Being Personally Moral Is Not Enough, Atheists Need A Coherent Metaethics

Atheists can be as moral as anyone else.  When theists imply that atheism by itself entails that people will either likely or necessarily be less moral, they trade in oblivious, self-satisfied, prejudicial thinking which besmirches atheists unfairly.

But it is not mere prejudice for theists to demand atheists give an account of their metaethical positions.  By this I mean that it is totally justifiable for theists to ask atheists to explain to them what morality is, where it comes from, and why anyone must obey its dictates.  All of us, as rational, morally engaged human beings, whether theist or atheist should take these philosophical questions seriously and develop thoughtful responses to them.  It is no more prejudicial or insulting to ask an atheist for a consistent, defensible, and persuasive account of her beliefs about morality than it is to ask a theist for a consistent, defensible, and persuasive account of his beliefs about God.

And just as many an atheist argues that theists should abandon their belief in God because it contradicts so much of what they must acknowledge is true from science, metaphysics, logic, epistemology, morality, etc., so similarly, if a given atheist’s views on morality or her moral practices are undermined by her views about science, metaphysics, logic, epistemology, and even some of her own moral intuitions, then it is appropriate for the theist to accuse the atheist of an inconsistency and even suggest that the atheist abandon the inconsistent moral views or practices.  It is even fine for the theist to suggest that his God hypothesis solves philosophical problems that atheists are stuck with.  If God were necessary for a coherent conception of morality, then atheists would indeed be faced with a tough choice: either posit the God hypothesis to make sense of morality or admit that their moral views are incoherent and lack any force of truth.

If atheists’ moral views cannot be grounded in truths, then their (or anyone’s) imposition of norms has no special authority that anyone is morally obliged to heed.  Moral claims would be just posits of convention that anyone might respect or not with no moral responsibility in truth.

The same, of course, goes for theists.  If they cannot coherently ground their claims about God-given morality in a satisfactory explanation of where God’s moral law derives its objectively binding character, then even despite their belief in God which is oft assumed to give them an upper hand in these debates, they too are stuck without true moral standing when imposing their norms.

Neither atheists nor theists can waive the problem of grounding moral norms just by appealing to examples of their own (or their group’s) moral behavior.  And the grounds of moral normativity may be independent of the theism question altogether.  In fact, I think they are.  As far as I can tell, even were there a God, it would change how we determined what was moral at all for reasons.  I explain why how morality can be determined in God-neutral ways in my posts, On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness and How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity.  And I make the case that even for theists, it is unintelligible to try to determine the goodness or badness of actions by reference to God in my post On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant.

My own views on ethics are deeply influenced by a comparable mixture of Aristotelian perfectionism and deontological qualifications as the Roman Catholic Church’s are.  The primary differences between my views and there primarily come from my strong incorporation of Nietzschean and evolutionary insights on the one hand and their overly strong commitment to Aristotelian metaphysics and to unjustified theological commitments.  But when they reason about ethics as the great St. Thomas Aquinas, the official philosopher of the Roman Catholic Church, did they are working, at least in foundations from grounds which were so secularly accessible that they were originally non-Christian and Aristotelian.  And I like to imagine that Aquinas was a forward thinking, innovative kind of philosopher whose thought if he lived today would be far closer to mine than to that of those who want to freeze ethical thinking with his own, thirteenth century, perspectives.

In short, just as being a good moral person does not by itself make one’s God true or belief in God a justified belief, so being a good moral person does not make either the theist or the atheist’s beliefs about morality intellectually justified or their moral practices truly good.  Atheists and theists alike must come up with metaethical accounts that explain what makes norms binding in a moral way upon others.

It is a total cop out when atheists evade this serious philosophical problem when every time it is posed to them they interpret it as a bigoted accusation atheists are bad people.  The psychological fact that moral inclinations are present in atheist hearts and deeds, proves nothing, by itself about whether our views are coherent.

This is an opening, background remark to my engagement with a blogosphere debate I’ve been asked to comment on, which broke out in the posts Atheism and sexual self-contradiction by Greg Bahnsen,  Christianity and Child Rape: Non-Contradictory Because of Consent, says Greg-Peter by friend of Camels With Hammers George W., and Apologetics and Apoplexy by Stephanie Zvan.

I will get to their debate shortly.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • James Gray

    First, I agree that many atheists lose this debate for exactly the reason stated here. They miss the point.

    Nonstampcollector has made this mistake among others. I tried to correct him, but I was ignored. This “missing the point” is very commonly combined with the idea that evolution explains morality:

    Second, we need to remind people that metaethics is not mysterious philosophical mumbo jumbo. When an atheist says that morality is merely a social contract or a cultural custom, that’s metaethics. When someone says that you shouldn’t hurt people because pain is “bad” the word “bad” seems to be used in a meta-ethically rich sense as “intrinsically bad.”

    I have spent a lot of time trying to understand meta-ethics. I don’t like the word “perfectionism” but I think Aristotle had some great things to say. One of the things he said was that certain goals are worthy ones that have value beyond their usefulness. He is talking about something like intrinsic value.

    Aristotle doesn’t say that he primary intrinsic values are

  • James Gray

    I don’t think Aristotle says that virtue has intrinsic value. I suspect that virtue has value for him insofar as it helps promote happiness — the greatest of all priorities (most final end).

  • David E

    “But it is not mere prejudice for theists to demand atheists give an account of their metaethical positions. By this I mean that it is totally justifiable for theists to ask atheists to explain to them what morality is, where it comes from, and why anyone must obey its dictates.”

    Yes, but the atheist need feel no obligation to provide a detailed description of their metaethical views when the theist questioning them, as is so often the case, merely assumes, without support or argument, that if God exists the existence of moral truths necessarily follows.

    My own views on metaethics, by the way, center around the idea of “intrinsic goods” and ideal observer theory.

  • George W.

    I invited you to comment on the debate because, at the time, I was a little unsure of my own position. I just knew that my position was decidedly not Peter’s position. I was and am hoping that your involvement allows me to find some truths I can apply to meta-ethics. I find your line of logic easy to follow and feel that I can question you comfortably. This is decidedly not how I feel when engaging Peter.

    That said, in trying to formulate how best to explain my position, I feel I have done a great deal of legwork on my own toward formulating truths both within my framework and concerning the nature of presuppositional morality, at least in so far as Peter defends it.

    I am torn between my suspicion that I asked you to comment because I lacked confidence in my own intellectual faculties and the feeling that perhaps my contentment with my better understanding is arrogance on my part. I guess both speak volumes about my self-confidence.

    The debate is really hard to follow if you weren’t there from the start because you have to flip back and forth between at least Jason’s blog and Peter’s to follow the train of thought. You could almost ignore my blog altogether, as it only rehashes my position, and Peter has been wont to read my posts. My blog only serves to contextualize my own opinions, not keep you recent on the debate.

    I have developed a strong dislike for presuppositional theology over the last week. It is intellectually dishonest theology. It in no way serves the greater benefit of theology, if that benefit can be defined as a clarification and defense of the faith. From Aquinas and Luther, on down to Lewis and Craig; Christian apologists have done a far better job of formulating moral apologetics than presuppositionalists. The only purpose it seems to serve is as propaganda, designed to tell Christians how “the Others” think. I may take this year to write more on TAG and presuppositionalists, if only to give what I find is a lacking elegant counter-argument. I may or may not succeed.

    I want to give you a statement, Dan, and see if you might offer your thoughts. I hope by questioning and defending it I might be able to make something of it:

    I assert that Presuppositional Moral Apologetics(PMA) and a subjective view of meta-ethics(Subjective Meta-ethical Theory?,SMT, where morals are subjective to the culture, contextualized, and grounded in subjective cultural value judgments) are like the same book in two languages.

    My assertion is that PMA and SMT take the objective fact of morality and seek to contextualize it within their own terms.
    If we use an analogy, it is as though we have had this copy of “Notes from Underground” that has been translated into English, and all the copies in the original Russian are lost. We painstakingly work to translate it into the closest semblance of its original meaning, and we do a pretty good job. The presuppositionalist comes along and says that Dostoyevsky can only be understood in the context of the English translation, since we must assume its translation to be correct in order to create our own. It ignores the fact that the book was Russian first, and the English translation is only an interpretation using conventions of their language. As soon as you use an English word to decipher the original Russian, you concede that the English translation is the ultimate one. It makes no sense. We are literally describing the same things in different languages, and as such there ought to be terms that do not translate well. Yet if the translator was diligent, we should expect that both these books would convey the same thoughts with different subtleties.

    When a PMA claims that subjective morality is self-contradictory, in that it removes any obligation to accept a moral precept, it ignores the fact that we are social animals, that we have societies that establish laws based on convention, and that our personal view on the morality of a precept does not change the logical reason for accepting or discounting it. How is the Christian concept of free will and sinful nature inherently different from the subjectivists assertion that you have no objective moral obligation to accept a moral precept? Also, is the PMA not creating a false dichotomy where a moral is either one man’s prerogative or God’s objective command, and if not one, must be the other?

    I contend that PMA is inherently wrong, not on the nature of morality per se (although a strong case could be made), but rather on it’s projection of what a differing view means for “the Others” in their opinion. My limited experience with them has led me to the conclusion that they are of two possible types (maybe a false dichotomy of my own): disingenuous, in that they refuse to answer questions or use rigorous logic because they know their opinion to be unsupportable, and deluded, in that they are so sure of the rightness of their position that they are unwilling to hold it to scrutiny.

    My gut tells me that most are of the former variety; both from what I observed from their words and from my experiences within the faith I grew up in. My suspicion is that PMA, TAG, and presuppositionalism in general is designed to be a wedge document. The best traction theists have had against an atheist worldview is the branding of atheists as angry, unfulfilled, and mean.

    By using PMA,TAG, and the like to passive-aggressively attack atheists, they keep us angry, and keep the meme alive.

    Your thoughts?

    • James Gray


      Subjective morality is probably false. There is indeed a false dichotomy between subjective, conventional, or “relativistic” ethics on one side and theological ethics on the other. Notice that I put “convention” as part of “subjective ethics” because it is by definition a form of relativism, which will be opposed by moral realists and the theistic view of objective morality in particular.

      More obligation is a tricky concept and might not be necessary for morality to function, but it is an intuitive idea.

      I don’t see how free will or sinful nature is relevant to the above debate.

  • George W.

    Thanks for the input. I have also found your voice to be a useful counterpoint to Dan when I read posts here.

    This subject has caused me many sleepless hours trying to hash out my reasons for what I believe. That I have had to do this can only be positive.

    When I use the word subjective, I think I use it in a context different from the one you think I do. I am trying to condense a week worth of thinking into a single comment and I don’t think I’m clear enough. I agree that morality is probably not subjective. I find it hard to express an easily understandable statement about what I have come to reason. I mean to say that morality is not objective in the sense that Peter wants to use. He claims that if morality is objective, then there is something about it that transcends how we define it. I don’t disagree with that per se, except that he takes the next step to say that this proves God, because if morality is independent of humanity, then something must have created it. I think he is wrong about this, because I don’t believe that you can say that because morality transcends agreed social mores, that it transcends humanity. So we can say that some morals are objective in that to subjectify them is to disregard the essence of what makes us human. Other morals are subjective in that they are grounded in a societies values as opposed to the nature of humanity. He demands a dichotomy when one is not necessary. This is why the moral question of Gay marriage is such a contentious one. Where Peter sees homosexuality as an objective moral ill, I would say that we should have a consistent application of morality. We can reason why murder is wrong. Absent an objective verdict on homosexuality, I don’t believe we can reason ourselves to condemn it. I support same sex marriage because I (and most of my society) places value on equality.

    The reason I bring up free will and sinful nature is because Peter has claimed that “If you think morality is subjective, then I logically not obliged to accept it, true or not. If it is false, I can reject it. If it is true, then I have no moral obligation to accept it. So the statement is self-contradictory.” I argue that Free will and sinful nature are concepts of his moral construct, and allow him to disregard a moral obligation under objective morality. So what is the difference between having no obligation to the truth and facing the consequences and having an objective moral obligation that you are free to disregard and face the consequences?
    I didn’t put those terms in context in my previous comment, I apologize.

    I also have spent some time contemplating his assertion that you cannot prove logic with reason, because this is a circular argument. Therefor there must be something that transcends reason. Does anyone want to guess what it is? Are the laws of logic a matter of convention? If so, can one disregard them or change them, thus making logic pointless? I feel intuitively that this is a circular argument in itself if you follow the logic it uses to define reasoning logic circular. A “figure 8″ logic if you will. If you have anything to add…..