Free Inquiry
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 22 issue 2

Learning (How) to Behave: Commandments vs. Principles

David Koepsell

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 22, Number 2 (Summer 2006).

Many people, when confronted with the fact of an acquaintance’s atheism, will exclaim something like “Well, we need religion so we know how to behave,” a reaction that puzzles most secular humanists. Though we are not god-fearing, we generally behave well and are civil, and do not run rampant through the streets robbing, stealing, pillaging, and raping. How odd, then, that most religious people feel that the foundation for morality is a set of commandments they barely know from a book most of them have not read.

Secular humanists are living proof that we can be good without god. But how do we answer our children’s inevitable questions, when they come home from school after being accused by their classmates of being heathens (or whatever the third-grade equivalent concept of heathen is) and ask why their friends say they are going to hell? I suggest we teach our children to respond that they are not going to hell (1) because there is no such place and (2) because they act ethically in ways that even Jesus would approve of, not because of some moribund commandment, but because Jesus’ second favorite rule, to love one’s neighbor even as one would wish to be loved, is just good, old-fashioned, rational thinking from a liberal, freethinking Essene. Of course, Jesus mentioned his preference for this commandment when queried by his followers as to which of the famous Ten Commandments he liked best. In many ways, this tension between the ethics of the Golden Rule vs. the morals allegedly put forth in the Old Testament commandments echoes disputes about the nature of ethics that have been underway for thousands of years. The debate provides an excellent way to frame the task of imbuing ethical principles in young people in ways that will help them make good ethical judgments on their own.

Commandments vs. Principles

Philosophers have debated for centuries where the foundations for ethical behavior might lie. There are two predominant schools of thought, though their expressions are many, varied, and nuanced. The two major views are, roughly: (1) deontological—morals are immutable laws inherent in nature or divinely sanctioned and (2) consequentialist—morals are man-made creations based upon reason and intended to produce certain consequences that generally improve our lives.

Even though these two competing schools of thought have been duking it out for centuries, the average person has never acted as though the choice is a zero-sum game. Rather, we tend to employ both approaches in our ethical decision-making. Getting this point straight when educating our children about ethics could save years of questioning, disillusionment, and distrust, without mentioning that Immanuel Kant was a major secular deontological ethical theorist or that John Stuart Mill was a foremost consequentialist—your kids won’t care, and it will just make you seem pedantic. However, teaching young people basic ethical theory is, in my opinion, essential to equipping them to make moral judgments. As free inquirers disposed to using reason and science to solve human problems, we can, more or less, agree that an essential tool is knowledge, and knowledge about the rudiments of ethical theory is just the sort that can help enable us and our children to choose to act ethically.

As anyone with a two-year-old knows by now, it isn’t enough to tell a child what to do, since the inevitable next question is “Why?” The response “Because I said so” won’t satisfy a little free inquirer for long either, so let’s explore some reasons to do the right thing beyond that offered by a mere appeal to authority. Good reasons can be expressed, in logical and accessible ways, according to each of the two major schools of ethical thought.

Thus, one good reason to behave ethically is, as a general rule, we should not treat others as we would not wish to be treated. Now, some may cringe that this is the Golden Rule to which the biblical Jesus refers when he admonishes us to love our neighbors as we wish them to love us. It is and it isn’t. Jesus did not invent it. It dates at least as far back as Confucius, and possibly much further back in philosophies as distinct as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Judaism. This rule, as with any other rational mode of behavior, admits to certain notable exceptions, and so the masochist is not licensed to start flogging people at random.

Immanuel Kant presented an excellent secular interpretation of this rule. First, he said, act only according to that maxim that you would see become a universal law. He justifies this position by arguing that other moral theories, which look to results rather than acts and intentions, cannot be universalized. When a moral precept is based upon results, or is “consequentialist,” then one cannot make intelligible moral commands. They then come in the form “You should do X if Y results” or “You should not do Y if Z results.” He argued that the moral propriety of an act is tied up not with the expectation of a particular outcome but rather with the action of a “goodwill.” Thus, consequences are irrelevant. Kant backs up his argument by appealing to two types of duties: perfect and imperfect. Perfect duties are those that logic demands, such as the maxim not to steal. If we don’t abide by the rule not to steal, then we logically cannot justify having property. Lying is another example. Without a rule against lying, then language itself, which rests upon implicit agreements to mean what we say, becomes meaningless.

Imperfect duties come from rules that must exist because they succumb to the universalizability principle. To be consistent, we must adopt certain behaviors as we wish them to occur in others. Kant claims that we can see, by empirical observation, that, just as one would expect others to deliver aid when one is in need, thus we must aid others when they are in need—i.e., the Golden Rule.

Kant alleges that he gets to these moral principles by reason alone. He makes a convincing argument, but there are questions without satisfactory solutions. One prime example is the problem of conflicting duties, such as when the duty not to lie would require us to aid a murderous pursuer looking for his prey, should we happen to know where his potential victim is hiding. Some philosophers have suggested that perhaps certain duties outweigh others (the duty not to abet a murder, for instance, outweighs the duty not to lie), but numerous problematic cases can be imagined that make such weightings Byzantine.

Nonetheless, recent studies indicate that the Golden Rule is naturalistically based. Studies of culture among apes and other animals have shown that reciprocal altruism abounds in the natural world. This makes a certain amount of sense. If one’s species is to survive, one has to help one’s fellow monkey, armadillo, human, etc. Certainly, there are common-sense exceptions. But it is generally acceptable to most children once they develop the psychological capacity for empathy and can envision themselves in the shoes of another. “Now how would you feel, Sally/Billy, if X did Y to you?”

Acting to Maximize Happiness

This approach is the most familiar and friendly to your average secular humanist. Under the general banner of “utilitarianism,” consequentialist moral systems focus on the net effect of our acts to determine their moral value. As a full-fledged theory, it can be traced back to British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Mill is credited with updating utilitarianism and giving it a more humanistic bent. At the core of utilitarianism is the notion that the goal of all moral behavior is to maximize happiness generally. This certainly seems to be a commonsensical criterion for our day-to-day ethical and moral judgments. When we make everyday decisions about how to act, we often ask ourselves: what will be the consequences for the people I care about? Will this make so-and-so happy? This is called the “utilitarian calculus” and can become rather complex.

One of the shortcomings of utilitarianism is the difficulty in assessing the results of any particular action. How many people will become happier due to a particular action and to what degree? Moreover, in utilitarianism’s original formulation, there is no distinction among types of happiness. Does it involve simple bodily pleasures? Are some pleasures better, objectively, than others? Mill values intellectual and aesthetic pleasures above “base” bodily pleasures, but on what basis can he make that distinction hold?

Another significant problem with utilitarianism is that it can justify certain situations that none of us would countenance if carried to their logical extreme. The most common example is the utilitarian justification for enslaving a small segment of a population if the overall happiness of a society could be increased. There are much worse examples. One response is that, instead of making utilitarian calculations on a case-by-case basis, we should devise general rules of behavior that, when followed, tend to increase happiness. This, again, is both complicated and difficult to base philosophically on firm ground. Ultimately, many utilitarians have to ground their ethical judgments not upon the utilitarian calculus but upon some deontological judgments, such as, that happiness is itself good.

The Role of Metaethics

So where does that leave us in devising moral modes of behavior and in educating our children about right and wrong? When such divergent ethical theories exist and are abided to some degree by most people, what does this say about their truth or use? I think it demonstrates that there is something to ethics. There is a real grounding for our making ethical judgments. Despite divergent theories of the basis for that grounding, we tend to come to similar conclusions in all but the toughest cases about what we should or should not do. The only remaining unsolved question is the one that two-year-olds habitually and rightly ask as budding philosophers: “Why?”

The “why” is very important, and remains fertile ground for investigation. As free inquirers interested in understanding the world, we cannot stop asking this question. While we may be able to derive some good normative ethical rules, we cannot stop there. We must always ask ourselves whether those rules make sense. To do anything less would be to fall into the trap of dogmatic thinking, and to reject the use of philosophy in ordinary life. Free inquiry demands that we put to the test, on a regular basis, our judgments and those of others, always asking what the operative principles are. Let’s encourage this in ourselves and our children, because it is truly the stuff of reason, and quintessentially human.

David Koepsell is the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.

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