How useful would a “Secular Catechism” be?

Yesterday, I found a book online by American Catholic ecumenical theologian Jeffrey Gros called “The Ecumenical Christian Dialogues and the Catechism of the Catholic Church”. It looks good and I have ordered a copy. Gros sets out to offer

selections from ecumenical dialogues formally sponsored by the Catholic Church arranged according to the order of the Cathechism of the Catholic Church; readers can learn what the Catholic Church believes and what other Christian churches believe on the same topic gathered together.

Isnt’ that a neat idea? I hope the project lives up to my expectations.

This leads me to another thought. In the combox on the previous post, Tony asked “what is ‘prevailing secular ideology’?” that the Holy Father refers to? It is true that we don’t have a collection of secular doctrines neatly arranged as a sort of “Secular Catechism” – but wouldn’t it be helpful if we did?

I was led to thinking about this when listening to an episode of ABC Radio National’s Encounter on then new secular ethics classes in NSW schools as an alternative to the religion classes. In this episode, Fr Gerald Gleeson (Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic Institute of Sydney) says:

Well secular ethics is part of a project of modernity. Philosophers think of modernity beginning about 400 years ago and it really begins with the attempt to rebuild the foundations of human knowledge and truth, but to build them on a human foundation. Now to some extent, what they were doing was understandable, they were reacting against the wars of religion, against misbehaviour of all sorts of people, and so the modern philosophers said, ‘Look, let’s start again. Let’s work out for ourselves what’s true and false, good and bad and so on’. And to some extent, this is an experiment, and Immanuel Kant actually describes his work as an experiment. Let’s see if we can make some progress if we say that everything has to be relative to the human understanding. [there is a connection here with Tracey Rowland’s recent article in the Tablet]

Now for a number of centuries, this modern project worked because it was still trading on a lot of inherited Christian ethics. But the difficulty for secular ethics is that when you try to develop your ethical foundations on purely human terms, on what human reasoning can establish for itself, you end up with a very minimal framework. And so I suppose the sort of minimal framework that many people would have these days is that first of all they’d emphasise autonomy, individual personal freedom, people should be free to do what they like. Second rule: that they shouldn’t do harm to other people. They should try and do good and they should act fairly. Now these four principles if you like, have become the mantra of many approaches to secular ethics.

From this, we could put together a little “secular catechism” on principles of ethics that would include sections on:

1) Individual Autonomy
2) “Do no harm”
3) Try to do “Good”
4) Act Fairly

I think Fr Gleeson’s analysis is fairly accurate on these points. However, he then goes on to say (again, quite correctly):

The difficulty is that they don’t bring enough content with them. Because immediately you say, ‘Well what is to harm another person?’ and as soon as you ask that question, the debate all begins, because to have an understanding of what’s truly harmful to a person, you need to have some understanding of, well, what’s good for a person?

I’m not expecting an edition of “The Catechism of Secular Ideology” out soon, but wouldn’t it be useful for our dialogue with secularism if we had access to such a compendium?

As a side note, Encounter follows this episode up with another one on Progressive Religion and Ethics. This is all about the same subject that Rachel Kohn addressed on the Spirit of Things recently. Here again, David Rutlege asks Fred Plummer:

David Rutledge: A question often asked of Progressive Christians is: if you privilege good works over confessional beliefs in the Incarnation, the Resurrection and so on, what are you left with that’s distinctively Christian, and that you can’t get from Buddhism or Reform Judaism, or a course in secular ethics?

Fred Plumer: …for me, being a Christian means I have spent forty years of my life studying a particular man, and trying to sort out what it was he was teaching, and trying to live that, and having discoveries about who I am and what I am, and what the world is and what the universe is, as a result of that.

And that led me back to thinking, is it not one thing to study a man and try to follow his teachings, and another thing to actually be in a relationship with that man and try to follow him himself as a person? And that leads us back to Papa Ratzinger’s opening paragraph of his first encyclical (again, what Tracey was talking about in her article):

We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.

Just some thoughts.

Advertisements

29 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

29 responses to “How useful would a “Secular Catechism” be?

  1. Peregrinus

    A lot of very interesting ideas wrapped up there, David.

    I heard the Encounter programme on the NSW Ethics courses, and I though Fr Gleeson’s point, which you quote, was very well made.

    All ethical systems have to start with some fundamental axioms about what is good and what is bad, which can be asserted but not proven or tested.

    “Secular” (in this usage) is an essentially negative term; secular people, ideologies, etc are defined by what they exclude rather than by what they include. (“Atheist” shares this quality.) The result is that secular people, ideologies, etc, don’t necessarily positively agree on very much. This makes the derivation of shared fundamental values on which to construct a system of ethics rather difficult.

    It’s a mistake, though, to expect, and a still bigger mistake to demand, a single system of “secular ethics” to which all seculars subscribe. The fact that not all seculars agree on fundamental values doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of secular value-statements on which secular ethical thinking can be constructed. We should therefore expect a variety of secular ethical viewpoints (just as we find a variety of religious ethical viewpoints).

    It’s also a mistake to think that the construction of secular ethics is a new project. The western philosophical ethical tradition starts with the Greeks, who put an enormous amount of thought into this and who did not start from religiously-mandated ethical systems; classical Greek ethical thinking is, basically, secular. (This doesn’t make it inimical to religion, or to faith; in fact huge chunks of Greek ethical thought have been co-opted into Christian, and especially Catholic, ethical thinking.)

    As we might expect, there isn’t a singular classical Greek ethic, but rather a variety of schools of thought, each of which (at the risk of oversimplifying) affirms the central significance of some particular value-statement. So I think your disappointment at the lack of a “Catechism of Secular Ethics” is misplaced; every question in such a catechism would have to offer multiple answers, which would diminish the usefulness of the work as a catechism. (As would, of course, every question in a “Catechism of Religious Ethics”.)

    On a separate point, Fr Gleeson suggests four moral axioms which a reasonable spread of secular thinkers can affirm, and which tend to form the basis for what we might term “middle-ground” secular ethical thinking. But, he suggests, these four axioms “don’t bring enough content with them”.

    It’s a fair point. But I think the missing content is not more fundamental ethical axioms. You don’t necessarily need a wide range of fundamental ethical axioms to construct an ethical system. After all, we have it on the Highest Authority that the whole of the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition rests on just two.

    We elaborate these two, and build on them, by drawing on the resources of Christian anthropology; a specifically Christian understanding of what it means to be human, in the context of which we answer the question posed by Fr Gleeson, “what’s good for a person?” , and similar questions. Christian anthropology, in turn, emerges from our (collective) experience, and our reflections on that experience, as reflected in scripture and tradition. And the central feature of that experience, as you point out, is the encounter with Christ. (Even here, there is plenty of room for differences of approach among Christians. There is a characteristically “Protestant” approach which understands the encounter with Christ in highly personal terms, versus a more “Catholic” approach which stresses its collective, communal character.)

    Seculars, too, have to build on the fundamental axioms that Fr Gleeson identifies in the context of an understandings of what terms like “individual”, “harm”, “good” and “fair” mean. Since they can hardly be expected to privilege Christian, or religious, perspectives on such questions, they tend to do this in a broadly (and often vaguely-understood) humanistic way. Almost inevitably, this context is something they acquire from the culture in which they are formed and (in the West) it tends to have a good deal in common with the Christian context. After all, the history and culture of Western seculars and Western Christians is substantially shared.

    The upshot of all this, I think, is

    – first, that both religious ethics and secular ethics are quite broad categories, each encompassing a range of ethical perspectives and views; and

    – secondly, there’s a high degree of overlap between them; there’s probably a greater degree of variety within these two categories than there is between them, or at least between the effective “middle grounds” of each of them.

    I tentatively suggest, though, that those who hold to religious ethics may have a better understanding of their ethics, and how they are formed, and where they come from, and why they matter, than many of those who profess a secular ethic. This is because the religious tradition still takes philosophy seriously, and thinks that it matters. By contrast, at least in the (Anglo-Saxon) secular world, the significance of philosophical reflection and understanding is generally discounted. This is why someone like, say, Richard Dawkins can be taken seriously as a spokesmen and advocate for atheism and secularism.

    • Tom

      Per – there is a big difference between the attempts of the Ancient Greeks and modern philosophy in attempted to discover ethics. It is largely a result of the discipline of epistemology (which is generally a product of Cartesian dualism – the subject/object divide as it would later become). The Ancient Greeks were doing something very different from what the Moderns are doing.

      The problem with modern philosophy is not that it has a ‘secular’ focus, but rather that it comes from a radically incomplete philosophical foundation. The modern rejection of metaphysics as a discipline has meant that all sorts of problems exist in philosophy. Terms like ‘Good’ ‘Human’ and ‘Harm’ are terms that are necessarily metaphysical and connected to the question of Being. Without a full and concrete answer to the question of what does it mean to be, in so far as I simply am, then every other answer will be deficient.

      I would suggest that an ethics can come to a correct understanding of the natural law completely apart from divine revelation – it will not be full and complete (for this we must have divine revelation) but knowledge of God is not limited to revelation. This is crucial – there is a huge difference between the moderns and the ancients – the ancients had a knowledge of God that informed their Ethics; one that is simply not possible under modern and contemporary philosophy as a result of the subject/object divide (see other post in the blog below).

      Modern secular ethics is a product of the modern world – it is not a continuation of the project of the ancients; it is distinctly modern in its rejection of God which is intimately tied up with its rejection of metaphysics.

      • Peregrinus

        Hi Tom

        I take your point. However, a “knowledge of God” doesn’t necessarily have to inform ethical thinking in the way that it does in the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition. Yes, the Greeks had religious beliefs, of course, but their ethical thinking didn’t really start from religious propositions.

        I tentatively suggest that this might be generally characteristic of polytheistic religions. In the monotheistic tradition ethics often involves, to a greater or lesser extent, imitating God. However in the polytheistic tradition, the gods all behave differently, frequently scheming against one another, fighting, raping, cuckolding, eating one another’s young, transforming themselves into swans for the purposes of sexual gratification, and so forth. There is no implication that godlike behaviour is in any way ethical, admirable or to be imitated, or that the gods have anything useful or relevant to tell us about right behaviour. It’s difficult to derive any coherent ethical guidance or lessons from this. In so far as the gods want you to do things, they are mainly concerned with you offering sacrifice to them, participating in their particular cults, and so forth. And we observe something similar even today in, say, Hinduism and – in a different way – in Buddhism.

        As for what you describe s modern secular ethics, I think that’s just one more element in the range of secular ethical systems on offer. I didn’t get the sense, from the Encounter programme or from anything else I have read about it, that the NSW programme involved a “rejection of metaphysics”; quite the reverse. Within the limits, obviously, of the discourse into which a primary school child can enter, their seemed to be a considerable focus on questions like what we understand to be “good”. To be honest, if I lived in NSW, ideally I would like my child to attend both the scripture and the ethics courses, and my main concern about the ethics course is that it is only offered to children who don’t attend scripture classes.

        • Tom

          The question of the place of God in ethics is a question of metaphysics however. Even the Greeks (who as you note, had their religion, polytheistic etc.) however Aristotle had a notion of the proto arche in his philosophy. This foundation of being was the principle and source of all being – indeed it was Aquinas’ analysis of the Aristotelian proto arche that gives rise to his account of the analogy of being (the names of God: One, True, Beauty and Good. i.e.: God is One, God is Truth, etc).

          So in that sense, the place that God holds within Christian ethics (at least within the traditional Thomistic account of ethics) is a very similar place that God (the theos, as Aristotle called it) held within Aristotelian ethics. This is completely different to what the various God’s did and the imitation of God as ethics – this is not Christian ethics, or at least it’s not Thomistic. The nature of ethics as being founded on God (the principle of the theos) is that our nature is therefore Good qua nature. This means that such things as cloning, genetic modification, etc. are wicked because they go against the proto arche who first intended the nature that we have. In this sense, it is radically different to the modern question of ethics.

          • Peregrinus

            Yes. But, in fairness, the Thomist account is also radically different from an important strain of Judeo-Christian ethics which roots itself in a scriptural account in which morality fundamentally consists of obedience to God’s commandments.

            A Thomist would say that God’s commandments are as they are because of what God intends us to be/to become, and so the reason for obeying God’s commandments is that doing so will tend to help us to become who we are destined to become. (And this understanding also, of course, influences how we interpret and apply the commandments.) Whereas Jews and non-Thomist Christians are likely to say no, the reason for obeying God’s commandments is simply that God has so commanded us; God’s purpose/intention/motive in commanding us, and the likely outcome of our obedience, is inscrutable. Some would even say that it is presumptuous to talk of God having a purpose in giving a commandment, other than the purpose of securing our obedience to it.

            And this, I think, is at least part of the reason why not all religious moralists, and not all Judeo-Christian moralists, share the Catholic position on, e.g., birth control, abortion, etc., or even the Catholic understanding of a concept like “freedom”.

            Even confining ourselves to the Christian tradition, then, there are quite fundamental differences in the accounts offered of the basis of morality, and of the proper connection between God and morality. If we expand that to the religious tradition, we find still more fundamental differences. And yet in the non-Christian, and at least partly secular tradition, we can find ethical thinking which is quite closely congruent to Thomism (such as Aristotle).

            In other words, I don’t think that in regard to ethics religious/secular is the great and fundamental divide that culture warriors on both sides present it as. There may be particular secular ethical traditions (including what you call “modern secular ethics”) which are radically inconsistent with Thomist Catholic ethical thinking, but (a) this isn’t necessarily true of secular ethical thinking as such, and (b) conversely, it is true of particular religious ethical traditions (including traditions which I would expect to be reflected in scripture classes).

            • Tom

              But that’s simply not true – the notion of divine command morality is something that came about primarily in the enlightenment. The Hebrews and the Muslims both had something that looked very much like Thomistic ethics. The concept of obeying the commandments as the fulfillment of our nature is a radically Hebrew idea – that’s why the Hebrews call them the ’10 words of life’ instead of the 10 commandments. What you have spelled out is exactly what I’m talking about. Ethics, up until the enlightenment (or reformation, whichever marker you choose, they are essentially linked) was generally understood as teleological. This included the Greeks, the Hebrews, the Muslims and most notably the Christians. The primacy of the Christians in this regard is because of characters like Thomas who brought the philosophy into such an important and coherent work. Ethics as laws as such is a radically post-medieval interpretation of Ethics tied up intrinsically with the breakdown of metaphysics and the Suarezian notion of the univocity of being.

              Whether modern Hebrew or Islamic thought has become moralistic in this sense, I don’t know – though Levinas is a Hebrew and he certainly retains this sense of teleology. The important divide is not religious and secular. The important divide is pre and post enlightenment, because the foundational issue here is the subject/object divide which is a problem in philosophy that has only existed post-Descartes. The development of this problem by Kant and his noumenal – phenomenal solution only made the problem worse. Modern ethics suffers because of this. There are many diseases in modern thought, but the way I imagine it is like a person with AIDS. There are many, many health problems, but they are all being caused by the underlying issue of the deficient immune system.

              This underlying problem is almost entirely a product of Enlightenment thinking; though this problem becomes expressed in many different ways (as you pointed out, Divine Command Morality, and other modern religious ethics) it is all the same problem. Prior to this fundamental shift in thinking, ethics was in almost all its forms teleological. Have a look at Julia Annas’ book ‘The Morality of Happiness’ she explains that even the Epicureans (whom we today would call hedonists) were still Virtue Ethicists. The problem with modern ethics is not necessarily it’s secularism; this is a symptom of the underlying disease. The core problem is the idea that reality itself is random and unintelligible, which did not exist prior to the Enlightenment.

              This is all quite technical, in essence I think we both agree, but I just want to point out (what I consider important) that the breakdown of ethics is not being caused by secularism, but that secularism is a symptom of the breakdown in ethics.

              On the issue of ethics classes, I disagree with them anyway, since teaching ethics to people who have unformed characters is going to teach them to rationalise. Better to teach ethics to people who have good characters already, otherwise we’re spelling our own doom. Can you imagine it? A whole generation who have been given the equipment to justify every single one of their actions with something more substantial than ‘I wanted to’.

              • Tom, Papa Benny would see the marriage between Greek and Hebrew culture taking place long before Thomas Aquinas. I am thinking in particular of some of his essays in the collection “Truth and Tolerance”

                • Tom

                  Of a certainty – it was long before Aquinas that Hebrew and Greek thought began to mingle. The most prominent example I know is Moses Maimonides ‘Guide for the Perplexed’ though I’m sure there would have been crossover long before this as well. I focus on Aquinas because his synthesis of Greek, Christian, Hebrew and Islamic thought is the most sophisticated and complete.

              • Peregrinus

                But that’s simply not true – the notion of divine command morality is something that came about primarily in the enlightenment. The Hebrews and the Muslims both had something that looked very much like Thomistic ethics . . .

                I’m going to defer to your superior knowledge here. It had been my impression that somebody like, say, William of Ockham, in stressing that the commandments are important as expressions of God’s will, and obedience to that will is the ultimate good, was tapping into a long-standing tradition, whereas the insights of Aquinas represented a development. In fact what you say suggests that Aquinas was mainstream and Ockham was the radical.

                But no matter. The point is that both approaches are to be found in the Catholic tradition (and therefore the Christian tradition, and the religious tradition). The question of which came first is of secondary importance. Perhaps the enlightenment took up and built on Ockham’s approach; certainly it has embraced Ockham’s idea of freedom as the ability to do whatever I choose. On the other hand, the temptation to defend a moral choice on the basis that it fulfils me or makes me happy owes a lot more to Aquinas than it does to Ockham.

                On the issue of ethics classes, I disagree with them anyway, since teaching ethics to people who have unformed characters is going to teach them to rationalise. Better to teach ethics to people who have good characters already . . .

                Are you making a false distinction here? Surely teaching ethics and forming character are the same thing? If we wait until someone’s character is fully formed, and he has cultivated whatever virtues he is to cultivate, then he can learn about ethics, in the sense that he can learn to study ethics and to talk about ethics in a meaninful way. But he will already have learned ethics, as in adopted values and built a character and a life in which those values are (more or less well) expressed.

                • Tom

                  Ockham, and his predecessor Duns Scotus both came out of Aquinas. Duns Scotus’ big change was the re-introduction of the univocity of being (as a rejection of the complexity of the analogy of being). Ockham, in rejecting the complexity of Duns Scotus’ theory, developed nominalism. These two are extremely important in understanding the enlightenment – it’s out of Scotus and Ockham that Suarez would develop his theory of there being our reality and God’s reality. This in turn was the foundation for Descartes’ dualism.

                  Essentially, Ockham and Duns Scotus are using something of the medieval tradition, but they are also very importantly rejecting Aquinas. It is no small matter that after Duns Scotus the question of ‘being’ as the principle question of philosophy very quickly begins to decay, and by the time of Descartes, it is virtually finished. Metaphysics has essentially been replaced with epistemology at that point.

                  Re the ethics classes: maybe I have expressed myself poorly. Teaching good character to children is not what I meant by ethics – for the sake of ease in distinguishing them, I mean to say that the development of character in people is the development of virtue. We learn virtues by the instruction of our life – what our parents teach us, what our religion teaches us, what our wider community teaches us. That is – our character is formed within the environment in which we grow up.

                  The discipline of ethics, taught as an intellectual discipline that is often the foundation of decisions made in public life, in the law and so on, or as a theory to try and explain or give a coherent account of virtues is something else.

        • Perry, regarding the effect of monotheism vs polytheism on ethical thinking, this has been a feature of Pope Ratzinger’s thought on the relationship between Greek and Hebrew thought. He thinks along the lines you suggest, and even suggests that one of the reasons for the success of early Christianity was its ability to merge these two cultures particularly in the way in which it impacted on how one lives.

    • Perry, I would make a distinction between “secular” and “secularism”, much as Fr Fleming was making a distinction between “islam” and “islamism”. Thus “secularism” = “secular ideology”. I think a “secularist” ethics is a little more narrowly defined than simply “secular ethics”. It isn’t simply an ethic without religion, it is an ethic inimical towards religion.

      • Peregrinus

        Good point, but I think it could use some unpacking. When you say “secularism” = “secular ideology”, do you mean that the pursuit of any ideology which can be described as secular is “secularism”, or is “secularism” a particular secular ideology?

        And a related question: if “secularism” is understood as an ideology inimical to religion, does it follow that “secular ethics” classes are inimical to religion, or to religious ethics? I think not; applying your terminology, it would be “secularist ethics” classes that were inimical to religion.

        This ties back to a though I had in connection with the announcement on the these for the World Day of Peace. When Pope Benedict says that “The rights associated with religion are all the more in need of protection if they are considered to clash with a prevailing secular ideology”, I think the implication is that those rights don’t have to clash with a secular ideology; whether they do or not depends on the particulars of the secular ideology (and, of course, on what we conceive to be the “rights associated with religion”). The very fact that we can look at competing models of the secular state in, say, France and the US, and identify the strengths and weaknesses of each as respects freedom of conscience and freedom of religious practice tell us that not all secularities are equal.

        • I would say that “secularism” = a system of thought driven by “secularist ideology” (a bit tautologous there), by which I mean an ideology that has as its goal the exclusion of religion. A course on “secular ethics” could be “secularist” if it had as its deliberate intention the exclusion of religious concepts and the codes of ethics based on them.

          Pope Benedict says that “The rights associated with religion are all the more in need of protection if they are considered to clash with a prevailing secular ideology”, I think the implication is that those rights don’t have to clash with a secular ideology.

          Okay, that’s an interesting point. I think you are reading Benny right – I missed that rather subtle “if they are considered”. The passive is an interesting construction: who is doing the “considering” here? I think the construction of the sentence is that it is the secular ideology; ie. “the rights associated with religion are all the more in need of protection” IF those who hold “a prevailing secular ideology” consider these rights to clash with their own fundamental assumptions.

  2. Paul G

    thanks very much for this discussion. The original post by David mentioned school ethics classes, and I have a personal interest, having just taken a year 8 Scripture class today, and a year 4 class yesterday.
    Some mostly unrelated points I’d like to add are:

    -in the Scripture classes, I try (I’m sure not very effectively) to indicate to the kids that there are centuries of thinking behind the ideas in the Scripture classes that are both true, useful and interesting. In contrast, the message they get for the rest of the day from most of their teachers and classmates is that it is a bunch of old-fashioned wowser ideas from people who believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden.
    So, if youse guys can think of a way of distilling your thoughts into something that could be presented to a dozen 13 year olds, preferably including a 15 minute class exercise, then I would be much obliged.

    Ethical examples related to the experience of the kids themselves is most effective. One question I have used is “the school has drummed into you for years the idea that smoking is bad for you. You all agree it is bad for you. So why do so many people, including people your own age, start smoking?”

    – I haven’t been able to find out much about the content of the ethics classes that were presented last term in some NSW primary schools. From the TV reports of the classes, they mostly consist of proposing some sort of moral dilemma and letting each child give their ideas about it. That no doubt conforms to some sort of post-modern idea that everyone’s truth is good for the person who holds it and is as good as anything else.
    The only thing I have seen about the content of these classes is the title of each lesson as below:Session 1: “Getting Started”
    Session 2: “Fairness”
    Session 3: “Lying and Telling the Truth”
    Session 4: “Ethical Principles”
    Session 5: “Graffiti”
    Session 6: “Thinking About Animals”
    Session 7: “Intervening in Nature”
    Session 8: “Virtues and Vices”
    Session 9: “Children’s Rights”
    Session 10: “Living A Good Life”

    make of that what you will.

    – the approach by both the Anglican and Catholic diocese in Sydney seems to be to form and attack squad of lawyers to argue that the ethics classes are somehow illegal. That seems a self-defeating tactic to me and shows a lack of confidence in the value of the Scripture classes.

    -just one comment on Fr Gleeson’s list of secular ethical foundations… does secular ethics ever say it is possible to do harm to yourself, even if your action does no harm to anyone else?

    • Peregrinus

      “- just one comment on Fr Gleeson’s list of secular ethical foundations… does secular ethics ever say it is possible to do harm to yourself, even if your action does no harm to anyone else?”

      A few thoughts on that last point.

      1. I don’t think an action which harms me can never not harm someone else. We are, after all, social beings, and our relationships are a central dimension of who we are. “No man is an island”, and all that. I don’t think that this is a particularly religious insight, so I would expect many secular ethical thinkers to say “no, it is impossible to do harm to yourelf in a way which will harm no-one else”. But there may be some secular thinkers who say otherwise.

      2. If we change the question so that it becomes “is it morally acceptable to harm myself, if my act does no [signficant] harm to anyone else?”, I think the answer can become more nuanced.

      3. Christianity can provide an ethical justification for harm to oneself – though of course it depends on what you mean by “harm”. We encourage, for example, the embrace of the cross which, even though it serves a great good, undeniably involves putting oneself in the way of great, and sometimes very great, harm. We also encourage an ethic in which love of God, and love of neighbour, takes priority over regard for self. The iconograpy of the pelican wounding herself to feed her young on her own blood speaks powerfully of a place for self-harm in Christian ethical thought. And, of course, to an outsider who discounts some of the values which Christianity espouses, many Christian practices can seem primarily and fundamentally self-harmful.

      4. As to whether “secular ethics” regards self-harm (or indeed anything else) as ethically acceptable, the answer is always going to be “yes and no”, since different secular ethical thinkers will offer different account of this. But I think most secular thinkers (and most religious thinkers) would distinguish between the questions “is harming myself ethically acceptable?” and “is preventing someone from harming themselves ethically acceptable?”. A good many conservative thinkers strongly object to “nanny state”; I dare say some of them are Christians. Conversely a good many thinkers on the left support “nanny state” measures; some of them would be seculars.

      5. I think most ethicists, secular and religious, would agree that self harm is, basically, wrong. Where they would differ is in (a) assessing the degree of harmfulness of particular acts, and (b) on the ethical justification for restraint to prevent self-harm. And these differences would not break down along simple religious/secular lines.

      • Paul G

        thank you for this answer. My original question was sloppily worded, what I meant was….

        -the Gleeson second rule is “do no harm to other people”
        -is it possible to judge an act as morally bad because it is against our nature, but does no harm to anyone else? As I understand it, the answer is yes if you accept the idea of a natural law that ultimately has divine origins.
        An example might be pornography (although, as you say in your point 1, there is actually harm done to the people used to make the porn. For the sake of argument, suppose Pixar has made the porn without any humans being involved.) Would any “modernist” ethicist be prepared to say pornography damages us, distracts us from more worthy interests and inclines is to harm other people?

        (all this discussion makes me think I need to study some more philosophy sometime)

        • Peregrinus

          “. . . what I meant was….

          -the Gleeson second rule is “do no harm to other people”
          -is it possible to judge an act as morally bad because it is against our nature, but does no harm to anyone else? As I understand it, the answer is yes if you accept the idea of a natural law that ultimately has divine origins.
          ?

          If you accept the idea of natural law, or even of “nature”, then I think the answer is yes, whether or not you think that it “ultimately has divine origins”. So it is certainly possible to frame a secular moral argument that self-harm intrinsically bad, even without considering its secondary effect on others.

          An example might be pornography (although, as you say in your point 1, there is actually harm done to the people used to make the porn. For the sake of argument, suppose Pixar has made the porn without any humans being involved.) Would any “modernist” ethicist be prepared to say pornography damages us, distracts us from more worthy interests and inclines is to harm other people?

          Pornography is a particularly interesting example. You are right to point out that, when I consume pornography and therefore create a demand for hit, I do harm to those involved in its production. But, even leaving this aside, I think there is harm. I said we were social beings, and sexuality is particularly and intrinsically directed not towards myself but towards the other. If I develop a sexuality which is expressed in isolated fantasies and self-directed Solitary Practices, it seems to me I injure those with whom my sexuality would be better developed and expressed. I damage and degrade my relationships with others, and this must mean harm to them as well as to me.

          I don’t want to be too puritanical about this. A degree of focus on myself is a normal part of immature sexuality, and immaturity is something you have to go through to reach maturity; therefore it’s a good thing. I wouldn’t suggest that the teenage boy with a magazine under the mattress is necessarily on the road to becoming a lonely pervert. But a mature sexuality has to balance concern for myself, concern for another, and concern for both of us a couple/part of a family/part of a community. I kind of doubt that pornography tends to help with this very often.

          Are their secular ethicists who would agree? Hell, yes; there is vocal secular feminist lobby which would say precisely this.

          (all this discussion makes me think I need to study some more philosophy sometime)

          Me too. Which provides an opportunity to say how indebted I am to Tom for his lucid explanations. I hope he reads this far down the thread.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences on this.

      The main issue in this “turf war” seems to be that children might exercise their right to freedom of religion and choose the Ethics class rather than go to the Scripture classes! As I was listening to the Encounter program, I did think to myself that perhaps one of the reasons the kids found the Ethics classes to be more attractive than the Scripture classes (at least as described on the program) is that whereas in Scripture they are told stories and play games, in Ethics they were actually asked to think a bit and were engaged in serious deliberation. It sounds like you are doing good things with your own class, and hopefully when offered a choice they will simply chose “Mr G’s Scripture Class” over “Ms X’s Ethics Class” because Mr G’s classes are simply BETTER than the alternative!

      -just one comment on Fr Gleeson’s list of secular ethical foundations… does secular ethics ever say it is possible to do harm to yourself, even if your action does no harm to anyone else?

      Yes, I have often wondered about this. Often you hear this “Do no harm” clause as purely in reference to others. In secularist thought, is it morally wrong to do harm to oneself, or is in fact the choice to harm oneself not an exercise of the first and primary clause (ie. Autonomy)? Any answers, anyone?

      • “does secular ethics ever say it is possible to do harm to yourself, even if your action does no harm to anyone else?”

        If by secular ethics we mean Godless ethics, and if without God there is no such thing as true and proper moral obligation, and if the absence of moral obligation is moral liberty, then secular ethics tells us that we not only have the moral liberty to harm ourselves, but also unrestricted moral liberty to harm others, indeed, to do anything we please. That’s why, as Fr. Fahey mentions in The Kingship of Christ according to the Principles of St. Thomas Aquinas, in the secularist ethics axiom which can be stated as ‘do whatever you want, however self- or mutually-destructive, so long as everyone involved consents’, the ‘so long as everyone else involved consents’ bit is baseless. Secular ethics’s first and only principle is: Do whatever you want, full stop. And if you don’t like the sound of that, then, as Professor Dawkins might say, tough!

        • But oddly, Your Eminence, according to Gleeson, the prevailing secular ideology DOES consider it possible to harm others and rejects any act that might result in such harm. So you haven’t really answered my question. How can they distinguish the two? Nor does consent open the way for this. I am sure that in some circumstances a person can be (and should be) criminally charged for abuse even if (at the time of the abuse) the victim “consented”.

          • “But oddly, Your Eminence, according to Gleeson, the prevailing secular ideology DOES consider it possible to harm others and rejects any act that might result in such harm.”

            Mr. Schütz, did you mean to say “DOES NOT“? Otherwise there seems to be an internal contradiction there.

            “[You are] sure that in some circumstances a person can be (and should be) criminally charged for abuse even if (at the time of the abuse) the victim “consented”.”

            I agree, and presumably so would most, perhaps all, secular (Godless) ethicists, but my point is that the Godless ethicist cannot prove, in the light of his first principles, that it is morally wrong–as in transgressing a moral obligation–to harm others, even against their will.

            • No, I meant “does”. Gleeson said “Second rule: that they shouldn’t do harm to other people.” If it is a “rule” of secular ethics, then secular ethics must consider that IS possible to harm others in a way that is not ethical.

  3. We were tossing around some ideas about general ethical principles on my blog in a few weeks ago. My premise is that general ethical principles are easy to agree on. What they mean in practice is quite another thing!

    Because moral codes are not needed for easy decisions. You don’t need to consult your moral code to decide whether or not to take food from your full pantry and share it with your kids. But what if it is your last crust and a complete stranger?

    Here’s the middle of the three posts. http://joyfulpapist.wordpress.com/2010/06/26/human-or-not/ – an interesting discussion in the comments with our friendly neighbourhood atheist.

    For society to function, we need to be able to trust. And to trust, we need shared ethics. I think we are sharing less and less as time passes and fewer people subscribe – however nominally – to the ten commandments. What is our society going to be like in twenty years time?

  4. “It is true that we don’t have a collection of secular doctrines neatly arranged as a sort of “Secular Catechism” – but wouldn’t it be helpful if we did?”

    We do. Read The Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Syllabus of Errors, Quanta cura, things like that.

    • But, as your posts have regularly demonstrated, there needs to be some tidying up here. The way in which documents such as those you cite relate to the current state of affairs needs some spelling out.

  5. Louise

    There is not enough (or even any) logic in secularism to have a catechism. What’s probably needed is a long list of all its silliness so we can have a good laugh.

    Kathy Shaidle recently did this in relation to Gay Pride events.

    http://www.fivefeetoffury.com/:entry:fivefeet-2010-06-25-0008/