Another attempt at explaining my secular theory on ethics

Ethics have to be based on something. You don’t follow rules that you’ve randomly pulled out of your ass, and nobody would follow rules that you’ve pulled out of your ass. If you actually succeeded at convincing someone that they have to wear orange shoes every Thursday then every sane, reasonable person would agree that your follower is stupid…possibly to the point of insanity. If you did that to your child then there would be reasonable grounds for the government to take your child away from you.

Rules have to be based on reasonable principles. They need a point of reference to be measured against. Consider the place you work. Your office has a goal it’s trying to accomplish. In order to accomplish that goal it has identified a set of parameters and best practices. It sets the rules relative to that goal. Businesses with different goals have different rules that they created by using their goal as a reference point to reverse engineer reasonable guidelines around, and on the rare occasion when the boss sets rules that he pulled out of his ass it hinders the company from reaching its goal.

Unfortunately, life isn’t cut and dry. In fact, life is an absurd, existential dilemma. There’s no clearly defined goal. Many people believe there isn’t any goal or purpose at all. Period. So how do you define the rules of ethics when there is no clearly defined reference point?

Well, one idea is that God created rules for us to follow. Unfortunately, almost every primitive culture in history has a different set of rules that they say God gave them, and coincidentally, every set of laws God gave those people establishes their society as God’s favored people and sets laws that reflects or slightly modifies the existing culture of that group of people. Many modern people have used this and other facts to come to the conclusion that God didn’t actually hand down laws written in the language of the culture “He” has communicated with. Many people believe that those cultures merely projected their existing values into a mythological surrogate authority figure.

Of course, this raises the question, if the creator/s of the universe didn’t hand down The Rules then where did these people really get their rules? Well, it can be argued that they based their rules on the best practices for survival in general. For example, most of these societies agreed independently of each other that it’s wrong to murder another human being. However, their mythological stories often glorified killing human beings who either threatened their people’s lives or resources or had resources which that society wanted. You’ll also find rules scattered throughout these cultures forbidding eating dangerous foods. So you could also say that they based some of their rules on the best practices for thriving as well as surviving in their unique environment. You’ll also notice the trend that the people who served as God’s spokespersons also “handed down” rules from God putting them into positions of authority and/or reverence, which shouldn’t be surprising since humans evolved in packs and we’re instinctively inclined to establish ourselves into a pack hierarchy and then try to seize and maintain leadership of the pack. So that instinct could have surfaced in some of “God’s” rules. And finally, if humans really were the sole authors of the rules they attributed to God then you could easily point out some of their more absurd and counterproductive rules and conclude that they pulled them out of their asses.

But if God/s really didn’t hand down these rules then we’re right back to where we started. What benchmark do we use to establish a hierarchy of best practices to live by? Do we simply identify and follow the best practices to survive and thrive within our geographical and social environment from a practical and secular perspective…exactly how many governments establish many of their laws without needing to call upon a divine authority to legitimize them?

History has shown that there’s value to that approach. However, history has also shown that governments can set absurd and counterproductive laws. Plus, those laws don’t cover every moral decision human beings have to make throughout the course of their life. If your friend asks for advice on how to save his relationship but you secretly believe his partner is selfish, mean and codependent, do you tell him what he wants to hear or do you hurt his feelings and tell him the truth? And from your friend’s point of view, would he be right in resenting your honest opinion? Except in extreme and/or public cases there’s no legal guidance for these ethical dilemma. So how do we define an ethical reference point for this moral dilemma?

Well, we’re going to have to come up with a philosophical theory. It’s either that or we surrender to moral relativism and accept that our lives will always be ruled (at least to an extent) by chaos and chance. Granted, if there is no God (or if God doesn’t intervene in the affairs of man) then there is no conclusive way to define the “True” moral benchmark or any subsequent framework that could be structured around any such point of reference. However, if one were to want such a framework for their own personal use because they would find it useful, regardless of whether or not it reflects as true and real an inherent set of laws woven into the fabric of the universe as the laws of physics, then who are any of us to deny anyone else the freedom to do so?

Now, if you were lost in the wilderness with no compass, no reference point and no sense of direction then every possible path before you would equally valid. What you would have to do is pick a direction at random and start walking until you found some sort of piece of evidence you could use to logically deduce which direction to go next. You might find evidence that you need to be going in the exact opposite direction of your current trajectory, but would have never known that had you not gone in the wrong direction to begin with. Bearing that in mind, allow me to suggest a starting point:

Everything comes down to the value of human life. You can judge and predict the actions of any person or system by understanding how and what kind of value it puts on human life.

Take religion for example, despite its often idealistic rhetoric, ultimately it defines human beings as inherently wicked and deserving of an eternity of the worst punishment possible. This is why there has never been a generation in the history of religion that hasn’t experienced bloodshed in the name of religion. Religious people write off the countless and horrific examples of their religion’s immorality with the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, but a consistent anomaly isn’t an anomaly. It’s an inevitability. And when you divide the world into the righteous and the wicked (especially when it’s based on something as arbitrary as who believes in which story) the inevitable conclusion has been, is and will be bloodshed.

Matters don’t get much better for the “saved.” Within each religion you can further subdivide the value of human life between the religious leaders and the followers. Whether they say it or not, if you place yourself closer to God than another person that makes you better than them. That gives you more authority than them. That gives you more rights and power than them, and since we’re all just human with the same animalistic evolutionary desires the inevitable conclusion is that the leaders will exploit the followers. You can throw a rock in any direction and hit an example of that.

The story is equally grim when you consider the value of human life that corporations run using the standard modern capitalist business model use. Note that I put a conditional statements on the term “capitalism.” Capitalism in and of itself isn’t bad. The way it’s practiced in most of the world today is a human rights abuse because the standard modern business model places the value of human life as an expendable resource. As a result we’re paid as little as possible to do as much work as possible to produce goods and services we’ll be charged as much as possible to purchase. That’s why the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer until the system collapses, war redistributes the wealth and the process repeats itself until our economy places a higher value on human life.

Unfortunately, that requires the intervention of governments, which place the same value on human life as corporations do…if not less. To governments we’re just numbers. Look at how they treat us. Thy sold us out to their corporate sponsors and sent us to die fighting other governments for control of their resources and strategic positions and lied to us about the reasons all the while taxing us to pay for it all. Well, not every government is that bad, but no government has made education its number one priority or guaranteed unconditional human equality in practice.

You can take the issue closer to home than that. Study the people in your life. Watch how they treat other people because that will reveal how they define the value of human life. Don’t be surprised if their actions say, “It’s me against the world, and I’m going to take what I want and only value others when it’s convenient for me.” Look at the lover they “selflessly” love. Chances are that person provides them with the most of what they want out of a partner, and when that person doesn’t live up to their expectation they’ll fall out of love and claim a broken heart and move on to the next person who fulfills their needs and wants. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing except the media brainwashes ourselves to bullshit ourselves about it, and that breeds dishonesty both to ourselves and others, and that leads to more trouble than a formula sitcom plot. But I digress.

Everything comes down to the value of human life. You can judge and predict the actions of any person or system by understanding how much and what kind of value it puts on human life.

I won’t pretend that I love everyone unconditionally, and I won’t elaborate (in this paragraph) on who I despise or how much I despise them. But even though it’s hypocritical of me to say, as best as I can reason in theory, the most accurate way to define the value of human life is that we’re all infinitely, equally and unconditionally valuable. I believe I will never be the best person I can be until I can fully and unconditionally actualize that principle in my personal life, and I believe our world will never be the best world it can be until the systems that structure society actualize that principle in their practices.

This still leaves the question, what is the ideal goal of human life? Since we can’t define what our purpose or potential is, we can at least agree that we should be free and empowered to define and fulfill our own purpose and potential. If every person lived by that creed then companies wouldn’t exploit their workers, governments wouldn’t sell out their citizens and nobody on the streets would strike or kill each other and rob another human being of their ability to fulfill their potential.

If you liked this post, you may like these:



Agnosticism and Atheism

Biker Philosophy

Originally published at on September 6, 2010.