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.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • That Guy Montag

    As a Philosophy student I'm going to be rather pleased to admit I might actually have something to add here.

    The first point to make is that the question of why someone should care is pretty much the hardest one we face in ethics. The simple answer is Hume's in that anyone who doesn't care to act morally doesn't really deserve to be included in the discussion and I think that's broadly right. Bernard Williams argument builds on this in pointing out that to truly not care about whether your actions are moral is actually really hard and it's unlikely anyone you meet actually manages to fulfil the criteria perfecty; even the most hardened amoral gangster loves his family and that's more than enough of a crack to get moral talk off the ground.

    I could go into the specifics of Sinnot-Armstrong's position which looks basically Utilitarian in nature, but I think a more interesting question to jump into is your claim about objective moral values and whether those sort of things can exist without god. I think you're far too quick to think that they don't.

    To make this point I would say we need to distinguish two ways of something being objective. There's one sense where we say something is objective because it's independent of us so something like the brute fact of your existence.

    Another kind of objective is more of a question of perspective, the point at which you're looking at something.A good example to get this across might be to imagine you're watching a sports match and you turn to your colleague and say I support the team on the right. If you were say in radio contact with someone on the opposite end of the ground however you'd need to qualify that claim. If you said you supported the team on say the north side instead, your claim is more objective because its perspective is broader. This point really hits home if you consider science actually. Why is a placebo controlled double blind trial better than an anecdote? Simply because its perspective is more objective than an anecdote; it has multiple data points to analyse that have systematically been stripped of subjective biases.

    What you'll find is that when you get to ethics, what works for science works for our ethical claims as well. You'll find it in some parts of Mill, particularly where he makes it clear that where happiness happens isn't important. It's an obvious component of Kant's Categorical Imperative which gives us the golden rule of do unto others which is obviously objective in this perspectival sense. I like the way R.M Hare manages to point out that objectivity becomes unavoidable whenever we commit ourselves to be consistent in our moral claims. In fact, objective morality is incredibly prevalent amongst philosophical ethics as a whole which hasn't taken divine command seriously since the Plato and the Euthyphro.

  • Walter P.

    As Taner says in a nice review of my book, there are many conservative Christians whom my book would not convince. But I suspect that few such extremists will read my book, and even fewer will read it with an open mind. I also doubt that anything I could have said would have convinced them, even if I had written a very long and technical book. That is why I was more concerned with a different audience: moderate open-minded Christians. There are lots of them, even though some atheists seem to assume that all Christians are fanatical. Many Christians are indeed fanatical, but most Christians are reasonable people. They see the problems with conservative Christian doctrines when those problems are pointed out clearly and fairly. My book is supposed to point out obvious problems and appeal to common sense that most Christians share, even if there are still many other issues left to resolve and many Christians who cannot be convinced.

    Happy New Year!

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I haven’t yet read Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s book, but if it argues against the idea that morality is not possible without belief in God then it’s arguing against a belief which may be popular but is not one that serious theists hold. Indeed, on theism morality is clearly possible without belief in God. After all, according to theism, all people, whatever their worldview happens to be, are made in the image of God which entails the cognitive capacity to know good and evil. And they are all instigated by the small voice of the Holy Spirit to do good.

    Nevertheless I think that atheism does suffer from a pragmatical problem of morality, i.e. a problem which, all other things being equal, would make it more difficult for an atheist to be moral. Taner touches on this problem when he discusses the question of “Why be moral?”. Richard Dawkins likes to claim that there is “logical path” between religion and evil and perhaps in some extreme situations this may be true as can be true in the case of any extreme ideology (such as in the case of people who believe that “religion poisons everything”). But it seems that for non-religious people there is in general no logical path *away* from evil – at least in the typical case where the evil choice benefits the evil-doer. A case in point I have heard somewhere is this: Why should an atheist policeman who cares for his family and who works in the north of Mexico refuse a bribe for looking away while drugs are shipped through the border? Or, for that matter, why should an unmarried policeman refuse that money with which he could impress his girlfriend? I think this pragmatical problem is a serious one, and that the fact that atheists often are moral people just evidences that our moral choices are guided more by feeling than by logic. Which is not to say that there are no differences – several statistical studies have shown that in the US religious people give significantly more money to charity, and indeed more of their time, and even of their blood, than non-religious people (see for example Arthur Brooks “Who Really Cares”).

    A second problem that atheism has with morality is conceptual: As Mackie has recognized in his book “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong” the very meaning of moral language entails that moral truths are objective, or at least can be objective in clear-cut cases, such as that to torture a child for fun is wrong. In other words when we use such language we mean that there is something intrinsically wrong in such acts, no matter what people might believe about them. Atheistic worldviews, at least of the naturalistic kind, appear to entail that no moral truths are objective, or that moral truths refer to properties of our brains or of the evolutionary process which produced our brains rather to properties of the actions themselves. The problem then is not that atheism cannot “deliver quite the hard, absolute morality that many conservative monotheists demand”, to use Taner’s words. Rather the conceptual problem is that atheism cannot deliver a worldview which comports with the meaning of moral language. In my judgment this is a serious problem, compounded by the fact that atheism has also similar problems dealing with the meaning of other basic concepts such as freedom, responsibility, beliefs, consciousness, intentionality (or “aboutness”) etc. What I am saying is that naturalism, if true, implies a very unnatural worldview.

  • That Guy Montag


    Forgive me if there's an overlap in the two sections here but I'm always a little annoyed when people pretend there's a distinction between the pragmatic question and the theoretical question in ethics. I'll deal with the "pragmatic" question first just to get it out of the way but if there is an argument here it is strongly implied in my second part.

    On the question of aid, it's a ridiculous point to make because Europe gives substantially more aid in percentage of GDP than the US does. In fact, there has been a correlation established between a lack of religiousity and state aid. That correlation also happens to hold in the US itself if I remember exactly with states like New Hampshire giving more than states like Texas.

    The other "pragmatic" point you raise is that of how do we get morality off the ground. As I mentioned above, the problem of amorality is the hardest one in ethics. I can only point out that the Euthyphro points out that God doesn't get an out on this problem either. You can just define God as goodness but that's as Ad Hoc as Ad Hoc gets and you should expect me to be convinced, especially considering the fact that we've some 2,000 years of incredibly interesting work in ethics to appeal to that provide far better answers.

    Mackie doesn't save you here either. If you've read him you'll realise that his targets include Divine Command theory which suffers from both of his objections.

    The first argument, the Problem of Relativity might not apply to god, but it sure as hell applies to his followers. Which set of scriptoral assertions should I follow, the Bible/Koran/Torah? What about the various interpretive traditions such as Shariah, the psuedo-Aristotial Thomism of the Catholic Church or the various bits of dodgy scriptoral inferences spouted forth in pulpits every day? As far as I'm concerned the fact that two people on the same street in say Northern Ireland can believe the same set of premises and come to different sets of moral commands is slam dunk proof that they haven't got an in on moral claims.

    Mackie's Problem of Queerness also puts paid to Divine Command in a way I've hinted at both earlier in this post and in my previous one. Remember that Queerness is a way of saying "isn't it a strange thing that is both green, has weight and compels me to not murder my neighbour." Basically his point is that moral objects have such a strange set of properties that it's inconceivable that they can exist. By Euthyphro, any moral problem for us is a problem for god and therefore god has to deal with the Problem of Queerness. Concurrently, by the Euthyphro, any solution for God is a solution for the human being. The Euthyphro is in fact so strong an objection that I can emphatically say no one has come up with a response to it so your failing to include it in your analysis is telling.

    As for how to respond to the problem of Queerness as a philosopher, (essentially no different from the response of the Atheist) Mackie's basic mistake is a too narrow definition of Objective and there are a number of responses. I'm particularly fond of RM Hare's point that moral talk, the thing in question in Mackie's Objections, automatically comes into being whenever we attempt to make our ethical claims consistent. Thomas Nagel's View From Nowhere is also interesting as it show us that there is no fundamental distinction between scientific endeavor and properly conceived of ethical considerations.

  • That Guy Montag

    I realise I've left my last point a touch cryptic. Basically the response to Mackie is the content of my first post which is culled almost whole from Nagel.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    It is misleading to compare entire countries when discussing the issue of how one’s worldview affects one’s moral behavior, because the policies of an entire country depend on many factors beside its citizens’ worldview, as does the average behavior of a person in that country. So for example it is misleading to compare the homicide rates of “religious” US and “non-religious” Finland, overlooking other hugely relevant factors (such as national history, the availability of weapons, the availability of social services, the homogeneity of society, etc). The only reasonably way to go about is to study peoples’ moral behavior when all other factors are approximately the same, i.e. when they live in the same society, are of similar socioeconomic background, etc. When such studies are made they show a positive correlation between moral behavior and religiosity. Which is to be expected, as religious people have one more reason to behave morally.

    As for Euthyphro’s dilemma : Are God’s commands moral because they are commanded by God, or are they commanded by God because they are moral? The rather obvious answer is that they are commanded by God because they are moral. And they are moral because they reflect God’s perfectly good character.

    Incidentally, and contrary to what many believe, divine command theory is not part of official Christianity, let alone a necessary aspect of theism. Here is what Michael Martin writes in his “The Case Against Christianity”: “Similarly, although the Divine Command Theory is often associated with Christianity, it is not the official Christian metaethical view.” Indeed I think that it is unfortunate that the naive paradigm of God as a celestial King who desires allegiance, commands this and that, punishes those who disobey, etc – has survived for so long. And this paradigm is naive, because it does not comport with the definition of God as the person who is perfect in all respects. After all a perfect person would not be as petty as that, isn’t it obvious?

    More generally speaking, according to the religious worldview reality is fundamentally good, and thus entails a tendency towards ever greater perfection. There is, if you wish, an intrinsic arrow in reality that points towards perfection. We, who are part of reality, sense that and therefore value and desire goodness. The realization that this aspect of our condition is not contingent but is grounded on a fundamental property of objective reality is what I think characterizes the religious response to the experience of life. The various religions have tried to make that arrow visible in many different ways (literature, metaphysics, art, ritual, ethics, mythology, etc) and have called it with many names (“Logos” in Christianity, “Dharma” in Buddhism) but the main goal of all religions is I think to somehow get people to follow the path pointed by that arrow.

  • That Guy Montag


    As regards the statistics we're at an impasse.
    "When such studies are made they show a positive correlation between moral behavior and religiosity"
    This is the point where I say something along the lines of put your money where your mouth is. Bring out your statistics and maybe I'll see if there is something to be explained.

    Where you go on to say the reason for it is obvious may I also urge caution in that it is from from established that belief in god provides more reason to behave morally so what seems like a plausible inference isn't necessarily so.

    As for your glib dismissal of the Euthyphro it is typical in that it misunderstands why this is such a strong objection. It is a strong objection because what it does is make it clear that there is no metaphysical difference between the moral position of God and the moral position of a human being.

    Let's take a couple of the answers and see if that might make the point easier. So, why is it that so many people object to things being good simply because god wills it. Now this is in fact a possible metaethics. The reason it is objectionable is because it is the kind of answer a human being could give and we would call such a human being a tyrant.

    Now, let's examine the other half of the argument. Let's say God was a utilitarian and therefore every good thing god willed was because it promoted happiness and prevented harm. The thing you'll notice is that if that's the case god becomes redundant because we as human beings can then simply appeal to those principles to guide our actions. It doesn't matter what principles ultimately you apply, the point of the Euthyphro is that every possible Metaethical principle God can appeal to can be appealed to by human beings.

    You actually did a rather admirable job of reiterating this very point though I'm sure you didn't mean to. When you say that God wills it because God is goodness, you are effectively putting forward a Virtue ethics account, that there is some virtue by which God wills good things. You then appeal to exactly the same metaethical theory to explain why human beings do good, because we have been instilled with the virtue of goodness. Your supposed refutation is simply another confirmation of how strong an argument the Euthyphro is.

    Your argument also strangely has really big problems with the Problem of Evil. I'll paraphrase this as an aside but I can in fact only see only two ways out of it for you. The first is that for god to be good is a different thing for a human being to be good, but then why use the same term if the word good is pointing to two different things. The other response is that God is not an agent in a sense that we recognise and is instead some sort of abstract entity called Goodness, basically a Platonic Universal, that doesn't look like any theistic or even Christian god. Hell, the deistic god is practically interventionist compared to the god you'd be left with.

    Finally you haven't justified why you appeal to Mackie at all because the more you go on, the more clear it is to me that you haven't noticed that Mackie has very comfortably dismantled your entire Ethical system. The only significant way out of his two objections is to realise that an objective ethics cannot appeal to a distinct set of moral objects, but should rather be built through appeal to a particular epistemelogical process, a perspective on the world. I'm being a bit flippant with my phrasing here and I've essentially made this point in my previous comments, but the way to make ethics objective is therefore to use science.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    The book I mentinoed before (Brooks’ “Who Really Cares”) quotes many different surveys. They are so many of them and the differences measured are so great that I don’t think they leave much space for reasonable doubt. In any case I would welcome more and better such studies, for I think they won’t fail to demonstrate the obvious, namely that people who have more reason to be moral tend to be more moral.

    I do not understand TGM’s objections to the rather straightforward answer I suggested to Euthyphro’s dilemma, so I can’t really engage. I would only like to add that the only objection I know to this well-known answer is that it limits God’s power or sovereignty or even God’s freedom of will. The idea is that if God values/wills/commands something because it is good, then God is unable to value/will/command something else, which therefore limits God’s sovereignty or power or freedom. But this objection strikes me as completely vacuous. If something is good because it reflects God’s perfectly good character, then if God were to value/will/command something else then it would not demonstrate greater power but rather schizophrenia. Any sane person is true to her character, and being true to one’s character is of course no limitation to one’s freedom of will, or power, or whatever. Surely nobody agrees with the idea that an honest father who teaches his children to be thieves thereby demonstrates greater power or greater freedom of will.

  • That Guy Montag


    I'm going to remain sceptical about charitable giving as there are various points to raise: why do secular countries still give a greater percentage of GDP; why treat someone who gives as having more reason as opposed to simply being reminded more often; what about dubiously charitable giving liking giving to fund mission work that we can at least doubt is genuinely charitable. There are a lot of questions that I think would need to be answered before a conclusion can be reached there.

    As for your second point, the argument that God being inherently good comes up against free will is actually a species of the argument I was using.

    As a brief bit of background if it helps, Metaphysics is considered the general philosophy of existence. When I say something is true metaphysically it means that it is true for all things that exist. This means that there are only very general principles that hold Metaphysically. One of the first is the Law of Identity which is basically a=a. This seems trivial, but it's actually a law that we use in our reasoning every day. How do I know that the umbrella in my hand isn't mine? Well, the umbrella in my hand is green whereas mine is black.

    The law of identity is what you're coming up against with your arguments about goodness. If it differed at all, then it's not the same thing. Goodness in God therefore metaphysically looks the same as goodness in human beings. If it doesn't, they're not the same thing.

    This is where we bring in the problem of evil and the normal response. Generally the argument would go god cannot create human beings who inherently do good, because then they cannot choose to do good, they do not have free will, therefore god cannon simply will to do good because he would then not have free will. We might return that God is distinct from goodness, but then we're back at Euthypro's point that we don't then need god.

    Basically this is very similar to Christopher Hitchen's more pithy question that for someone to say morality needs god they need to show some act that a believer can commit but a non-believer cannot. The Euthyphro's argument is more general: you need to show a moral principle that God can commit to but a human being cannot and that quite frankly is a challenge no one has been up to therefore philosophical Ethics has continued to be strictly secular. God doesn't even get a look in no matter which ethical system you look at.

  • Dumb_hound

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

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

  • Dumb_hound

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

  • Dumb_hound

    The problem of this argument is the following:

    As I have said, no moral system can be grounded by mere logic or factual analysis alone, at some point moral intuitions (due to Evolution) are always going to come into play.
    Take for example the possibility of torturing a baby just for fun: almost every human being would react with disgust and say it is wrong. Neuroscience has proven that such reaction does not stem from a rational consideration of all facts but rather from instinctive gut feelings.
    Afterwards, people try to rationalize their belief by backing them up with arguments and mistakenly think they feel this disgust because of their reasoning although it is the other way around.
    Based on rigorous experiments in the field of neuroscience, Jonathan Haidt shows that in the case of moral reasoning, people always begin by getting a strong emotional reaction, and only seek a posteriori to justify this reaction. He has named this phenomenon 'the emotional dog and its rational tail’:
    And since one can not derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, there is no way to prove that ‘one ought to not torture a baby for the fun’ by a reasoning based on fact alone, at one moment or an other , one is forced to appeal to emotions.
    For example, saying to a intelligent lizard they ought no to do that because the baby is cute, because he is innocent, because he has an entire life before him would completely beg the question for our intelligent alien, which would then ask: “why does the baby’s beauty, innocence, or the fact he has still many years to live implies one ought not to kill the baby ?”. After one or two hours of circular reasoning, the honest human would be coerced to recognize it is so because these things sounds intuitively bad for him.

  • Dumb_hound

    Concerning the objectivity of morality, I am neither a moral relativist nor a moral subjectivist but a proponent of an error theory: moral statements and truths are in fact nothing more than the products of our emotional intuitions , but because of the hard-wiring of our brain, we erroneously believe they correspond to some external facts of the objective reality and try to derive them from pure natural facts, committing the is/ought fallacy.
    For those interested in the line of thinking presented here, I highly recommend you to read Joshua Greene’s dissertation, where he clearly demonstrates the true nature of morality and develops a coherent error-theory.
    To conclude, although I am not a moral realist, I do think there is a place for ethic in each human life.
    But instead of using moral absolutes such as “good”, “evil”, “right”, “wrong”, “ought”, “ought not”, referring to spooky concepts whose existence is as likely as the presence of an invisible yellow unicorn on the surface of Mars, I prefer to employ the language of desires, which correspond to indisputable facts:
    We, as human being, love infant life and desire baby to growth and become happy, therefore if we want our desires to be fulfilled, then we ought not to torture babies for the fun. Contrarily to moral realism, the ‘ought’ I have used here is hypothetical and not categorical.
    In the same way, I can not say the atrocities we find in the Old Testament are objectively wrong, because I don’t believe in the existence of such moral absolutes, but I can express my convictions in the following manner: if we want our intuitive feelings of love, justice and charity to be respected, then we ought to reject many books of the Old Testament as being pieces of barbaric non-senses.
    The traditional moral discourse “The God of the Bible is morally wrong, we ought to fight Christianity, we are morally good whereas religious people are wicked and so on and so forth” seems to me to be completely flawed because it involves the existence of spooky moral absolutes which have no place in a scientific view of the world.
    I really appreciate the critical thinking of my fellow atheists when applied to religion but I am really sad to remark they fail to apply it to their own cherished beliefs like the existence of an objective morality.
    Thank you for having reading me until here !

  • Bradley Bowen

    Dumb Hound said…

    But instead of using moral absolutes such as “good”, “evil”, “right”, “wrong”, “ought”, “ought not”, referring to spooky concepts whose existence is as likely as the presence of an invisible yellow unicorn on the surface of Mars, I prefer to employ the language of desires, which correspond to indisputable facts:
    We, as human being, love infant life and desire baby to growth and become happy, therefore if we want our desires to be fulfilled, then we ought not to torture babies for the fun.

    There are a number of problems with your suggestion here.

    First, some people don't care that much about babies or children being happy, especially if the babies or children are not their own. Does this mean that only people who do care "ought not to torture babies for fun"? or does this "ought" statement apply to all people regardless of how much they care about the happiness or well being of children?

    Second, someone might care about the happiness and well-being of children, but also care about the pleasure that can be obtained by torturing children. Is someone who has such conflicting desires wrong to go with the desire for pleasure from torturing children? If so, why? Aren't you arbitrarily elevating a "moral" desire over a non-moral desire?

    Third, like most people I generally do care about the happiness and well-being of babies and children, but also like most people I care more about the happiness and well-being of my own children than that of other children. So, perhaps I ought not to torture my own children for fun, based on my strong desire for their happiness and well-being, but it is not so clear that I ought not to torture children that I have no relation to. If desire is the standard, then shouldn't you limit your conclusion to the narrow (and rather useless)one that I ought not to torture my own children for fun?

    Desires come and go. If on a particular day or a particular week, my desire for the happiness and well-being of children who are unrelated to me fades away, should I conclude that it has become (at least temporarily) OK for me to torture such children for fun?