it in a useful way, perhaps as, "The deliberate killing of someone who wants to live and is not injuring others," then it's not relative at all; such an action is objectively wrong in secular morality because it can be shown, objectively, to cause suffering. You can ask similar complex questions with any number of controversial topics, homosexuality, abortion, etc., and expect different answers from followers of so-called absolute religious morality.

Of course, you'll see the same inability to agree on absolute terms in secular morality as well because it's often difficult to gauge the overall levels of suffering or joy, but that doesn't make it subjective. A good way to illustrate how secular morality can have gray areas, but still be objective, is to compare it to our health. We can't say for certain the best diet for optimal health, but we can still say, objectively, that it's healthy to eat whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, but it's objectively unhealthy to shoot up heroin. Furthermore, if someone claims that heroin is healthy because they've decided that heroin intake is the basis of health, we can dismiss their claim outright because they're clearly using the word in a manner inconsistent with the rest of reality.

Argument 7: Religious morality is superior to secular morality.

Once all of the arguments against objectivity have been thoroughly laid to rest, we still have to deal with a final critique, "Secular morality may be objective, but religious morality is still superior!"

Superior in what way? Does superior refer to producing safe societies? If you cross-reference the Global Peace Index with a Gallop Poll measuring how people report the importance of religion in their lives, you find that many of the most religious countries are also the most violent, while many of the most secular countries are the most peaceful. It seems secular morality produces the safest societies.

Does superior mean the easiest to understand and follow? Consider that secular morality has a biological basis. Every organism with a brain is born disliking suffering and liking joy, and, those with sufficiently large enough brains are able to understand that everyone else also dislikes suffering and likes joy. In this way, secular morality is innate and obvious to all people. On the other hand, the morality of various religions seem to be filled with strange commandments that would never occur to people in a million years. For example, it is immoral for a Jew to eat a camel, not because of possible disease, but because of the structure of its hooves (Leviticus 11:4). It is immoral for Christian women to teach or have authority over men (1 Timothy 2:12), especially in church. Similarly, it is immoral for a Muslim to pray if he has recently touched a woman, unless he first scrubs his face and hands with dirt (Surah 4:43). These are very confusing compared to secular morality.

Maybe superior means producing people who understand the importance of personal responsibility? Suppose you caught your child stealing a candy bar from a store, you tell them that stealing is wrong, and they ask you why? You could explain to your child that taking something that doesn't belongs to them hurts people because a lot of effort went into making that candy, and by taking it without paying, you've robbed others of their ability to live a happy life. You can also have them imagine how bad they would feel if they had something stolen from them, and how horrible life would be if they constantly had to live in fear of having their possessions stolen. Finally, you could remind them that people who steal are dangerous, which means society has a duty to prevent them from stealing, usually with a very unpleasant jail sentence. Each of these statements is entirely religion free, i.e., secular. An entirely religious approach would sound something like, "Stealing is wrong because God says it's wrong, because it goes against his nature, which is just, and deviants will be severely punished." Despite the "spirituality" of that response, it isn't too far from, "Don't steal or you'll go to Hell!" and which do you think would result in a better grasp of personal responsibility?

To be fair, most practitioners of religious morality use the aforementioned secular explanations, but this only helps reveal how inadequate religious morality is on its own that it needs to appropriate secular teachings to be effective.

Further Reading

If you want to learn more about secular morality, I suggest starting with utilitarianism, which is the type of secular morality I discussed here. If you want to learn more about religious morality, I suggest starting with divine command theory. If you're looking for a more general understanding or morality, I suggest reading about normative ethics.