Concerning ethics, secular humanism is consequentialist ("Secular humanists hold that ethics is consequential, to be judged by results." [1]).

It seems also to be epicurean ("Secular Humanism frames morality as not causing unnecessary pain, harm, or suffering to humans and other animals" Zuckerman, "What is Secular Humanism?" [2]).

And, secular humanism's ethics is based on reason ([3]):

“Who are the secular humanists? Perhaps everyone who believes in the principles of free inquiry, ethics based upon reason, and a commitment to science, democracy, and freedom. Perhaps even you.” — Paul Kurtz (1925 – 2012)

It is possible that by "ethics based upon reason", Paul Kurtz meant to use reason (= logic and empirical sciences, I suppose) to foster what is considered to be moral. For instance, increasing the wellbeing of people by the application of experimental/clinical psychology and medicine.

But still, the meaning of the phrase "ethics based upon reason" is broad enough to ask the following question:

Granting the fact alluded above that secular humanism's ethics is epicurean, how does secular humanism use reason to ground the epicurean moral principle that good is pleasure (= avoidance of unuseful pain)?

Why avoidance of unnecessary pain be more reasonable, as an ethic principle, than any other thing (e.g. the preservation purity of XX thing)

  • 1
    Maybe one could argue that pleasure is the signal given to us by nature that something is going well for our body, mind ... so it would be "reasonable" to seek pleasure as it would maximize natural health? Further, if more people reached optimum natural health via pleasure, we would have happy societal consequences? - just making this up as I go, not necessarily what I think, just trying to provide a reason-based, consequentialist argument in favor of pleasure.
    – Frank
    Mar 3, 2023 at 16:04
  • @Frank This is the kind of reflection I had in mind indeed. But then how to argue that it is better, from a moralistic point of view, than the preservation of XX thing's purity?
    – Starckman
    Mar 4, 2023 at 1:15
  • Not sure what you mean by "purity"?
    – Frank
    Mar 4, 2023 at 3:24
  • You should read up on Epicureans.
    – Hudjefa
    Mar 6, 2023 at 7:42
  • I think the existentialists would strongly disagree with the characterisation of secular humanism as consequentialist, though I’m not sure how interested you would be in their stance?
    – Paul Ross
    Mar 6, 2023 at 8:16

2 Answers 2


I think Paul Kurtz does mean to use “ethics based upon reason” to mean ethical thinking that utilises empirical sciences, contrasting the way in which non-secular ethics rely on a sense of absolutism in divinity/tradition/etc. that does not commit (or at least historically has not committed) itself to science.

I would say that the reasoning of “what is good?” in pleasure vs. (as you example) “purity” within a secular framework has most to do with the (scientific) realm of sociology and psychology of the social contracts that might emerge.

You can see from modern philosophers such as Patricia Churchland’s neurophilosophy that we can consider moral principles as (in the loose Kantian sense) as “what I want society to be like.”

The instinctive sense of “morality as not causing unnecessary pain, harm” is something that, by accounts of social animals in general, is something that game theorists and zoologists alike tend to “scientifically” support being what enough of a population will consider “what they want society to be like” in the consequential benefit.

We might not see “morality as preserving the state of XX thing” have the same potency of this quality.

  • "is something that game theorists and zoologists alike tend to “scientifically” support being what enough of a population will consider" So it sounds that this moral principle of pain avoidance is rationnally supported on the ground that it is preferred democratically.
    – Starckman
    Mar 4, 2023 at 2:13
  • But what justifies rationnally that we use "democratically preferred" as a criterion to define what is moral?
    – Starckman
    Mar 4, 2023 at 2:13
  • @Starckman, John Rawls has an interesting position on this - that there are (or at least could be, with some work) sound empirical reasons to think that certain forms of social structure function effectively at helping humans cohabit with general well-being; plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls
    – Paul Ross
    Mar 6, 2023 at 8:20
  • @PaulRoss thank you for the information. My problem is not with how to find the ways to enhance well-being (so using empirical reason for instance), but how to use reason to justify that what is ethically good is the pursuit of well-being, and not other thing (for instance the recovering of past glory, etc.)
    – Starckman
    Mar 6, 2023 at 9:56

Logic is a guide to take you from premises to conclusions without taking a wrong turn. That means that even if you follow logic correctly, your conclusions are only as reasonable as your premises. If you take a scientific approach to ethics, you will start with premises that have some scientific basis. For example, we know that people experience pain and we know that pain is unpleasant and we know that almost all people prefer to be rid of pain, so you can argue logically from there to some moral conclusion about the importance of relieving pain. That would be a scientific approach to the development of moral principles. On the other hand, believing in a God who says that lying is wicked, and the wicked should be punished, and arguing from there that children should be beaten for dishonesty, you would not be starting from a scientific premise, so you might have followed logic to reach your conclusion, but your conclusion would not be science-based.

  • I agree, but see my response to Paul Ross’s comment above
    – Starckman
    Mar 6, 2023 at 10:32

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