Secular Ethics

I am about one-third of the way through Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon Books, 2019), of which more anon.

But I have been carrying around in my head for over seven months now my own build-it-from-scratch notion of ethics without God.  The impetus was a student pushing me in class last fall to sketch out the position—and then the book on Nietzsche’s “religion of life” that I discussed in my last post (way too long ago; here’s the link).

So here goes.  The starting point is: it is better to be alive than dead.  Ask one hundred people if they would rather live than die and 99 will choose life.

A fundamental value: to be alive.

First Objection:

Various writers have expressed the opinion that is best not to have been born since this life is just a constant tale of suffering and woe.  Life’s a bitch and then you die.

Here’s Ecclesiastes, beginning of Chapter 4:

“Next, I turned to look at all the acts of oppression that make people suffer under the sun. Look at the tears of those who suffer! No one can comfort them. Their oppressors have all the power. No one can comfort those who suffer. I congratulate the dead, who have already died, rather than the living, who still have to carry on. But the person who hasn’t been born yet is better off than both of them. He hasn’t seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

Here’s Sophocles’ version of that thought, from Oedipus at Colonus:

“Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came. For when he has seen youth go by, with its easy merry-making, [1230] what hard affliction is foreign to him, what suffering does he not know? Envy, factions, strife, battles, [1235] and murders. Last of all falls to his lot old age, blamed, weak, unsociable, friendless, wherein dwells every misery among miseries.”

And here is Nietzsche’s version, which he calls the “wisdom of Silenus” in The Birth of Tragedy:

“The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is to die soon.”

Second Objection:

As Hägglund argues, many religions are committed to the notion that being alive on earth is not the most fundamental good.  There is a better life elsewhere—a different thought than the claim that non-existence (not to have been born) would be preferable to life.

Response to Objections:

The rejoinder to the first two objections is that few people actually live in such a way that their conduct demonstrates an actual belief in non-existence or an alternative existence being preferable to life on this earth.  Never say never.  I would not argue that no one has ever preferred an alternative to this life.  But the wide-spread commitment to life and its continuance on the part of the vast majority seems to me enough to go on.  I certainly don’t see how that commitment can appear a weaker starting plank than belief in a divine prescriptor of moral rules.  I would venture to guess that the number of people who do not believe in such a god is greater than the number who would happily give up this life for some other state.

Third Objection:

There are obvious—and manifold—reasons to choose death over life under a variety of circumstances.  I think there are two different paths to follow in thinking about this objection.

Path #1:

People (all the time) have things that they value more than life.  They are willing (literally—it is crucial that it is literally) to die for those things.  Hence the problem of establishing “life” as the supreme value.  Rather, what seems to be the case is that life is an understood and fundamental value—and that we demonstrate the truly serious value of other things precisely by being willing to sacrifice life for those other things.  To put one’s life on the line is the ultimate way of showing where one’s basic commitments reside.  This is my basic take-away from Peter Woodford’s The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and its Critics (U of Chicago P, 2018; the book discussed in my last post.)  To use Agamben’s terms “bare life” is not enough; it will always be judged in relation to other values.  A standard will be applied to any life; its worth will be judged.  And in some cases, some value will be deemed of more worth than life—and life will be sacrificed in the name of that higher value.  In other words, “life” can not be the sole value.

I am resolutely pluralist about what those higher values might be that people are willing to sacrifice life for.  My only point is that an assumed value of life provides the mechanism (if you will) for demonstrating the value placed on that “other” and “higher” thing.  In other words, the fact (gift?) of life—and the fact of its vulnerability and inevitable demise (a big point for Hägglund, to be discussed in next post)—establishes a fundamental value against which other values can be measured and displayed.  Without life, no value. (A solecism in one sense.  Of course, if no one was alive, there would be no values.  But the point is also that there would be no values if life itself was not valued, at least to some extent.) Placing life in the balance enables the assertion of a hierarchy of values, a reckoning of what matters most.

Path #2:

It is possible not only to imagine, but also to put into effect, conditions that make life preferable to death.  As Hannah Arendt put it, chillingly, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the Nazis, in the concentration camps and elsewhere, were experts in making life worse than death. Better to be dead than to suffer various forms of torture and deprivation.

I want to give this fact a positive spin.  If the first plank of a secular ethics is “it is better to be alive than dead,” then the second to twentieth planks attend to the actual conditions on the ground required to make the first plank true.  We can begin to flesh out what “makes a life worth living,” starting with material needs like sufficient food, water, and shelter, and moving on from there to things like security, love, education, health care etc.  We have various versions of the full list from the UN Declaration of Rights to Martha Nussbaum’s list of “capabilities.”

“Bare life” is not sufficient; attending to life leads quickly to a consideration of “quality” of life.  A secular ethics is committed, it seems to me, to bringing about a world in which the conditions for a life worth living are available to all.  The work of ethics is the articulation of those conditions.  That articulation becomes fairly complex once some kind of base-line autonomy—i.e. the freedom of individuals to decide for themselves what a life worth living looks like—is made a basic condition of a life worth living.  [Autonomy is where the plurality of “higher values” for which people are willing to sacrifice life comes in.  My argument would be 1) no one should be able to compel you to sacrifice life for their “higher value” and 2) you are not allowed to compel anyone to sacrifice life for your “higher value.”  But what about sacrificing your goods—through taxes, for example?  That’s much trickier and raises thorny issues of legitimate coercion.]

It seems to me that a secular ethics requires one further plank.  Call it the equality principle.  Simply stated: no one is more entitled to the basic conditions of a life worth living than anyone else.  This is the minimalist position I have discussed at other times on this blog.  Setting a floor to which all are entitled is required for this secular ethics to proceed.

What can be the justification for the equality principle?  Some kind of Kantian universalism seems required at this juncture.  To state it negatively: nothing in nature justifies the differentiation of access to the basic enabling conditions of a life worth living.  To state it positively: to be alive is to possess an equal claim to the means for a life worth living.

Two complications immediately arise: 1. Is there any way to justify inequalities above the floor?  After every one has the minimal conditions met, must there be full equality from there?  2.  Can there be any justification for depriving some people, in certain cases, of the minimum? (The obvious example would be imprisonment or other deprivations meted out as punishments.)

Both of these complications raise the issue of responsibility and accountability.  To what extent is the life that people have, including the quality of that life, a product of their prior choices and actions?  Once we grant that people have the freedom to make consequential choices, how do we respond to those consequences?  And when is society justified in imposing consequences that agents themselves would strive to evade?

No one said ethics was going to be easy.  Laws and punishments are not going to disappear.  Democracy is meant to provide a deliberative process for the creation of laws and sanctions—and to provide the results of those deliberations with legitimacy.

All I have tried to do in this post is to show where a secular ethics might begin its deliberations—without appealing to a divine source for our ethical intuitions or for our ethical reasonings.

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