In response to the challenge to reply to Michael Gerlson’s argument against atheism, I offer the following:

It is hard to say what exactly Mr. Gerlson’s argument is since it is not expressed very clearly or precisely. Reading between the lines, I think the argument may be reconstructed as follows: The problem of deriving an “ought” from an “is” is insuperable for atheistic naturalism, but does not exist for theists. From a naturalistic perspective, our instincts and impulses are all on a par. Our capacities for selfishness and compassion are both simply facts about our psychology. Labeling one tendency “good” and the other “bad,” or saying that we “ought” to be compassionate and not selfish, is more than we have a right to claim if our worldview encompasses only physical factuality. For theists, on the other hand, “ought” is woven into the very fabric of reality since God, the ultimate reality, is essentially good. Theists therefore do not have the problem of deriving or justifying their “ought.” For them, the source of “ought” is the eternal nature of God.

One might respond by taking the fight to the theists. There are, of course, the ancient Euthyphro-dilemma problems: What do we mean when we say that God is good? If goodness is defined in terms of God’s nature, then it is an empty tautology to say that God is good. It amounts to saying that God’s nature is God’s nature. It does no good to say, as theists do, that all goodness flows from God, or that he is the source of all good things. Even if this were so, it would be beside the point. The question is not where good things come from but the nature of goodness. What is the quality that defines goodness? Whatever answer is given, if, indeed, goodness is even definable in some non-vacuous way, theists, like everybody else, will have to define it in terms that make no essential reference to God’s nature, or they turn their hymns of praise into empty bombast.

Perhaps Mr. Gerlson only means to say that theists have a motivation to “cultivate the better angels of our nature,” but atheists do not. God requires righteousness, and because theists love God—and fear his wrath—they are motivated to be righteous. Atheists, on the other hand, allegedly have no motivation to do anything except eat, drink, and be merry. But do the love and fear of God really motivate people to be better? If so, we would expect to find that religious people live conspicuously better lives than non-religious people do, but no evidence for this has ever turned up. It would be hard to find nobler and higher-minded exemplars of rectitude and integrity than the great freethinkers of the 18th and 19th Centuries. As for the fear of hell, I see no evidence that it has ever deterred anybody from doing anything. Hell is for other people. Believers in hell take it as self-evident that God hates the same people they do, so hardly anyone thinks that hell awaits him. Besides, you can always sin now and repent later.

How should naturalists deal with the is/ought problem? There are two main options: subjectivism and naturalism. Subjectivists concede that facts cannot imply values and they hold that values are our invention; they express how we, individually or collectively, feel about things. The other alternative is naturalism. Naturalists hold that value is a natural property, one that supervenes on other natural properties. Thus, for Aristotle, the prototypical ethical naturalist, happiness, eudaimonia, is a natural state of flourishing or well-being for human creatures. Its value is not determined by our choices or feelings but by the facts of human biology and psychology. Thus, for ethical naturalists, there just is no fact/value dichotomy. Now theists might not like these answers, but not liking someone’s answers is very different from saying, as Mr. Gerlson does, that atheists have no answers to the question of where norms and values come from.

About Keith Parsons
  • bpabbott

    “How should naturalists deal with the is/ought problem? There are two main options: subjectivism and naturalism.”

    Personally, I don’t concern myself with whether morality is rooted in subjectivism or in naturalism.

    In fact, I’d be amazed if the answer wasn’t different for each individual.

    How are we, as individuals, supposed to reliably discern between that which is nutured (learned) and that which is natural (genetic predisposed)?

    … and to be honest, I don’t care about the answer to that question.

    I don’t care because I find the question regarding the foundations of human morality to be inconsequential. Why we each have moral opinions is irrelevant. What is important is that we have them, and that moral codes (laws) should be reached by a reasoned consensus … imo, anyway.

    The question shouldn’t be about where morality originates, but about how we, as a society, come to a consensus with regards to our moral code.

    What I find troubling, is the number of individuals who use religion to promote/force their individual moral code upon society. These self-proclaimed agents of God are actually agents for themselves … meaning these individuals are fraudulently, but successively, over representing themselves in the process of defining the moral code for society.

    I may be that “the noble lie”, religion, may be leveraged by the more enlightened to create a more civil society. However, I’m skeptical that such an approach will find success in both sparse, small, but numerable tribal groups (circa 0 BC), and in the large homogeneous societies (circa today).

    In any event, that’s what I think … and I’m sticking to it ;-)

  • Hallq

    Basically on target, but I think you missed the very basic point that the theist has no obvious reply to the is-ought problem, even without Euthyphro-type arguments. Either moral values are basic, or we take one of the two options you describe. And there’s no contradiction in accepting the existence of basic moral values and rejecting the existence of God, even though basic moral values may be incompatible with many sorts of naturalism.

  • David B. Ellis

    For me, the issue is not whether morality is objective or subjective (a distinction which I think is a category error when applied to values anyway).

    Its what sets of values will lead to the richest, most fulfilling sort of life for individuals, families, societies and the world as a whole.

    I could care less, really, whether a set of values is objective or subjective so long as it fulfills that end.