NOTES on Kai Nielsen (born 1926): Ethics Without Religion

Kai Nielsen

What is the relationship between religion and ethics? Do we need to have religion before we can have ethics?

Apparently not. Many countries that did not know about the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God of Judaism and Christianity were able to behave ethically and were able to originate systems of ethics that we still study today (e.g., ancient Greece and the ethics of Aristotle).

Kai Nielsen is a Canadian philosopher who believes that it is possible to have a rationally defensible system of ethics that has no basis whatsoever in religion or in a belief in God.

A Secular Morality

Nielsen believes that even if ethics has no religious basis, “we need not sink into either conventionalism or nihilism.” Conventionalism means custom — doing what other people in your culture customarily do. In other words, this is a variety of relativism. If you are a conventionalist, then you believe that you should do what your neighbors do.

Nihilism, on the other hand, means that there are no established moral rules whatsoever. If everyone becomes convinced that nihilism is the correct philosophical theory, then anarchy will abound.

Some religious people believe that without religion, we will have no objective morality; instead, we will have either conventionalism or nihilism. Nielsen argues that this is not the case. Even if everyone agrees that God is dead, we can still have an objective ethics.

According to Nielsen, a secular ethics — which is objective — can be built on two moral principles, one of which comes from Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.), the other of which comes from Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

According to both Aristotle and Nielsen, the goal of life is happiness. This is something that certainly seems plausible. Aristotle argues that all human beings want to be happy, and he argued that happiness is an intrinsic good — good in itself and not for the sake of something else.

The other moral principle is this: Treat every person as an end and never as a means only. This is one of the formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative. An end is something that is valuable in itself and worthy of respect. A means, on the other hand, is valued not for itself but for what it can get you. For example, a bad job (poorly paid, lots of hard work, low status) may simply be a means by which the employee can keep the bills paid.

Kant wants us to treat all human beings as worthy of dignity and respect. Of course, sometimes we do treat people as means. For example, I may order lunch from a waitress. However, it is possible for me — even while ordering food — to treat the waitress as an end also. I can do that by not wasting the waitress’ time and by not harshly ordering the waitress around.

In other words, we treat a person as an end when we treat the person as being valuable in him- or herself. We treat the person as a means when we use that person in order to get something from him or her. An example: borrowing money by making a lying promise to pay the money back even though we have no intention of ever paying it back.

To sum up, according to Nielsen, secular morality could be built on these two moral principles:

1) Happiness is good.

2) Treat every person as an end and never as a means only.

Religious people, however, could argue that a religious morality could have just one moral principle:

We ought to do what God wills.

These people are using the Law of Parsimony, which states that one should use the smallest number of assumptions possible when explaining something. Since a religious morality can be based on just one moral principle while Nielsen’s secular morality is based on two moral principles, this is some evidence that the better morality is the religious morality.

However, Nielsen says that subscribing to this moral principle means believing two things that he thinks are obscure:

1) We are creatures of God.

2) We have infinite value.

It is better, Nielsen believes, simply to accept the two moral principles of the religionless ethics. According to Nielsen, doing this does not require “crucifixion of the intellect.” According to Nielsen, accepting a religious morality does require “crucifixion of the intellect.”


An important point that Nielsen makes is that it is possible to be happy. Religion can possibly provide one big meaning of life; however, a happy life can also be made up of many smaller meanings. According to Nielsen:

A man could be said to have lived a happy life if he had found lasting sources of satisfaction in his life and if he had been able to find certain goals worthwhile and to achieve at least some of them. He could indeed have suffered some pain and anxiety, but his life must, for the most part, have been free from pain, estrangement, and despair, and must, on balance, have been a life which he has liked and found worthwhile.

Nielsen also lists a number of things that are sources of human happiness:

  • Freedom from pain and want.
  • Security and emotional peace.
  • Human love and companionship.
  • “… some sort of creative employment or meaningful work to give our lives point, to save them from boredom, drudgery, and futility.”
  • Art, music, and the dance.

Meaningful work can involve relieving human suffering. Nielsen writes,

It is not only happiness for ourselves that can give us something of value, but there is the need to do what we can to diminish the awful sum of human misery in the world. I have never understood those who say that they find contemporary life meaningless because they find nothing worthy of devoting their energies to. Throughout the world there is an immense amount of human suffering, suffering that can, through a variety of human efforts, be partially alleviated. Why can we not find a meaningful life in devoting ourselves, as did Doctor Rieux in Albert Camus’s The Plague, to relieving somewhat the sum total of human suffering?

The Challenge of Egoism

If people believe there is no religious foundation for ethics, would the result be egoism? Such may be the belief of a religious person.

There are two kinds of egoism:

1) Psychological Egoism is the view that human beings are made in such a way that they always — without exception — act selfishly. This viewpoint is simply wrong, since many people act benevolently on occasion.

2) Ethical Egoism is the view that people ought to act selfishly. However, most rational people would say that you should obey just laws and act morally because it is in your own self-interest to do so.

Still, suppose that you are so powerful that you can literally get away with murder. Should you act benevolently or instead look out for No. 1? Nielsen points out that each person ultimately must decide what kind of person he or she wishes to be: We can choose to be moral, or we can choose to be evil. The choice is up to us.

Nielsen has made an excellent case for a secular morality. However, the theologian Paul Tillich will argue that religion offers more than just a set of moral rules (moralisms) for us to follow. Religion can be an experience that leads to regeneration — that makes you into a new person who acts morally by nature.

Note: The quotations by Kai Nielsen that appear in this essay are from his “Ethics Without Religion” in The Ohio University Review VI (1964).


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