Secular Ethical Systems


Western Liberal Ethics

Western liberal democracies contain many different beliefs, religions and cultures but there are some ethical ideas that permeate Western society. Notably there is an emphasis on individual rights; this is most obvious in the United States of America where the constitution lay out the rights of individual citizens. The founders of the USA believed there where such things as “inalienable rights” in other words rights that every person is born with whether the government acknowledges those rights are not. As such those rights are supposed to be objective and universal.


Rights are not the only common ethical aspect however. As many western countries have become increasingly multi-cultural there is accompanying emphasis on cultural relativism not just as a description of ethics but as an ethical principle; in other words that people should respect the views of other cultures. This idea is by no means universally held nor is it unproblematic.



Capitalist Ethics

In the Twentieth century thinkers have tried to come up with an ethical justification for capitalism. They have mixed egoist ideas with ideas about basic rights. The idea being that so long as you don’t violate other peoples very basic rights (essentially the right to property) then you should act in your own self interest. The idea is that if people act according to rational self interest the combined effect will be beneficial to everybody. To prove their point believers in capitalism can point to the high standard of living and the long life span of people living in the USA where basic rights are protected by a constitution and the economic system is heavily capitalistic. Ethics can be reduced to something more like economics and so in the long run be made both objective and universal.




Utilitarianism is a view of ethics from the 19th century devised by a philosopher called John Stuart Mill from an original idea by another man called Jeremy Bentham. They were trying to devise a rational way of making ethical decisions. The idea of utilitarianism is to maximise happiness or pleasure and minimise unhappiness or pain. Bentham thought this could actually be done by assigning things different units of pleasure and pain and then simply add up the possibilities. The action with the maximum pleasure all round was the “right” thing to do. So given a choice between giving one person 100 baht or 10 people 11 baht, the second would be preferred because there would be 10 lots of 11 bahts worth of happiness as opposed to 1 lot of 100 bahts worth. Bentham’s idea didn’t really catch on and John Stuart Mill tried to reform it. He realised that not all pleasure is equal and that it is hard to compare the pleasure of a farm worker getting drunk on a Friday night with rich man spending a night at the opera. Even so Mill used utilitarian arguments to support many social reforms that today would be widely accepted as being correct such a votes for women and better working conditions for factory workers.


Utilitarianism is both a form of hedonism and consequentialism. It is hedonistic because it matches good with pleasure and bad with pain. It is consequentialist because it is concerned with ends.


Utilitarianism attempts to be objective particularly Bentham’s form which hoped to be as objective as mathematics. It tends, however, to become both relative and to some extent subjective because it relies on peoples opinions of what constitutes pleasure or happiness.



Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant is another philosopher who tried to solve some of the riddles of ethics. Kant lived in the 18th century and was a very religious man who followed a very conservative form of Christianity. He was concerned however that ethics should not just be a matter of religion but also a matter of reason.


Kant thought that ethics should be about duty. He also thought that he could work out a basic fundamental duty that is true for everybody. He called it a “Categorical Imperative”, in other words an imperative (a statement with a “should” or an “ought” that had to by definition be followed). Kant’s reasoning was very difficult and very complex and to hard to explain here but his three versions of his categorical imperative are relatively easy to understand and sound like good moral principles. We will look at just two versions of Kant’s Categorical Imperative (as rewritten by me):


“Only hold such maxims as you would want to be universally applied”: In other words your moral rules should be generally applicable to everybody. So the maxim “beat people around the head with a rolled up newspaper” sounds great when you have the newspaper and are doing the beating but you really would not want everybody to follow such a maxim. So that particular maxim fails as an ethical rule. “Be nice to strangers” does a lot better a rule.

“Treat all individuals as ends in themselves and not just means”: In other words be respectful of other people, don’t “use” or “exploit” others because an individual person is in themselves an ethical end.


Kant’s rules fit very well with many modern notions of how we should behave but they are so general that they give very little practical guidance.