Secular ethical theories are not enforced except by humans, which means they are of little use against someone whom they deem evil. Why should I abstain from breaking an ethical code if I am assured that there will be no negative consequences for me in life, and only oblivion awaits me in the afterlife? And if everything we have ever done — including the evidence of our crimes — will be destroyed when the Earth or universe dies, what motivation do I have to be "good" at all?

Thus I cannot help but wonder if philosophers intend that their laws be interpreted as written into the fabric of the universe, akin to a religion. Is this so? It has certainly been the impression I have received from my studies of ethics.

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    "Are secular ethics intended to be interpreted as objective?" Yes, at least in the sense: universally valid, i.e. valid for every human. May 23, 2017 at 15:12
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    "philosophers intend that their laws be interpreted akin to a religion" No; ethics must be grounded on reason; see Kant's moral philosophy. May 23, 2017 at 15:13
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA By "akin to a religion" I meant "written into the essence of the universe such that violating them is a serious and objective transgression rather than simply not doing what somebody says".
    – EMBLEM
    May 23, 2017 at 15:38
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    I do not see why "written into the fabric of the universe" is necessarily "akin to a religion". The second law of thermodynamics is written into the fabric of the universe and violating it is a "serious and objective transgression" (rare fluctuation), but how is it akin to a religion? Among other things, you can look at McDowell's moral realism for a non-religious treatment of moral facts as analogous to secondary qualities (i.e. relational properties). Existentialism is another option.
    – Conifold
    May 23, 2017 at 21:07
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    curious. You self excercise the power to reject the authority of others, but don't then move on to accept that self excercise is all that can underpin ethics. i'm going to guess you have a catholic relationship with retribution. If retribution must underpin your ethics, and not honour, then know that in old age your concience will exact retribution on you for misdeeds in youth. Trust me on that.
    – Richard
    May 23, 2017 at 21:33

3 Answers 3


The short answer is yes. Moral theorists intend for their ethical theories to be objective; in the sense that you could derive the answer from a series of rules/axioms/principles/etc. An objective morality doesn't require some supreme lawmaker to act as the moral source, and some might argue that it could not be the case that morality originates in this way (i.e. Socrates/Plato's Euthyphro).

To find a moral philosopher that describes an objective morality without appeals to the divine, we need look no further than Kant. He believes that morality ultimately derives from human reason, and requires nothing else to justify.

There are some fundamental issues with the line of reasoning that without God (or some other divine lawmaker), morality serves no purpose. It denies the essential goals of morality, and tries to reduce it to a chess game where moves are only made to advance your position.

Why should I abstain from breaking an ethical code if I am assured that there will be no negative consequences for me in life, and only oblivion awaits me in the afterlife?

In essence you are asking:

What sorts of material benefits can I expect from playing by the rules?

I think that for all of his faults, Kant does an excellent job of deconstructing this sort of ethical question. When discussing what one ought to do, Kant distinguishes between two types of ought-statements: hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives.

A hypothetical imperative is an ought-statement that deals with questions of prudence. If you want to do well on your next exam, you ought to study and prepare for the exam. Nobody would think you immoral for not studying, just imprudent. Another way of viewing these statements is that they are logically contingent upon circumstances. I personally believe that religions with a reward are ultimately making these sorts of statements, which I will touch on later on.

Categorical imperatives are logically absolute. They apply in all cases, without regard to circumstances. You ought not murder, is a categorical imperative in Kant's eyes, for reasons which are beyond the scope of this question.

By asking why you should obey a moral code if it doesn't promise a reward, you are totally missing the point of an objective morality. You are trying to treat categorical imperatives like they are hypothetical imperatives; i.e. not like a moral code. Even when we don't argue from the position of Kant's strict deontological ethics, I think we find similar issues. Utilitarians are concerned with human welfare (in one form or another), and virtue ethicists are concerned with cultivating positive qualities in people; neither of which promise an everlasting reward. Ethical theories that are concerned with reward and the self are generally labeled egoistic.

So yes, I do think that moral theorists intend for their theories to be objective, and no, I don't think they intend for their theories to be treated like religion. Moral theories grounded in reason and human welfare are more sophisticated than "If you do X, I will give you Y," which is what most religions essentially state.

  • As this is quite close to my own thought: Both the idea that Kantian ethics are secular (e.g. Allison, Wood) and that morals are by definition to be distinguished from questions of personal benefit are highly controversial. I personally do not understand why, but that's how it is.
    – Philip Klöcking
    May 24, 2017 at 16:07
  • If ethics could be boiled down to pure prudence, it would hardly be deserving of study on its own. May 24, 2017 at 18:31
  • As I said, exactly my thoughts. But there are intuitionist and morals of remorse that are in a Kantian sense purely about prudence. Anti-realists about morals generally are. And Allison, Schönecker and Wood, and others are quite explicit about the importance of the idea of God in all of Kant's works on morals, characterising it as decisively not secular.
    – Philip Klöcking
    May 24, 2017 at 21:15
  • I will have to read through their thoughts on the matter. Kantian ethics is my rare deviation from epistemology and logic. May 25, 2017 at 1:37
  • @ConnerN.Howell I have several objections to this answer, but it answers my question the best. Thank you.
    – EMBLEM
    May 25, 2017 at 14:02

Socrates was pressured to answer the question "what motivation do I have to be good (or just) if I have Gyges' ring?" 2500 years ago, which he fudged with misdirection: "Hey, Let's look at justice in a bigger context (the just nation)." So I do not assume there will be the answer to your question.

Your impression that any system of morality is either akin to a religion or backed by a religion sounds right to me. Spinoza, for instance, believed that the study of ethics is deductive by virtue of the properties of the god. Kant's moral system is incomplete without the postulation of the retribution in afterlife. John Rawls believed that any moral system is like a religion in that people holding different moral theories would never be able to reconcile their differences. Rawls thus called any theory of the good (moral theories as well as religions) a comprehensive doctrine.


In a certain sense you're right - you eventually have to resort to faith of a certain kind in something you can't prove. Although that's not limited to ethics, you could say that about any area.

I don't think there is a good answer to the question in terms of rational reasons. Do you think intuition is good enough? I don't feel I need to have a rational reason to think I shouldn't kill, ie it's not just the threat of incarceration or the disapproval of others that stops me. It's just one of the things I don't do. Eventually you will reach rock bottom when trying to look for justifications

  • Do unto others, does not really require faith.
    – Richard
    May 23, 2017 at 20:29
  • Well it does require you to have faith that it's a good rule to follow? I'm not suggesting that that bedrock of faith is a bad thing, we obviously will exhaust justification of anything at a certain point.
    – Franz
    May 24, 2017 at 7:50

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