Secular morality is a false concept, giving the impression that this is somehow THE secular morality – the only morality a secular person can and should have. It is perhaps self-consistent as a moral system, and even beneficial if we can properly understand “well-being” and “harm” on all levels, not just the surface, but the basis of it is still just chosen, and it is not clear that one cannot choose something else. It is an artificial creation, just like a mathematical definition (which are usually made because “it embodies some property we want”), and it is based just on something “we want”. Sure, it does not claim to be absolute, but its name does: claiming to be the definite secular morality.
Unlike theistic morality, secular morality does not base itself on any absolute idea of morality that exists on its own, like the platonic idea of good, and it is only a system for achieving some set goal, that we have chosen (well-being). The impossibility of following an existing, abstract idea of good would not in any way refute its existence. But since the only purpose of inventing secular morality would be some usefulness of the concept (like in mathematics, one can make any definition one wants, and a definition cannot be “incorrect”, but it can be completely useless, and then there is no point of it), it has to take into account at least the practical reality. Such a morality should be contingent on our nature.
It is then a most worthy goal to understand our nature, and especially the nature of our convictions and moral choices, and of true well-being, which we know there is more to than having freedom, health and wealth. Our knowledge of these are polluted by old convictions and habits, and indeed even our reason is “polluted”, or generally not as free as we like to think. A system that requires rational deduction of consequences must take this into consideration.
The classical example would be when one “feels” something is right/wrong to do. In general, no amount of rationalization about the harm/well-being caused by the action will change this feeling. (This is clear from experience just by discussing with people, but if anecdotal evidence is not enough to convince you, it has been shown by experiments – see for instance the section “Inventing victims” in “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt). The feeling is experienced as a tension, as a subrational appeal to this or that action.
In a situation of choice it is usually the appeal that works, and the essence of this appeal is straightly connected to the essence of individual. The connection is so deep that it will, actually, cause harm to a person to do the act, which goes against the appeal, for such an act is usually felt as intuitively wrong. On a personal level, an intuitive feeling that something is wrong will make the act wrong, and a feeling that something is right will make it right.
“Why do they always teach us that it’s easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It’s the hardest thing in the world — to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage. I mean, what we really want.” ― Ayn Rand
The pleasant state of being one derives from good deeds do not come from the well-being caused to others (or the knowledge of it), but from the conviction of the goodness of the deed – deeds that cause well-being to others are generally labelled as good, but the converse do not hold. Adhering to any abstract principle will cause some state of satisfaction if one is convinced enough in the rightness of the principle.
The source of the appeal or conviction is irrelevant to the necessity of following for personal well-being, however, we know that forming and holding principles that are detrimental on several levels both to oneself and others is all too human (consider e.g. fanaticism and terrorism – usually rooted in strong convictions). As such, an investigation into how such principles are formed – and thereby discovering how one can strangle the spreading and forming of particular kinds of conviction – will not at all be wasted time.
Only the utter conviction in that deduction of harm/well-being of actions is the right morality will lead to true well-being for the person following this system. This conviction must be on a different plane – if not additional plane – than reason: In short, one must feel it – the conclusion must resonate in one’s core. The question whether such a moral conviction is at all natural and may be achieved in general can justifiably be raised. It may be the case that setting well-being/harm as the basis of a morality will take off in quite an opposite direction than this dry rationalism.
A discussion of whether or not the particular appeals or principles are “correct” or in accordance with this harm/well-being foundation is irrelevant to the persons holding them. The question is what should have precedence of individual or society – but for the individual this is not a real dilemma, as the answer for the individual is again given by an appeal.
So, then, should we just do what we want? The answer is a resounding Yes! But – what do we want? To achieve true well-being, this is the question one should ask oneself – and the answer is at not at all easy to find. There are different levels of want, and our mind and desires are affected by informational pollution and wants and wishes that are not ours’ – especially in the culture of consumption we live in.