Reconciling Secular and Religious Perspectives on Moral Codes

“Have you heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, "I seek God! I seek God!" As many of those who do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter... "Whither is God," he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. All of us are murderers.... God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him...

Nietzsche, Fredrick, The Gay Science, section 126, 1882

Two foundations for moral codes - secular and spiritual

Any study of moral philosophy quickly confronts the competing views on the authority for morals. There are primarily two perspectives. One is that the moral codes we should follow derive in some manner from God. Different mechanisms may be at work but fundamentally God is necessary for establishing right and wrong. The alternative is that people should determine our morality independent of God. Here too different mechanisms may be at work, but God is not a necessary part of the process.

For much of history moral codes were tied closely to God. For some the direct word of God as revealed through divine revelation is the basic guide for moral behavior. For others the guidance for how to live was more nuanced but grounded in belief in God and an understanding that God wants people to live a certain way. Some contend that moral action contrary to self-interest would not occur absent the fear of God and potential consequences for bad behavior.

Science and reason provided an alternative basis for establishing the best rules to live by. Reason challenged the role of God in morality. But this approach fails to produce a widely accepted basis for moral action that yields consistent results. Different reason-based approaches to moral codes can produce different answers. Many philosophers tackled this problem and many approaches have been proposed – deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics being the primary schools of moral philosophy. But none has gained the dominance God once had. Instead, secular, reason, and science based morality seems to be devolving into an individual effort. We develop our own moral codes and live by those. As individuals we determine how we want to live, which may be very different than our neighbor.

This secular – spiritual split poses a huge problem for society. There are many benefits for a common set of moral codes or values. There are problems if it is missing. A lack of a commonly held moral codes erodes the trust and stability needed for people to work cooperatively. How can you trust your neighbor if you are unsure what moral values they hold and how they will behave?

I have approached morality from a secular perspective most of my life. The arguments against the existence of god always seemed stronger than those in favor. My views on moral codes and their basis evolved over time, informed by reading, thinking, and life experience. I find now that my core values and moral codes put me in the company of many with moral codes grounded in a belief in God. We came to our beliefs about right and wrong and how to live from different perspectives. Yet we arrived at about the same place. How could this be when we approach the issue from such different perspectives? Is there any way to reconcile these two perspectives?

I think there can be a meaningful and practical reconciliation between the secular and religious approaches. Beneath the surface there may be common ground. Believers and non-believers can arrive at and live by similar moral codes if we share some premises. I hope to present here a cogent argument that alignment is possible and workable even if there are instances of disagreement.

Is there a common purpose for morals?

I believe the primary purpose of a moral code is to further human well-being. There may be others, but this must be an essential reason for having a moral code. It would be odd if following a moral code reduced or restricted human well-being.

Defining well-being is necessary for discussing the relationship with morals. Flourishing and happiness are good alternative terms. Much has been written on defining the terms well-being, happiness, and flourishing. I think of it in simple and broad terms. Well-being applies to individuals and society. We are social animals and can only survive and do well together. Well-being includes physical and material conditions (health, shelter, food). Equally important is realizing human potential – living meaningful, fulfilling lives.

Many moral philosophers and schools of moral philosophy have human well-being or flourishing as the desired outcome for people living a “good” life consistent with moral codes and rules for living. The utilitarians wanted a code that produced the most overall human happiness. Aristotle put human happiness as the goal of human existence with happiness involving developing our human capacity to reason. While Kant rejected individual happiness as the basic for moral action, he saw flourishing of all humans an outcome of living according to a moral code. He sees moral action making us worthy of happiness and that following a duty based moral code will result in a better world for all.

The differences between the deontologists, utilitarians, and virtue ethicists in the process and logic for developing moral codes are significant. There are differences in defining happiness and flourishing. At the extremes these difference can be stark. However, it seems universal among most mainstream secular schools of moral philosophy that the result or outcome of living according to a moral code should be improved individual and collective well-being.

If human collective well-being is the desired outcome for most secular morality, is it any different for spiritual or religious based morality? Can we imagine God not wanting to further human well-being? There are numerous references in the Bible to human flourishing as the goal for virtuous behavior. At times Aristotle has been used as support for Christian ethics. God may have other purposes for a moral code in addition to well-being. There are very different views regarding enforcement of moral codes and the consequences of bad behavior. But desired outcome for following a moral code seem largely the same between the two perspective – human flourishing.

If this premise or assumption is correct, then there is common ground for discussing morals among people with secular and religious perspectives. A common outcome narrows the discussion by emphasizing results and setting aside the issue of belief in God.

Are moral codes constant or do they evolve?

Moral codes designed to produce human flourishing must account for the environment people live in. The behavior necessary for human flourishing in one situation may differ from what is needed in another. If moral codes were oblivious to the environment, our species may never have survived. You can’t thrive if you aren’t around. Therefore, moral codes that decrease the chances of individual and collective survival don’t make much sense.  

We live in a vastly different environment than the one we evolved in millions of years ago on the African savannah. Moral codes that produced a thriving society in pre-history may not be the same as what helps us thrive in our modern global society. It is a long way from a small tribal society always on the edge of extinction to living in complex communities of millions of people where for most the necessities of life are abundant.

A society existing in harsh conditions where survival is questionable may put more emphasis on morals and values related to group loyalty and discipline. You can’t afford to have people not pulling their weight and sticking together. Societies in favorable environments with abundant resources may downplay group cohesion in favor of values related to individual freedom.

Western cultural norms have evolved over time. Slavery was once accepted as moral. It was considered natural even among the high-minded Greeks. The change over time in acceptable and unacceptable behavior between men and women could hardly be starker. The list of moral changes over the last several millennia is long.

These changes are not just in norms and politics. There are many examples of fundamental changes in the moral codes endorsed by organized religions. The Protestant Reformation fundamentally changed views of right and wrong, especially in the consequences of bad behavior. Many religions have changed the moral codes regarding relations between men and women, homosexuality, and birth control. I believe many of these changes are driven by environmental circumstances. The environment changed, desirability of certain behaviors changed (some became less desirable and other more), and secular and religious codes changed accordingly.

The evidence seems clear that moral codes – religious or secular – are not constant. Rather, they change. I believe the changes are in part driven by the desire for greater human happiness. Not all changes in moral behavior may meet the test of producing a thriving society. But the evidence suggests that they move generally in that direction. Who do you know wants, physical well-being aside, to go back in time?

Can we evaluate the correctness of moral codes?

It is my premise that secular man and God have human flourishing as an essential outcome for moral behavior. It is also my premise that both use the same basic tools to create the codes for humans to live by — reason and facts. If these premises are correct, it seems there is a basis for agreeing on morals or at least having a productive discussion about what constitutes moral behavior.

Ultimately the validity or efficacy of a moral code is determined by the same test: Does it work? Does it produce a society where humans, individually and collectively, flourish? What evidence do we have that certain behavior works? How strong is the logic and reasoning linking behavior and human thriving?

Most important moral decisions are complicated. The simple situations often have laws. Murder and stealing are against the law. It is in the grey areas that the real contest among different moral codes is fought.

Focusing the discussion on what promotes human thriving and using facts and logic to evaluate different approaches has benefits. It focuses the discussion on human well-being. There will not be perfect agreement about what well-being means. But there is a chance to get enough agreement to have productive debate. The step on addressing what works and why moves the discussion away from strict adherence to an ideology or to faith in divine revelation. Instead the discussion focuses on facts and logic.

So how does this differ from any of the many forms of utilitarianism? Isn’t this just rephrasing “the greatest good for the greatest number?” That is a valid point, but I see important differences. One is using a definition of thriving to include individual and society. The best balancing of individual and group thriving will always be an important issue to debate. Another is the emphasis on what works. This forces us to build on the learnings from millennia of human experience. It takes the discussion out of the speculative and theoretical and grounds it in real world practical results.

This topic is so complex that seeking resolution is foolish. But the basic approach outlined here has made it easier for me to have useful and productive discussions with people of widely divergent perspectives on one of the most important issues of human existence – how should we behave toward our fellow humans. It may lead to uncovering common ground and perhaps even compromise and accommodation.

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