A Secular Source of Morality.

David William Beck
8 min readJun 5, 2024


In a world where religious belief is not universal, the question of how we can derive a sense of morality and ethics without divine guidance is a pressing one. What, then, is the secular source of morality, and how can it be understood?

Firstly, just to get some housekeeping out of the way I’ve recently started publishing my blog here on my website (www.dwbeck.com). My website is far from perfect so I would value any feedback.

Defining terms:
Secularism, in relation to law and morality, is the principle that government institutions and decisions should remain separate from religious beliefs. This separation protects individual freedoms and promotes equality among all citizens.

Atheism is not a unified group or ideology but simply the absence of belief in deities. Atheists can hold diverse philosophical and moral views; for instance, some forms of Buddhism focus on personal development without gods, and certain ancestor worship traditions honour the deceased without invoking gods.

So I was scrolling through YouTube Shorts and came across a Charlie Kerk shot where Charlie rather poisons the well in a conversation with a student who is trying to defend moral relativism, which, in a nutshell, is:

The philosophical position that moral judgments and values are not absolute but are relative to cultural, societal, or individual perspectives. According to this view, what is considered morally right or wrong can vary significantly across different societies and historical periods, and there is no objective standard to adjudicate between them. Moral relativists argue that understanding and tolerance of different moral practices are essential, as imposing one culture’s morals on another is seen as ethnocentric. This perspective challenges the notion of universal moral principles, suggesting instead that morality is shaped by context and circumstance.

To understand the origins of morality from a secular perspective, we must first consider the history of life on Earth. Life has existed for around 4 billion years, but multicellular life only emerged about 1 billion years ago.

earth 4 billion years ago

Genetics shows that every trait, including personality and worldview, are inheritable. These traits significantly influence an organism’s ability to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Traits like intelligence, empathy, and aggression can greatly impact an individual’s success in different environments. However, the expression of these traits is shaped and influenced by the culture in which they exist.

Epigenetics adds another layer to this complexity. It explains how identical genetic makeups can produce different outcomes based on environmental factors. Genes can be turned on or off by experiences, leading to different behaviours and traits even among individuals with the same DNA. This interplay between genes and environment highlights the multifaceted nature of human behaviour and morality.

The interaction between an individual’s traits and their community’s cultural norms creates a unique moral framework for each individual which tends to overlap with other similar individual frameworks, which could be considered culture.

Culture acts as a lens through which our genetic predispositions are expressed and interpreted. For example, the human desire for revenge, which likely has evolutionary roots, can be channelled through cultural institutions like the justice system. This system, a form of cultural technology, often supersedes the raw urge for revenge, preventing feuds and promoting social stability.

Culture could also be seen as a kind of technology designed to serve humanity, however, it’s important to note that, unlike technology, culture is not innately progressive, meaning it can become more or less liberal over time and every culture could potentially be supplanted or replaced. Culture can be understood as the collective practices and beliefs of particular groups.

Legalism can act as a moral code for secular people by substituting the authority of God with the authority of the state. In this framework, the laws and regulations enacted by a government become the guiding principles for moral behaviour, providing a clear and structured set of rules to follow. For secular individuals, these laws offer an objective standard for right and wrong, derived from rational deliberation and societal consensus rather than religious doctrine.

Legalism ensures that ethical conduct is maintained through compliance with state laws, promoting social order and justice. However, it’s important to note that any legal system can make mistakes and will never be perfect so flexibility as well as checks and balances must be maintained.

Moral relativists do make a valid point, in that absolute and immutable moral laws cannot be universally applied with any great authority, even with flexibility and taking into account unforeseen circumstances.

Perhaps morality could be seen to be derived from the consensus of specific communities, evolving to meet their unique needs and challenges. However, powerful cultural groups can influence and control our perception of morality, often aligning it with their own interests. This dynamic is evident in how certain actions are legitimised or condemned in different societies.

Despite these variations, certain moral practices are almost universally acknowledged across cultures. Acts such as murder, rape, theft, and unnecessary cruelty are widely considered wrong, while virtues like honesty, kindness, and justice are generally upheld. Although morality doesn’t always progress linearly, we can evaluate past moral ideas as beneficial or harmful, which informs our future decisions.

Philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant offer contrasting views on how to determine moral actions. Mill, a utilitarian, argued that the morality of an action depends on its consequences. He believed that actions should be judged by their ability to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. From this perspective, lying could be morally acceptable if it results in a greater overall good. For example, lying to save someone’s life would be justified if the outcome increases overall happiness and reduces harm.

In contrast, Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics emphasise duty and adherence to universal moral laws. Kant argued that some actions are inherently right or wrong, regardless of their consequences. According to Kant, lying is always morally wrong because it violates the principle of treating others as ends in themselves, not merely as means to an end. He believed in the “categorical imperative,” which requires us to act according to maxims that can be universally applied. So, if lying were universally accepted, trust and communication would break down, leading to a less moral society.

To summarise, it’s perfectly possible to adopt a moral approach aligned with Kant. We can almost universally agree that murder, rape, theft, and unnecessary cruelty are morally repugnant. Acts of genocide are universally abhorrent, judged not only by the prevailing zeitgeist but also by cross-cultural consensus. Morality, then, becomes at best democratic and at worst plutocratic. However, every moral rule has its exceptions. For instance, would the murder of one person be less bad, or even preferable, if it prevented the deaths of many others? Mill would likely agree if the outcome resulted in greater overall good.

However, individual rights and personal sovereignty are of paramount importance, and it is crucial to ensure that they are not undermined by the tyranny of the majority, even when the outcome may seem beneficial to the community at large. John Stuart Mill, in his seminal work “On Liberty,” argues that the only justification for exercising power over any member of a civilized community, against their will, is to prevent harm to others. This principle underscores the importance of protecting individual freedoms, even in the face of overwhelming collective interests.

The practical implications of this concept have been starkly evident during the recent pandemic. Measures such as lockdowns and mandatory vaccinations, while aimed at protecting public health, have sparked debates over the balance between individual liberties and societal welfare. Mill’s advocacy for personal sovereignty reminds us that any restriction on individual freedom must be carefully justified and proportionate to the harm being prevented. This ensures that our responses to collective challenges do not erode the fundamental rights that underpin a free and just society.

The contentious issue of compulsory vaccinations brought this debate to the forefront. Many argued in favour of mandatory inoculations, citing the greater good of society. However, in doing so, they failed to adequately consider the fundamental principles of medical ethics, which stipulate that any medical procedure should be undertaken with the patient’s informed consent, free from undue pressure or influence.

In the United Kingdom, the government’s “nudge” unit employed tactics that many deemed unreasonable, leveraging fear to coerce individuals into accepting vaccines. Such strategies, while perhaps well-intentioned, run counter to the bedrock principles of individual autonomy and the right to make one’s own health decisions.

UK government: ad has a shift in tone from its previous communications

What is the Nudge Unit? The Nudge Unit was established in the Cabinet Office in 2010 by David Cameron’s government to apply behavioural science to public policy. Now owned partly by the Cabinet Office, by Nesta and by employees, it has operations across the world.

It is essential to recognize that the erosion of individual rights, even in the face of a public health crisis, sets a dangerous precedent. Once the line is crossed, it becomes increasingly difficult to protect personal freedoms in other contexts. The slippery slope of sacrificing individual liberty for the perceived greater good can lead to a society in which the rights of the individual are routinely subordinated to the whims of the majority.

Moreover, it is worth noting that the concept of the “greater good” is often subjective and can be easily manipulated by those in positions of power. Without robust safeguards for individual rights, there is a risk that the notion of the common good could be wielded as a tool for oppression and control. While the well-being of the community is undoubtedly important, it must not come at the cost of personal autonomy and the right to make informed decisions about one’s own body.

As we navigate the complex landscape of public health and individual freedom, we must remain vigilant in protecting the sovereignty of the individual. Only by upholding the principles of informed consent and resisting the urge to succumb to fear-based coercion can we hope to build a society that respects both the greater good and the fundamental rights of every person.

By employing utilitarianism, we can begin to build a secular model of morality, allowing us to judge and punish those who deviate from widely accepted moral standards. English common law, for instance, is based on the intuition and understanding of centuries of legal scholars, founded on legal precedents. The law serves as a formalisation and practical application of morality whilst also creating a moral groundwork — Still, it’s important to recognise every legal system must maintain a certain level of flexibility and compassion and to be responsive to criticism, especially if that criticism comes from marginalised groups and individuals. It’s also important to build into the system mechanisms that protect the rights of individuals hated by the state and the establishment that counterbalance the inherent biases in every worldview, placing individual rights and sovereignty above that of the highest elites.

However, it is crucial to maintain flexibility in any moral or legal system. As times change, so must our laws and moral standards. This adaptability ensures that our moral framework remains relevant and responsive to new challenges and evolving societal values. Thus, both Kantian and utilitarian principles can guide us in creating a just and compassionate society, even in the absence of divine guidance.

As we navigate the challenges of an ever-changing world, it is crucial to maintain a flexible and adaptable moral system that can respond to new circumstances while upholding the fundamental principles of justice, compassion, and human dignity. By embracing a secular approach to ethics, grounded in reason, empathy, and a commitment to progress, we can chart a course towards a more enlightened and humane future, demonstrating that morality is not the exclusive domain of religious belief, but rather a shared human endeavour that transcends any single worldview.