Feb 12, 2009

Religion vs. Secular Ethics: What is the Basis of Morality?

I wrote the following a few years ago while taking Philosophy of Religion in college.  After finding the essay recently, I thought some people might enjoy reading it and decided to post it in the blog.  There are plenty of opportunities for improvement of this essay but I have chosen to leave it as originally worded.  Enjoy:

Moral standards must have a strong basis upon which it encourages individuals to act ethically.  Mavrodes comes to the conclusion that religion is the only means of providing deep meaning to morality and that morals wouldn’t necessarily exist if religions never developed.  The second part of his conclusion brings up an additional question, if morality is based solely on religion, what are the motives involved in being moral?  His main argument against secular views of morality is that they are superficial. However, the reasons to be moral which develop through religion create a basis for morality that is arguably driven by fearful obligation which is in itself shallow.  This paper will look specifically at religion based morality, in comparison to secular views, and its status in answering the question of why we should want to act morally. 

In discussing this topic, it is necessary to review Mavrodes’ argument for a religion based explanation of morality.  Mavrodes wrote the article in response to Bertrand Russell’s secular view of ethics, describing them as queer and inadequate in answering the question; “Why should I be moral?[1]”  Mavrodes opens briefly with the point that morality is dependent on religion to the extent that morality would cease to exist if religion failed.  His intent is to use morality to show that religion is a better explanation than secular views.   He develops his argument by taking a look at the Russellian world and how morality would function and gain meaning in such an environment.  The Russellian worldview is:

That man is the product of causes which had no perversion of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievements must inevitably be burned beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.[2]

Mavrodes compares the Russellian world to what he perceives as the actual world, one where religion is the truth.  Mavrodes describes final moral obligation as “obligations that a particular person has in some concrete circumstance at a particular place and time, when all the aspects of the situation have been taken into account.[3]”  Mavrodes then makes the point that there are many cases in a Russellian world in which moral obligations would require a person to act in a manner which results in personal loss.  He makes a distinction between moral feelings and moral obligations and describes obligations which lead to loss as strange because they do not give the individual a reason to want to act morally.  He refers to Kant to make the statement “there cannot be, in any ‘reasonable’ way, a moral demand upon me, unless reality itself is committed to morality in some deep way.[4]”  Mavrodes states that moral obligation within the Russellian world are superficial.  He then ends his argument and essentially concludes that these moral obligations and things like mind and purpose are much deeper in the real world than they would be in a Russellian world so religion must be the answer to why one should be moral.

Mavrodes describes moral obligation as “morality ascribes to particular people an obligation to do certain things on a certain occasion.[5]”  This description is a good starting basis for explaining morality.  However, it is not possible to create a thorough set of rules which define proper action in every scenario a person may need to make a moral decision.  This fact is demonstrated in the many debates occurring within religious groups over issues, such as how to handle abortion rights and civil unions, which are not clearly defined by religious moral laws.  To further define morality it must be understood as an obligation, based on the good of humanity, placed on rational beings to discern the appropriate ethical action.  Through this definition the needs of the greater good and a sense of duty are included in the decision process.  In writing the extended definition, morality is that which creates an obligation for an individual to do certain things on certain occasions by making rational moral decisions which are based on a concern for the greater good.  This approach relieves ambiguity created by a limited set of rules.  Additionally, it is important to determine morals on a secular basis because new moral issues are repeatedly brought about by medical and technological breakthroughs.  A prime example of these breakthroughs is cloning.  The ability to clone or alter the genetic code of organisms was not remotely possible during the time religious laws were written.  To determine the morally correct action in these cases requires the same approach described as being used by secular ethics. 

Kant “held that a truly moral action is undertaken purely out of respect for the moral law and with no concern at all for reward.[6]”  Mavrodes uses Kant’s view to support the need for morality to be a commitment with profound origin.  The deep meaning which creates moral obligation in a secular world is a concern for the sake of society as a whole.  A person is dependent on society and develops concern for its well-being in relation to his own, thus, creating a strong reason to act morally.  When asking why someone chooses to act morally within a religious context, the reason does not necessarily seem to be as deep as Mavrodes indicates.  With some exceptions, many religious texts advocate morality as being an obligation to avoid punishment and place little emphasis on acting morally for its own sake.  This does not necessarily mean that there is no deep theological reason to act morally.  However, the emphasis of obligation to act morally because it is the will of a higher power or good is often lacking in religious teachings.  This is an aspect of religion that has the potential to be remedied, however at this point the tendencies of religions to teach morality on a basis of fear instead of duty to a higher power discredits the concept that religion universally creates an understanding of a deep moral obligation.

Mavrodes might accept that secular morality gains meaning through society but maintain his claim that religion provides a more solid and deep reason for people to want to act morally.  It is true that religion has a history of being able to get people to act in a certain way.  However, unless all religious sects are able to agree on what is ethical then individuals will be in conflict with the moral beliefs of other religions.  A strong example of this variance is between religions based on anthropocentricism and those which place moral value on being an equal part of the ecosystem.  This sort of conflict is not an adequate means of creating a moral basis.  Furthermore, this conflict of moral views can lead to unnecessary disdain between religious communities.  For morality to have universal application the means through which it is derived cannot be subjective.

Additionally, Mavrodes briefly indicates that a reason to act morally would not exist without religion[7].  This assumption was formed on the idea that individuals will not act morally without the deep meaning that religion provides.  In a comparison of secular and religious based cultures, those countries which are less religious are more likely to have stronger morality.

‘In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.’ . . . The study concluded that the US was the world’s only prosperous democracy where murder rates were still high, and that the least devout nations were the least dysfunctional.[8]

This study, originally published in the Journal of Religion and Society, contradicts Mavrodes notion that morality would not exist without religion.  The study, accompanied by the previous explanation of how secular worldview can maintain a deep sense of obligation, demonstrates that there is no reason to think that morality would not exist without religion.  Through this correlation I am not intending to argue that religion necessarily has a negative effect on morality.  The purpose is to show that religion cannot be concretely deemed the primary basis through which morality is derived.

Mavrodes holds the idea that secular morality requires a being to sometimes act against its own good.  If this were the case, secular morality would certainly be odd.  Indeed, if many moral actions repeatedly resulted in personal loss, the obligation to act morally would be greatly overcome by an individual’s sense of concern for himself alone.  Examples of actions which he perceives to accommodate personal loss in the Russellian world are “repaying a debt, keeping a promise, refraining from stealing . . . risk of death or serious injury.[9]”  It is true that some of these actions can cause a certain amount of personal loss.  However, these actions do not regularly carry a net loss when considered in the community framework.  Although reward is not the foundation that creates an obligation to act morally, many ethical actions do present the moral agent with a positive result.  Moral obligation placed on individuals in a secular worldview do not require a person to act in a way with is negative to their well-being.  A person operating within a secular moral framework keeps promises out of obligation to society, but in doing so also creates additional social connections and opportunities.  Any loss created by keeping a promise is far outweighed by the social benefits.  Much in the same way, a person chooses not to steal by abiding by society’s standards of moral obligation and is rewarded by being viewed as a favorable member of society. 

In moral situations which may require risking death or injury it is easily stated that the person is acting for the sake of humanity because these are altruistic actions.  A person performing these actions within a secular context runs the risk of personal loss. However, if the person were to refrain from performing this obligation, feelings of remorse would create a far greater loss than that of death or injury.  Furthermore, in a secular world, an individual does not experience a loss through his own fatality because death is viewed as an end where the individual no longer exists to have experiences.  In a similar way, religious moral obligations call for individuals to act against what may be their immediate best interests while associating a reward with acting morally.  Although the religious reward in acting morally is perceived to be granted in the afterlife, the extents to which moral obligations create personal loss appear to be more or less equal between secular and religious views.

Within our ever changing social environment, the ethical issues which result call upon a need for a moral basis which can rationally adapt moral understanding to accommodate progress.  Religious morality does not have the flexibility to respond to issues which are new to modern times.  This combined with the nonconformity of religious morals across various belief systems, renders religion inadequate as a prime basis for telling individuals why they should be moral.  I leave open the question of if secular morals based on a deep commitment to society are indeed the best explanation of moral basis.  This is in recognition that there are numerous foundations upon which secular morals have been declared to receive substantial meaning.  I do however claim that a secular moral basis better answers the question of why one should be moral because it allows ethical codes to apply universally.

[1] Mavrodes, George.  “Religion and the Queerness of Morality.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthropology. Canada, Wadsworth, 2003. p. 566.

[2] Russell, Bertrand..  “A Free Man’s Worship.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthropology. Canada, Wadsworth, 2003. p. 570.

[3] Mavrodes, George.  “Religion and the Queerness of Morality.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthropology. Canada, Wadsworth, 2003. p. 563.

[4] Ibid. p. 565.

[5] Ibid. p. 563.

[6] Mavrodes, George.  “Religion and the Queerness of Morality.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthropology. Canada, Wadsworth, 2003. p. 565.

[7] Mavrodes, George.  “Religion and the Queerness of Morality.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthropology. Canada, Wadsworth, 2003. p. 561.

[8] Gledhill, Ruth.  “Societies worse off ‘when they have God on their side.’”  Britain, TimesOnline, September 27, 2005. http://web.archive.org/web/20060619050338/http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1798944,00.html

[9] Mavrodes, George.  “Religion and the Queerness of Morality.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthropology. Canada, Wadsworth, 2003. p. 563


  1. I hope you got an A, this is a good, solid argument for the reality of ethics in the religious vs. secular frameworks.

    Poor Mavrodes, if only he had access to HapplyFreeThinking...

  2. I don't remember what this paper scored; but I did do pretty well in the class since it was something that intersted me.

    What's also intersting is that the professor actually said at one point, "If we've gotten this far through the class and you don't believe in god you might want to drop it." I still don't know what he really meant by that it could have simply been because the rest of the semester covered arguments which seeked to make some religoius notions internally consistent. I don't know if the professor was a theist, atheist, or agnostic...which means that he did a good job of presenting the material objectively.

  3. TLDR Ethics dont exist man brah. U are a result of the things that have been done to u and what u have done. And those things that have been done to u are the basis of the people around u which have been created on the same basis of what has been done to them infinitly going back untill it reaches god. Ethics dont exist we are just god's little pieces of his sole that have been split into 2 parts and those parts made more and so on and so forth. We are the collective actions of all of those b4 us. which is god. Ur ethics are nothing more than the the piece of god that u managed to get away with nothing more. We as people do not really have a concience of free will we are nothing more than dust in the wind. We were all dead b4 we were born. Cogs in the machine a brick in the wall. Nothing more or less and to think that we have ideals or any actual stance in anything is child's idiot delusion. Im srry. I wish i were still a child to get wraped up in reality like it was real. To be young and naive. Age is not what i mean by young. I am 15. im talking mentally. well have a nice day.