For most people throughout the world and throughout time, being good has been related to belief in God. God defined what is good and evil, and offered positive or negative incentives for following his decrees. But in our secular western society, what is ‘good’ and what is the motive for being good?
Approaches to secular ethics
The most common secular approach (utilitarianism) is pragmatic. Whatever achieves the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people is the ethical course. There are various ways proposed to compute this benefit – for example happiness (however that might be estimated), preference or desire. Some people regard utilitarian ethics as personal, but others see it as a social contract whereby we all agree on certain behaviour standards and sanctions because that creates a more harmonious society.
However there are several problems with this approach, including:
- Utilitarianism makes ethics subjective – i.e. right and wrong could assessed differently by different people and communities – whereas humans seem to instinctively think that some things (e.g. the Holocaust, pedophilia and genocide) really are wrong. (i.e. ethics are objective).
- Utilitarian ethics aren’t really ethics as such – i.e. they don’t tell us what we ‘should’ do, only what we might choose to do if we were inclined.
- It is practically difficult, if not impossible, to compute the benefits that might accrue following different choices.
- It is hard to develop a process of assessing benefits that doesn’t allow some outcomes that we instinctively ‘know’ are immoral – e.g. sacrificing one person’s happiness for the sake of the majority.
Peter Singer is an Australian ethicist who is a well known advocate for animal rights because he applies his ‘preference utilitarianism’ to all forms of sentient life. However at a recent (May 2011) conference he discussed ethics with a group of christian ethicists, and admitted that he was reconsidering his utilitarianism.
One of the issues which challenged his utilitarianism most was climate change, because:
- Combatting climate change may require reducing population growth, which would mean less people to enjoy their preferences, which is contrary to preference utilitarianism. He doesn’t doubt that may be the best strategy, but the point is that it isn’t a strategy that preference utilitarianism would recommend.
- The benefits of climate change action now would be several generations into the future, making the benefits problematic. Again, it is clear that we ‘should’ consider these benefits, but again, utilitarianism struggles to do so.
For these reasons, Singer confesses in the new edition of his book, Practical Ethics:
I have found myself unable to maintain with any confidence that the position I took in the previous edition – based solely on preference utilitarianism – offers a satisfactory answer to these quandaries.
Furthermore, after discussion with christian ethicists he admits that christian ethics has some advantages, and faith in a good God is the only way to provide a complete answer to the question, why act morally? Thus, while he is not considering converting, he is leaning towards accepting moral objectivity.