The Drowning Stranger: A Problem for Secular Humanists

Here’s a thought experiment.

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Imagine that you’re a healthy, athletic, 20-year-old male. It’s the morning after a thunderstorm, and you’re standing on the banks of a flooded, violently churning river.

You notice an object floating downstream.

whitewater

As it moves closer, you suddenly realize that this object is a person. The head breaks the surface, and you see a panic-stricken elderly woman gasping for air. You’ve never met her before, but vaguely recognize her as an impoverished widow from a neighboring village.

You look around for help, but there’s no one in sight. You have only seconds to decide whether or not to jump in after her – recognizing that doing so will put your own life in significant peril.

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Is it rational for you to risk your life to save this stranger? Is it morally good to do so?

For the Christian, both of these questions can be answered with an emphatic “yes”.

The Christian is called to emulate the example set forth by Jesus, who not only risked, but sacrificed his life for the sake of others. The Christian believes that the soul is eternal, and that one’s existence doesn’t come to an abrupt end with death.  Additionally, he can point to the examples of countless Christian martyrs who have willingly sacrificed their own lives.

For the secular humanist, the answers to these questions are much more subjective. When I previously asked 23 self-identifying atheists, “Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?” only 4 of them responded with an unqualified “yes”.

Biologically speaking, the young man in our scenario has nothing to gain by jumping after the drowning woman. Since she’s poor and elderly, there are no conceivable financial or reproductive advantages involved. Evolutionary biologists often speak of “benefit to the tribe” as a motivation for self-sacrifice…yet the young man’s community would certainly place greater practical value on his life than that of a widow from a neighboring village.

Secular humanists argue that people are capable of making ethical decisions without any deity to serve as Moral Lawgiver. On a day-to-day basis, this is undeniably true. We all have non-religious friends and neighbors who live extremely moral and admirable lives.

In the scenario above, however, secular ethics break down. The secular humanist might recognize, intuitively, that diving into the river is a morally good action. But he has no rational basis for saying so. The young man’s decision is between empathy for a stranger (on the one hand) and utilitarian self-interest & community-interest (on the other).

In the end, there can be no binding moral imperatives in the absence of a Moral Lawgiver. If the young man decides to sit back and watch the woman drown, the secular humanist cannot criticize him. He’s only acting rationally.

The Humanist

TL;DR: Secular humanism can’t adequately ground objective moral values. If moral values are to be drawn solely from what we observe in nature, then they would need to align with the observed “ultimate purpose” of our universe…that is, heat death.

Bronze age tripe, that’s all it is
The scribblings of a goatherd
To call this tome a “holy book”
One must be quite the dotard
It’s full of nonsense, myths and lies
I hear it calls for slavery
My plain contempt can’t be disguised
Free Thought takes much more bravery

Free Thought, you say?
Do tell me more
You really have intrigued me
A system without creeds, you say?
No room for touchy-feely?

That’s right, he smirked
I need no God
My reason is sufficient
The Scientific Method guides my path (and it’s sufficient)
I draw my morals from within
Human nature never fails me
Deep down inside all men are good
And frankly,
Blind faith scares me

Blind faith, you say?
That’s not unique
To buildings with a steeple
Surely, then, you have a way
To ground your faith in people?

My faith in mankind needs no grounding
Surely you can see so
Empathy
Kindness
These things are Good!
Everyone agrees, no?

Not everyone
Said I to he
Though that would make me merry
The problem with your view, you see
And not to be contrary
Is that the virtues which you cite
Come off as arbitrary
You say that we’re the product of a mindless game of chance
Our fleeting lives in tune with Nature’s odd and wondrous dance
Yet if you think this through, sir, and use science as your guide
Then ought not moral virtues work toward Nature’s sure death slide?