One day last week as I was reading my local newspaper and drinking my morning coffee I came upon a story lamenting a recent series of incidents of some type of bad behavior, a sort of secular jeremiad. Whether they were cases of racism, sexism, bullying, physical and verbal violence against women or LGBTQ people, I don’t recall. What struck me as worthy of note was not the particular list of sins condemned but the author’s diagnosis of the root problem and the response advocated: ignorance remediated by more education!
What’s wrong with that? Nothing per se. Every parent knows and all ancient moralists understood that human beings need to be taught the difference between right and wrong; they need discipline, training and practice. But everything depends on what you teach! Secular approaches to moral education, such as the one advocated by the author I read, leave out the most important part of morality. They assert moral rules without foundations or inner coherence. Of course the moral training of a small child, a two-year old for example, must begin with parents laying down rules backed up only by parental say-so. A young child cannot understand moral theology or philosophy. But at some point in our lives we need more than arbitrary rules backed up by threat of punishment to sustain a moral life worthy of mature human beings.
Here is what struck me about the story: the secular moral educator cannot get beyond two-year old morality. That is to say, the secular moralist can only make assertions backed up by implicit or explicit threats. If students ask a secular moral educator why they are obligated to follow the asserted rules, sooner or later they will be confronted by a humanly legislated law or an administrative regulation that has the force of law. This is the adult form of “Because I said so!” (Those who have had to complete institutionally required workplace sexual harassment training understand what I am saying.) The secular moralist may assert certain rights or invoke the concept of justice. And what if you ask for the basis of those asserted rights and claims of justice? You will receive one of two answers. Either the original assertion will be repeated at a higher decibel level or you will be directed again to legislated law.
By definition, secular morality cannot appeal to any moral standard that transcends human desires, wishes or assertions of power. Such appeals would have to mention the will and purpose of God or some spiritual reality that determines the meaning and end of human life. It cannot successfully appeal to natural science to ground its moral assertions, because science only describes things and cannot tell you what ought to be.
And because secular morality possesses no unifying philosophical or theological vision of the world and human life, it cannot bring unity to its asserted rules. Sometimes it invokes principles such as individual liberty or community solidarity to give its rules a semblance of coherence. But as you can see, these two principles often come into conflict and call for a higher principle to harmonize them. And apart from a higher unifying principle, individual liberty and community solidarity are just as much arbitrary assertions as is the incoherent list of secular rules.
Moreover, secular moral education is as weak psychologically as it is philosophically. Why would you expect racists, sexists and bullies to change their minds and reform their ways simply because a teacher, professor, supervisor or celebrity asks them to do so? It’s laughable. Such changes of heart require something more persuasive than appeals for niceness. Genuine moral convictions must be grounded in a clear vision of truth. Moral reformation must arise out of a powerful perception that one is out of tune and out of touch with what is truly good and right, misaligned with the way things ought to be. And for most people moral reformation must be accompanied by religious conversion; for God is the creator and lawgiver of human nature and of the whole world. You can’t get right with your neighbors unless you get right with the Creator of your neighbors.
Christianity’s moral vision acknowledges the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to be the unifying center of all reality, metaphysical, physical and moral. The scriptures teach us that to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves are our highest duties. And Jesus Christ has set us a perfect example of what it means to love God and neighbor. This vision of the good and right is not an empty and arbitrary assertion. It is grounded in the eternal being of God and revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the perfect image of God. And those who see it don’t need a secular educator’s special pleading or threats to motivate them to not to do violence to their neighbors. They are already way beyond that stage.