Notes in Ethics: Secularist's Explanation of Some Ethical Facts

THE FOLLOWING are the summary and analysis of the ways secularists explain some principles in Ethics such as the existence of moral law and the binding force of moral obligation.

1. ‘Sense of moral obligation is just the effect of social conditioning’

·  Richard Robinson: “The original conscience… is a set of taboos and compulsions, acquired from…associates …” (An Atheist’s Values. 1964, p. 110).

·  “The demands of conscience are due tosociety because society expresses disapproval of certain actions.”


·  It is the intellect which can be molded or (socially) conditioned.

·  The “sense of moral obligation” cannot be explained sufficiently by social conditioning—for there are innumerable situations where a person, although feeling a desire from society to adopt a certain course, feels the moral obligation to assume a course altogether different.

2. Moral Law as Herd instinct

“Moral Law is nothing but our herd instinct—has been naturally developed just like all our other instincts (e.g. mother love, or sexual instinct, or the instinct for food)


Three ways of showing that moral law is not a herd instinct.


·  Lewis:  “You will probably feel two desires--one a desire to give help, the other a desire to keep out of danger … [The] third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help… this thing that judges between two instincts…can't itself be either of them...” (The Case for Christianity, p. 8)

·  Piano analogy: The sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself not one of the notes on the keyboard.

·  Feeling a desire to help is different from feeling that we ought to help someone who is in danger.


·  The Moral Law is that which often tells us to stimulate the herd instinct (by waking up our imaginations, arousing our pity, etc.) to do the right thing.

·  Lewis: “What it is that says to you, ‘Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up’ can not itself be the herd instinct…” (The Case for Christianity, p. 9)


·  If the Moral Law is one of our instincts, then we ought to be able to point to some of our urges within us that we could always consider as good—but we cannot.

·  It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses—say, mother love or patriotism—are automatically good, and others, like sex or the fighting instinct, are necessarily bad.

3. Moral Law is just a Social convention

Secularists: “Like those other things which we learned from parents and teachers, what we consider as moral law is merely a human invention too.”


Some of the things we learn from home and school, like mathematics, are real truths and not just conventions.

Two reasons for saying that moral law belongs to the same class as mathematics:

A) Cultures have only “slightly different” moralities, unlike conventions (e.g. road rules, kind of clothes people wear) which differ almost completely.

B) The morality of a particular community is seen as better or worse than that of another. Changes in morality are deemed as improvements or moral progress. If some moral ideas are truer and others are less true, there must be Real Morality for them to be true about. The reason one’s idea of Baguio City is truer or less true than someone’s is that Baguio City is a real place—not just what culture or society “happens to approve”.

4) “What men actually do”

Secularists: Moral Law, like Laws of Nature (e.g. gravitational law) are nothing but descriptions of what things in nature actually do.


·  Moral law cannot be “what human beings, in fact do,” for many of us do not obey this law at all, and perhaps none of us obey it completely.

·  This stand commits the “is-ought” fallacy. Simply because someone is doing something does not mean that one ought to do so. Otherwise, racism, rape, cruelty, murder, lying, cheating, and stealing would automatically be morally right.

·  A purely “descriptive ethics” is no ethics at all. Describing human behavior is not Ethics but Sociology. What morality covers is not describing but prescribing human behavior—telling what humans ought to do, and not to do.

5. The behavior that happens to be useful or that pays

Some secularists explain the Moral Law as the set of behaviors that happen to be useful or that pay.


·  Morality or proper observance of decency (fair play, honesty, kindness) does benefit the human race as a whole—it promotes real safety, happiness, genuine security and joy. However, to reduce and equate morality to “the behavior that happens to be useful or that pays” is to miss the point.

·  Implication: To say that someone is doing “immoral” would just mean that “what he is doing happens to be inconvenient to us.” Being moral would be equated to convenience, which is not the real case, for many moral actions (e.g. implementing just sanctions) may be inconvenient to some.

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