A critique of a secular morality

Leah Libresco disputed whether Secular Humanism has any coherent set of core moral beliefs, and Darren responded by laying out what he thought they were. Though I liked some things in his account of morality (it was very analytic, clear, and orderly, for one) I ultimately disagree with it for three reasons:

1.) His first principle is incoherent.

2.) His morality is radically inadequate since, in principle,  it cannot provide answers to the sort of questions we most need a moral theory to answer, and as a subset of this:

3.) His is morality cannot show us the way to human excellence.

1.) Here’s Darren’s first principle:

As a fundamentalist Christian minister once said to me, “Secular Humanism is what you get when you take God off the throne, and put Man in his place.”

When thinking of what Secular Humanism stands for and how it is different than other ‘isms that one might encounter, this sounds like a pretty good place to start.

Darren, however, has a problem that the minister does not: for while we can dispute whether any God exists to sit on a throne, we know that no “Man” exists to sit on it. So, from Darren’s point of view, all his move can consist in is swapping out one non-existent ruler for another. After all, if we can put “Man” on a throne, why not put “Justice” or “Happiness” on the throne, since these would be far better and more direct ways to ensure Justice and human happiness? If the principal act of our morality is the exaltation of an abstract being which need not exist in itself, then there is no contradiction in even an atheist morality that states that the first moral act is to believe in God. But this suggests we’ve made a wrong turn somewhere.

2.) Any Christian reader is struck by the ways in which Darren’s list of moral commands borrows from the Ten Commandments. Since by definition he can only pull from the last seven (and the last two are so similar) he basically borrows half of the second-tablet morality. We cannot murder (V) or steal (VII) or bear false witness (VII). This is admirable (especially his prohibition on lying, though he does not take it as absolute). That said, the commandments he leaves off speak volumes: he apparently does not believe that sexuality is a sphere of activity that falls under a basic moral principles, and he has nothing to say about coveting, that is, the morality of the heart and the interior man. One is left with the sense that this morality, such as it is, views anything having to do with sex as such as morally licit (if not commendable).  One suspects that the idea behind this is that sexuality is so personal that it cannot fall under a moral law. We simply like what we like, and that is the end of it. This sort of  belief also makes clear why this moral code has nothing to say about coveting, since coveting is done in the heart, and the heart wants what it wants. But the is to make a morality that is entirely superficial and extrinsic. Someone looking to morality to inform him about what is most profoundly important and innermost to him finds that the Secular Humanist can only shrug and insist that he has nothing to say on the matter.

3.)  This last problem points to a more basic one: there is nothing critical or challenging in Darren’s moral code. Reading it, a modern Western consumer is left thinking “Great! I guess I’m doing just fine!”  There is nothing in this moral code like we find in, say, the Sermon on the Mount or the Four Moral Truths or Aristotle’s account of friendship in N. Eth. VIII. Darren’s moral code articulates a fundamental mediocrity of life. And so even though Darren quotes Gott ist tot in support of his doctrine,  Zarathustra himself describes the sort of person that is created by Secular Humanist morality at somewhat greater length:

“What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?” — so asks the Last Man, and blinks.

The earth has become small, and on it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small. His species is ineradicable as the flea; the Last Man lives longest.

“We have discovered happiness” — say the Last Men, and they blink.

They have left the regions where it is hard to live; for they need warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him; for one needs warmth.

Turning ill and being distrustful, they consider sinful: they walk warily. He is a fool who still stumbles over stones or men!

A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end for a pleasant death.

One still works, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one.

One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” — say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled — otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” — say the Last Men, and they blink.


  1. Mike Flynn said,

    January 27, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    Then too this by Stanley Fish:

  2. January 31, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    It seems that most people today do not have a problem with morality in general (it’s really hard to dispute “Thou shall not murder” or “Thou shall not steal”), but when it comes to sexual morality in this day and age, then making judgments about it is not “cool.” The reason for that, at least in my mind, is that most people are not murderers and thieves, but most people do have problems with sexual morality. Of course, people today also don’t want to be told they are wrong. In the words of Peter Kreeft, if they had the power to, they’d change the phrase to “Forgive me Father, for I have ‘oopsed'”

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