Source: Godless yet good: Rules and reasons are not enough for an ethics without God | Aeon Essays, by Troy Jollimore
The fact that ethical commitments, in some people’s lives, find a natural place in the context of religion does not imply that such commitments can only be grounded and motivated in religion, nor that a universe can only contain morality if it also contains God.
The reality is, no system of secular ethics has managed to displace religious approaches to ethics in the contemporary popular imagination. It is worth asking why.
Kantian and utilitarian approaches have been both fruitful and influential, and they get a lot of things right. But they share an impersonal, somewhat bureaucratic conception of the human being as a moral agent. The traits that are most highly prized in such agents are logical thinking, calculation, and obedience to the rules. Personal qualities such as individual judgment, idiosyncratic projects and desires, personal commitments and relationships, and feelings and emotions are regarded as largely irrelevant. … This is in stark contrast to most religions, which tend to preserve the deep connection between the ethical and the personal.
At the foundational level, ethics is built not on a system of rules, but on individual human beings who possess character, judgment, and wisdom.
Faced with a situation that demands compassion, the virtuous person responds, spontaneously, with compassion; she doesn’t need to reason herself into it.
This emphasis on being attentive to concrete reality tallies with the idea that it is the emotions (compassion and sympathy in particular), rather than abstract rational principles, that are doing the motivating when it comes to ethical behaviour. … After all, what can count as a moral reason in one context might fail to be a reason in another, or might even be, in certain contexts, a reason pointing in the other direction.
Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them.
For Aristotle, ‘practical wisdom’ meant the kind of sophisticated and judicious individual judgment that is necessary to deal with the world’s moral complexity. The virtuous person is the person who is capable of judging well, and on this sort of view the only possible definition of moral rightness makes explicit reference to such a person. … Even if a set of rules could pick out the right action in every situation — something Aristotle denies — we would still need individuals possessed of great practical wisdom to understand why the right action in any given case is the right one, to know with what attitude it ought to be performed, to know precisely what motive should be lying behind the action and prompting us to act.
This then is a secular ethics that emphasises the significance of self-cultivation, individual judgment, and emotions such as compassion, as well as recognising the usefulness of moral exemplars — teachers who are paradigms of wisdom, who inspire us and whom we can try to imitate.
Morality can get along just fine without God. But it cannot possibly get by if it neglects and ignores the very things that make human life meaningful and precious.