The Secular Conscience by Austin Dacey

Published by MNA on

By Grant Steves

The Secular Conscience is a highly commendable statement on the need to reclaim the moral compass from the religious right and left.  The assumption that only the religious people have a moral compass is blatantly false.  Because the Pharisaic religious people pray in public and make a show of their moral compass, does not mean in fact their real morality is better than a secular person who does not make this show.  It is important that secularists must declare their moral beliefs and the basis for their beliefs.

Austin Dacey’s, The Secular Conscience goes a long way in helping to rescuer the moral compass for the secular believers.  It is in the openness of a democratic society that we are most apt to discover what the opening of conscience is.  His argument is that science governed by openness has resulted in the development and refinement of ideas.  An open source method, he references the London Think tank Demos, has ten characteristics:

1) Transparency, 2) Vetting of participants only after they’ve got involved, 3) Low cost and ease of engagement, 4) A legal structure and enforcement mechanism, 5) Leadership, 6) Common standards, 7) Peer review and feedback loops, 8) A shared conception of goals, 9) Incrementalist – small players can still make useful contributions, and 10) Powerful non-monetary incentives.  When applies to science it is non-sectarian and non-authoritarian.  The product resulting is a ‘public – good.’

Conscience, he argues, should share many of the key features of the open source methods.  It allows for the ethical assumption made to be scrutinized by a public and not just by the private individual thoughts.  I would suggest the forum and blogs on the Internet are achieving this dialogue to some degree.

When the former Iranian President Khatami appeared at the United Nations, he expressed an “earnest hope that through such a dialogue, the realization of universal justice and liberty may be instituted.”  While he was expressing this his country was stomping out free press (over 150 newspapers were suppressed), imprisoning more people of conscience than any other government, and is a state sponsor of terrorism.  Dacey would argue that in this religiously based organization (the government of Iran is a theocratic state) the dialogue of conscience was shut down, and it became a dictator of ethics and values.

Even in our own country where we sponsor the economic theory of the free market place, developed at by Adam Smith, we do not reflect as favorably using his economic theory on questions of conscience, as his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, did.  The open society, the free market place is for the development of ideas.  Here the dialogue on ethics looks at the consequences of ethical actions realistically and not prejudicially.  For example, acceptance of gay marriage or civil unions has been discussed but the prevailing sentiments have been from authoritarian sources that pre – judge.  The dialogue does not ask what happens differently from not having this ethical choice.  Does this really undermine marriage more than legalized divorce?  Do we really undermine sexual behavior or choice any more than the religiously guided system we have now?

An open dialogue of conscience allows and encourages this discussion.  Dacy believes that liberty and privacy are not the circumventing of public dialogue on what is right and good but are in fact it is necessary to put our private conscience in the public  dialogue and be prepared to reason why your position is valid or not.  Our “freedom of belief does not free her from examination; it frees her belief for examination.”

It is this examination of these beliefs that helps us to discover the principles – the common standards – by which we can evaluate our beliefs.”  For Dacey ‘religious experience is not a reliable guide to truth’ because it does not allow for the judgment of reason and the opinion of dialogue.

This book is a strong argument for secular ethics based upon a public conscience.  Liberals must not concede the public morality to the private individual or religious groups.  Rather we must examine our belief in tolerance when it tolerates those that are intolerant.  He argues we must call to account those who would support intolerant beliefs or acts against others.  It is to condemn the KKK or Nazis for their bigotry.  It is more difficult to call to account the moderates who keep silent about the atrocities done in society.  Whether it is the silence against jihads, killing others because of the blasphemy against your religion, or murdering a young gay man moderates must speak out. 

In the end Dacey observes that, “Secular ethics begins with the reality of love, the desire for the good of the other for the sake of the other.  This is a foundation for a conscience that, “unites thinking persons and free peoples across ethnic, national and creedal lines, and in its unfolding through public conversation, our moral lives are measured out.”  It is lifting up the secular liberal conscience to a public sphere where all ethical systems are examined for validity.

Categories: Book Reviews