On Ethics, Atheists, and “Absolute Morality”

As a child, I was taught that atheists had no basis for morality, no ethics, no nothing. Atheists just believed in . . . nothing. They did whatever they felt best, whatever pleased them most. If atheists ever followed the law, it was because they were afraid they might be sent to jail if they liked. Atheists had no check on their selfishness and lived hedonistic lifestyles as a result.

In fact, I was even told that many atheists were atheists so that they could do whatever they liked, without accountability. I was taught that atheists know there is a God, since the Bible says God has made his presence obvious to everyone, but that atheists were intentionally suppressing and ignoring that knowledge in an effort to run from responsibility. And have lots of unBiblical sex, of course.

Ken Ham thinks much the same:

For atheists, there really is no basis for their ethics, therefore they believe they can do whatever they want if they can get away with it. What is “right” or “wrong” to such people is all relative.

You have to admit this statement is ironic coming from a man who would almost certainly turn around and say that the Old Testament genocides were totally moral and ethical because it was God who ordered them.

The Christian argument is that ethics can only absolute rather than relative if they come from an absolute source, i.e. God. Christian morality is based on a divine arbiter. Atheist morality is based on…nothing. Whim? Chance? Growing up, this argument made a lot of sense to me, and when I began to lose my faith this argument was one thing that made me hold on to it. And then I realized something.

Within Christianity, ethics and morals are either above God, something to which God must subscribe, or they are created by God, the product of his commands. Let me explain.

One question my friends and I toyed with growing up was what we would do if God commanded us to kill a family member, and there was no question of whether or not the command actually came from God. We all agreed we’d have to kill that family member, that killing that family member would be right and moral, but we found it an interesting question because even then we realized that answer didn’t quite feel right.

Another example, as I’ve discussed here, is the Old Testament genocides I mentioned above. Growing up, I was taught that it was right and moral for the Israelites to murder entire people groups, men, women, children, and infants, because God had commanded them to. Morals flowed from God. What was right was what God said was right. We learned in Bible club that sin was disobeying God’s commands and righteousness was obeying God’s commands. Whatever God said, did, or commanded, that was what was ethical.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is nothing “absolute” about this form of morals at all. It’s simply what the biggest most powerful guy says goes.

And I also realized why those questioned bothered me. I knew it wasn’t ethical to murder a family member even if God commanded me to do so. I knew it wasn’t ethical for the Israelites to annihilate those people groups even if God told them to do so.

As I moved on to more progressive Christianity, I concluded that ethics and morals, what was right and what was wrong, were somehow above God. God had to adhere to those ethical standards just as much as humankind did. I concluded that most of the Bible was in error, especially the Old Testament, simply written by fallible man who confused what God had said. God was love. God was mercy. God was goodness. God couldn’t violate ethical standards any more than he could create them with his commands.

It seems to me that a Christian has two options. Either God sets morals and ethics, or morals and ethics are above God and something he must adhere to. For me, this second view was a perfect segue into atheism, because ethics and morality no longer appeared to need a God in order to exist. They no longer depended on and flowed from God, but were located outside of him.

Around this time I learned that religion and ethics had been separate for the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Ethics were about how you should live your life, about philosophy and what was right and wrong, and religion was about making sure to keep the gods happy with you. I’m told that the same is fairly true for modern pagans who worship deities like Thor or Woden. Ethics don’t have to come from a religion; rather, ethics can be, and often are, entirely separate from religion.

What people like Ken Ham are not as quick to discuss when writing to their followers is that atheists choose ethical systems to which to subscribe. It’s not about living a pointless life of hedonism but rather about creating new purpose and choosing a new ethical system with its own values and goals. In fact, most atheists I know are fascinated by questions of ethics and spend a good deal of time thinking about them. The idea that atheists have no ethics is ludicrous; in my experience, atheists take ethics very seriously.

But Ken Ham would probably still point out that atheists don’t have an actual basis for their ethics, and that their ethics are not absolute. Two things here. First, Ken Ham’s basis for ethics is God. What God commands goes. That is a stunningly simplistic and silly basis for ethics. And, in the case of the Old Testament genocides, it doesn’t seem to work out that well.

Second, to some degree ethics and morality are relative. For example, we generally agree that killing is wrong. But what about killing in self-defense, or to save a life? That’s generally seen as okay. Similarly, we generally believe that lying is wrong. But what about lying to save the lives of the Jews you’re hiding in your basement in Nazi Germany? That’s generally seen as the right course of action. Making absolute ethical claims – that it is always wrong to kill, or always wrong to lie – is as simplistic and silly as saying that whatever God commands goes. It’s a whole lotta complicated, and this is why so many atheists find ethical questions and explorations fascinating.

Finally, there is the argument that atheists can’t possibly be ethical people because we don’t have the threat of hell hanging over our heads. But if someone is only good because they’re afraid they’ll be smited otherwise, I find that rather frightening. I would wager a guess that almost no Christians actually live their lives that way, being good only out of fear of divine punishment. The idea that people would, or should, be good only to avoid punishment is not my idea of a good system of ethics and morality.

One last thing to remember is that the basis of traditional Christianity is that we are all hopeless sinners in desperate need of salvation. We can’t do good on our own, we only fail. If that is the basis of your entire belief system, it’s no surprise that the idea of ethical atheists would pose a problem. That atheists could live good and moral lives, after all, without the aid of Jesus or the Holy Spirit, flies in the face of traditional Christian teachings.

Note: Since writing this article I have become aware that the “morals either come from God or are above God” argument is called Euthyphro’s Dilemma, and that the idea that what is moral is simply whatever God commands is called the Divine Command Theory

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • rukymoss

    In my eighth grade Sunday School class, we were given joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics to read (the pastor would have fainted if he had known); it really clarified for me many of the dilemmas that confused me, such as the one you mention about killing a family member if God commands it. Interestingly, Fletcher, once an Episcopalian priest, later came out as an atheist. I realize now that the book actually made me more moral–rather than just relying on catechism and commandments, I had to think ahead to outcomes of behaviors. I think I’ll go read it again!

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    There is a third option that was favored in my church: God is effectively an anthropomorphization of morality. Effectively, morality is God’s nature. He good no more do or want something immoral than you could do something Libby Anne would never do.

    The problem with this theory is that it’s great if you are making up a God from scratch, but problematic if you are trying to describe the God of the Bible. You still have those genocides to account for. Given this framework, the only possible answer is that humans can’t understand morality, which is hardly helpful if you are trying to argue that religion helps us behave in a moral manner.

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      I think that’s the standard escape from Euthyphro: God is Goodness Itself, in his own nature — very Platonist. I even came up with it myself, the first time I encountered the Dilemma. But now ISTM that only pushes the problem back one level: did God create his own nature, or is it, like ours, just something he’s stuck with? Anyways, it’s irrelevant in the case of the OT God, who does whatever the hell he likes. I guess that’s why strict fundamentalists tend to be fans of Divine Command Theory.

      BTW: IIRC Ken Ham is on record as saying that you should tell the truth to the SS about where the Jews are hiding. Which makes me uninterested in anything he has to say about morals.

      • http://ginambakkun.blogspot.com Gina

        As a liberal Christian, I also take the Platonist view. Ethics are not above God, nor are they made up by God, but they are God’s essence. I also struggle with the genocides, but I conclude that those writings are something created by man to justify their own bloodlust.

        I wonder how Hamm can hold to the view that all lying is wrong, since God seems to bless Rahab for lying to protect the Israelite spies.

      • http://ginambakkun.blogspot.com Gina

        Obviously this is just the conclusion I’ve come to. The issue could be debate far more extensively.

    • KG

      Effectively, morality is God’s nature.

      But is it God’s nature because it is moral, or is it moral because it’s God’s nature?

      • Gordon

        that’s the kind of argument that only works when you can burn anyone who laughs in your face.

  • E.A. Blair

    I really don’t see much difference between fear of imprisonment and fear of hell, other than the latter seems to be more suited to children rather than rational adults.

    I’ve long felt that I’d rather trust someone who did asomething that was right and/or good simply because it’s the proper thing to do rather than someone who acts solely out of fear.

    If there is an afterlife, My idea of eternal justice is one in which, instead of receiving what they hope for, people get what they fear they actually deserve.

    • machintelligence

      For some reason this reminds me of the story of the defense attorney, who having won an acquittal for his client, sent a telegram saying only “justice has triumphed”. His client responded “appeal immediately!”.

    • kisekileia

      Too bad for depressed people, or those with guilt issues caused by fundamentalism, in your preferred afterlife, I guess.

  • Landon

    Thanks for posting this! I spent some time in the Church of Christ when I was young (my parents were never religious, but they sent me to a religious school for years and years), and I recall that after all the hemming and hawing around the issue, some of our teachers would just come out and admit what your spiritual leaders were teaching you – that they believed that it was good if God said it was good and that was it. None of them seemed keen to bring this quandry to our attention by highlighting the issue, though. I find it fascinating that it was so prominently foregrounded in your experience. Again, I find it amazing that as conservative and authoritarian as I thought the Church of Christ was, there were group out there (apparently!) that were willing to go much further in that regard.

    Regarding your postscript – after I read the Euthyphro in a philosophy class I took at a secular university, I realized why the Church of Christ university near my home only offered one philosophy class, a shallow gloss of some of the less-threatening topics!

  • eric

    As you say at the end, this problem has been known since Plato wrote Euthyphro, at least. These philosophical problems are literally older than Christianity. :)

    If atheists ever followed the law, it was because they were afraid they might be sent to jail if they liked. [sic - I think you mean 'if they didn't']

    Take out the ‘atheists’ and put in ‘other people,’ and pretty much every human being has this bias. Ask pretty much anyone about the need for law enforcement, and you’ll get back an answer with the same gist: well (they’ll say), I don’t need the police to behave, but other people do.

    This is called the fundamental attribution error. Each of us has a subtle cognitive bias that causes us to attribute our own success to mostly internal factors (our personality, logic, wisdom, etc.) and other people’s success to external factors (how they were raised, luck, chance, etc.). For failures, its the reverse: we typically see our own failures as the result of luck etc. and other people’s failures as results of their personalities. When it comes to morals, the same bias kicks in: we view other people’s morals as based on external factors (someone is watching, etc.) and our own on internal factors (I’m such a stand-up guy).

    IMO, recognizing the reality that each of our successes, failures, and morality is a combination of external and internal factors is important for good social policy. Its an obvious no-brainer that even a fully christian society would need police. But, less obviously, its an argument for a social safety net. Once you really internally accept that chance and bad luck can put smart, determined, hard-working folks at the bottom, welfare and health care make a lot more sense.

    • Dalillama

      I can’t say that I really had that problem. From my perspective, the main reason I don’t go around killing, stealing, etc is that I simply don’t have any desire to, for the most part. On those occasions when I do, I usually have a reason to want to, whether valid or not, and on those occasions long term thinking and a general theory of morality come into play and I don’t, but it took me some time to learn to control my own violent impulses, so I do understand the mindset where long term thinking doesn’t matter. I tend to assume that other people think like I do barring direct evidence to the contrary, so clearly the people who were doing this kind thing had some reason they would want to, even as I might under sufficient provocation. Nevertheless, that type of behavior is contraindicated in a functioning society, which means that a functioning society need to have people trained in long term thinking and the benefits thereof, structural factors in place to minimize situations which are known to regularly cause people to behave in extremely antisocial fashions, and some impartial agency to sort out the conflicts and antisocial behaviors when they inevitably do happen anyway. The police actually fall into categories two and three in that regard, as they not only serve to physically restrain people who have acted violently, they also allow people a sense of security, which in turn lowers their likelihood of reacting violently.

  • Mr.Kosta

    Within Christianity, ethics and morals are either above God, something to which God must subscribe, or they are created by God, the product of his commands.

    This there is called the Euthyphro dilemma, and it harkens back to the times of the ancient Greece.

    “Does God command something because it is good, or it is good because it is commanded by God?” is a question abrahamic religions totally fail to answer.

  • Gordon

    There is no escape from the Euthyphro dilemma except to realise there is no god.

    • http://kagerato.net kagerato

      I would contest that the key reason for lack of belief in gods is the utter absence of evidence. Dilemmas like Euthyphro and the Problem of Evil can rule out the existence of the specific gods mentioned in the Big Three monotheistic religions, but they don’t say much about polytheistic, new age, and other obscure religions which don’t assume the relevant premises (benevolence, for one). After all, Odin, Zeus, and the great Sky Goddess aren’t real, either.

  • http://sheilacrosby.com Sheila Crosby

    Ken Ham’s basis for ethics is God. What God commands goes.

    Actually, it all too often morphs into “What I say God commands goes.”

  • kraut

    How do Christians actually know what god commands?
    His commands in the bible (the OT and the NT) are nothing short of contradictory, so which interpretation is correct? The one saying you shall forgive your enemy or the one that tells you go: eye for eye, tooth for tooth?

    How can a god be infallible and absolute when it is possible that an older version of his commands and moral precepts can be superseded by a newer one?

    We had examples enough of people claiming they received the command from god to kill members of their family…we call them “nutters” in the usual parlance.
    The old saying still is a good guideline: if you talk to god it is religion, if god talks to you….

  • Shane

    Great post. As a philosophy professor who teaches euthyphro once every semester, it is both wonderful that you came to the conclusions from it on your own, and disturbing how many people are never exposed to it.

    It is always frustrating to me that I can list a dozen serious ethical thoeries off the top of my head, but the average American thinks their are only two, divine command, which they don’t know by name, and everything else, which they call “wrong.” That theories like Aristotles virtue theory or the Utilitarian calculus, or Care theory are ignored to trumpet “I said it, so do it” is painful to those of us who actually think about matter of ethics.

    And as Eric points out, most of them lead to political theories that the most religious refuse to consider. Which is odd considering the new testement makes a good case for being your “brothers keeper.”

    I have enjoyed most of your posts rather a lot, and hope you keep up the good work.

    • charlesbartley

      This is me. I think that Libby Anne and I are a lot alike in that we reasoned our way out of Christianity more or less on our own (with some help from dawkins and others).

      I am reasonably well read–but NOT in non-fundimintalist Christian philosophy or in ethics. I feel like I am always doing fundimential engineering my own ethical system, and that if I just knew where to look, that I could save myself a whole lot of neural process power and angst by learning from what others have discovered before me. This was the first time that I had heard of euthyphro and I devoured the Wiki that she linked to. I think that most of my upbringing were picking and choosing between the divine command system and its alternatives as they found convenient.

      Can you recommend a good primer?

      • Landon

        I can’t speak for Shane, but as a fellow philosophy teacher, I think you might enjoy Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics. He’s a utilitarian, which is not a position that even all non-theists agree with, but he sets up some of the major ethical problems nicely. Even if you don’t agree with him, you’ll get some food for thought.

      • Shane

        I will agree with Landon, Practiclal Ethics is very clear for a philosophy text, and a good place to start. Personally i am not a Utilitarian, but Singer is a good writter and gives you a great place to begin. His “Writings on an Ethical Life” is also good.

        Sadly, your request points out that Singer has a near lock on the “ethics for non-philosophers” market, as I can’t think of anything else to recommend after I list him. Aristotles virtue work and the newer neo-aristotelian ideas are also very good, but finding a book about those concepts that is accessable is extraordinarily difficult. There are also several good books on feminst care ethics, but again they are less than accessable.

        I use a text in intro Ethics and Values classes that is fairly accesable and has a very wide range of topics and theories, but it is likely very expensive. You could always search used college text book sites for it though, or Amazon might have it after the semester is over. the book is “Living Ethics: an introduction” and while it has many flaws (especially that nearly every reading is made of selections of readings and sometimes important sections are cut from the original for simplicity sake) it is certainly worth reading. Assuming you can get it used for $10-15 or so. It appears to be around $50 or so however right now at Amazon…

        I have never read it, but have heard that Being Good by Blackburn is a solid intro text. Since I see it is very cheap at amazon right now I think I found this weeks reading. Excuse me while I head to the download cenetr…

      • Landon

        Shane: Not to highjack the thread, but yeah, I’ve noticed Singer has that market sewn up, which IS problematic if you’re not a utilitarian. I haven’t read Blackburn’s book, and Nagel has one called Moral Questions that I hear is good, but I haven’t read that either. Pojman has one I hear is good, too, but – again – I haven’t read it. I just use PDFs of articles, except one year when I used LaFollette’s Ethics in Practice. Uneven quality of the articles, but reasonably accessible, reasonably affordable, and covers a wide range of issues.

  • Ron403

    Libby, did the issue of free will ever come up in your previous internal Christian discussions? If so, I’m really curious to hear how (in your previous life) you and your fellow believers defined and dealt with free will in, say, hypothetical situations (ie. killing a family member). What is the role of free will in an environment of extreme faith.

    If there is one arc that applies to almost all of your posts at FTB it’s the idea of (what I’m perceiving as) Christian passivity, of submitting to God, or to the representatives of God. It’s kind of like Flip Wilson’s “Da Devil made me do it” shtick of the 70′s. To me, it smacks of lack of personal responsibility.

    I mean, I’m working really hard to get my head around the way that fundamental and evangelical Christians think and, in the end, the idea that “We all agreed we’d have to kill that family member, that killing that family member would be right and moral …” is viscerally WRONG to me.

    Further, while your thought exercise was hypothetical, in fact, that scenario is being carried out by believers (as shown by the honour killings carried out by a Muslim family in Canada) and you, yourself, indicated that, had it been required of you, your group would (probably) have acted to carry out the will of God. Would you have accepted personal responsibility for your actions?

    In comparison (and I mean no offence), I personally have a very hard time acting against my ‘inner voice’ that tells me when something is wrong. However, I know very well that those inhibitions can be trained out of a person and that many very bad things have been done by otherwise good people because they were “just following orders”. So, it doesn’t surprise me that your group would have been capable of killing a family member but who would you have blamed for the killing?

    I’m simply trying to understand, which leads me to …

    As for the issue of ethical or moral relativity, these issues are absolutely relative to me, there is nothing “to some degree” about it.

    As a non-believer I accept, as a given, that human thoughts and behaviours are the products of physical processes occurring within our brain in response to internal and external stimuli. Therefore, it does not surprise me that ethical or moral norms vary relative to cultures separated by time, space or even human construct (ie. belief).

    While there may be some embryo of common culture arising from our common origins(and the brain/environment processes occurring at that time), the intervening years of cultural evolution in isolation have resulted in widely differing cultural societies with associated variations in ethical and moral norms. Given the human origin of ethics and morals, how can these not vary relative to cultural group?

    As an aside, examples of (ethical and moral) relativity abound in the real world. One only has to turn to Afghanistan to watch or read about (almost daily) situations where cultural differences result in offended ethical or moral beliefs.

    In the end, as an Atheist, I choose to be a good and honourable person because it is the right thing to do for myself, my society, and the world at large.

    • WishYouWereHere

      Libby Anne

      I just realized that I omitted half of your name. No excuse.
      My apologies.

  • http://freethoughtblogs northstar

    Libby Anne,

    Perhaps you can throw some light on some of the thinking in my family members, who have become evangelical. The reasoning is something like this: They are not afraid of hell because they can’t go – they are saved. (And unlikely to commit any of the mortal sins that I presume, might prevent this. But maybe not – saved is saved, I guess.)

    So, reverse engineering the logic, if they can’t go to hell, and are saved by believing certain things, the things they believe are correct and moral — even the virulent gay hating that has caused them to cruelly cut a family member out of their lives, or creationism, or whatever.

    So how does one argue, or even address the idea of ethics when saved perspective equals an ethical perspective? There seems to be no way to enter the circle.

    • Judy L.

      I doubt it would be very effective, but you could ask them why they think they can pick and choose the things that the bible commands them to do. If they’re going to take to heart that one line from Leviticus, then they really must follow the rest of it. Tell them that you’re going to have to cut them out of your life unless they start eating Kosher and stop wearing poly-cotton blends.

      And for you, to make yourself feel good, I highly recommend going to Youtube and pasting this into the search window:
      Tim Minchin – The Good Book (Live)

  • Judy L.

    You have to admit this statement is ironic coming from a man who would almost certainly turn around and say that the Old Testament genocides were totally moral and ethical because it was God who ordered them.

    And I also realized why those questioned bothered me. I knew it wasn’t ethical to murder a family member even if God commanded me to do so. I knew it wasn’t ethical for the Israelites to annihilate those people groups even if God told them to do so.

    Either God sets morals and ethics, or morals and ethics are above God and something he must adhere to.

    There’s actually a third way of seeing this, and I was absolutely appalled by the argument when it was presented to me in a philosophy class through Kirkegaard’s ‘Fear and Trembling’. So, the first part of ‘Fear and Trembling’ examines the story of Abraham and Isaac. It establishes that Abraham had an ethical responsiblity to protect his son. But ‘ethical’ is described as the world of human morality, and it’s argued that God exists outside (or above) ‘the ethical’ and overrules it. And because God does not operate within the ethical, when he tells you to do something bad, it isn’t ‘wrong’, because when you enter into a relationship with God, when you make the ‘leap into faith’, there is no ‘right or wrong’, morality ceases to be a reason or justification or even a goal. Basically, all bets are off when it comes to morality and God, because God transcends morality. Which of course sets up the problem of God’s commandments resulting in proscriptions for behaviour based on a ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ tyranny, and makes you wonder why God would bother to declare himself to be jealous and wrathful, when those are clearly emotions that exist on the ethical plane of existence. Why didn’t God just say, ‘You shall have no Gods before me, because I said so.’

  • jamessweet

    There’s also, I think, a false dichotomy between relative and absolute — or perhaps more apropos to meta-ethics, between objectivity and non-objectivity.

    I have done a lot of thinking about meta-ethics over the past year, and while it would be a bit of a derail for me to go into my thoughts in too much detail here, suffice to say that if you really want to put a fine point on it, I technically subscribe to moral error theory — but in practice, I am almost always a moral realist. I believe that the required assumptions to arrive at a partially objective morality are very small and are almost universally shared.

    It’s somewhat analogous to the problem of induction, in my mind. Yes, you need to grant inductive reasoning a priori to get to a useful epistemology, but everybody already does this, or at least anyone who is not a hardcore nihilist, so the point is purely philosophical. I also feel that certain assumptions need to be granted a priori to get to a form of moral realism, but again, everybody already grants these assumptions, with the exception of clinical sociopaths (and I suppose, subscribers to Divine Command Theory… but I imagine that most non-sociopathic adherents to DCT do so in name only, i.e. they say they believe it, but their actions betray a different set of assumptions).

    So is morality objective? Well not quite. But nor is it correct to call it purely subjective or purely relative.

    • Dalillama

      Another category of people who deny the validity of induction are Presuppositional Apolgists. They insist that knowledge can only come directly from god or from deduction based on holy writ and/or direct revelation.

    • KG

      I agree. Ethical judgements are distinct from both statements of fact, and expressions of emotion or subjective preference, because on the one hand there is no final authority or principle that can determine an objective right and wrong, but on the other they can be rationally criticised, defended, revised, etc. Esthetic judgements are similar – if I claim George Eliot was a better novelist than Dan Brown is, I can be challenged to say why (more interesting characters, more realistic emotional reactions, more vivid metaphor and description…), my reasons disputed and so on. In a parallel to the psychopath, you come across the less dangerous but still destructive “philistine”, who values works of art solely according to their profitability.

  • smrnda

    I would also say that if you look at Scandinavian countries, there is a low level of religious belief but also fewer social problems than the US, which is the most religious Western nation.

    I’m guessing people like Ken Ham have never heard of utilitarian ethics or anything else of the sort, or else they have to demand that something is an order from God or else it’s ‘just an opinion.’ The problem is, ‘just opinions’ seem good enough most of the time for people to make decisions.

    I also think that if you think of morality as either pleasing God or not pleasing God, there’s a tendency to ignore how one’s actions or inaction affects other people, along with the problem of believing that the outcomes of life depend on whether God was pleased with someone or not.

  • jose

    If we were conscious praying mantis instead of conscious primates, killing rperoductive partners would be a moral rule to follow and it would feel intuitively right the same way not killing them feels right to us.

    • Shane

      Deeply disturbing…

      ….and likely true.

    • Judy L.

      That’s an interesting thought experiment. But one of the unique elements of primate and human evolution is that the size of our brains and the cognitive and linguistic complexity that evolved only did so within the context of species who live in social groups with extended parental and community care of offspring who have unusually long gestational periods and childhoods. The most successful species on our planet are insects, yet there is no evidence that any of them have achieved a level of sentience that really does seem to be a necessary precursor to moral agency, and why would they, when their typically hierarchical social organization and communication through body chemicals works really really well for them. Morality really is an emergent property, only coming into existence as the result of a relation of two or more people; only actions that affect other people matter, and thoughts have no moral content. Which makes it all the more disturbing when you consider that the God of Abraham was quite novel and unique in the way that his proscriptions (the ten commandments and others) were not merely about behaviour, but about private thoughts as well (e.g. jealousy, covetousness, and other sins committed in thought even if not in deed). The supposed ethical instructions handed down by God exceed the ethical realm, which is pretty insidious, and for thousands of years people have made themselves and others miserable by believing that not only must they check their behaviour and that they will be judged for the actions, but that their inner thoughts are also open to evaluation and condemnation.

  • Trebuchet

    Great post. The thing that scares me most about religious “ethics” is that people who believe God is “on their side” can justify absolutely anything — whether it’s flying airplanes into buildings or murdering abortion doctors. They actually have NO ethics at all.
    The golden rule is actually not a bad guideline for atheists!

  • LucrezaBorgia

    God’s ethics aren’t absolute. They change all the time except for that whole obey or else deal he has going on…

  • Twist

    The concept of god always forgiving sins is something I’ve wondered about. Correct me if I’m wrong, I’m no expert on christianity or the bible, but as I understand it, you do something wrong, then all you have to do is go to god and ask his forgiveness, then as long as you say you’re sorry and you REALLY mean it, god will forgive you and everything will be peachy again. Then you do it again, and ask for forgiveness again, and you REALLY, REALLY mean it this time, and everything’s fine. And so on, until you die, and as long as you haven’t done anything against the rules since the last time you said you were REALLY, REALLY, REALLY sorry and you DEFINITELY mean it this time, you’ll go to the good place rather than the bad place, no matter how many times you beat your wife, or molested your kids, or slept with your best friend’s husband. No matter how much pain and destruction you caused while you were alive, and no matter what heartache the people you’ve left behind have to deal with because of your actions, everything’s fine for you. How exactly does that encourage one to be more ethical?

  • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

    But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is nothing “absolute” about this form of morals at all. It’s simply what the biggest most powerful guy says goes.

    If that were true, morality would be absolute in a sense in which theist philosophers (the people who invent those ‘atheists have no basis for morality’ arguments and claims) use the term, even though they’re often so obscure and make so many mistakes that it’s their fault that they’re misunderstood.

    The matter is complicated even further because sometimes some theist philosophers use ‘objective’ to mean something quite different from ‘absolute’, but sometimes they conflate the two.

    For example, William Lane Craig says that atheists have no ‘objective’ foundation for morality. But then he says that what he means by ‘objective moral values exist’ is that things are right or wrong independently of what people believe. An obvious objection would be: what about what God believes? So, he may just say ‘what humans believe’. But that problem is probably the result of an attempt on Craig’s part to match his own intuitive understanding of ‘objective’, and it’s not close enough a match for a metaethical argument.

    But in a nutshell, two metaethical issues here are:


    1) Whether some assessments like ‘X is immoral’ are true.

    2) Whether something like the following is possible:

    Alice: The killing committed The Joker in Gotham City in the building at the corner of fourth avenue and sixth street at 9.00 pm on 12-12-12 was immoral.

    Bob: The killing committed The Joker in Gotham City in the building at the corner of fourth avenue and sixth street at 9.00 pm on 12-12-12 was not immoral.

    Neither Alice nor Bob is mistaken (we can include real characters of course).

    If something like 2) is possible (well, I would add with some tolerance for fuzziness, but it has to be very rare), or if no assessment like ‘X is immoral’ is true, then there is no absolute morality in the sense that is relevant in this context (or ‘objective’ in Craig’s sense; but other theist philosophers, like Copan and Linville, use ‘objective’ differently, which leads to an assortment of other issues, and of course miscommunication and obscurity, which only helps theist philosophers insist on their arguments).

    So, for instance, when Craig claims that our moral obligations are constituted by God’s commands, if he were correct, that would imply that there is absolute morality (or, in Craig’s terminology, objective morality), since in cases such as Alice’s and Bob’s assessments above, one of them would be correct, and the other mistaken (that would depend on what God commanded to The Joker)…well, I’m assuming here that ‘God’ is coherent.

    One relevant point is that when philosophers say that God is needed for morality, by ‘God’ they do not mean Yahweh, Jesus, or anything like that. A problem is that they do not seem to mean the same in the context of those arguments (i.e., different theist philosophers appear to mean different things by ‘God’, if they’re being coherent at all).

    So, obscurity is the norm. Still, a more or less common definition of ‘God’ in philosophy would be something like ‘an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being, creator of all other beings’, but in the context of metaethical arguments, arguers might mean different things, so one has to be careful.

    In short, it’s all obscure and debunking their metaethical arguments require either removing the word salad covering them first, or consider different possibilities, like: ‘if they mean x, then y’, ‘if they mean z, then w’, and so on.

    Personally, I think it’s simpler to leave metaethical issues aside and take on the morality of Yahweh (aka the biblical god), just explaining why one does not need to take a stance on the metaethical issues in order to make a first order ethical case against Christianity, Islam, etc. – but still, one would need a different approach to deal with the metaethical arguments.

    Second, to some degree ethics and morality are relative. For example, we generally agree that killing is wrong. But what about killing in self-defense, or to save a life? That’s generally seen as okay. Similarly, we generally believe that lying is wrong. But what about lying to save the lives of the Jews you’re hiding in your basement in Nazi Germany? That’s generally seen as the right course of action. Making absolute ethical claims – that it is always wrong to kill, or always wrong to lie – is as simplistic and silly as saying that whatever God commands goes

    That is not the sense of ‘relative’ that counts in the context of metaethical arguments.

    The statements you mention are all compatible with absolute morality.

    A case of relative morality would be (for instance) if, say, a Nazi says ‘the Holocaust was not immoral’, and a Jew says ‘the Holocaust was immoral’, and both statements are true. Of course, there are different types of relativity, so someone might claim that morality is relative, but the relativity does not extent to the case of the Holocaust. The term ‘subjective’, in colloquial (not philosophical) usage would describe a form of relative morality as well (e.g., if moral statements were subjective like, say, statements about gustatory taste are), etc.

    The examples you’re describing are not objections to absolute (or, in some sense, ‘objective’) morality, but to specific moral assessments that are too broad and thus are false.

    For instance, you mention the case of killing: what your objection shows is that the statement ‘Killing is immoral’, meaning ‘Killing is always immoral’, is not true. The category ‘killing’ is too broad.

    But – for instance -, what if instead of killing, the category is ‘torturing and killing human children just for pleasure’?

    In that case, we still may need to restrict the agent (since a lion wouldn’t be acting immorally in that case), so an exceptionless statement would be something like ‘A person with at least normal human intelligence and who tortures and kills human children purely for pleasure, is acting immorally’.

    Then, you have no exceptions.

    As for God, we should distinguish between ‘God’ and ‘Yahweh’.

    For instance, if – as the Old Testament holds – Yahweh ordered that if a man marries a woman and her mother, the three of them shall be burned to death, then it would still be immoral to burn them to death (unless, of course, the evil Yahweh managed to make a credible threat that justifies the action, like torturing everyone for eternity if you don’t burn them to death).

    Now, if an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect creator issued that command, that’s a problem: if it were immoral to follow the command and burn them, then why would a morally perfect creator command that?

    The solution is to point out that an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect creator wouldn’t issue that command (I’d say he wouldn’t create humans, either, but assuming he would) and that Yahweh is not morally good (also, he does not exist, but that’s another matter; we can say that Yahweh/the biblical god is not morally good, just as we can say that Darth Vader is not morally good; we can assess the morality of hypothetical characters based on their description in a book, movie, etc.)

    In short, we can ascertain that Yahweh (i.e., the entity described in the Bible as the creator) wouldn’t be God (i.e. an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being, creator of all other beings).

    But I digress. Back to the issue of absolute morality, some theist philosophers will try to deflect moral arguments against Yahweh by claiming that atheists have no basis (or no absolute basis, no objective basis, no ontological foundation, or whatever) for morality, and also just argue for the existence of God (not of Yahweh; that comes later) on the basis of a metaethical argument.

    Their attempts fail for a number of reasons, but unfortunately, Christians usually fail to understand them.

    Finally, there is the argument that atheists can’t possibly be ethical people because we don’t have the threat of hell hanging over our heads.

    That’s another one, though philosophers tend to put it in milder terms, saying that essentially that a lack of an afterlife accountability undermines moral motivation, or that if there is no such accountability, even if there could be a foundation for morality, it wouldn’t matter whether we do what’s right (here, an answer is that if it wouldn’t matter to them, then they’re the ones who have a problem).

    I completely agree that such claims about the lack of a threat are not true.

    But if someone is only good because they’re afraid they’ll be smited otherwise, I find that rather frightening. I would wager a guess that almost no Christians actually live their lives that way, being good only out of fear of divine punishment.

    Good points.
    I’ve found a number of Christians on the internet willing to say that is true (i.e., that they would behave in such manner), but philosophers don’t do that, as far as I know.

  • http://Tryingto MattD

    People lean towards socially acceptable actions (empathy), because it’s the human race’s advantage to do so (I’ve always strongly doubted evolution was restricted to the physical realm only). Working together may have advantages and disadvantages, but one is still more favorable then the other to overcome the adversity of nature. Really a concept that needs refinement (and I doubt I’m great at stating all the facets), but I think it’s an excellent point for people that claim atheist have no morality…of course we do…everyone does.

  • http://liseusetheloverofreading.wordpress.com/ Natalie

    Are you here saying that you rejected the prescriptions of God because of the genocides in the Old Testament? And therefore, one should automatically reject the prescriptions of people whose teachings lead to horrid things (Pearls, etc.)?

    Because by the same doctrine, one should reject the beliefs of Hitler (who caused the genocide of the Jews). Hitler manifestsed evolutionary beliefs, particularely belief in the dynamics of survival of the fittest creating a superior Aryan race…

    So reject God/reject His morals
    So reject Hitler/reject evolution?


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