Ethics can be drawn from different sources, religion being a major source of ethical principles across the world for all civilisational history
backed by authority of God.
Secular ethics separate themselves from any religious doctrines or belief systems and establish principles based on moral and/or logical arguments. Thus, secular ethics apply to all equally irrespective of their belief systems and do not legitimise or accentuate the authority of any religion or group.
For example, principles of natural justice are an example of secular ethics. The man should not be a judge in his own cause applies equally to everyone whether Indian or American, Hindu or Muslim, Black or White.
Secular ethics are especially critical for multi-religious societies like India. Its importance can be discussed as below -
As basis of Constitution and law :
Secular ethics provide a legitimate base to guide our constitutional-legal structure. Since it does not derive its authority from any religion, it has the legitimate authority to command obedience from citizens belonging to all religions, castes, creeds, etc. Without such a basis of Constitution, it suffers from vulnerability of alienating a section of people and leading to separatist demands. Thus, secular ethics are crucial for governance of a diverse population.
As basis of citizenship
- Diverse populations in the era of globalisation need some consensus on ethical principles to work smoothly and participate equally in the affairs of society and nation. In fact, only secular ethics can be the basis of true citizenship. Citizenship, as conceptualised by Hegel, covers the domain lying between the government and citizen where the matters can be debated and consensus developed. For such a culture of civil society
, some common minimum agreement of principles and methods must be agreed upon. With theological regimes like that in Pakistan, the scope of open rational discussion and critical thinking shrinks. This is ultimately harmful to the feeling of being part of a political community, called citizenship.
To settle disputes - Disputes ranging from civil disputes like land, business and property to criminal disputes like violence, homicide, theft and fraud, etc. require ethical principles in action in the form of legislation. A range of methods are possible across time and space - from Panchayats and local assemblies, to modern judicial systems and reconciliation and arbitration, to theological systems where religious leaders used to sit in judgement. Similarly, punishments can range from stoning to death and mutilation of body to minor censor are part of judicial systems. A practical system of justice and settling disputes need secular ethics to resolve disputes between parties of different communities. Only then the decision shall be acceptable to all. Ramjanmabhumi case recently settled by Supreme Court is an illustrative example of this where judiciary based on secular principles can settle otherwise formidable disputes.
Practical aspects of marriage, divorce, adoption, etc.
- Some matters like divorce, marriage, adoption, etc. while enacted through religious rites deal with patently non-religious matters affecting the rights and welfare of individuals and communities. In fact, without secular ethics, it can lead to social segregation and systemising discrimination. For example, Special Marriage Act 1954
is based on secular principles of married life and offers an opportunity for individuals from different religions to enter into a union without religious bounds.
As a bulwark against orthodoxy and superstition - Secular ethics allow critical thinking in matters which were beyond debate earlier due to religious backing. For example, social evils like Sati and dowry system were legitimised based on religious doctrines. Similarly, female genital mutilation and triple talaq had religious backing. Secular ethics bring these issues in open and allow a rational debate. Without secular ethics, reforms are not possible. In fact, secular ethics are a bulwark for freedom of speech and expression by embedding discourse in ethics which are dynamic and represent the evolution of society and ideas.
Globalisation and related challenges - In bygone centuries, most societies were relatively homogenous and the movement of people from one place to another was limited to business, religion and travel. However, globalisation has led to multicultural societies where people from across the world dwell and work together. So, the utility of religious ethics as a harmoniser of society has become severely limited and narrow. Secular ethics are a pathway to guide the societies in communities more tolerant of differences.
Thus, secular ethics while drawing from the best of all religions and cultures aim at creating communities conducive for all. This is the basis of Indian constitution and the vision of our forefathers.