Ethics as a Surrogate Religion

By R. Clifton Way | Humane Health Care International, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Ethics as a Surrogate Religion


R. Clifton Way, Humane Health Care International


The Ethical movement of the 1870s was the foundation of modern ethics and bioethics. Its founders expressed confidence that they could establish a nonreligious (ethical) basis for virtuous behavior. They saw no need for supernatural concepts to bring out humanity's inherent goodness or suppress any inherent evil. (1)

This paper examines the historical foundations and progressive development of the ethical movement, with a particular focus on bioethics as its medical extension. Its purpose is to demonstrate that the ethical movement intended to create a new moral order based on its particular belief system, which its proponents believed would provide a new source of moral direction for society and, as such, constituted a surrogate religion. Due to space constraints, only a limited examination of this thesis can be made, but it is hoped that further discussion will result from its publication.

A religion is any system of beliefs which human beings use to make sense of their world, and which functions as the source of "benchmark" beliefs. The ancient Greeks defined religion as "the instinctive quest of the human being for the divine." (2)

Webster's Dictionary (3) defines religion as a system of beliefs recognizing God as an authority and uniting its adherents in a community with common behavioral guidelines or morals. Thus, a surrogate religion would be a set of behavioral guidelines or beliefs that replace a traditional belief in God with a set of values that do not take cognizance of the existence of God. The moral direction offered by any belief system or religion may be specific or neutral. Specific moral direction has been associated with traditional religion, providing or implying laws or guidelines (constraints) governing behavior. "Morally neutral" directives are associated with libertarian philosophy and situational ethics; its proponents have concluded that specific laws are not possible and moral laws change with circumstances. The latter position has been strongly identified with secular humanism, a "religion" which began to flourish in the 1960s in parallel with the development of bioethics.

Background Literature Review

In 1876, Felix Adler (4) founded the Ethical movement, or Ethical Culture movement, with the aim of "creating a society based on moral and not religious values." The philosophy of this movement developed from concepts espoused in the Age of Enlightenment (1745 - 1790) and the Romantic Era (1798 - 1850). Subsequently (1952), ethical societies in England and the United States joined worldwide humanist organizations to form the International Humanist and Ethical Union. (4)

By the 1960s many believed that science and new technology were the only sources needed by humans to meet their needs for moral guidance. Kropotkin (1) claimed that the means of satisfying humankind's moral needs were available in excess of demand, and that "man no longer needs to clothe his ideals of moral beauty, and of a society based on justice, with the garb of superstition: he does not have to wait for the Supreme Wisdom to remodel society." Further, he claimed that, using nature as the source of his ideals, humanity could produce a utopia and provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. He admitted, however, that the weakness in this grand scheme was ethics, defined as "the teaching of the fundamental principles of morality." He found that ethics lagged behind science and philosophy in providing the "material strength and freedom of thought" required to produce the constructive forces for a new era of progress. "A new, realistic moral science is the need of the day -- a science free from superstition, religious dogmatism, and metaphysical mythology -- that is what humanity is persistently demanding."

We should note that, with respect to bioethics and medical practice before 1960, "Hippocrates used to provide medicine with sufficient coverage to include freedom and responsibility within medical practice according to the rule.

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