In the first part of this two-part essay, I tried to define morality as being a code of behavior. I also tried to limit that code to behavior toward ourselves and toward other humans. This necessarily takes animals and gods out of the equation. Some might disagree, but my search is for an absolute morality, or at least a universal morality for humans that is not derived from any divine commandments. Since behavior toward animals and gods is highly subjective and relative to our environments and culture as well as our attitude toward such creatures, I do not think that we could ever all agree upon a code of behavior that included those creatures.
Certainly, a segment of humanity believes that animals have, or should have, rights, possibly even the same rights that civilized nations accord their human citizens. While I do not advocate cruelty to animals and have owned and loved animals as pets, I still eat animal flesh and have no plans to discontinue this practice, so if you wish to include animals in your own personal morality, I am fine with that, for you!
I have to also exclude gods and other supernatural creatures from being beneficiaries of any sort of absolute (i.e. universal) morality. This of course presumes that a deity does not make His or Her existence and wishes known to modern humans in a very direct and indisputable manner. Personally, I do not believe that such an event is likely, and is most likely impossible. Claims of past appearances lack a certain amount of credibility. OK, I think that most all claimants were human and were either insane or working a con game. Could be wrong, but I need evidence before I would be willing to believe in such beings, let alone accept their other-worldly directives. And without belief, I cannot consider as candidates for a universal morality any actions or inactions that involve supernatural beings.
Worshipping a specific god, taking the name of a god in vain, maintaining a specific day as that god’s holy day, all of these are moral to specific religions and are meaningless to all who do not share a belief in that deity.
So I came to the conclusion in Part 1 that the best candidate for an absolute or universal morality would be to “do no harm to other humans.”
Fairly innocuous, I think, and a concept that I think most everyone should be able to agree with. But does that idea go far enough? Should there be something more, something of a more active moral imperative? After all, simply standing still and doing nothing does no harm. However, inaction could certainly result in harm. What about a moral imperative to prevent harm? Perhaps even a command to promote life or liberty or happiness?
Unfortunately, while these may be good ideas, they begin to enter the realm of relative actions.
Suppose, for example, that we have a healthy adult man driving home from work, and he passes a house that is on fire. Stopping, he does what most of us in today’s modern technological society would do: he calls 911 on his cell phone and reports the fire to the proper authorities. In most modern cities, he can now be reasonably confident that the fire department, with trained and well-equipped personnel, will arrive soon and deal with the fire.
But while he is sitting in his car waiting for the fire department to arrive and watching the fire, he hears the screams of children trapped inside the burning house…
Now, he is faced with serious choices. If he does nothing, perhaps the fire department will arrive in time to get inside and rescue the children, but perhaps they will not arrive in time and the children will die.
On the other hand, he is one man, he is not trained for this; nor is he equipped with any sort of breathing apparatus or protective gear. If he goes in, he faces the possibility that he will fail and not only will the children die, but so might he.
We all arguably hope that if we were faced with such a situation that we would have the courage to attempt to rescue the children. Certainly in such a case we would be acting in a positive manner to “prevent harm to other humans”. A good candidate for an absolute morality?
Maybe, maybe not. The children are not his. The house is not his. He does not know the children or their parents or even one of their relatives or friends. They are complete strangers. On the other hand, our Samaritan is married, he has children of his own, and they depend upon the presence of their father for their sustenance and support. By entering the house and dying, the man causes great future harm to his own family.
Perhaps he succeeds in rescuing the children in the burning house, but suffers crippling injuries in doing so. Now, he deprives his own family of a productive father and husband, and he adds to their burden by being alive, but hurt and requiring constant care perhaps for many years.
So altruism and courage come with a price, and the “goodness” of certain actions may outweigh, or be outweighed by the potential consequences.
Of course, if faced with such a situation and having only seconds to react, we will most likely react according to our own individual instincts. Some of us will head for the front door of the house and make every human effort possible to rescue the children; others will freeze and be unable to act; others will weight the consequences and opt to wait for the fire department; sadly, some will turn their cell phone into a camera and simply take pictures to put on Facebook or YouTube later.
Regardless, I am not sure that we can condemn or praise our subject no matter what he does or does not do. Perhaps, one might want to know just how far along the fire is before making a decision here. Is the house even accessible or has the fire made entry for even the equipped and trained virtually impossible?
No matter how you look at this situation, it becomes a matter of relative morality, not absolute.
So maybe we modify the moral imperative and say that one should “prevent harm to other humans WHENEVER POSSIBLE”. Or perhaps to take a note from the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (and other programs based on the Steps), we can add “EXCEPT WHEN TO DO SO WOULD INJURE THEM OR OTHERS”.
This, to me, does become somewhat unwieldy, but I think that if we are to consider adding to our initial moral imperative, then we are automatically adding complexity. Complexity means modification. It also means that we need to consider this more of a universal morality than an absolute morality. After all, if the morality is absolute, then we should not need to add modifiers or qualifications.
So here would be my suggestions for a secular humanist universal morality—a code of behavior toward self and other humans:
1) Do no harm to other humans
2) Prevent harm from coming to other humans except when doing so would hurt or injure them or other humans.
Now, as for this suggested morality being based in science, I would say that of course it is. In terms of humanity’s evolutionary development, we survived and thrived because teamwork and unity overcame the physical disadvantages of being a creature without large fangs, powerful limbs, claws, or great speed. The intelligence and cleverness for making weapons and tools are meaningless without a group dynamic for taking advantage of these assets. We see this in other primates, especially chimps and bonobos, our closest cousins!
Fair enough? Do we need to go even farther, or have we gone too far? Is a secular humanist morality detailed enough or too detailed? Can we have such a thing without resorting to supernatural directives?
I think we can, and we should!