Secular Ethics – A Science of Ethics
When it comes to Secular Ethics, Humanists are working toward a “science of ethics” specifically in keeping with their beliefs in atheism, naturalism, and evolution. Kurtz, in The Humanist Alternative,calls for Secular Humanism to be “interpreted as a moral point of view.”3 Indeed, in the preface toHumanist Manifestoes I & II, Kurtz defines Humanism “as a philosophical, religious, and moral point of view.”4 Later in Humanist Manifesto 2000 Kurtz redefines Humanism as “an ethical, scientific, and philosophical outlook that has changed the world.”5
Can morality be achieved without the foundation of absolute religious beliefs? Humanists hope so, but they have difficulty agreeing what morality means without God. The need for a consistent Humanist ethical standard gave rise to a book edited by Morris B. Storer, entitled simply Humanist Ethics. Storer sums up the multitude of Humanist ethical views in his preface: “Is personal advantage the measure of right and wrong, or the advantage of all affected: Humanists differ. Is there truth in ethics? We differ. Are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ expressions of heart or head? Do people have free wills? Do you measure morality by results or by principles? Do people have duties as well as rights? We have our differences on all these and more.”6Secular Ethics – Foundation of Humanist Ethics
When debating Secular Ethics, the differences among Humanists result largely from their disagreement over the foundation of morality. Kurtz believes in “a limited number of basic values and principles,”7 but he does not point to a specific foundation for ethical principles, saying only that they are “naturalistic and empirical phenomena.”8
Mihailo Markovic, another Humanist writing in Storer’s collection of essays, takes exception to Kurtz’s assumption about the origin of these principles, pointing out that Humanists have no unchanging standard that requires people to act in a certain way: “It remains quite unclear where this ‘ought’ comes from. It is one thing to describe a variety of actual historical patterns of conduct and moral habits. It is a completely different thing to make a choice among them and to say that we ‘ought’ to observe some of them. Why some and not others?”9
Markovic cuts to the heart of the problem Humanists face when discussing ethics. If we are is going to decide what we “ought” to do, then we must refer to a moral code, or foundation, which dictates this “ought.” Kurtz, when challenged by Markovic, admits, “I can find no ultimate basis for ‘ought.’”10
These differences over the foundation of ethical standards divide Humanists regarding the “absolute” nature of ethics. The problem according to Humanist Max Hocutt is that “[t]he nonexistence of God makes more difference to some of us than to others. To me, it means that there is no absolute morality, that moralities are sets of social conventions devised by humans to satisfy their need. To [Alistair] Hannay, it means that we must postulate an alternative basis for moral absolutism.”11
This lack of consensus about the foundation of ethics is problematic for the whole concept of Humanist ethics. Without a God who sets forth an absolute moral code, Humanists must believe either that the code is subjective and should be applied differently to changing situations, or that an absolute code exists, somehow outside of ourselves, but within the whole evolutionary scheme of things.
Hocutt maintains that an absolute moral code cannot exist without God, and God does not exist. “Furthermore, if there were a morality written up in the sky somewhere but no God to enforce it, I see no good reason why anybody should pay it any heed, no reason why we should obey it. Human beings may, and do, make up their own rules.”12 This view is more consistent with the Humanist view that life evolved by chance—otherwise, the Humanist has a difficult time explaining where an external absolute code originated. If we are the highest beings in nature and did not develop the absolute moral code ourselves, then what creature or force in nature did?
Some Humanists have gone so far as to cast doubt on the idea that we can even perceive what is right or wrong. Kai Nielsen, a signatory to Humanist Manifesto II, proposed a “no-truth thesis” that states that no question of the truth or falsity of moral values can sensibly arise. Nielsen’s thesis appears to be the logical conclusion for Humanists since they are unwilling to grant the existence of an absolute moral code. Without an absolute moral code, what standard do we have for judging actions as right or wrong, or moral beliefs as true or false? Humanists recognize the dilemma of being unable to determine the difference between right and wrong and have attempted to explain away the “no-truth thesis” in a number of ways.