Searching for a Secular Morality
Each of us has grown up in a world in which moral judgments already exist. These judgments are passed every day by everyone on the conduct of everyone else. Each of us not only finds himself approving or disapproving how other people act, but approving or disapproving certain actions, and even certain rules or principles of action, wholly apart from his feelings about those who perform or follow them. So deep does this go that most of us even apply these judgments to our own conduct, and approve or disapprove of our own conduct in so far as we judge it to have conformed to the principles or standards by which we judge others. When we have failed, in our own judgment, to live up to the moral code which we habitually apply to others, we feel "guilty"; our "conscience" bothers us.Across the western nations, religion has lost its hold over the people. Tragically, there is no other system of ethical guidance that has achieved any level of authority even closely approaching the prior authority of religion. In terms of ethics, most westerners appear to be "running blind." Many Al Fin readers have watched this developing ethical vacuum growing, with its concomitant rise in crime and societal and sub-societal dysfunction. In a multi-traditional, multi-religious, multi-ethnic society such as most western nations are becoming, a common moral and ethical system is absolutely vital to prevent the type of violence and societal schisms which are a constant threat to any society's present and future well-being.
Henry Hazlitt, The Foundations of Morality
Muslim societies solve this problem by declaring the supremacy of Islam, and forcing all other religions and belief systems into an uncomfortably subservient position. Communist societies solve the problem by establishing the communist state as a de facto religion and arbiter of morality, with all other belief systems considered irrelevant and obsolete -- if not treasonous.
Societies which pride themselves on their tolerance can not easily utilise either of those strategies. As a result, when the original basis of law and morality of a society begins to lose authority at the same time as the society grows much more strongly multi-traditional, the scene is set for violent clashes and schisms within the society.
The need for a widely accepted cross-traditional basis for ethical and moral behaviour is self-evident, but the devising of such a cross-traditional ethical system is hampered by all of the factions which are firmly attached to their own system of ethics. Most of these "strongly attached" factions are not willing to accept the need for any other system of ethics than their own. Hence, religious and ideological wars throughout history.
Where would one start, when attempting to devise a secular, or cross-traditional, system of ethics? Well, to begin with, one would not publicly begin such an effort in Iran or Saudi Arabia -- not if one valued his head. Even in Holland, Theo van Gogh discovered that publishing ideas that point out shortcomings in other ethical systems comes with a cost. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Salman Rushdie, various Muhammed cartoonists, and others across Europe have learned the same lesson and lived to tell the story.
For those who are interested in this project, I would like to make one suggestion: The Foundations of Morality by Henry Hazlitt (long PDF). Before you click on the link, you should know that the PDF is a 24 MB book-length treatment, so you may want to right click and use the "Save Link As" option. That will download the document to your computer or removable drive, leaving your browser to function normally without bogging down.
I have found Hazlitt's approach to be quite valuable. As a disclaimer I will say that I am also comfortable with Hazlitt's viewpoints of market economics and libertarian politics as well. That comfort allows me greater play in the mental wrestling that goes on reading the book, than a person antagonistic to Hazlitt's strong individualist stance would have. Such a person would likely not survive the first few chapters. Which only highlights the problem of devising a cross-traditional, cross-ideological system of ethics.
In the end, such a system can only be agreed upon out of a pragmatic desire for a society that intermeshes cleanly, despite the many different traditions, religions, ethnic groupings, and nationalities of origin. Without the will to create such a cleanly meshing society of inevitable sub-societies, all is lost.
If the disparate components of a multi-traditional society are unwilling to admit a common secular morality into the areas where the different traditions interact, clearly the word "society" no longer means what most people think it means. If such is the case, an increase in crime, violence, and ill will between sub-societies of multi-traditional nations is inevitable -- perhaps leading to the type of dissolution that occurred in the former Yugoslavia, for large sections of several western nations. Or perhaps leading to something very much worse.
We are caught in the lurch, and many of us fail to recognise the problem. What are the odds that a common and workable system of ethics will find its way back into the lives of most people living in western countries? Slim to none. But the concept is worth working on, for the sake of emerging groups of more far thinking individuals. Next Level Humans.