Santa Clara University


Secular and Religious Sources for Ethics

There are both religious and secular sources for ethical systems. In examining the phenomenon of ethical pluralism, editors Richard Madsen and Tracy B. Strong look at the resources in five secular and four religious traditions. The book is The One and the Many: Religious and Secular Perspectives on Ethical Pluralism in the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). Madsen and Strong write the preface and J. Donald Moon writes the final section on “Pluralisms Compared.”

The secular traditions are:

  • Liberal Egalitarian: William A. Galston, Brian Barry
  • Classical Liberal: Chandran Kukathas, James Tully
  • Natural Law: John H. Haldane, Joseph Boyle
  • Feminist: Christine Di Stefano, Carole Pateman
  • Critical Theory: William E. Scheuerman, Simone Chambers

The religious traditions are:

  • Confucianism: Joseph Chan, Lee H. Yearley
  • Islam: Dale E. Eickelman, Muhammad Khalid Masud
  • Jewish: Menachem Fisch, Adam B. Seligman
  • Christian: David Little, James W. Skillen

The book belongs to the Ethikon Series in Comparative Ethics.

Books in the series include:

Terry Nardin, ed. The Ethics of War and Peace: Religious and Secular Perspectives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). Perspectives: Christian Pacifism, Feminism, Islam, Judaism, Natural Law, Political Realism

David R. Mapel and Terry Nardin, eds. International Society: Diverse Ethical Perspectives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). Perspectives: Christianity, Contractarianism, Cosmopolitanism, Islam, Judaism, Kantian Liberalism, Legal Positivism, Natural Law

David Miller and Sohail H. Hashimi, eds. Boundaries and Justice: Diverse Ethical Perspectives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). Perspectives: Christianity, Cloassical Liberalism, Confucianism, International Law, Islam, Judaism, Liberal-egalitarianism, Natural Law

Simone Chambers and Will Kymlicka, eds. Alternative Conceptions of Civil Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002) Perspectives: Christianity, Classical Liberalism, Confucianism, Critical Theory, Feminism, Islam, Judaism, Liberal-egalitarianism, Natural Law

Nancy L. Rosenblum and Robert C. Post, eds. Civil Society and Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002). Perspectives: Christianity, Classical Liberalism, Confucianism, Critical Theory, Feminism, Islam, Judaism, Liberal-egalitarianism, Natural Law

Sohail H. Hashmi, ed. Islamic Political Ethics: Civil Society, Pluralism, and Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

Contributors: Dale F. Eickelman, Hasan Hanafi, Sohail H. Hashimi, Farhad Kazemi, John Kelsay, Muhammad Khalid Masud, Jack Miles, Sulayman, Nyang, Bassam Tibi, M. Raquibuz Zaman

Allan Buchanan and Margaret Moore, eds. States, Nations, and Boundaries: The Ethics of Making Boundaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). Perspectives: Christianity, Confucianism, International Law, Islam, Judaism, Liberalism, Natural Law

Sohail H. Hashmi and Steven Lee, eds. Ethics and Weapons of Mass Destruction:  Religious and Secular Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Perspectives: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Feminism, Hinduism, International Law, Islam, Judaism, Liberalism, Natural Law, Pacifism, Political Realism

Other Sources:

Audi, Robert, Religious Commitment and Secular Reason (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Audi, Robert, and Wolterstorff, Nicholas, Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).

Swidler, Leonard, and Mojzes, Paul. The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000). This book begins with the different disciplinary approaches to religion and moves to how these different methodologies and different views of human nature and of ultimate reality affect the Global Ethic proposed by Hans Kung.

Van der Bruggen, Koos, “Global Morality: Rights and Duties at Global Scale,” paper for Dutch Research Council (NOW 2204). Van der Bruggen compares the normative views of Charles Beitz, John Rawls, Michael Walzer, Peter Singer, and John Keane.

Wolfe, Regina Wentzel, and Gudorf, Christine E., eds., Ethics and World Religions: Cross-Cultural Case Studies (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1999). Eighteen case studies from all over the world, two responses from different religious traditions each.  Carnegie Council: The Voice for Ethics in International Policy. Selected Programs: A Fairer Globablization, American Military Power, The Resurgence of Religion in Politics.

The Question of Secularism and the Secularization Thesis

Recently, the nature of secularism has become a significant topic in global religious and ethical discussions. Many of the current discussions start from the book A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007) by Charles Taylor, winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize. For an introduction to the book, see the fine review of Peter Steinfels in Commonweal (May 9, 2008): 14-21. Steinfels divides the book into three parts: 1. the reason that unbelief is possible in 2000 in a way it was not in 1500 in the West; 2. a description of the way humanism burst into many forms of unbelief; and 3. the present conditions of belief and unbelief. Steinfels also locates Taylor within the long standing argument about the secularization of society, e.g., Jose Casanova's Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). Casanova rejected both the thesis that religion was destined to disappear and the "less radical" thesis that it would necessarily be confined to the private or personal sphere. Taylor, writes Steinfels, also recognizes that secularization involves religion's differentiation from other spheres, but focuses on the "conditions of belief" for both religious and non-religious. And these conditions seem to be "conditions for individual believers or nonbelievers rather than for the religious or humanistic movements that might sustain them." (Steinfels, p. 20). 

The Social Science Research Council established a multi-authored blog "The Immanent Frame" which is devoted to secularism, religion, and the public sphere. The title comes from Chapter Fifteen of Taylor.

For an application of the above material to relations between the West and Islam, see Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). Hurd traces her theoretical background to Taylor, Casanova, and Talal Asad's Foundations of the Secular (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003). All three thinkers support the uniqueness of the Western experience and Asad and Hurd offer the contrast of Islamic civilization. Hurd posits two types of secularism in the West: Enlightenment laicism which expels religion from politics; and "Judeo-Christian secularism" which sees religion as the moral basis for secular public order and democratic political institutions. However, "These forms of secularism represent only two points on a much broader spectrum of theological politics." (Hurd, p. 28) Hurd then uses these forms of secularism to show their contribution to the issues of U.S.-Iranian relations, the battle over admitting Turkey to the E.U., the rise of political Islam, and the global religious resurgence.


Religious Websites for Ethics


Secular Websites for Ethics

For a list of twenty-seven Ethics Associations and Centers, see the website of The Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.


November 9, 2009.