Ethics: religious or secular?

  (29 April 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Neil Ormerod has argued in Eureka Street for the superiority of religious as opposed to secular ethics. To derive an ‘ought’ from ‘what is’ (that is, to use reason as the basis for ethics), he says there must be purpose:


The question is, do human beings have a purpose? Is there a point to being human, some goal towards which we 'ought' to move? Richard Dawkins repeatedly proclaims that there is no purpose beyond what we ourselves might create. Evolution is blind and purposeless and even morality can be reduced to this blind watchmaker implanting something within us.


But if the only purpose is the purpose I create for myself then ethics is irreducibly individualistic. You have yours and I have mine. Our ethics then boils down to a set of arbitrary (and hence non-rational) personal preferences.


It seems to me Ormerod is reading way too much Christian individualism into the issue. Christianity is very much a ‘me’ religion, where the essential ingredient is the individual’s relationship with God and assent to His gratuitous offer of pardon/forgiveness. Each person must make their own decision for the Lord.


A secular ethics, by contrast, does not have to be about “personal preferences” at all. Humans are social beings. Living as we do in community, our determination of what ought to be can be determined on such well-known and rational principles as the common-wealth, or what is good for the community/society. That is a genuine purpose: the well-being and betterment of the human group.


I suggest it may be better for our society - a la the NSW ethics classes trials in schools - to have children learn to genuinely listen to other views and rationally evaluate and discuss them than to teach an absolute ethic based on an ancient scripture (the ethics embodied in which are in any case morally suspect by any enlightened contemporary standards). This will teach, if nothing else, respect for diversity, an ethically attractive attitude which is missing from much of the religious instruction/indoctrination that masquerades in NSW schools as religious ‘education’.


(Thanks to Nigel Sinnott for alerting us to the article mentioned here.)





Perhaps the secular world realises the futility of Neil Ormerod’s quest. A purpose-based rational ethics is only possible within a community of values. And that is what we no longer have. We have numerous communities of value in our modern globalized, multicultural, multifaith world.

The second problem is that of the suppressed diversity within Neil Ormerod’s own tradition. He speaks from within a monotheistic Christian framework. However, if we go beyond the ‘Emperors Choice’ and look at the polytheistic forms of Christianity in the Early Church, we discover alternative values.
According to the beliefs of the Ancient Christian Church of Marcion, a god of pure love observes that the Biblical Creator God is torturing his human creatures with eternal hellfire, so this god of pure love sends his son, Jesus Christ, to save those souls. The Marcionites rejected Old Testament values.
In the Christian Gnostic Valentinian sects we find a godhead comprising of thirty gods, with the Creator God deemed unfit for salvation.

Posted by David Miller

Leave your own comment...

Security Code:

Search Site

Contact Us!

14 Richardson St
Lane Cove
NSW   2066