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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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.

  • Penguin_Factory

    The argument that morality must come from God was and is one of the most surprising viewpoints I’ve encountered since becoming an atheist. It had never before occured to me that morality in any way depends on God, since even when I beieved in God I could see quite plainly that it didn’t.

  • tveye52

    Thanks for your clear summaries, its one major reason I keep coming back to the site.

  • Brad

    I’ve always wondered why people ask “Why should we adopt moral X or moral Y?” If you need a standard to choose a standard then why not have a rational justification for the first standard? Inevitably, it all backs down logically to our wants and desires, and how we are willing or unwilling to cooperate and accomplish together. Rationality just assumes the position of a tool that we use as a mean to our ends. Hume wrote, “reason is, and ought to be the slave of the passions.”

    I would say that morality really is up to authority. We are the authority. Each and everyone of us constitutes an agent with a say in the matter.

  • Quath

    When I would argue with Christians on morality, many would assert that there were absolute morals. But when challenged to name some, they could not. For example, I would ask, “Is killing non-virgin brides morally good or bad?” If they answer with, “it depends” then they are going with “relative morality.”

    I think the best way to deal with the morality issue is to say that “good” and “evil” are subjective views that are not universally shared. Instead, if we work by social contract where we compromise individual powers for general rights, then we can frame the question in terms of rights and social contracts.

    Arguing on this level removes all need of even talking about God. Most Christians will “play the game” where they try to see if you can define a lawful society without mentioning God. From what I have seen, they are usually surprised that it can be done.

  • M@

    Interesting… I’m an atheist and proud member of The Brights. Good stuff.

  • Miguel Picanco

    We really shouldn’t(yes, a moral imperative) think of morality in terms of sets of principles, whether they be derived by your rational authority or the authority of a bible interpreting priest. Christians use just as much “reason” as atheists in their morality. Similarly, the “reason” can differ greatly even between atheists.. so I think we need to abandon any arguments from authority.

    The truth of the situation is that we all have different values, priorities, and goals. The flood of options we have in any situation is best filtered when most of our values are met and it is generally agreed that the best choice of a solution involves a reflection of maximizing the goals of involved parties. Most typically in life, there is not a strict dichotomy of either you getting your way or me getting mine but rather, a middle path where the greatest of our intentions are met.

    There are no absolute morals to be found in the universe because there are no absolute values.. not even in terms of “fundamental rights” which are also subject to change and exception unless only intended in the vaguest of perspectives. We each have our own values and the way or process by which we navigate the values of others is what I like to think of as moral dilemas. It’s the truly secular approach ignoring personal beliefs, doctrines, and even shades of reason in all forms. This approach recognizes our differences from the onset and then allows us to move forward from their more trivial points.

  • Valhar2000

    How did you come across his site, Ebonmuse?

  • Greta Christina

    What a childish view of morality. And not just revealed in the schoolyard taunts. I can’t even tell if he thinks of God as the source of morality… or simply as the enforcer of it. I’m not sure even he can tell the difference.

    If I could shake one idea into this person’s head (and the heads of other people who share his view), it would be this: Do you not see that you’ve chosen the version of God you believe in? Do you not see that there are hundreds, indeed thousands, of religions in the world, with all their differing moral codes? And that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of varieties even of your own basic religion? Do you not see that you’re responsible for deciding which of these you think is true? Where did that choice come from? And if it came from God, why do so many other people in the world not share it?

  • The Nerd

    I am also growing weary of this perpetual need for an authority figure. Why does a morality by consensus lack power in the eyes of these people? If anything it means more. Just as a government put in place by social contract is seen as superior to a king who is appoined by “god”, so too a morality based on the people is superior.

  • prase

    Greta, it’s indeed interesting how can the believers in today’s world not see the ambiguity of religion, but somehow many of them really don’t see it. They never came across the questions What’s so special about my beliefs? or How did I acquire these beliefs? or even Isn’t it a strange coincidence that the only true beliefs match with the majority religion / moral code of exactly my society? If you ask these people about such questions, they will probably reject to answer. They are perhaps unable to concede even for sake of argument that their beliefs are false, maybe because they were told that it is a doubt and to doubt is sinful. Or maybe for another reason, there are many fervent believers in various non-religious nonsenses. Anyway, if you cannot accept opposite position even for sake of argument, you cannot argue and be convinced to change your position. It’s sad to say, but there are many people of this kind and it is probably worthless to argue with them.

  • watercat

    Scary but good essay on this topic here

  • watercat

    sorry; I screwed up the link. Scroll down to the 4th one: “is there anything the god of the bible could do that a beleiver wouldn’t call good?”

  • Christopher

    The more I think about it, the more I realize that “morality” wouldn’t exist even if there was something we could call a “god” as it’s just an idea – any idea of “morality” conceived by a “god” would be just as arbitrary as any “morality” of human creation. The only difference is that one would have more power to enforce its own concept of “morality” than the other…

  • Mark C.

    Christopher, what do you think of Alonzo Fyfe’s Desire Utilitarianism?

  • Mr.Pendent

    While searching for information on bsh programming a few days ago, I found this site, which chronicled a series of letters between this fellow and a believer. Most of it was very boring and typical, but one thing caught my eye:

    “Once we can agree on an infallible information source with regard to the things we ~can~ know, then we would have a basis for faith in those ~non-testable~ things that can’t be seen…. presently.”

    Yikes. I knew that these folks often fell into the argument from authority, but never has it seemed so blatant and naked as this. But it makes so many other things clear–once they think one item is true, all interconnected items are by default true, and the burden of proof falls to the non-believer, not the other way around.

    Maybe if someone tried to explain that science wasn’t about proving things, but about disproving them?

  • Christopher

    Mark, I don’t much care for Utilitarianism in general as it tends to assume that the goal of life is to make as many people happy as possible – which runs counter to my own goals (happiness for me and mine at any cost). What it fails to grasp is that its own goals are arbitrary in themselves: why should we make other people happy? Why focus on people at all instead of another animal (dolphins, apes, cockroaches, etc…) – what makes people so goddamn special? The answer: nothing – a person has no intrinsic value nor does anything else, as all values are ascribed by external parties.

    What it all boils down to is value judgement based on personal predisposition – they are the type that have a predisposition towards valuing people over anything else, period. In the same manner, I’m predisposed towards valuing myself and mine over anything else. While I don’t believe either predisposition to be “right” or “wrong” in any objective sense, I do find my philophy to be better for one key reason: I admit that my values are arbitrary, thus giving me the ability to go back and alter them when they no longer serve my intents and purposes – an ability the “moral” absolutist lacks.

  • Daniel

    I remember listening to some lecture by Alan Watts where he was noting the irony of Christians loving democracy, but insisting that their God is, essentially, a strict monarch that must be obeyed. It seems somewhat confusing to me to highly value a democratic system of government yet also highly value a monarchically governed universe.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Chris, the reason that morality concerns itslef with the happiness of others is because that is the subject of morality! You can reject it and go with intelligent self interest if you want, but that you aren’t good- only neutral. You can disagree with moral action is the purpose of your life.

    As for people over animals… some people DO hold animals in the same regard. As for myself, I empathize with other animals, but consider people more important. Why? Because people can do more- they have more potential, they live longer, etc.

    There isn’t an “external justification” and there never can be.

  • prase

    Samuel, if you define morality as such, then of course it can concern with happiness of others, as well as it can concern itself with pretty anything if you alter the definition accordingly. The problem is, that Christopher probably thinks that the sense of the word “morality” is a bit different (if he even doesn’t think that the word is meaningless). This is a cornerstone of many moral arguments – different people take different views on how to define morality and then argue over definitions. Please, don’t do that, arguments over definitions are useless.

    If you think about distinct concepts, give them distinct names, rather than arguing whose definition is more “correct”. Clearly you should use words in the sense they have in ordinary language, but the word “morality” is so ambiguous that it’s maybe better to avoid using it completely. Nothing is worse for a rational debate if people use a common term which they are strongly emotionally attached to, while mutually disagree on its meaning. This is the case of “morality” – virtually all people (except nihilists) value it highly, while no moral philosophy is universally accepted, utilitarianism included.

    We have all common biological traits and share some basic values and thus agree on some very rough description on what is (im)moral, but on that very rough idea one can, and in history did, construct almost any sort of formal system, which is in most cases a post hoc rationalisation of already accepted specific values and/or prejudices. I dare to say with only a little exaggeration that no bad man turned into a good man because of moral philosophy. Good people adopt or create good philosophies while bad people incline to bad ones. And almost all of us have acquired our main values (and became good or bad) long before we had thought about any philosophy seriously.

  • Nes

    You can still find parts of the site through Google’s cache (though not on the Internet Archive as robots.txt blocks it). Here’s what they consider the “best” arguments for the Christian god. The “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” rip off is particularly bad:

    Jesus was the most amazing human being to have ever lived. He was either a complete madman, or completely evil, or he was what he claimed to be—the Son of God. No madman, or evil liar could ever be the most amazing human being in history, therefore Jesus must be what he said he was. Jesus assumed the existence of God; therefore, God exists.

    Huh? (Honestly, I’d argue that the very first line is false; the argument breaks down before it even starts!)

    Here you can see their mission and their odious goal:

    Our goal is the destruction of atheism in all it’s manifestations. Our hope is the salvation of those enslaved by the atheistic influence. Our destiny is a society in Christ where everyone can fulfil [sic] the purpose for which God has ordained them.


    I, for one, am glad that this site is no longer up. What an utter waste of bandwidth.

  • InTheImageOfDNA

    Edward Gordon (the person behind CCT) deleted his blog because he had to “devote more time to his faith-healing ministry and writing books” rather than arguing with atheists. I initially encountered this guy on the Amazon religion forums and followed him to his blog. It was nothing but inflammatory ignorance projected via megaphone. I read his blog every day because it was, if vacuous in everything else, engaging in the way a train wreck is. He suffers from bipolar disorder and PTSD from childhood sexual abuse which I am pretty sure came from an atheist father. Other commenters on his blog identified this and asked him about it. He wouldn’t even say that he had a father except “God.” It was pretty damn transparent.

  • Valhar2000

    Holy shit. Unfortuantely, becoming an atheist wouldn’t help with his issues; no “holy spirit” to provide comfort for us. The only thing we have is an inability to beleive things which are probably not true just becuase they make us feel good.

  • velkyn

    sorry, but bipolar disorder and ptsd doesn’t automatically make someone a lying jerk. Mr. Gordon is responsible for that all on his own.

  • InTheImageOfDNA

    “sorry, but bipolar disorder and ptsd doesn’t automatically make someone a lying jerk. Mr. Gordon is responsible for that all on his own.”

    For sure. I didn’t mean it as a defense on his part. It was just FYI on how screwed up the guy is and how he seems to be self-medicating with religious delusions. Which, by the way, are pretty strong. The guy believes he has pre-cognitive abilities and that God’s faith keeps Bumblebees aloft (no joke) among many other ridiculous things.

  • Ebonmuse

    He also made a serious argument that single-celled protozoa are conscious and have free will, as I recall. I didn’t know about his history of mental health problems, but I do have to say it explains a lot.

  • Jim Coufal


    Your point is so well made in today’s “Billy Graham – My Answer” column, that I have almost changed my objection to any newspaper carrying what amounts to nothing more than a Christian evangelization. A writer asks Graham “What exactly is a cult?”

    Graham responds “A cult is a group that claims that it, and it alone, has the truth about God and offers the only way to salvation.” He adds that cults reject what Christians believe, and without any recognition of the his description of Christianity as a cult further says”He jesus) alone is God’s Son, sent from heaven to save us from our sins,” and offers prayers that the writer will be lead to a Christ and bible honoring church for salvation!

    I suggest a sound definition of religion is a cult grown so large it as the power to effect respectability, although serious reflection finds it not to be respectable.

    My objection to having Graham’s column published is that such answers as described above will reveal the air headed logic of religion.

  • Christopher

    Samuel Skinner,

    “Chris, the reason that morality concerns itslef with the happiness of others is because that is the subject of morality!”

    If approached from the perspective of a Utilitarian it would be, but it takes on different concerns in other forms – as not all concepts of “morality” are too concerned about happiness.

    Also Samuel Skinner,

    “As for people over animals… some people DO hold animals in the same regard. As for myself, I empathize with other animals, but consider people more important. Why? Because people can do more- they have more potential, they live longer, etc.”

    And who defines “potential” here – do we have more reproductive potential? It seems that any arthropod has us beat in this catagory. Life expectency? Some reptiles can live up to 200 years – far longer than we do. Survivability? The cockroach can thrive after a nuclear holocaust!

    So once again I ask: why humans over another species? What intrinsic quality separates us from what any other animal is or ever could be (hint: the answer is “none”)?

    Also Samuel Skinner,

    “There isn’t an “external justification” and there never can be.”

    But there is – it’s made by the one that perceives the thing in question; in your case – that’s you. A thing only has value to you because you give value to it; things only have value to me because I give value to it – apart from ourselves there is nothing that can give value to anything else. We are the only standards of value that currently exist on our world.

    BTW: Parse, you hit the nail on the head regarding “morality” – there are so many concepts of it floating around that it’s all but impossible to tell just what it is we’re even talking about when we say that word. The existence of so many conflicting concepts of this idea has led me to believe that it doesn’t really exist as anything but an idea.

    Although, you were off on the portion where you held all of a person’s values as being fixed – I know for certain that taking a closer look at your values can motivate you to radically alter them: it did in my case.

  • Aaron

    As painful as it was to read, I almost miss his blog. I don’t think most of the arguments he tried to make were original, but what he ended up saying in the process was usually quite, erm, unique. Did you manage to catch his review of your blog? For some reason, I don’t think he liked it, heh heh. Too much atheistic influence, no doubt.

  • Robert Madewell

    As always, a great post.
    What do you suppose happened to the site?

  • OMGF

    Jim Coufal,
    That’s fantastic! Do you have a link for that?

  • InTheImageOfDNA

    Robert M., see my initial response above.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Except that other moral scheme justify their rules by harm to people. All of them boil down to human happiness.

    Potential as in the ability to think. I hold it valuable because it allows use to come up with these convoluted arguments AND otherwise we wouldn’t engage in morality.

    I meant external to people. You can’t have morality without moral actors and agents.

  • The Count

    What scares me most is the lurking psychopath in these people. Not only are they willing and proud to commit a despicable act because god told them to, but their belief that only god owns a moral compass implies, to me, that without god to restrain them, they would be even more dangerous.

  • Mrnaglfar


    DEAR DR. GRAHAM: My sister says the group I’m thinking of joining is a cult, and I ought to stop going to their meetings. They’ve been very kind to me and I like them, but I don’t want to do something wrong. What exactly is a cult? — Mrs. F.Z.

    DEAR MRS. F.Z.: I’m thankful for your sister’s concern for you — and for your concern, as well. And let me assure you that God doesn’t want you to be led astray, either. He wants you to come to know Him and walk with Him every day.

    How can you know if this group (which you don’t name) is a cult? First, cults almost always claim that they, and they alone, have the truth. They turn their backs on almost 2,000 years of Christian history, and say that other churches are wrong and will deceive you. They point instead to their leader or founder as the final authority, and claim that God has given them a new revelation of Himself.

    Second, cults always reject what the Bible teaches about itself. The Bible alone is God’s Word — but cults add to it or substitute other books in its place. One cult even insists that its “translation” of the Bible is the only reliable one — in spite of the fact that scholars universally reject it.

    Most of all, cults reject Jesus Christ as God’s way of salvation. They may reject His full divinity, or claim that faith in Him is not enough to save us. But Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Don’t be deceived, but turn in faith to Christ for your salvation and ask Him to come into your life. Then ask Him to lead you to a church with Christ at its center.

  • OMGF

    Thanks Mrnaglfar.

    I also did some searching and found this gem:

    Graham on cults

  • prase

    BTW: Parse, … you were off on the portion where you held all of a person’s values as being fixed – I know for certain that taking a closer look at your values can motivate you to radically alter them: it did in my case.

    I haven’t said that people keep their values absolutely fixed. What I rather say is that the basic values are changed very, very rarely. And it usually happens after some strong emotional experience, rather than after rational investigation. There can be exceptions, though.

  • Greta Christina

    Sheesh, I love how Graham defines “cult” essentially as “any religion that rejects Christianity.” By his definition, Judaism is a cult, Islam is a cult, Hinduism is a cult.

    Oh, and a pointless nitpick:

    Our goal is the destruction of atheism in all it’s manifestations.

    And my goal is the destruction of the unnecessary apostrophe, in all its manifestations.

  • Greta Christina

    Thanks for the link, OMGF. I just went to the Wichita Eagle site and posted this comment; I encourage others here to to post their comments there as well.


    By Graham’s argument, almost any religion other than Christianity would be a cult. Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism… if it rejects Christianity and claims to have the truth about God, it’s a cult.

    On the other hand, there are many respected Christian churches that completely fit Graham’s definition of “cult.” Many fundamentalist churches insist that they and they alone have the true vision of Christianity and God and salvation. Some churches and leaders insist on using a translation of the Bible — the King James — that has been rejected by most scholars as an inaccurate translation. And the fact that there is such an immense variety in versions of Christian belief shows that the Bible’s teachings are anything but “clear.” All Christian sects use their own beliefs about how the Bible should be interpreted, which verses must be taken to heart and which may be set aside, etc.. Even the sects that claim to take it literally.

    I suggest that before Graham looks at the mote in his brother’s eye, he remove the beam in his own. And I also suggest that he find a more useful definition of “cult.”

  • Rob

    Most people have a conscience that helps dictate our morality, this isn’t something magical that we get only when we decide to accept Jesus into our hearts, even atheists have one. It’s tiresome to continually hear the argument that atheists can’t be moral, it hurts my brain to try to comprehend the logic, or lack thereof.

    It would be interesting to see some statistics on violent crimes and the beliefs of the offenders. I’d bet the house that atheists are probably under represented when compared to the compassionate and loving bible thumpers.

  • superhappyjen

    I’m curious. What else did this person have to say to refute your creed? I find the ramblings of apologists endlessly amusing.

  • Tommykey

    What scares me most is the lurking psychopath in these people. Not only are they willing and proud to commit a despicable act because god told them to, but their belief that only god owns a moral compass implies, to me, that without god to restrain them, they would be even more dangerous.

    I noticed the same thing Count. Another Christian blogger who often demonstrates this goes by the name of Rhology. Only a Christian has an objective reason for being against child rape because god says it is wrong. Atheists such as us are only against child rape because it is not our “personal preference” to engage in such activity. In the absence of god, there is no objective reason why child rape is wrong, with the unspoken assumption that if he did not believe in god, he might partake in the act.

    As for Edward Gordon, he clearly is a troubled person and I tangled with him on someone else’s blog, either Atheist Revolution or The Atheist Experience, or possibly both.

    What I get from these fundie types is that there is something messed up in their lives and their personalities that they feel the need to believe in some powerful external force to get them to behave. They view the rest of the world through their own personal experience and assume that if we do not believe exactly what they believe then we deserve to suffer.

  • Steve Bowen

    Tom Robbins (one of my favorite authors) has this to say in “Skinny legs and all”

    Anyone who maintains absolute standards of good and evil is dangerous. As dangerous as a maniac with a loaded revolver. In fact the person who maintains absolute standards of good and evil usually is the maniac with the revolver

  • MS Quixote

    Anyone who maintains absolute standards of good and evil is dangerous. As dangerous as a maniac with a loaded revolver. In fact the person who maintains absolute standards of good and evil usually is the maniac with the revolver.

    I wonder if he meant that absolutely.


  • Ric

    Hey Adam, what do you say to Aquinas’ response to the Euthyphro dilemma?

  • Ebonmuse

    Ric: See the section Against Divine Command Ethics in my foundational essay on morality.

  • Jim Coufal

    Greta, OMGF, Mrnaglfar, et al:

    I’ve had a running commentary with Billy Graham (undoubtedly, a staff member) and my local newspaper that carries his column. Below is another missive of mine that was printed by the paper, and for which I was called a bigot. The paper printed the letter calling me a bigot, but mounted a strong defense on my behalf, a good bit to my surprise. Anyways, for what it’s worth:


    Billy Graham: Same Old, Same Old

    Responding to someone saying, “A good friend of mine has never wanted anything to do with religion or Jesus, and every time we talk about it he throws up all sorts of questions I can’t answer,” Billy Graham (My Answer, July 5, 2008) never says, “Find the answers” except to suggest praying.

    Instead, Graham offers one of his common themes by saying, without offering any evidence, “Often people who put up one objection after another aren’t really interested in getting answers…The real problem is their will, they simply don’t want to yield themselves to Christ and have him take control of their lives.” This is nothing but an ad hominem attack, one that allows the correspondent to stay in his comfort zone without making any effort to find the answers.

    Might I equally turn Graham’s assertion around and say that often Christians don’t want to search for the answers because they are afraid they will clearly understand what they intuitively know, and to be intellectually honest would have to “come out” about their resulting agnosticism, atheism, secular humanism, rationalism, or naturalism and thus be ostracized? They are also under the sway of guilt and fear provided by all religions. And I further suggest that Graham doesn’t want them to search for the answer, but rather, to submit.

    Those who don’t yield themselves to Christ, or to any religion (Graham’s reference to Jesus is simply denominationalism), don’t want to have their lives controlled by new or ancient myths and superstitions of any stripe, but most are willing to listen to counter arguments that provide evidence without invoking the carrot and stick of heaven or hell.

    Jim Coufal

  • OMGF

    Thank you for taking up the good fight.

  • Mrnaglfar

    I just heard a really good point, via Pat Condell on Youtube.

    So the story goes that Adam and Eve get kicked out of Paradise of obtaining the knowledge of good and evil, and it is from that sin that every child is born into the world worthy of hell. The problem is that this knowledge of “good and evil” that we seemed to have paid so dearly for doesn’t seem to be universal in people. There are some general moral guidelines that seem to cross all cultures, but within and between those there are tremendous local variations. What ever happened to that?

  • DamienSansBlog

    Ebon, thanks for posting this. The “who vs. why” question of morality is one of the biggest, oldest, and still the best that skeptics have. It deserves to be brought up as often as possible.

  • bipolar2

    ** the “divine” impedes moral development **

    Xian ethics is irrational, otherworldly, and impractical. It promises much, and delivers nothing. Jesus’ “interim ethic” couldn’t outlast one generation of true believers. The fideistic irrationality of Paul of Tarsus with its anti-intellectualism, misogyny, and revenge seeking has poisoned the West for 2,000 years.

    Chinese culture was far luckier. From that very rational, this worldly, and practical book, The Analects, attributed to Confucius (500 years before a myth encrusted Jesus):

    6:20 Fan Ch’ih asked what constituted wisdom. The Master said, “To give one’s self earnestly to the duties due to men, and, while respecting spiritual beings, to keep aloof from them, may be called wisdom.”

    15:23 Tsze-kung asked, saying, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” The Master said, “Is not ‘reciprocity’ such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” [trans. S.R. McIntyre 2003]

    No god is needed to police human behavior. All ethics is irreducibly social, but not utilitarian. Harming others can not be generalized; otherwise, no culture could exist.

    There’s no need to invoke modern evolutionary theory (or memes) — unless they’re Lamarkian — each generation of persons teaches the next.

    bipolar2 ©2008

  • James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil

    I have a theory of morality that transcends any belief or non-belief. I call it, “Enlightened self-interest”. That means to do what is truly best for yourself.

    Treating others fairly and truthfully is ultimately good for yourself. To do otherwise will eventually result in being mistrusted and shunned by others.

    For example, robbing a bank may give you temporary wealth, but can result in a life in prison or at least living in fear of being caught.

    Cheating customers in business dealings may yield a temporary advantage, but ultimately can cost you all of your customers as your reputation inevitable becomes known.

    When one thinks about it, applying true self-interest requires moral actions. Belief in a “higher power” and threats of damnation and rewards are not relevant.

  • dumb_hound

    Hi, I am an atheist, I know beyond every possible doubt that there is neither God nor afterlife.

    I completely agree with the author of this website that belief in God can not provide us with an objective morality, as shown clearly by these examples, which more generally illustrates the Euthyphro dilemma g : is something good just because God stipulated it is (in which case it is arbitrary, for God could state one ought to love ones foes as well as ordering the slaughter of the folks of Canaan. ) or did God ordered it because it is good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of God) ?
    However, I believe that the same challenge could be posed to any form of atheistic moral realism.
    Over the past decades, numerous discoveries in neurology and evolutionary psychology have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that our moral intuitions ultimately stem from the shaping of our brain by evolution and that WITHOUT any such emotional intuition, no moral system can be built from reason alone.
    This is well illustrated by the study of the brains of psychopaths: since they lack the moral emotions, they don’t consider as true most fundamental moral principles (like avoiding to create suffering, trying to promote the happiness of others) although they are quite able to reason well.
    This shows the truth of David Hume’s famous principle that moral truths are the projection of our gut’s feelings on an indifferent and cruel reality : since one can not derive an “ought” from an “is”, moral truths are the expression of our emotions which we mistakenly consider as features of the objective reality.
    No moral system can be created without the appeal to at least one kind of intuitions, the brute facts of nature never lead to moral duties and obligations.
    Now, I want to state a version of the Euthyphro dilemma which shows the impossibility of defining an objective atheistic morality: is something good just because Evolution hardwired this conviction into us (in which case it is arbitrary, for Evolution could have lead us to believe that murder and torture are right ) or did Evolution produce our current beliefs because they are good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of Evolution) ?

    Let me now develop the first point: there is an extremely great number (perhaps even an infinity) of planets where intelligent beings like us could have evolved. Given the huge dimension of the sample, it is more than likely that many such intelligent beings have evolved conceptions of morality which would appear completely disgusting to us.
    Imagine for example a species of giant lizards ( or whatever else if you’ve more imagination than I :) who were shaped by natural selection to value power, violence , selfishness in so far that it remains compatible with the interests of the group. When invading a city and killing or enslaving all its inhabitants, their brain generate a warm feeling of happiness, satisfaction.
    When however confronted with weakness among their own folk, they feel an overwhelming indignation, anger, rage which lead them to kill the individual guilty of failure , and after having done that, their brain awards them with an intense feeling of pleasure.
    Now imagine such beings arrive at our earth and conclude based on their evolutionary intuitions that it would be moral and perfectly good to enslave all human beings capable of working and to kill all others.
    What would an human atheist and moral realist say to these lizards? Do they ought to behave in a way coherent with the moral intuitions they have and slaughter or enslave all humans ?
    My contention is that it would be completely impossible to show to these creatures that killing innocent beings is wrong: all moral systems developed by humans which would justify this conclusion can not be deduced from the mere consideration of natural facts , they all crucially depend on one or several moral intuitions , which are not shared by the intelligent lizards, so there would be no common ground upon which one could argue that something is right or wrong.
    Now, a defender of godless moral realism could agree with me it is fallacious to rely on evolution to define an objective morality in the same way it would be fallacious to rely on the commandments of a deity. But he could then argue that there exists a moral standard independent of Evolution upon which moral realism would be based.
    The problem of this argument is the following:

    As I have said, no moral system can be grounded by mere logic or factual analysis alone, at some point moral intuitions (due to Evolution) are always going to come into play.
    Take for example the possibility of torturing a baby just for fun: almost every human being would react with disgust and say it is wrong. Neuroscience has proven that such reaction does not stem from a rational consideration of all facts but rather from instinctive gut feelings.
    Afterwards, people try to rationalize their belief by backing them up with arguments and mistakenly think they feel this disgust because of their reasoning although it is the other way around.
    Based on rigorous experiments in the field of neuroscience, Jonathan Haidt shows that in the case of moral reasoning, people always begin by getting a strong emotional reaction, and only seek a posteriori to justify this reaction. He has named this phenomenon ‘the emotional dog and its rational tail’:
    And since one can not derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, there is no way to prove that ‘one ought to not torture a baby for the fun’ by a reasoning based on fact alone, at one moment or an other , one is forced to appeal to emotions.
    For example, saying to a intelligent lizard they ought no to do that because the baby is cute, because he is innocent, because he has an entire life before him would completely beg the question for our intelligent alien, which would then ask: “why does the baby’s beauty, innocence, or the fact he has still many years to live implies one ought not to kill the baby ?”. After one or two hours of circular reasoning, the honest human would be coerced to recognize it is so because these things sounds intuitively bad for him.
    Concerning the objectivity of morality, I am neither a moral relativist nor a moral subjectivist but a proponent of an error theory: moral statements and truths are in fact nothing more than the products of our emotional intuitions , but because of the hard-wiring of our brain, we erroneously believe they correspond to some external facts of the objective reality and try to derive them from pure natural facts, committing the is/ought fallacy.
    For those interested in the line of thinking presented here, I highly recommend you to read Joshua Greene’s dissertation, where he clearly demonstrates the true nature of morality and develops a coherent error-theory.
    To conclude, although I am not a moral realist, I do think there is a place for ethic in each human life.
    But instead of using moral absolutes such as “good”, “evil”, “right”, “wrong”, “ought”, “ought not”, referring to spooky concepts whose existence is as likely as the presence of an invisible yellow unicorn on the surface of Mars, I prefer to employ the language of desires, which correspond to indisputable facts:
    We, as human being, love infant life and desire baby to growth and become happy, therefore if we want our desires to be fulfilled, then we ought not to torture babies for the fun. Contrarily to moral realism, the ‘ought’ I have used here is hypothetical and not categorical.
    In the same way, I can not say the atrocities we find in the Old Testament are objectively wrong, because I don’t believe in the existence of such moral absolutes, but I can express my convictions in the following manner: if we want our intuitive feelings of love, justice and charity to be respected, then we ought to reject many books of the Old Testament as being pieces of barbaric non-senses.
    The traditional moral discourse “The God of the Bible is morally wrong, we ought to fight Christianity, we are morally good whereas religious people are wicked and so on and so forth” seems to me to be completely flawed because it involves the existence of spooky moral absolutes which have no place in a scientific view of the world.
    I really appreciate the critical thinking of my fellow atheists when applied to religion but I am really sad to remark they fail to apply it to their own cherished beliefs like the existence of an objective morality.
    Thank you for having reading me until here !

  • Steve Bowen

    Now, I want to state a version of the Euthyphro dilemma which shows the impossibility of defining an objective atheistic morality: is something good just because Evolution hardwired this conviction into us (in which case it is arbitrary, for Evolution could have lead us to believe that murder and torture are right ) or did Evolution produce our current beliefs because they are good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of Evolution) ?

    When I skim read this post yesterday (my attention was elsewhere)I thought you might be on to something. But actually the problem with your naturalistic Euthyphro dilemma is that evolution doesn’t have all the possible options available to it. We have evolved the morality we have because we are a social species and survival of individuals in social species is enhanced by certain behaviours we now call moral. Your hypothetical aliens, in order to have developed language, complex social structures and the technology for interstellar travel would have by necessity experienced similar selection pressures to ourselves. While evolution may not have produced exactly the same solution I would guess that the available options are sufficiently limited that they would be largely similar.