Secular ethics

In the US, claims Troy Jellimore,

no system of secular ethics has managed to displace religious approaches to ethics in the contemporary


popular imagination

. He blames Kant and Bentham, for setting an dry and overwhelming tone for secular ethics:

Kantian and utilitarian approaches have been both fruitful and influential, and they get a lot of things right. But they share an impersonal, somewhat bureaucratic conception of the human being as a moral agent. The traits that are most highly prized in such agents are logical thinking, calculation, and obedience to the rules. Personal qualities such as individual judgment, idiosyncratic projects and desires, personal commitments and relationships, and feelings and emotions are regarded as largely irrelevant.

Well, for a start utilitarianism is much more flexible than that. It’s philosophy’s Church of England — able to encompass any number of other beliefs, and self-dilute until it requires no change to your actions. Sure, an occasional fanatic may take trolley problems as an immediate guide for how to act. But for the most part, your personal preferences, fallible judgement and less-than-perfect generosity can all sit comfortably within utilitarian ethics.

And there are many more approaches to secular ethics — just rarely by that name. They are much more likely to be subsumed within animal rights, or identity politics, or family values, or charity, or any number of other ethical programs. Possibly, though, these aren’t enough integrated into systems which are coherent but not inhumanly demanding. How do you balance saving CO2 against flying to your nephew’s wedding, sneaking in the detail that you never liked him anyway? And there, OK, the religious have an advantage over us. It’ll take a while before the contradictory thoughts of a million agony aunts accrete into a comprehensive moral guide.

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