Making Society Run: Secular Ethics

A few posts back, I briefly said something about my thought that ethics, or morals, in religion were not really morals. Or, rather, that religious based morality isn’t really morality. And I said I’d expand on that sometime. So, here are my thoughts.

Every religion in history includes a moral code of some sort, whether the ancient Greek codes of no human sacrifice and hospitality or the more recent Judeo-Christian-Muslim code that includes respect for one’s parents. On the surface, these look like good moral codes. The faiths look like the source of morality.

But, I argue, they aren’t.

The moral codes are good and all, but the faiths are not the source of morality. They are a reaffirmation of self interest. Why? Because every religion out there backs up its “moral code” with a system of rewards and punishments: if you do the good thing, you’ll get rewarded in the afterlife (or when you’re reincarnated); conversely, if you do the bad thing, you’re looking at an eternity of punishment. This is not morality.

True morality is doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing, not because of an expectation (unconscious or otherwise) of reward. True morality is not doing the wrong thing simply because it is the wrong thing, not because of an expectation (unconscious or otherwise) of punishment.

But, perhaps the reward-punishment effect can create morality.


Why not? Because as soon as the rewarder-punisher is removed (or belief in said being is removed), then there is no longer a reason to do the right thing or avoid doing the wrong thing. The sense of right and wrong has been replaced with a subconscious reward-punishment cycle, that fails when the punisher is removed.

All this said, ethics and morals are, in a way, social constructs. That is, without society (multiple people living together) there is no need for morality or ethics. Therefore, morals and ethics are basically cultural, but there are some universals that all societies need to function (anti-theft, anti-murder, anti-assault). After the universals, morals and ethics are based on cultural values.

This also ties into writing and worldbuilding. Considering morals and ethics as social constructs brings up the questions: What does society need to function? What does society value? What does society think it needs to function beyond the basics?

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