When Did Moral Philosophy Become Overwhemingly Secular?

Lately I’ve been poking around the history of moral philosophy, and I decided to read all of F. H. Bradley’s Ethical Studies, first published in 1876. Philosophers will remember Bradley for his essay “My Station and Its Duties,” which is one chapter.
I finished the book a few days ago, and I was surprised that the last chapter is about religion and morality (it’s called “Concluding Remarks,” so the content is not too obvious!). Especially interesting is that Bradley says that his moral theory, “My station and its duties,” is incomplete. Here’s what he says, with my comments in brackets:
[T]he hunt after pleasure in any shape has proved itself a delusion [Bradley rejects utilitarianism], and the form of duty a snare [Bradley rejects Kantianism], and the finite realization of ‘my station’ was truth indeed, and a happiness that called to us to say [Bradley likes his view! And yet …], but was too narrow to satisfy wholly the spirit’s hunger; and ideal morality brought the sickening sense of inevitable failure. Here our morality is consummated in oneness with God, and everywhere we find that ‘immortal Love’, which builds itself forever on contradiction, but in which the contradiction is eternally resolved.
So, basically, morality cannot be understood in secular terms, which you’d never know from just reading the “My Station” chapter. I’ve also just read Robert Stern’s Understanding Moral Obligation which compares Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard’s theories of obligation, and the divine looms much larger in Kant than I’d realized. I was surprised by its centrality for Hegel, though I knew it was important in some respects. And, well, obviously the divine is central for Kierkegaard’s moral theory!
I’ve come away struck by the thought that purely secular moral theorizing is actually pretty rare in the history of moral philosophy. Almost everyone up until the 18th century had some kind of deity (pantheist, classical theist, etc.) play a central role in their moral theory. Even Hobbes! (Sharon Lloyd does a great job bringing this out.) But from what I’m reading, the divine plays a role even in a lot of 19th century moral theorizing, especially in the idealist tradition, which was obviously extremely influential well into the 20th century.
In the 19th century, utilitarianism seems to me to be the main tradition of wholly secular moral theorizing. A lot of secular thinkers in the 19th century actually eschewed what we’d traditionally think of as classical moral theory, with Marx as Exhibit A.
So I’m curious: when did moral philosophy become so overwhelmingly secular, such that divinity can barely be seen in the history of ethics classes? I mean, we don’t even read any divine command theorists, certainly no contemporary ones like Bob Adams or John Hare. Instead, we have students read the Euthyphro, which we take to have obviously refuted any role for God to play in morality. But the Euthyphro isn’t about divine command theory at all. It was written centuries before the best theistic ethical theories were developed. And divine command theorists have reasonable replies.
Further, divine command theory barely scratches the surface of the ways in which the moral facts and the divine facts might be related.
What happened? I admit I don’t know. My best guess is the huge impact that Henry Sidgwick and G.E. Moore had on the formation of analytic ethics. They also had a pretty big impact on a number of high status British intellectuals. Moore’s Principia Ethica had a big impact on Keynes as a young man, along with many of his associates in the Bloomsbury Group. And since their moral theories are abnormally secular, historically speaking, contemporary analytic ethics has inherited its abnormal secularity from them.


  • Robert Gressis Posted October 8, 2019 9:55 am

    Doesn’t God play an important role in The Methods of Ethics? If so, not sure how much you can blame Sedgwick.

    Related to your post, in Reasons and Persons, Parfit indicates a secular approach to morality hasn’t really been tried, IIRC.

    As for why the decline, presumably it has a lot to do with the far-reaching atheism among philosophers.

  • Brad Cokelet Posted October 8, 2019 12:59 pm

    The idea of a Deity (or deities) plays a much smaller role in Confucian moral philosophy (if any) than in western thought. The concept of “Tian” often translated as “heaven” does play a role in the tradition thought. Robert Eno’s “The Confucian Creation of Heaven: Philosophy and the Defense of Ritual Mastery” provides some useful background on Confucian uses of ‘Tian’ and debates about whether this should be understood as an appeal to a deity or personal moral force or something more like natural law. I believe the standard translation as ‘heaven’ was introduced by the Jesuits.

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