As an agnostic, the primary message of the faith traditions I’ve interacted with appears to be, “be a good person”. “Be a good person” is also a reason that people study moral philosophy: moral philosophers spend a lot of time trying to determine what makes a person “good” and how we can be better people. However, “be a good person” means something different for everyone. For some, adherence to the most literal interpretation of their holy text determines the “goodness” of a person. For others, their holy text is just a basic guide on how to live morally. But what do we do when we do not believe in divine consequences for our actions? Or when we do not have a guidebook for morality, how do we know what “good people” even look like?
Some nonreligious people grow up in religious families, which shapes their values. It is common for people to “secularize” the morals they learned growing up, applying the core concepts of their faith backgrounds to their lives outside of them. For example, an atheist who grew up in a Christian home or predominantly Christian society may still “love [their] neighbor” without the religious connotation. Some of us learn right from wrong from our secular parents/guardians. But at a certain point, they are not looking over our shoulders to tell us what a “good person” does.
I asked a diverse group of atheists/agnostics/humanists/broadly spiritual people how they determine what a “good person” is, how to be one, and what they do when they reach a moral crossroads and are unsure of how to proceed. Despite the variance in (non)religious beliefs, political beliefs, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, upbringing, and education, the responses were eerily similar from person to person. That is what makes the results so intriguing: They all talked about “the greater good”, “harm reduction”, and “world betterment”. Specifically, they all explained that they deliberately think through what actions would be the most beneficial (or least harmful) to other people, animals, and/or the planet. I was interested to learn that this concept applied to a variety of topics, ranging from climate change to food ethics to nonviolence to ethnocentrist feminism.
Even more fascinatingly, their own moral codes took on less importance if breaking their ethical codes would guarantee a positive outcome for others. When I asked what would happen if their individual moral code was in tension with an action that would serve a larger population, each determined that serving a larger population matters more. For example, my moral code prohibits eating meat and treating animals as objects. And yet, I would have no problem serving factory-farmed meat at a soup kitchen if it were to benefit people who wouldn’t otherwise have easy access to a healthy meal. Similarly, one of the respondents explained that he is “against violence and practices nonviolence as a rule… however if [he] had to do it, [he] would harm somebody else if it worked for the greater good”. Although each nonreligious person adheres to a different moral code, our common values are advocacy for the greater good, world betterment, and harm reduction. This is representative of secularism as I know it: More than anything else, we believe in our responsibility to leave the world better than we found it.