Updated: Oct 31, 2022
An average newspaper reader might know what the terms ‘Secular’ and ‘Ethics’ mean or might have heard of this term in debates or discussions but for sure wouldn't have thought about its relevance both individually and at a National level. While we can trace references of Secular Ethics in Aristotle’s philosophy and Confucianism (ancient Chinese belief system), it still proves to be quite relevant, or in fact, becoming a necessity for the contemporary world.
In layman language, we say Ethics are associated with Moral principles which essentially provide ‘Moral Guidance’ in deciding what's wrong and what’s right. Now one can say Ethics is all about choices- we either fail to make them or make the correct ones, which thereby makes it quite subjective. The choices then decide our well-being in society. Well, most people believe that ethics and morals are one or the same thing, therefore they use them interchangeably but Morals are just practices of Ethics. That is to say, Ethics define the right action for a greater good, whether it is for an individual or society, while Morals simply indicate the practice of this at an individual or micro level. Now if we deduce this properly, we understand that Morals are nothing but informed choices of an individual on a broader spectrum of Ethics. Now, why is all this jargon necessary to understand and trace the impact of secular ethics?
To understand this, we can refer to the impact that the Age of Enlightenment brought with it. The world started to function on lines of reasoning and logic, people started to question the dogmas of orthodox institutions and religious groups by applying logic to everyday practices including religious and non-religious ones. It highlights the role of religious beliefs and practices ultimately causing conflicts and contestation between groups and communities, which often brought with it an unresolvable crisis for decades and centuries.
These ideas were strongly held by religious institutions who had created a niche for religious groups and communities by providing them with required engagement, social support, and a sense of upliftment, which they might not have experienced if they remained in isolation. No one denies or can deny the importance of these religious institutions in bringing the required collective action even today, but it isn't as much of an inclusive system as it seems to be. When we look at the Global population today, we see a significant number of the population as Atheists or as fence-sitters (who usually don't actively engage or embrace a particular religion, just ascribe to it because of their primary circle, which largely makes them neutral). This is where Secular Ethics can play a crucial role.
What is Secular Ethics?
In the words of Dalai Lama -
“For all its benefits in offering moral guidance and meaning in life, religion is no longer adequate as a basis for ethics. Many people no longer follow any religion. In addition, in today’s secular and multicultural societies, any religion-based answer to the problem of our neglect of inner values could not be universal, and so would be inadequate. We need an approach to ethics that can be equally acceptable to those with religious faith and those without. We need secular ethics.”
Therefore, Secular ethics, unlike popular belief, isn't about being against religions, religious groups, or tendencies. It neither propagates anti-religious sentiment nor intends to take away followers of a sect. It is more of a holistic approach, emphasizing ‘universal’ values, that can be applied irrespective of background, color, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or any other criterion. Most experiences and emotions are common to all of us regardless of our nationality or ethnicity. It, therefore, emphasizes those ‘common basic human values’ amongst all, to promote self-cultivation, healthy social experience, and responsible decision making across the globe. It is crucial to highlight that Secular Ethics doesn’t reduce the importance of a particular religion which means that it can be very easily taken up alongside one's religious practice, academic learning, or any other beliefs. This isn't an ‘exclusive kind of practice’.
Separation from dominant Religious Beliefs
Most religious beliefs in the world are more or else based on a divine command from God. Our everyday actions are largely contingent on some Spiritual test (a belief that God evaluates an individual’s actions and moral character based on those actions). On a macro level, this is more evident in Theocracies (a government by the religious elite. Eg: Iran) where leaders of government are often religious scholars and preach religions through Laws, administration, and their power bases.
Contrary to popular belief, they are not ignorant to western values (many have studied them), however, they tend to use these religious ideologies, the idea of Divine command and fear of God as a tool to sustain their rule over masses of people usually with a particular religion being the official religion of that state. This makes it easier for them to systematically destroy power bases like Military, Educational Institutions, nobility/elite in the state and continue to subtly weaken the need for any form of opposition or a democratic rule. In most of these theocracies, for decades such a system has been promoted. The benefits of which are re-established and reiterated to showcase why such a system is better for people in the first place. The heads often appease these power bases to sideline or completely remove the opposition and restrict any form of external interference.
While we did see the Enlightenment era ending the age of theocracies but a few exceptions like Saudi Arabia, Vatican City, Yemen, Iran, etc, continue on this system of governance. Now proponents of Theocracies could support the idea of one by calling it an efficient system, it certainly questions the level of freedom, happiness, and choice offered to these people. In the realm of International affairs, it is easy to consider the argument that these Theocracies can easily find allies if they share the same divine authority and later can serve on a common goal for collective benefit. To which one can easily say that Nations work on incentive and capacity mechanisms to form allies in today’s world, that is to say, that they would have to agree on different levels to be an ally in the first place. More than those concerns, the harm of such a system of governance outweighs the benefits that it provides. This leads us to question if we need to separate the inherent notion of Divine command from these theocracies to be able to establish Secular ethics or promote universal values in these Nations?
Well, not really. The essence of this principle works on co-existence with religious ideologies and beliefs. These principles don't necessarily eliminate the other ones, it just adds a layer to perspective on both individual and national level. Theocratic leaders are the only ones responsible for dictating social change and administrative processes in their states, considering how largely they restrict external influence or the presence of media in their State.
It might seem like a herculean task to be able to see Secular Ethics being even remotely applied in some local regions in these theocracies, however, the picture still looks quite optimistic in the status quo. We know theocracies are rigid, intolerant to new ideologies, and extremely unfair to different groups (minorities and women) therefore, this requires influential and powerful First world countries along with their strong allies to pave a way for such progress and promote this principle on an international level. It is important to bring to light the intersection of these old value/belief systems in the current idea of theocracies for them to be able to adopt such a universal approach for the people in their state. This shouldn't be confused with eliminating theocracy or alleviating people from all the problems of theocracies because that's too huge of a burden to assume for a simple philosophy that is not even in the day-to-day discourse.
What this could instead do, is bring recognition to ideas of collective good, social prosperity, and the importance of basic attitudes of compassion, empathy, and non-violence even if it's on an individualistic level for a short term. This definitely would bring the desired long-term impacts that we wish to see for people based in these theocratic regimes. ‘In the language of Jews, Christians and Muslims, it embodies the commandment to do as you would be done by, and to Love your neighbor as yourself.’ This underlying principle of Secular ethics can push the abilities of Nations to think beyond their own incentives when collaborating or partnering with any Nation on a global platform. Even if countries think about their incentives, they would keep in mind the principle of benefiting all stakeholders equally, not only in economic terms but in terms of welfare and happiness provided to people, to make it more equitable.
Incentive for Countries
Most countries in the status quo, believe and follow the ideas of peace, non-violence, freedom, and liberty. Eg: Japan and India are the best examples of the same, however, we witness these countries still engaging in the use of force and violence, in case of a threat. Now, it is highly impractical to be a saint and not retaliate in case of danger when other countries are well equipped to destroy your country. However, for most countries, today violence, enhanced weapons technology, massive military technology programs, and nuclear agreements are testimony of how more than security, it's a matter of prowess, strength, capacity, and influence in the Global order.
The country with more weaponry and military technology is ranked powerful in the global order, which also legitimizes their way of threatening other countries to continue with expansionist strategies. For example, China intrudes in Taiwan’s region to succeed in its aggrandizement policies. As mentioned above, Countries largely work on their incentives and needs within the global order which also dictates their global policies.
However, what we can't disagree with, is that countries also function on their fundamental Foreign policy principles, which they possibly cannot contradict or disregard. For example, India’s foreign policy principles such as - Mutual respect, Mutual non-interference, mutual non-aggression, Equality, and integrity, are quite evident in their policies concerning other nations on a global platform. Thus, abiding by principles of one's foreign policy in an international setting is a norm, one can never violate these basic principles. While this exists as common sense for all nations, another thing that is not realistic and feasible for Nations is the use of aggression or violence against other countries in their region. Nations while using aggression sustain other Nations’ reaction or their incentive while going ahead with such a move.
While it is not feasible to disappoint a potential ally/capable Nation in the region, countries still choose to opt into a mechanism to highlight their growing influence in the regional and global order. This puts a lot at stake because not only it affects bilateral or multilateral relations, it puts people's lives in danger but also costs countries their international reputation/goodwill. So, instead of focusing on incentives for such a move, Nations must focus on potential and opportunities of benefit from the other country without using violence. This could also be understood as a topic under peace and conflict studies as it concerns the nuances of non-violence as a strategic tool in modern diplomacy and conflict resolution.
Nations could insert this philosophy as a principle in their foreign policy and constantly promote the same on international platforms. This would help them find more common factors, increase Community and Global Engagement, foster interdependence and promote values of a shared world. This would not only be instrumental and aid in the Sustainable Development Goals initiative (SDG 2030) for countries but also push for stronger social changes in theocracies or rigid governance systems where welfare is not prioritized. Success stories of countries would inspire other countries to follow the suit. Eg: Bhutan and Iceland’s happiness index, actually invited a lot of attention by world leaders, intending to work on similar lines to ensure welfare and happiness for all.
This also promises to be a great soft power tool for Nations to monopolize, only if the countries still focus on some economic benefit such as tourism. Eg: Bhutan and Iceland receive a good amount of tourists, who are curious to explore the lifestyle of the locals and what makes it so special. Even with its mere co-existence, global indicators will be impacted largely and provide a more inclusive and comfortable environment for all, much needed after the Pandemic.
How would countries apply Secular Ethics?
Recent studies in the field of Neuroscience, behavioral economics, and psychology supports the idea that promotion of secular ethics that are based on fundamental values universal to all including experience, common sense, and emotions. Not only does it promotes self-cultivation, social well being and compassion on an individualistic level, for Nations it is particularly helpful in the responsible decision-making process, helps in separating religion from Nations issue, and promotes holistic development for all. Now, many countries might be concerned with the European angle to this concept, largely because Secularism as an idea developed from Europe itself and has been marked down throughout their history.
But, it is imperative to say that Secularism as a concept evolved through actions and belief, and abstracting it from historical narratives and situations won’t make any sense. It has been established through institutions, laws, practices, and social processes which are not unique to a particular country or their history, therefore it is more a global process or a global social change. When we look at how Secular Ethics can offer an alternative to the region and state-centric politics which often violates the principles of Global order.
This helps in drawing boundaries between the two and makes people realize the importance of shared interests, identities, and understandings about religion and politics developed at the domestic and regional levels. While when we look at traditional International relations theories, we see that the constructivist approach substantiates this view about Secular ethics being impactful in laying social and cultural foundations for Global cooperation. Then how exactly can countries apply Secular Ethics in their system?
Countries can apply secular ethics into their systems on 3 levels - 1. Through Education and Awareness 2. Training staff and 3. Through Global networking. Education and awareness about Secular ethics can bring the level of dialogue we require. Educating and training kids at a young age (through schools and curriculum) can help in resolving themes of conflicts and disagreements in society at a later stage.
This ensures that this dialogue is effective, realistic and brings in the level of cooperation and compassion that is required. It also improves civil society engagement at a macro level, which is considered an important element for International cooperation. Secondly, Governments can train their staff members, civil servants, executive bodies on what Secular Ethics is and how it can be applied while engaging with civil society and other governmental bodies.
This training would help them in making ground-level changes and ultimately improve local networks. As an extension of this, all international networks that are integrated with local networks can benefit from this system.
B.A. Programme Second-year
If I could travel the world, I'd be doing that, but mostly I'm stuck at home. Hence, my weekdays are full of dance, music and IR (in no particular order); while my weekends pass by in a blur of debating. From Govinda to Gandhi - there's nothing that won't pique my interest.