My Appearance on the Atheist Experience Defending Objective Morality

A while back, my then-colleague at Freethought Blogs, Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience wrote me for my views on objective morality. I wrote him a detailed response that I think he found it overwhelming to try to respond to. But when we met face to face at the American Atheists convention this past March, he was eager to pull me aside and grill me as a sort of theist’s advocate, challenging my particular views with the kinds of things he is inundated with from theists when he talks about morality. We had a great, productive conversation when all was said and done. He can be an excellent, probing antagonist. So, recently, I mentioned to him the idea of talking about these issues on The Atheist Experience and he and Martin Wagner were gracious enough to lend me about twenty five minutes to do so (starting two minutes into the video below).

In the video I also make some promissory notes that something worth calling objective morality is worth defending and should be a priority to atheists. Now different skeptics of objective morality have a wide range of challenges they focus on. So, if you scroll down below the two embeds of the video, I am going to guide you through the links of my posts defending the ideal of objective morality. Hopefully you can find the posts most likely to address your particular concerns based on what your point of skepticism or curiosity might be.

Alternate if that doesn’t work:

The story that I allude to about the Christian who set off alarm bells that he might be gay because he simply believed Jesus called people to be non-judgmental is one I blogged about here.

If you would like to start with an overview, integrated account of my responses to typical objections, I recommend my post replying to Leah Libresco’s stated reasons for becoming Catholic that I mentioned on the show and that viewers have been reading all week.

One of the biggest barriers people have to accepting my views is that they conflate moral objectivism with moral absolutism. In my post needling nihilists who “mourn their Christian ‘soul mates’”, I talk about why I think atheists who do that are failing to properly overcome Christian categories of thinking. Relatedly, in two posts from the spring I try to defend the use of the phrase “moral objectivity” on pragmatic grounds and show how on my definition of moral objectivity it can be found and justified in various common sense ways. We need to wrest people away from the theistic delusion that there can be no objectivity if we have contextual values that exist on spectra and need to be figured out situationally. Similarly I talk about how there can still be multiple, different, good moralities, either across time or across cultures, consistent with there also being standards for judging some cultures’ moralities to be worse than they could and should be.

Morally objective pluralism is not total relativism. Our only choices are not absolutism and relativism. My account of objective morality is consistent with recognizing it as a product of our evolutionary development and consistent with thinking there are imperfections and imprecisions to some of our brains’ natural categories for moral processing. Moralities do not have to be conceived of as eternal and unchanging in order to be objective; they merely need to have mechanisms for changing that would increase their rational fitness and justification, and objective criteria for being evaluated. I even argue that if we understand the term “intrinsic good” properly, we can have socially constructed intrinsic goods (paradoxical as that might sound) like marriage. We do not need “the universe totally independent of humans” to care about goodness or morality in order for them to be true categories.

It is worth pointing out that one peculiar stress in my thinking is that we need a more general and morality-neutral, account of objective goodness that can serve as the context for understanding moral goodness as a specific, narrower, kind of goodness, rather than identical with all goodness. I defend the idea that we should take objective goodness to be equated to “effectiveness” because our most factual sense of the word “good” is where it means “powerful/successful at being a thing of a certain specifiable kind” or “useful for bringing about result x”, etc. I explain this in the key post Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness). I argue that if we equate goodness with effectiveness we can explain how values are a species of objective facts (even though what can be called “subjective valuing” is something different and not always done objectively.)

I also defend perfectionism, egoism, and indirect consequentialism. And crucial to my whole naturalistic ethical project, I talk about the legitimacy of talking about objective functions in nature. Though I am a consequentialist of a sort, I am not a utilitarian. I do not think the highest good is pleasure or the worst evil is pain. I give what I call a “perspectivist, teleological account of the relative values of pleasure and pain. I also dub pleasure and pain “intrinsic instrumental” goods and then develop what that means further in response to objections. James Gray and I had a clarifying debate about these points. Unlike James I am not a moral intuitionist. And speaking of debates, my debate with “Ivan” also features a nice dialectical presentation of my ideas and some clever challenges to them.

I analyze in detail numerous problems with trying to base ethics on the Christian God’s will. And I make the case that even were ethics something that came from a perfectly good God, there would still be no reason for faith-based ethics. And speaking of faith, where some try to equate ethical thinking to a form of faith, I argue on the contrary that ordinary people’s grasp of ethics is as rational in character as their grasp of physics. Both help them navigate the world quite successfully and rationally, completely independent of their lack of abstract, expert, theoretical understanding of why that is.

Moving from values to norms, I write about how to overcome the alleged is/ought problem. I explain why duty matters to us, why dutifulness is a virtue, how obeying duty is consistent with our autonomy, and how morality is consistent with our ultimate goal of personal flourishing. I even show how dying for others can be justified on an ethics that’s about personal fulfillment. Talking about objective goodness can be perfectly consistent with recognizing that what is good for different individuals can vary quite a bit. Some people excessively fear that talk about “objective morality” is inherently a path to judgmentalism. Relevant to that, I give an account of good moral judgment vs. destructive kinds. I also think that we can in general defend morality without becoming unseemly authoritarian moralists. Objective goodness is also consistent with recognizing that often a kind of activity can be done well in more than one way, rather than only ever according to one monolithic standard.

I show how belief in objective values is necessary for science, not just for morality; and how once one allows just enough objectivity in norms and values for science, one has conceded all that is necessary for such objectivity in morality. That post concluded a series of attacks on nihilism: one on the view that morality is only subjective, non-cognitive expressions of emotions, a polemic about the dangers of actually being a consistent nihilist, one about moral nihilism’s self-contradictory character, and one briefly rebutting each of a few familiar challenges moral nihilists lob at moral objectivists.

Your Thoughts?


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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.

  • John Kruger

    I am here on account of the TAE TV appearance and blog. That is a lot of links. I have a lot of reading ahead of me.

    I would say that my working definition of “objective morality” includes the idea that such a morality is completely immune from human interpretation or individual opinion, and as such I am inclined to reject it. Perhaps my understanding is largely tainted by Christian apologetic reading, but nonetheless the first definition that came to mind was a morality that implies a single ultimate moral system, limited in interpretation, forever immutable in nature. Reading so far I do not think that is what is being promoted, and the links will no doubt clarify things quite a bit.

    Perhaps my notion of “objective” is too narrow also, in that I do not think humans can enjoy an absolute knowledge of anything, as it will all be human dependent. I do infer an objective reality, reality does not behave in a subjective manner whenever observed, but humans will always be partially limited in our understanding of it by our limited ability to observe it.

    Practical semantics seem to be important on the defense of using the label of “objective morality” here, so I thought it might be interesting to note what came to my mind on initial consideration of the arguments (even if am just one guy on the internet). I am interested to see how all the links might change my opinion.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Thanks, I understand your concerns and I look forward to Your Thoughts when you’ve heard out some of my arguments!

  • stanz2reason

    Dan… Forgive me for not reading through all your links, as perhaps you address what I’m about to say.

    That being said, I think you’re mudding the waters a little bit with your definitions of objective morality. The way I’ve understood it, things objective vs. subjective have to do with whether the item at question is mind dependent. You could argue a group selection point that certain behaviors (say violence towards children) were discouraged by the group, were eventually detrimental in the long run to the reproductive chances, and that the widespread discouragement to such behavior has resulted in them being effectively objective. You could also base a moral framework on certain objective biological truths (such as the preferable states of non-pain vs. pain), and such a framework might go a long way to alleviate an atheists angst when realizing the only authority they have when making moral claims is their own (vs. that of an objective imaginary deity).

    Still, none of this changes the fact the the ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong’ evaluations happen within the mind of the individual. Like food tastes, music tastes, & movie tastes moral tastes are just another on a long list of subjective things, regardless of how common or obvious they might seem. I can say that ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is a better movie than ‘Dude, where’s my car’. This viewpoint might be so common that it is assumed that this might be some sort of objective statement, and I might be inclined to think anyone who thought differently was out of their minds. Yet, were someone to say that the ‘Shawshank Redemption’ was boring and that ‘Dude, where’s my car’ is the funniest movie of the past 20 years, on what grounds is he ‘wrong’, aside from being in the minority?

  • Marcus Raj

    The link to the video looks dead. Here is a link to an active one:

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Thanks for the catch, marcus! I found another youtube video and replaced the missing one