The Necessity of Secularism, 78-79

How do moral norms serve these functions? In following moral norms we engage in behavior that enables these functions of morality to be fulfilled. When we obey norms like “don’t kill” and “don’t steal” we help ensure the security and stability of society. It really doesn’t take a genius to figure out why, but that hasn’t stopped some geniuses from drawing our attention to the importance of moral norms. As the seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and many others have pointed out, if we always had to fear being injured or having our property stolen, we could never have any rest. Our lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Besides providing security and stability by prohibiting certain actions, moral norms also promote collaboration by encouraging certain actions and by providing the necessary framework for the critical actions of the “promise” – that is, a commitment that allows others to rely on me. Consider a simple example, one that could reflect circumstances in the Neolithic Era as much as today. I need a tool you have to complete a project, so I ask yo to lend it to me. You hesitate to lend me the tool, but you also believe you are obliged to help me if such help doesn’t significantly harm you. Moreover, I promise to return the tool. You lend me the tool; I keep my promise to return the tool. This exchange fosters trust between us. Both of us will be more inclined to cooperate with each other in the future. Our cooperation will likely improve our respective living conditions.


Multiply this example millions and millions of times and you get a sense of the numerous transactions among people that allow a peaceful, stable, prospering society to emerge. You also can imagine how conditions would deteriorate if moral norms were not followed. Going back to my tool example, let us imagine you do not respond positively to my request for assistance. This causes resentment and also frustrates my ability to carry out a beneficial project. I am also less likely to assist you if you need help. Or say you do lend me a tool, but I keep it instead of returning it as promised. This causes distrust, and you are less likely to assist me (and others) in the future. Multiplied many times such failures to follow moral norms can result in mistrust, reduced cooperation, and even violence. If I do not return that tool peacefully, you may resort to brute force to reacquire it.

–Ron Lindsay, pgs 78-79, The Necessity of Secularism


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  1. In 1672 Richard Cumberland, Bishop of Peterborough, published his De legibus naturae (On Natural Laws) asserting that the natural order itself furnishes the foundation of both benevolence and rectitude, and not the proscriptions of “revelation.” The basis of morality is the social nature of man in combination with the idea of a common good. It begins to appear as early as the seventeenth century then, that moral conduct is seen to have no necessary dependence upon religious belief.
    Our moral arrangements are a natural phenomenon. Morality is a thing preexistent to theology or religion, and has no necessary connection with either. The foundations of the moral sense are formed in earliest childhood, learned from parents and family long before clergymen or religious instructors are introduced, and in children who are well and intelligently brought up decent behavior is second nature and its own reward. It is absorbed from the experiences of daily life and it requires neither whips nor harsh words, if parents are both wise and kind. It is loving fathers and mothers who give us our first impressions of the order and tenor of the world, and who begin helping us to shape our proper and moral responses to it—parents and immediate family who daily set the example not only for behavior but demeanor as well. How to be, how to act in the world, how to comport oneself toward others, the difference between right and wrong, what is good to do and good to avoid are the daily lessons naturally absorbed by children in an orderly household and they are the outcome of loving and caring treatment, the natural instinct in children to want to imitate parents and older siblings, the beneficial effect of open affection and appropriate praise on children, and the way these affect behavior. This is so whether parents are either perfectly orthodox or perfectly indifferent to religion—or even one of each.
    By gently cultivating these traits of temperament in children we predispose them to moral behavior, investing against the day when more complicated moral questions begin inevitably to enter their lives, as inevitably they will. As the world of our childhood enlarges, we learn by gradual exposure that we must make a good and respectful fit with, first, the people next door, then the neighborhood, then our fellow schoolkids, then the increasingly larger communities of the greater world. We gradually come to learn, as we go along and the moral universe grows larger, what disturbing the peace is, what is disorderly conduct, what are theft, burglary, indecent exposure, sexual misconduct, assault, rape, homicide and murder, war crimes and genocide. The moral order, as it has been crafted by our forbears and adopted by common consent out of the necessities of community life, is gradually revealed to us over the course of our early lives, experiences and exposures. This process does not require clergymen, Bibles or denominational religions.

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