IS SECULAR MORALITY A RELIGION?

  • September 25, 2013 · 7:00 PM

Joel Marks is a philosopher, now at Yale, who has been writing a column on morality for Philosophy Now for some 13 years.  For most of that time he has endorsed and promoted the Kantian notion that people should treat other people as ends in themselves and not as the means to their own ends.  Three years ago he had an "epiphany" in which he realized his position as a "soft atheist" was untenable.  Recalling that Socrates had argued in Euthyphro that to acknowledge that God was 'good' and 'just' implied that we knew what these qualities are prior to and independent of knowing God, led him (and others) to the idea of secular morality which, simply put, is the notion that moral beliefs do not require a God.  Marks 'epiphany' was the realization that secular morality is also a religion in that it "purports to issue commands (moral obligations, prohibitions, and permissions) without a commander (God)".  The issue here is that the commands in both religious morality and secular morality are intended to apply universally.  However, in secular morality how can one make sense of a universal command if there is no central authority issuing the command?  As a result of this reasoning, Marks now takes a "hard atheist" stance, in which he denies not only the existence of God, but also the existence of morality.

Marks posits that one argument for God's existence is the 'obvious' design of the universe.  This argument can be refuted by that provided by evolution and the notion of selection, which says that design is only apparent since biological evolution can account for this appearance without any recourse to God.  To Marks this is analogous to the presence of morality: it only appears that there are 'moral commands'.  In reality this appearance can be explained by evolution's selection of certain behavior and motives that have proven useful in promoting survival of the species and such selection is not necessarily universal, but relative to a particular set of environmental and social conditions.

Having abandoned morality as a characteristic of life, Marks recognizes he will face the continual problem of living in a society that will pay homage to morality and believe in its existence.  If faced with a question such as, "Is vivisection wrong?", Marks envisions a change of subject to the meta-ethical question, "What is wrongness?"  Yet, any answer to that question, he feels, would have the same force as the assertion that unicorns are a type of horse: there is a common conception of what a unicorn is, but that has little bearing on whether unicorns actually exist and no help in providing access to one for the purpose of riding it.

What does Marks propose in place of morality?  In a word, desire.  We want certain things to occur or not occur.  This is actually not original and has become incorporated in what is called the 'philosophy of desirism', which basically offers that one's actions are determined by their beliefs and desires.  As so stated, there is no recourse to something universal. In fact it appears as though individualism is the standard until it is further understood that these individual beliefs and desires are the product of one's social exposure, which invites a relativist interpretation rather than individualism.  However, as our time is limited, I don't want to explore that path too far today.

Let us return to Marks' reasoning.  I think most of you (not all) would argue that morality does not require a God, but would you extend that position to include the notion that secular morality is a religion?  Do you agree that a universal command doesn't make sense if there is no central authority issuing the command? And if there is no 'central authority', does this necessarily mean that there is no morality which applies to all humans? (Note: Marks ultimately extends his argument beyond humans to "all sentient beings".)  How do you feel about Marks' notion that evolutionary selection can account for the appearance of morality as simply that which has proven to be useful to the survival of the species?  If you agree with him, do you see that utility as a product of 'desirism'?  We desired it, it helped us survive, let's encode it as something "moral"?

Marks is fairly new to me, but he does present a somewhat different approach to the issue of morality.  I look forward to discussing this approach with you Sunday.  See y'all then.

Those interested in reading Marks further check the following:

http://philosophynow.org/issues/80/An_Amoral_Manifesto_Part_I

http://philosophynow.org/issues/81/An_Amoral_Manifesto_Part_II

For a brief statement on 'Desirism' see:

http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/2011/05/what-is-desirism.html

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  • Maurice E.

    Hello,

    The meeting was nice last week; however,some interesting comments were made. For example, a couple of people said they do not like the perplexing lexicon associated with philosophy and basically called philosophy stupid.

    The Meetup Group is called "Socrates cafe" which makes the former an oxymoron. I come because I love philosophy and all it embodies. So, I am not sure if this Meetup Group is for me, but I enjoyed meeting everyone.

    Maurice

    September 29, 2013

    • Denis Murray S.

      Maurice is right, I spoke too strongly about my lack of respect for academic philosophy; and I did not use the adjective academic, so I created the impression I have no respect for philosophy in general. My apologies, Maurice; I am usually a better listener than I was last meetup, and a more careful speaker. I would love to have the benefit of your thoughts in future meetups.

      September 30, 2013

  • Gene R.

    The second contribution has to do with maturity. If the most aggressive younger member begins to challenge the alpha male before reaching full size and strength and is killed at an early age, the field is left to the wimpy males who cower around until the alpha reaches a weakened state and they can take over by default. In this case the future generations do not benefit from being sired by the “pick of the litter.”

    September 26, 2013

  • Gene R.

    I have to apologize to John for interfering with his development of altruism. I’m not sure altruism is the correct label, nor that this is the point he was pursuing, but the thread had potential to add two points to the idea of an instinctive moral principle (ought not kill) adding to species survival in the non-human world. This idea is manifested in behavior of the loser’s acquiescing and winner’s not pursuing once dominance is established during a fight for access to females or food. First, this seems important when herd animals are the primary source of food for the group. The more hunters the better the chances are of bringing down one of the prey. This is underscored by the fact that most herd animals are large enough to allow some to all the predator group to eat their fill on a single kill.

    September 26, 2013

  • Gene R.

    Hammurabi's list of 282 items.
    http://eawc.evansville.edu/anthology/hammurabi.htm
    We might find some lessons here to cut into the trend toward an increasingly litigious society.

    September 26, 2013

  • Gene R.

    Geertz definition of a religion: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
    http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic152604.files/Week_4/Geertz_Religon_as_a_Cultural_System_.pdf

    September 25, 2013

  • Maurice E.

    Great Meetup group

    September 25, 2013

  • Joel B.

    and lastly:

    Morality and evolution; Our genetically based facilities for language, abstract reasoning, sense of agency and theory of mind are evidently crucial for a moral sense. Chimps etc. have a bit of it too (deWaals and others), but no other beings that we know. But the content of our moral values seems almost certainly to be learned, and any of it that might be genetically based is strengthened by social reinforcement.

    But social norms – “memes” -- evolve as well. (Dawkins, many others.) Moreover, our genes and our societies’ memes may each influence the evolution of the other. My bet is that both genetic and memetic evolution, interacting, are the sources of our moral sense and its content of particular values. No need for God in this story; the absence of a central commander is irrelevant to the existence and content of morality; no need to invent a new concept. Marks is fussing over nothing.

    September 24, 2013

  • Joel B.

    “Morality doesn’t exist” must be a straw man or other debating device. Simply looking around (and inside ourselves) we see morality everywhere: rules, or acts, that have some idea of both “should” and “should not;” there’s some prohibition; are not mainly a means to an end; rather, “it’s right;” have some kind of special authority or “clout.” Even if a person violates the rule, s/he is aware that s/he’s doing something wrong; are justified internally (e.g. guilt), rather than externally (e.g. fear of punishment or hope for reward). To a secular person, a religious person following the rules of his/her church because “the Bible tells me” or “I want to go to heaven” is not acting morally.

    Rules seen as moral are everywhere. They concern not harming others; reciprocity and fairness; behavior appropriate to one’s social class; and matters related to food, sex, menstruation, handling of corpses, etc. Most are consistent with evolution by natural selection: they are useful.

    September 24, 2013

  • Joel B.

    Religion is generally understood to be characterized by (1) faith in some ideas that are not subject to scientific disproof; (2) supernatural beings, spirits, or forces; (3) some concept of life after death; (4) explanations for aspects of the world that are not, or at least were not in the past, easily comprehensible, usually including a creation myth; (5) sacred rites, initiations, symbols, and mysteries, of which most or all are group activities (i.e. not performed by one person alone; and (6) rules for behavior. (See e.g. Durkheim)

    Secular morality has only one of these six. Imho it cannot be called a religion unless we alter the connotation of the word.

    However that's not really what's interesting about this discussion...

    September 24, 2013

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