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Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Sadist Is a Masochist Who Follows the Golden Rule

I'm currently reading a recently released book: Living the Secular Life, by Phil Zuckerman, who is a sociology professor at Pitzer College, where he has studied the lives of the nonreligious for a number of years. He recently founded the Department of Secular Studies, which is the nation's first academic program dedicated to exclusively studying secular culture. So far, the book's quite good. It discusses a number of different topics, such as how people who don't believe in a God or some higher power can live a moral life, how secularists promote the common good, the rise of religious "nones," and so on.

That said, I think Zuckerman doesn't always think through some of the implications of his conclusions. For example, he approvingly notes that most of the nonreligious who he has interviewed base their morality on the golden rule: namely, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's a nice sentiment, but the problem is that the golden rule doesn't operate in a vacuum. It presupposes some notion of what is right and good and just. As someone far wiser than I (Thomas Cathcart) once quipped, "a sadist is a masochist who follows the golden rule." In other words, as long as we agree with someone's notion of what constitutes "the good," then we have no problem with them following the golden rule.

But this raises the question as to where do our notions of the good come from? I think most of us would like to believe that we arrive at them through reason and reflection, and while reason and reflection (hopefully) play a part, our notions of what constitutes the good are also tied up in the communities in which we live and move and have our being. Thus, while it is entirely possible for people to live a good and moral life without a belief in God, it is not possible for them to live a good and moral life apart from the communities in which their lives are embedded. Like people of faith secularists derive their moralities from something greater (larger) than themselves.

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