Secularists' explanations on some ethical facts

© 2011 by Jensen dG. Mañebog    

AT LEAST THREE PHILOSOPHICAL CAMPS that reject “God-based morality” ([1] the non-theists, [2] those who say that there may be God but morality does not at all come from a Supernatural being, and [3] those who hold that “Godless morality” is better than “God-based morality” regardless of whether or not there is God) offer various explanations for some facts about morality. Let us check if their explanations that do away with the idea of God could really explain the ethical facts they wish to explicate.

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

As regards moral consciousness or the feeling that we are obliged to act morally, some atheists like Richard Robinson maintain that it is nothing but the effect of social conditioning. In An Atheist’s Values he wrote, “The original conscience of an individual in any given society is a historical accident, the result of the influences to which he has been subject. It is a set of taboos and compulsions, acquired from his associates in the same unreflecting way as all his other taboos and compulsions” (1964, p. 110).

This view further explains that the demands of conscience are due to society because society expresses disapproval of certain actions. Children are said to become aware of the pressure of this denunciation and gradually (or immediately) begin to exercise their disapproval of such acts. This feeling of disapproval, secularists say, develops into a habit that functions as the conscience when one considers performing such an action.


It must be noted that our ‘intellect’ plays a role in Ethics especially in determining whether an action is moral or otherwise. It is this intellect which can be molded or conditioned. This explains how social conditioning indeed affects one’s concept of morality.

There’s another aspect in morality nonetheless, which includes the “sense of moral obligation,” that cannot be explained sufficiently by social conditioning. In fact, when one says that a particular action ‘ought’/ ‘ought not’ to be done, he is not just echoing social approval or disapproval—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. This decision is made in relation to something not itself due to social conditioning—some sort of law that presses down on every person.

2. Moral Law as Herd instinct

There are those who suppose that the Moral Law is nothing but our herd instinct and therefore has been naturally developed just like all our other instincts.

Indeed, it is hard to refute the presence in us of herd instinct. As C.S. Lewis concedes in The Case for Christianity, thus, “We all know what it feels like to be prompted by instinct--by mother love, or sexual instinct, or the instinct for food. It means you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. And, of course, we sometimes do feel just that sort of desire to help another person: and no doubt that desire is due to the herd instinct.”


Nevertheless, we can prove that herd instinct is not what we mean by the Moral Law. We have at least three ways of showing that moral law is not a herd instinct.

A) Lewis has this beautiful explanation that deserves to be quoted at length:

 “….You will probably feel two desires--one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, can't itself be either of them...” (The Case for Christianity, p. 8)

Indeed, it must be noted that feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that we ought to help someone who is in danger. For Lewis, to insist that Moral law is just one of our instincts is like to “…say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard” (The Case for Christianity, p. 8). Hence, for Lewis, “the Moral Law is, so to speak, the tune we've got to play: our instincts are merely the keys” (The Case for Christianity, p. 8).

B) Lewis offers another way of seeing that the Moral Law is not simply one of our instincts. He explains that if two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in one’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, there are incidents that it appears to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses.

Lewis explains that a person probably wants to be safe much more than he wants to help someone who is drowning (because self preservation, they say, is one of the “most basic” instincts) but the Moral Law tells him to help the one who needs help all the same. This goes to show of course that moral law is not one of the instincts, but that which directs a person what to choose between the two instincts active.

It is also the Moral Law, Lewis explains, that often tells us to try to make the right impulse stronger than it naturally is, to stimulate the herd instinct, by waking up our imaginations for instance, arousing our pity, and so on, so as to get up enough “steam” for doing the right thing. And when we set about making an instinct stronger than it is, surely we are not acting from instinct. Lewis justifies his proposition, thus: “What it is that says to you, ‘Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up’ can not itself be the herd instinct. What it is that tells you which note on the piano needs to be played louder can not itself be that note!” (The Case for Christianity, p. 9)

C) 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, that is, those that are always in agreement with the rule of right behavior. But it appears that we cannot, for there is not one among our impulses that the Moral Law would not sometimes tell us to suppress, and none which it would not sometimes tell us to encourage.

Lewis believes that 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. At most, we could just say that some impulses are “preferable”. And when we say that some impulses are “preferable”, all we mean is that the occasions on which some instincts such as the fighting instinct or the sexual desire for instance are needed to be restrained are rather more frequent than those for restraining mother love or patriotism. But there are indeed situations in which it is the duty of a married man for example to encourage his sexual impulse and of a soldier to encourage the fighting instinct. There are also occasions on which a mother's love for her own children or a man's love for his own country has to be suppressed, else they would be led to being unjust or unfair. Using analogy, Lewis concludes, thus:

“Think once again of a piano. It does not have two kinds of keys on it that may be regarded as the “right” keys and the “wrong” keys. Every single key tapped to strike a note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law is not any one instinct or any set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.” (The Case for Christianity, p. 10)

3. Moral Law is just a Social convention

Some secularists purport that what we regard as the Moral Law is nothing but just a social convention. Basically, the reason for holding such view is the fact that Moral Law is undeniably something that is put into us primarily by education, either through parents and elders at home or through teachers in academic institutions. Adherents of such stance thus believe that like those other things which we learned from parents and teachers, what we consider as moral law is merely a human invention too.


Of course, that is not necessarily true. To explain his point, Lewis used the case of the multiplication table which is something we learned in school or at home through the instructions of parents, older siblings, or private tutors.

Unmistakably, a child who grew up alone on a deserted island for example would not be able to know the multiplication table, its functions, and how it works. But surely, it does not follow that the multiplication table is simply a human convention, that is, something that human beings have made up for themselves and might have made different if they had liked.

Regarding moral law, it is not denied that we learn this Rule of Decent Behavior from parents and/or teachers. And indeed, some of the things we learn from them are mere convention, which might have been different. We learn to keep to the right of the road, for example, but it might have been the rule to keep to the left just as well. However, some of the things we learn from home and school, like mathematics, are real truths and not just conventions. So the question now is, to which class does the Law of Human Nature or Moral Law belong?

There are at least two reasons for saying that it belongs to the same class as mathematics:

A) Although there are differences between the moral ideas of one time or country and those of another, the differences are not really very big. As explained in the article, “What moral theory are you following?”, nations or cultures have only had “slightly different” moralities. Essentially, we can recognize the same Law running through them all. It is not therefore among the class of mere conventions, for conventions, like the rule of the road or the kind of clothes people wear, are observed to be differing almost completely.

B) Another reason, Lewis again gives, for holding that moral law is not mere convention but “real truth” is that when we think about the differences between the moralities of two groups of people, we usually think that the morality of a particular community is better or worse than that of another. And some of the changes in their morality have been deemed as improvements; because if not, then of course, there could never be any so-called moral progress. Progress indeed means not just changing, but changing for the better. If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, then there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality, Christian (or let’s say a secular morality) to Nazi morality. In fact, some of the people who tried to change the moral ideas of their own age for the better are called Reformers or Pioneers. We consider them as people who understood morality better than their neighbors did.

And the moment we affirm that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, are we not, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other? But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. Therefore, we are in fact comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is really such a thing as Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas are nearer to that real right than others’.

Indeed, if our moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something – some Real Morality – for them to be true about. The reason why our idea of Baguio City, for instance, can be truer or less true than someone’s, is that Baguio City is a real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks. If when each of us said “Baguio City” each meant merely “The city I am imagining in my own head”, then how could one of us have truer ideas than the other? There would be no question of truth or falsehood at all.

In the same way, if the Moral Law or Rule of decent Behavior means simply, “whatever each nation happens to approve,” that is, a mere social convention, then there would be no sense in saying that any one nation had ever been more correct in its approval than any other. There will be no sense in saying that the world could ever grow better or worse. Moral law therefore is not synonymous to mere social convention – it’s not one and the same with whatever each culture or society happens to approve.

4) “What men actually do”

The claim that Moral Law is just what we humans actually do is basically anchored on the notion that another brand of “law”, that is Laws of Nature are nothing but descriptions of what things in nature actually do. What we usually call the laws of nature (e.g. gravitational law) are indeed mere descriptions of how nature operates, and for this reason we can say, they are not really laws in the strict sense, but only in a manner of speaking.

When we say that falling stones always obey the law of gravitation, it is the same as saying that the law only means, “what stones always do” as we observe them. But we do not really think that when a stone is let go, it suddenly remembers that it is under orders to fall to the ground. We only mean that, in fact, it does fall. In other words, we cannot be sure that there is anything over and above the facts themselves, any law about what ought to happen, as distinct from what does happen. The laws of nature, as applied to stones or trees, may only mean, “what nature, in fact, does.” But, is moral law the same with natural law in this sense as some secularists submit?


It is a different matter when we turn to the moral law. This law certainly does not mean “what human beings, in fact do,” for we know that many of us, in fact, do not obey this law at all, and perhaps none of us obey it completely.

The problem in posing that moral law is tantamount to what men actually do is what is some ethicists called the “is-ought” fallacy. Simply because someone is doing something does not mean that one ought to do so. Otherwise, racism, rape, cruelty, and murder would automatically be morally right. Also, should what people actually do be considered the basis for what they morally ought to do, then we ought to lie, cheat, and steal, since these things are done all the time. The attempt to refer moral law to men’s activities is therefore not only wrong but also would result to absurdity.

A purely “descriptive ethics” is indeed no ethics at all. Describing human behavior is not Ethics but Sociology. What morality covers is not describing but prescribing human behavior.

In summary, the law of gravity tells us what stones (in fact) do if you drop them whereas the Law of ‘Human Nature’ or moral law tells us what human beings ought to do, and don't. In other words, when we are dealing with humans, something else comes in above and beyond the actual facts. We have the facts (how men do behave) and we also have something else (how they ought to behave). In the rest of the universe, there need not be anything but the facts. Electrons and molecules behave in a certain way, and certain results follow, and that may be the whole story. But men behave in a certain way and that is not the whole story – for all the time, we know that they ought to behave differently.

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

Some secularists, to avoid the idea of a ‘law Giver’ in explaining morality, simply explain the Moral Law as the kind or set of behaviors that happen to be useful or that pay. This definition, as compared to previous “reductions” given, may be more compelling. However, evaluation of such simplistic appraisal of what Moral Law iswould show that this explanation is not perfectly congruent to what Moral Law is.


Such a view entails that when we say that a man ought not to act as he does, we only mean the same as when we state that somebody’s necktie has a disgusting color.  Meaning, to say that someone is doing “immoral” would just mean that “what he is doing happens to be inconvenient to us.” To prove that such notion is erroneous, Lewis gives the following scenario:

“A man occupying the corner seat in the train because he got there first and a man who slipped into it while my back was turned and removed my bag have both equally inconvenienced me. But I am irritated by the second man and not by the first. I am not angry—except perhaps for a moment before I came to my senses—at the man who trips me up by accident; I am angry at the man who tries to trip me up even if he did not succeed. Yet, the first had hurt me and the second had not. Sometimes the behavior which I call bad is not inconvenient to me at all, but the very opposite. In war, each side may find a traitor on the other side very useful. But though they use him and pay him, they regard him as human vermin. So, you cannot say that what we call decent behavior in others is simply the behavior that happens to be useful to us. And as for decent behavior in ourselves, it is supposed to be pretty obvious that it does not mean the behavior that pays. It means things like being content with fifty centavos when you might have gotten three pesos, leaving a girl alone when you would like to make love to her, staying in dangerous places when you could go somewhere else safer, keeping promises you'd rather not keep, and telling the truth even when it makes you look like a fool.” (The Case for Christianity, pp.15-16)

Others might maintain that moral behavior of course does not mean what pays each particular person at a particular moment, but that which pays the human race as a whole.

This point is not denied because morality or proper observance of decency does benefit the human race as a whole. In fact, we cannot have any real safety or happiness except in a world where fair play is truly practiced by everyone. Genuine security and joy can only come from individuals, classes, and nations being honest, fair, and kind—in other words, moral—to each other. However, to reduce and equate morality to “the behavior that happens to be useful or that pays” simply because moral actions promote and positively affect the well being of a society is to miss the point. Lewis offers the following explanation for this point, thus:

“If we ask, ‘Why ought I to be unselfish?’ and you reply, ‘Because it is good for society.’ We may then ask, ‘Why should I care what's good for society except when it happens to repay me personally?’ And then you will have to say, ‘Because you ought to be unselfish’—which simply brings us back to where we started. You are saying what is true, but you are not getting any further. If a man asked what was that point in playing football, it would not be much good saying, ‘in order to score goals,’ for trying to score goals is the game itself, not the reason for the game, and you would really only be saying that football was football--which is true, but not worth saying. In the same way, if a man asks what is the point of behaving decently, it's no good replying, ‘in order to benefit society,’ for trying to benefit other people, in other words, being unselfish is one of the things decent behavior consists of; all you are really saying is that decent behavior is decent behavior. You would have said just as much if you would have stopped at the statement, ‘Men ought to be unselfish.’ (The Case for Christianity, pp. 16-17)

Conclusion: Theists’ Explanation

Theists, on the other hand, have simple explanation for the “binding force” and “overriding character” of the moral obligation. These are attributed to God or Supernatural Being who is believed to be man’s creator and thus also the cause of man’s moral dimension.

Religionists believe that all men have this moral experience of feeling obligated in a certain way and that this sense of moral obligation is connected with God. This idea is consistent with the meaning of religion itself (the word “religion” being a compound of the Latin re and ligare meaning “to bind back”). Thus, for the religionists there is a bond that exists between man and God, between the Creator and the creatures. This bond is the feeling of being morally obligated to live up to some moral law or standard that is the expression of the commands of God and that presses down on everyone.

Morality is believed to be “something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men's behavior, and yet quite definitely real—a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us” (The Case for Christianity, p.17). Since it would be absurd to suggest that this moral thing just popped into existence, let alone that this moral law just assembled itself, it is held that when we admit a moral law, we also affirm a moral lawgiver. For if not, it looks impossible to think of a moral law that has a moral force on our behavior.

Theists thus believe that Someone made that moral law so that moral rule is a rule of Somebody, and it is not just a disembodied principle. That is held to explain the moral force of the moral law on our behavior. Believing that Someone higher than us made such law, when we break the moral rule, we offend that Someone who Himself made the rule. It is that something or Someone who appears in us as something urging us to do right and making us feel responsible and uncomfortable when we do wrong.

Guide Questions:
(Write your answer in the comment section below [add a comment]. Don't forget to click also the 'LIKE' button before writing anything.)
1. Why is moral law not just a social convention?
2. Give two reasons why it is wrong to hold that moral law is just one of our herd instincts.
3. What is theists’ explanation of the moral law’s overriding character?

Related Article/s:

How to cite this article:

Jensen dG. Mañebog. “Secularists’ explanations on some ethical facts.” @

*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.


NOTE: Click first the 'LIKE' button before writing any comment/answer in the comment section below [add a comment]. Thank you!

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