The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick

Part 1: Introduction

Since time immemorial, humans have struggled with the issue of how to tell right from wrong. The question of what constitutes the good life has confronted everyone from the greatest philosophers of the ages to ordinary people throughout history. What should we do, and why should we do it? These two questions frame the field of inquiry known as ethics or moral philosophy, and the numerous answers that have been offered each comprise one of the many moral codes that human beings have proposed at various times and places in the history of the world.

Although the various answers to these questions have differed tremendously, most of them have one thing in common. For most of human history, the majority has held that the source – not just a source, but the only source – of morality is religion. For centuries, human society has been chained to dogma, its members brought up to believe that only in the carefully prescribed orthodox interpretation of a holy book – whichever holy book that particular society sets stock in – can guidelines for ethical behavior be found. Today, though the atheist movement is gaining strength in countries around the world, and though there is no indication that atheists as a whole are any less moral than believers, this old prejudice persists. Religious apologists persistently claim that, without the threat of a vengeful god, atheism provides no basis for morality. If there is no divine retribution after death, they ask, why be a good person – why not just do whatever you want? If there is no almighty power handing down standards from on high, how can one even define what the terms “good” and “evil” mean?

While I disagree in the strongest possible terms with the implication that atheists have no firm foundation for morality, it is a valid question to ask where we find such a foundation. Since we lack belief in a just deity, what persuades an atheist to be ethical? What entices us to do right, if not the promise of a heaven? What frightens us away from doing wrong, if not the threat of a hell?

This essay will present answers to these questions and others. Naturally, as an atheist, I argue that ethical behavior requires no theistic justification, and can be rationally supported apart from belief in a god or gods. Furthermore, I will argue that morality is better justified by secular, humanistic reasons than by an appeal to divine will.

I will also seek to deal with other important issues in the field of moral philosophy, one of which is whether morality has any objective existence or whether it is reducible to subjective personal preference. Atheists are often stereotyped as unanimously believing the latter, and while some atheists may believe this, I do not. I claim that there is one true absolute, objective, universal moral code, by which I mean a moral code that is the same for all people, that applies equally to all people at all places and all times, and that returns the same results regardless of who performs the evaluation if it is performed correctly. I do not mean to imply by these statements that this moral code exists independently of human beings – by no means should my statements be read as suggesting that I believe that there is a set of rules carved on stone tablets hidden in a remote mountain cave, or drawn in letters of fire floating through the ether in a Platonic higher world. On the contrary, I believe that morality is a concept created by humans for humans; morality exists because we exist. I do not believe, however, that this makes morality subjective, for reasons that I will show. In this essay, I will defend these claims and present the basis for this moral code, which is founded on a principle that I call universal utilitarianism.

Finally, some might ask, why should we care about morality at all? Why is it important to live ethically? To this, my answer is simply as follows: because actions have consequences. If we care about the outcome of our decisions – if we want to make the best choice in a given situation – then we need a set of principles to guide us whenever we are faced with a set of options to choose from. Granted, not all decisions a person might make are moral decisions, but most are. In fact, morality is deeply interwoven with everyday life, to the extent that there is scarcely a decision one can make that does not have a moral dimension, even if that dimension is not always obvious. Very few decisions are of the type that can be made on a whim because there is no importance to the outcome, and this makes it all the more important for us to formulate and live by a set of principles calculated to guide us to the best choice in a given circumstance.

Part 2 of this essay will delve into the field of game theory, presenting a classic problem known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma and explaining how it is relevant to morality. Part 3 will criticize the view that morality is reducible to subjective preference, a view commonly called moral relativism. Part 4 will present and defend the basis for an objective, secular morality. Part 5 will criticize the theistic conception of morality, commonly known as divine command ethics, and show where it falls short. Finally, Part 6 will summarize the conclusions arrived at and offer some closing thoughts on what has been learned.

Part 2: Game Theory and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Imagine the following hypothetical scenario:

You and a friend are both arrested by the police, accused of jointly committing a serious crime (for purposes of this scenario it does not matter what the crime is or whether you actually did it or not). The police place the two of you in separate rooms, so you are unable to communicate, and interrogate each of you. The detective who is interrogating you explains that his supervisors are certain you are guilty, but they have insufficient evidence to prove it. Therefore, they are offering you a deal: if you turn state’s evidence – confess your guilt and implicate your friend – while he remains silent and refuses to admit anything, then you will be granted immunity in exchange for your testimony, and you will go free while he goes to prison. He also explains that your friend is being offered the same deal, and so it would be best for you if you were the one to accept it before he does. The detective advises you to think it over and leaves the room.

Alone in the interrogation chamber, you ponder your options. Since the police have insufficient physical evidence for a conviction, if you and your friend both keep silent, they will not be able to prove their case against either of you. The best they will be able to do is convict you on some minor charge, and you and your friend will both serve relatively brief prison sentences – perhaps just thirty days – and then go free. However, if you defect and confess to the police, you will serve no jail time at all; but your friend will be convicted on the full charge and will go to jail for a long time. Likewise, the mirror situation holds for your friend: if he confesses while you keep silent, he will walk away a free man and you will be sent up the river for a long prison term. However, if you both confess and each one of you implicates the other, the state will have no reason to offer either of you immunity, since they will not need either person’s testimony. They may reduce the charges somewhat in exchange for your cooperation, but in this scenario both you and your friend can expect to serve moderately long prison sentences. And so you must choose what to do, knowing your friend faces the same choice but not knowing what his decision is. Do you keep silent, or do you confess?

This situation is called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It is a classic problem in a field known as game theory, which combines logic, mathematics and social sciences to study how intelligent, rational agents interact with each other in competitions that have fixed rules. In particular, it seeks to study how strategies develop and evolve as games are played. Game theory has applications to a variety of real-world scientific fields, but this essay will focus on exploring its relevance to morality.

I will ask again the question posed above: If you find yourself in a Prisoner’s Dilemma, what do you do? Assuming you want the outcome that is best for you, i.e., the one that requires you to serve the minimum possible prison time, what is your most rational course of action?

The answer to this question should be obvious. If your friend keeps silent, the best thing for you to do is to stab him in the back and confess. That way, you serve no prison time at all. If your friend confesses, the best thing for you to do is still to confess; that way you serve the moderately long but somewhat reduced sentence rather than the longer full one. Clearly, whatever your friend does, you are better off confessing; and by a similar argument, the same is true for him. But if you both confess, you will both end up worse off than if you had both kept silent!

This is the essential paradox of the Prisoner’s Dilemma: If each agent follows a strategy that is best for him individually, then all will suffer for it. If each agent follows a strategy that is best for the group collectively, then all will benefit, but only if everyone cooperates; otherwise, the cheaters get to reap the benefits of what others have done without having to contribute themselves. Reduced to its fundamentals, then, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is any situation in which each individual participant is better off cheating than cooperating, but if all cheat, the outcome for each is worse than if all had cooperated.

Most presentations of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, such as the one given above, cast it in terms of two participants. However, it can be generalized to an arbitrary number of participants, as N-person Prisoner’s Dilemmas can and do occur in real life.

For example, consider the problem of numerous fishermen, each of which wants to fish a certain region of the sea. Clearly, whatever the other fishermen do, the best course of action for any individual fisherman is to take as many fish as he can possibly catch; that way he can sell them and make the maximum profit. However, if every fisherman follows this strategy, all the fish will be caught, the fishery will collapse and they will all lose their livelihood. To make fishing sustainable, all the fisherman could voluntarily agree to not catch more than a certain amount per day, but then there is an incentive to cheat and catch more than the limit to make more money than your competitors.

Or, for another example, take the case of soldiers on a battlefield. Each individual soldier wants to preserve his own life, and so if he lets self-interest guide his decisions, the safest course of action for him would be to abandon his comrades and run away from the battle. However, if every soldier makes that same decision, the enemy will overrun their position, and more of them will be killed or captured than if they had all stayed to fight it out.

As a final example, take the case of trees in a forest (not all Prisoner’s Dilemmas have to involve humans!). These trees, photosynthetic organisms, are competing with each other to get the maximum amount of light. The best course of action for any individual tree, in terms of this goal, is to grow as high as possible, above all its neighbors. However, if all the trees do this, they will all grow to the same height, not just negating the benefits of being tall but wasting the extra energy they spent to grow that way. As long as all the trees will end up the same height anyway, it would be better for all of them if they were all short rather than tall; but since trees cannot communicate and agree to limit their growth, the “arms race” mentality of the Prisoner’s Dilemma causes each of them to keep growing as high as possible for no overall benefit.

These examples could be multiplied many times over, but the point is made. Where is all of this leading? To this simple, yet far-reaching conclusion: I claim that morality is by definition the way a person behaves in those situations that take the form of an N-person Prisoner’s Dilemma.

This claim should not be surprising. If the best outcome for an individual was always identical with the best outcome for the group – if individual and collective interests always aligned – then there would be no need for moral philosophy at all, no need for a system that would explain why we should make one decision and not another. In such a world, pure self-interest would always lead one to the decision that was best for everyone, and anyone would be irrational – crazy – to do anything else. However, the world we live in is not like that. In this world, we can make decisions that benefit us at others’ expense, and so a moral code is needed to explain what we should do in such situations. (To be sure, there are some real-world situations in which a benefit for one is a benefit for all – non-zero-sum games, in the language of game theory – but there are many more in which a gain for one person necessarily implies a loss for others.)

If morality is how one acts when faced with an N-person Prisoner’s Dilemma, then there is a further conclusion to be drawn. Namely, I contend that the essence of what it means to be moral lies in just one question, one choice between two opposing views: whether we should act in a way that is self-interested or one that is non-self-interested, i.e., whether we should be selfish or altruistic. Although many of the moral codes proposed by various people throughout history have been very dissimilar, I assert that they can all be largely summed up by their answer to this question. Though different moral codes may counsel combining selfishness and altruism in varying proportions in different situations, whether we should live for ourselves or for others, and why, is the fundamental question that every proposed moral code seeks to answer. Of course, as far as most people are concerned, selfishness needs no additional justification; to say that an action is in your own best interest is itself a reason for undertaking it. Moral philosophy, if it is needed, is needed precisely to explain why we should not be guided purely by self-interest – why we should not always do the things that produce the maximum benefit for us, regardless of their effects on others. The key question, then, is whether there is good reason not to be selfish – whether there is a rational reason to be altruistic. In part 4 of this essay, I will argue that there is.

Part 3: Against Moral Relativism

Of course, not all people agree that morality is objective. Many have rightly pointed out that morality, unlike the facts of science, is not something “out there” in the external world waiting to be discovered; nor can it readily be deduced from a process of pure dispassionate reason, like logical or mathematical theorems. This is all true. However, some people have viewed these facts and reached the conclusion – erroneously, in my opinion – that morality is entirely subjective. In this section of this essay, I will offer reasons not to believe this claim, which is commonly called moral relativism. For the purposes of this essay, I will define moral relativism as the position that what is moral is exclusively or primarily based on personal or societal preference, and that no moral system is better or worse than any other in any objective sense – they are simply different.

The first point against this system is that moral relativism gives us no motivation to better ourselves or our society, no motivation to search for and correct systemic wrongs. Since, according to moral relativism, any morality is as objectively good as any other, it follows that no society can be more moral than our own (in the case of societal relativism) or that no individual can be more moral than we are (in the case of individual relativism). Indeed, under the moral relativist view it makes no sense to even speak of comparing different moral systems – in this system morality is an arbitrary preference, and criticizing others for holding to a different morality is like criticizing others for having a different favorite color or favorite food. The moral relativist view, followed through to its conclusion, would have us believe that there is nothing objectively wrong with practices such as human slavery, institutional inequality of women, or the suppression of scientific research in the name of faith – it is simply that some societies do not practice such things and others do. To criticize other societies which do practice such behaviors, according to moral relativism, would be no more substantial than criticizing someone else for preferring red to blue, or vanilla to chocolate. If this ethical system were to be widely adopted, we would lose any basis for condemning behaviors that any reasonable person will agree are morally wrong. (Of course, strictly speaking a moral relativist could criticize another individual or another society for practices which he sees as immoral according to his own personal code of ethics, but to be consistent he would have to admit that his criticisms of them are no more valid than their criticisms of him.)

Defenders of moral relativism might object that this is a fallacious argument from consequences, but I reply that this is only a fallacy when seeking to discover empirical truths about the world. The argument from adverse consequences is not a fallacy in the moral sphere because, after all, morality is precisely that field of philosophical inquiry that seeks to produce guidelines for behavior that lead to the best consequences. If a moral code produces adverse consequences when applied, then I argue that is indeed a sign that the moral code in question is faulty or deficient in some way.

The next point to be made against moral relativism is an argument that bears some similarity to the well-known “Liar’s Paradox”: How would a moral relativist accommodate an individual or society who believed that moral laws were universal and absolute? Clearly, a moral relativist could not proclaim that such a belief is false, since that would presume the existence of an absolute standard by which moral propositions could be judged and this is precisely what moral relativism denies. But to affirm this belief as true or valid only for those who hold it creates a contradiction in terms – how can it be true only for some people that there are laws that apply to all people? The only non-paradoxical solution is that it is indeed true that there are universal moral absolutes. In this sense, moral relativism can be held to be self-defeating.

In addition, to say that the morality of an action – any action – is entirely dependent on the viewpoint of the observer does violence to common sense. It seems an absurdity to say that two observers, watching the same person perform the same action in the same circumstances, could reach diametrically opposed conclusions as to whether that action was morally right or morally wrong based on their respective societal backgrounds, and that neither observer would be any more or less correct than the other; and it is a further absurdity to hold that this is true of any action, from a friendly handshake to genocide.

Some moral relativists might say that this is a distortion of their position, that there are some acts that they agree are universally moral and some that they agree are universally immoral. To such people, I ask: Are these conclusions vulnerable to a “heckler’s veto” – that is, would the moral status of these acts no longer be beyond question if even one person, or one society, disagreed with the generally accepted position on them? If so, it is merely a lucky accident that these acts are moral (or immoral), simply because all people currently happen to agree about them, and the total subjectivity of morality is maintained and therefore my above criticism still applies. If not, then this position is no longer moral relativism at all, but moral objectivism, since its defenders hold that some acts are right or wrong regardless of anyone’s opinion.

Finally, it is a fair question to ask moral relativists: if this world is not one where objective moral laws exist, what would such a world look like? In what ways would it be different from our own?

One’s first instinct might be to say that a world where moral laws were a subset of physical laws – i.e., a world where it was physically impossible to harm another person – would qualify, but that cannot be true. In such a world, morality would not be needed at all, just as our world has no need of an eleventh commandment reading, “Thou shalt not travel faster than 300,000 kilometers per second.” Morality is precisely the set of laws pertaining to what we should do, not what we must do, and a law of physics is the latter and not the former; we have no choice in whether to obey it. So, again, how would a world with objective morality be different from our own? I suggest that the answer is that it would not be different at all – that a world with objective morality would look just like our own, because ours is such a world.

I must stress that I do not believe that advocates of moral relativism are inherently bad or evil people. I am sure that most of them are perfectly good and decent members of society. I am merely arguing that they have a better basis for morality than they themselves are aware of. In the next section, I will seek to explain what that basis is.

Part 4: The Basis of An Atheist’s Morality

Various Proposals Considered

This essay is not by any means the first call for an objective, nontheistic moral system. Many previous writers and philosophers have offered their own proposals in this direction, and before attempting to create a new moral system from scratch, it is worth considering whether any of them achieved what they set out to do. This section of this essay will evaluate these prior proposals and determine whether any of them can serve as the basis for an atheist’s ethics.

Ayn Rand: Objectivism

Author Ayn Rand’s philosophical system, known as Objectivism, holds that the ultimate value upon which all other values depend is the individual’s life, and that ethics ultimately consists of self-interest, each individual doing whatever benefits his or her life the most. Objectivist moral philosophy rejects altruism, instead arguing that each person should do only what is best for that person.

However, as should be obvious, the glaring problem with Objectivism is that it fails to accommodate Prisoner’s Dilemma-like situations. If two or more Objectivists were placed in such a situation, each would immediately pick the option that was best for him individually, and the result would be a poor outcome for all. If all the individuals in this situation are rational (and rationality is a key tenet of Objectivism), they would all soon realize that the only realistic way for any of them to attain a good outcome is for each of them to cooperate and pick the less selfish course of action, i.e., to be altruistic. But this is a contradiction with the basic Objectivist tenet of selfish behavior. The fact that the selfish interests of rational individuals very often conflict, and the fact that doing what is best for us individually sometimes requires acting in altruistic ways, cause the entire system of Objectivism to collapse. To find a workable universal moral code, we must look elsewhere.

Aristotle: Virtue Ethics

The ethical system of Aristotle, developed in the Eudemian Ethics and the Nicomachean Ethics, argues that there is a single highest good that is desirable purely for its own sake. Aristotle identifies this good as happiness (eudaimonia) and argues that it can be achieved through practicing the virtues, qualities which he identifies as courage, wisdom, kindness, and so on. He further argues that each virtue lies in the middle of a continuum, in between two undesirable extremes; for example, courage lies in between the vices of cowardice and rashness.

While Aristotle’s system has much to recommend it – in particular, its correct identification of happiness as the ultimate good – its major problem is that it does not explain why some traits are virtues and not others. It does not argue that the specific qualities he identifies will lead to happiness rather than others. It also does not adequately support the claim that virtue lies in the middle of a continuum rather than at its extremes – might not extremism in defense of other good traits be a virtue, for example, rather than compromising with evil?

Aristotelian ethics, though they are not inherently flawed, lack foundation; they are “floating free” without sufficient justification. However, its listed virtues do intuitively seem like good ideas, so a worthwhile moral system should be able to derive them.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract

The theory of the social contract, proposed by Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, holds that individuals may freely agree to join together into a group (a state) in which each individual member, as well as the state as a whole, possesses certain rights and responsibilities. The main idea in this ethical system is that each individual agrees to surrender a certain amount of his or her freedom in return for protection and other benefits that accrue from being a member of that state.

There is nothing inherently problematic with this idea, but social contract theory cannot provide the foundation for an ethical system, for the following reason: while a state may be needed to enforce morality, it cannot create it. Democracy is the only ethical system of government, but it cannot itself be the way to create ethics – that would imply that what is right and wrong can change with the changing will and cultural mores of the people, which is, as stated above, a conclusion I must reject. Even if we assume for the moment that we have a state whose members have the power to create and enforce laws, we are still left with the question of what laws to create and why. In sum, social contract theory assumes the existence of some underlying morality which the social contract itself does not provide – and thus we must delve deeper to find the true foundation of ethical behavior.

Immanuel Kant: The Categorical Imperative

The philosopher Immanuel Kant’s theory of the categorical imperative holds that one should not act in accordance with any principle that one cannot rationally will to be a universal law. For example, take the case of a person who is short of money and asks someone else for a loan, promising to repay it but secretly intending not to do so. If we apply the categorical imperative to this situation, we find that if everyone were to behave in this same way, no one would ever trust anyone else’s promises. Therefore, it would be impossible for anyone to get a loan from anyone else, and a contradiction occurs; the person who wants the loan cannot rationally will that everyone act the same as him, otherwise he would not get the loan. Kant’s system connects morality with rationality and holds that we should only act in ways where no such contradictions arise.

The categorical imperative does correctly sweep the board clear of actions such as lying, stealing and killing which have been generally agreed to be immoral. However, the problem with this moral system is that it is too strict: it rules out as immoral things which rational people can intuitively agree are not immoral at all. For example, take the case of what a person does for a living. According to the categorical imperative, what career should we choose? Clearly, under this principle we cannot rationally choose to be doctors, or lawyers, or computer programmers, or politicians, or artists, or craftsmen, or in fact any other specialized career – because if everyone did the same thing, society would collapse and the openings for these specialized positions would no longer exist. In fact, the only career we could choose according to this system would be the one career that we can without contradiction will to be universal: namely, a subsistence farmer, growing only the necessities of life and making all one’s possessions oneself.

Clearly, this is an error. It is not morally wrong to choose a specialized career. In fact, the division of labor that exists in industrialized societies is the very thing that makes possible scientific research and technological advancement that brings about much overall good, such as cures for diseases and improvements in the length and quality of life. The categorical imperative fails when it comes to the important issue of what we should do for a living.

Another important problem with the categorical imperative is that it offers no advice on what to do when universal laws conflict. Certainly there are situations in which two incompatible actions could both be construed as the right thing to do, and the principle guiding each one could be universalized without contradiction. What, then, do we choose? (A concrete example: You pass a beggar on the street asking for money. One course of action might be to give it to him, on the grounds that this unfortunate is a human being who deserves compassion and assistance. Another might be to not give him anything, on the grounds that the homeless should be encouraged to work for a living rather than ask for handouts. It seems that a society could abide by either of these principles without producing widespread self-contradictory behavior. What would this system advise?)

A third problem with the categorical imperative is that it is too strict, in that it encourages us to formulate exceptionless universal laws which take no notice of relevant factors that might make an act wrong in one circumstance but right in another. For example, take the classic case of a person in Nazi Germany sheltering Jewish refugees in his house when a Gestapo officer comes to the door and demands to know if he has seen any Jews lately. Clearly, the moral thing to do here is to lie. But the categorical imperative, in this case, says exactly the opposite – that we should tell the truth! The categorical imperative against lying admits of no exception, no matter the extenuating circumstances. Kant himself said as much: in his essay On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies From Benevolent Motives, he argued that even the protection of innocent lives does not release us from our moral duty to never lie and to immediately disclose the full truth to anyone who asks us any question.

On this point, the categorical imperative is not just wrong, it is abhorrent. A system so manifestly in error cannot serve as the basis for a universal moral system, and therefore we must look elsewhere.

Herbert Spencer: Evolutionary Ethics

The ethical system sometimes called evolutionary ethics holds that human beings’ sense of right and wrong originates from the process of natural selection that brought our species into existence. Under this proposal, our moral sense is an evolutionary adaptation for living together in social situations. This ethical system has no one founder, but perhaps its most infamous advocate was Herbert Spencer, who defended a version of it commonly known as “Social Darwinism” which proposes that it is both biologically foreordained and morally right that certain races and economic classes be treated as inferior.

Aside from the fact that evolutionary theory supports no such notions (human beings as a species are very genetically homogeneous, and no one group of people is inherently more biologically “fit” than any other), the fatal problem with this ethical system and all others like it is that it commits what is known as the naturalistic fallacy by attempting to derive an “ought” from an “is”. Simply stated, just because something happens in nature does not mean it is right that such a thing should happen. All ethical theories that claim otherwise illicitly leap from noting the occurrence of a fact to attaching a value to that fact. Even versions of evolutionary ethics which hold that cooperation and reciprocal altruism are our species’ nature suffer from this problem. Given the enormous diversity of behavior observed in nature – from selfishness, parasitism and xenophobia to love, altruism and cooperation – any simplistic attempt to derive a moral system from biology is bound to fail, and in any case no moral system can escape the fact that observation of facts alone can never produce an ethical “ought”.

Jeremy Bentham: Act Utilitarianism

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill after him, made one of the most significant contributions to the field of moral philosophy with their formulation of the good known as utilitarianism. In Bentham’s original version of utilitarianism, good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.

Though later modifications may have improved this system, as originally postulated it is not sufficient. For example, act utilitarianism makes no allowance for the concept of human rights – if treating one person or group unfairly would bring happiness to a greater number of others, this system would counsel us to do it. (One example of this might be a government passing a law to censor the speech of a small and unpopular political group.) Also, it judges acts purely according to their consequences, disregarding motive and intent; it holds that pleasure is always valuable even if obtained through evil acts.

Despite these problems, utilitarianism has much to recommend it; most importantly, it correctly identifies human happiness and suffering as the fulcrums of morality. It seems that its major flaws could be fixed by grafting the doctrine of human rights onto it, but what would be the justification for such a forced coupling? A satisfactory ethical code should be able to derive that idea from first principles rather than tacking it on in an ad hoc fashion.

John Rawls: Contractarianism

The philosopher John Rawls’ influential conception of morality, which is an extension of Kantian and social-contract ideas, holds that the way to establish a just society is to have the relevant parties – either the people who live in that society or rational agents representing the interests of those people – agree to meet and draw up a set of rules governing how that society will operate. The catch is that these decisions must be made from behind what Rawls calls the veil of ignorance – a hypothetical position in which none of the negotiators know morally irrelevant facts about the parties they represent, such as their age, sex, race, social class or religious beliefs. Deprived of this information, the negotiators cannot insist on rules that benefit any one group, but rather will be motivated to work out rules that treat every group fairly and equally, since they do not know what their ultimate position in society will end up being once they step out from behind the veil of ignorance.

There is much merit in Rawls’ conception of social justice, and its main flaw is not a theoretical but a practical one: his proposal is and forever will be a thought experiment only. There is no way this scenario could ever actually be carried out, and no matter how good a moral system seems in the abstract, it does no good to postulate one not grounded firmly in reality. Morality is inseparably enmeshed with everyday experience, and we need a moral system that recognizes this, one that can be used “on the ground” to serve as a reliable guide to ethical reasoning without removing all the actors to a far-away notional realm. This conception of justice does not help to reach a decision unless we assume that all people act as if they were reasoning from Rawls’ original position, and this is clearly not the case.

Toward a Secular Moral Synthesis

Although different aspects of these various moral systems may provide glimmers of what a true, workable objective morality would look like, none of them will suffice in and of themselves. There is therefore no choice but to work out a new one that does not suffer from the shortcomings of its predecessors.

Grasping for the Good

After surveying these other proposals and concluding that they are inadequate, the question must now be asked: how can a workable, consistent secular morality be constructed? What principles can we draw upon to guide us?

One such principle, whose relevance and utility will here be taken as axiomatic, is pragmatism – the criterion of what works. For a proposed moral code to be acceptable, it must be possible to implement it, it must be possible for people to follow it, and it must be possible to live by it for extended periods of time. This rules out ethical systems that are internally inconsistent, that are impossible to realistically obey, and that have ultimately self-destructive effects on a person or society that abides by them.

Though it seems too simple to be of value, this criterion actually does help to sweep some proposals out of the way. For example, the pragmatic principle would lead us to reject a moral system that instructs its adherents, “Thou shalt not kill”, and then commands them to kill those who believe in a different god than they do, on the grounds of inconsistency; one or the other of these commandments would have to be removed from the book that contains them to produce a viable moral system. Likewise, this principle removes from consideration systems such as communism, which pays all people the same amount and then expects them all to labor their hardest to benefit society. It is unrealistic to expect such a system to work as long as human nature remains unchanged. Finally, the pragmatic principle leads us to reject any moral code that proposes, for example, the legalization of murder or theft. Any society that tried this would soon collapse into chaos.

In reference to these last two points, we see that the pragmatic principle, far from being a strictly negative criterion, actually does positively inform the construction of an objective ethical code in two ways. Such a code, if it is to live up to the pragmatic principle, must establish some form of justice, in which people are treated in ways corresponding to their actions, and, if it is to be used to build a society in addition to guiding the actions of individuals, it must mandate some form of authority, in which some force can restrain or overrule the actions of individuals. Moral systems lacking these cannot expect to flourish or build a stable society.

Further examination of the criterion that a moral code be realistic and possible to follow leads to the conclusion that such a code must be flexible but not too flexible. A moral code that is too flexible, such as relativism, is no moral code at all, while one that is completely inflexible and never allows mitigating factors to be taken into account, such as the categorical imperative, cannot realistically and fairly deal with the enormous subtlety and variety of the many moral dilemmas in which human beings find themselves.

The pragmatic principle, when consistently applied, sweeps the field clean of some failed ethical theories and provides several signposts pointing the way toward a true objective morality. However, it cannot take us all the way there by itself. The next section will discuss a more powerful principle, which I have called moral Popperianism, that will bring us still closer to a secular moral synthesis.

Moral Popperianism: An Ethical Stepping Stone

The philosopher of science Karl Popper made waves in 1934 with his proposal that the scientific method works primarily through falsification. According to Popper’s formalization, science advances by proposing hypotheses that can either be confirmed or disproved through experiment. Those which are disproved are disproved absolutely, while those which are confirmed are considered only provisionally true, pending the next test. Hypotheses that cannot be proven false by any conceivable test are not science. Although subsequent philosophers have modified or criticized Popper’s conclusions, his work remains a major influence on conceptions of how science functions.

In this section of this essay, I propose importing this view of the scientific method into the moral sphere. Doing so will assist in the solution of a difficult dilemma in the field of moral philosophy, namely the problem of how to derive prescriptive statements from descriptive ones; in other words, how to jump from “is” to “ought”.

It has long been known that no catalog of facts about the world, no matter how complete, can ever by itself furnish us with a moral system. There must also be some decision made of what to value which can never be derived from mere knowledge of those facts. But while it is true that moral directives cannot be derived from the bare facts of the external world, they are still based on those facts, and therein lies the key. The crucial point of the principle which I call moral Popperianism is this: any ethical directive based on a false factual statement is wrong. In other words, descriptive statements cannot confirm prescriptive statements, but can disprove them. Ethical directives based on claims of fact that are not known to be false, but that lack sufficient evidentiary support, should be held in abeyance until that claim is either decisively confirmed or decisively refuted.

For example, any moral system that proposes unequal treatment of people based on immutable characteristics such as race and gender is wrong and should be discarded, based on scientific findings that all human beings are fundamentally the same at the genetic and cognitive levels. Any moral system that proposes that a human being should be sacrificed to the gods each night to ensure that the sun rises again the next morning can be (and have been) decisively refuted by performing the obvious test. Any moral system, in fact, that proposes that human beings should do anything because it is God’s will should be suspended until such time as we have compelling evidence that there is a God and he does indeed will such a thing (see “The Parable of the Loan” for suggestions on what might count as evidence of this).

Of course, some good ethical directives heretofore have been couched in terms of unproven factual statements, such as the claim that we should love others because God wants us to. This does not mean that these directives must be discarded; it simply means that they should be reformulated in terms of valid evidentiary groundings. The point of moral Popperianism is that those ethical directives that can only be justified by appealing to falsehoods are wrong, and those ethical directives that can only be justified by appealing to inherently unfalsifiable statements should be permanently suspended.

Universal Utilitarianism

Despite the steps already taken, there is a long way to go before arriving at the broadly encompassing morality this essay seeks to produce. Keep in mind that we are aiming at a moral code that is absolute – it admits of no exception to its rules; that is universal – it applies to all people at all places and times equally; and that is objective – the decisions it produces are not determined by the subjective desires of the agent performing the evaluation.

The next step, I believe, will bring us much closer. This step consists of answering a seemingly simple question: What is the ultimate aim of morality? What state does it seek to bring about?

The answer to this should, I hope, be obvious: the goal of morality is to ensure happiness. All people want to be happy, and everything else which they desire is ultimately just a means to that end. The means by which people seek happiness are so varied that any other attempt at generalization would be futile, but the desire for happiness is the one true universal which unites all these disparate paths.

Some ethical systems attempt to camouflage the point where they switch from “is” language to “ought” language. I will not do this, but rather state it plainly: in general, people ought to be happy. I hold this proposition to be axiomatic and foundational, and I further hold that any ethical system that has as its highest aim something other than producing happiness is completely missing the point. In short, this developing ethical system will be a form of utilitarianism.

The main problem with unqualified act utilitarianism, as already discussed, is that it does not readily give rise to justice and authority, which the pragmatic principle of morality would seem to require. Act utilitarianism declares whatever produces the greatest immediate happiness to be ethical, regardless of whether it treats others unfairly or violates any established strictures.

Rule utilitarianism is a variant of this ethical system that seems to hold some promise. Rather than judging the utility of each action in isolation, this system asks us to formulate general rules that would promote the greatest overall good if consistently followed, and then live by those rules. Of course, the problem then becomes that a truly universal rule dictating when or when not to perform a given action would have to have an enormous number of exceptions and qualifications, or else it runs the risk of producing poor outcomes on occasion, reducing overall happiness.

I believe I have come up with a new variant of utilitarian moral theory that avoids the flaws of both act and rule utilitarianism, which I call universal utilitarianism. It can be summed up in a single sentence, and without further ado, here it is:

Always minimize both actual and potential suffering; always maximize both actual and potential happiness.

I offer this foundational principle as the base of a new objective ethical system. At first glance it may not seem like anything special, much less able to hold up the admittedly lofty goals I have claimed for it, but I believe that problem to be only apparent. In a similar way, the statement “Gene frequencies in a population change over time in response to environmental pressures” hardly seems revolutionary, but to one who understands the implications of what it says, it forms the basis for one of the greatest successes in the history of science, a theory with vast predictive and explanatory power that unites all the glorious diversity of life and its multibillion-year history under a single theoretical framework. In the following paragraphs, I will “unpack” universal utilitarianism and hopefully show how it surmounts the problems that have stymied so many other ethical codes.

This ethical system incorporates some of the key concepts from others already discussed. It is first and foremost a form of utilitarianism, and like other forms of utilitarianism, as well as Aristotelian virtue ethics, it identifies happiness as the highest good, worth acquiring for its own sake and by the very nature of what it is. However, it is also similar to the categorical imperative in that it asks us to consider the consequences of a behavior if that behavior were universalized – hence the “potential” part of the formulation.

I further hold that John Rawls’ contractarianism reduces to this. The point of Rawls’ system is that the decision-making agents, while in the original position, logically would create the most equitable distribution of positions in society possible – i.e., they would minimize potential suffering and maximize potential happiness for everyone – since they would not know which of those positions they might end up in. However, universal utilitarianism does not require a veil of ignorance and so can be implemented in reality.

The “potential” part of the formulation is one of the most important parts of universal utilitarianism, and so I believe it bears further explanation. First, it asks us to consider the moral value of our actions as if all relevant parties were fully aware of them. Second, it asks us to gauge the morality of our actions based on the broad and immediate implications if the principle guiding that action, in its broadest possible form, were consistently and universally followed. What would be the effect on human happiness if everyone in this situation did what I am about to do? That is the question universal utilitarianism asks us to consider. We need only consider consequences that would be a likely and direct result of universalizing an action, not consequences that might hypothetically result from a long chain of intermediate contingent causes which no human being can reliably predict.

At this point, some other clarifications are called for. The term “suffering”, in the context of this system, should be construed to mean actual pain or harm resulting as a direct consequence of an action. Mere distaste or annoyance do not count as suffering for these purposes; nor can a person rightly complain that they are being made to suffer as the result of an act that has no direct effect on them (although a person certainly may act on behalf of someone else who is, actually or potentially, being made to suffer by that action).

Another important corollary is that, although some people will undoubtedly suffer more than others at certain times and places, no one person is more or less capable of experiencing suffering than any other. All pleasure and pain are considered to be of equal value in this system, including that of the person making an ethical decision. Universal utilitarianism does not command that the decision-maker must value his own happiness less than that of other people; rather, everyone should consider all people’s happiness equal.

One final point of importance is that the two halves of universal utilitarianism, as given above, should be considered to be in logical order. That is, actual and potential suffering should be minimized before maximizing actual and potential happiness. While these two objectives are usually the same thing, they are not always. For example, when some people are suffering while others are reasonably content already, it is morally required to help the former group before increasing the happiness of the latter. A world where everyone enjoys a modest level of contentment is better, according to this system, than one in which some people are extremely happy and others are suffering greatly; and I think this an entirely reasonable conclusion.

Another value of phrasing the imperatives in this order is that it eliminates the problem, endemic to other forms of utilitarianism, of whether it is morally good to obtain pleasure through acts that cause suffering to others. Universal utilitarianism answers that question without hesitation: such behavior is categorically wrong. It should also be noted, as a consequence, that the ways of obtaining personal happiness most valued by universal utilitarianism are the ways that also increase the happiness of others. And the very highest and most valuable method of gaining happiness is that pure form of empathy that requires nothing for itself but the observation that others are happy.

It was claimed earlier on, based on the pragmatic principle, that any worthy moral system must be able to derive principles of justice and authority. I believe universal utilitarianism is capable of this. Since unfair treatment causes harm and reduces the happiness of those so treated, whereas fairness leads to greater happiness and less suffering in the long run, it is a strong consequence that following the dictates of universal utilitarianism requires, both on the individual and the societal level, a solidly established bedrock principle of just action. While particular individuals or groups might feel they could improve their happiness by violating this principle on specific occasions, any gain of happiness on their part would be more than counterbalanced by the actual suffering inflicted on those who were treated unfairly on those occasions, as well as the potential suffering that would occur if violations of justice were to become widespread.

Likewise, the evidence leads us to the recognition that, for the foreseeable future at least, there will always be irrational, unempathic people who will not abide by these principles. To minimize the potential suffering they would otherwise cause others, some form of governing authority will be needed to prevent wrong behavior among those who cannot or will not control themselves.

Finally, this section will consider the question of the origin of human rights. The idea that human beings have certain inalienable rights has become the keystone of many moral systems around the world, and while this alone does not establish that human rights are a good idea, universal utilitarianism can indeed confirm this intuition. Under this system, human rights emerge as those universally applicable principles which most reduce actual and potential suffering and most increase actual and potential happiness. In short, universal utilitarianism derives human rights by taking into account the concept of precedent. While these principles may seem restrictive at times, a society in which they are strictly adhered to embodies far less potential for unnecessary suffering than one in which they are violated regularly, and thus is better overall.

There are many different human rights. The right to just treatment, discussed above, is one. Two other important rights are freedom of conscience and freedom of expression – essentially, the freedom to think and believe as one sees fit, and the freedom to state one’s convictions publicly in peaceful, non-disruptive ways. These rights increase the actual happiness of all those granted them without causing harm to anyone else; as well, they play a major role in reducing potential suffering by discovering and publicizing future wrongs so that they can be corrected. This process would ideally occur through another right that is fundamental to universal utilitarianism – democracy, the right of people to have a voice in selecting the government they are to live under. When a government is not accountable to those it governs, the potential for harm is far too great. While these do not constitute all those that could be derived from universal utilitarianism, they will hopefully at least represent a good start and show the potential this system possesses.

What Makes Morality Universal?

One of the questions that I feel many people, atheists and theists alike, will probably ask when viewing this proposal for the first time is what makes it objective. However, it seems to me that when critics ask what makes a particular moral system objective, what they really mean to ask is what makes it universal – that is, why does it apply to everyone? What makes it binding on people who refuse to give assent to its tenets? In this section, I will attempt to answer that.

To begin, I must make several things clear. First of all, this ethical system is not universal by virtue of existing independently of us. Universal utilitarianism is not a “thing”, something outside themself that a person can point to, any more than gravity or love or causality are “things”. Rather, they are concepts – terms that describe and unite a broad class of phenomena – and the same is true here.

Likewise, universal utilitarianism is not something imposed on us from above. I do not claim it to be the stern command of a deity handed down from on high, nor do I claim it to be a transcendent law existing from eternity, independent of human beings. Rather, it grows up around us, emerging organically from our nature as sentient beings and our interactions with each other. Morality exists because we exist.

If this ethical system is neither independent of human beings nor established by decree of a higher power, what makes it universal? The answer lies partly in the fact that it is founded on something that is universal among sentient beings, namely the desire for happiness. Regardless of ethnicity, creed, or status in society, humans ultimately want to be happy. I claim that universal utilitarianism is the set of rules that, if consistently followed, maximizes both actual and potential happiness for everyone – it offers the greatest probability for maximal happiness. Therefore, the most rational course for all human beings is to follow it – and this conclusion holds regardless of what other factors are brought into consideration. That is what makes this moral system universal.

Morality, after all, is not something that can be created by the fiat of an external source. If it is claimed that morality consists of obeying God’s decrees, or submitting to familial authority, or conforming to established tradition, or following the laws created by the government, one can always ask the further question of why we should follow that rule, why it would be morally right to do so. Any moral system that ultimately rests on external authority is no moral system at all (such a system would suffer from the Euthyphro dilemma, which is laid out in Part 5). True morality can only consist of a set of consistent, non-arbitrary principles which rational agents freely agree to obey.

Of course the question must be asked, what if some people will not freely agree to obey it? For example, what if a person is determined to get as much as they can for themself regardless of the effect their actions have on others, and makes this selfishness the principle they live by?

To such people, I would reiterate that universal utilitarianism is the moral system that offers the greatest chance for maximal happiness. A person may choose to be irrational and decide to bet against the odds, but there is nothing to be done about that any more than science can overcome the objections of irrational people who refuse to be swayed by any evidence. If this is not to be considered an indictment of science, then neither is it a problem for universal utilitarianism.

I freely admit that, if someone is dead-set against this moral system, neither I nor anyone else can convince them to accept it. But this is also true of any other moral system, including relativism, or for that matter, any scientific theory – even ones such as the sphericity of the Earth, the heliocentric solar system, or the germ theory of disease. If this is a strike against universal utilitarianism, it is equally a strike against every other system of thought human beings have ever come up with, so I see no reason for concern on that score.

To bolster my claim that universal utilitarianism offers the greatest probability for maximal happiness, I point out that no rational person wants to live in a world where others view them as only a means to advancing their own ends and are constantly seeking to take advantage of them. Everyone would be unhappy in a society built on such a basis. For any person, the ideal world is one in which all other people value that person’s happiness as an end in itself. But how to bring about such a world? Attempting to convince others to follow a moral system that you yourself do not follow is an endeavor unlikely to meet with success. Thus, only one solution remains: The best way to help bring about a world where all others are universal utilitarians is to be one yourself.

Other Objections Answered

  • Universal utilitarianism does not tell us exactly what to do in a given situation.
    After the issue of what makes morality universal is overcome, it seems to me that the most likely objection to be raised next is that this system is too vague. Beyond the goals of reducing suffering and increasing happiness, it does not tell us exactly what to do or explain in detail how those goals might be achieved. However, I view this as a good thing, and complaints that an ethical system should provide more specific instructions are, in my opinion, misguided. We are human beings, with the empathy and the intelligence needed to make moral judgments for ourselves. No moral system will ever be comprehensive enough, or sufficiently reflective of the full scale of human experience, to provide a set of absolute rules that would instantly tell a person what to do in any given situation. This simply cannot be done and would not be desirable even if it could be. Trying to remove the need for human judgment from a moral system only causes errors to occur in one direction rather than the other (see the section on the categorical imperative for an example of this). We will always have to weigh the competing factors and relevant principles, determine what course of action is likely to produce the least suffering and the greatest happiness both now and in the long run, and make a decision on that basis; but there is no straightforward algorithmic procedure to achieve this. I agree that universal utilitarianism requires human beings to think for themselves, to offer reasoned arguments, and to draw logical conclusions in order to determine what is the most moral action in any given situation. I regard this as a point in favor of this system, rather than against it.

  • Universal utilitarianism requires too much background information before making a decision.
    Some critics might say that to truly know what decision would minimize actual and potential suffering, we would need to know an unreasonable amount of background information, such as all the people a person will go on to interact with, what decisions that person will make in the future, how those decisions will in turn affect other people, and so on ad infinitum. However, this is not the case. Universal utilitarianism does not demand we reach a state of infallible omniscient knowledge before making any moral decisions; instead, it calls upon us to make the best decision available based on all the information we reasonably possess or could extrapolate. As said above, we should not consider “potential” suffering to consist of all the conceivable end results that might theoretically result from an action following some long chain of intermediate causes, but only the most likely and direct consequences. Moral Popperianism also helps: as a guide to decision-making, in the absence of specific information to the contrary, there are basic assumptions we can and should make, such as that the life of every person is of equal moral value, or that a person should be presumed innocent of a crime without compelling evidence of guilt. Might a decision be based on wrong or incomplete information, and turn out tio be less than optimal or downright bad in retrospect? Yes, of course. But we are human beings, and therefore fallible; that is a problem pervasive to our nature, not specific to universal utilitarianism. Every system of inquiry we devise must confront it in some way. No one demands, for example, that biological researchers understand every function of every cell and molecule in the human body before beginning work on curing a disease, nor do we scrap all of medicine because of occasional medical errors. If we require that every action be perfect and that no mistakes ever be made, we will be forever paralyzed.

  • The happiness of different people is impossible to compare or measure.
    Another objection that might be urged against this system is that, without an objective scale to measure happiness and suffering, it will be impossible to reach a decision that is best. However, I do not believe this to be an insurmountable hurdle. Certainly universal utilitarianism does not promise that reaching a decision will always be easy – in fact, in many cases, it will be extremely difficult – but I do believe it can be done. The key recognition is that, as human beings with a theory of mind, we may not have perfect knowledge of how another person is feeling at any given moment, we can make reasonable extrapolations, and that is all that universal utilitarianism requires. This ethical system does not demand that we use some sort of sixth sense to gauge with exacting precision how each person feels about their situation. Instead, it asks us to consider how a reasonable person would feel and act in a given situation, approximate the net happiness and suffering produced by an action’s effects on all relevant people, and make our decision based on those grounds. (If it were otherwise, this moral system could be held hostage by the most unreasonable person, the one who histrionically suffered the greatest self-inflicted harm as a result of any real or perceived offense.) Again, in the absence of specific information to the contrary, we should guide our decision based on simple, reasonable assumptions, such as that all people’s capacity for suffering is equal and that all people have an equal interest in being free of unnecessary harm.

  • Universal utilitarianism cannot be a truly universal moral system, since most people don’t follow it.
    Finally, some might ask why universal utilitarianism is not widely followed already, if it is (as I believe and have argued) the one true absolute and objective moral system. To this I reply that there is no reason why the right morality should be intuitively obvious, any more than new scientific truths should be intuitively obvious. Though apparently simple in retrospect, it may take a great deal of thought and prior philosophical development to arrive at. Furthermore, throughout most of human history and to a very large extent even today, the issue has been clouded due to the prevalence of religious ethical theories that value obedience to God over human happiness. An ethical system such as universal utilitarianism was unlikely to be discovered prior to the rise of scientific and humanistic thought that enables us to perceive existence as it truly is, and this rise was a relatively recent phenomenon in our species’ history.

Part 5: The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick

On “Stealing” Morality from Theism

One common criticism of any proposed atheistic morality is that atheism is inherently incapable of giving rise to a moral system, and that atheists can only have one by borrowing – some less charitable apologists say “stealing” – it from theism. The logical conclusion of such an argument is that atheists are hypocrites (one apologist used the term “moral parasites”), rejecting the teachings of religion even while living by its ethical code.

I deny these claims categorically. It may well be the case that some theists have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they cannot even imagine how a moral code could be arrived at without the confines of their belief system, but atheists have no such difficulty. Atheists, like all human beings, can empathize with the happiness of others and wish to increase it; and they can empathize with the sadness of others and wish to end it.

And this turns out to be the crux of the matter. Universal utilitarianism is not in any way derived from theistic morality, because it is based on the fundamentally human trait of empathy. It proposes that we should help others not because a higher authority commands it, not because we will be rewarded if we do and punished if we do not, but because we all know what it is like to be happy and to suffer, and we should want to increase the happiness and decrease the suffering of others just as we want that for ourselves. If one happens to believe in a religion whose teachings align with this, well and good, but as far as universal utilitarianism is concerned, morality can be arrived at and defended for purely humanistic reasons without recourse to the will of the gods.

There is another argument against this accusation of theft. Many major religious traditions, including Christianity and Islam, consider this life no more than a momentary trial prior to an afterlife of infinitely greater importance. By contrast, universal utilitarianism, in conjunction with the moral-Popperian principle that no afterlife has been verified and this life is the only one we know of, holds that this life is therefore of primary importance. This point of divergence is a fundamental difference in the way this moral system and most theistic ones view human life and refutes any naive claims that one was straightforwardly borrowed from the other. Universal utilitarianism, for example, cannot justify human suffering, or withhold action to correct wrongs, on the grounds that all will be set right in the world to come. Nor can it countenance force or coercion to ensure uniformity of belief on the grounds that doing so will ultimately save the souls of those so coerced. Even more so, without certainty of an afterlife, it makes this life more precious and enshrines human happiness in this life as the highest goal.

There is one final argument against the claim of atheists using morality borrowed from theism: lack of reliance on a deity’s will is precisely the thing that allows universal utilitarianists to unambiguously condemn wrongs committed in the name of God. For example, the Muslim terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center believed that their brand of radical Islam justified their actions; by striking a blow against the corrupt and immoral West, they were serving Allah’s will and helping more Muslims reach Heaven.

This, then, is my rejoinder to those theists who claim atheism can only have an absolute moral grounding by “stealing” it from theism: it is precisely my lack of all religious belief that allows me to say with certainty that such actions are morally wrong. Theists, on the other hand, face a difficulty in condemning actions such as this – how do they know that God didn’t really command the terrorists to hijack those planes? In fact, some theists do believe that, and not just Muslims. Witness, for example, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s remarks to the effect that the actions of certain groups had caused God to lift his “veil of protection” from the United States and allow the September 11 attacks to occur.

Granted, theists who say such things are in the minority, and granted, their views are evil, hateful and wrong. I have absolutely no argument with that, and I have no desire to trivialize the people who lost their lives on that terrible day. I mourn their loss and honor the heroism of those who gave their lives trying to save others. But that is exactly the point. I, as an atheist, know why I reject the views of people like Robertson and Falwell. Why do theists reject them?

Is it not commonly said that no human being can know the will of God or fully understand the reasons why he allows evil to occur? Is it not the case, in the Bible and other holy books, that God frequently allows evil to happen to human beings to punish them for their sins? (Amos 3:6 claims that no evil occurs to a city that God is not responsible for.) Is it not true, according to many theists, that anything God wills is justified by definition? Given these facts, how then can a theist confidently say that any action is right or wrong? It hardly needs repeating that the events of September 11 are by no means the first evil act committed by humans against humans in the name of God.

What grounds does a religious believer have for pronouncing these things immoral? Mere inward certainty that God would not will such a thing is a completely subjective basis, able to justify any action as well as to condemn it. The internal contradictions within the Bible and other holy books make it impossible to use them as a reliable guide to morality, although even if they were completely consistent that would not prove them to be the word of God. Unless God clearly reveals himself and explains what his will is (as this article from the Onion imagines), no theist can say for certain that God does or does not approve of a given action, and thus no theist can say for certain that an action is or is not morally right. Religious belief is, in summary, a “moral blank check” that can justify any action if it is committed in the name of an inscrutably willed divine being; but universal utilitarianism does not allow such easy justifications.

Against Divine Command Ethics

As the introduction to this essay stated, the majority of humanity throughout history has believed that only through religion can we obtain an ethical code, that morality is reducible to obeying God’s commands. In this section, I will criticize this view, which is usually called divine command ethics.

The first problem for this ethical system is the most obvious: even assuming there is a god, how do we know what his commands are? There are hundreds of different religious traditions and denominations in the world, with sharply conflicting views on virtually every ethical issue one would care to name. What is the basis for choosing any one of these over all the others? Few, if any, theists make their decision on the basis of a comprehensive survey of the evidence (if such a thing were even possible); instead, the vast majority simply join whatever religion is dominant in the area where they live.

Even assuming we have surmounted this problem and picked a specific religion, the issue must then be how to interpret its teachings. Most holy books are susceptible to a nearly limitless variety of possible interpretations, as is shown by the broad spectrum of beliefs, from extreme liberal to extreme fundamentalist, that exists within every religious tradition. This problem is especially acute because, unlike in science, where new evidence may turn up to adjudicate between two competing hypotheses, few if any religions hold that new sacred scripture is constantly being written. Instead, their holy texts are frozen, fossilized, with no possibility of new verses being written to conclusively settle the issue between two opposing points of view. How, then, is it possible to judge between two competing sects within a religion which both claim scriptural support for their respective beliefs?

Simply following the word of religious leaders will not do – again, given the great diversity of beliefs on how to interpret a given religious tradition even among scholars of that tradition, and given the unlikelihood of such controversies ever being resolved, to do so would be an arbitrary and fallacious appeal to authority. Nor can personal revelation be a reliable guide – how, even in principle, could one ever distinguish a true communication of God from the prompting of one’s own subconscious?

Given all this religious confusion, both between denominations and within them, finding out what God’s will even is would seem to be an insurmountably difficult task. This alone is a grave problem for divine command ethics. But even assuming that God clearly revealed himself and expressed his wishes in unambiguous fashion, another problem would remain.

The nature of this second problem was first stated by Plato, in the fourth century BCE, in his dialogue the Euthyphro. The question Plato asks is this: Does God command something because it is good, or is it good because God commands it?

If we choose the first option, then we are saying that there is a moral standard external to God, and that is this standard, and not God himself, that determines what is good; God would simply be relaying this information to us. Needless to say, this presents problems for theists. What is this standard, where did it come from, and how does it get its power over God? If God is constrained by a standard external to himself, then he cannot be said to be omnipotent. And if such a standard exists, could not atheists bypass God and appeal to the standard directly?

However, the second option is potentially even worse. This scenario is essentially moral relativism writ large; it says that morality is determined solely by God’s whims. So far, God has declared justice and mercy and other such things to be good. But tomorrow, he might change his mind and declare rape, torture and child sacrifice to be good, and from that point on, we would have to praise that choice and live with its repercussions. People who did such things would be welcomed into the bosoms of the angels, while those who refused would go to Hell. Can anyone, even the most conservative of fundamentalist believers, condone such a scenario?

Some believers might say that God would not command such things. But why would he not, under this view? If there is no external standard, then there is no reason why God would declare one thing good and not another. Whatever God willed would by definition be good. Under this scenario, theistic morality is completely arbitrary, and would have no objective basis.

There is another problem with the second solution to the Euthyphro dilemma: namely, it would make it a meaningless tautology to say that God is good. If goodness is defined as whatever God does, then to say “God is good” would reduce to “God does whatever he does”, or more succinctly, “God is God”. Under this view, to praise God for his goodness would just be a way of praising him for being the most powerful and doing whatever he wants – it is saying that might automatically makes right. To say that God is good and have that statement mean something – for that proposition to impart any additional information – there must be an independent standard, one not determined by God, against which God can be compared and contrasted, and we return to the first fork of the Euthyphro dilemma.

Granted, some apologists have posed a solution to this dilemma. They argue that there is an objective standard that grounds God’s moral decisions, but that this standard is not external, but internal to God – God’s own perfectly good and immutable character. Therefore, God’s decisions are not based on whims, but neither is there an external standard that has power over God.

However, this approach does not solve the dilemma; it merely relocates it. If theists say God’s character is intrinsically good, we can ask the same question again: What does it mean to say God’s character is good? Is God’s character good because it measures up to some external standard, or is good itself defined by whatever way God’s character is? If the former, again, what is this standard and where does it come from? If the latter, again, it is meaningless to say that God is good; whatever way God was would determine what was good. If God’s character had been cruel and unjust, then those traits would be good and desirable. Unless apologists show that God could not have been other than he is morally, and none I know of have even attempted to do this, the Euthyphro dilemma stands and divine command ethics falls. Atheism, by contrast, has no problem with this: as already explained, an atheist can readily believe that there is an independent, objective standard that is not subject to change by divine fiat.

A third problem for divine command ethics goes as follows. It is commonly held by proponents of such a system that, without inescapable divine justice, it would be impossible to justify why people should behave in one way and not another. If that is so, then is God’s word inherently worth following, or is it the case that theists obey only because of the consequences and would violate it freely if those consequences were removed? For example, imagine if God gave out a list of moral teachings which he desired everyone to obey, but said that there would be no reward or punishment for doing so or not doing so; that all people would simply cease to exist at their death. Would those theists who consider their belief in God to be the foundation of their ethics still obey his wishes? Would they still follow a deity who offered nothing in return? If so, then they have conceded that morality is something worth practicing for its own sake, whether or not there are enforcing strictures, and this is precisely the conclusion that this essay puts forth. (Alternatively, if there are theists who would go on a rampage of stealing and killing without the fear of Hell to keep them in check, this essay would say only that such people have a curious lack of regard for what they consider to be the word of God.)

The final problem with divine command ethics is that it actually allows evil by offering numerous justifications for immoral actions, or apathy in the face of such actions, that universal utilitarianism does not. For example, theists say that God’s absolute moral strictures restrain humans from engaging in evil, but the fact is that virtually every single person or group that has ever believed in God is firmly convinced that God is on their side (“The Unchosen People” makes this point with humor) and will justify what they do. “God wills it!” can be and has been used as an excuse to commit every evil act imaginable. This belief can be witnessed in the earliest books of the Hebrew Bible, where the Israelite tribes use their self-proclaimed status as the chosen people of Yahweh as a mandate to justify a genocidal invasion of the land of Palestine, and it can be witnessed today where territorial battles are still going on in the ironically named Holy Land. In the absence of an unambiguous general revelation from God, as already argued, this view will persist.

To take another example, if there is an afterlife where justice will be served at last and everyone will get what they deserve, why bother instituting any sort of earthly justice? Why fight an evil dictator or imprison a criminal if he’ll eventually get what’s coming to him anyway? Why try to help the poor or the disadvantaged if they will be rewarded later for their suffering now? The supposed inescapability of divine justice renders human justice superfluous.

In a similar but more subtle vein, a theist might reason that, if God controls the universe, then nothing can happen that is not in line with his will, and if God is loving, he will not allow purposeless evil. Therefore, any evil that does happen must be part of God’s will, allowed as part of a greater purpose unknown to us. (This “unknown purpose defense” is indeed one of the most common theist solutions to the problem of evil.) The logical conclusion of this is that we should not even try to alleviate evil and suffering. God must have purposes for allowing it to happen; if he did not, he would have prevented it already. Who are we to interfere with God’s grand and mysterious plan?

Universal utilitarianism offers no such convenient escape hatches. We have no evidence that there is another life beyond this one, that a higher power is letting wrongs happen to serve the greater good, or that there is a guarantee that justice will be done in the end. As far as we know, it is all up to us, and therefore it is our duty to reduce suffering, institute justice, and make the world a better place for everyone.

We have seen that divine command ethics fails on all counts. It cannot deliver a reliable summation of what God’s will actually is, it cannot explain why we should obey God’s will even if we knew it to be such, and it cannot truly explain why we should try to prevent immorality. I must conclude that universal utilitarianism is by far the superior solution. The only major question I have not yet addressed is, could a believer in God practice universal utilitarianism, or does accepting this moral code necessarily entail atheism?

My response to this is that universal utilitarianism is not an inherently atheistic moral code; it is an inherently humanistic moral code. It has nothing to do with being an atheist specifically and everything to do with being a human being. There is no reason why a religious believer could not follow it.

That said, I must insist that moral decisions must ultimately be justified on the basis of human concerns. I feel this is only common sense, since if there is a god of the type envisioned by most religions, we cannot possibly harm or lessen him, nor can we supply anything he lacks. Therefore, we need to look out for ourselves first and foremost, and make the decisions that are best for us because they are the best for us. A moral choice that has no grounding in human concerns, that could not be defended without recourse to the will of a deity, would be in error. Of course, if a given religion’s ethical teachings align with the humanistic value system presented in this essay, I applaud that religion and will not fight against it; but in my experience, all moral decisions that require a fallback to divine will are uniformly detrimental to human welfare and should be opposed. God is not the one who needs us – we are the ones who need each other. Believe in God if you must, but let human needs and human rights come first.

Part 6: Conclusion

There have been countless theists, both those seeking to make converts of atheists and those preaching to the faithful, who have asserted that without belief in God there can be no basis for morality but the individual’s arbitrary whim. This is yet another lamentable example of how religion tries to take exclusive possession of an entire area fundamental to human existence, proclaiming that without its permission, one cannot behave like a human being. This is not the case. Atheists are human beings also, and we are no less moral simply because we ground our ethics in human nature and the happiness of others rather than unquestioning faith in a set of ancient writings. Atheists are moral not because we are commanded to be, but because we want to be.

Divine command morality, by contrast, is lacking because it offers no better reason to behave than the promise of reward and the threat of punishment – in other words, a carrot and stick. It assumes that people are basically immoral and cannot be trusted to do right unless they are lured into it, nor can they be trusted to abstain from wrong unless they are frightened away from it. It postulates that, like untrained animals, we have to be constantly chastised by a transcendent lawgiver whenever we stray from the straight and narrow. The potentially harmful repercussions of holding such a dim view of human nature should be obvious. Rather than encouraging us to seek the best option through reason and empathy, it promotes dogmatism, blind submission to authority and intolerance of differing opinions. Rather than teaching us that we are morally mature and have the capability to do right, it teaches that we are sinners inherently incapable of controlling ourselves, thus actually encouraging immoral behavior. Finally, it actually denies the valuation of doing good for its own sake that should be at the heart of any ethical system, instead promoting fear and selfishness. If a theist’s fear of divine punishment is the only thing preventing him from doing evil to everyone around him, or if he would never do any good deeds if he didn’t expect to get something in return, then such a person isn’t really very moral at all, is he?

In opposition to this, universal utilitarianism – the basis of an atheist’s morality – is a system that respects human intelligence and decency. It assumes that people can be trusted to do what’s right without being promised a Heaven or threatened with a Hell. Most importantly, it encourages free thought: rather than coerce people with threats or accustom them to unquestioning obedience, it requires that they learn the basic principles of ethical behavior and come to accept them freely. Although it is based around a universally applicable central principle, it is flexible and adaptive, and can be refined and extended as society evolves. This is a valuable factor, since the diffusion of human culture and the ever-accelerating growth of our technology is bound to bring us into contact with new ethical dilemmas. When this happens, universal utilitarianism will be ready to meet them while those still wedded to dogma search in vain for guidance from their static, changeless scripture.

These texts seem more than a little outdated in another, more important way. Not only do they not provide guidance for many moral dilemmas of the modern world, the holy texts of most religions in existence today still enshrine practices and beliefs such as racism, slavery, holy war, government by monarchy and theocracy, the suppression of free inquiry, the institutional inequality of women, and cruel, violent punishments for the most trifling crimes, or acts that are not crimes at all. It is passages like these that reveal these moral systems for what they are: a cruel and inhumane relic of a past era. Humanity has grown beyond this, and so it deserves to be replaced with a better alternative. As we proceed inevitably into the future, atheist morality – the only system of morality that does not rely on an ineffable carrot and an infinite stick – is the best choice to guide us in the years to come.