West London Humanists and Secularists



"WHAT IS ETHICAL RATIONALITY?" A talk by Tom Rubens - Meeting 26/05/10


This talk advanced the argument that rationality is a component of ethical discourse, but a secondary, not a primary one. It is secondary in the sense that it is concerned with finding technical means to achieve moral ends. The ends themselves are the primary features of ethical thought. As aims, objectives and purposes, they are the starting-points of behaviour. Also, as such, they are based on values and attitudes, which are affective and feeling positions, and therefore pre-rational. Hence in ethics the pre-rational gives rise to the rational. The latter is instrumental to the former.

At the same time, ethical rationality is highly complex, concerned as it is with methods of satisfying the emotional drives and needs which inform values and attitudes. In an increasingly scientific culture, it must increasingly engage with scientific knowledge and discovery. However, concurrently, it must continually recognise that scientific knowledge itself can only ever provide means to ends, never ends themselves.

Unlike scientific data, ethical values are, for the secular humanist, not forms of objective knowledge. Regarding these values as human creations and not discoveries, and therefore as carrying no cognitive authority, the humanist must always be aware of the deeply problematic aspects of morality. Hence he must be unfailingly prepared to experience anguish, and attempt to overcome it, in the process of coming to moral decisions. This process is part of the endeavour to create, within an otherwise chaotic and value-void universe, a moral and cultural order, one which is totally human in character and significance.

T.R. - 20 June 2010