The Secular Saints

And Why Morals Are Not Just Subjective
By Hunter Lewis
Hardcover: $17.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-118-9


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,, 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.

Reverend Stephen McCarthy ’06, Groton School Quarterly (Fall 2018):

[This is] . . . a book which, much like an excellent dinner party, gathers interesting personalities and invites them to engage with one another—in this case over the perennial question of how an individual is to lead a good life, a moral life. . . . Different guests sparkle to varying degrees . . . . Among the philosophers, Montaigne positively dazzles with the appeal of a bon vivant. . . .

Complete review:

What is a chef doing among the intellectual luminaries, authors, and Nobel Prize winners collected in The Secular Saints: And Why Morals are Not Just Subjective? Following chapters exploring the thought of Aristotle, Spinoza, and Ludwig von Mises, among others, the inclusion of chef Edna Lewis (no relation to the author) came as something of a surprise.

For those unfamiliar with her (as I was before reading this book), Edna Lewis did more than anyone to put the cuisine of the American South at the forefront of the American culinary scene. And if you share doubts of the kind I once had as a New Englander dispatched to Alabama for his first job after seminary, I can assure you hers is an enduring legacy; just this year the James Beard Foundation named Highlands Bar & Grill, a Birmingham restaurant with a gourmet take on Southern classics, the most outstanding in America. Yet, in an important way, Edna Lewis’ labor and distinguished life are perhaps most suited to a book which, much like an excellent dinner party, gathers interesting personalities and invites them to engage with one another—in this case over the perennial question of how an individual is to lead a good life, a moral life.

Hunter Lewis does not limit his invitation to “secular sainthood” to those with animosity toward revealed religion—indeed, several of those featured expressed Christian commitments. Rather, he makes his criteria that they lived their lives and expressed their thoughts in ways independent of organized religion. Collectively, the author poses this motivating question: “Is it possible to establish a credible moral, ethical, philosophical system outside of religion? And if so, what would it look like?” The human tendency to seek group identity through adversarial self-definition, or what Mr. Lewis calls “tribalism,” has given rise to an environment in which this project feels especially pressing. The public has a strong appetite for such exploration—whether approached from the right, as by University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson, or from the mainstream left, as by Columbia Professor Mark Lilla. The Secular Saints has a distinctive contribution to make to this discussion, firmly situated as it is in the tradition of classical liberalism.

The Secular Saints does not merely introduce various figures and their biographies; more often than not, it introduces salient quotations from their own writings. The ad fontes spirit of this approach should feel familiar to Grotties of all generations. The result is that, like at any good dinner party, different guests sparkle to varying degrees, often depending more on the incidentals of company and conversation than on their innate character. We can also thus encounter them in unexpected ways, as when we discover economist Adam Smith on the defensive, or hear philosopher David Hume expound on economics and religion, rather than epistemology more generally. Among the philosophers, Montaigne positively dazzles with the appeal of a bon vivant; and Epicurus speaks with the same verve Mr. Tulp communicated when I first encountered him by way of Lucretius in Fourth Form Latin; while Immanuel Kant remains as implacably earnest and Teutonic as he ever was in Mr. Seeley’s Sixth Form Ethics course.

Establishing the objectivity of morality is a tall order for any volume; and, while advocating for this, The Secular Saints leaves it up to the individual reader to draw conclusions about details—befitting its classical liberal affinities, and whetting the reader’s appetite for more. Happily, the first chapter offers a concise introduction to some of the leading ethical theorists of the present. However, with the exception of Alasdair MacIntyre, the book passes over those whose approaches are more engaged with the Christian tradition (e.g. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Charles Taylor). Those stimulated to seek further programmatic treatment of these themes might turn to Hunter Lewis’ A Question of Values: Six Ways We Make the Personal Choices That Shape Our Lives; or the Dutch legal theorist Andreas Kinneging’s The Geography of Good and Evil. Accepting the invitation to spend time with The Secular Saints affords readers the opportunity to meet interesting historical personalities whose relevance is undiminished today.

David Gordon, Mises Wire (May 19, 2018):

Hunter Lewis has set himself a difficult task . . . in this rich book . . . : he endeavors to explain why morals are not subjective . . . [and] offers portraits of remarkable people. . . . [He]  looks to David Hume . . . , Ludwig von Mises . . . ,  and . . . Henry Hazlitt as . . . precursor[s] of . . . his approach. One cannot read . . . this . . . book without being impressed by the author’s philosophical acumen, scholarship, and humanity.

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, and editor of The Mises Review.

[Complete review:]


The Midwest Book Review (May 2018):

The Secular Saints: And Why Morals are Not Just Subjective examines the lives of Socrates, Aristotle, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, and many more in search of a better understanding of the value of morals and ethics, both individually and in a collective society. Inspirational and thought-provoking, The Secular Saints is a welcome contribution to both personal and public library philosophy collections.

[Complete review:]

Part One: Introduction

  1. Are Morals Subjective?

Part Two: Ancient Moral Thinkers

  1. Socrates (469–399 BCE)
  2. Aristotle (384–322 BCE)
  3. Epicurus (342–270 BCE)
  4. Epictetus (55–135 CE)

Part Three: Modern Moral Thinkers

  1. Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536)
  2. Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592)
  3. Baruch de Spinoza (1632–1677)
  4. David Hume (1711–1776)
  5. Adam Smith (1723–1790)
  6. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)
  7. Edward Gibbon (1737–1794)
  8. Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832)

Part Four: Modern Moral Thinkers and Doers

  1. Jane Addams (1860–1935)
  2. Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973)
  3. Eudora Welty (1909–2001)
  4. Edna Lewis (1916–2006)

Part Five: Conclusion

  1. 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?