Morality Without God

In Morality Without God, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong argues against the popular belief that without acknowledgment of God, morality would collapse. He elaborates a form of godless morality centered on avoiding harm, points out that nonbelieving individuals are typically decent people and that secular societies do not collapse into anarchy. He also shows how religious foundations for morality do not work as well as promised. Sinnott-Armstrong wants to do all this in a readable, non-technical style. He takes conservative Christianity as the primary contrast to his secular point of view. And he is particularly careful to adopt a respectful tone, resisting the common atheist temptation of describing religion as an evil.

I think that Sinnott-Armstrong succeeds, by and large. I think, in fact, that this is damn good book. I can’t be too confident in judging how any conservative Christians who might read the book would respond, since that’s not my cultural background. Still, I expect that most readers, no matter how religious, will take this book as making a reasonable case, whether they end up convinced or not. That in itself would be considerable progress. It would at least undercut the “angry atheist” stereotype.

Still, I have to question whether an approach like that of Sinnott-Armstrong can ever be fully persuasive for a conservative Christian who demands a very hard conception of morality. Many monotheists think there are moral facts that are absolute, objective, binding, authoritative, universal, and so forth. Sinnott-Armstrong sympathizes, and shows that his harm-based account retains a good deal of what we might want from this hard conception of morality. Indeed, Sinnott-Armstrong claims that he is providing a godless account of objective moral facts.

That might, however, promise too much. It is not too difficult to bring objectivity to moral deliberations as long as we stick to questions such as whether and how religiosity supports pro-social behavior. If we can come to a wide enough agreement on what harm consists of (a more difficult proposition than Sinnott-Armstrong indicates), we will also be entitled to speak of acts that objectively cause harm without good reason. But this is a cheap sort of objectivity. A Muslim, for example, may claim that moral truths are embodied in Islamic Law, as presented by the sacred texts and elaborated by the deliberations of qualified religious scholars. And such an Islamic verdict will be objective: it does not depend on subjective whims; it is accessible and to a large degree even predictable for impartial inquirers who bother to learn enough about conservative Islam. But why would an outsider accept such a Muslim version of objective morality? Similarly, why should an outsider accept Sinnott-Armstrong’s harm-based account of morality as the best expression of what they mean by “morality” in everyday contexts? Morality Without God does very well in expressing a conception of morality that is shared among Western secular liberals. And to the extent that he is aiming to show that the godless may have a morality that maps reasonably well onto many of the moral intuitions shared by much of his readership, Sinnott-Armstrong does a fine job. The book is not as strong in showing why outsiders should adopt this secular liberal morality.

This difficulty is, I think, linked to a deeper problem. Sinnott-Armstrong, protestations about objective moral facts aside, does not deliver quite the hard, absolute morality that many conservative monotheists demand. This may be an artifact of the short and non-technical nature of the book, but Sinnott-Armstrong’s discussion seems quite compatible with moral pluralism or even amoralism—what I am inclined towards. That is a problem: my views on the nature of morality are, I think, unacceptable to most monotheists. To the extent that I can read a book like Morality Without God with very few objections, I have to wonder whether a conservative religious reader will easily read it in such a way that confirms her suspicions that godless morality is inevitably loose, soft, and relativist.

And there are, I think, plenty of avenues leading to relativism, pluralism or amoralism in areas that Sinnott-Armstrong cannot be expected to explore in a short, readable book. I, for example, would assimilate “harm” into my emphasis on interests (harm makes sense in the context of a complex of interests). From there, however, it does not take much to end up with a moral ecology with its pluralistic implications.

This should not overly bother secular thinkers. Much of the secular debate about such matters is quibbling among secular liberals, with few practical consequences. But the picture of morality that emerges may well be a deal-breaker for religious moralists. Especially religious conservatives deeply object to any moral pluralism. They may be interested in ascertaining The Right Way, not in suggestions that life is more complicated than that.

These weaknesses of the harm-based approach become clearest when Sinnott-Armstrong presents his answer to “why be moral”—that is, why be moral in the way he describes. He can only offer the response that “The fact that an act causes harm to others is a reason not to do that act, and the fact that an act prevents harm to others is a reason to do that act.” (Page 117.) But on this account, there is not much to say about why one should care about harm to others, other than the thin comfort of it not being irrational. Sinnott-Armstrong concedes that

Nontheless, some people still wish for a reason that is strong enough to motivate everyone to be moral and also to make it always irrational to be immoral. I doubt that secular moral theories can establish that strong kind of reason to be moral. For people who really do not care about others, the solution is found in retraining or restraining rather than in theory. (Page 118.)

All of this is, in my view, perfectly sensible. It is making too much of a fetish of reason to ask that reason should demand that we care for others.

But a conservative monotheist may well see this as a catastrophic admission. Sinnott-Armstrong probably sees it as a minor concession, admitting that psychopaths and the like just don’t care and cannot be reasoned into caring. But the issue is not just the odd psychopath, but the fact that we will, depending on circumstances such as our particular communities, have different assessments of harm and of the importance of certain kinds of harm. Reason is, I think, of limited use here in picking out just how we are supposed to care. A harm-based account is likely to fracture into moral pluralism at this point. We could have (and I would say we do have) multiple successfully reproducing ways of life that are stable under reflective criticism. Those moral communities we observe certainly make care a centerpiece of their moral lives. But they do it differently, and they conflict with each other. I think that even when we care about others, we care differently, and that is an end to it.

So, life is complicated. Sinnott-Armstrong has no problem with this, as far as I can tell. In places in the book, he just about says as much. But he does downplay aspects of secular thinking about the nature of morality that will be uncomfortable to the religiously conservative. I can easily imagine more philosophically sophisticated theists focusing exactly on these issues, which Sinnott-Armstrong glosses over.

Perhaps that would be less of a difficulty if Sinnott-Armstrong’s critiques of religious theories of morality, such as the divine command theory, were more convincing. Because he emphasizes conservative, particularly Protestant varieties of Christianity as his opposition, he spends most of his ink showing how naive notions of basing morality on God go wrong. He does a good job, as far as that goes. But Sinnott-Armstrong does rather neglect divine natural law approaches. More seriously, religious thinkers can try and weave multiple strands of argument together to present a picture of a world that includes moral facts in the hardest possible sense, where such moral facts are part of a harmonious God-created universe no less than ordinary non-moral facts. I take it as a fact that we do not live in a world that is remotely like that of such a theistic scenario. But it is not a scenario that can be brushed off by some quick analysis, and it is a scenario than can be very attractive to people who think we have to have a picture of our world that includes hard moral facts, who think that only very hard moral facts can do justice to the strength of their moral intuitions.

I’m not saying that such desires can be satisfied, any more than Sinnott-Armstrong. But I am inclined to think that there is a strong difference between secular liberal and conservative monotheist conceptions of decent behavior. Sinnott-Armstrong suggests that a godless morality is at least adequate, and furthermore probably better than a religious alternative. I think the comparison itself can be very difficult. I strongly suspect that no secular view of morality, whether Sinnott-Armstrongs or those with a more pluralist emphasis, can provide the kind of hardness undergirding moral convictions that many religious people seem to demand. Only some kind of transcendent force like a God can even appear to work that sort of magic.

By all means let’s have respectable dialogue, and let us realize that even with deep differences, there are common decencies shared by believers and the godless. Morality Without God is a wonderful book to make these points. But a secular view usually also involves a thinning out, a softening of our conceptions of morality. This does not bother me, nor, if I read him correctly, does it bother Sinnott-Armstrong. I wonder, still, how his more religious readers will respond. I hope Sinnott-Armstrong will write some day to tell us more about how his book was received.

Jesus: True Prophet or False Prophet? - Part 1
Is the Religious Right Finished?
Why not a Fast from Religion?
Jesus: True Prophet or False Prophet? - Part 2
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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