Morality and Religion

Morality and Religion March 24, 2014

The image was apparently created by an atheist. But contrary to what some claim, there is no particular reason why its viewpoint ought to be considered inherently atheistic. If we look at the Biblical literature, rarely if ever does anyone in it claim that it requires special divine revelation for human beings to tell right from wrong. Rather, the prophets, the wisdom teachers, the apostles, and many others appeal to what they believe their audience can safely be assumed to accept.

Trying to make morality about something other than empathy undermines the very foundation of morality. That isn’t, of course, what conservative Christians say. In fact, many of them claim that they are making morality objective when they ground it in God. But their view turns out to actually undermine objective morality when examined closely. And that shouldn’t surprise anyone. How else can they hope to justify saying that God is moral to command genocide or child sacrifice on the one hand, and ignoring Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies on the other?

Time and again, it has seemed to me that conservatives who hold these views play a bait-and-switch game even with the terminology they use. Empathy provides an objective meaning for morality – acting on the basis of empathy is something that can be understood regardless of person, even if different people may still act in different ways and draw different conclusions on that basis (since people do the same on the basis of the Bible, fundamentalists ought to accept that differing applications clearly do not invalidate the objectivity of a particular approach to morality). Rooting morality in a divine subject, on the other hand, does not necessarily provide for objective morality – especially if that morality is not accessible apart from knowledge of that divine subject.

What do readers think? Could you imagine Jesus saying much the same thing as the graphic at the top of this post does?

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  • Gary

    “Could you imagine Jesus saying much the same thing as the graphic at the top of this post does?” It seems that he did. Good Samaritan story?

  • Just Sayin’

    Don’t you still need an objective grounding for why empathy is a moral requirement?

    • What do you mean by an objective grounding?

      In most uses of the word “objective” we simply mean a standard that is applied without bias. We use the word referring to standards created by humans (as in the objective tests our teachers made for us in high school). Some Christians argue that morality can only be “purely” objective if the standard is created by God, rather than humans.

      I disagree. If there is a standard of morality that is to be meaningfully applied to humans, humans have to build it. Assigning the objective standard to a notion of God that noone one can agree with, does nothing to help us with difficult moral questions.

      • “Objective” in this sense is referring to moral ontology, not bias. In this philosophical context, “objective” means that it is independent of your mind – in other words, it is true regardless of whether or not you think it is. So, an objective moral truth might be that murder, rape, and/or slavery is wrong, whether or not anyone else thinks that it is.

        • Yes, I know. And there are theologians who argue that only God can be the source of an “objective” morality, while there are some philosophers who argue for a different type of moral ontology that is purely naturalistic. Other philosophers will argue that morality need not be “objective” in this sense at all. Humans are capable of valuing a morality that is based on a few simple, agreed upon precepts.

          Among philosophers and theologians, the answer to the question “don’t you still need an objective grounding for why empathy is a moral requirement?”, is clearly “it depends on who you ask.”

  • T. Webb

    Like “Just Sayin'” said below, why is empathy a requirement? The author of the saying can certainly feel that, but to force his definition on others with no reason, objective or otherwise, is quite intolerant.

    Or better, some people display certain kinds of empathy which are understood and valued differently in different cultures, or even differently by various groups in the same culture. But that winds up being meaningless. Like morality without any grounding. Why can’t more of us atheists be honest about this? Why are so many seemingly afraid to admit this?

    • You don’t need objective grounding for morality to be meaningful, relevant, and even compulsory. “Moral requirements” are simply those moral interests that enjoy such a consensus, and gravity of importance, that they warrant — in the minds of that consensus group — “intolerance” to those that are antagonistic to them.

      To put it simply, we lock up the serial killer and make an effort to repair him, even though the serial killer doesn’t want to be locked up, nor wants to be repaired.

      • MattB

        But on the worldview of atheism, the serial killer isn’t really “evil”. From a socio-logical standpoint he’s just acting out of fashion with the herd morality that humans have evolved not to kill each other off. The atheist can’t judge him for his actions, nor can you call him moral/immoral.

        What he did was consistent with this selfish gene that perpetuated him to do his actions. Calling him “evil” goes above and beyond science. It goes beyond naturalism and into supernaturalism

        • OK, how does bringing the supernatural into it make killing me evil? I can see how bringing God into the picture could lead to the belief that evildoers will be held accountable. But it isn’t clear why you think that atheism means there is no way to talk about morality. Jesus defined morality in terms of doing to others what we would want done to us. Atheists can do that, just as many Christians fail to do it.

          • MattB

            I agree atheists can do moral things or uphold moral values Dr.McGrath. In fact, your quite right in saying that many atheists do more moral actions than Christians. The question I’m asking is not an epistemological, but an ontological question. On the atheist worldview what seems to be the foundations for right and wrong?

            It seems there’s no foundation or bases for right and wrong. All you would have left is moral relativism.

          • That seems to me to be the equivalent of saying that going over the speed limit is not really illegal, because it isn’t a contravention of God’s law.

            Your stance seems to be an attempt to undermine Jesus’ teaching about morality. On your view, you need not care how your actions affect me, if God commanded you to carry them out. There is no need to do to me what you would want done to yourself. And so I am not sure why, as a Christian, you would want to adopt this view of morality.

          • MattB

            Dr.McGrath, I care about you as one human being to another because I believe that God created you in his image with intrinsic value and moral worth.

            God’s moral law(the Ten commandments) I believe is written on everyone’s heart, so everyone knows right and wrong.

            It wouldn’t make sense to me on the naturalist worldview where not only moral values, but moral commands or duties come from. Moral duties arise from an authority figure.

          • Or it could be that universal moral convictions are found in the ten commandments because they are human moral convictions, and human beings embedded them therein.

            An authority figure can enforce obedience to that authority’s commands. But that does not make the commands moral.

          • Andrew Dowling

            No, moral duties don’t arise from an authority figure . . that’s where you are dead wrong. Moral values arise from both a) the greater well being and flourishing of our species and particular community . . constant murder, abuse, and rape seems to not promote this flourishing and b) natural empathy that we feel for others, even those of other species who couldn’t possibly reciprocate our feelings (and thus doesn’t provide us with no “evolutionary benefit” besides making us feel good . . which actually in itself IS an evolutionary benefit but I’m going off-topic).

            Under your paradigm, there is actually no reason why a macaque monkey troop would adopt and raise a severely retarded macaque infant that required constant care, but they have. Or why they have found fossils from tens of thousands of years ago of disabled humans being cared for . . in hunting and gathering societies, where someone who can’t “carry their load” is a severe burden. Why did they do it? It’s not because they had copies of the Ten Commandments lying around . . .

          • MattB

            I am sorry for plagiarizing Andrew

          • MattB

            I am I am sorry for plagiarizing Dr. McGrath

        • Calling him “evil” does indeed go beyond science, but not into supernaturalism. It just goes into mores, tastes, aesthetics, empathy, values, interests, etc. These things can be measured and polled (which is where science might dare to comment) but they don’t have an ultimately rational basis. Let’s not conflate “ultimately non-rational” with “supernatural.”

          A coherent worldview, atheistic or theistic, discards the incoherent notion of “objective morality.” Here’s an article in which you might be interested: “Ecclesiastes and Non-Objective Meaning.”

          • MattB

            Thanks for the article. But it seems your argument would prove my point that all morals become subjective or at best relative. What standard is left on the worldview of atheism apart from God?

            Evolution would say morals would change over time. If that is the case, then how can they be objective and absolute? Something immoral today like murder or rape could be moral in the next species of human beings.

            Science can at best explain morals pragmatically. What’s beneficial to one culture does not make that which is beneficial morally true.

          • No, the opposite is the case. If morality is about empathy, then raping or murdering or enslaving another is wrong. If morality depends on God, then God can command his people to capture a city, kill the men, and take the women for themselves, and it would be moral, on your view.

          • MattB

            But on atheism why would it matter if one human being wants to let’s say….forcibly have sex with another human being? we are just primates and primates are mere animals.

            I don’t really understand how empathy plays a part with right and wrong.

          • Then presumably you don’t understand the teaching of Jesus. It seems that you are failing to grasp that morality at its core is empathy. It is doing to another what you would not want done to yourself that makes your action morally culpable. And even if a powerful being threatens you with hell if you fail to murder another, that doesn’t change the morality or immorality of your action. If morality depends on what a being outside of you ordains, regardless of consideration of empathy, then your viewpoint, far from providing an objective foundation for morality, undermines it.

          • MattB

            But it would be arbitrary to think that any of this would matter in a Godless world. Moreover, who is the authority that issue these commands?

            We aren’t accountable to anything or anyone. It’s just nature.

            So, it would be natural for two human-beings to have sex whenever they want. It would be natural if two human beings want to kill each other. There isn’t any standard that sits over and above human beings.

            If someone feels like doing what’s right to them, but it’s wrong to another, then that makes morality relative to the individual.

          • You seem to hold the view that morality only matters if someone holds you accountable. But enforcement and morality are different things. And I think it is a childish view of morality to say that doing the right thing only matters if you cannot get away with doing otherwise.

          • MattB

            But the person holding you accountable is the one who issued the command. Ex: You tell your child to clean there room and if they don’t you hold them accountable. Suppose the child asked “Well why do I have to do what you say?” And you as a parent would say “Because I’m the adult”. Your command to your child shows who you are as a parent. You love your child because he/she is a reflection of you and how you raised them. Not because you want to arbirtarly make them obey you. I believe that’s the same thing with God.

          • I think that treating others in a way you would not want to be treated is wrong even if no one ever commands you to do it. I am not sure why you think a command is necessary – you seem to have a concept of morality that is in fact more akin to legality and accountability.

          • MattB

            I understand your viewpoint Dr.McGrath. I mean I do believe in the golden rule and everything, but I guess I just don’t see objective moral values and duties in that sense:-)

          • $41348855

            Matt, I think there may be a slightly different way of looking at the issue. Suppose that I have the opportunity to embezzle money from a large company. Even though the amount of money may be large its loss will go unnoticed. Ultimately, the cost will be borne by the shareholders, but since the cost is spread out no individual shareholder will really suffer. In this case empathy is no barrier to my actions. Therefore, empathy cannot be the complete answer to finding a basis for morality.

            Suppose I decide to go ahead and embezzle the money and I get away with it. Now suppose that years later my conscience troubles me. What is going on? One possibility is that even though I got away with it I still imagine what people would think of me if they knew what I had done. So it seems that judgement plays an important part in our moral thinking. Our moral decisions are based on the possibility that we will be judged for our actions. The interesting thing about the example I mentioned is that the possibility of being judged can still have an effect even when we know it will never really happen.

            Or will it? This seems to be where the theistic perspective becomes relevant. The theist believes that he will still be judged even in those cases where an atheist thinks he has got away with it. The atheist and the theist both acknowledge the significance of being judged by others, but the theist makes this into an absolute, unvarying principle.

          • MattB

            Yes, because God is the authority and he is the one who issue moral values and actions.

          • MattB

            I am sorry for plagiarizing Stuart

          • Why would rape matter on atheism? It matters because atheists, like everyone else, desire well being, and we are rational enough to know that the golden rule (a principle which has been independently promoted in many ancient philosophies) is the best principle for achieving the well being of society. We also know that the natural empathy that we feel towards other human beings, is a quality that should be encouraged because of the way that it facilitates the golden rule.

          • MattB

            Well-being and moral values are not the same thing. Well-being has to do with your health, but it’s not the same thing as right and wrong.

            Science has nothing to do with right and wrong, that’s a philosophical question.

            On atheism it is hard to see any reason to think that human well-being is objectively good, anymore than insect well-being or rat well-being or hyena well-being.

          • The care of humanity’s well being is most definitely a matter of morality – the most important (perhaps only) moral issue to humanists. The concept of well being includes not only our health, but also our psychology, our education, our economy, our social network, and our freedoms.

            The concept of well-being is integral in the study of moral philosophy.

            If you can’t see how human well being would not be seen as a good to humans, then you’re not thinking very hard.

          • MattB

            Wrong. Well-being is not a moral value. Well-being is what’s beneficial in order to survive, not what’s good to do because you have value and worth.

            What’s beneficial is not morally right, nor is it true that because something is not beneficial it doesn’t make something morally wrong.

            A is always identical to A. There’s no possible world in which A is not equal to A. Since well-being is not identical to moral values, then it follows that well-being is not identical to moral values.

          • I do not follow your reasoning here at all. On the one hand, your assertion that morality has nothing to do with well-being seems odd. Perhaps you have heard of the Good Samaritan. But on the other hand, if you say that morality depends on the nature and/or commands of God, then how do you know that God does not esteem the well-being of creatures as a moral good?

          • MattB

            Well-being has to do with the health of an individual. Can Science show us what’s beneficial? yes. Just like Science can show us what’s beneficial to the flourishing of corn or mosquitos.

            I would say that God does care about us because he made us in his image and we have moral value and worth:). I don’t want to treat you wrong Dr.McGrath because your valuable and you are worth something. That’s very different from I don’t want to treat you wrong Dr.McGrath because it wouldn’t be beneficial to the survival of the human species.

          • What does science or the survival of the species have to do with it? If you have determined that I have worth (presumably simply because I am a fellow human being, irrespective of what you happen to think of my blog), why is that not sufficient motivation for you to treat me morally, and to understand what it means to do so?

          • MattB

            “What does science or the survival of the species have to do with it?”

            That’s what the other person was saying. He/she was trying to compare the flourishing of conscious creatures(well-being) with moral values and duties.

            It seems weird to think that these relatively advanced primates have a sort-of objective herd morality apart from other species. What makes our species more valuable than any other animal? That’s a bias in favor one’s own species.

            On atheism, I don’t see what makes any different than a mosquito in terms of our worth and value.

          • I think you are still missing the point. On your view, if God’s nature is to value humans and mosquitoes the same, then their value is the same; and if God values mosquitoes more (or more likely beetles), then they are more valuable. You say you have problems with the arbitrariness and subjectivity of a morality that emerges from the collectivity of humans and their subjective perspectives, and yet you seem to think that bringing a subjective divine perspective into the picture solves the issue.

          • Another bit of plagiarism – “the flourishing of corn or mosquitos” is straight out of the mouth of William Lane Craig:


            I knew some of these “pithy” phrases sounded familiar.

          • Andrew Dowling

            “Well-being is what’s beneficial in order to survive, not what’s good to do because you have value and worth.”

            I struggle to see how one can’t acknowledge these overlap . . .

          • MattB

            I don’t see what the flourishing of conscious creatures has to do with moral value and worth.

            Just because something is beneficial does not make it morally true. Something could be beneficial and be immoral.

            If Hitler had won in killing all the Jews in order for the German race to thrive and flourish, then you would have to say that was moral because it helped make the German population flourish.

          • Matt, you are still betraying that you are very poorly read in moral philosophy. The term “flourishing” is almost as common as “well being” in the writings of moral philosophers today.

            Your Hitler example ignores the long philosophical history of moral universalism – the principle that any system of ethics must apply universally to all humans – Hitler may have sought the flourishing of the German people (that is highly debatable), but he attacked the flourishing of Jews, other minorities, and other nations.

          • MattB

            “Matt, you are still betraying that you are very poorly read in moral philosophy. The term “flourishing” is almost as common as “well being” in the writings of moral philosophers today.”

            I don’t disagree with that. I never once said “well-being” and “flourishing” are different.

            “Your Hitler example ignores the long philosophical history of moral universalism – the principle that any system of ethics must apply universally to all humans – Hitler may have sought the flourishing of the German people (that is highly debatable), but he attacked the flourishing of Jews, other minorities, and other nations.”

            Hitler attacked the other races in order for his German people to thrive, which proves my point. You have to admit that if Hitler had accomplished a society of blonde- hair, blue-eyed german people then what he did was moral since it made his people thrive. Morals then become relative by this method. As I’ve said before Well-being and moral values are a non-sequitir. You can at best say what he did was morally neutral. But calling what he did “Evil” on your worldview goes above and beyond scientific naturalism. Science is concerned with “is” not what “ought” to be.

            Maybe we should respectfully agree to disagree with each other:)

          • Matt, I didn’t suggest that you said well-being and flourishing are “different”. You are proposing that well being and flourishing have nothing to do with morality, and we are pointing out that they are concepts integral to morality – as any familiarity with both ancient and contemporary moral philosophy would show.

            As for Hitler, you have ignored the primary point, again. The flourishing and well being of society are measured in moral philosophy against the principle of universality. That is, they must be applied to all of humanity equally – a standard that Hitler clearly failed.

            It doesn’t help your argument that you don’t understand the basic moral philosophy you are attempting to argue against.

          • MattB

            Beau, it sounds like you’re affirming Utilitarianism. There is no consensus on the foundation for objective moral values and duties. That’s why there’s so many different views like DCT, Utilitarianism, Social-Contract Theory, Moral nihilism,etc..However, that doesn’t mean that one of these views isn’t right and the others are all wrong.

            Well-being is a prudential value. It is not a moral value. It is what’s beneficial to the flourishing of conscious creatures. OK, but that doesn’t in anyway allow you to conclude that because something is beneficial it is therefore moral. Or because it’s not beneficial it’s therefore immoral. I don’t see how you can derive a moral ‘ought’ from that.

            To do so would be appealing to nature or the naturalistic fallacy, which says that “a thing is good because it is ‘natural’, or bad because it is ‘unnatural'”

            someone who cleans your yard can do a good job or a bad job – but that’s not a moral good.

            On atheism, why should a person limit their own pursuit of happiness when they can be more happy by being selfish and spurning the “flourishing of humans”? Why should any individual atheist care about the flourishing of humans when self-sacrificial actions to improve the flourishing of others diminishes his own happiness?

            one of the common criticisms of utilitarianism is that we have absolutely no clue what will bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Some action that looks like a great boon in the short term could turn out to be disastrous in the long term.

          • Matt, it appears that you’ve read a bit more carefully the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy site that you referenced earlier. That’s good. I’m a bit surprised that you are still asserting that “Well-being is a prudential value. It is not a moral value,” as though I do not know the distinction (I never said that well-being was equivalent to moral value). Your very source for this distinction makes it quite clear that “well-being obviously plays a central role in any moral theory. A theory which said that it just does not matter would be given no credence at all.” And that’s why I bring up well-being in the first place. Moral value comes into play when we consider the prudential values of other people rather than only our own.

            Even Jesus describes morality in a way that seeks prudential values for others in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” And lest we think Jesus is being selfish, himself, in this demand, he adds: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”

            You say, “on atheism”, as though atheism is a system of morality. It is not. Atheists will vary widely in subscribing to specific moral philosophies. You haven’t even begun to address the real range of moral philosophies that do not subscribe to the supernatural. Most moral philosophies, however, incorporate some version of the golden rule.

            You also seem to be confusing morality with our motivation to act morally. Your assumption that atheists should only care about self-interest is odd. Why should I only be concerned with self interests? I am concerned about the well-being of my fellow man. I try to behave in ways that improve the well-being of my fellow man, sometimes in ways that are self-sacrificial.

            What is my motivation for doing so (a separate question from the moral choice itself)? In part I am motivated by reason. I know that we all benefit from looking out for each other, by using the golden rule as a principle. In the short term it might help me to race down the interstate at 100 miles an hour, but my reason tells me that if I abide by speed and traffic rules in the long term, it will contribute towards everyone’s well-being (and more often than not, short term, selfish acts serve against my own interests in the long term). More importantly, however, I serve my fellow man because I want to. I desire it. It gives me happiness. Most of us feel better about ourselves when we show kindness to others; it is how our species is constituted. Humans are social, and we derive our personal well-being ultimately from our interactions with each other. My well-being is predicated on the well-being of others.

            This sense of social well-being is quite powerful. Even without the prospect of heaven (I don’t believe in an after life), I would willingly die to save the life of my children – most of us would. If I consider this from the standpoint of my own well-being, I know that my own psychological well-being would be irreconcilably damaged, if I had the power to save my child’s life by trading my own and failed to do so. In such an instance, the moment of self-sacrifice becomes more important to me than the prospect of years of life as a failed father. Because, for an atheist, this life is all we have, the years are short, and the quality of the time we spend ultimately outweighs the quantity.

          • MattB

            And that’s the problem with utilitarianism. It’s arbirtary to think our well-being is different than any other species well-being. What makes us more valuable than mosquitos or pigs or bacteria?

            You’ve succumb to speciesm- a bias in favor of one’s own species. Re-defining well-being to solve the value problem of morality doesn’t work.

            You have to understand that Stanford Encyclopedia gives a basic overview of a topic in philosophy, then it list different opinions of philosophers on the issue. Just because some philosophers affirm it doesn’t mean that’s the mainstream view because there is none.

            Your view is basically the view of Sam Harris, who is a neuroscientist and wrote “The Moral Landscape”. His book attempts to re-define well-being and attribute it to solve the value problem. You have to understand that prudential value is not moral value. It’s not justification for good or evil. Util. fails to solve the is-ought problem. Just because it’s beneficial to not kill, steal, rape, others,etc. does not mean one ‘ought’ not do it.

            You also have to understand that utilitarianism is a more scientific view than philosophical.

            One problem with utilitarianism is that it leads to an “end justifies the means” mentality. If any worthwhile end can justify the means to attain it, a true ethical foundation is lost. But we all know that the end does not justify the means. If that were so, then Hitler could justify the Holocaust because the end was to purify the human race. Stalin could justify his slaughter of millions because he was trying to achieve a communist utopia.

            The end never justifies the means. The means must justify themselves. A particular act cannot be judged as good simply because it may lead to a good consequence. The means must be judged by some objective and consistent standard of morality.

            Second, utilitarianism cannot protect the rights of minorities if the goal is the greatest good for the greatest number. Americans in the eighteenth century could justify slavery on the basis that it provided a good consequence for a majority of Americans. Certainly the majority benefited from cheap slave labor even though the lives of black slaves were much worse.

            A third problem with utilitarianism is predicting the consequences. If morality is based on results, then we would have to have omniscience in order to accurately predict the consequence of any action. But at best we can only guess at the future, and often these educated guesses are wrong.

            A fourth problem with utilitarianism is that consequences themselves must be judged. When results occur, we must still ask whether they are good or bad results. Utilitarianism provides no objective and consistent foundation to judge results because results are the mechanism used to judge the action itself.

            As you see, Utilitarianism creates more problems than it can solve.

            Since Jesus was God, then that means his commands were reflections of his nature because God is the moral standard of right and wrong. Only with a moral law can you have a moral law giver. That’s why I believe you beau, and every human being has value because of God. Without God we aren’t worth more than pigs in a barn

          • I still don’t follow your reasoning. How does God giving something or someone value affect it differently than you giving it value? And doesn’t the fact that you think from your own perspective that humans and pigs are no different suggest to you that your moral stance may be off kilter? You seem to be trying to demonstrate that atheists can appreciate the intrinsic worth of another human being simply for what they are, whereas you cannot. And I don’t understand why you think that is the appropriate stance for a Christian. Perhaps you have a misguided sense that unless you make something depend on God, then you are doing something wrong. But that doesn’t seem like a logical stance at all. Music can be beautiful simply because we as human beings appreciate it as such. It does not require a divine command to make it beautiful. And acknowledging that beauty is not a matter of divine commands is not a slight against God.

          • MattB

            aesthetics like music is a different topic than ethics. God is independent of human existence. Giving ourself value doesn’t really make sense to me. Where does this notion of value come from in the animal kingdom? It seems like atheists can at best say we are just these advanced primates. Any thing other than that would seem objective.

            What is the clay without the potter? Just dirt and minerals. Nothing more and nothing less. The potter is what shapes the clay into something useful. The clay has purpose, meaning, and value becuase the potter gives it value since it reflects who the potter is.

          • You see, some of us think that we can appreciate human existence as something inherently valuable, and not merely as useful for someone else’s ends, the way a pot might be to a potter. Taking that Biblical analogy and applying it to the value of humans is essentially a form of divine utilitarianism, is it not? Humans are a product and the divine craftsman sets values on the product as he sees fit? That seems crassly anthropomorphic, as well as objectionable in its denial of the inherent worth of human beings.

          • MattB

            The potter sets value because the potter is the standard of value. The clay is a reflection of who the potter is.

          • James, it appears that quite a few of Matt’s comments above are either verbatim copy/pastes or poorly masked paraphrases from unattributed apologist websites like William Lane Craig’s “Reasonable Faith” and Probe Ministries.

            He’s taking us for a little ride, and I find it a bit disturbing, considering this is a conversation about morality.

          • For shame, Matt.

            First of all, I don’t get my philosophy from the online Stanford Encyclopedia. I only reference it because it seems to be your crutch for understanding the terminology. And if you would pay attention to context, rather than skimming, you would realize that when the author of the piece made the comment, “well-being obviously plays a central role in any moral theory. A theory which said that it just does not matter would be given no credence at all,” he is not describing the opinion of one theory, he is giving an overview of all moral theory.

            You can disagree with him, of course, but not very effectively with poorly worded straw-man versions of moral theory. Why would anyone bother running through your list of “problems” with utilitarianism, when you are simply making false and simplistic assertions about utilitarianism.

            More to the point, Matt, (and what really annoys and disappoints me) is that you didn’t learn these “problems” from assessing moral philosophy yourself. You simply copied and pasted the comments of a shallow Christian apologist named Kerby Anderson from Probe ministries at this site:


            You do know that plagiarism is a form of lying, don’t you. Doesn’t the law giver you mention have something to say about the morality of telling lies? If all you intend to do is google and plagiarize the words of other apologists, I have no desire to continue having the pretense of a conversation with you.

          • MattB

            I read the context. The author gives an introduction, which is the overview of the content being projected ok. Then the author gives the views of other philosophers on the topic. You quoted one philosopher who defends a view.

            I’m not saying well-being isn’t important, but it’s not the same as moral values. There’s a distinction to be made between the two, which the article addresses.

            Well-being may play a roll, but that doesn’t mean it’s justification for moral ought or right and wrong, which you mistakenly take from the article.

          • And I see that much of the rest of your words are unattributed paraphrases from William Lane Craig:


            Matt, it is disturbingly ironic that in a discussion of morality, you seem to have little regard for the basic honesty of a web discussion.

          • Andrew Dowling

            “why should a person limit their own pursuit of happiness when they can
            be more happy by being selfish and spurning the “flourishing of humans”?
            Why should any individual atheist care about the flourishing of humans
            when self-sacrificial actions to improve the flourishing of others
            diminishes his own happiness?”

            Again, the social sciences have long passed you by on this. Recent studies show that intrinsic selfishness actually does not conver an evolutionary advantage and is actually disadvantageous, whereas the people who are the most happy/”fulfilled” live lives in which they help others in some fashion. Living a life of meaning equates to better health and livelihood outcomes than a life out of pure selfish pleasure (although the latter certainly confers some benefits without a doubt)

          • Andrew, I’m not sure that Matt is worth wasting our time on any further. I am beginning to find numerous sentences and paragraphs (as above) that he is simply plagiarizing (literally copying and pasting) from apologist web sites, presenting them as his own words.

            That Matt fails to see the dishonesty in this approach tells me that he has very little standing to be making assertions about morality.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Yeah I just saw your post on that as I was scrolling down. I’ll quit as well as I’m finding the circular arguments he’s retorting with boring (and apparently not his own).

          • MattB

            Show how their boring and circular? Your using Sam Harris’s argument aren’t you not?

          • Andrew Dowling

            Matt, it shows how much you know that I despise Sam Harris . . .

          • MattB

            I understand the natural moral arguments very well. Why do you have to be so rude in your approach?

          • Do you not get the point, Matt? No one appreciates exchanging comments with someone who simply copies and pastes paragraphs wholesale from the internet and passes them off as his own.

            You have been dishonest, and I see no reason to continue playing this game with you.

          • Matt, now I’m really disappointed and getting angry. I see here that you have copied the paragraph that begins “On atheism, why should a person limit …” virturally word for word from the blog “Wintery Knight”:


            And the paragraph that begins “one of the common criticisms of utilitarianism” is copied verbatim from William Lane Craig’s site:


            This is not honest behavior. Why would anyone want to “converse” with someone who cherry picks quotations from other apologists and claims the words as his own?

          • MattB

            While it is true that I copied from those websites. It doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the arguments, nor does it make me dishonest. I should have cited my sources yes, but that doesn’t make me a dishonest person. WLC is not some apologist off the street like you make him to be. He has philosophical degree from the UK Birmingham and a Theology degree from Munich Germany. Both schools are top notch He’s a world renowed scholar, so instead of attacking me why don’t you attack the argument instead.

            Judging from your other posts(not to be rude) it seems you use fallacious arguments concerning the historical facts about Jesus. You call his death “purported”. Then you criticize the empty tomb story as legend when it’s not.

          • “Cited your sources”?! Matt, you didn’t just borrow an idea or cite a fact. Do you not understand how dishonest it is to literally copy and paste paragraphs composed by another human being and pass them off as your own?

            I have no intention of continuing this facade of a conversation.

          • MattB

            I wasn’t passing these arguments as my own. I never once claimed I owned them. I simply defended them, but I in no way claimed to have come up with them myself. And yes, I know it is plagarism. I was just too lazy to paraphrase the arguments myself, but that doesn’t mean the arguments are false, and that doesn’t make me a dishonest person. It means I need to paraphrase and cite my sources next time.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Actually your Hitler example fails your point. Hiter’s downfall was pretty much guaranteed when he decided to invade countries and inflict genocide . . .such people usually meet a violent end because doing so creates a lot of enemies.

          • MattB

            I don’t see how your counter-argument shows the flaw in the Hitler example when the Hitler example was the whole crutch of Utilitarianism. What’s beneficial is not moral/immoral That’s a non-sequitir. On atheism what Hitler did was morally neutral.

          • You can say “wrong” all you like. But I’m afraid I’ll have to side with centuries of moral philosophy over your opinion. You’re a little outclassed in this argument by numerous academic philosophers.

          • MattB

            That’s not the opinion of most philosophers today in academia.

            According to the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy

            “Well-being is a kind of value, sometimes called ‘prudential value’, to be distinguished from, for example, aesthetic value or moral value.The serenity of a Vermeer painting, for example, is a kind of goodness, but it is not ‘good for’ the painting. It may be good for us to contemplate such serenity, but contemplating serenity is not the same as the serenity itself. Likewise, my giving money to a development charity may have moral value, that is, be morally good. And the effects of my donation may be good for others. But it remains an open question whether my being morally good is good for me; and, if it is, its being good for me is still conceptually distinct from its being morally good.”

            Notice the distinction between well-being and Moral goodness. What’s beneficial is not morally right.

          • It’s “not the opinion of most philosophers” that well-being is integral to moral philosophy? You are the one who is very mistaken.

            Anyone can quote-mine the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

            “Well-being obviously plays a central role in any moral theory. A theory which said that it just does not matter would be given no credence at all. Indeed, it is very tempting to think that well-being, in some ultimate sense, is all that can matter morally. Consider, for example, Joseph Raz’s ‘humanistic principle’: ‘the explanation and justification of the goodness or badness of anything derives ultimately from its contribution, actual or possible, to human life and its quality’ (Raz 1986, p. 194). If we expand this principle to cover non-human well-being, it might be read as claiming that, ultimately speaking, the justificatory force of any moral reason rests on well-being.”

            That’s from the same web page to which you linked. In fact, it’s the same writer!

          • Here is yet another instance of your plagiarism, Matt. This entire last paragraph starting with “On atheism it is hard …” is copied verbatim from:


          • Andrew Dowling


          • Yes, all morals become relative, insofar as they are relative to some interest referent. This isn’t “so bad,” as some apologists like to claim.

            It’s akin to saying that “5 + X = 20” has no truth value, unless and until X is filled-in. Once X receives a definition — like 15, or 32, or 101 — then that statement has a truth value.

            The underlying problem has been that most moral imperatives just “imply” the X (that is, the interest referent), or that X is inferred. This gives the false impression that there’s no subjective referent necessary.

            Needless to say, though I’m a Christian, I do not accept the wildly virulent notion that objective morality is required for “the” Christian worldview. Since I think objective morality is an incoherent idea, that would certainly be very problematic!

            I’d strongly recommend “The Language of Morals” by R. M. Hare, a language philosopher who was teaching at Oxford at the same time as C. S. Lewis (though, after reading Lewis’s “Miracles,” it appears as if the latter never read the former). It’s the best introduction to the underlying language problems of morality that I’ve ever seen, and it’s really cheap used.

          • MattB

            If morals become relative then they’re not objective, which means they wouldn’t exist

          • Forgive me, but that’s not what objective means.

            What’s your favorite pizza? Mushrooms? Pepperoni? Hawaiian? Your favorite pizza is a subjective expression. This is because it proceeds from your individual tastes and interests.

            That doesn’t mean that preference doesn’t exist. That preference certainly exists! You have it in your mind. You can express it. You can execute on it. You can share it with others. Folks can take surveys on such preferences from a large number of people. These preferences definitely exist.

            I’m not saying that morality is just like your favorite pizza. Moral interests are obviously much more significant and intense. But this example demonstrates how “X requires a subjective interest referent” to “X doesn’t exist” is a non-sequitur.

        • James

          Certainly he can – the atheist sees one person harming another and he empathizes with the victim. It’s clear enough who the aggressor is; believing in the supernatural is no more a prerequisite for being able to make moral judgments as it is have a driver’s license.

          • MattB

            I didn’t say atheists have to believe in God to know right and wrong. I said that atheists have no standard on their worldview to judge right and wrong.

    • Empathy is the capacity to feel or understand what another person is experiencing; it goes hand-in-hand with the golden rule, the moral principle of reciprocity that shows up in many ancient religious and philosophical texts, and which still undergirds much contemporary moral philosophy.

      Your description of empathy – as something that is completely relative to culture – sounds much more like a description of religion to me.

      • Andrew Dowling

        I’m not sure why several posters seem to have a hard time understanding this basic concept . . .there is no “culture” in which you could show footage of a puppy getting abused or a child being abandoned and the wide majority of people would not show disgust/sympathy for the abused. It’s ingrained in our DNA.

        • I think partly they are just insulted by the fact that the graphic was created by an atheist.

          They are also speaking from an odd Christian meme (not shared by all Christians) that somehow God has created (or God “is”) an objective standard upon which all morality is based.

      • Neko

        President Obama on his meeting with Pope Francis:

        I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical. It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets. And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me.

        • Great quotation, Neko, thanks!

          • MattB

            I think we should move on to another topic now. I want to talk about the Historicity of Jesus. Why is it that in your other blog posts you say that Jesus death was “purported”?

    • Neko

      I don’t feel craven or intellectually dishonest about acknowledging empathy as a universal driver of morality. How is meme-making “forcing” anything on anyone? And it’s true, of course, that one doesn’t need religion to be moral. It’s also true that religious believers often accuse atheists of thinking “anything goes.” I’m not an anti-religionist, but AtheistRepublic’s point is well taken.

  • David Evans

    St Paul said something similar:

    Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

    I know, modern translations have “love”, but I much prefer the sound of “charity”. One of my favourite Bible passages.

  • Empathy is an excellent way to ground a near-universal morality that is rather robust. You’ve hit the nail on the head as far as that goes, and this article is a valid challenge to those that fail to understand the picture of morality as provided by Scripture.

    But it is not a grounding for “objective morality,” because “objective morality” is incoherent. Here’s an article in which you might be interested: “Ecclesiastes and Non-Objective Meaning.”

  • guest

    I don’t think basing things on empathy is objective. You could judge other’s action against what your own empathetic feelings are telling you, but that’s entirely subjective. People have different levels of empathy and different moral sensitivities based on their genes and their environment. Some people have no empathy at all. Is that wrong? According to who? Their lack of empathy is just as natural as any other person’s traits. There’s good evidence that some people are born psychopaths. Are they objectively evil? What would that even mean?

    If God exists then everything in the universe is subjective since he is a person and determines all values. There wouldn’t be anything objective.

    • arcseconds

      So, let me get this straight. If I value my cake, and God doesn’t exist, my cake has value, yes? But if God does exist, and doesn’t value my cake, but rather values someone else’s, my cake lacks value?

      I don’t see how my valuing is suddenly invalidated on God’s existence…

      • guest

        Your cake lacks ultimate, divinely appointed value. It has value to you, but the things men love are folly in God’s eyes, or something.

    • Neko

      Progressive Christians often describe God not as a person but as “the ground of being,” so the subject position doesn’t seem to apply.

    • Andrew Dowling

      “Their lack of empathy is just as natural as any other person’s traits.”

      It’s a disorder. Not feeling empathy/being a sociopath is not as natural as having empathy, since it represents an extremely small percentage of the human population. You might as well say severe mental retardation is as natural as normal intelligence.

      • Clearly, all rare traits are not necessarily disorders. “Disorder” is a loaded term, as is “natural” here. Nor does “natural” necessarily mean “common”. Red hair may be uncommon, but I don’t we’d say it is “unnatural”, or “not as natural”.

      • $41348855

        Sociopathy isn’t a disorder. In evolutionary theory there is something known as frequency dependent selection. According to this idea, a trait may be selected precisely because it is rare. A society in which everyone was a sociopath would fall apart, but in a society in which everyone else is trusting and decent a lone sociopath may have an evolutionary advantage. Therefore, we should be wary of basing our morality on nature. This is just a personal view, though.

  • Sven2547

    I often phrase it differently (though it’s effectively the same message):
    If your religious beliefs are the only things stopping you from murdering or raping, that doesn’t make you a good person, that makes you a sociopath on a leash.

    • Most religious people I know would not categorize themselves as a “good person”. And if religious beliefs are the only thing keeping certain people from burning & murdering, then I say thank goodness for religion.

      • I rather doubt that religious beliefs are the only thing keeping certain people from burning & murdering. And it’s pretty clear that is not what Sven is arguing. His “if” statement points out the absurdity of citing one’s religious beliefs as the basis for one’s morality.

  • Seems to me saying “Trying to make morality about something other than empathy undermines the very foundation of morality” is a pretty strong assertion, one that pretty much ignores a great deal of moral thinking over the years. Nor does it make a great deal of sense. Empathy for whom? Someone in the comments made a comment about serial killers. Basing morality on empathy would not tell us who to empathize with – the victim or the killer.

    • One of the oldest foundational moral precepts in both religion and philosophy (from a variety of cultures) is the golden rule – the principle of reciprocity – and it is still a central tenet of most moral philosophy today. Empathy, the capacity to understand or feel what someone else is experiencing, is a human quality that naturally facilitates the golden rule.

      • The golden rule or principle of reciprocity requires no empathy to understand or apply. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” requires understanding of how one wants to be treated, not to understand how others feel. I agree that it certainly helps, but that doesn’t mean that it is the very thing on which morality is *based*.

        • That depends upon whether one is discussing the intellectual basis for morality or the motivational/emotional basis for morality.

    • I seem to recall studies which suggest that serial killers tend to be lacking in empathy.

      • Sure, they do lack it. That fact explains their actions, but it doesn’t explain how I’m supposed to act towards some situation involving them. For instance, if I’m an investigator (and ignoring the law for a moment), is the more “moral” thing to do to empathize with the victim/family, and so search for the killer? Or would it to be to empathize with the killer; let them get away with it, because they probably want to continue?

    • Andrew Dowling

      It’s not as complicated as you’re trying to make out. Humans . . and even other intelligent primates, act out of empathy, and do good for smaller/weaker counterparts in distress, in situations which don’t directly benefit themselves. For the 98% of us who aren’t sociopaths, we don’t “control” our empathy; it doesn’t derive from a rational decision; it just happens, and often spurs action to help/assist others. That emotion is the ground-spring of what most of us would call “moral” behavior.

      • You’re claiming that only certain “good” actions are done out of empathy, and that we should continue them. The problem with that is that this isn’t actually basing morality on empathy. You’re just choosing the good ones (which have been designated such by some other means) and saying *that’s* what we should base morality on. But people (and primates) can – and do – empathize with bad people/actions just as easily as they do good. There are plenty of people who empathize with racists, wife-beaters, jihadists, etc. If we base morality on empathy, then there’s nothing to say that this is *misplaced* empathy.

        • Andrew Dowling

          We empathize most with those that suffer; what you are referring to is a cognitive step beyond (I empathize with xyz terrorist . . why? usually because I think they have been abused in some way etc.)
          I’m talking about responses far more basic and from the ‘gut’; since those people you mentioned are usually engaging in abusive behavior, they don’t generally ignite empathy in those who see them heap abuse. I don’t recall the “pro wife beater’s” lobby having too many backers. And even that said , if we empathize with a wife beater who say, is drawn and quartered for their crimes, I consider that a good thing. If you choose to support some guerrilla group that does bad things because you have empathy for the repressed people they represent, the problem isn’t the empathy; it’s the misplaced judgement (and usually an ignorance of the facts)

          • The point stands, however. If you base morality on empathy, then what the person who supported the guerilla group was doing was a “good” thing. They were acting based on empathy. Regardless, you’re simply assuming that with some more info, they’re likely to switch allegiances. But we all know people can simply become more entrenched in their thinking with more info presented to them. This “gut” concept is profoundly unhelpful, it remains the case that people can and do empathize with “bad” people/things. People can/do empathize with those who suffer, sure, but they also tend to empathize more with people who are like themselves, which I imagine is not what we’re working towards.

          • Andrew Dowling

            I’m not saying you base morality entirely on empathy, but that empathy is the crucial building block of any morality that is developed.

  • arcseconds

    I don’t think it’s ultimately empathy that morality rests on, but rather the possibility of justifying one’s objectives and actions. Justification is in principle something that others can agree on, so already one’s objectives and actions have to front up to how they are affecting other people.

    (This helps to show what’s wrong with “why should I be moral?”. This means, on my view, “Why can’t I be justified in those things that aren’t justified?”.
    As a trenchant excuse to continue being bad, the nonsense here starts to be obvious. Of course, it might also indicate the person is seriously confused about morality – it might be a bad way of asking ‘what is morality?’, but either way it’s a confusion.

    Whereas, ‘I feel bad when I hurt people, but why does that mean I shouldn’t do it?’ is a bit weird, but not obviously nonsense. )

    Obviously empathy (or its cognitive equivalent) helps a lot in most circumstances: if you’re able to work out how someone else will feel about your actions, and decide not to do something if it will hurt someone else or to do something because it will make them feel good, you’re more likely to be able to avoid unjustifiable actions and undertake justifiable ones.

    But there cases where empathy isn’t all that helpful. Surely you’ve been in the position of having the fail a student and having them being quite upset? Let’s say they’re not really all that interested in biblical studies (which is why they failed) but need the pass to continue collecting their stipend or to get into medical school or whatever, and are passing everything else, so you can’t say “well, I’m having empathy with their future self, who will be glad they learnt the lesson”. The fail will seriously negatively affect them, and there’s no reason to suppose they’ll ever be glad about it.

    I think failing them is very difficult to justify on empathic grounds. You might appeal to caring for the feelings of lots of people who are dismayed at declining academic standards. But I’m pretty sure if someone came to you in tears because they couldn’t get a cake for their same sex marriage, you’d bake a cake for them (assuming you could do a good job of it and had the time etc.), no matter how many people that might upset.

    So people’s feelings here don’t seem to dictate which action is moral.

  • $41348855

    Empathy depends on the ability to imagine things from someone else’s point of view. To have this ability is to have what is known as a “theory of mind”. This is a uniquely developed capacity in humans. It’s interesting to consider how this capacity evolved in the first place. The answer seems to be that being able to imagine what other people are thinking enables someone to predict their behaviour. Someone who can predict other people’s behaviour has an evolutionary advantage over them.

    So morality is based on empathy; empathy is based on having a theory of mind; and having a theory of mind is way of getting the better of one’s rivals.

  • 1. Love the Lord your god with all your heart …
    “The Lord”, in scripture, seems to represent wisdom, knowledge, understanding, etc., so perhaps the “greatest law” is for us to love wisdom …

    2. Love thy neighbour as thyself …
    Empathy …

    Wisdom and empathy, the two great “laws” which Christ came to write on our hearts (i.e. to help us understand and appreciate).

    Humans naturally have the capacity for wisdom and empathy. Religion serves to help us nurture these qualities, and help us realise that these qualities are “good”.

    The problem is not that humans are incapable of wisdom or empathy on their own, but rather, that they tend to undervalue these qualities that truly make us divinely human.