ETHICS 101: A primer

© 2010 by Jensen dG. Mañebog

RECORDS IN THE FIELD OF PHILOSOPHY unequivocally prove that many of the most renowned philosophers the world has produced from ancient time to the present have, in one way or another, discussed about the foundations of morality.
Understanding the importance of this topic in our life, the famous philosopher John Stuart Mill even pointed out in his book Utilitarianism that, “From the dawn of philosophy, the question concerning...the foundation of morality has been accounted the main problem in speculative thought…” [1]. W.D. Falk likewise highlighted its significance by emphasizing that, “It is the problem of moral philosophy” (emp. in orig.) [2].
The collapse of standards of morality observed in contemporary societies (which is the concern of today’s sociologists and social philosophers) prompts many to feel that there is a real need to rebuild the edifice of morality. Building an edifice of morality however requires that a superstructure of morality must be constructed. To put up a superstructure, the very foundationsof morality must be examined meticulously. Interestingly enough, this [course] called attention to what some sages regard as the “main problem” in philosophical thought—the foundations of morality.

A ‘Review of Related Literature’

Studies show that more and more people today, especially among the youth, are either unable or unwilling to act in an ethical manner, or just confused on what should be considered as moral. Rutgers University conducted a study and found out that over 70% of all university students admitted they have cheated at least once… Plagiarism is the most common form of cheating admitted to. Study shows that students have always copied from someone else's paper or stealthily brought forbidden notes into the classroom. Nineteen percent admit they have faked a bibliography, and fourteen percent say they have handed in a computer program written by someone else. [3]

William Kilpatrick, in his book Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong, brings to light the millions of crimes committed yearly on or near school property. Students become scared and anxious going to school. Many teachers are leaving the profession because of the discipline and behavior problems [4]. A professor of philosophy at Clark University says: “Students come to college today as moral stutterers. They haven't been taught much respect for what I call "plain moral facts," the need for honesty, integrity, responsibility… Students don't reason morally. They don't know what that means.” [5]

Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics, similarly said "Far too many young people have abandoned traditional ethical values in favor of self- absorbed, win-at-any-cost attitudes that threaten to unravel the moral fabric of American society."[6] This "self-absorbed" attitude is explained as that which is based on a whole new set of assumptions about how we should adopt our values and the right of individuals to construct their own values.

Observations like these lead us to suspect that this ethical vacuum in society is caused by a value system without a solid foundation. These also cause us to ask questions like, “Is this behavior the result of values being communicated by society? Have the rules changed? And who makes these rules, God or men? The Christian and the theist turn toward the Creator of the Universe. The secularist or atheist alternatively turns toward himself. This distinction between theism and secularism has become the fundamental division in moral theory.

Very much related to the claim of theism or supernaturalism, we may bring to mind the Greek philosopher Plato’s contentions that there must be some universal or absolute under which the individual things (the particulars, the details) must fit. Something beyond the everyday must be there to give it all unity and meaning. Even the non-believer and existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, realized that a finite point is absurd if it has no infinite reference point. [7]

In secularism, we may site as an early influence our knowledge of the seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke who claimed that all knowledge comes from sensation. In other words, the only reality is what we can see, hear, feel, smell, taste, or measure. Obviously, there is not much room for revelation here. Other philosophers have followed suit and concluded that man is shaped by evolutionary processes and the culture that surrounds him. The notion that man is born with some innate nature has been rejected. Men like Hegel, Darwin, and Marx believed that all living forms and social systems were nothing more than the result of progressive transformations over time. As the influence of the religious community began to wane in the nineteenth century, many began to search for a meaning to life totally apart from God. Man simply no longer believed he had a place in eternity. Therefore all he could do was hope to find his place in the movement of history.[8]

We may also recall Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species which catapulted the abandonment of God and revelation by attempting to show that God was not even necessary in the creation of living things. Friedrich Nietzsche then purposed to highlight the ethical implications of Darwinism. Nietzsche's "superman" concept transformed man into the maker of his own destiny. Man became the measure of all things. Nietzsche's "madman" said, "God is dead!" [9]

Then there is this power ethics or "political naturalism." Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a great voice in the revival of political naturalism in the sixteenth century. In his book The Prince, a ruler who wants to keep his post must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires[10] . In other words, we are taught to do what we need to do to preserve our position and that we must not concern ourselves with what is ethical. We just have to preserve our power. We know that Machiavelli's ethical stance of whatever strengthens the state is right had a great influence on the thinking of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872). Feuerbach's claim that God was merely a human invention, on the other hand, had a lot to do with the writings of Karl Marx (1819-1883) who took these ideas as validation of his own views. His ideas provided a foundation upon which Lenin and Stalin were able to build a society around the power ethics of political rationalism. Feuerbach and Marx rejoiced in the fact that the loosing grasp of religion had made it possible to create a city of man in an entirely human space [11]. In Russia there was consequently a concerted attempt to root out Christianity and substitute an extremely intolerant and militant form of the religion of the Enlightenment [12].

Adolph Hitler is another important figure here. So profound was Nietzsche's philosophy upon Hitler, that it provided the framework for Hitler’s tireless efforts to obliterate the Jews and the weak of this world [13]. Nietzsche had proclaimed the coming of the “Master Race”, and a “Superman” who would unify Germany and hopefully the world [14]. In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler clearly announced his intent to take Nietzsche's logic and drive the atheistic worldview to its logical conclusion. In Nietzschean terms, professor Ravi Zacarias holds, atheism will inevitably lead to violence and hedonism.[15]

Some contemporary ethicists nonetheless believe that secularism or Enlightenment thinking is not the answer to the problem of what should be the foundation of morality. Crane Brinton, for instance, in his book A History of Western Morals says, "the religion of the Enlightenment has a long and unpredictable way to go before it can face the facts of life as effectively as does Christianity."[16] An article in USA Today moreover illustrates a trend favoring theism as a moral foundation, specifically in Russia. It reports that:

 “Officials say up to 55% of Russian teachers, many of whom were former atheists, have made personal commitments to Christ. Many are using the New Testament in schools. "For ages, (Russia) was a country of believers and morality was very close to the people," says assistant principal Olga Meinikova, 32, of school No. 788. "For a short period 74 years we lost it all. All Russian teachers should teach this course; Americans too. The Bible is part of normal education. [17]

We indeed appear to have an implosion of values in a society and face a dilemma in culture. Others may continue along the line of thinking that "reason" is their only hope and trust in the natural goodness and/or reasonableness of man and embrace the philosophy and “religion of the new age”. The supernaturalist view on the other hand is to return to the concept of the fallen nature of mankind and rebuild on the base of historic Christianity, which puts reason under the authority of the Holy Scriptures.

A ‘Scope and Limitation’ of the course

The course (Ethics 101) would focus on the two opposing theories concerned: Secularism and Supernaturalism. The subject therefore calls for the evaluation of the different secular ethical theories (they could be the most popular ones only, due to time constraint) vis-à-vis the theist or supernaturalist basis of morality.

One way to determine which between the two philosophical camps serves as the better foundation of morality is to enumerate and discuss some agreeable facts about morality and test afterward ‘moral secularism’ and ‘moral supernaturalism’ to discern which of the two better explains the facts about morality. Hence, topics like “objectivity/ relativity in ethics,” “cultural relativism,” “ethical subjectivism,” “moral accountability,” “sense of moral obligation,” and the likes would be part of the scope of the course.

Though the focus is very much related to the two (2) other controversies: about (a) whether or not morality is possible without God and (a) whether or not God exists, the subject needs not to particularly tackle the proofs and arguments siding any of the opposing stands in both topics. Therefore, Ethics 101 centers neither on debate on God’s existence nor on the unsettled possibility of being moral without believing in God, but on where morality should better be based – whether on something supernatural or secular.

Definition of some terms

The following are some simple working definitions of the terms usually used in the course:

“Moral supernaturalism” and “Moral secularism”

By ‘moral supernaturalism’, we mean the theory that states that God, or Someone supernatural is the moral lawgiver or is the source of the human rules of decency. On the other hand, by ‘moral secularism’, we refer to any theory that submits that morals come not from ‘above’ but from men themselves – human nature, needs, experience, society, culture, and/ or the likes.

To further show the difference between the two opposing moral theories, we could add that for the religious or supernatural ethicist, there is some sort of inseparable connection between ethics and religion. Ethics is believed to be in some sense grounded in and dependent upon religion. For the religious person, the true God constitutes the very foundation of morality that when confronted with questions concerning rightness and wrongness or goodness and badness, or with decisions about what one ought to do or ought not to do, the religionist turns to the sphere of the theological and metaphysical for his answers and explanations. Christians particularly turn to God’s revelation to answer moral problems because they generally consider God to be the ultimate foundation of morality.

The secular ethicist on the other hand contends that ethics is relative to human experience and human nature. The answers to moral problems, we are told, need not be derived from theological or metaphysical foundations. Religious concepts such as God have no legitimate bearing on the content of morality (what one actually does or approves of as a moral agent) or the reasons one has for acting and thinking as he does (the moral arguments one gives and accepts). In short, secularist holds that there is simply no necessary connection that exists between ethics and religion. In this [course], we will attempt to analyze some arguments and counter-arguments for and against the two opposing stands.

Morality and Ethics

Morality refers to the rightness or wrongness, as of an action. Ethics refers to a set of rules for human behavior or a study of judgments of value, of good and evil, right and wrong, desirable and undesirable. In this paper, the two are oftentimes used interchangeably.


The view that there is no absolute knowledge, that truth is different for each individual, social group or historic period and is therefore relative to the circumstances of the knowing subject.


In moral philosophy, that which behooves us to do, either because it is laid down in some moral code, or because it imposes itself, through our moral consciousness.

 © 2011 by Jensen dG. Mañebog    

(Excerpted from the author's paper, “The Superiority of Supernatural over Secular Ethics” [‘Moral Secularism’ vs. ‘Moral Supernaturalism’])
1. Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism, ed. George Sher. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1979, p. 1.
2. Falk, W.D. (1944), “Morals Without Faith,” Philosophy, April, 1944, p. 6.
3. "College A Cheating Haven," Parents of Teenagers, Feb/Mar 1992, p. 5.
4. Kilpatrick, William. Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, p. 14.
5. Marquand, Robert. "Moral Education." Ethics, Easier Said Than Done. Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1988, p. 34.
6. "U.S. Youths' Ethics Alarming, Study Says." The Dallas Morning News, 15 November 1992, p. 5A.
7. Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live? Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1976, p. 145.
8. Kern, Stephen. The Culture of Time & Space 1880-1918. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1983, p. 51.
9. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. London: Penguin Books, 1969, p. 41.
10. Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977, p. 44.
11. Kern, 178.
12. Brinton, Crane. A History of Western Morals. New York: Paragon House, 1990, p. 472.
13. Zacharias, Ravi. A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1990, p. 17.
14. Lutzer, Erwin W. Hitler's Cross. Chicago: Moody Press, 1995, p. 27.
15. Zacharias, 26.
16. Brinton, 462.
17. USA Today, Tuesday, 18 May 1993, 9A.
How to cite this article:
“Ethics 101: A primer.” @
Guide Questions:
(Write your answer in the comment section below [add a comment]. Click first the 'Like' button before writing your answer)
1. Why is the subject Ethics important?
2. What is the basic difference between Ethics and Morality?
3. Why is it significant to know the correct foundation of morality?
*The list of shorter and easier-to-read blog/s that serve as a summary of this lecture is available at the Notes of Facebook Fan page.

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