An article on the Democrats' "religion predicament" by Jonah Goldberg is worth calling to our readers' attention. He writes that:
Goldberg puts his finger on something very important in the penultimate sentence. Liberal secular Democrats scorn "traditional morality" largely because they disdain the religion through which it comes and ultimately the God upon which it is based. In their rebellion against God they insist that they can create their own morality based upon reason, but such attempts are chronic failures. Reason, by itself, cannot invent an ethics. It can only help us to see where our ethics leads us given a particular starting point. Unfortunately for the Democrats, if we start from a position of secularism or naturalism then, if we follow our reason, we must end up as either subjectivists, egoists, or nihilists, or some combination thereof, and none of these are conducive to a healthy polity.
Subjectivism says that right and wrong are a matter of one's own individual preferences and tastes. We prefer some behaviors for the same reason we prefer some flavors or colors - we just like them. Subjectivists recognize that if right and wrong are matters of taste then no one's morality is any better than anyone else's and we should not pass moral judgment upon others (which is, by the way, a self-contradictory claim since it itself implies a moral judgment on others). We need to be tolerant of others' values, the subjectivist insists, unless, of course, the values in question are abhorrent to the subjectivist, like racism or homophobia, etc.
In discussions about morality subjectivists can be depended upon to utter inanities like "that's just your opinion" or "who's to say what's right or wrong", or "If it's right for him then it's right". Each of these statements assumes that moral disagreements are simply disputes about matters of taste, but this is a pretty shallow assumption when one thinks about it. Most subjectivists, for example, would be reluctant to say of Adolf Hitler that if killing millions of Jews was right for him, then it was right.
A subjectivist outlook leads inexorably to egoism, the conviction that we should put our own interests ahead of the interests of others. If this life is all there is then I might as well make the most of it, and if whatever I feel is right is right, then there's no good reason why I shouldn't seek to maximize my own good regardless of the effect that conduct has on others.
Whatever other ethic men might try to live by, whether the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill or the duty-based ethics of the Kantians, or any other, there is no satisfactory answer to the question why one should adopt that particular system. Why should I seek the greatest good for the greatest number, as the utilitarians propose, rather than seek the greatest good for me? Why should I accept the idea of acting in a way that I could want everyone to act, as the Kantians teach, rather than acting in a way that benefits me regardless of its effects on others? Once we step away from the idea that there is a transcendent moral authority we no longer have any satisfactory answer to the question of why I shouldn't just live for myself.
Some will reply to the previous assertion by saying that I shouldn't live egoistically because people get hurt when we only look out for ourselves, but why should I care if people get hurt as long as I don't? The response to that is often that I wouldn't want people to do things that hurt me, and that's true, of course, but that's not a reason why I shouldn't do something that hurts others if it benefits me, and if I can get away with it.
The third possibility, not really very different from the first two, actually, is to simply acknowledge that in a world without God moral right and wrong don't even exist. People just do what they do and there is no moral dimension to it, anymore than there's a moral dimension to a cat's torturing a mouse. Where, after all, does something like moral obligation come from if not from God? Can nature impose moral obligation? Can evolution impose it? Can society impose it? Reason tells us that in the absence of God moral right and wrong are empty concepts. Man is his own creator of values (subjectivism) as Nietzsche wrote, and there is no wrong in choosing to live for oneself (egoism). This is nihilism and it is where our reason eventually brings us if we start from a position of atheism and follow it all the way to its logical conclusion.
Secular man often makes his starting point the principle that we should not harm others and employs his reason to arrive at the best way to implement that principle in his life. But it's his starting point which is in question. If his first principle is challenged he has no satisfactory answer. He cannot give a compelling explanation of why harming others is wrong. To many people, of course, it just seems self-evident. It's wrong to harm others, they believe, because, well, because anyone can see that harming others is wrong. In fact, the starting point is not self-evident at all. It is an arbitrary assumption, and it is quite indefensible.
This is the liberals' dilemma. They wish to secularize society, to construct a secular value system based upon our shared humanity and the harm principle, but the whole enterprise is an exercise in walking on water. By declaring religious reasons to be illegitimate in the realm of public discourse they have neutered all ethical defenses of any public policy proposals. State secularism gives us no foundation for moral obligation or moral judgment. Every time a secular ethic is tried it collapses, as it has in communist countries around the globe.
The Democrats wish to push Christianity out of the public square and yet hold on to the concept of morality, but that's like trying to remove the foundation from a building without having the building collapse. It can't be done in the moral world any more than it can be done in the physical world, and a lot of people just aren't going to trust the Democrats to run the country as long as they keep trying it.