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The Ethics of Secularism

One of the principles of secularism is doing good for goodness’ sake: “Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good.” The English secularist George Jacob Holyoake, who coined the word “secularism” in the mid-19th century, asserted, “Individual good attained by methods conducive to the good of others, is the highest aim of man, whether regard be had to human welfare in this life or personal fitness for another. Precedence is therefore given to the duties of this life.

Since this utilitarian ethical principle is not grounded on the moral dictates of a transcendent being, i.e., God, it is not surprising that theists are quick to criticize it as lacking an ontological foundation, meaning there is no basis for conceptualizing such moral system in the first place. They then proceed to cite David Hume’s is-ought problem and G.E. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy, insisting that it is impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is” or to infer moral obligations from mere observations of nature, and that what is naturally pleasant or desired is not necessarily “good”.

While Hume wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature that it surprised him to find an ought instead of an is, there seems to be nothing in the book expressing the impossibility of bridging the is-ought gap. Hume only said that “’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

Moreover, the rules apply to both theists and nontheists, and if the requirements for bridging the gap are set to go beyond common sense and into ontological obsession, I doubt that even Divine Command Theory can bridge it. Someone claiming that God exists and has laid down certain rules (an is statement) is also expected to explain why we ought to act accordingly, and after all the rationalizations have been exposed and eliminated, it all boils down to one thing: we ought to obey and please God for the welfare of our souls.

While the secularist does not necessarily rule out the possibility of a life after death since it’s unprovable either way, he gives priority to his welfare in this life: “For a future state Secularism proposes the wise use of this, as he who fails in this “duty nearest hand” has no moral fitness for any other.” And since claims of divine revelation are all hearsay and our common sense dictates that the Bible is a dangerous guide to morality, secularism “offers the guidance of observation, investigation, and experience. Instead of taking authority for truth, it takes truth for authority.

The word ought was originally used to express duty or obligation (and this is probably how Hume intended to use it), but modern usage has expanded its meaning to also indicate advisability or desirability. Since the secularist believes in the improvement of this life by material means and that science is the available Providence of man, if he wants to be happy then he knows what he ought –  what he is well advised – to do, and that is to seek happiness in ways that are conducive to the happiness of others so as to encourage mutual effort in perpetuating everybody’s happiness.

As for the naturalistic fallacy, while it is true that “pleasant” is not necessarily tantamount to “good,” it seems that all of mankind’s conscious acts are ultimately motivated by pleasure. The blogger Philosophy Bro put it succinctly:

“People want to be happy; that seems pretty clear. What makes people happy? Why, pleasure makes people happy…Pleasure is the only thing people want for its own sake, as an end; everything else people do is to attain some final pleasure…For some reason dudes keep insisting that there’s more to life than pleasure. And to them I say, “Really? Like what?” When they start listing shit like literature and the arts and human excellence, I know they’re not paying attention because all of those things are pleasurable.”

As for the theists who define “good” as something that God commands or desires, the is-ought problem is thrown back at them: why do we ought to do good and obey God? And if they are honest enough they will admit that it’s because they want to have a pleasant eternal life in Heaven and avoid perpetual torment in Hell.

And so it seems that for the theist and nontheist alike, morality, or at least the standard by which a person judges actions with either approval or disapproval, is ultimately rooted in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. In Of Vice and Virtue, Hume wrote, “For granting that morality had no foundation in nature, it must still be allowed, that vice and virtue, either from self-interest or the prejudices of education, produce in us a real pain and pleasure.” An article in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy paraphrases Hume: “[I]t is because we are the kinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain and pleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that make up our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, that we are bound by moral requirements at all.”

And while the secularist does not concern himself with ultimate or eternal scenarios of pleasure and pain as much as the immediate and foreseeable consequences of his actions, it does not mean that his morality is inferior. In The Science of Good and Evil, Michael Shermer explained that “like everyone else, I face judges that are in their own ways transcendent and powerful: family and friends, colleagues and peers, mentors and teachers, and society at large. My judges may be lowercased and occasionally deceivable, but they are transcendent of me as an individual, even if they are not transcendent of nature…real people whose lives are directly affected by my actions, and whose actions directly affect my life.”

The secularist’s judges may not be as fearsome as a deity capable of sentencing people to eternal torture, but he nevertheless respects them deeply and holds himself accountable to them. That’s because in this life, which is the only life we really know exists, these human judges influence our welfare and happiness in ways that we can clearly see and foresee. As such, we are accountable to them because we are ultimately accountable to ourselves.

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How David Hume’s Critique of the Design Argument Survives for Three Centuries (Part 2)

(Continued from Part I)

Chaotic Universe

More recent findings in astronomy, for instance, substantiate Hume’s assumptions of a chaotic universe rather than an orderly one. Astronomers contend that the universe used to be crowded and disorderly; stars were more massive as they die rapidly and detonate after millions of years. These explosions result to newer and heavier elements, spawning new stars, less massive, but multiplying amidst chaos. Stephen Hawking, in his book “A Brief History of Time”, explains that the universe is congested and limited in extent, with no beginning or end (1988). However, many of us assume that the orbits of stars and planetary bodies take defined movements which have been ‘properly spaced’ so as moving matters in space may glide in ‘safety.’

Conversely, for many billions of years, planetary objects have been traveling in changing paths and orbits, consequently colliding and crashing onto each other. The ‘order’ we perceive now as we gaze at the stars is just a result of planetary bodies which toppled obstructive matters off their paths. Surprisingly, these orbits were random, as astronomers assert that the elliptical course is the most dangerous of all paths. Most collisions in the universe result from aberrations in shape, path or movement.

The Dangers of an Ellipse

If design were intelligent as god applied it to his ‘creation’ of the universe, a circular orbit is safer for a celestial body to move across space. “If all the orbits were nearly circular,” scientist Rolling T. Chamberlain affirms “only a few of the separate bodies moving in them would come into collision with one another” but because the orbits take an elliptical shape, conflicting much in contour and dimensions, particles in space have high prospect of colliding against each other (2001). Stars do not just return to their original positions in space due to the infinite movements of heavenly bodies as the stars and other matters disperse into interstellar space. This results to the thinning out of the universe in which stable orbits do not subsist. Likewise, Hume reiterated that the universe has no a semblance at all on complex human made machines as artifacts are designed for a purpose. On the contrary, the universe has an unclear function (Poidevin 1996). While on the surface the universe may seem to suggest order, it is difficult to surmise its apparent function. The famous biologist J.B.S. Haldane once replied to a reporter who queried what his research on genetics suggested about the deity. Haldane replied that “He must have an inordinate fondness for beetles,” referring to the numerous species of these insects existing for no perceptible function other than for the purpose of reproduction.

Defying Anthropomorphism

Hume also showed us that it is apparently easy to compare things found in our world and yet, we have nothing to compare our universe to as it is the only one we know that infinitely exists. Thus, it defies logic to compare a whole to a part of a whole and vice versa. We may perceive a god present in the universe at all times, but this comparison does not provide scientific value. It is remote that theology and other social sciences can actually benefit from it. Hume emphasized that the analogy between the minds of humans and the mind of an omniscient being is ‘anthropomorphic.’ Nature in general is mindless rather than ‘intelligent.’ It is credulous to interpret the mind of god using the human mind as an equivalent.

As the product of an anthropomorphic philosophy always results to a close look at the finite god, Hume demonstrates through his propositions that if the argument from design is seriously considered, most of us will come to the conclusion that the god who controls the universe entirely differs from the concept of the god/gods of organized religions. As there has been a dearth of valid arguments on how all- knowing and perfect the designer is, we have to assume his abilities and traits manifested in the universe he designed and created. Bertrand Russell, one of greatest thinkers of the previous century, summarized these attributes and capabilities in a more telling fashion, ‘If I had millions of years of time and infinite power and had come up with the universe as we know it, I should be ashamed of myself.”


Chamberlain, Rolling T. (2001) “The Origin and Early Stages of the Earth,” in The Nature of the World and of Man, p. 37.

Gaskin,J.A.C. (1779). Dialogues concerning Natural Religion in: Dialogues and Natural History of Religion, ed. (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Page references are to this edition.

Hawking, Stephen (1988). A Brief History of Time. Bantam Books. ISBN 0-553-38016-8.

Hume, D. (1739-40) A Treatise of Human Nature: being An Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects in two volumes

Norton, D. F. (1993). Introduction to Hume’s thought. In Norton, D. F. (ed.), (1993). The Cambridge Companion to Hume, Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-32

Poidevin, Robin Le. (1996). Arguing for Atheism, (New York: Routledge,), p. 85.

Sober, Elliot. (2003). “The Design Argument” p. 27-54 in (Manson 2003).

Swinburne, Richard. (1991). The Existence of God (NY: Clarendon)

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How David Hume’s Critique of the Design Argument Survives for Three Centuries (Part 1)

That the universe is designed by an ‘intelligent creator’ as it exhibits balance and order has prevailed for centuries as the ‘most robust argument’ in defense of theism in the philosophical realm of old. Even in the present century, theists recurrently invoke the classic Design Argument as proof of god’s existence. This argument was torn down, however, when David Hume put forward his criticism of the Argument of Design – a treatise that sparked further acerbic debates for many centuries on the subject of god’s existence (Gaskin 1993). Although many attempted to dispute his arguments, the sagacity and decisiveness of Hume’s critique, until today, are difficult to challenge.

Cleanthes vs. Philo and God’s ‘Work of Art’

The “Critique of the Design Argument” is presented in Hume’s book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in which he puts forth a discourse between fictional characters, Cleanthes and Philo. The discourse begins when Cleanthes brings Philo’s attention to the world around them, asserting that the world is but one great machine, with its tiniest parts attuned to each other and with accuracy worthy of admiration and contemplation (Gaskin 1993). Cleanthes further adds that the creator’s ‘larger faculties’, parallels the minds of men as they manifest wisdom and intelligence and thus, it is only logical that an intelligent ‘maker’ shaped them (Swinburne 1991). This argument, Cleanthes believes, ‘proves the existence of a Deity’.

Using the house and the universe as analogy, Philo asserts that the universe does not show any relationship to a house as this is a flawed logic. The universe is a manifestation of nature while the house is man-made as he emphasizes the complexities we fail to clarify in the works of nature. Philo contends that men’s capability to understand ‘infinite’ relations is inadequate and it is “impossible for us to tell, from our limited views, whether this system contains any great faults” or merits any justifiable adulation when “compared to other possible, and even real systems” (Hume 1739).

Through Philo’s character, Hume contends that order and purpose are perceived only when they are the consequences of design. However, we see some kind of order all the time manifested in seemingly unconscious occurrences like vegetation and generation. Thus, design constitutes only a tiny fragment of our perception with regards to ‘purpose’ and order. Assuming that the design argument is feasible, Hume argues that it is not enough to surmise or prove the existence of a deity from the conclusions gleaned from our knowledge of the universe’s configuration which bears a distant resemblance to human design – cursory and sometimes unintelligent – a world which Hume states is “the only and the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance” (Hume 1739).

Hume believes that god’s intellectual or mental order and faculties need to be understood in order for the design argument to be decisive and reach a logical finality. Otherwise, we could not create a parallel explanation of order, or actually define it, leaving the notion too arcane and inscrutable. Hume also argued that if an orderly and balanced natural world necessitates a special maker or designer, then God’s mind as it is well ordered, likewise requires a creator. Thus, this maker would similarly need another maker, and so on. The comparison with nature and the various things found in it, Hume adds, is ineffectual as things present in the universe are set apart from human material items as they exhibit considerable disparity (Hume 1739).

The Degradation of the Creator

Cleanthes further argues that ‘the works of nature bear a great analogy to the work of art (Sober 2003) insisting that the resemblance which exists between this world and human products is quite significant. Hence, god is somehow ostensible in human intelligence. Hume argues that this leads to a degradation of the creator. He suggests that we know nothing about the nature or the attributes of god as everything about the deity is unknown and there exists only a distant analogy among the diverse operations of nature. These comparisons do not suggest that the basis of the emergence of the universe is the mind or human intelligence. The aforementioned analogies, according to Hume are so feeble and distant that god’s nature cannot be explained nor understood (Poidevin 1996).

An Argument against All Odds

For a many decades, Hume’s treatise has been challenged using modified arguments from the intelligent design proposition. Scholars in the field of religion and philosophy have concocted innovative extensions borne out of the design proposition. These counter-arguments however, fell apart as Hume’s critique stands robust amidst attacks from different schools of philosophical thought.

Hume’s arguments persist until today as his objections to the prevailing idea that an orderly universe exists are strengthened and supported by science. Although knowledge of the universe during Hume’s time is not as advanced as of late, Hume exhibited deeper understanding of the universe we live in.

To be continued…

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