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Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism, by Paul Kurtz

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Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism

Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism, by Paul Kurtz

Is it possible to live a life of happiness and moral responsibility without religion or even without belief in a god? Conventional wisdom and long-standing traditional attitudes hold that both religion and theism are necessary for happiness and morality — but through history a few have argued the contrary. Do they argue convincingly, though?


Title: Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism
Author: Paul Kurtz
Publisher: Prometheus Books
ISBN: 0879754559

•  Provides ways to support ethics without theism
•  Shows how theistic ethics can be critiqued as inadequate

•  None

•  Explains how ethical thinking does not require theism or a god
•  Explains how theistic ethics is not as solid as supporters claim
•  Explains some of the ‘moral decencies’ which all people should share


Book Review

Paul Kurtz is one of those who has made a case that neither religion nor theism are vital for the existence of a good life. Although he has made this point in many of his works, Forbidden Fruit contains his most extensive arguments on the subject. He covers issues like the value of theistic morality, the existence of basic moral principles, and the meaning of life itself.

Ethical philosophy can be divided into two fundamentally different and diametrically opposed approaches: deontological and utilitarian. Deontolgoical ethics, generally characteristic of theistic belief systems, is based upon the idea that ethical behavior is a matter of obedience to the demands of some authority (god, king, parent, etc.). For theists, this normally means following the commands of a god, considered the only valid source of any moral principles. Thus, without their god, morality simply cannot exist — a common complaint raised against atheism.

A deontological position is one which inculcates the idea of absolute certainty. So long as ethical actions are defined by a clearly discernable obedience to a god’s commands, it is easy to know for sure when a person is being moral or immoral. Grey areas, doubts and moral problems are thus virtually eliminated (or at least covered over). This is a major attraction to people — not simply because certainty is by itself attractive, but also because doubt about the proper moral course of action is especially distressing.

Utilitarian ethics, often characteristic of humanist philosophies, differ from deontological ethics in the focus on consequences. Under a utilitarian system, actions are judged based upon how well they achieve some goal (usually happiness, although other goals appear as well). Deontological ethics, on the other hand, ignore the consequences as irrelevant. Because of this focus on results, the possibility of certainty is virtually eliminated.

Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism

Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism, by Paul Kurtz

We can never be absolutely sure that our actions really will produce the results we hope for — we can only do our best, given what we know. Thus, any decision must be acknowledged as possibly wrong (even if that possibility is unlikely). This point is often used by religionists as way to attack secular and humanistic ethics as if it invalidated the approach. Paul Kurtz rejects deontological systems, however, writing that:

    “...the theist’s argument is immoral, for it abandons the moral conscience for an authoritarian ground, and thus sidesteps the content of the moral imperative itself.”

Kurtz argues instead for a humanistic ethics which incorporates both objective and relativistic aspects. At first this might seem like a contradiction, but ethics are a matter of human social interaction, and such interaction must necessarily be both objective and subjective/relative in various ways.

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