Written in 4 hours with a Venti Mocha consisting of 5 shots of espresso. Throughout the writing of this essay, I maintained a heart rate of 155.
What is a secular response to why one should do good? It is common for many to assume that non-theists don’t have a leg to stand on when confronting morality. A Christian I know recently asked, “What’s wrong with indiscriminately chopping off heads?” While the answer appears obvious at the surface, it prompts deeper reflection concerning how one justifies one’s answer – especially if they come from a secular worldview.
What’s Wrong with Indiscriminately Chopping Off Heads?
Allow me to address this question, by posing a better question. Would you rather live in an environment where people could indiscriminately chop off heads, or would you prefer an environment that promoted the survival and flourishing of all sentient beings? Most rational individuals would choose the latter simply because it’s a better environment. After all, must we really argue that the liberties and freedoms that promote flourishing in the context of a prosperous society are better than the horrors of people indiscriminately chopping off heads?
I believe that a society that promotes the survival and flourishing of all sentient beings is better than a society that promotes head chopping. But first, let me first clear up any confusions concerning what I mean by ‘flourishing’ and ‘sentient’. By flourishing I mean, the opportunity to create, explore, and experience life in order to actuate one’s potential as a human being. To do this within the confines of a society, there must be certain liberties, freedoms and laws that provide the protection and safety for its citizens to have the opportunity to flourish. Thus, I can rightly point out that citizens in, say, Canada are in a better environment than Somalia with its brutal, impoverished and lawless condition. Second, by sentient I mean, those who are emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, conscious, and therefore able to feel and suffer. I am drawing a distinction between humans and particular animals than, say, crustaceans at the bottom of the sea. For this essay, however, I will focus on humans.
This question (which environment would you prefer?) is a good launching pad for a discussion concerning the title of this essay. By beginning with a comparison of polar opposite environments, it puts us in a position in which we can further elucidate and thereby attempt to justify the ‘why’ and the ‘what’: why one is better than the other, and what exactly makes one better or worse. The ‘why’ in my argument focuses on the fact that our survival and flourishing is universal for humans. The ‘what’ focuses on the virtues, liberties and freedoms that are necessary to promote cooperation and harness greed, violence, theft, etc.
Any talk about flourishing automatically presumes living a particular way and comprising of a particular quality of life; one in which we honor the rights of others and seek a certain kind of character in order to become a particular kind of human group that has maximized its potential. I nevertheless smuggle in values and moral ‘ought’s’ into my argument because we know through our instinct and empirical analysis that a cooperative society banding together is better than a society of free loaders (and it doesn’t take long for any society to devise rules to punish free loaders!). As Darwin wrote:
“There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes.”
What makes a society better than one advocating head-chopping, is that the values of reciprocity, cooperation and altruism act as a kind of incubator for cultivating a flourishing environment. In other words, you don’t get flourishing human beings in environments that elevate selfishness, greed, and hate. Let’s look closer at what I mean by survival and flourishing.
First, a society that promotes the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is better because we universally prefer to stay alive over death. It usually takes a cataclysmic despairing event or an extremely painful disease in order for one to completely give up on life. The reason for this reality is that all living things are born with biological systems oriented toward self-preservation. Over billions of years, a vast array of complex life-forms has evolved, each distinctively adapted to survive long enough to reproduce and pass their genes on to future generations. Fish have gills; rose bushes have thorns; squirrels bury acorns and retrieve them much later; termites eat wood. There seems to be no limit to the variety of ways creatures of all species adhere to the fundamental biological imperative: staying alive.
Second, we universally (and instinctively) prefer to flourish and thrive rather than live with fear and trembling.* A cursory look at the research conducted by anthropologists through ethnographies demonstrate that there is a universal thirst for an enduring happiness, serenity and fulfillment. Furthermore, here is a desire for wholeness, for freedom, and an authentic and sustained love. This is evidenced by the fact that every society that we know of has created social mechanisms and institutions in order to thwart greed, laziness, deceit and cheating. Moreover, we have yet to find a remote tribe whereby greed is rewarded and honesty is punished. We create these social mechanisms, institutions and rules for behaving in order to cultivate a civil society. Even the remote tribe in Malaysia, the Chewongs, have rules and social mechanisms concerning dividing up and sharing food so that no one goes without. Whether it’s a remote tribe or a suburb of Chicago, we instinctively crave and pursue human flourishing.
[*Granted, some people do live with fear and trembling due to bad choices or psychological illness, but I’m comfortable with presuming if they had a ‘do-over’ or magic wand that could change their psych issues, they would gladly change it.]
Natural Rights: What We Deserve
When you put together the universal need for survival and flourishing, we can conclude that the freedom to pursue both, is a natural right. By natural right, I mean it is universal and unalienable, and thus, not contingent only upon the laws and customs of a particular culture or government. As Michael Shermer notes in The Moral Arc, “Natural rights theory arose during the Enlightenment to counter the belief in the divine right of kings, and became the basis of the social contract that gave rise to democracy, a superior system for the protection of human rights. This is what the English philosopher John Locke had in mind in his 1690s Second Treatise of Government, (which was written to rebut the divine rights of kings) when he wrote: “The state of nature has a law to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.’”
As a natural right, the personal autonomy of the individual gives us a criteria by which we can judge actions as right or wrong: do they increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings? Morality is not arbitrary, relative, or completely culture-bound. Morality is universal. We are all born with a moral sense, with moral emotions that guide us in our interactions with other people, and that are influenced by local culture, customs, and upbringing. Nature endowed us with the capacity to feel guilt for the violation or promises and social obligations, for example, but nurture can tweak the dial up or down. Thus, morality is real, discoverable, “out there” in nature, and “in here” as part of our human nature.
Due to my moral sense, I cannot morally justify indiscriminate head chopping. Furthermore, I do not need a god in the sky to make this a realization for me. My life, health, liberty and possessions are of value to me, and I want to expand these rights because it is good. A society that fosters these ideals will possess more opportunities for its citizens to flourish. There is a logical reason why every society seeks to harness violence, greed, etc. We can easily put ourselves in the shoes of those who suffer under terror and oppression, and we cringe. We cringe because we never want that for ourselves. And we want to avoid those environments of terror because we know we cannot flourish or thrive.
I have no good reason to genuflect to a god or higher power, rather, my reverence goes toward a humanity that keeps expanding the moral circle of compassion, empathy, and cooperation. The evidence of this expanding moral circle is shown; not from heaven, but in the objective evidence we see when we compare societies which promote liberties, cooperation, and freedoms with those that don’t.
The Contrarian’s Response
Perhaps the contrarian might rebut my argument my asserting that flourishing is doing exactly what you want. As an example, the Cambodian political tyrant, Pol Pot, “flourished” by pursuing his passions, despite the thousands of deaths perpetrated by his regime. First off, I don’t believe any reasonable person- who is cognitively competent – actually believes that this is a sufficient example highlighting flourishing. If it was a sufficient example, I believe that more people would naturally be inclined to pursue the path of mass slaughter. Furthermore, to the person using Pol Pot as an example, I would ask, “Why don’t you pursue the same flourishing as Pol Pot, and start your reign of terror today?” There is a reason why the contrarian will shake his head “No”. Perhaps because the contrarian knows that that’s not flourishing.
The contrarian may retreat, and opt for a subtler example. Rather than flourishing being the pursuit of whatever passions (however brutal they may be), flourishing is more like egoism. By egoism, I mean the theory that one’s self is, or should be, the motivation and the goal of one’s own action. This is more palpable because we are all guilty of having deliberated moral dilemmas by concluding that our own self is, or should be, the driving force for our final decision. The problem with this, however, is that the vast amount of meaning and significance we experience in the world involves other people. Furthermore, we are naturally social creatures, thus, in order to commune within community, it involves a bit of selflessness. And, after all, the egoist will have a lonely life given we do not naturally gravitate to people who are all about themselves. Finally, egoism goes against the building blocks of how societies become societies: kin altruism (‘blood is thicker than water’) and reciprocal altruism (‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’) form the building blocks to a cooperative society, because cooperating (selflessly!) reaps more benefits than simply striving for your own ends.
Consequences: The Price for Doing Whatever You Want
But why frame flourishing in terms of virtuous deeds? We naturally frame flourishing in terms of virtuous behavior because we are keenly aware that there are consequences for our actions. Let’s face it, there are consequences for doing whatever the heck we want. Most reasonable people do not frame flourishing in a subjective or relativistic way, as: flourishing is whatever you feel is right. Moreover, most people try and harness egoism because we instinctively know that the consequences may affect your reputation, your future and the relationships around you.
It’s hard for any cognitively competent human being to escape reflecting upon the potential consequences of one’s actions. We instinctively know that consequences matter because we live within cultures that punish ‘bad’ behavior. Whether through prison, getting fired, or being ostracized from your community, we know that our duplicitous actions have consequences. Sometimes though, we react instinctively without thinking, and we do bad. However, excluding crimes of passion or knee-jerk reactions that end with suffering, we naturally go through a cognitive deliberative process that includes a cost-benefit analysis in our thinking. Whether it’s ‘do we take grandma off the ventilator?’ or ‘should I lie to get out of this problem?’, we are inclined to consider the consequences.
Final Thoughts: Moral Foundation
The importance of the question, “What’s wrong with indiscriminately chopping off heads?”, is important because it forces us to consider a moral foundation. Now, you can build a moral foundation from very simple beginnings: life is generally preferable to death; pleasure is generally preferable to pain; health is generally preferable to sickness; and it doesn’t matter is these are arbitrary things that we plucked out of nowhere, or if they’re intuitions, or if they’re about our emotions, it doesn’t matter where they came from – we hang on to them, because they prove to be useful and true. We evaluate the consequences of our actions with respect to specific goals. That’s how we determine right and wrong.
The theist may argue that without God, it’s all relative; the secular person has no absolutes. But God is not the solution. The only place you can find a viable solution is in secular moral systems. Every religion disagrees with every other religion, within these religions you have denominations that disagree, and within denominations you have churches that disagree. The theist has to make some type of demonstration that that there is a good reason for me to listen to that authority; and how do you do that? You do that by evaluating the consequences of actions to goals, you consider the effects of things on living things, and you use reason and evidence. The beauty of a secular moral system is that it is data driven, it’s able to correct itself, we can begin with those foundational principles, and if we find out that any of them are wrong we can change them.
This idea that there are absolutes is also wrong. Because with any specific situation there is not one absolute answer that addresses every moral situation. But within a specific situation I think there are absolutes because in any given situation there’s a finite pool of possible actions that one can take. We can compare the results of those actions with each other. Some of them are gonna be better, and some are gonna be worse. Which means, by definition, there is some subset of actions that represent the moral pinnacle for that situation. We may not have the first clue of what it is.
If you pull up a mid-game chess position and you ask people, “what’s the best move?” you will get a variety of answers; and they could be right. Doesn’t necessarily have to be one right answer, we could get a couple of not so good answers, a couple of optimal answers, but by and large, we’re able to determine which options are better and right. And it’s the experts who have studied chess, who are able to see further. The fact that there are multiple right answers, doesn’t mean that we just throw up our hands and forfeit the game. The fact that there are multiple right answers means humans are winning.
The lie that religion gave me is that there is this one cut-and-dry path to knowing the truth. When we’re kids, we ask “why” and we would always get that answer: “because I said so.” That’s religion. Religion is offering, “because I said so.” And that answer might have been fine when Moses was leading multitudes of Hebrews thousands and thousands of years ago. But “because God said so” is not an explanation, because when I ask “why?”, what I’m looking for is something underneath, something with explanatory power that increases our understanding.
The reason why secular morality is superior is because we say so. And I don’t mean that in a relativistic way. But we’ve been able to build off of the foundation that other people have left us; and learn what works, and what doesn’t. One of the best features about a secular morality is that it’s about getting better. Not only that, it’s about getting better, at getting better. We can revise what we believe and make improvements, and it’s all based on evidence.
It’s for all of these reasons why I don’t indiscriminately chop off heads. Not because god said, “it’s bad.” Rather, because I want for society what I want for myself: a society that promotes the survival and flourishing of all sentient beings. If I compare the morality of the Medieval period with today, it’s obvious that human rights are progressing. Life is getting better. Thus, I can do my part in expanding the moral circle through promoting survival and flourishing of all sentient beings.
Except, I will continue to eat murdered cows. Uhg, moral dilemmas!