Saturday, October 18, 2014

Secular Morality

In my Intro to Philosophy class freshman year, my philosophy professor gave us a thought experiment (he did not make up this thought experiment; it is a standard thought experiment in philosophy of ethics):

Two siblings, brother and sister, go on vacation together to France.  They are having a good time and decide, why don't we have sex?  The sister is on birth control, and the brother wears a condom just in case.  They decide they will only do it this one time, and they won't tell anyone, it will just be their secret.  Afterward, they enjoy it and feel it even brought them closer, but they decide not to do it again.  Is what they did wrong?

Evidently the thought experiment is getting at, what is wrong with incest?  If it is consensual and has no risk of pregnancy and child deformity, do we really have any reason to claim it is morally wrong?  The implication that the moral nihilist would make is that our conception of right and wrong are simply ingrained evolutionary emotional attitudes toward some actions.  Actions in and of themselves are not right/wrong, and therefore, though we might react with repudiation at this thought experiment, we have no grounds for claiming that incest in all cases is wrong.  Clearly in this case, it is not wrong.

I propose that this conclusion is only possible in a secular society.  Our commonplace conception of right and wrong are incompatible with secularism.  Secularism replaces our commonplace conceptions with only two things that may be universally agreed to be wrong.  These are the only "secular sins":
1) An act that is not consensual
2) An act which is bad for your health

Think about the only things that are indisputably wrong.  Rape is universally accepted as wrong simply because it is not consensual, but a book like 50 Shades of Grey that portrays sado-masochistic sex is popularized and widely accepted.  Smoking or other addictive drugs are considered wrong because we have garnered enough evidence to suppose they are bad for your health, but substances like steroids or marijuana are fine despite the psychological addiction; alcohol is fine despite the fact that many people can't relax and socialize without it.  Sex without contraception is wrong because you might give or get an STI, but otherwise premarital sex is seen almost as essential to life.  One might even be able to make an argument that abortion is not wrong because the couple or the woman did not really "consent" to have a baby.

We as Christians are going down the dubious path of redefining our moral considerations in terms of these secular sins.  Think about any time you had to defend your reason for thinking something is wrong.  Did you appeal to one or both of these principles?  But that is not what Christianity is about.

(I would add that there might be a third "secular sin," a sort of "sin of omission": not making money.  There are plenty of people and industries that make money in dishonorable ways, but if they are productive members of the economy, then they are doing a good to society, who are we to question them.   But if you are not economically successful, you are being a burden to society, and you are looked down upon.  But that is more debatable and is perhaps a result of capitalism and not necessarily secularism.)

The case where these two principles are in conflict is euthenasia (assisted suicide), and that is why it is still a disputed issue.  On the one hand, it is consensual.  On the other hand, someone is dying, albeit to end pain and suffering, so it is clearly "bad" for someone's health.  What further objective reasons can one give for considering assisted suicide wrong in a secular society?  To say it is wrong would mean to appeal to a whole different level of inherent sanctity or value of human life for which secularism itself is not sufficient ground.

I am not saying secularism is wrong.  I would say that Christianity necessitates secularism.  We as Christians believe it is unreasonable to expect non-Christians to live according to Christian standards, otherwise, what would be the point in baptism or communion?  If we had that expectation, we would be denying the necessity of Christ.  We also believe that faith should be freely chosen.  But I am saying that secularism as we know it in America only allows for nothing more than these two moral claims to be universally made.

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