Does morality depend upon religion? Most people believe it does, which is a major reason behind the appeal of the religious right. People believe that without faith in a supernatural authority, we can have no moral values–no moral absolutes, no black-and-white distinctions, no firm demarcation between good and evil–in life or in politics. This is the assumption underlying Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent assertion that “government derives its authority from God,” since only religious faith can supposedly provide moral constraints on human action.
And what draws people to this bizarre premise–the premise that there is no rational basis for refraining from murder, rape or anarchism? The left’s persistent assault on moral values.
That is, liberals characteristically renounce moral absolutes in favor of moral grayness. They insist, for example, that criminals should not be reviled, but should be seen as tragic products of their “social environment”–that teenage mothers are just as entitled to welfare checks as wage-earners are to their paychecks, and that to deny welfare benefits for a child born into a family already receiving welfare is, as the ACLU declares, to “unconstitutionally coerce women’s reproductive decisions”–that America is morally equivalent to its enemies, with our own policies having provoked the Sept. 11 attacks and our “unilateralist” actions in Iraq being no different from any forcible occupation of one nation by another.
Repulsed by such egalitarian, anti-“judgmental” absurdities, many people disavow what they regard as leftism’s essence: secularism, and turn to religion for their values.
But this is a false alternative. Secularism is simply a viewpoint that disclaims religion; what it embraces, though, may be rational or not. And the absurdities of the left stem precisely from its irrationality–its pervasive emotionalism, its insistence on doing whatever “feels right,” its contention that there are no fixed truths, its credo that morality is anything one wishes it to be. The left maintains that no objective principles exist to validate moral judgments. From its multicultural equalization of all societies–savage or civilized–to its belief in an indefinable, “evolving” Constitution, the left rejects the logic of objective standards and enshrines the arbitrariness of subjectivism. Thus, what the left’s opponents should disavow is not secularism per se, but rather the replacement of a religious variant of unreason–blind faith–with a secular variant: blind feelings.
The real alternative to the leftist claptrap is a morality of reason. Such a morality begins with the individual’s life as the primary value and identifies the further values that are demonstrably required to sustain that life. It observes that man’s nature demands that we live not by random urges or by animal instincts, but by the faculty that distinguishes us from animals and on which our existence fundamentally depends: rationality.
With reason as its cardinal value, this code of individualism espouses fixed principles and categorical moral judgments. It demands, for instance, that the initiation of force–the antithesis of reason–be denounced and that an unbridgeable moral chasm be recognized between the criminal and the non-criminal.
Since life requires man to produce what he needs, productiveness is a moral value–thereby making moral opposites out of the industrious worker and the parasitic welfare recipient. Since life requires man to use his own judgment rather than submissively accept the assertions of others, independence is a moral value–making moral opposites out of the person (or nation) acting on his own rational convictions and the one deferring to the consensus of his neighbors (or the U.N.). Since life requires the mind, man’s political system must allow him to use it, i.e., freedom is a moral value–making moral opposites out of America, the defender of liberty, and America’s enemies, who seek liberty’s destruction.
A morality of reason counters the relativism and the undiscriminating “tolerance” of the left.
It also counters a morality of faith, and establishes a genuine “culture of life.” Individualism upholds your sovereignty over your life–and refuses to subordinate the preservation of that life to, say, the preservation of embryonic stem cells in some petri dish. Individualism defends your inalienable right to your life, including your right to end it–and evaluates, say, opposition to assisted-suicide as a desecration of human life, since forcing someone to live who wishes to die is no less evil than forcing someone to die who wishes to live.
There is indeed morality without religion–a morality, not of dogmatic commands, but of rational values and of unbreached respect for the life of the individual.
Peter Schwartz is chairman of the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California.
This article is reproduced with permission from the Ayn Rand Institute. (c) 1995-2006 Ayn Rand Institute (ARI). Its inclusion in The Undercurrent Volume 2, Issue 1 does not represent an endorsement of The Undercurrent by either the author or the Ayn Rand Institute.