12 May 2008

Some thoughts about a non-religious ethical framework

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Some thoughts about a non-religious ethical framework


It is my fantasy that in times long past, when life for most people was uneducated, tough and frighteningly easy to lose, the various Christian churches played an important role in developing an ‘ethical framework’ that has led to what is currently the aging ‘ethical scaffolding’ of UK and western society. However, despite their former value to society, the role of churches passed its sell-by date at least a century or two ago. Our world is not the simple, fixed world of Genesis, although there are many in different churches who would have it otherwise. Our complex world is the creation of Copernicus, Galileo, da Vinci, Newton, Lavoisier, Priestley, Lyall, Hume, Watt, Stephenson, Armstrong, Darwin, Curie, Rutherford, Einstein, Marconi, Freud, Crick, Watson, Pauling, Sagan, Hawking, Berners-Lee, Gates and ten thousand others.

The vacuum left by the departure of the churches from the centre ground of social existence has long now been occupied by a consumerist materialism (including the use of legal and illegal stimulants), the consumption of passive and voyeuristic entertainment (Hello-style journalism and television), and an obsession with glamour and celebrity (including royalty), sport and get-rich-quick competition. I believe that the ethical values to which these concerns point serve well the organisations that profit from them, and serve poorly the needs of ordinary people to negotiate the hurdles, perils and disappointments of life, and to live satisfying and fulfilling lives.

It is also possible to hear much criticism of some churches for providing too little public steer on issues of the day, and yet encounter other churches (e.g. fundamentalist Right and the conservative Amish in the US; Jehovah's Witnesses in the UK), and religious sects (e.g. the Taleban in Afghanistan; radical Madrassas in Pakistan) that insist on such a rigid steer that individual people are granted little freedom, and non-followers may be at risk (e.g. attacks on doctors who run abortion clinics in the US; Islamic terrorism). A new ethical framework would encourage searching for information and understanding when considering contemporary issues, would prize compassion, and would provide the principles for addressing the issues.

Although a non-religious ethical framework would in time replace past religious ethical structures, it would also build on many aspects of their insights, ideas and philosophy. For example, the Mosaic 'commandments' and the Christian 'beatitudes', although expressed in a manner unattractive to many people, address a wealth of important ideas such as respect for self, for family members, for community, for people who are disempowered or powerless, for strangers. Lifting rocks that now overlie the variously-identified virtues and vices (for example, the 'seven deadly sins' and their complementary virtues), long-mocked because of the sham and hypocritical authority to which people were made accountable, reveals a treasure trove of personal values. Buddhism is built on an impressive foundation of ideas and values. However, this is not to suggest that a non-religious ethical framework would be merely an eclectic hotch-potch of recycled ideas. It is important that the framework would be underpinned both by a deep existential philosophy, and some congruent theoretical principles.


Within a new ethical framework there would be only a weak concept of sin. Instead there would be both the recognition that most people most of the time are doing what they think best. If they are acting in ways that others consider to be wrong, there is likely to be a reason for it. However, the person who is acting in a manner than meets with the opprobrium of others may be acting out of a lack of compassion for other people. One of the central tenets of a new ethical framework would be the explicit balancing of looking after self with compassion for other people: neither total selfishness nor total selflessness are sufficient. Therefore the concept of sin would be largely relegated to a need for a rebalancing. Similarly, a new ethical framework would avoid generating a sense of guilt. Not only would there be no concept of original sin, but the entire framework would try to avoid opportunities for feelings of guilt. A new ethical framework would be tolerant of personal weakness (e.g. transgression and superstition).


A new ethical framework for society would not replace legislation. This is important for several reasons. First, legislation is usually about requirements and prohibitions, whereas a new ethical framework would attempt to be empowering. Second, legislation is mostly made at the national, regional and local levels, often reflecting the will of the people, whereas a new ethical framework would attempt to be universal. Third, most legislation is about protecting other people (recognising that to eveyone else, I am also 'other people'), whereas a new ethical framework would focus on self , and would almost certainly propose much higher standards of conduct than is usually required under legislation. It might be hoped that a new ethical framework would, in time, influence legislation.


A new ethical framework would not be a code, or rule, by which to live. It is important that the spirit of the framework, not the words used to describe it, is what is prized. Therefore, there would not be one text alone that defined the ethical framework. Indeed, in a general sense, every text ever written, every image ever created, every movie ever made, would contribute to the understanding of the framework. For example, the written works of Adolf Hitler show us something about what can go so badly wrong, how people can so easily be scapegoated, and how easy it can be to slip into that way of being. The 'Godfather' movies may show us that a thoroughly despicable ordering of society offers attractions that may beguile. However, much more specifically there would need to be some comprehensive texts that outlined, explained and described the framework. Like some temples and shrines in Japan, and like many dictionaries, these texts would be extended, revised and updated with regularity and frequency. These texts would be publicly available online. There may need to be simple texts for people with little education, whether young or not, texts aimed at educated adults, and texts for more academic people, as well as co-ordination between the texts. There would also need to be a vast, annotated 'reading' list pointing people to existing works that could help to explore specific issues. Included in this list would be the religious texts of the major religions the world over: the Tao Teh Ching, the Baghavad Gita, the Bible, the Koran, the later Sikh Gurus, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and so on. Each annotation would caution against revering individuals in such a way as to sanctify, or worse, deify, them.


I should like to contribute to the development of a new, positive, dynamic, responsive ethical framework, wrested from the clutches of institutions such as the church, state and corporate capitalism. This new ethical framework would be based on the altruistic values of charities, the internationalism of NGOs, the work values of trusts and co-operatives, the environmental values of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, the relationship values of person-centred counselling, the social awareness values of minority cohesion groups, the justice values of community action groups, the self-improvement values of the WEA and the Open University, spiced with a celebration of craft and artistic endeavours of all kinds.

Putting together the above, how is it to be presented? The written and oral traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, condensed into rigid canons, have become weapons with which to defend and attack. That is a bad model. Deification of a person or a cabal is an even worse idea. The new ethical framework would need to be flexible enough to be expanded/contracted and changed to respond adequately to circumstances. It would be in the hands of many, and not merely an elite, but neither would it be merely populist (no 'beauty-contest' cell-phone voting).

Some words describing the ethos of the ethical framework

Harmony, resonance, spiritual, inspiration, aspiration

Compassion, love, truth, authenticity

Diversity, heterogeneity, pluralism

Path, way, journey

An ethical framework for the everyday and for seeking deeper meaning

One of the faults of much organised religion is that it attributes greater significance to people who are able to engage more fully in religious activities and who are able to run the organisation: popes and bishops, imams and rabbis, priests and monks. A new ethical framework would not focus on the individual but on processes. A person might involve themselves for much of the time at an everyday level of ethical awareness, for example taking decisions informed by their ethical principles. That same individual might spend some time seeking after deeper meaning. On other occasions that some person might lead others in their exploration. Although many religious clergy might claim that they are no more special than any member of their congregation, that is not how most people view them. The new ethical framework, in focusing on processes, would refuse role titles, and would only describe processes. These processes would include:

everyday functioning

seeking truth / meaning

leading others in their search for truth / meaning

Person and self

A deep respect for self would be good, so that self-aggrandisement at the expense of other becomes no longer necessary. Self-development would become a permanent aspiration, and counselling would be seen as a valuable activity in which to participate. The material, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs (Maslow) of each person would be elevated. Without safety, food and a place to live, a person has little opportunity to achieve their full potential.

Relationship to others

To replace the sneering, contemptuous, cynical, exploitative attitude that appears to pervade public discourse worldwide, a new ethical framework would focus on one's relationships with family, community and society, alongside a deep respect for people. Courtesy and politness, as found in Japan, would be prized. Fundamentally permissive, a new ethical framework would prize social diversity, and would consider social conformity to be unnecessary and often unhelpful. Nationalism in any form would not be encouraged at the everyday level of processing, and at other levels of processing would be discouraged.

A respect that acknowledges their experience, their story, their aspirations, their reality. The Kantian ethical principles of beneficence, non-maleficence and justice would serve well, providing a framework for looking after family, neighbour, community, society, the world community and the natural environment. Attitudes of self-respect, humility and giving dignity could replace the Pop Idol -type aspirations that has come to infect the 21st century West.

Relationship with the natural environment

There would also be a deep respect for the natural world, including land, sea and air, animals and plants. To pollute would be as though to soil one's own home. To treat living things callously would be as though to treat one's parents, siblings and children with contempt.

Spiritual dimension

Esteemed places are already reserved for wonder, awe and mystery. Superstition, however, will play no part in this new, humanist ethic, neither pagan astrology nor theistic beliefs. Souls, an after-life and reincarnation will be acknowledged as concepts that distract and make truth more elusive. From dust my body was formed, and to dust it will return. From oblivion I was created, nurtured into awareness, until I am annihilated. De facto, I live the interval between oblivion and annihilation in a spirit shaped by interaction. Like piano strings resonating to sounds in the environment, my spirit resonates with the spirits of others, and maybe in turn causes the spirits of yet others to resonate. Spirit may live on, through dance, images, music, words, and for a short while in memory. However, at death my life is over: there is no longer an 'I', no 'me', no awareness. No place for the concept of an immortal soul.

Nor is there any requirement for a god. The concept of a deity is unhelpful as it turns away from the spirit. Therefore there would be no need for mediators of religion in the form of priests, bishops or popes. However, a new ethical framework would be permissive, for whilst not requiring theistic and other religious beliefs, neither would it exclude the believer. A new ethical framework would also permit a personal morality to sit within the framework.

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