The Roots of Morality IV: The Theistic Rubber Stamp

Despite the advantages of universal utilitarianism, most people in the world today shun secular moral systems and rely on religious beliefs to provide them with the guidelines for morality. In fact, despite the countless evils it has spawned over the ages, many people believe that religion is the only way to obtain an ethical code, and that any other attempt to do so will inevitably disintegrate into chaos. In the last two parts of this series, I hope to have demonstrated that this is not true. This final post will go farther by showing that religious belief necessarily is insufficient as a basis for moral behavior.

One of the most serious objections lies in the inconsistency displayed by religious scripture and tradition. Almost every religious text encourages appalling violence against nonbelievers, as well as endorsing other evils such as slavery and the oppression of women. Furthermore, many of these texts also contain stark inconsistencies on important moral issues. These manifest flaws make these books unsuitable to be the basis of a moral system. Some believers say that we can accept the fallibility of scripture, disregard the bad parts and keep the good ones; but if we have developed conscience to the level of sophistication where we can tell the difference between good and bad, why not just disregard scripture and tradition entirely and use that conscience itself as the basis for ethical behavior?

In this area and in others, universal utilitarianism encourages people to argue, to debate, and to use reason in determining what is right, because that is how wrongs get corrected. A free and open democratic process of debate ensures that all points of view will be heard and none will be inadvertently overlooked – or deliberately silenced. This is the only workable way for a society to notice and fix evils that were not previously recognized as such. In addition, encouraging individuals to use reason makes them better moral agents, less susceptible to being persuaded by eloquent demagogues or by slick but fallacious arguments.

On the other side of the equation, religion does not, in general, teach people to reason, but to obey (a point made in the recent post “No Commandments“). In religion, the moral rules and guidelines for behavior are handed down to the faithful from on high and are not subject to dispute. Not only is it evil to violate these rules, it is often seen as evil even to question them, to ask why they should be followed. Heresy and blasphemy are the names given to these imaginary crimes. As even a glance at history would show, this inferior ethical system often leads to violence and bloodshed as individuals that follow it are far more easily persuaded to ignore individual conscience when some trusted authority figure instructs them to do evil against nonbelievers.

But even if religious morality encouraged reasoning and debate, there is still a far more fundamental problem. Unlike universal utilitarianism, whose precepts are based on the real world and can be determined by empirical study, religious morality relies wholly on an utterly unknown quantity – the will of God – that can never be determined by any empirical or philosophical investigation. The only way one could truly tell what the will of God is would be if God showed up in person and said so, and he is glaringly absent.

And if God is not there to explain what his will is, then how can morality be based on it? In practice, the way it almost always works is that the theist’s own moral beliefs and prejudices, combined with whatever commandments of their own religious tradition which they have absorbed, are taken up and assumed to be the will of God. Religious believers who are compassionate, caring and kind-hearted believe in a deity who commands that behavior, and religious believers who are hateful, violent and warlike believe in a deity who commands that behavior. Belief in God is simply a moral “rubber stamp” which serves to confirm whatever actions the believer wishes to engage in. And when a person is convinced that a given practice is the will of God, it is usually impossible to persuade them otherwise by any method; religious ethics, for the most part, are impervious to reason.

On the one hand, religious morality is dogmatic to the point of inflexibility, continuing to enshrine past misdeeds even after their evil nature has been recognized; on the other hand, it is vague to the point of uselessness, offering no rational way to resolve moral disputes that is not dependent on individual prejudices. Paradoxical though it sounds, these two criticisms are both true, and for these reasons theism is unsuitable as a moral guide for humanity. What we need, instead, is a moral system such as universal utilitarianism that encourages people to debate and use reason; a system that encourages people to grow into moral adults, rather than demand that they forever remain moral children.

Other posts in this series:

The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
Weekend Coffee: March 28
Atlas Shrugged: Sixteen Tons
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • The Gay Species

    At the expense of redundancy, utilitarianism is no moral system, and a calculus I don’t want others to impose on me. That Mill thought utilitarianism and liberalism were compatible is merely a mistake of simplicity in a historical accident of confusion. That anyone in the 21st century still heralds this discredited and attrocious theory is appalling. The appeal of “calculus” does not mean that the good triumphs, nor is mathematical simplicity any substitute for virtue, morality, or benevolence. You continue to disappoint me with this appalling line of thought.

  • Ebonmuse

    You may continue to feel disappointed if you wish. I have stated my opinion and am not persuaded otherwise. Here I stand; I can do no other.

  • CalUWxBill

    The Gay Species,

    I think maybe Adam needs to review his idea of universal utilitarianism and show how he would expect it to be applied in different “game theory”-like situations. I don’t believe he would want to trample on minority opinion with this idea he is proposing. Also, this should be considered a form of utilitarianism that attempts to be inclusive of all. Sure, I understand how the idealistic being imposed on people can turn anything but idealistic, and hopefully Adam does as well.

    The most telling thing in this article which is true about almost the entire world is the frowning down upon questioning of rules. We’ve seen that this can carry into non-religious societies as well. A rule moral or otherwise should have a reason. That is about as strongly as I can convict myself on a system of morality at this point. Of course even that is extremely broad, and just about anything can be “reasoned” whether sincerely or not. But, it comes down to being able to question such reason, that must always stand.

  • The Gay Species

    D A has gored biblical fundamentalism with aplomb, but it does not recognize the horrors of its “morality” in advocating utilitarianism, despite the evidence that utilitarianism is worse than biblical fundamentalism. The irony is that the Bible speaks to those who have logs in their own eyes, but only see the splinters in others.

    As dangerous and absurd as biblical fundamentalism is, utilitarianism is no less pernicous and caustic. No serious ethicist has any regard for utilitarianism, and I have no regard for any site that advocates it. The horrors done in its short life are more appalling than all religious fundamentalisms ever.

    Obviously, knowledge in science is no guarantee for knowledge in ethics, which D A now proves. D A is now a perfect example of its own absurdity, totally incognizant of the damage it has advocated (or the horrors of utilitarianism in history). Once again, being knowledgeable and being smart are obviously distinct categories, a distinction that even D A hasn’t learned to overcome.

    So I leave forever the confusion of science and the attrocities of a “moral” theory that no one but D A and Peter Singer embrace. Fortunately, their incestuous relationship is contained in what moral philosophers have already marginalized, indeed anathematized, due to the horrors it has begotten. But if biblical fundamentalists cannot be righted, why should utilitarian calculus be seen for its inhumanity to humanity.

    Like biblical fundamentalist, spread your message of elite majoritarianism, but I for one will have no part, nor say any more, nor contribute any more to the hypocrisy of scientists who have no morality. Calculate your “morals,” and when you become the majority, I can only hope that your “morality” will be as bereft as your advocacy. If not, you will stand in the company of Hitler, Stalin, Antebellum South, Racists, Mobacracy, and all the other “finer” spirits of civilization. Beg me for not wishing you well.

    We meet many disappointments in life, some that can be excused for idiocy and stupidity, some for naivete and absurdity, but few, in the light of human history, more pernicious and inimical to humanity than utilitarianism.

  • Alonzo Fyfe


    Actually, I have tended to think that morality has less to do with “what to do in game-theory like situations” and more to do with “how to avoid game-theory like situations.”

    All you need to do is to increase the payoff for cooperation (or increase the cost of defection) and the problems of game-theory only arise in extremely rare (and highly contrived) situations.

    The Gay Species

    As somebody who has spent a lot of years studying moral theory, I can say that a great many moral theorists have a great deal of respect for utilitarian theories. I will grant that this is a ‘negative respect’ — caused by the view that all alternatives have a common flaw — the mysterious metaphysical nature of ‘ought’ entities.

    Mostly, I find it odd that your criticism of utilitarianism rests entirely on a utilitarian argument — that “utilitarianism must be rejected because accepting utilitarianism produces disutility.” Or, in your words, “due to the horrors it has begotten.”

    If utilitarianism is a bad theory, then why do you use it?

  • Christopher

    This piece is a good refutation of the old form of morality: it does contradict itself at every turn and the only way to confirm any of it would be if god himself showed up set the record straight. But seeing how god is dead, that’s not going to happen.

    However, utilitarianism isn’t much of a substitute. In spite of the claims that there is an abscence of a diety to reinforce its positions, it advocates itself as being the absolute because it’s concerned about overall “happiness.” This is a major contradiction in itself because “happiness” isn’t an absolute. How can one build a theory of absolutes on that which is not absolute?

    While I admit that parts of this philosophy are useful to me, I’ll continue to rely on my own philosophy of moral rejectionism. It’s not popular, but it allows the individual to adapt and evolve in his environment. And what greater strength is there than that?

  • Jeff G

    While I certainly do not want to defend any kind of divine command theory, I think that you are not giving the religious influence on morality its full due.

    The presence of a moral code which is accept as true, even if its not, helps temendously to construct and keep in place the social reality in which we are all born into. The presence of a moral system which is widely taken to be true allows others to accurately predict and have faith in what other people will do, a process which creates a large degree of non-zero-sumness. This point is essential to any constructivist account of ethics, but is also significant for a realist conception of ethics as well.

    If religion had not standardized morality, it is not at all clear in my mind that mankind could have ever come to an objectivist picture of morality in the first place.

  • Alex Weaver

    The gay species: I’ll get to the others, but instead of railing about the atrocities supposedly produced by “utilitarianism” (which you seem to be using in a fashion similar to Ann Coulter’s use of “liberalism”) in the past, perhaps you could show how the variant defined by Adam would lead to atrocities? I don’t believe you’ve even attempted to do so; what I’ve read of your arguments leads me to suspect that if “universal utilitarianism” were simply called something else you would have no problem with it.

  • Ebonmuse

    I wish I could say what motivated The Gay Species’ bizarre and irrational hatred of utilitarianism, but I can’t. I think it sufficient to note, however, that despite his repeated invocation of Hitler, Stalin and other such boogeymen, he remains unable to present any evidence whatsoever that any of these historical evildoers were utilitarians or that utilitarian reasoning endorses their actions.

  • Christopher

    Response to Ebonmuse:

    “I wish I could say what motivated The Gay Species’ bizarre and irrational hatred of utilitarianism, but I can’t. I think it sufficient to note, however, that despite his repeated invocation of Hitler, Stalin and other such boogeymen, he remains unable to present any evidence whatsoever that any of these historical evildoers were utilitarians or that utilitarian reasoning endorses their actions.”

    I don’t nessicarily agree with The Gay Species (these men weren’t utilitarians in their practices), but he does have cause to fear utilitarianism as a political force. Even though said dictators weren’t utilitarians themselves, the people who empowered them were.

    Take the Russian Bolsheviks: the rank-and-file members had the idea that their leaders would lead them into a “worker’s paradise” in which all had good-paying jobs, safe and clean work environments, and an all-round happier future: a good life for everyone (basically, they had utilitarianist ideas). Once the party leaders siezed power, they turned on the people they claimed to represent and oppressed their former constituants. The utilitarians found themselves at the mercy of the leaders they trusted to take them to “heaven.”

    Patterns like this can also be seen in the rise of other dictatorial regimes: Castro, Mao, Pol-Pot, etc…

    Because utilitarianism has such a history of producing the opposite of what it sets out to create, I can understand his fears of this philosophy. I believe that he sees true, blue utilitarians as “useful idiots” (to steal a Soviet term) who unwittingly stump for psychopaths like Hitler or Stalin.

    And, to be honest, I share some of those same exact fears (but for different reasons).

  • Mac

    Not having a firm background in philosophy, perhaps I am off the mark here, but The Gay Species seems to be refering to a form of Utilitarianism radically different to what Ebon has been advocating.

    Universal Utilitarianism (UU) is meant to be a guide for people to make individual decisions and act as a moral compass for people in day to day life. An attempt at providing an objective measure people could try and use to weigh up choices.
    The calculus is at a personal level, and while people may come to different conclusions, those who make a serious attempt to follow it should be guided to similar outcomes, but by no means is that guaranteed nor required in UU.

    I have not seen anything in UU that says outright for instance that “lieing is morally wrong”, but from my interpretation and empathy towards others, I arrive at the conclusion that lieing is generally wrong, but there will be situations which arise where I feel it may be required (and I hope I am rarely in a situation to have to deal with that).

    I think The Gay Species has latched onto the Utilitarian part of UU, and I don’t think anyone is advocating that all moral decisions be made for people by others. UU to me is more about providing people with a method of making those decisions for themselves and indeed encouraging people to do just that.

    To me, UU seems intuitive and indeed a formalisation of a process many people go through in their day to day life, perhaps without it even being a conscious decision, just an automatic evaluation. Many people just place a differnt value on their experiences of pain/happiness compared to others.

  • Sigurd Cole

    I know the last post is pretty old, but I this seemed like the best place.

    I’m glad to see someone put forth a system such as this while acknowledging its difficulties and shortcomings. The basis and goals underlying the system you’ve laid out are exactly what turned me to Theravadan Buddhism, with a skeptic’s acceptance that any metaphysical model, however attractive, is fundamentally unprovable. The underlying concepts and conclusions are remarkably parallel, and it’s gratifying to see someone independently reconstruct the basis of my moral beliefs with a similar eye towards the trying difficulties of any moral system.

    I’ve wondered about a particular choice you’ve made here – not as criticism, but as inquiry. You’ve consistently used the term ‘morals’ to describe a system that I’m accustomed to being presented as ‘ethics’, and I’m curious about your decision to do so. From my experience, when they’re not being used synonymously, people use the term ‘ethics’ to describe functional or utilitarian social principles, and ‘morals’ to describe authoritative or ideal principles. Why did you make this choice?

    Also, I’d like to applaud your civility. It’s common (and so easy!) to respond with insults or condescension when confronted with the same, or to rein it in without eliminating it. As far as I’ve read, though I have a great deal of catching up to do, you have taken the extra step of maintaining and extending civility, even when provoked repeatedly. It’s a courtesy too rarely extended, and while there are far too many present causes for a skeptic or atheist to get riled today, I thank you deeply for offering it.

  • Ebonmuse

    Hi Sigurd,

    Thanks for your comments. As far as I know, there’s no major difference in meaning between the words “ethics” and “morals,” and I’ve been using them interchangeably.

  • Virginia

    The people who enpowered Mao, Pol-Pot, Hitler etc., I don’t think, are completely, utilitarianism. For example, the peasents who supported Mao wanted to see suffering and punishment inflicted over their landlords, a clear violation of utilitarianism.
    The other clear example is Hitler, with his “final solution” to exterminate Jews, again if Jews are counted as humans, that would mean destroying happiness of Jews for the sake of the Arian race.

    Mostly, I think those who put Mao, Pol-Pot, Hitler in their places are people who did not use reason, and debated with the opposites about their actions — they assume they are right in the first place.

  • lpetrich

    I may have posted about this elsewhere in this blog, but I wish to note Metacrock’s blog entries The Wages of Utilitarian Thinking and Debate with Quantum Troll on Utilitarianism; his main objections are:

    1. Treating moral judgments like a business ledger.

    2. Permitting the sacrifice of some minority for the sake of some majority.

    3. Opposing the concept of moral obligations.

    4. Doing violence to people’s moral sensibilities.

    5. Assessing only pleasure and pain and ignoring duty and obligation.

    6. Enabling people to reject certain theodicies that Metacrock likes.

  • Knuff

    I believe that the prime cause of attacks against UU is the shallow application of it.

    When you for example take the often cited “healty guy needs to die to save 5 others via organ donation”, then they only see 5 guys > 1 guy. But this is not the case! When people know that they will be killed to save others for the “greater good” without “deserving” it, then their “happiness” is drastically lower because they life in constant fear and uncertainty for themselves and their loved ones.

    Also, happiness has nothing to do with succumbing to pleasure. I don’t know about others, but when I don’t follow my duty and obligations my happiness is lowered because I feel bad. And of course the decrease in happiness of those people who depended on me.

  • Knuff

    Hm, to clarify what I’m saying.

    All the cases where Utilitarism is applied “corretly” according to doubters, is where Utilitarism (at least my “interpretation” of it, please correct me if I go wrong) isn’t correctly applied.

    When a larger group has increased happiness on the cost of a minority. It firstly isn’t the case that the following example is utilitarian where 51% population being happier because they have finger socks, while 49% of the population make the afore mentioned finger socks.

    Secondly, unjust unhappiness outweighs unjust happiness by quiet a bit, when I rob someone of all his money, then the total happiness of both of us isn’t equal to the total happiness if I didn’t rob him.

    Thridly, side effects need to be considered. The example from above where one is killed to save 5 others impact the perspective of the whole population. Happiness isn’t being alive + money, there are sooo many immaterial values, including freedom (which obviously includes control over oneself), living without fear and so on. Pretty much the human rights.