Morality Is Not By Fiat

A few weeks back, I came across a charmingly nasty site called “Christian Cross Talk” whose author devoted his every entry to explaining in depth how and why he hates atheists and blames us for every problem in society. (Sadly, the site has apparently disappeared in the interim, or I’d give a link.) One of his posts presented itself as a point-by-point refutation of my atheist’s creed. Quoted below are some of his responses to various points of the creed:

Through the use of reason and conscience, we can perceive morality, defined as the principles of behavior, which produce the greatest happiness and the least suffering both now and in the future.

For who? Happiness for who? For me? For you? Why should I care about you, unless God is real, and He is.

The only ethical form of government is democracy. Every society has both the right and the obligation to revolt against and overthrow any other system.

Ha! SAYS WHO! Why do atheists act all moral and make statements of moral absolute when they have no moral foundation whatsoever. Right and wrong imply an authority that makes it right or wrong.

Human beings possess fundamental rights and freedoms upon which no one may infringe. Among these are freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of association, the right to privacy, the right to an education, the right to live in peace and safety, and the right to seek happiness.

Says who? If it isn’t God saying it, who cares what he thinks is right?

What’s ironic about this is that, as you can see, this apologist doesn’t actually disagree with most of what I have to say. He just thinks that I shouldn’t be allowed to make statements about right and wrong because I’m an atheist, which is why he punctuates his response with grade-school-like chants of “Says who? Says who?”

He’s not the only one, either. As we’ve all seen, this is a common response of theists to atheists who offer principles of ethical behavior: the claim that, because we do not believe in an absolute Authority, we have no way to justify the principles we propose.

But morality cannot be a matter of “who”. Plato showed why over two thousand years ago in the Euthyphro, and his dilemma still stands: Does God command something because it is good, or is it good because God commands it? If it’s the former, then there is an absolute morality that is not the creation of God, and the question “Says who?” becomes irrelevant – morality exists regardless of what anyone says. If it’s the latter, then there is no morality at all, merely the exercise of God’s whim.

If you assume that morality is a question of “says who” – that what constitutes morality is defined by the decrees of some authority figure – then you must believe that that authority figure could change the morality of an action by mere fiat without changing any of the relevant facts. Could the very same act be either good or bad, based purely on how God chooses to view it? This is clearly absurd.

Treating morality as if it had to be the decree of someone is the theistic conception, not ours. We should decline to play their rigged game. Instead, rather than a matter of “who”, we should argue that morality is and must be a matter of “why”. That is, rather than something imposed by an external authority, morality should be viewed as a set of rational principles which intelligent agents freely agree to abide by – not because they are commanded to do so, but because reason prescribes it as the best course of action for the benefit of all. This rational, humanist worldview, not a list of arbitrary commands decreed by fiat, is the only philosophy that truly deserves the name of morality.

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