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What Is This “Secular Ethics” Of Which You Speak?

October 25th, 2007 · 11 Comments

So, on Wednesday evening, mostly as a show of solidarity with my friend Will, I popped by an America’s Future Foundation panel with the inauspicious title “Are Atheists the New Religious Right?” (Short answer, as the moderator recognized right off the bat: No.) One of the panelists was Keith Pavlischek of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who took the bizarrely common stance that it’s just a big mystery what an atheist’s moral theory might look like, unless it’s the radical relativism of someone like the late Richard Rorty.

Well, I couldn’t resist: In the Q&A I observed that this familiar line of attack seemed awfully odd given that essentially the whole of the canon of moral philosophy for more than two centuries now has consisted almost entirely of secular ethics. As in: You need to go back hundreds of years to find an important moral philosopher whose theories are built around a deity as a necessary premise. Not that every significant moral theorist of the modern era was an atheist, or (a fortiori) an evangelical atheist, but pretty much all of the modern giants advance theories (whether they work or not being another story altogether) that don’t turn on the existence of God in any deep way.

Pavlischek’s reply:

Well, who do you mean here, Anthony Flew?

Rarely do I bother being embarrassed on someone else’s behalf, but that did the trick. I have no idea how many cereal box-tops this man had to mail in for his doctorate, but the University of Pittsburgh may want to consider taking this one back before their brand becomes completely meaningless. One might charitably put this down to simple disingenousness rather than gross ignorance, but at the end of the day, these are just different ways of being a fraud.

Addendum: Aaah, it all makes sense now.

Addendum II: A Pitt philosophy student in the comments wants to emphasize that Pavlischek’s degree (though it does contain the word “ethics”) is not from Pitt’s philosophy department, which has long been regarded as one of the best in the country.

Tags: Moral Philosophy



11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Julian Elson // Oct 25, 2007 at 4:02 am

    Possibly the common sense of mystery about atheists’ morality isn’t really referring to the solidity of the metaethical foundations of ethics without the supernatural, but in what specific norms atheists would follow. If you regard the Bible as a source of moral norms, you get handy, specific advice, like “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

    This advice may not be terribly practical, or, from any reasonable perspective, moral, nor are there many people of any Bible-thumping religion that follow it, but it looks at a specific situation and provides a specific solution. Atheists, as a group, cannot point to anything similar. What’s the right thing for parents to do if their son has serious disciplinary problems? Well, you have to think about it. It depends. Some people find that unsatisfying.

  • 2 razib // Oct 25, 2007 at 4:23 am

    Well, you have to think about it. It depends.

    Casuistry suffuses the thinking of religious intellectuals. They have foundations of belief which they interpret however they want to. Atheists on the other hand have no foundations aside from moral intuitions, and they interpret them however they want to. So of course the behavior difference between atheists and theists all things controlled is minimal.

    As for the stupidity of this scholar, the religious Right is to philosophy & science what the secular Left is to economics.

  • 3 Gil // Oct 25, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    Pavlischek was probably trying to set you up for a “Gotcha!” by noting that even Flew turned to deism (in his old age).


  • 4 Jacob T. Levy // Oct 25, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    wow– that’s appalling…

  • 5 Nate W. // Oct 26, 2007 at 11:32 am

    Well done, Julian, though for accuracy’s sake, it’s worth noting that you don’t have to go quite so far back to find a major philosopher working in a a theistic tradition. Alastair MacIntrye counts as a major twentieth century ethicist and he argues essentially for a form of Augustinian Christianity. But even this isn’t a real counterpoint, since MacIntyre doesn’t argue from theistic premises. He concludes that a successful ethics requires something like Christianity, but he gets there (or attempts to) working solely in a secular tradition.

  • 6 Tim // Oct 28, 2007 at 11:08 pm

    This is an aside from the major point of this post, but Pavlischek’s PhD is in something called “Religion, Ethics and Society”, and as far as I can tell the University of Pittsburgh no longer offers any such degree.

    I’m not sure why you restrict your observation to the last 200 years: earlier philosophers tended to be more religious, but who are the divine command theorists? The only philosopher I know of who holds this view–not counting theologians such as Luther and Augustine–is Peter Geach.

  • 7 David // Oct 29, 2007 at 10:37 am

    Here’s a link to something online by Geach:


    I don’t think he takes the view that God’s commands make all right actions right, and all wrong actions wrong. See the first part of the paper about lying.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Oct 29, 2007 at 11:41 am

    Well, God plays a role in Locke’s theory of justice, for instance, though later Lockeans have tried to make the theory work without it.

  • 9 David // Oct 29, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    Doesn’t God play a role in Immanuel Kant’s ethics?

    God may not determine the content of the Categorical Imperative, but doesn’t morality (for Kant) require the postulation of God, freedom, and immortality?

  • 10 David // Oct 29, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    See this Stanford Encyclopedia article which refers to Kant’s arguments in this area:


  • 11 bza // Oct 31, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    As a student in the Pitt philosophy department, I’d like to point out that the program from which Pavlischek received his degree is not associated with us. I think it may be in the religious studies department, but we don’t have anything to do with it.

    God may not determine the content of the Categorical Imperative, but doesn’t morality (for Kant) require the postulation of God, freedom, and immortality?

    Yes to the second, no to the third, and a “sort of, but not really, and not in the same way as freedom” to the first. (What these three have in common for Kant is that they’re “unavoidable topics of speculation,” not presuppositions of morality.)

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