The secular humanist is often challenged thusly: “If you do not base your ethics on religious foundations, then in what sense can you be good?” The ethics of secularism has a long history in human culture. In the following, I wish to present four contemporary aspects of the ethics of secular humanism: liberation, enlightened self-interest, altruism, and goodwill.
Historically, secularism has been an ethic of liberation for those revolting against repressive institutions of society, such as those originating with the Puritans, the Victorians, and the Catholic Church.
Secularists wished to realize happiness here and now rather than focus on alleged divine rewards in the afterlife. They objected strenuously to the barriers to this pursuit laid down by authoritarian-theological dogmas.
Intimate relationships outside of marriage, the termination of unhappy or even abusive marriages, birth control, interracial marriage and miscegenation, homosexuality—in most countries, these were forbidden by church and state.
Paradoxically, the upper classes were allowed to enjoy themselves, while the poor were considered debauched if they pursued similar activities. Often, the enforcement of the standards was hypocritical; the elites used them to hold the lower classes in check.
More often than not, religious morality became the instrument for maintaining the social order.
Libertarian ethics emerged with the rise of democratic liberties. Freedom from repression became the battle cry of generations of liberal secularists and humanists. Thus the right of privacy became a central moral ideal and still is; with this came the demand for toleration of diversity in tastes and lifestyles. This led to the conviction that society should not seek to legislate adult moral behavior so long as it does not harm others.
2. ENLIGHTENED SELF-INTEREST
Implicit in the democratic revolutions of modern times is the realization that the pursuit of happiness is an essential secular goal. This is true for all men and women no matter what their station in society. Intrinsic to this is the concept of self-interest. It is not wicked or evil to be concerned with one’s own good. This has high priority on the secular ethical agenda. Each individual has but one life to live, and in the last analysis every person is responsible for his or her own well-being. Neither the church nor the state should dictate how a person is allowed to live.
Hence, every person needs to be self-interested. He or she should not abdicate his or her right to personal freedom to others. A person’s sense of self is at the center of his or her existential world; it identifies a person’s needs and shapes dreams, plans, and projects, values and ideals.
Thus, self-interest is the crux of how a person lives and determines whether he or she merely survives or thrives by realizing the fullness of life.
Although secular humanists have heroically defended the rights of individuals to pursue their own interests, altruism, I submit, is also intrinsic to the good life—though some radical libertarians have denied that anyone is capable of genuine altruistic behavior. I do not think that human motivation is simply based on egoism or selfishness, for there is abundant evidence of altruism in human conduct.
Moral libertarians have internalized principles of self-control and have a compassionate regard for the needs of others. Therefore, I see no contradiction in espousing both self-interest and altruism as concomitant in a full life well-lived.
Such self-interest may be said to be enlightened when we take into account the interests of others in addition to or instead of our own.
Goodwill is a key secular virtue, but it is most effective when it is based on an affirmative attitude toward living. Individuals who have a positive attitude are more likely to express goodwill toward other human beings.
For persons of goodwill, life is intrinsically worthwhile—indeed, it can be bountifully overflowing with zest and exuberance—and their affirming attitude has an effect on other people. By loving life, such people are able to share their sense of the good life and are considerate of others’ needs and interests. This affects those they encounter—children and pets, parents and grandparents, lovers and partners, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins, friends and colleagues, and even strangers whom they meet in the world of affairs.
A person of goodwill usually has confidence in his or her capacities for enjoying the good life and self-respect. He or she is well motivated and expresses it with spontaneity and vitality.
Reflective thinking and rational behavior have vital roles to play, but this leaves room for passion and emotion. The intensity of living is thus enriched by the heart as well as the mind.
Source: Yelshaday Teklu> Ethiopian Secular Humanist Alliance