To be a person is to be forced into the thorny realm of morality –the place where moral choices, judgments, and debates are inescapable, where everyone is sunk deep in moral, or ethical, issues all the time. As a person, you may decide to reject or ignore moral concerns, but even this response is a moral concern.

Not only do you have moral concerns, you have a moral theory — a view of what morality is, and is not, that helps you decide what actions are right or wrong or what things are good or bad. Even if you think that there is no such thing as right and wrong, that is a theory of morality. (It has, in fact, been a very influential theory in the history of ethical thinking.) So the big question is not whether you should have a moral theory, but which one you should have.

You take this question lightly at your peril because your theory of morality — whatever it is — helps you plot the course of your life. Whether valid or invalid, ideas about morality influence what you do and don’t do. A poor moral theory leads to poor moral judgments. A good moral theory helps you make good moral judgments. And the difference between the two paths can be vast.

For many people, the differences between moral theories — and the difference these make — seem to loom the largest when the contrast is between the religious and nonreligious spheres. If we want a clear example of such contrasting moral theories, we need not look any further than

  1. the often-endorsed moral code consisting of the Ten Commandments; and

  2. the well-known secular theory is known as utilitarianism, the view that an action is right if it maximizes happiness, everyone considered.

Just to cite one difference, the religious code of the Ten Commandments is often interpreted as absolutist — that is, an action is right or wrong without exception and regardless of the consequences. The utilitarian view, however, is completely contingent — it says that an action is right or wrong depending on its consequences.

But the contrasts between religious and secular theories of morality are not the whole story. Depending on the theory in question, the two perspectives often embrace many of the same assumptions about morality. Many theories in both camps assume that

  • moral knowledge is possible

  • people can and should be held accountable for their actions

  • moral principles can be applied universally

  • justice, duty, rights, and punishment are important ethical concepts.

Both religious and (most) secular theories also assume that moral knowledge (such as whether an action is right, or whether a person is good) is objective — that it does not depend on any one person’s state of mind.

These differences and similarities underscore the urgency of the question we posed in the first paragraph: Which moral theory — whether religious or secular — is best? And this query leads us to an even more fundamental question: How does someone go about answering the first question?

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