The Australian Rationalist

Highlights from issue #119, December 2020

A Shott in the Dark – Paul Monk

Our regular columnist, Dr Paul Monk, writes about how conservatism, as described by philosopher Michael Oakshott, fits – or does not fit – with Rationalism:

The simplest response to Oakeshott would be that this might be the disposition of the provincial, the smug and the privileged, who, each in their own way, see little reason to prefer innovation over the conditions in which they live. In the case of the provincial it is likely to be because they are sunk in ignorance or tradition and cannot readily imagine things changing significantly. This has been true, well into modern times, of many peasantries exhorted by urban-based radicals to rise up and ‘join the revolution’.

In the case of the smug, it is likely to be because they believe that having secured for themselves a comfortable existence they can afford to be cynical about calls for changes that they suspect could upset their personal applecarts. In the case of the privileged, conservatism can be rooted in a clear awareness that they have more to lose than to gain from the intrusion of novel or radical new ideas or social changes. Those with inherited wealth, or wealth secured and maintained by questionable means, or simply to an egregious extent, might feel this way.

From the President – Meredith Doig

RSA president, Dr Meredith Doig, launches Reclaiming Secular Australiathe RSA’s new set of principles and priorities:

Rationalists support secularism in the political sense of legal and substantive separation of religious institutions (churches, temples, mosques) from state institutions (parliament, the public service, the courts). Secularism in this sense implies a pluralist democracy, where there is absolute freedom of religion or belief, but limits on the freedom to practise one’s religion or belief if doing so harms others. “I don’t mind what you believe in the privacy of your own mind, but I draw the line when you try to impose your beliefs on others.”

We do not support secularism in the sense of being ‘anti-religious’. The  RSA  bases its policies on universal human rights, shared by most religious as well as non-religious people. We believe in our common humanity, and the humanistic values of integrity (telling the truth; avoiding hypocrisy), trustworthiness (being dependable), benevolence (having goodwill toward others; seeking mutual consent) and fairness (appreciation where merited, punishment when deserved).

Our Reclaiming Secular Australia agenda covers society’s major social and political institutions: education, healthcare and the family, government, law and the media. In each institution, we list a small number of action priorities. 

Taking a Calculator to Morality – Hugh Sarjeant

Former actuary, Hugh Sarjeant, analyses the scientific basis of morality from Thomas Hobbes to Sam Harris:

Some, like Barney Zwartz (Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity), are of the opinion that there can be no basis for morality without religion. For example, in the web site he says that the claim in the Humanist Manifesto that morals can be developed from science is another fantasy.

Philosopher Sam Harris hopes otherwise, and in his book The Moral Landscape – How science can determine human values he raises the topic, stating that: “The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science”. He then defines ‘moral truth’ as the ‘connection between how we think and behave and our well-being’.

Harris bases much of his work there on the notion of well-being. He does not define well-being, and sees no need to do so. The graphic example he considers of two hypothetical lives: one disastrous and one that is anything but, suffice to illustrate his case (pages 13-14). Harris also contends that: “human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it.”

Harris does not attempt to produce the science he requires. This note seeks to continue Harris’s conversation, to explore some of the topic, and consider what rational or scientific basis there might be for certain sorts of behaviour and what would be the consequences for well-being.


The Australian Rationalist is the RSA’s flagship journal, printed quarterly almost continuously since 1923, interrupted only by war, financial hardship, and internecine strife.  Its aim is to further the RSA’s mission to inform, educate, and generally to promote thoughtful and dispassionate analysis of issues of public contention.

We publish regular articles on Philosophy, Ethics & Religion, Science & Technology, and Law & Politics.  We also include humour, poetry, short fiction and cartoons. In addition to being published in hard copy, the Australian Rationalist is available online.

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