The term “secular saint” may immediately raise questions or even objections. Each religion specifies grounds for being considered a saint. What does it mean to be a secular saint? Presumably an exemplary life. But exemplary based on what? Exemplary according to whom? Perhaps an exemplary life is not even enough to qualify. Perhaps the life must also be inspiring or have something to teach us. But, again, inspiring or instructive according to whom?
These questions are variants of the perennial question: are ethics and moral objective in some way or completely subjective? Is anybody’s opinion worth hearing? Most people would agree that Hitler’s morals were horrendous. But is there a way to distinguish good from bad without reliance on revealed religion?
All of this in turn leads to questions humans have always asked themselves. What is right or wrong? What is good or bad or just less good? What is just or unjust? These are not just questions for confused or searching teenagers. Human beings are guided day by day by our beliefs and values, and are absolutely lost without this kind of guidance.
This book provides “brief lives” and thoughts of some leading candidates for the term secular saint. Many of them are famous moral philosophers. Taken together, they offer a kind of history of moral thought. Some of them are not what we would today consider philosophers. All of them have much to teach us about how we lead our lives and think about the fundamental questions.
This book also offers a conclusion: that morals and ethics are not just subjective, that they are grounded in very objective realities. There is such a thing as right and wrong, better and worse, and as thinking creatures we should recognize this and act on it.
About the Author
Hunter Lewis is co-founder and former CEO of global investment firm Cambridge Associates, LLC and author of 12 books on economics and moral philosophy. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Times of London, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic Monthly, as well as numerous websites such as Forbes.com, RealClearMarkets.com, and many others. He has served on boards and committees of fifteen leading not-for-profit organizations, including environmental, teaching, research, and cultural and global development organizations.
Part One: Introduction
- Are Morals Subjective?
Part Two: Ancient Moral Thinkers
- Socrates (469–399 BCE)
- Aristotle (384–322 BCE)
- Epicurus (342–270 BCE)
- Epictetus (55–135 CE)
Part Three: Modern Moral Thinkers
- Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536)
- Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592)
- Baruch de Spinoza (1632–1677)
- David Hume (1711–1776)
- Adam Smith (1723–1790)
- Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)
- Edward Gibbon (1737–1794)
- Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832)
Part Four: Modern Moral Thinkers and Doers
- Jane Addams (1860–1935)
- Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973)
- Eudora Welty (1909–2001)
- Edna Lewis (1916–2006)
Part Five: Conclusion
- Why Morals Are Not Just Subjective
From: Chapter 1
Are Morals Subjective?
We all need food and water and shelter. But we also need to know where and how to direct our energies. We cannot function otherwise. And we need to believe we are making meaningful, not just random choices. This need is so paramount that individuals without answers will embrace anything, even the utter nihilism of terrorism, to fill the vacuum.
Religion has always helped provide answers to these questions and presumably always will. But even thousands of years ago, Greeks and Indians in particular were wondering what kind of answers, if any, could be found outside religion. If the answers come from outside revealed religion, they would have to come from our own heads. And since our brains function through some combination of emotion, intuition, sense experience, and logic, the answers would presumably have to come from those sources.
We all rely heavily on emotion to energize us, physically and mentally, but we also mistrust emotion. We know well enough that what we feel at this moment may not last long. Intuition is the mental mode we rely on the most for deciding and choosing, but it has the disadvantage of being so incommunicable to others.
In this day and age, we like factual observation and logic, and we especially like experimental science, which combines the two, because they make it so much easier to explain a conclusion to others. Isaac Newton, the great scientist, once told a colleague that something was true. When the colleague asked how he knew, Newton responded that he simply knew, but that given a day or two, he would be able to translate his knowledge into the language of fact and logic. And within a few days, he had his proof.
Given this background, it is natural for people to wonder if they might not be able to sort out moral, ethical, and related philosophical questions through some combination of intuition, fact, and logic, with the result that others would be able to understand and even accept their conclusions, without having to rely on religion and in particular revealed religion at all.
There have been many, many such attempts. Some of them were undertaken by people described in this book. That is not to say that everyone described in this book was trying to substitute human thought for religion or opposed religion in any way. Some of the people described in this book were atheists; others were devoted to their own version of religion; at least one was a very devoted Christian. Most were professional philosophers, but not all. Whatever their differences, none of them followed a religious vocation per se. They lived lives outside of organized religion, that is, they lived what might be called secular lives, whatever the religious linkages, and their thoughts and lives should be of potential interest to believers and nonbelievers alike.
But, returning to the central question, is it possible to establish a credible moral, ethical, philosophical system outside of religion? And, if so, what would it look like?
We might start to try to answer this question by pulling out some heavy ammunition from the great 18thcentury British philosopher David Hume (1711–1776). Here are some particularly famous passages of his:
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain an abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding)
It is obvious that ethics will never be dev eloped as a branch of mathematics. So anyone who agrees with Hume’s point of view will have to try to develop it as a branch of the empirical/logical sciences. But Hume seems to say that this will not be possible either:
In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find that instead of the usual copulations of propositions is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the [greatest] consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be 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. (An Inquiry Concerning Human Nature)
These few words of Hume’s, usually summarized as no “ought” from “is,” pose quite a challenge for a moral philosopher seeking to proceed without the support of religion. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), often considered the greatest philosopher in history, said that Hume’s writings woke him from his “metaphysical slumbers;” he spent the rest of his life developing a rebuttal that featured logic as the prime, indeed the only reliable, instrument. Jeremy Bentham (1747–1832) did the same, but relied on sense experience and factual observation as the starting point for his logical deductions. Both of them shed a great deal of light on the issues, but both had their critics, as we shall see in their respective chapters.
By the end of the 19th century, the idea of subjectivism was steadily gaining ground. Nobody had any moral authority: neither religion nor philosophy, neither family nor friend could help us out. What might be good for me could very well be terrible for you, and there was really no reliable way to sort it out. We just had to make the best of it and hope to avoid complete nihilism. By the end of the 20th century, there had been decades of nihilism, which left hundreds of millions dead, but it seemed to be getting better. Perhaps human beings could agree after all. Then the global terrorist movement arrived. What would happen if one of these new nihilists got hold of weapons of mass destruction?
A hundred years ago, the subjectivists were not anticipating this future. They were feeling a sense of liberation. In throwing off Church and the strictures of their Victorian forebears, they thought they were pumping fresh air into a stuffy world and claiming new ground for personal liberty. They shrugged off charges that the new liberty was really a new libertinism—so what if it were?