This is a response to a post a friend of mine recently made outlining a secular basis for morality centered on empathy or “the golden rule” as the objective standard by which we ought to order our lives.
This comes as part of a long-running discussion where I maintain that, in order for morality to be of any substance , it must first be objective , timeless, and transcendent. To that end, I would like to offer two conjoined arguments in opposition to the proposed secular basis for morality based on empathy and the golden rule.
1.) The philosophical foundations of naturalism do not support the case for empathy being a standard.
If by secularism we mean philosophical naturalism in the sense that the only reality is the physical reality of atoms, particles, and “laws of nature” to the exclusion of metaphysical constructs such as a soul then our biggest hurdle to overcome, long before we deal with the grounds of any objective morality, is to answer where we get the notion of “ought to” from.
In other words, if matter is all there is, then all of our actions are essentially predetermined by our genes through chemical reactions happening in our brains. In this scenario we can no more will ourselves to be good, upright individuals than a sociopath who has no conscience.
Furthermore, as naturalists, we remove from ourselves the categories of right and wrong and are merely left with preferences which, even if applied to a societal level, still find no objective basis since it is still the subject (whether an individual or collective) that is determining the correctness of any given action (or intention/motive) and not a fixed standard that fits the criteria outlined at the outset which is required if our goal is a standard that is truly objective.
The only imbalance that can be found in this scenario is an imbalance of opinion and preference so that, when I say that you have wronged me, all I am doing is merely expressing a difference in opinion over your actions or intentions.
However, the fact that humans throughout history, and even the secular humanist, feel the need for a basis to morality is a rather curious notion since, without a truly objective standard to go by, all we would be left with would be moral relativism which, being relative to the individual or culture, would provide no real guidance at all, let alone one based on empathy.
2.) The philosophical presuppositions in the argument of empathy seem to assume that all humans have some sort of inherent worth and are of equal value which, given the secular or naturalistic view outlined above, is as incoherent in a naturalistic or secular world view as the notion of a free will able to effect a downward causal change in the mind/body.
At a certain level we agree that empathizing with animals is a good thing to do. However, at some point we tend to eat our small furry (or feathery) friends which seems to indicate that humans are in a category of their own indicating either speciesm or an indication that humans are, indeed, unique among the other “animals” in the evolutionary struggle.
Given that nature is also “red with tooth and claw“, and that animals regularly eat their own kind, we can safely conclude that humans are alone in their ability to “empathize” which seems to indicate that the notion of empathy is, at best, ambiguous and, at worse, completely irrelevant to simple propagation of the species.
The bottom line is that empathy, while sounding like the holy grail of secular ethics and morality does not line up with the philosophical naturalism it is built upon.
In conclusion; only in a world where humans were created equal would the golden rule or “empathy” make sense. Indeed, I would submit the fact that we find this golden rule upheld in some degree amongst nearly all cultures across the world and across time give us a good indication that we are, indeed, created equally and ought to therefore question seriously the foundation of our equality just in case that foundation happens to be a person like us.