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To What End, Ethics?

One of my philosophy professors at the University of Lethbridge once said something to the effect that all higher education is, in some form or another, about learning how to read a book, and the farther I have gone in my academic journey, the more I have realized the truth of this statement. I have actually found blogging about the books I read to be a helpful way of learning how to do this, both in terms of processing them more fully, and learning how to articulate their arguments more adequately through the discussions that sometimes follow. So, having said that, on to what’s currently distracting me from my studies…

I’ve recently been reading Margaret Somerville‘s The Ethical Imagination on the bus, trying to make some sense of her concept of the “secular sacred.” Somerville is trying to set forward a way of doing ethics that does not require appeals to the supernatural for its ultimate foundation, yet avoids the moral relativism and crude utilitarianism that seem to be the only other options. This will be best done, according to Somerville, by embracing what she terms the “secular sacred.” As far as I can tell (at least thus far—I’ve only read the first 70 pages or so) this term seems to be a kind of vague gesture towards “stuff that means a lot to lots of people.” Included in the category of the “secular sacred” would be “respect for persons,” “elements that allow us to fully experience being fully human,” “respect for freedom,” “respect for community and its maintenance” and other things that we can “all” agree about without having to appeal to anything as particular as religion (I leave aside the obvious problem, which even a cursory glance at our current political climate will reveal, that we do not, in fact, “all” agree about these things!).

Somerville is actually neither a moral relativist (whatever happens to be your preference) nor a utilitarian (whatever produces the best results for the most people) when it comes to ethics—she believes that some things are inherently right and some are inherently wrong, and that they are so for all people at all times. She considers the best ultimate explanation for the existence of such moral absolutes to be found in a “presumption toward the natural”:

Might the search for meaning be the most fundamental characteristic of humanness? Could that be a manifestation of an innate moral element in humans as individuals and collectives that we can use to found a base against which we can test the rightness or wrongness of what we do? We can’t prove that there is such an element—but, when we can’t be certain either way, we are better off assuming that there is than that there is not.

In other words, rather than believing that the reason human beings seem so relentlessly to seek meaning and hold on to moral absolutes is because we were created to do so by a God with specific intentions, we ought to assume that such a tendency is sufficiently grounded in nature. For Somerville, it matters not whether we ground ethics in a “religious sacred” or a “secular sacred”; what matters is that we embrace the ground we do share, and use this as a foundation upon which to base our ethical judgments.

I see the merits in this approach. While I obviously do not share Somerville’s belief that our conclusions about the ultimate source of ethical foundations are purely a matter of personal preference which can be useful as long as they are suitably benign, I do think that there is something valuable—especially in our twenty-first century global community – about seeking to find common ground so that people of various beliefs can live together and deliberate upon ethics without killing each other.

However, I think her approach betrays a fatal weakness when she starts to talk about the goal of this generic ethical impulse shared by all humanity. In a discussion of what could constitute the judgment that something is “sacred” from a secular perspective, Somerville gestures toward typical aesthetic experiences that tend to evoke responses of awe and senses of transcendence from human beings such as the arrival of a baby, a walk in a picturesque natural environment, a particularly breathtaking sunset etc. All of these are said to be sacred, I gather, because of the impressions they make on us, and the responses they evoke. In order to avoid the charge that she is just slapping the label “sacred” on to what are essentially pleasant aesthetic experiences, Somerville says the following:

Perhaps one distinction between an aesthetic and a sacred experience is that the aesthetic relates us to ourselves, the sacred to some “other.” The sacred has a goal of transformation and, therefore, leads to new forms of behaviour in relation to the social order, the natural order, or, for some, the divine order.

This seems to be a leap that someone who disavows, or at least brackets the question of a supernatural component to the ethical is not entitled to make. To speak of transformation and of new forms of relating to the social, natural, and divine orders, implies a goal of some kind or other. And to speak of a goal within history implies that there is an ideal to be reached, a destination to arrive at, an objective to be attained. I think that it is precisely here that the “secular sacred” as a concept reveals one of its limitations. To speak of human beings choosing to see some things as “sacred” because we need to retain the ability to make certain kinds of ethical judgments is one thing—it could still be construed as having a sort of necessary social utility that we are better off believing than not (although I would have questions here as well). But from my perspective, when we speak of human transformation we are heading straight into the realm of belief in a God who has created the world and the human beings who people it for a purpose, and is leading history to a specific telos.

There’s only so much of the language of religion you can transfer into an attempt to ground ethics on purely secular presuppositions before what you are actually talking about is a religious worldview which sounds suspiciously like the outmoded one you’re trying to leave behind.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. J #

    I’m curious: from where does she get the values of “respect for persons,” “respect for freedom,” “respect for community,” etc.? It seems to me that those are late-modern, western liberal ideas. Historical evidence suggests that those values were/are not universally held. Furthermore, the historical evidence is clear that those sorts of values – particularly the version she seems to be advocating – have emerged as a result of Christian influence.

    It seems to me she might be “playing with the facts.”

    April 2, 2007
  2. mjollnir40 #

    I think it sounds like junk. It’s not that hard to get published, you know.

    April 2, 2007
  3. jc #

    Yeah but she works for Mcgill. I think I would have to agree with you though. I do think that trying to establish an ethic that isn’t dependant on a certain religious belief is important for a secular society.

    April 2, 2007
  4. J,

    There does seem to be a striking similarity between the values she’s advocating as belonging in the “secular sacred” category, and those that seem to be the product of a long period of historical Christian influence doesn’t there?

    April 3, 2007
  5. J #


    Yep. It seems to me she wants all the benefits of Christianity, but without the whole Christianity thing (like church and God and stuff).

    April 3, 2007
  6. jc #

    When dealing with a subject like ethics it seems that one would have to have clearly defined concepts. The way that sacred is defined above does not seem clear at all. If one of the goals or purposes of ethics is provide people a way to live in peace together and establish a rule of law… then I am not sure how loosely defined concepts are going to help us.

    April 4, 2007
  7. The issue I find interesting is why the category of “sacred” is deemed to be necessary for ethical discourse in an enlightened western liberal democracy in the first place.

    April 5, 2007

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