What are some moral principles that a secularist can base a moral system on?

Additionally, is there a coherent reason to adopt these principles?

For example, anyone regardless of religion, philosophy, or lack thereof can realize it is good to be kind to their friends. Most people like to help out others to one degree or another. Most people would rather be kind than cruel. What sort of principle underlies these moral observations, e.g. do unto others what you would have them do unto you? Why should someone live consistently with such a principle, as opposed to only doing so when they feel like it? For example, a person may believe that moral relativism is not a good thing, and they are being a moral relativist if they are not principled.

  • The mid 20th century Euro existentialists (Camus, Satre, etc.) seem to me to be mostly concerned about how to build a moral framework without supernatural help.
    – obelia
    May 6, 2014 at 4:06
  • @obelia Recursive confusion. Supernatural is not needed even in religion, since everything is anyway a reflection of man. Supernatural is needed only to affirm or to seal the dogmas of moral as correct and accepted. But the ideas are all human. In existentialism those who exist have to do this dirty job of gods and boldly set the rules of moral. Simple, do not need gods be god yourself.
    – Asphir Dom
    May 6, 2014 at 17:08
  • @Obelia: Sartre seems, from what little I know, to advocate the creation of new values from the self following Nietzsche; but Camus, if the Outsider, is any clue, seems to doubt that as a real, self-sustaining possibility. May 7, 2014 at 3:38
  • Why do you want there to be a secular moral system? What good is it, why is it needed? Do you believe that there are things people ought to do or not do, and if so, why? Your own answer to that should be the start of discovering such a foundation for morality.
    – ErikE
    Mar 12, 2016 at 17:59

5 Answers 5


I think you have to look at it by different schools of thought:

1) Ayn Rand is a well known for believing in an objective moral truth while not believing in a higher power. From the Wikipedia article:

Objectivism's central tenets are that reality exists independent of consciousness, that human beings have direct contact with reality through sense perception, that one can attain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive logic, that the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness (rational self-interest), that the only social system consistent with this morality is one that displays full respect for individual rights embodied in laissez-faire capitalism, and that the role of art in human life is to transform humans' metaphysical ideas by selective reproduction of reality into a physical form—a work of art—that one can comprehend and to which one can respond emotionally.

In such a world view, it is not obvious that "to help out others to one degree or another" is necessarily the moral thing to do.

2) Closely related would be a morality based on the two works of Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Together, they argue for a laizzes-faire that acknowledges what many observe: that we generally want to see others be better off:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

3) A utilitarian might come to a similar conclusion as you (that it is generally good to be nice to others), but it would depend on an individual's perceived utility curves. For example, depending on those curves, a utilitarian may come to the conclusion: "Do unto others as others would do unto you up until this point".

4) Marx is an obvious example of a secular morality. In that world view, it's not so much "Do unto others..." as it is looking at what sort of things are owed to different people based on their class (labor is due certain things, current owners of capital are due their come-uppance, etc.)

5) I haven't read too much Richard Dawkins, but from what I have read he seems to present a world view that is different in some ways but related to the above. He believes in a very empirically based view on everything. Something exists if (1) you observe it with your senses, (2) you observe it through something that heightens your senses (such as a telescope or microscope), or (3) you can create a model for it based on (1) or (2). From that as a starting principle, you can deduce your world, including moral principles.

6) Descartes is a potentially interesting example as well. In his statement "I think, therefore I am," he does not take a higher being as his initial principle, but rather he takes his own cognition as the starting principle and derives God. This makes it, in some sense, a "secular" morality, in that traditional theological moralities (such as that of Augustine, Aquinas, etc.) take a divine power as the starting point, not the person.

So, I think these are few different schools of thought of a secular basis for moral reasoning.

  • I'm not a Randian, but I have gone quickly through her virtues of selfishness, and she does make the point that there are situations where one must help - so though not obvious, it appear that there is that component to her thinking. May 7, 2014 at 3:35
  • As far as I can tell, none of these principles you list provide any basis for compunction. The fundamental nature of something being moral is that one ought to do it. How can any of these be a true foundation for morality without positing a compulsion to follow them?
    – ErikE
    Mar 12, 2016 at 17:44

The driving forces of sympathy and desire can transcend human-made rules and principles - and may take their place in their absence.

A human being stripped of religion and philosophy is left with desires. Desires can be constant in their presence and they can also be impulsive in their intensity.

Desires are self-centric and fan outwards. Independently of moral strictures the self will tend to benefit the non-self in gratification of the self. This is amplified in a context where the non-self is either inherently attractive to the self or where the assistance of the non-self may be of benefit for the self (selfish altruism).

(A few classic examples. A male going out of his way to assist a female in distress (a flat tyre for instance). A restaurateur going out of his way to please a table of clearly affluent guests. The acts provide personal satisfaction and/or improve the odds of gaining the favour of the person(s) in question.

The human being is a social being. To gain the approval of one's peers one will at times contradict principles that one holds to be true and/ or desirable. Perhaps halfheartedly, perhaps not. Perhaps driven by fear of rejection or ridicule. Perhaps driven by a greater trust.

Humans, particularly those of a more mature age or inclination, are more at home with the familiar - with stability - and this is where consistency can be practiced as a means of satisfying this desire. However you will find that even those who live by consistency will at least desire to make exceptions.

(An example of such is a person who may consistently advocate a particular penalty for a particular transgression - but who desires to make an exception for a familiar person - in such cases it may be desirable to review the proposed penalty in question if it be so harsh that one would not feel at peace to apply it universally)

  • Not bad. By "principle" I don't mean something people arbitrarily come up with, but more like how we learn scientific rules and try to live consistent with those rules so our lives work better.
    – yters
    May 5, 2014 at 7:51
  • OK - so (if I am not misunderstanding) you are seeking further variables (building blocks - individual principles) with which to formulate a moral system of sorts independently of established religious and philosophical systems. Does this sound about right?
    – Avestron
    May 5, 2014 at 9:12
  • Would 'selfishness' and a fear of 'disappearing forever' ( after death) prompt someone to steal to get 'luxeries' and 'live it up' before the 'inevitable'?
    – user128932
    Sep 30, 2014 at 4:38
  • @user128932 Not necessarily, although such a fear might cause a person to stop thinking clearly both about their predicament as well as their place in the universe.
    – Avestron
    Oct 1, 2014 at 18:46
  • 1
    @user128932 I have been seeking to work within the example context provided but I trust that you are aware that not everybody of a secular background fears death. Granted, an optimistic view of one's relationship to the universe beyond life is helpful - but even in the absence of such, behaviour that undermines personal value sets (lets call alcoholism/ addiction an example of self-indulgence) is far from guaranteed. However I will readily concede that losing reasons to behave appropriately (fear of consequences to one's actions for instance) would increase the tendency of immorality.
    – Avestron
    Oct 3, 2014 at 19:52

My answer is going to cover Objectivism, which not sufficiently explained above, and point out some problems with what you have written that weren't picked up in other answers. Objectivism, as explained by Ayn Rand, provides a secular moral philosophy that answers your questions. Objectivism claims that morality is a set of values that should "guide man’s choices and actions".

You say:

For example, anyone regardless of religion, philosophy, or lack thereof can realize it is good to be kind to their friends. Most people like to help out others to one degree or another. Most people would rather be kind than cruel. What sort of principle underlies these moral observations, e.g. do unto others what you would have them do unto you?

What you have said here is very vague. People "like to help others"? Most people would also recognise you shouldn't help others indiscriminately. For example, if you are in a DIY store and a person asks you which is the strongest brand of duct tape, you might help that person if he is doing home repairs. But if the person starts explaining that he needs the duct tape to keep quiet the small children locked in his cellar, then you shouldn't help him.

Also, "do unto others what you would have them do unto you" is hopelessly vague since it doesn't explain what counts as similar treatment. For example, suppose a woman wants to get an abortion. An advocate of abortion might say the abortion should be allowed since she wouldn't want to be forced to carry a baby she doesn't want. An anti-abortionist could say that if she were the mother, she would want to carry the baby to term and so the abortion should not be allowed. There is another problem: the question of whose interests count here. Anti-abortionists would say that the foetus has interests that should be respected by forbidding abortion. Pro-abortionists would say the foetus is not alive in the same way as a person and so should not be treated as a person.

According to Objectivism, you should try to judge what to do by the standard of what will benefit you. You should work out what values can be achieved in reality, and act on them. This leads Objectivism to advocate the Trader Principle: you should only want to deal with others on the basis of offering value for value. Objectivism holds that a foetus is not a person, so you can't deal with it for mutual benefit. In addition, pregnancy places heavy restrictions on what a woman can do for several months. So pregnancy doesn't benefit the woman or her partner unless they are undertaken voluntarily to get a baby that is considered of greater value than the inconvenience. So abortion should be legal.

  • The problem with objectivism is that it can't offer any "oughtness" and so is not a moral framework. It merely claims by fiat what one should do, but it is far from supportable that there is actually any compunction on anyone to do so. It may make good arguments about rationality, but those really amount to nothing more than self-interest. And where is the compulsion to never act against one's own interests?
    – ErikE
    Mar 12, 2016 at 17:41
  • Objectivism does not claim by fiat that you should act in a particular way. It explains why you should act that way: aynrandlexicon.com/ayn-rand-ideas/the-objectivist-ethics.html. You say Objectivism moral arguments "amount to nothing more than self-interest". Most people are extremely bad at acting in their self interest. To get to the point of acting in your self interest is a major achievement. You ask about "compulsion" never to act against your self interest. Acting under compulsion isn't acting in your self interest, so your question contains a contradiction.
    – alanf
    Mar 12, 2016 at 21:18
  • Wait. Does not objectivism boil down to "you should act X way because you'll like the results more"? Isn't it an instruction manual in what self-interest consists of? I fail to see how the degree of difficulty of truly acting in self-interest pertains to whether one ought to act in self-interest. On the contrary, your own comments contain a contradiction because you use the words you should, but deny acting under compulsion. Shouldness is compulsion! Where does that come from? Why should anyone act any way? There are lots of hard things in the world that no one should do.
    – ErikE
    Mar 12, 2016 at 21:27
  • You are assuming without argument that morality requires compulsion, and you are wrong. Morality is just about how to make choices. Making choices doesn't require compulsion.
    – alanf
    Mar 13, 2016 at 1:16
  • "Morality is just about how to make choices"? You make choices by picking something and then acting toward it. That isn't morality—morality is saying what choices you should pick. If you have a different definition then news flash: you're going to have some serious communication problems with others. Think about good vs. evil —those words are defined by what you should and should not do. Something cannot be called evil without the implication that there is a burden of duty to not perform that action! This is philosophy 101, man...
    – ErikE
    Mar 13, 2016 at 1:20

Any moral principles a secularist may come up with will be purely subjective, so there would be no reason for all people to adopt them.

  • This is wrong in so many ways. For example, the deduction of the Categorical Imperative by Kant in GMM itself works without any terms of or connection to religion. It in fact has to, because the objective reality of the ideas of God (kantian sense) and eternal souls are based on it and Garve made him see his petitio pricipii in CPR. And this is only the most famous example. Kant had to overcome the dogmatic stance Aquinas had regarding rationality.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 8, 2016 at 13:27
  • The original question didn't even mention Kant.
    – user18800
    Jan 8, 2016 at 18:05
  • He is the most famous example of a philosopher with an objective moral principle not based on religion, i.e. who can be read secularistic. What is there not to be understood?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 8, 2016 at 21:10
  • Understood why you mentioned him. However, nothing in Kant precludes someone from rejecting the categorical imperative. Why should anyone adopt Kant's view instead of someone else's?
    – user18800
    Jan 9, 2016 at 0:01
  • Why should I accept Christian morality instead of Hinduistic? With this argument, subjectivity has nothing to do with secularity. That's why I think your point is totally meaningless.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 9, 2016 at 7:09

To make empathy is a primary moral principle, then comes social rules. As human is a social being, you need to stuck to society in order to survive and satisfy your instincts. Empathy, respect, and developing social requirements create developing rules. Goodness is a result of empathy, evil is a result of selfish survival needs, source scarcity. In physics, the cause of both is entropy; the tend to decrease the energy and increase the disorder. Everything in universe tends to increase its entropy in order to settle to its steady state. In earth, the sun gives energy and to loose this energy the cycle goes on and feeds the change.

  • 1
    Those are interesting definitions, but your answer doesn't address why one ought to have empathy. For something to be moral requires compunction: one ought to do, or not do, something. While most agree that empathy is good, what is your proposed objective foundation for saying that people ought to have empathy, and ought not be merely selfish? Without that, you haven't answered the question!
    – ErikE
    Mar 12, 2016 at 17:56
  • There are philosophical positions claiming what you seem to say here, but we are not here for writing our own philosophical thoughts. Please read this meta post for clarification.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 22, 2016 at 14:43

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