Morality Without Gods

Evolution_MoralsA while back I wrote a series of posts on morality and I want to attempt to tie some things up as well as respond to some common things I see people say online about non-theistic morality (some of which came up in my post on meaning).  I’ve only scratched the surface on this subject so I’m sure some of the details are not quite right.

Different Meta-ethical Views

While it’s much more complicated, in general I like to categorize the different meta-ethical views into the following:

  1. Supernatural Moral Realism (one example is Divine Command Theory): the favorite position for the theist, although I’ve found it interesting that some theists reside in the other 3 categories (mainly the next one) usually in addition to this category.
  2. Non-Natural Moral Realism: some atheist philosophers believe that there are moral properties which exist necessarily somehow as brute facts of reality (kind of like the law of non-contradiction). Shelly Kagan, Erik Wielenberg, Russ Shafer-Landau (video lecture), Michael Martin, and Keith Parsons are just some atheists who have expressed this idea. In this clip atheist Shelly Kagan describes his own views:

    You can see the debate where this clip is taken from here.  I highly recommend this debate to anyone interested in the topic of morality as it relates to atheism.  Kagan’s 20 minute opening is especially well thought out.
    Richard Swinburne and Robert Merrihew Adams are examples of theists who agree that there are moral properties which exist apart from gods.
  3. Natural Moral Realism: what I like to call practical moral realism, although that’s probably not precise.  I’ll actually use a quote from a theist I met online to capture this:

    I can’t be the only one here who notices that the just world is a world where I can be happy whereas the unjust world is a world where I could only be miserable. If I’m treated unjustly, I’ll be unhappy; and if I’m stuck in a situation where I must behave unjustly in order to get by — I’ll be unhappy about that!

    The idea here is that there are moral truths that are “normative” (i.e. true for everyone) due to the fact that all humans share the same desire for contentment, and having values such as integrity and compassion help us realize that desire. Massimo Pigliucci, Richard Carrier (video lecture), Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Sam Harris are all atheists who fall in this camp (with variances among their views).

  4. Moral Anti-realism: the view that there are no objective moral values.  Nietzsche is commonly referenced in this category.  Some modern proponents are Sharon Street, Richard Joyce, and Michael Ruse.  It’s very rare to find theists in this category but there are a small percentage.

And these 2 diagrams show you that meta-ethics is even more complicated than I’ve made it out to be:

metaethics-flowchart-smaller metaethics

So Where Do I Stand?

I see all 4 options above as possibilities and I’m fine with all of them.  Personally, if there is a god or force or whatever that truly represents pure goodness and kindness (the parts that at least seem to be universal properties contained in that) then I’m all for it.  If it is a personal being then it’s more than welcome in my home for a cup of tea or whatever it likes to partake in.  I’d love to work with it to help make the world a better place to live in.  If living in my heart floats it’s boat then have at it.  I’d love for it to do kind things through me and make me a better, more loving and caring person.  It’s just that some versions of this god as described by the traditional monotheistic religions do not line up with what is commonly understood as goodness, and the world also seems to operate as if it is a godless one.

I explained here why non-natural moral realism seems more plausible to me than supernatural moral realism.  But if you forced me to bet on which of the 4 options is true I’d probably say it’s some mix of 3 and 4 which I sort of talked about here.  This seems most closely matched to Massimo Pigliucci’s views.

Now pick whatever meta-ethical viewpoint you want from the above list – it doesn’t matter which one represents reality to me. Either way genocide, slavery, an eternal hell, pedophilia, rape, etc. all go against my moral senses.  The moral sense can come from gods, rationality, or evolutionary factors, but again it doesn’t matter.  The moral sense is there and no matter what, there are pragmatic reasons for following them.

Common Objections

– Our moral senses cannot be explained without God

There seems to be some evidence against this.  Read this.

– Atheists have no right to make any claims about right or wrong

First of all, watch the video above again to see why this is misguided.  It may be a more valid objection to replace the word “atheists” with “moral anti-realists”.

PunchIf a moral anti-realist is being punched in the face for no reason at all, do you expect them to respond with “that’s cool, I don’t believe in objective morality, so if you want to punch me I have no criticism of it”?  Obviously, being in pain, they would have something to say about it.  Obviously they could say “that hurts”, and “I don’t like that” without contradicting their anti-realist stance.  However, If they said “that’s wrong” it would begin to sound contradictory to their beliefs.  I have a caveat here though – it’s not contradictory if by saying “that’s wrong” they simply mean that it’s wrong in the sense that the majority agrees with them that it’s wrong to cause pain.  Also could they say it is “unkind”?  I believe they could.  By the general definition that humans ascribe to the word “unkind” it fits without someone believing that there is some objective “unkindness” property set in place somewhere outside of human minds.  It just fits the definition that the vast majority of humans ascribe to the words “wrong” and “unkind”.  All words have some vagueness about them.  But I do empathize some when the moral realist begins to see a bit of a contradiction when moral anti-realists use the word “wrong”.

– Atheists are being fake when they criticize the Old Testament for it’s moral horrors (see this comment)

Again, for atheists who are moral realists this objection doesn’t make sense.  Brandon (who wrote the linked comment) mentioned Sam Harris, but Harris is a moral realist so it doesn’t really fit.  Brandon may not agree that Harris has a valid reason to be a realist but that is beside the point – if he is a realist he is not being fake.  If you’re unable to see how a meta-ethical viewpoint different from your own could have validity to it that’s fine, but just know that it won’t stop me from speaking against atrocities in the bible such as genocide and slavery.

Now the question does become more interesting for moral anti-realists.  But even an anti-realist may be humble enough to see that their view may be wrong and that morality really is objective.  If one was trying to evaluate the Christian worldview then in the process they would try to take on the viewpoint of objective morality. But then they become faced with the dilemma of these horrific passages which go so strongly against the moral senses of practically all human cultures.  So even an anti-realist can see how these passages go against the morality that the Christian worldview is trying to uphold. They could also feel that these passages are very clearly harmful to human society and that could go against their own desires for a better world.  Anti-realists are just as capable of having empathy as anyone else.

– Atheism make a conversation about morality impossible

Topics in morality are discussed many hours of every day in ethics courses at universities across the entire world, very often without appeal to gods.  Actually it can be more of a conversation stopper to simply say “this book that I believe is the truth is the sole authority of morality”.  If the other person doesn’t see the book as an authority the conversation is over.

An Offer

Lately the following has been a response to theists I’ve been giving to express my own feelings about this subject: I want life on earth for everyone to be as positive an experience as possible. It is simply a desire of mine and that desire would remain if there are moral truths that exist or not. I actually would like it if there were moral truths, and would even prefer there to be gods that existed that are somehow helping us in achieving this. I say that you and I should simply shake hands and make our best effort to work together to make our world a better place and if there are any gods that want to help out then I say “the more the merrier!”.

Where do you stand regarding objective morality?  Do you think you could place your views somewhere within the 4 listed above?

“Why Is There Anything?” – a Book Review


About a year ago John Zande recommended “Why Is There Anything?, by Matthew Rave. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and not because I’m convinced it’s correct, and not even because I believe it answers the question of the book title.  In fact in the second chapter the author pretty much admits that he can’t completely answer the question (although he thinks we can make it more palatable).  I thought it was great for several reasons:

  1. It was an enjoyable, lightly humorous dialogue between 2 fictional characters (a theist and an atheist).
  2. It is a very easy read and a great introduction to questions about reality.
  3. There were tons of thought-provoking ideas.
  4. It was presented in a way that was respectful of theists, even though the author is an atheist.  A theist who wants to gain an understanding of atheists without being insulted should read this book – there are even some spots where you would be pleasantly surprised.

I would say that this is the best book I’ve read yet in its genre, so many thanks to John for a great recommendation.  If you are the type that doesn’t like to know about the contents of a book before reading it then you need to stop reading this post right now.

So Why Is There Anything (aka the WITA question)?

Matthew’s main answer to the WITA question comes from information theory.  These quotes explain: “the answer to WITA is that there really isn’t anything…not in an informational sense.  Everything exists, which mathematically isn’t that much different from nothing existing at all.”, and “the information content of a collection of things can be much simpler than the information content of a single thing.“, and then “So, if you ever wonder why there’s ‘something’ rather than nothing, you need wonder no more: there is nothing, in the sense that the infinite multiverse contains no information: it is ‘full’.”

I think he’s right though that it doesn’t completely answer the question – there is still the question of why anything at all exists even if it is everything possible.  Of all the “solutions” I’ve read for this question I don’t find any of them (whether it’s theist or non-theist versions) really answer the question.

The rest of the book is a fun dialogue mainly in support of the idea that there are many universes.  The many-worlds view is one of many interpretations of quantum mechanics, and Matthew notes that it is the interpretation which requires the least amount of axioms and thus obeys Occam’s razor (the favorite argument that we all use to support our own views).  You can learn more about the many-worlds theory on the wiki page, or by watching this video:

So I’m Still Skeptical

Even after reading the book (and parts of it 2 or 3 times) I still don’t get the feeling that I can claim that all possible universes exist.  Actually, my reasons are similar to why I reject theism. In fact some of my reasons are the same reasons that some theists have for rejecting the existence of multiverses.  There just doesn’t seem to be hard enough evidence for either idea.  I see this as a valid stance to take.  But somehow rejecting the idea of Gods conjures up all claims of bias among many theists:  “you are rejecting the existence of God because you want to live a life without rules”, or “you are rejecting God because you are not humble.”  Somehow the decision is linked to integrity rather than seen as an epistemic claim just like my claim to doubt the existence of the many-worlds theory.  And the interesting thing is that this lack of hard evidence is actually even more damning to the God option.  If a God really does want a personal relationship with its creation (which multiple universes wouldn’t) then lack of empirical evidence is a much bigger problem for that option.  The fact that “metaphysical” claims have become so entangled with integrity is a troubling aspect of a lot of religions.

Is the Question Even Answerable?

My son asked me several months ago what the biggest number was, and he said he didn’t want me to say infinity because that wasn’t really a number.  Given the axioms of math we know “what is the biggest number?” is not really answerable.  “Why is there anything?” – this question is not as clear given that there isn’t really a consensus regarding the axioms involved.  However, given that both of these questions deal with the problem of infinite regress, I wonder whether both questions are not answerable.

But as I said this book was a delight to read and I recommend it to anyone interested in getting a better grounding on some of the ideas that are shaping current research into reality.

Why Ask Why, Drink Bud Dry

This is just a little bit of a teaser for the review I’m trying to write of “Why Is There Anything”, by Matthew Rave.  Jim Holt’s solution in the TEDx video above is a bit different from Matthew Rave’s, but they are both critical of Lawrence Krauss’ solution.  I recommend giving it a watch.  While I don’t really see the question really being answered in the video, I thought Jim Holt had a lot of interesting things to say and he was actually quite entertaining to listen to.

Ever since I was a young boy I loved thinking about deep questions like this, and I know I’m not alone in that, although I may be in the minority.  I remember connecting with a friend of mine in junior high school regarding the “end point” of space.  Our other friends thought we were a bit strange.  We both found the concept fascinating as well as disconcerting.  If space had an end then what was beyond that end point?  And the idea that space continues infinitely was equally troubling to our finite minds.

It was this probing philosophical mind along with my guilt prone Jewish background that made me ripe for the Christian worldview to grab hold of me a few years after that.  Christianity was like a carrot which had all the answers to these probing questions.  But as my years as a Christian progressed, trouble brewed in paradise.  It became clearer that the “answers” given were more about tradition passed down from people a long time ago who lived in a superstitious time, rather than answers backed by empirical analysis. They were simply revealed just like the other religions had their revelations.  So the Christian answers to the probing questions that all of us have not only were derived without careful and critical analysis, but those answers then brought up many more questions.  The carrot began to look more and more like just a painting of a carrot.  Why is there anything at all? – because there is an all-perfect all-knowing God, and the existence of that God doesn’t require explanation – and if you think it does you just aren’t thinking correctly, even though it seems like the existence of that God would require even more of an explanation.  I’m sorry, but the mystery is still there.

I’m growing convinced that Buddha had some of the best perspectives when it comes to these metaphysical type questions.  It’s related to this video I posted before:

Just like I mentioned in the previous post with that video, I encourage continued exploration and thinking about these questions.  Obviously I continue to explore myself.  But I also see it as important to deal with the possibility that some of these questions may very well be unanswerable. None of the solutions to the question of why is there anything seem satisfactory to me, especially the all-knowing God answer.  This question may just be out of the realm of human thought.

Oh, and totally unrelated – have any of you found a good antidote for writer’s block besides just forcing myself to begin?  Is there any kind of music that might get the juices flowing and help me clear my mind to be able to get the stuff in my mind into words?