January 20, 2015 by The Ascending Staircase
This was originally written for a scholarship to The Academy, a summer school run over a long weekend by the Institute of Ideas. I won a scholarship for the second consecutive year, and attended The Academy in July 2014.
Note: the essay was limited by a word count. What you are viewing is the original, hich I have not expanded in any way. Hopefully one day I will be able to add to it and explain my points better. For now, it remains a brief overview of my opinions on the question posed.
Morality has repeatedly been associated with religion throughout history. It can be traced back to Ancient Greece and the poetry of Homer, where heroic humans would mirror some of the behaviours of the Gods and thus be considered ‘moral’. In the Judo-Christian tradition, morality comes in the form of God’s commands. ‘Immorality’ is the result of these commands being broken.
In the UK today we no longer live under the constant image of a God that demands we obey; religion and the state are slowly separating and so it could be argued that we are now largely a secular society. Without the strong influence of religion in our society, our national perspective has changed. Today, without the veil of Christianity over us, abortion is considered acceptable; adultery is no longer punishable by death; Sunday is no longer a day of rest.
This does not necessarily mean we are an immoral society. Instead, it means that times have changed and old laws must be revised. One particularly prominent change is within medical science; although the Hippocratic Oath has been an important part of the morality of medicine since it was formed in Ancient Greece, today it is contested. New technology allows us to keep people alive though they may be ‘brain dead’. The killing of such people is against the Hippocratic Oath, which states that a physician must do all in their power to keep the patient alive. Yet many would argue against keeping such people alive, whose life as they once experienced it has deceased, even though the technology to do so is available.
Even with the breakdown of historical traditions such as the one above, our secular society should not be labelled ‘immoral’ as the intrinsically good decision here may be to relieve the patient’s suffering and allow them to die. Peter Singer takes this further in his work, ‘Taking Life: Humans,’ by arguing that a disabled infant should be allowed to die soon after birth if this decision is consented by the parents; what once would have been considered shocking in a religious society is here argued logically and with morality in mind.
Many religious leaders would argue that to allow a state to become secular would lead to immoral government decisions. Giorgio Agamben’s ‘Life that does not deserve to live’ suggests that a secular society that can create a Welfare State for societal good can thus form a regime like that of the Nazis. However, secular societies throughout the world proved their morality by overthrowing this regime and halting the prejudices that it created. This, in itself, was the intrinsically good thing to do and thus proves that morality is still thriving in societies where religious authority is waning.
Although there are many other examples to prove this point, I believe that the above argument logically shows that our secular society has not lost its morality; rather, morality has been redefined to suit the times in which we live.