Buddhist Ethics by V. A. Gunasekara

Manussa Tract No. 6



1. Introduction


What is ethics?

At its most general level ethics deals with the standards of conduct. It seeks to establish rules by which the quality of actions can be determined. This is sometimes also called morality and the two terms are often used synonymously. Ethical or moral conduct is conduct that conforms to a set of permissible rules, while acts which are contrary to the permissible rules are deemed to be unethical or immoral. Clearly it is possible that some acts could ethically neutral or amoral. A distinction is sometimes made between morals and ethics on the ground that morals deals with concepts like 'good', 'bad', 'right' or 'wrong' while ethics is concerned with actions which are permitted without investigating whether they are good, bad, right or wrong. However since the definition is good is that which is permitted this may be too subtle a distinction to make, and we will use ethics and morality as synonyms. Both the Greek root for ethics (ethos) as well as the Latin root for morals (mores) both mean habits. So at its inception both ethics and morals meant that which was habitually accepted.

There are several ways in which the subject matter of ethics could be analysed. In the literature on ethics its subject matter has been dichotomized in at least three different ways. The first of these is the distinction between theoretical ethics and practical ethics and the second that between individual ethics and group ethics. There is also a third distinction made by philosophers between normative ethics and meta-ethics. Normative ethics considers the rules for evaluating the human moral element, while meta-ethics analyses the meaning and nature of the moral element (1). We shall not deal with this third distinction, treating as a variant of the first distinction equating meta-ethics with theoretical ethics and normative ethics with practical ethics, even though this is not strictly correct.

Theoretical ethics deals with the general principles that can be used to determine the ethical value of various forms of conduct. The formulation of such general principles has been the concern of philosophers, and in this sense ethical or moral theory has been an important part of most schools of philosophy. Practical ethics, on the other hand, deals with specific ethical rules which govern the conduct of a given group of people. It is usually presented as a list of things to do and things not to do. This is the aspect of ethics that is of most interest to ordinary people. It is also the aspect to which preachers and moralisers most often allude to. In both meanings the subject has been of concern from ancient times and discussion of the subject has never ceased.

It might appear that a consideration of ethical principles must precede the construction of a set of ethical rules, or theoretical ethics must precede practical ethics. In reality the relationship is very often the other way around. A set of rules can be given which people are expected to conform to, and then some rationale developed to justify these rules. Sometimes of course rules may be drawn up for which there is no theoretical justification, or none is offered. Practical ethics is not identical with the system of law that is in force in various States. There is an obligation to obey the law with penalties attached to a breach of the law. Moral or ethical principles have to be followed voluntarily and there is usually no legal sanction against violations of ethical principles. However the civil law may be based on general ethical principles, so that punishment for breaking the law may be seen as a penalty for breaking an ethical rule.

The second distinction we made is between the ethics of the individual and that of the group. At the individual level we are looking at the conduct of a single individual. It is true that some kinds of individual conduct have an impact on others, but the ethical rule is formulated from the standpoint of the primary agent, not necessary from that of others who may be affected by that action. This is ethics at its most basic level, and every system of ethics has attempted to formulate its own set of personal ethics. Individual ethics is often termed psychological ethics because psychology is at the root of the formulation of individual ethics. For a long time ethics was concerned exclusively with individual ethics, and even now most ethical discussions are confined to it.

Gradually the notion that a group ethic exists came to be recognised. Sometimes the group is restricted to smaller subset of the whole population, as when it relates to a profession or a trade. It is in this sense that we can speak of medical ethics or advertising ethics. However the group can also encompass a broad community even the whole of society. At this level we are dealing with social ethics. Even now there is some reluctance to admit social ethics is a legitimate area of moral theory and practice. Some of the most controversial areas in ethics belong to social ethics.

What is Humanism?

The term Humanism became a term of intellectual discourse during the Renaissance, an intellectual movement that began in the 14th century associated with the revival of interest in classical philosophy. The name most associated with the Renaissance is Erasmus (1466 - 1536) but his humanism was far from what would be understood by the term now. The modern usage of the term begins with the views of a number of philosophers in the period referred to as the Enlightenment (1680 - 1815). These writers challenged the accepted views in a number of areas, most importantly views based on the dominant religion (Christianity). Only a few philosophers like David Hume took a nearly atheistic stand, but most others downgraded the reliance on God as the basis for the explanation of many things including moral philosophy, and replaced God with human reason even though some place was still reserved to God in some ultimate sense.

Secular Humanism has progressed far from the early concerns of the Enlightenment, and today presents itself as an alternative to supernatural religion in all areas including ethics. The basic statement of the Humanist Society of Queensland puts it as follows: "As a philosophy Humanism asserts that human beings have arisen out of the operation of natural physical and biological laws, that they are not subject to any extra-human supernatural agency, and that they are the arbiters of their own destiny." The first two of the basic principles of Humanism identified by the HSQ are:

  • The primary concern of human beings should be with humanity (collectively and individually), and the environment (including nature and other species) in which they operate.

Since humans could also be included in 'nature' in its widest sense this simply asserts that humanism deals only with the natural. Thus the supernatural is ruled out. But this exception is so important that it should be stated explicitly. Thus the second principle of humanism is:

  • Human beings are not subject to God or any divine agency, and have no obligation to love, fear or obey any supernatural power.

When we refer to humanism in this essay we shall mean secular humanism unless the term is qualified in some way. Some people use the term 'humanism' is a very general way to denote any concern with human beings, but such concerns will be described as being humanistic concerns.


Significance of Ethics to Humanism


Ethics is more important for humanism than it is for other non-religious approaches like scepticism, atheism or free-thought. All these aspects are also important for humanism, but it is the ethical concern of humanism that sets it apart from them. Thus a consideration of the ethics of humanism is very important.

2. Main Approaches to Ethical Theory

Over the course of time several approaches to moral philosophy or ethical theory have been developed. The following are some of these main approaches which will be useful in the subsequent discussion.

(a) Moral Nihilism. This denies that morality exists and that all actions have an equal value. It is also sometimes called amoralism even though this term may mean that there are acts which are amoral co-existing with acts to which a moral value can be attached. Clearly humanist ethics does not entail any moral nihilism. This view is sometimes attributed to Nietzche, even though his views are more complex than a simple denial of moral standards.

(b) Moral Absolutism. This is the view that there is one true morality which does not entail any moral conflicts. So there is no need to override moral principles. Moral Absolutism is based upon a simple rule which is used to evaluate the moral quality of alternatives. An example of moral absolutism is a version of the moral philosophy of Emmanuel Kant. The principle Kant employs is called the Categorical Imperative which states something like "there is good" rather than the Hypothetical Imperative which asserts something like "if there is good". Most people will argue that humanist ethics does not belong to the species of absolutist morals.

(c) Moral Subjectivism. This holds that moral principles apply to the agent alone. It implies that there is no need for the individual to bother with anybody else's moral principles. There are some humanists who adopt a position like moral subjectivism but I do not think that humanist ethics should be based purely on subjective criteria.

(d) Moral Relativism. This assumes that groups of individuals can choose their own moral principles, and while they apply to the group as a whole they may not be relevant for a different group. Some schools of post-modernists argue in this way but ethical relativism violates some fundamental principles of humanism.

(e) Moral Conventionalism. This is a form of moral relativism but instead of the values being determined by the individual alone it is arrived by a process of social choice or interpersonal agreement. Sometimes humanist ethics is considered as a species of ethical conventionalism.

(f) Moral Objectivism. This considers moral principles as having universal validity, but they could be overridden by other principles under certain circumstances. Many systems of ethics, including secular humanism, imply such a position, but of course they differ radically amongst each other.

(g) Moral Scepticism. This claims that we cannot know whether there are moral truths.

These positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is possible for a particular ethical system to share more than one of these properties and some do.


3. Religious Ethics


While from the philosophical perspective several kinds of ethics may be identified for secular humanist ethics one particular distinction is important. This is the distinction between religious ethics and secular ethics. It would therefore be useful to make some comments on religious ethics before considering secular ethics.

Most religions present some schema of ethics or other. Indeed some religions like to present themselves as the sole repository of morality. Advocates or propagandists for religion very often advance the argument that without religion there will be no morality. This is best reflected in the oft-quoted statement by Dostoevsky that "If God did not exist then everything will be permitted".

Religious ethics comes in several different packages corresponding to the different religions. Even if we confine ourselves to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic (JCI) family of religions which share a great deal of common ground there are significant differences in their respective ethics. If we compare these religious ethics to other religions originating in India or China the differences in their respective ethics become even greater. In this essay we shall confine ourselves to the three middle-eastern religions, and specifically to Christianity. All three religions postulate a monotheistic God, and this God stands in the very centre of their ethical theory.

Is God essential for Ethics?

This is a question which was posed quite early in Western philosophy. Plato in a dialogue ascribed to Socrates (Euthyphro) raised the question whether the moral rules favoured by the gods were good because the gods favoured them, or whether the gods advocated them because they were good. In the latter case, which is what Plato appeared to favour, the goodness of moral rules are anterior to, and exist independently of, the gods. God merely discover these moral laws and commend them to people. But if the gods can discover these moral laws, then so could humans through the exercise of some other faculty like reason.

The Greek philosophers were not monotheists, but later scholastics like St Augustine and Aquinas recast Greek thought into the monotheistic Christian mould from

which it was not rescued until the Renaissance. In the Christian interpretation of Plato's thought the position becomes reversed and God is made into the giver of all values. However the view that the goodness of things are independent of God is not strictly an atheistic or even an agnostic view. Even Kant who was very influential in modern Western ethics supported a position similar to that of Plato.

The Old Testament Ethics

We first encounter the ethical theory of the JCI religions as commands laid down by God. The Old Testament records these commands as being communicated to Moses by God. Thsi scripture is recognised by both Christianity and Judaism. The Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, define the principal ethical rules of these two religions.

In Islam too ethical rules derive principally from God. Muhammad claimed to have received his revelation from an arch-angel who communicated what God had written down in the Koran (2). Muhammad claims it is the same God who spoke to Moses, so God seems to have changed his mind from the time he gave the commands to Moses and to Muhammad. Muhammad claimed that as the "seal" of the prophets there would be no further revision in the divine revelation.

The Mosaic Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17) are:

1. Do not have any other gods before Yahweh.

2. Do not worship "graven images".

3. Do not take the "name of the Lord thy God in vain".

4. Keep the sabbath day.

5. Honour the father and mother.

6. Do not kill.

7. Do not commit adultery.

8. Do not steal

9. Do not bear false witness against the neighbour.

10. Do not covet (in the following order) the neighbour's house, wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, ass, nor anything else.

The first four of these commandments are religious ones and would not usually figure under ethical conduct. The fifth one (honouring one's parents) may be admitted as an ethical rule provided the parents are worthy of honour. The next four (Rules 5 - 9) are basic rules of personal ethical conduct. The final one is a milder version of 8, i.e instead of stealing the things mentioned people are exhorted not even to "covet" (i.e. desire) them.

Thus the basic ethical commandments of Moses are the rules against murder, theft, adultery, and false witness. These rules of course were not originated by Moses, or, as he alleges, by God. They have been stated many times before even in the area in which Moses and his people lived and wandered, e.g in decrees of some Pharaohs, in the laws of Hammurabi, etc.

They have also been stated by ethical teachers in other places, e.g. the Buddha and Confucius before the time the Old Testament was composed. Thus the minimum level of ethical conduct in Buddhism are the five precepts and four of these could be identified with the four Mosaic rules. But the Buddhist rules are more extensive in scope, e.g killing applies to all sentient being not only humans (3). In fact the Mosaic commandments appear to be even more restrictive and to apply only to relationships between the "chosen people" amongst each other as the emphasis on the "neighbour" seems to imply.

Before considering how Jews and Christians have justified the Mosaic laws we may consider the contribution of Jesus to the question of ethics.

The Ethics of Jesus

To the ethics of the Old Testament we have to add the ethics given in the New Testament. Christians like to present Jesus as advocating a higher morality than that contained in Judaism, so it may be appropriate to consider the moral teachings of Jesus. The principal source for these teachings is the so-called "sermon on the mount". This occurs in two places in the New Testament (Matt. 5 - 7 and Luke 6:17-49) with the usual inconsistencies that are evident in the different Gospel stories. The "Sermon" contain both pure moral rules as well as religious duties such as instruction on how to pray. Most of the prohibitions in the Decalogue are repeated, but there is an attempt to go beyond them and complement the negative statements with positive ones.

If we take the longest version of the Sermon, that given in Matthew (ch. 5) there is first of all the statement of support for the old laws (5:17-20) beginning with the statement: "Think not I have come to destroy the law, or the prophets". This involves an acceptance of the Mosaic commandments and other laws, but these are extended in several respects (5:21-30) and some new laws promulgated (5:31-48).

The precept against killing is expanded by exhorting his followers to desist from anger against their "brothers", even asserting: " whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire" (5:22). The prohibition against adultery is expanded by saying "whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery" (5:28) and the addition of the new law: "whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery" (5:32). The proscription against swearing is expanded by excluding several other things being used as objects of swearing. There is also a curious restriction speaking: "But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil" (5:37). More extensive changes are made in connection with the old rule of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth". These include the following maxims: "whoso-ever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also ... if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also... whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away" (5:39-42). The maxim on love is expanded to include: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you".

These virtues, especially that of love, are usually held up as constituting the high point of Jesus' ethical teachings. However love for one's fellow is always held as inferior to love for one's God and compared to the few instances where the former is extolled there are far more instances of the latter.

These exhortations to generosity, love, etc. were made to his followers; they strictly applied to the brotherhood. In this it parallels the Mosaic restriction of the moral rules to the chosen people. Jesus himself seems to have adhered to this rule of excluding those who did not agree with him from the virtues which he exhorts his followers to extend to their brothers. It has been noticed that his treatment to those who did not choose to hear him was met with a degree of resentment, e.g. by cursing. And those who indulged in practices disapproved of were treated more severly (e.g. the traders in the temple). Nietzche regarded the love that Jesus advocated as actually being a mask for evil. Nietzche looked on the Jewish morality, and in particular that of Christianity, as being the morality of the slave as against the morality of a superior class. He held that slaves may be motivated for love for each other combined with a common hatred for their oppressors. As slaves may not have any realistic hope of release so is prone to look for delivery in an other-worldly state.

Niezche's interpretation of the moral teaching of Jesus get greater support from the version of the sermon in the mount given in Luke which is quite inferior from an ethical point of view. Here the religious tone is greater and it starts with Jesus performing his healing miracles (6:17-19). The beatitudes also emphasise the poor and the weak: "Blessed be ye poor ... Blessed are ye that hunger ... Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you... for your reward is great in heaven" (6:19-23). This is followed by curses to the opposite kind: "But woe unto you that are rich! ... Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. ... Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you!" (6:24-26). This is then followed buy exhortations to love, charity, etc. as in Matthew, considered earlier.

Natural Law and Divine Command Theories.

In the Old Testament there is no justification given for the Mosaic rules other than simply stating them as instruction received by Moses from God. Jusus' additions in the N.T. are also in a similar vein. However later theologians have attempted to justify these in terms of broader principles. The best known of these justifications are those advanced on the grounds of natural law and divine command.

The best known advocate of the natural law theory of biblical ethics is the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. It is official position of the Catholic Church in the modern day and has been defended by a school of Catholic philosophers called the neo-Thomists such as the French Catholic Jacques Maritain.

Aquinas seems to start from the reasonable premiss that people have the capacity to discover for themselves what is good and what is evil out of their basic human nature. This he calls a natural law. In his Summa Theologica (Part II, section XIII on The Law) he poses the question "Whether there is in us a natural law?" (Question 92). As he answers this in the affirmative it might appear that he does not rely on divine providence for the discovery of moral laws. However this is a illusion when we examine what he means "natural law". This is not for him something separate from divine law, or as he calls it "eternal law", but actually rests on the basis of divine law. Thus he writes:

"...since all things subject to divine providence are ruled and measure by the eternal law, in so far as, namely, from its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends. Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine providence in a more excellent way, in so far as it itself partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others. Therefore it has a share of eternal reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end; and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law". (4)


It is clear from this that the ultimate sanction for natural law and the exercise of reason by people is the divine law. For Aquinas God was part of Nature, in fact the first principle of nature. Thus God's commands could be seen as part of natural law. Even though Aquinas may argue that the Christian ethics are natural because normal person acknowledge them almost intuitively, such as for instance the proscriptions against killing, theft, and the like, this is by no means true of the first five rules of the Mosaic decalogue. Either these have to be left out, and there is no case argued for doing this by Aquinas, or we have to justify them on some other schema of what constitutes nature. So ultimately even though Aquinas formally rejects the proposition that we have to accept the Mosaic rules because they are God given this is in fact what he finally acknowledges by his view that natural is itself "imprinted" on humans by divine providence (5).

However this is not the way in which Nature is seen by secularists. They look on nature as consisting only on those things in the Universe which are empirically observable. Many scientific laws which have not been refuted by contrary evidence can be considered as part of natural law. And there is nothing in these laws which would validate the scheme of values set out in the Mosaic commandments.

During the Protestant reformation its leaders repudiated the theories of Aquinas along with other sources of Papal authority. This led to a rehabilitation of the Divine Command theory for ethics. This simply states that what is good and bad, right and wrong is set out by God in the divine revelation and that human reason cannot go beyond the divine command.

From the rationalist point of view the Divine command theory of ethics can only be considered if it can be shown that the divine author exists and has the requisite powers and capacities to make the right judgement. But belief in God is simply a matter of faith. Something taken on the basis of faith does not require evidence or proof.

Conflicts in Religious Ethics

One of the greatest objections to religious ethics is that the different religions do not present the same moral values, and often there is a serious disagreement on the moral value of certain actions. We have seen that even as between Judaism and Christianity there are important differences. However the differences between Islam and the two other religions to which it is related are very much greater.

Islamic ethics resolves itself into a large number of specific rules governing the conduct of those who follow the faith. Many of these rules, like those relating to the position of women in Society have become highly retrograde.

With contradictory ethical values advocated in the various religions it is clear that they all cannot emanate from the same divine agency.



4. Is there a Rational Basis for Ethics?


When we turn to humanist ethics we have to pose the same questions that have been posed in the consideration of religious ethics. These are the basis for the ethics concerned and the specific ethics involved. This first question will be considered in this section and some practical humanist ethics in the next two sections.

Human Reason and Humanist Ethics

A conventional statement of humanist ethics is given in a Humanist Society of Queensland leaflet a follows:

Humanists promote a secular system of ethics that is derived from human experience. They do not subscribe to the view that an ethical stance requires the adoption of supernatural dogmas. Through the exercise of reason it is possible to construct an ethical system that permits society to function smoothly and for individuals to follow an enjoyable life stance without detriment to their fellow humans or other life forms.

This statement argues that humanist ethics could be derived from empiricism and rationalism. Both strands were developed by the philosophers of the enlightenment Empiricism is largely associated with philosophers like Hobbes and Locke and they originated the utilitarian approach to moral theory. Specifically it is claimed that the exercise of reason enables us to construct a scheme of humanist ethics. But a lot of things are hidden in that simple statement and it is the purpose here to explore some of these.

Fundamental problem here is that it may not be possible to derive through the application of the scientific method moral laws comparable to, say, the laws of physics. While reason is a highly prized human faculty there are limits to reason and may be the derivation of moral laws may be one of them. One of the earliest philosophers to sound a caution on this is David Hume whose final position was one of skepticism. This is particularly important because Hume was the only philosopher of the Enlightenment who could be called an atheist (or at least an agnotic), even though others like Spinoza came quite close to it. Hume was also a critic of Christianity refuting many of the so-called proofs for the existence of God, certainly the most important critique of Christianity before Nietzsche.

Hume established the distinction between the positive and the normative. Positive statements may either be true of false, and this could be established by empirical or rational methods. Normative statements are value judgements and the normal scientific criteria cann be used to derive them. Moral philosophy belongs to the normative category and would thus pose a great difficulty for anyone trying to establish a system of secular ethics entirely on empirical and rational grounds. However rational methods is not entirely useless if we base the search for humanist ethics on some specific principle. We shall in the rest of this section consider some of principles that had been used in constructing a system of humanist ethics. While none of these in itself may be adequate a combination of these approaches may be useful. We shall consider four approaches, ethics based on the Golden Rule, on Utilitarianism, on an innate moral sense, and on a priori principles defining Humanism.

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule has sometimes been cited as providing the rationale for humanist ethics. This rule states that one should do to others what one would expect others to do to oneself. This rule owes its popularity in the West because it is one of rules given out by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt.7:12; Luke 6:31). It is also said to be contained in other religions as well (6), but it has rarely been given the prominence given to it in Christian scripture.

The rule is relevant only for personal ethics and will not be relevant for many issues of a social ethics . Even as a basis for individual ethics it is highly subjective in character and will depend on the person considered. Not all people have the same system of individual values, so it is quite possible that different ethical codes could be operative at the same time. While this may be technically possible in actual fact it is likely to create conflict.

There is no theoretical justification for the Golden Rule in terms of some higher meta-ethical principle.


This is the principle that only conduct which yields satisfaction or enjoyment is the approved conduct. The booklet The Humanists puts this principle in its section on Humanist Morality as follows:

"Humanists believe that a fulfilling life including harmonious relationships with other people is an adequate although not complete guide to behaviour. The best code of behaviour is that which promotes a happy and satisfying life for all, not only in the short term but into the distant future".

The utilitarian principle was one which emerged in the Enlightenment but was refined by Bentham and Mill in the nineteenth century. A society organised according to the utilitarian principle was supposed to guarantee the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The big problem with utilitarianism is resolving the conflict when one person's enjoyment or happiness is purchased at the cost of another person's. As economic systems became increasingly complex and inter-dependent many ethical problems could arise which cannot be resolved on the utilitarian principle.

Because of its advocacy of the principle of self-interest utilitarianism became a dominant influence in the free-market economic which emerged in the nineteenth century, and after a retreat in the middle half of the twentieth has again emerged as the dominant economic ideology of the last quarter of the twentieth century.


Moral Sense Theory of Ethics

The Moral Sense theory was also advanced in the Enlightenment partly to counter the notion of self-interest implicit in utilitarian thinking. Like utilitarianism it used some aspects of Locke's psychological theory and it argued that moral obligations come from benevolent feelings which are also natural to humans. The theory of the existence of a natural moral sense is usually associated with the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson. Other philosophers who also embraced in whole or part the notion of a moral sense were David Hume and Adam Smith. They argued that human being possessed a natural sense of empathy towards other humans which they called sympathy. This trait could co-exist with its opposite, the competitive instinct, which puts humans in an adversarial position with respect to each other. Sympathy is what we would today call compassion. It was not generally emphasised in Judeo-Christianity, and is quite different from the notion of love which became prominent in Christianity.

Adam Smith illustrates very well the interplay of these two forces. In his work on moral philosophy The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1760) he used Sympathy as the dominant human feeling, but in the economic work The Wealth of Nations (1776) he opted for the competitive instinct. It was the latter which was to be adopted by the mainstream of economic thinking.

Many people intuitively feel that people are endowed naturally with a moral sense, i.e. a conscience even though they may not follow the dictates of conscience. If this is so then a system of humanist ethics could be built on this principle. But we can never be sure whether the conscience of two people will be the same confronted with the same set of circumstances. If conscience or moral sense is not innate but an educated feeling then of course there is no natural moral sense and we are cannot ground a system of humanist ethics purely on such an entity.

Charles Darwin in his last major work ventured the opinion that any animal with well-developed social instincts will "acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers has become as well, or nearly as well, developed as in man" (The Descent of Man). However empirical proof of this in man, let alone other species, is extremely difficult.

Axiomatic Definition of Humanist Ethics

An alternative to principles like the Golden Rule, Utilitarianism and Innate Moral Sense is what may be called the axiomatic definition of humanist ethics. Under this the ethics are derived from a pre-existing definition of humanist principles. Then actions which are supportive of these rules, and do not violate them, could be considered as coming within the ambit of Humanist ethics. The first step is not to start with ethics but to start with a statement of the fundamental principles of humanism. This method will avoid the problems associated with the methods discussed earlier.

This will of course shift the entire burden of the definition of ethics onto the definition (or formulation) of humanist principles. This is fundamentally an a priori choice relating to the kind of system one favours, e.g. a religionist one or a humanist one. There is nothing necessarily arbitrary in this other than the exercise of deliberate choice in choosing what one considers the most appropriate. This way of formulating humanist ethics involves adopting a teleological or consequentialist position while the other kinds of criteria we have discussed appear to be more deontological (i.e. conforming to criteria laid down anterior to the event).

As to how the principles of Humanism are defined there are several approaches to take. These principles must be stated in clear and succinct terms with every term used capable of an unambiguous definition. The Appendix to this document contains a scheme of 11 Basic Principles of Humanism. This scheme will be used to illustrate the different problems in our discussion of humanist ethics.


5. Personal or Individual Humanist Ethics


Significance of Individual Ethics

Individual ethics has usually been at the core of ethics. Most systems of religious ethics are confined entirely to it. Personal ethics here refers to the comportment of a human being considered as a unit in himself or herself. Usually acts of individuals have an impact on others. For instance stealing is usually considered a transgression of an individual ethic. This act however impacts on other individuals, in this case the person whose property is stolen. But one may not classify it as a group ethical rule because it may be possible that the act may be committed without there being a specific "victim", or the victim may not be aware of the theft, or might not care about it. But the act could be evaluated nonetheless and deemed to be contrary to accepted ethical conduct.

Five Rules of Individual Ethics

The five rules of individual ethics which are advocated here are given as the Basic Principles 11(i) to 11(v). The first four of these ethical rules are contained in various religious codes. The Mosaic Decalogue contains four of them as also does the maxims of Confucius. The Precepts of the Buddha contain all five although in an extended form. Other religions may imply these but they may not be stated explicitly as religious commands or maxims. Thus Hinduism does not contain these individual rules explicitly even though they may be implicit is some of the rules in their legal books. Islam justifies holy war (jihad) and killing people for this purpose is sanctioned not only in theory but also by the personal example of Muhammad. However Islam (along with Buddhism) are the only religion to explicitly admit something like Principle 11(v).

While there is a great similarity between religious and secular ethics as far as these maxims of individual ethics are concerned, there is a great difference in the reasons for their adoption. The religious justification is ultimately the Divine Command Theory. For secular humanism we may justify these on some rule like the Golden Rule, Utilitarianism, or the argument from Moral sense, or as I prefer the axiomatic definition.

Ethical Relativism or Absolutism?

A question that must be addressed is whether humanist ethical rules, either the personal ones given above, or the social ones given later, are absolute or relative. I would contend that Humanist ethics must have some degree of absoluteness although not perfect inflexibility. Religious ethics often claim to be inflexible, but very often later "revelations" may abrogate or nullify existing ethical rules.

By relativity I do not mean that one set of people have one set of ethical values and another a different one. I think secular ethics, like any other scheme of ethics, must be universalist. But relativity could mean relativity to circumstance in the sense that one circumstance will determine whether a particular action is deemed ethical, while another circumstance will makes its opposite the correct course of action. It could also imply whetehr exceptions can be allowed for humanist ethical rules. For instances is killing in self-defence justifiable? Should the man who is hiding a Jew answer the Gestapo man's questions truthfully? I feel that even in some situations exceptions can be tolerated but not in others.

There is a criterion that could be used in evaluating such conflicts between ethical rules. One way of applying this criterion is to determine which of the two principles involved is the more fundamental (7). If this can be determined then the lesser principle can be sacrificed. Another is to determine which of the two virtues is deemed the higher and this could be used. Thus a doctor who had determined that his patient has only a few days to live may chose to lie.

Humanism does not generally prescribe penalties for the violation of its ethical principles. Religions however do postulate various forms of punishment. In theocratic states this punishment may be imposed by ecclesiastic courts, e.g. the Inquisition under Christianity, or the punishment may be inflicted after death on the day of judgement. Today in Islamic countries the religious courts have the power to impose punishment, even the death penalty, for transgressions, e.g. for apostasy or blasphemy.

Humanists argue that the question of crime and punishment is a matter for the state. They of course would argue for changes in the penal code where the existing definition of crimes or punishments involve conflicts with what they would regard as a humanist scheme of ethics.


6. Other Issues in Practical Humanist Ethics


The other areas of practical ethics may be described as social because they involve other agents. The range of things that can be included in this kind of practical ethics is enormous. Not only do most areas of private and public decision making involve some ethical principle, new areas of ethical enquiry are constantly emerging. Thus many of the ethical problems created by new technologies like genetic engineering were not known even a decade ago. This constantly changing area of practical ethics means that we cannot exhaust even the most common ones adequately in an essay like the present one.

Let us first look at the issues of practical ethics advanced by Peter Singer (8) in his book Practical Ethics (Cambridge, 1979). The issues selected by Singer are those that he sees as relevant to contemporary times. In this book he mentions "treatment of racial minorities, equality for women, the use of animals for food and research, abortion, euthanasia, and the obligation of the wealthy to help the poor". It will be seen that this includes some of the concerns of humanists, and indeed Peter Singer has been considered to be humanist even though there is no declaration on his part that he is one.

Ethics of Equality

Some of the concerns voiced by Peter Singer like treatment of women and ethnic minorities really relate to the principle of non-discrimination. We have adopted this as an axiom. Since these ethical maxims have received a measure of social consensus a further discussion of them may not be warranted beyond the treatment of the subjects in Singer's book. The basic humanistic principle involved is principle 9, the principle of non-discrimination.

However we have to deal with a more radical ethic, the ethic of economic equality. Singer speaks of "the rich helping the poor". If it is pure charity then there would be no ethical problem but suppose it is claimed that economic inequality is intrinsically unethical. Not many humanists would support a distribution of wealth that is perfectly equal, but not many will support the inequality that is currently existing.

Ethics and Specism

Peter Singer has been very pro-active in supporting the rights of animals. In Christianity God is supposed to have given dominion to man over animals. This is the basis for the massive exploitation of animals for human use and human consumption that has now reached enormous proportions. Other religious ethics like those of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism recognise the rights of non-human species to a much greater extent.

I am not sure what the humanist position on this is. The principles laid down in the charter in the appendix exclude the rights of species. Perhaps this is a principle that should be included in the list of humanist principles.


Humanists recognise the right given to women of abortion in the early months of pregnancy. The "right-to-life" deny abortion at any stage after conception. The ethic of non-killing applies to humans (even if we exclude other species). Now crucial to this is the definition of who a human is. Humanists do not consider this as been purely determined by DNA.

Principle 5 of our Basic Principles of Humanism defines what is meant by an autonomous human being and this would exclude abortion in early pregnancy as an unethical act.

Voluntary Euthanasia

This again is permissible under secular humanism but not under most systems of religious ethics. Central to this is the definition of killing involved in Principle 11(i) of the Basic Principles.

Other Ethical Issues

There are a vast number of other specific humanist ethics which are not mentioned in Peter Singer's book. These include a whole host of things like prperty rights (particularly the newly developed right to intellectual property), civil rights, rights in the educational area, and many other issues which have general agreement between humanists. There are others which are less well known and on which there is some differences between humanists. These include things like eugenics, genetic engineering, genetically modified foods, etc. It also includes the right for secularists to be entitled to privileges now available to religionists.

Many of the practical ethical issues advocated by Humanists are also advocated by other groups dedicated exclusively to these goals. If we consider the ethic of environmental conservation this is now advocated by a growing number of bodies dealing with this ecological issues. It is therefore not surprising that Humanists have tended to emphasise those issues which are not generally advocated by other groups.

7. Post modernist critique of secular ethics

Humanist ethics is not without its critics. Humanism has always been opposed by religionists and the religionist critique of humanist ethics is to be expected. Fortunately it is also the easiest to refute. Despite the passage of time the religious apologia is still fundamentally the same. Theologians are constantly spinning new theories but they have to use the same old materials and these have been exploded over and over again. There is nothing worthwhile remaining in the religious critique of humanism and its ethics.

However in recent times Humanist ideas have been attacked from a new quarter, which we shall call post-modernism. There is no clear ideology behind this movement and indeed the very definition of the term is subject to great dispute. A modern Critique has defined it as follows:

"Postmodernism is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emanicipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms it sees the world as contingent, ungrounded diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations..." Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Blackwell, 1996), p.vii

While many people confine post-modernism to recent trends in art and literature others extend it to philosophy in general. Under this extension it is sometimes argued that all ethical values are relative and all schemes of ethics are "valid". This would mean that equal importance should be attached to Christian ethics as to Muslim ethics, to religious ethics as to secular ethics, to Nazi ethics as to democratic values. Clearly this exposes the absurdity of this approach.

While we cannot expose this critique of humanism here we may refer to an implicit critique by a Queensland academic A. Tuan Nuyen in the course of a re-interpretation of an early essay by Bertrand Russell "A Free Man's Worship" (9). The free man of Russell is the free man liberated from religious dogma. But Tuan Nuyen says: "I wish to argue that Russell's do not constitute a philosophical prohibition of religion despite appearance to the contrary... Russell's 'renunciation' in the essay, if it is a renunciation of God and religion, is ironically an Annunciation".

The proof of this extraordinary claim is based on a clear distortion of Russell's argument. Russell says, quite metaphorically: "Man creates God, all-powerful and all-good, the mystic unity of what is and what should be" and "Shall our God exist and be evil, or shall he be recognized as the creation of our own conscience?" Such statements do not imply an affirmation or an "Anunciation" of God, religion or divinely ordained ethical rules, but merely the statement that "God" is pure a creation of the human mind and could be invested with any property, good or bad.

Postmodernist thinking is no different from the shallow argument of Tuan Nuyen. What can be demonstrated is the post modernism is incapable of refuting the position of secular humanism on ethics or any other subject.


Basic Principles of Secular Humanism


1. The only relevant spheres of action for humans are humanity in a collective sense, human beings as individuals and the physical environment (including nature) in which they operate.

2. Human beings are not subject to God or any divine agency. They have no obligation to love, fear or obey any such supernatural agent.

3. All beliefs must be founded on reason and human experience. Where the progress of knowledge reveals that any belief is or becomes untenable it should be abandoned.

4. All human beings are entitled to inalienable human rights such as those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

5. These rights inhere to humans from the time the human fetus becomes a viable biological entity capable of independent existence without physical or organic dependence on another human being.

6. Humans do not have a right of dominion over animals and the environment, it being recognised that humans along with many other species of animals do change their environment by their very existence.

7. Children shall not be subjected to physical and mental abuse, nor to religious or political indoctrination by parents or others. The rights of children should be codified in a charter of children's rights.

8. Civil laws should be arrived at by a collective consensual process and should promote the common good, not the tenets of a particular religion or philosophy.

9. Special privileges should not be given to any group on the basis of religious or philosophical belief, nor should any group be discriminated against on an unfair way.

10. There is no conclusive evidence that life exists after death so humans should exert themselves primarily in terms of their present life.

11. Ethical rules should be based on reason and human experience and should inter alia promote:

(i) Non-injury to life and the physical well-being of persons.

(ii) Respect for rights and property of others

(iii) Avoidance of sexual violence

(iv) Abstaining from falsehood, fraud and deception

(v) Avoidance of addiction to substances causing physical or mental harm.


1. There are two main kinds of meta-ethical theories, the cognitive and the non-cognitive depending on whether they affirm or deny that moral terms are qualities in the world and that moral judgements are a kind of knowledge. Normative ethics has also two broad divisions: deontological (derived from principles antecedent to the act) or teleological or consequentialist (derived from the consequences of the act).

2. There is a second level of Islamic jurisprudence (the Hadith) which relate to the actual practices of Muhammad. The rules of conduct, ethical or otherwise, from both the Koran and the Hadith have been compiled into the set of Islamic laws, the Sharia. Judicial interpretations of the Sharia have added a further tier to Islamic ethical rules.

3. On Buddhist ethics see the reference to the author's article on Buddhist ethics on the link given in the internet page <www.uq.net.au/slsoc/manussa/ethics.htm>

4. Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Acquinas (ed. A.C.Pegis) Random House, 1945, Vol. II, p.750.

5. Some people have even called Aquinas a humanist. This is almost completely in appropriate on almost any interpretation of humanism, and certainly not on the secular humanist interpretation. In fact in this regard, by his subsuming God in nature he actually takes an anti-humanist position.

6. The booklet The Humanists issued by the Humanist Society of Queensland has citations from Hinduism, Confucius, the Buddha, Jainism, Judaism, Jesus and Epictetus supporting this rule.

7. The relative order of importance of the various humanist principles is one to which some thought has to be given. The order in which they are listed can be used to indicate their ranking order. In the scheme of principles given in the appendix the personal ethical rules figure as the last principle. This is however something that may be argued and some might consider it of sufficient importance to figure after the core principles of humanism (e.g. principles 1 - 4).

8. Peter Singer is an Australian academic who has advocated several controversial positions in ethics. He has been interested in problems of equality (gender, ethnicity etc.), the taking of "life" (e.g. in euthanasia, abortion, etc.), animal rights, political violence, civil disobedience, etc.

9. Russell's essay was published in 1903 and not revised since. Tuan Nuyen's critique is in the article "What Does the Free Man Worship", International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 46 1999 pp 35-48.






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