4.2.3  Non-Religious Foundations for Moral Values

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/423.htm)

Although religion remains strong overall, there are many people who don't believe in it.  In Britain, for example, a recent survey showed that only a third of respondents described themselves as religious and 82% saw religion as a cause of tension and division.[1]

If obedience to God is not accepted as a basis for a moral code, and if people believe that they only have earthly lives, there are other ways of demonstrating why good behaviour is desirable.  Numerous philosophers have thought about, and written about, ethics.  The prime interest for this book, as already explained, is in the need for agreed standards of behaviour.  Political philosophy, which attends to theories about how people should govern their affairs, is directly relevant.  There are three main schools of political philosophy, which were described by Andrew Levine in these terms:

“Contractarians would uphold individuals' interests by imagining how idealized, rational agents would look out for themselves in hypothetical states of nature. Hobbes was a contractarian; his social contract was a pact individuals enter into because it is straightforwardly in their interests to do so. Rousseau was a contractarian too…”

“Rights theorists uphold individuals' interests by according priority to morally primary rights, interests that take precedence over other considerations. Locke was a rights theorist…”

“John Stuart Mill (1806-73) was neither a contractarian nor a rights theorist. He represented the third major, modern moral philosophical position, utilitarianism. Utilitarians would accommodate individuals' interests in a very direct and commonsensical way – by seeking to have them be as well satisfied as possible.” [2]

Levine's use of the term 'contractarian' illustrates a problem in its use: it refers to "hypothetical states of nature" whereas this book, because it is concerned with current negotiation in real situations, avoids using the philosophical term.  The three schools of thought that he identifies are not mutually exclusive; they represent three different starting points for providing a rational justification for a moral code but they all advocate the Golden Rule.  This book’s endnotes provide links to Internet copies of relevant works by Hobbes,[3] Rousseau,[4] Locke[5] and Mill.[6]

Immanuel Kant was not categorised by Levine as a political philosopher, but he too advocated a form of the Golden Rule.  A rational basis for deciding whether behaviour is good is to apply the Kantian “categorical imperative”: to ask oneself whether one would want everybody to behave that way.[7]  Kant’s imperative can be taken as calling for reciprocity – and ‘the ethic of reciprocity' is another name for the Golden Rule.  All these quoted philosophies can be taken to be consistent with the Golden Rule, and they would often agree about moral behaviour in everyday circumstances, even though they might disagree in some difficult situations.[8]

It is also possible to derive the Golden Rule by appealing to empathy: one avoids harming others because one imagines what it would be like to have that harm done to oneself.   Buddhists take this approach,[9] for example.  

There is an emerging "science of morality" that seeks to collect empirical evidence and develop psychological theories that explain why people behave as they do – and this work has revealed evidence of empathetic behaviour from a very early age.[10]  Frans de Waal has gone further, and linked our biological nature directly to the Golden Rule:

“Without claiming other primates as moral beings, it is not hard to recognise the pillars of morality in their behaviour. These pillars are summed up in our golden rule, which transcends the world’s cultures and religions. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” brings together empathy (attention to others’ feelings) and reciprocity (if others follow the same rule, you will be treated well). Human morality could not exist without empathy and reciprocity – tendencies found in our fellow primates”. [11]

It is argued by de Waal and others that mankind has evolved to be a cooperative species because groups which exhibit supportive behaviours will survive better than those that do not.[12] 

Modern neurobiology suggests a mechanism by which the brain develops its desire to make other people feel safe and comfortable.[13]

People who are not religious, though, do not need to turn to scientists or philosophers to justify their moral values.  Without recourse to any other source of legitimacy, it is possible to explain to people why it is rational to adhere to the Golden Rule.  Put simply, it is in one's self-interest to show consideration to other people, on the assumption that one may (eventually) receive similar consideration in return (though not necessarily from the same people).  This way of putting the argument invokes the concept of reciprocity.  The self-interest which underpins it can be referred to as ‘enlightened self-interest’ because one might not gain benefit for oneself from a good deed: the benefit is to society as a whole; one might benefit from the good deeds of others in a society accustomed to the practice.

In summary, there are many non-religious reasons for using the Golden Rule as a guide to moral behaviour.  That is not to say that everybody would agree with such a conclusion: “it might not satisfy those who want their morality to be awesome, formidable, transcendent or great”.[14]  But an individual who does not see the need to show consideration to other people would perhaps not receive much kindness in return.  This would not be a happy situation for such individuals or anyone who came into contact with them.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014



[1] The Guardian published a poll on 23 December 2006, entitled Religion does more harm than good, which was available in May 2014 at http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/dec/23/religion.topstories3.

[2] Andrew Levine, Engaging Political Philosophy: from Hobbes to Rawls, p. 128.

[3] Thomas Hobbes’s book Leviathan was available in May 2014 at http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/hobbes/leviathan-contents.html.  At the end of chapter 13 (p. 188), Hobbes argued that rules of behaviour are necessary:

"Reason suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.  These Articles, are they, which otherwise are called the Lawes of Nature”.

In chapters 14 and 15 (pp. 189-214) he enumerated 19 such laws, and summarised them by saying:

“they have been contracted into one easie sum, intelligible, even to the meanest capacity; and that is, Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thy selfe”.

This is an articulation of the Golden Rule.  He then argued, in chapter 17 (p. 227), that it is in everyone's interests to set up a “sovereign” – a government:

"in such manner as if every man should say to every man: I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner".

[4] G. D. H. Cole’s translation of 2nd Discourse: What is the Origin of Inequality Among Men, and is it Authorised by Natural Law?, by Jean Jacques Rousseau, was available in May 2014 at http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/mickelsen/texts/Rousseau%20-%202ndDiscourse.txt.  In Part I, paras. 37-38, Rousseau described man’s innate "compassion", which can be considered as the basis for the Golden Rule:

“Mandeville well knew that, in spite of all their morality, men would have never been better than monsters, had not nature bestowed on them a sense of compassion, to aid their reason: but he did not see that from this quality alone flow all those social virtues, of which he denied man the possession. But what is generosity, clemency or humanity but compassion applied to the weak, to the guilty, or to mankind in general?”

“It is then certain that compassion is a natural feeling, which, by moderating the violence of love of self in each individual, contributes to the preservation of the whole species.

Do to others as you would have them do unto you, inspires all men with that other maxim of natural goodness, much less perfect indeed, but perhaps more useful; Do good to yourself with as little evil as possible to others.”

[5] John Locke’s book, The Second Treatise of Civil Government, was available in May 2014 at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7370.  In Chapter 2, section 4, he asserted that “all men are naturally in …a state …of equality” and followed that, in section 5, by quoting a version of the Golden Rule:

“This equality of men by nature, the judicious Hooker looks upon as so evident in itself, and beyond all question, that he makes it the foundation of that obligation to mutual love amongst men, on which he builds the duties they owe one another, and from whence he derives the great maxims of justice and charity. His words are, The like natural inducement hath brought men to know that it is no less their duty, to love others than themselves; for seeing those things which are equal, must needs all have one measure; if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man's hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is undoubtedly in other men, being of one and the same nature? To have any thing offered them repugnant to this desire, must needs in all respects grieve them as much as me; so that if I do harm, I must look to suffer, there being no reason that others should shew greater measure of love to me, than they have by me shewed unto them: my desire therefore to be loved of my equals in nature as much as possible may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to them-ward fully the like affection; from which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn, for direction of life, no man is ignorant, Eccl. Pol. Lib. 1.”

[6] John Stuart Mill’ book, Utilitarianism, was available in May 2014 at http://www.utilitarianism.com/mill1.htm. In chap. 2, p. 144, he defined that philosophy as:

“The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.”

In the same chapter, on p. 156, Mill then quoted the Golden Rule (without mentioning that it pre-dates Christianity):

“In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality”.

[7] Kant’s “categorical imperative” was: “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law”.  Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles Of The Metaphysic Of Morals, First Section, 17th Paragraph; this was available in May 2014 at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5682

Michael Sandel (in Justice, pp. 124-5) argues that Kant’s philosophy as a whole is not equivalent to the Golden Rule, because the ethic of reciprocity implies that morality is dependent upon other people rather than being the choices of an autonomous individual as Kant requires.  Whilst accepting the philosophical validity of Sandel’s argument, this book argues that the very essence of the Golden Rule complies with Kant’s categorical imperative in practice because everyone would will that everyone else should comply with it as a standard of behaviour – even if it doesn’t form the basis of a fully-reasoned set of principles.

[8] There are well-documented circumstances where philosophies diverge.  One such situation was ‘the lifeboat case’, which was an actual case brought to court: The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens, in 1884.  A cabin boy (who was an orphan) was sacrificed to save other crewmembers who had families, and there are different possible judgements:

A utilitarian might say that the sacrifice should be made, to benefit the greater number.

A rights theorist might argue that the rights of the cabin boy cannot be infringed.

A Kantian approach might argue that killing people is not an acceptable practice, so it is not right for any of the crewmembers to kill each other.

Michael Sandel used the example in a Harvard lecture, The Case for Cannibalism, which was broadcast on BBC 4 on 2 February 2011, to illustrate the difference between utilitarian and other philosophies.  The programme notes were available in May 2014 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00y5jfd.

There are numerous references to the case on the Internet, where a search under “The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens” retrieved over 40,000 results at that time. 

[9] Karen Armstrong cites the Buddha’s version of the Golden Rule in her book The Great Transformation (p. 287):

“a person who loves the self should not harm the self of others”.

Her reference for this quotation was Samyutta Nikaya 3.1-8.  She points out that the Buddha’s argument did not depend upon the authority of any deity, so it can be seen as a philosophy as well as being referred to by some as a religion.

[10] An Edge seminar, held in Bethlehem, Connecticut in July 2010, was titled The New Science of Morality and featured nine scientists working in this area.  The nine scientists were Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua D. Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Marc D. Hauser, Joshua Knobe, Elizabeth Phelps and David Pizarro.  A brief summary was downloadable in March 2014 from http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality10_index.html and there were several individual papers accessible from that page.

[11] Frans de Waal related empathy and the Golden Rule to our natures as social primates in his article How bad biology killed the economy, which was published in the Winter 2009 edition of the RSA Journal and was downloadable in May 2014 from http://www.thersa.org/fellowship/journal/archive/winter-2009/features/how-bad-biology-killed-the-economy.  This article appeared at about the same time as publication of his book The Age of Empathy.

[12] Richard Dawkins summarises the scientific argument for the evolution of empathy, and cites other writers who have done so, in The God Delusion, pages 245-254.  He also points out there (in a footnote on p. 246) that the title of his book The Selfish Gene is not an argument that selfishness per se is good: genes are not sentient beings with morality.

[13] Describing work which connects neurobiology to the emergence and development of morality, Patricia Smith Churchland delivered a lecture entitled How the Mind Makes Morals on 25 March 2011; its abstract noted that:

“In the evolution of the mammalian brain, circuitry for regulating one's own survival and well-being was modified. For sociality, the important result was that the ambit of me extends to include others -- me-and-mine.”

“Oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule, is at the hub of the intricate neural adaptations sustaining mammalian sociality. Not acting alone, oxytocin works with other hormones and neurotransmitters and structural adaptation. Among its many roles, oxytocin decreases the stress response, making possible the friendly, trusting interactions typical of life in social mammals.”

A video and transcript of her lecture were available in March 2014 at http://www.ircs.upenn.edu/pinkel/lectures/churchland/.

[14]David Brooks made this remark about empathy being unglamorous at the end of his review of the Edge seminar referred to above.  The review was published in the New York Times, 23 July 2010 and was available in March 2014 at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/23/opinion/23brooks.html?_r=2&ref=opinion.