First, do no harm: expanding our moral circle beyond religion

Secular values and commitments are all that’s needed to anchor the deep transformation of society.

Floris van den Berg
10 February 2015

Credit: All rights reserved.

The world would be a better place without religion. Without religion, people could work for a just society without superstitious delusions, whether or not these are institutionalized in religious faiths.

Without religion there would have been no attack on 9/11, no acts of terrorism in London or Madrid, no brute assassinations of journalists in Paris, no Boko Haram, no conflict between Israel and Palestine, no sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.

It’s not difficult to make a long list of evils related to religion and its role in supporting ignorance and inequality. Voltaire didn’t want to discuss atheism in the presence of his servants, because “they might lose their religion” and not be obedient anymore.

Of course, not all problems vanish with the disappearance of religion. But many do, and that’s a good thing. It’s like being cured from a disease, which doesn’t mean you’re healthy or that there’s no risk from contracting something else.

It has been said that Western societies are too individualistic, and that religion makes people less egocentric. However, the USA is both egocentric and religious at the same time, so there’s no guarantee that religiosity correlates with being non-individualistic.

By contrast, more secular countries like Germany and Sweden have healthier social systems with a high level of social welfare and a low prevalence of crime and violence. Contrary to the idea that religion plays a positive role in societal wellbeing, the correlation seems to be the opposite, at least when coupled with social-liberal democracy.

The positive social role of religion is much overrated, including by those who don’t believe themselves. Daniel Dennett calls these people “believers in belief:” they attribute value to religion for the social and psychological role it plays in society as part of the ‘cement’ for shared moral values.

Such values are essential in any community, even more so today in the face of urgent ethical and environmental problems like the environmental crisis and global inequality, which require a deep transformation of self and society. But it doesn’t seem as though religion is a sound way to anchor these transformations. In that case, what could replace it?

From individual liberty—the core value of the enlightenment—it follows that everything is allowed so long as we do no harm to others. So a society in which no harm is done should be the goal. But who are these ‘others’?

One lesson of modern philosophy, especially that of Peter Singer, is that there are good reasons for expanding our moral circle away from anthropocentrism (concerning only human beings), and towards sentientism—to encompass all beings that are able to experience suffering. From these simple premises it follows that everything is allowed, so long as we do no harm to other sentient beings. This is the yardstick against which we need to evaluate our ethics, politics and behavior.

One powerful way of doing this is by focusing on victims, but who are they? By expanding our moral circle from anthropocentrism to sentientism, we find two new categories of victims: non-human animals and future generations, both of whom suffer because of our current political and lifestyle choices. So we need a fundamental transformation towards a no-harm lifestyle and no-harm society.

To start from the perspective of a no harm lifestyle, this necessarily requires adopting a vegan diet, which abstains from using animal products, because sentient beings have been harmed in the process of animal farming. Secondly, a sustainable lifestyle is essential, measured by the concept of the ecological footprint: we should not lead lives which consume more than the non-renewable resources of the planet if everyone were to attain the same standard of living.

A large ecological footprint means that we are harming future generations by stealing their fair share of resources, and reducing the possibilities for them to flourish. If every human being on the planet lived like the average American, 4.4 planet Earths would be required.

But what motivation or ideology could inspire the expansion of our moral circle in this way? Religions do not suffice because their moral circle is anthropocentric and in-group oriented. Religious arguments only appeal to believers of one specific faith, and the truth claims of religion cannot be rationally validated.

A better alternative is “ecohumanism”, which combines the scientific worldview needed to cope with the global environmental crisis with the normative ideals of political liberalism, with individual liberty at their core. In place of religion, the philosophy of ecohumanism can inspire people to become vegan, lower their ecological footprint, live in voluntary simplicity, and broaden their tolerance for people who choose lifestyles that differ from their own.

The most fundamental moral experience one can have is the realization of the contingency of one’s own existence: you have no right to be whom or what you are—that is down to fate or luck. You could have been born as any other sentient being—the cow that gives you the milk you’re drinking, or the beef on your plate, or the leather of the shoes that you wear. Therefore, the best one can do is to strive not to harm other sentient beings.

But what if somebody doesn’t care about the contingency of existence or the harm they inflict on others? Is no transformation possible? This is the biggest obstacle facing non-religious ethics. But set against this question, we should remember that deep-rooted, large-scale societal changes have taken place in history from which we can learn. Two prominent examples are the emancipation of women and the achievement of legal equality for LGBTQ individuals.

Both of these movements have been obstructed by religion. In the Netherlands homosexuality was seen as a psychological disease 60 years ago, but by 2001 the first same-sex marriage had taken place. In a few short decades, attitudes towards LGBTQ rights had been transformed. During the same period, the role of religion in Dutch society has declined drastically.

As in these cases, religion—to make a very bold statement—has almost always been on the wrong side of moral progress. The same is true today in relation to new emancipation movements like care for non-human animals and for future generations, neither of which are rooted in religion.

Instead they are anchored in a moral baseline that is both stronger and clearer: the no harm principle. What’s needed is to enshrine this principle in societies much more deeply, and that requires the development of moral awareness and sensitivity for the suffering of others. What we call moral education these days involves a lot of desensitization, designed to avoid thinking about the cruelty that lies behind what’s on our plates and all the animal products that we use.

In order to raise awareness in this way, we need more information about the costs of our current lifestyles, and more role models that can illustrate the alternatives. Examples include the philosopher Peter Singer and the eco-activist Colin Beavan (“No Impact Man”). We can learn much from the ideology of “veganarchism,” which strives to end every kind of exploitation. The difference between veganarchism and ecohumanism is that the latter still sees a role for government and for organizations like the European Union and the United Nations.

Ecohumanism strives for a world with less suffering and more happiness. Striving to avoid harm to others, and trying to help them achieve their own fulfillment, provide a powerful source of inspiration and meaning. This is all we need to anchor the fundamental transformation of self and society. 

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