Observations on “Secular Morality”

In the video a system of morality called “secular morality” is presented. This conception has as its foundation the dialectical pair “well-being/harm” – and the object is to maximize well-being and avoid harm. To label actions as “moral” and “immoral” (good/bad) according to this morality, a “moral triangle” is presented, consisting of the points “intent”, “well-being/harm” and (moral) “rights/values”. An action is given the label moral if the intent is to cause well-being, the consequence is well-being, and no moral rights or values are violated. An immoral action is just the opposite.

There are three points to the critique I give here: intent, rights/values and well-being. Given that the whole basis of the morality is well-being/harm, we have some objections and questions to how and why intent and rights/values make their way into a system of labelling actions according to this morality. Lastly, such a system will have to rely on a clear and specific understanding of well-being, but such an understanding seems so far to be lacking.

The presentation deserves one’s attention because of the healthy consistency in its framework. It has a wider scope than presented here, making clearer a lot of points on morality issues in general.

Free will

Animals not possessing our level of consciousness were in the presentation said to be exempt from the concept of secular morality, since they do not have awareness of their actions causing harm. Therefore, one cannot say they have intent to cause harm, and this part of the triangle is not satisfied. However, perhaps too much value is being put on being conscious about something; a bias of european philosophy, which has usually depended on free will. The main argument against theistic morality is logical inconsistency: the connections cannot be proved. But if the lack of proof is a reason for disbelief, the fact that free will probably cannot be proved (please give it a try!) means it should also be disbelieved.

If there is no free will, however, what is the essential difference between being conscious or unconscious about something? The want to cause harm comes then just as natural and irrevocable as the tiger’s desire to kill its prey. The only difference is that in some thing that is called consciousness the thought “this will cause harm” occurs, but such a thought does not influence whether or not the action will be carried out. In the traditional sense, one separates between conscious and unconscious actions in that the former can be controlled, while the latter we have no control over. Without free will, this is not the case: in this sense, the attribute is as meaningless as the colour of the hair. What does the consciousness add to the equation, if the eventual choice is determined by external factors?

The general reason for forgiving people who were “insane” at the moment of action is that they could not control and prevent it, and it is unjust to hold them accountable then, but the man who does an action consciously chooses it no more than the sick chooses his disease, assuming there is no free will. All the traditional concepts of justice and deserve should then be abandoned.


Even with free will, the point of intent is not clear from considerations concerning only well-being/harm. Is not the harm/well-being of an event or actions independent of the intent, in many cases? Then should not intent only be included in as much as it affects well-being/harm?

With that said, intent can still be placed in such a triangle, if one is to have one. This deserves some explanation though, for it is not obvious. Actually, having intent in the triangle is “obvious” for most people, but this follows from preconceived notions of values and principles, and not from this “secular morality”. I can only assume that the goal of morality is not just to place empty labels on events and actions, but to give some direction to follow (of course not by duty or demand, but desire and/or choice), and therefore the different labels should prescribe different reactions and measures. It is fruitful to divide such a morality as this into two scales: social and personal. The social scale covers society; how to organize and behave in society as a whole. Personal scale is one’s own internal life and choices. Clearly, such a separation implies that laws and social norms should not be very restrictive on private life, and this is necessary to achieve well-being.

On the social scale, intent is important in the sense that to achieve well-being (or simply to avoid harm), one should respond differently to an, by the knowledge possessed by the involved, unavoidable accident than to a conscious act. On the personal scale one can apply the same argument. Even more subtle, but all the more important, is our natural differentiation of these cases, and to achieve well-being for the self, is it not to follow our inner flows? This point I fear is underestimated and misunderstood in general, and it deserves more attention than I can give it here…

Now the redemption of intent has been achieved only through considering well-being/harm, which was in fact the whole definition for the morality, and therefore I was surprised to find intent in a triangle. For if the importance of intent in this morality follows only from well-being/harm (and what else could it possible follow from, since this is the whole foundation!), then should it be a point of its own? – should not at least this connection be explained?

Rights and values

It is not possible that a right or value is being violated without being detrimental to well-being when it is the only possible basis of formulating rights and values. And in a moral system where the foundation is simply based on well-being/harm, abstract rights and values do not exist on their own, but are merely formulations of general ways to think/behave in order to maximize well-being (or avoid harm – is this the same?). To consider whether or not a right/value is violated by an action would then require to consider the well-being/harm caused by the action, rendering the point of rights/values in essence useless; – in practice it only has the function of a shortcut.

The only way to include rights and values I can imagine at the moment (not that my limited imagination should be an argument for anything) is to claim that while some single actions done by some individuals do not cause harm, it would be harmful for society if such actions were allowed in general. Some milder version of the categorical imperative. It may still be some particular cases where breaking the right would result in the greatest amount of well-being, and thus be a moral action by the foundation of morality, which presents some dilemma.

For instance, it may be the case that more well-being than harm can be achieved by stealing (say, if the thief “needs” it, and the victim is someone or some organization too big to even notice what was lost), but if everyone did it, it would cause more harm than well-being. Depending on how well-being should be measured, one may find that some, by common standards, harsh actions are morally right. It will cause a lot more well-being than harm if one decided that Bill Gates only needs, say, 0.01% of his wealth, and the rest should be taken from him to help the poor. The only harm caused is to his feeling of attachment to numbers in a bank account. Going on like this, one may eventually even justify murder, and not only in the case of self-defense or military service (the old collision of Crime and Punishment).

There is also the difficulty of formulating general rights that actually truly follow the well-being criteria on a deeper, personal level, simply for all the wealth of different people and situations. Most actions that can be formulated purely on well-being/harm would fall outside the realm of any right or value. This presents the problem of measuring well-being or the lack thereof in individuals, which is an impossibility since the experience of it is subjective.


9 thoughts on “Observations on “Secular Morality”

  1. Concerning free will, I would argue that it is not necessary to account for in order to assess morality, if you are using the concept of morality to modify behaviors, as opposed to proposing an absolute morality. Obviously, in the absence of free will, an absolute morality is meaningless, if not immoral itself.

    I’m not sure what the confusion about intent is. You seem to be suggesting that intent to harm/benefit is not differentiable from harming or benefitting. This makes no sense to me, because if you going into a situation with the intention of causing well-being (or preventing harm), but fail and cause harm (or fail to prevent it), then were your actions immoral? Of course not.

    I’ll have to review the video in order to comment on values, but I will say that murder has been morally justified (at least to some), either in the form of arguments from self defense, or pre-emptive strike.

    May I ask if you’ve read The Righteous Mind yet? I am finishing it up, and I’m fairly certain that I’ll need to go through it again and take notes in order to really grasp it. Each section stands on the prior, until at the end, you have to call to mind the entire book to follow it. Makes my brain swell (not with pleasure) just thinking about it.


    • Having watched (part of) the video again, it is clear to me that you can replace Rights and Values with Ideology. That corner of the triangle is predicated on the question of if you want to live in a society that is moral. There are different routes to this morality, as can be shown by the political spectrum, for example. Each side pursues proportional financial reward for efforts, but the question of what construes proportional, and therefore what promotes the most well-being, is quite different. Hence differing morality. To the libertarian right, it is morally wrong to take what has been earned and distribute it to the needy, whereas to the socialist left, it is an imperative. As the video mentioned, this corner of the triangle is subjective.


      • If part of the triangle is subjective, the whole morality is rendered subjective again. But, if there are some ways that are better than others out of all these “routes”, would not this way be the most moral way; that is, the right way? If the well-being/harm part is not subjective, then can rights/values, formulated out of the principle of well-being, be subjective? There are plenty of ideologies that are detrimental to well-being, and one needs not drag out extremes as fascism to find example. It is probably the case that there are many ideologies practiced that are detrimental, only we do not have the luxury of hindsight yet. The problem with ideologies is that they assume there is some fixed way to achieve well-being, but if they are wrong then one is attempting to achieve a goal through means with which it cannot be reached. Like travelling to the moon with a bicycle.


    • “if you going into a situation with the intention of causing well-being (or preventing harm), but fail and cause harm (or fail to prevent it), then were your actions immoral? Of course not.”

      “Of course not” is not an argument. The foundation of the morality was “well-being/harm”, and it does not follow directly that intention carries weight. Could equally well have said: the action caused harm, so of course it is immoral. In the common conception of morality, as people understand and feel it (especially the latter, since people usually do not understand the nature of their morality), intention clearly is important, but the common conception of morality is not “Secular morality”, or any other system of morality that has been formulated. This was partly the point in the article “Morality and Reason”; moral choices come from some feeling, and indeed reason usually follows or defends some inner flows (to say it mystically).

      It is also important to add that intentions are not formed consciously, and only in extreme cases is the intent either well-being/harm. Usually the intention is to achieve something or satisfy some urge/inclination (inner flow again…) without considerations of well-being/harm. Such considerations are, if at all, added by reason later. In such cases, which are almost all cases, the criteria intent is senseless, and one is left only with the starting point: well-being/harm. Are all such actions to be labelled amoral then?

      The point I was trying to make about free will is that without it the concept of intention loses its common meaning. The most important difference between conscious and unconscious decisions disappears. Of course, I think we both agree on there not being any absolute morality. Even if there is free will and such a concept should exist, it is probably forever out of our reach.


  2. Alright, I’m going to focus on just one at a time, I think. Will be less confusing. And, you know, allow me to take breaks, eat, fill out job apps, etc.

    Free will, from my perspective, is not the view of everyone being an automaton. Free will is an illusion caused by our complexity – we can’t hope to keep track of all the factors which influence our being. Ultimately, we are a product of our genetic material and the environment we live and have lived in, from conception until now. At any given moment in time, a given input into the system which is you will produce a predictable (if you know all the variables) output. Intent comes into play when you consider that you (your consciousness) may affect you (your body as a whole). Your conscious awareness allows you to assess memories and intercept emotional responses, altering the output in a way that is identified as your personality.

    If you have a personality which is considered moral and brave, you may find yourself jumping onto rails to save someone. Society keeps moral norms so that individuals may develop personalities which will benefit the group as a whole (saving a stranger). Therefore, personalities which express the intent to harm are punished as morally wrong, in order to influence the personalities of that society toward the moral standard. We behave as if we have free will.

    With or without free will, the solution to good or bad intent is the same – a moral response. The difference, however, is that those of us who deny free will find it hard to hate those who defy morality. (Not really true, it’s easy as hell. Till you think about it. As per The Righteous Mind, intuitive response first, then reasoning.)

    Pardon the train of thought structure to this. I’ve never written down my thoughts on free will, even though I’ve intended (hah, intent) to. Consider it a first draft, and let me know if it makes sense.


    • I’ll let you know, it makes very much sense. I see a lot of my own thoughts on free will here! We have agreed more in our discussions than what I have perhaps given the impression of; I just find that saying “I agree” is not very helpful in extracting thoughts and points of view from either myself or others – and such an extraction is part of the point of this blog, both for us, the authors, to develop our own ideas further, as well as receiving useful input from others (these are of course not independent at all!).

      Perhaps I did not write it well at all, but your arguments for the importance of intent here (about personalities and the consciousness affecting the output) is, partly, what I was aiming at in my “redemption” of intent. On the “social scale”, because society, as you say, consciously or unconsciously rewards or encourages certain types of personalities and attitudes, and at the personal level because of how natural and intuitive it is to judge based on intuition.

      I generally find that people have a hard time considering the possibility of not having free will because they cannot imagine that we can be what we are without it. Lacking free will is somehow equated to being an automaton, which is in a sense true, but our common conception of automatons come from automatons humans have constructed. These do not approach the complexity of the human brains, and works on fewer and different kinds of input (e.g. not emotions). But still, the output is completely determined by the input – thus we are essentially automatons, but on a scale more complex than we can imagine.

      As for The Righteous Mind, I have not read it, but from what I have read about it, it seems like my kind of book. And the underlying ideas seems close to mine, that moral decisions and opinions etc. do not come from reason, but from something else (due to not having studied this except in my own mind, I lack the proper terminology), and reason then follows in second line, but not freely from its foundation. I tried to write some points about this in “Morality and Reason” – https://maximusandmagnus.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/morality-and-reason/


      • So, what you’re saying is that bringing up free will was fishing for differing opinions, mine not being one?

        You didn’t really confront my conclusion, that free will, or the lack thereof, is irrelevant to the application of secular morality. Perhaps that requires me to move on to the next section first.


        • Since I argued that my “problem” with intent stood regardless of free will or not, it would be natural to assume that I also found it “irrelevant” in this sense, but still an interesting point.

          Even if we have agreed on free will so far, I cannot assume that we agree on all points, so your opinions are greatly appreciated. I am not “fishing” for opinions, just trying to have a fruitful dialogue for all parts (aren’t we having one now? – You formulated your thoughts on free will for the first time, maybe that was useful also for you? – this is also a point of the blog: to get people to formulate their thoughts and become more aware of them).

          A point of discussing intent so much was exactly because it is “obvious”; as a mathematician I know that there are often great mistakes in the obvious. One must tread carefully to make sure that one does not argue from old philosophical and social bias and “gut feelings”; maybe, in order to achieve well-being, intent should be treated differently than commonly thought.


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