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?


Morality Posts – Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is a question that can be traced back to one of Plato’s writings where Socrates and Euthyphro are talking about morality and the gods.  The dilemma can be summarized in simple terms as such:

Something can be defined as good one of 2 ways:

1. It is good because God declares it to be good.

2. It is good independent of God and God loves it and commands it because it is good.

The above 2 options (sometimes called “horns” of the dilemma) are called a dilemma because each option offers problems for the theist.  Let me start by saying that I believe that horn #2 poses less of a problem for theists.  The main consequence stated for option #2 is that there is no longer a need for God if moral truths exist independently of God.  Actually, to be fair, I believe it could be argued that there would still be other needs for the existence of a God (and those could be debated as well), but it is correct that the full force of the moral argument would be gone.  Remember that the whole point of the moral argument is that objective morals could not exist without God, and because it seems that there are objective morals therefore God must exist.  If a theist were to accept option #2 above then they would clearly have to dispense with that strong form of the moral argument (because option #2 admits objective morals do exist apart from God).  As I noted in my previous post, there are theists who believe that there are standards of goodness apart from God.  Some of these theists believe that all moral standards exist as truths apart from God and others believe that only some moral truths exist apart from God, but either way, they are running into the consequence of the second horn, and some readily admit to that.

Ok, so now option #1, usually called divine command theory.  The problem with this option is sometimes described as morality becoming “arbitrary” because it is solely based on the whims of whatever God chooses to declare as good, even if they do not line up with what the vast majority of humans believes is good.  Examples might be the best way to show how this could cause major difficulties.  1 Samuel 15:3 and 1 Timothy 2:12 are both passages which express commands which do not jive with what the vast majority of humans would agree is good (unless they are interpretively manipulated of course).  1 Samuel 15:3 is particularly bad because what is described is clearly genocide (slaughter of infants is even included in the command).

I personally believe that theists do have an underlying feeling that option #2 is really what is going on, but they don’t realize it.  This came out in a debate I had with one of my Christian friends when I told him I had decided I could no longer believe in the Christian message. My friend told me that the truth of Christianity was obvious, and that all one needed to do was examine the major faiths to see this. What do you think was the first religion he chose to prove was obviously false? Why it was Islam of course. Why? He said it was obvious because just look at Jihad and suicide bombers!  Now this friend of mine actually believed in option #1 of the dilemma above, but this is very inconsistent with the fact that he felt that he was able to judge the truth of religions by moral standards.  Because if divine command theory is true then we would have no way to judge any religion by the morals that it espouses.  Suicide bombing could actually be morally good if we believe that God can declare it to be good.

Louise Antony in her debate with William Lane Craig also hit on another very important observation – many theists try to re-interpret bible passages like the ones given above.  If theists truly believed in divine command theory then there would be no need for interpretive gymnastics, they would simply leave the passages the way they are and accept that what they describe are good because God has commanded them.  The simple fact that theists try to re-interpret them shows that there is some moral standard that they are using to judge what is written.

Now another popular apologist response to the dilemma is that there is no dilemma at all because there is a third option: God’s nature or character is what is good, and he can only command whatever lines up with his good nature.  This is hard to think through, but it really is just a bit of sleight of hand trickery in moving the problem somewhere else.  The dilemma and it’s consequences still stand and it simply has to be re-worded:

Something can be defined as good one of 2 ways:

1. It is good because it is consistent with God’s nature.

2. It is good independent of God and it is part of his nature because it is good.

Personally, if I were to be a theist, then I would believe in horn #2 simply because the consequences of the arbitrary nature of divine command theory are so very ugly. Goodness would lose it’s meaning for me if absolutely anything commanded by a god or gods can be defined as good.

Morality Posts – Part 2

In my last post there were some very thought provoking comments about the question of objective morality.  I want to delve a little deeper into this topic and also give some references to people in case they want to learn more.

First, I do believe that it would be correct to state that if we begin with some basic foundational statements (call them axioms if you will) about human goals (such as a better world for humanity, a more fulfilling life for everyone, etc.) then we can use objective methods of reason, scientific methods and facts about us and the world in order to come to conclusions of moral rules (those rules would fit by definition into the moral category).  Two popular proponents of this view are Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape), and Richard Carrier (Sense and Goodness Without God).  Harris’ book is on my future reading list and I am currently reading Carrier’s book.  You can find many youtube videos of them presenting their view (e.g. here and here).

I thought the questions in Carrier’s Q&A session in the above link were better than Harris’, and it is interesting to note that in the Q&A of Carrier’s video he stated that the word objective ends up causing a lot of confusion and he uses the term objective only in a similar sense as I’ve described above, as well as the term universal (implying there is one morality for everyone given all the similarities between people).

Furthermore, as noted in the comments of the previous post, ethical rules can get very complicated once you have to weigh opposing needs against each other.  One could argue that adding a few more foundational assumptions to our list could solve this and thus lead us to objectively conclude what is right in those scenarios.  Obviously those assumptions could all be argued to be subjective thus making all of our conclusions subjective by association.  In this case my opinion is that if the assumptions are universal enough then in a practical sense it doesn’t really matter too much to label them objective or subjective because the rules we come up with help us achieve our goals of a better place to live.

Another issue that can come up in this approach which hasn’t been mentioned is that the whole question of what makes more fulfilling lives for people seems to naturally lead to subjective conclusions.  For example, for me I feel very fulfilled and at peace when with a small group of family and friends surrounded by nature.  My wife however feels fulfilled and at peace when surrounded by a bustling metropolis with lots of different things to see and do.  I don’t believe either of us is wrong about the fact that those things bring us contentment, it’s just that we are wired differently.  This question comes up in the Q&A of the Carrier video (regarding differences in musical preferences), and his response is that morality is more universal than that, and what I believe he is saying is that there are rules we can conclude do apply to all humans and those would then fall under the umbrella of morality, and beyond that any conclusions would be subjective.  I can see however that the dividing line here would probably be fuzzy.  It is interesting to note that theists also deal with this problem as well, as can be seen in the proliferation of different religions as well as sects within religions.

I’d like to leave you with another very interesting approach that I heard in the debate between William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan.  You can see the entire debate here if you want (I believe it’s worth the time):

Kagan says a lot of interesting stuff in there, but I’d like to note a couple of things.  First, at about 18:40 in the video he notes the obvious fact that non-theistic philosophers have different approaches toward secular morality.  Clearly no difference from theists here.  Also, at 14:05 he describes an interesting approach to the theist objection that having moral requirements demands the existence of a “requirer”.  His response is that it could be that the laws of morality are analogous to the objective laws of reasoning such as the law of non-contradiction.  What he is saying is that just as there isn’t a logical necessity for there being an outside conscious entity for us to believe that the law of non-contradiction is objectively true, there also isn’t a logical necessity for there to be an outside entity for us to believe that moral laws are objectively true.  I haven’t thought through the details of this, but it does seem to me that denying the laws of logic would bring us much greater absurdity than denying the laws of morality, so the analogy could probably be broken down in that way.  For myself, I am agnostic regarding Kagan’s claim that there are moral laws that exist outside of humans, much as I am agnostic regarding the existence of a supernatural realm.

In the end though, for myself, I don’t believe this question of whether or not morality is truly objective ends up being a practical question.  Whether it is objective or not still does not change the passion that I have for following moral and humanist reasoning, and I believe there are good reasons to do so.  I am very happy that I am not the only one that feels this way.

In my next post I will try comparing theistic and atheistic approaches to morality.

The Morality Post(s)

So here’s the most popular morality question which is asked of atheists by religious believers – is morality objective?  Seems like a very simple question, but it turns out that the many different ways of interpreting the wording of the question makes this a very difficult question to have a precise answer to.  Am I dancing around the question?  You may think so, but what I am trying to do is be very clear because this question can be and is the cause of so many confusing debates that could leave your head spinning and feeling like you haven’t learned a thing. This often results in everyone simply continuing to believe what they originally did about this question.  I’m not going to say that I’m going to clear things up (chances are I won’t), but I’ll at least give it my best shot.

One important thing to realize here is that a lot of people (whether theist or not) have in their minds that morality is defined overall by some kind of golden rule statement or something like “do not harm people, but help them”.  So with this definition in mind when someone is asked “is it objectively immoral to kill children?” the very obvious answer is that of course it is objectively wrong to kill children, because it clearly falls under the category of “harming people”.  So if we begin with a certain definition of what morality is, then many things will objectively follow as being immoral from that definition.

However, we seem to be hit once again here with a problem very similar to the problem of infinite regress that I discussed in my post about foundational beliefs.  Here in the case of morality, if we end up breaking down our beliefs about moral questions until we get to the basic building block of “do not harm people” (or something similar to that), then we are still left with the question of “why not harm people?”.  A simple answer to this question is that since we all want to live lives of peace and contentment, it follows that we want to create an environment such that we can all come as close as possible to attaining that goal and thus not harming each other helps us achieve that.  Furthermore, for myself (and I’m sure this applies to others as well) seeing other people feel bad causes sadness within me.  We all know this as “empathy”, and whether this is a trait which has evolved in humans or it is something put there by supernatural beings is one of those big questions which for me simply has to be answered “I don’t know”.  But either way that doesn’t take away the fact that I have that feeling, and so for me it is yet another reason to want to follow humanist reasoning – whether a God exists or does not exist.

So it seems there are objective reasons that we can have for acting in ways that people would define as moral.  But there still can be questions raised here – the reasons for acting morally I’ve described above are simply reasons applied for the express purpose of achieving a goal (in this case the goal of peace, contentment and happiness for humanity). Many people are still uncomfortable with this answer, and while they might see the reasoning behind it, they would much rather have a belief that things are morally wrong not because they prevent humans from achieving goals, but simply because they are wrong outside of ourselves…. in other words there is something ultimate and outside of humanity that sets rules of right and wrong.  Without this they feel there can be no good reasons for being moral.  I don’t agree there are no good reasons, but I see why the reasons I’ve given above might leave people dissatisfied – they left me dissatisfied for many years and again this was one of the reasons I fought so hard to stay with the Christian worldview in my last year or so as a Christian.

So this last paragraph above is where I believe the crux of the question “is morality objective?” arises from when a theist asks this question.  I believe they are really asking “is there an ultimate conscious entity outside of humans that determines what is right and wrong?”  My answer to this question should not surprise you: “I do not know!”.  But if the answer is no it still does not change the fact that I feel very strongly and passionately about following moral and humanist reasoning as I’ve described in this post and the previous one.

Once again I’ve written way more than I thought I would.  I originally wanted this to be one post on morality, but there is more to come.