Are Atheism and Moral Realism Logically Incompatible?

Are Atheism and Moral Realism Logically Incompatible? July 6, 2016

I am a regular reader of Victor Reppert’s blog, Dangerous Idea. In the combox for one of his recent posts, Steve Hays claimed that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. I wrote a lengthy reply to Hays in the combox and have decided to republish it here.

Before I republish my comments, I will make one general observation about moral arguments for God’s existence.

  1. Theists often claim that the so-called ‘problem of evil’ (read: arguments from evil for atheism) and the ontological foundation for morality are linked: one cannot ‘consistently’ run an argument from evil without having an ontological foundation for morality; morality somehow requires a theistic ontological foundation; therefore, arguments from evil are really arguments for God’s existence.
  2. In the context of arguments from evil, it is standard to make a distinction between logical arguments from evil (i.e., arguments which claim that God’s existence is logically inconsistent with some known fact about evil) and evidential arguments from evil (i.e., arguments which claim that some known fact is either improbable on theism or less probable on theism than on naturalism). Theists will often argue that there is no good logical argument from evil, based upon Alvin Plantinga’s famous critique of J.L. Mackie’s logical argument from evil. (These same theists often seem to be unaware that philosophers J.L. Schellenberg and Quentin Smith, among others, have formulated new versions of the logical argument from evil, or they are aware but assume that Plantinga’s critique of Mackie also applies to Schellenberg and Smith. But that’s another topic for another post.)
  3. In general, there seems to be a double-standard on the part of theists (not necessarily Steve) who try to link arguments from evil for atheism with moral arguments for God’s existence: these theists do not apply the same degree of skepticism to what I will call logical arguments from moral ontology (i.e., arguments which claim that atheism is logically inconsistent with moral realism) and logical arguments from evil. Just as many atheists incorrectly assume that defending a logical argument from evil is much harder than it actually is, I believe that many theists incorrectly assume that defending a logical argument from moral ontology is much harder than it actually is.

I want to emphasize that, in our exchange, Steve Hays did not employ this double standard. I mention this double standard in this introduction because, in my experience, many theists (not Steve) who claim, “atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible,” are guilty of this double standard. This is where my my recent interaction with Steve Hays becomes relevant: I think my interaction with Steve Hays shows that it much harder to adequately defend claims of the logical incompatibility of atheism and moral realism, than it is to make such claims.

 


LOWDER

Steve Hays references atheists who reject moral realism. Putting aside the obvious rhetorical value of quoting ‘hostile witnesses,’ , what logical or evidential value could these references have?

First, the references could be an argument from authority. Contrary to what some people (not necessarily Steve) think, arguments from authority can be logically correct inductive arguments. One inductive argument form is the statistical syllogism:

(1) Z percent of F are G.
(2) x is F.
(3) [probable] x is G.

The closer Z is to 100, the stronger the inductive evidence.

Arguments from authority are a form of statistical syllogism:

(1′) The vast majority of statements made by x concerning subject S are true.
(2′) p is a statement made by x concerning subject S.
(3′) [probable] p is true.

As philosopher Wesley Salmon explains in his textbook, Logic, the following are “misuses of the argument from authority:”

  1. The authority may be misquoted or misinterpreted.
  2. The authority may have only glamor, prestige, or popularity.
  3. Experts may make judgments about something outside their special fields of competence.
  4. Authorities may express opinions about matters concerning which they could not possibly have any evidence.
  5. Authorities who are equally competent, so far as we can tell, may disagree.

Suppose we charitably interpret Steve’s references to atheists who reject moral realism is supposed to be an (inductive) argument from authority. Then if we let:

X=”atheists Sharon Street; Massimo Pigliucci; Michael Shermer; Owen J. Flanagan, Jr; Alex Rosenberg; Joel Marks; Daniel Dennett; Michael Ruse; and Quentin Smith.”;

S=”metaethics” (which includes whether moral anti-realism is true); and

p=”moral realism is false”

then Steve’s argument would have the following logical form.

(1′) The vast majority of statements made by x concerning subject S are true.
(2′) p is a statement made by x concerning subject S.
(3′) Therefore, p is true.

That argument is example of what Salmon called a “misuse of the argument from authority,” for at least three reasons.

First, Michael Shermer is not a philosopher and definitely not an expert on metaethics. (One could say the same about Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, names which often appear in lists like the list posted by Steve.) Likewise, when Massimo Pigliucci made the statement referenced in Steve’s post (in his debate with William Lane Craig), Pigliucci was a biologist only, not a biologist and a philosopher. Even today, Pigliucci is not an expert on metaethics. (It may also be the case that Pigliucci has changed his views since his earning his doctorate in philosophy; I don’t know.) Similarly, Michael Ruse is a philosopher of biology and Alex Rosenberg is a philosopher of social science, economics, and science; neither specialize in metaethics. Likewise, Daniel Dennett’s areas of specialization are philosophy of science, cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of biology; metaethics is not one of his areas of specialization.

Second, what about atheist philosophers who do specialize in metaethics and reject moral realism, such as Flannagan and Mackie? I’m going to put to the side the interesting question of whether Smith and Street should even be counted as moral anti-realists; both have highly nuanced views and it would take a long blog post to give the topic the attention it deserves.

But putting those two names to the side, there are still other names available who were or are without a doubt atheists, experts on metaethics, and moral anti-realists. There are plenty of competent authorities on metaethics or the philosophy of religion—both theists and naturalists—who disagree with p (“moral realism is false”). Off the top of my head, I can think of at least ##. The atheist camp of moral realists includes: David Brink; Michael Martin; G.E. Moore; John Post; William Rottschaefer; Russ Shafer-Landau; Stephen J. Sullivan; and Erik Wielenberg.

Third, the definition of X arbitrarily limits who counts as expert: if we are interested in whether atheism is logically compatible with moral realism, the proper reference class is all metaethicists, not just atheistic metaethics. But then broadening the scope of X adds even more authorities who reject statement p. The theistic camp of metaethicists who reject the claim (“atheism is incompatible with moral realism”) includes people like Robert Adams and Mark Murphy (a Catholic and a natural law theorist). Then there are metaethicists whose religious views are unknown to me, but would join Adams in rejecting the claim that atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism: Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman.

Accordingly, as an inductive argument from authority, the argument is inductively weak and logically incorrect. The premises do not confer a high probability on the conclusion. So, rather than name-dropping a selective list of atheists (or even merely summarizing the arguments made by those names), what we need is actual engagement with the arguments made by metaethicists and, in particular, the work of Robert Adams and Mark Murphy on the theistic side and Erik Wielenberg on the atheistic side. I’ve written about some of the atheistic error theorists listed above here.

We also need to distinguish between authorities who say “moral realism is false because theism is false” vs. those who say “moral realism is false or meaningless for reasons that have nothing to do with God’s existence.”


HAYS

Jeff’s comments are a lengthy exercise in misdirection:

i) I didn’t quote Shermer, Dawkins, or Coyne. So mentioning them in response to me just a diversionary tactic.

ii) I didn’t make an appeal to authority. Rather, if you bother to read the links, many of them provide arguments for their rejection of moral realism. Pity Jeff doesn’t know the difference between quoting someone as an authority figure and quoting someone for their arguments.

iii) Furthermore, even if it were, in some cases, an argument from authority, when Christians point out that atheism is incompatible with moral realism, and some atheists respond by acting as if that’s an ignorant, defamatory attack on atheists, it’s perfectly legitimate to cite counterexamples from their own side to demonstrate that this isn’t a Christian caricature of atheists, but something that many prominent atheists concede.

And in my experience, not a few internet atheists have no idea that there are real live atheist thinkers who deny moral realism. They just imagine that must be a Christian strawman.

iv) Jeff then acts as though, unless someone is an expert in metaethics, you should simply ignore their arguments. But isn’t that self-refuting? Is Jeff an expert on metaethics? I guess we can safely discount everything he said in his two lengthy comments. What makes Jeff an expert? That he’s an autodidact on metaethics?

v) I’d add that Jeff likes to artificially compartmentalize knowledge. But when, for instance, the topic at hand is evolutionary ethics/evolutionary psychology, it’s preposterous to suggest a philosopher who specializes in philosophy of mind or evolutionary biology can’t have anything worthwhile to say on the subject. These are interdisciplinary debates.

vi) Having made a dismissive comment about “the obvious rhetorical value of quoting hostile witnesses,” Jeff does the very same thing by citing Robert Adams and Mark Murphy.

Likewise, Jeff complains about “name-dropping a selective list of atheists (or even merely summarizing the arguments made by those names…” even though his second comment is nothing but name-dropping (or summarizing) a selective list of theists and atheists.

vi) Finally, I’ve often responded to the subset of atheists who struggle to defend moral realism. It’s not as if I haven’t engaged their arguments.

But I do understand Jeff’s need to throw a lifeline to his drowning cohort, Angra.


LOWDER

It’s ironic that, in an exchange about the alleged superiority of theistic metaethics, Steve is rude to his dialectical opponents who are atheists. (To avoid any misunderstandings, I’m not complaining that my feelings are hurt or that I am offended.) Unlike Steve’s reply to me, there was no intent to be snarky in my last comment and there is no intent to be snarky in this comment.

Steve tries to dismiss the entire point about inductive arguments from authority, as if that were an idiosyncratic interpretation of his remarks. I don’t claim to be able to read his or anyone else’s mind, so if it was not his intent to make an argument from authority, then I will take him at his word. Steve wasn’t making an argument from authority. But I think the reader can be forgiven for getting that apparently wrong impression from the following exchange:

Angra Mainyu: “I challenge you to show the alleged inconsistency between atheism and moral realism.”

Steve Hays: “You could begin by reading atheists who take that very position. For starters: ….” (followed by a long list of links to blog posts).

Almost all of the linked blog posts quoted atheists, but not all. (More on that later.)

So instead of making a logically incorrect inductive argument from authority, it is instead the case that Steve has simply brought up a bunch of irrelevancies to support his claim that “Atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.” As evidence for that claim, let’s go through the first four of Steve’s links.

Sharon Street: Steve’s first link is about Sharon Street’s paper, “A Darwinian Dilemma about Realist Theories of Value.” Street’s paper has nothing do with an alleged contradiction between moral realism and atheism. In fact, Street’s paper has nothing whatsoever to do with moral ontology. Street’s paper is about moral epistemology: she argues that if evolutionary naturalism is true, we have an undercutting defeater for trusting our second-order ethical intuitions. In plain English, it’s as if she says:

“Many people think moral realism is true because it seems like moral realism is true. But that isn’t a good reason to think that moral realism is true if you are an evolutionary naturalist. If evolutionary naturalism is true, it would ‘seem’ that moral realism were true even if it weren’t. So the ‘argument from seeming’ [my name] isn’t a good reason for evolutionary naturalists to think that moral realism is true.”

But since that is the essence of Street’s argument, it follows that Street’s Darwinian Dilemma is irrelevant to the claim that atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism. The most charitable interpretation I could give to why Steve linked to an irrelevant paper by Street is that he was giving an inductive argument from authority, based upon the proposition, “Sharon Street is an atheist expert on metaethics who denies moral realism.” Again, Steve says his argument wasn’t an argument from authority, but the motivation to categorize his argument was my attempt to be charitable to Steve. Since it wasn’t an inductive argument from authority, the alternative is that it was just an irrelevant premise. Even if Street’s Darwinian Dilemma is correct, it still would not follow that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. To think otherwise would be to confuse moral epistemology with moral ontology.

Massimo Pigliucci:  His next link was to a quotation of Massimo Pigliucci on moral realism. As I explain here, the logical form of Pigliucci’s argument is as follows:

(7) Human beliefs about morality have changed over time.

(8) The best explanation for these changes in human beliefs is that there are no objective truths about morality.

(9) Therefore, there are no objective truths about morality.

Even if this were a good argument — and it is not — it still would not follow that atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism. Again, in an attempt to be charitable to Steve, I took him to be making an inductive argument from authority. Again, Steve says he wasn’t doing that. And again, in that case, I say, “Fine. Then it’s an irrelevant reference to a bad argument.”

Paul Pardi: His next link was to a statement by Paul Pardi. Paul is a Christian lecturer or professor of philosophy; in fact, at least for part of the last decade, he taught at Seattle Pacific University. Paul was commenting in the combox on a blog post by J.P. Moreland about Michael Shermer. (This is why I mentioned Shermer in my previous post.) So, as interesting as Paul’s comments are, Paul Pardi’s comments do nothing to show what atheists say about atheism and morality. Furthermore, Paul Pardi’s comments actually undercut Sharon Street’s Darwinian Dilemma. As Pardi points out, “To say that on evolution, our moral beliefs and practices wouldn’t track truth assumes what it’s seems to want to prove: that moral laws are something outside of the human mind that beliefs must correspond to.”

Again, the most charitable interpretation (of Steve’s bizarre decision to reference Pardi’s comment) I could come up with was that: (1) Steve mistakenly thought Pardi shared Shermer’s views (presumably because Pardi gave objections to Moreland’s argument against Shermer); and (2) what really mattered to Hays was the support that Shermer, as an atheist, lends to an evolutionary account of morality. But, putting aside the fact that Shermer is not a philosopher, the empirical fact about moral epistemology, if it is a fact, that:

A: The correct explanation for the origin of our moral beliefs involves our evolutionary history.

provides zero support for the logical claim about moral ontology that:

B: Atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.

And so, again, instead of saying (with charitable intent) that Steve Hays was making an argument from authority, we must instead conclude that he was simply providing another link to another irrelevant statement.

Own Flannagan, Jr.: Flannagan’s sociobiological explanation for the origin of our moral beliefs is similar to Shermer’s. It is irrelevant to establishing Steve Hays’ claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible, and for the same reason.

Alex Rosenberg: Steve’s next link was to an interview about Alex Rosenberg. Here’s the entirety of what Rosenberg had to say about metaethics in that interview.

“What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad?

There is no moral difference between them.”

So the interview Rosenberg contains no argument proving the alleged inconsistency between atheism and moral realism; all we find is the mere assertion that moral realism is false.

The other part of Steve’s Rosenberg post includes the same basic point about natural selection tricking us into believing moral realism is true. It fails for the same reason as Shermer’s and Flannagan’s.

Again, I thought I was charitable in interpreting Steve as offering an inductive argument from authority. Again, I was mistaken. And again, the link to his blog post is irrelevant because the quoted material doesn’t even make the claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible, much less provide an argument for that claim.

Furthermore, if one goes beyond the material quoted by Steve and looks at Rosenberg’s journal article on metaethics, we do not find an article which tries to prove the alleged inconsistency between atheism and moral realism. Rather, what we find is an argument against moral realism which has nothing do do with an alleged inconsistency between atheism and moral realism. (See here).

Joel Marks: Steve’s next link was to an article in the New York Times by Joel Marks, in which Marks talks about his change from “moralism” to “amoralism,” which can be thought of as the change from being a moral realist to a moral anti-realist. His article was published by the New York Times, not the American Philosophical Quarterly, so his article was not written for philosophers. Based on what Marks wrote, it’s hard to tell if he even believes that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. But, in order to be charitable to Steve, let’s assume that Marks believes precisely that. What support does Marks give for that claim in his article?

Marks makes only one statement (or series of statements) which could possibly be relevant to a claim of logical incompatibility between atheism and moral realism:

“The dominoes continued to fall. I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.”

And later in the same essay he writes:

“Think of this analogy: A tribe of people lives on an isolated island. They have no formal governmental institutions of any kind. In particular they have no legislature. Therefore in that society it would make no sense to say that someone had done something “illegal.” But neither would anything be “legal.” The entire set of legal categories would be inapplicable. In just this way I now view moral categories.”

This is a variation of the old “laws require a lawgiver” argument. As I explain here, that argument fails because of the following negative analogy:

(8) The laws of nature, logic, mathematics, and (objective) morality did not begin to exist.
(9) The laws of nature, logic, and mathematics also do not have lawgivers.
(10) Therefore, the laws of (objective) morality do not have a lawgiver.

John Maynard Smith: Steve’s next link was to an article by John Maynard Smith, in which Smith endorses Daniel Dennett’s view that, without something like the Bible, there is no epistemologically objective way to determine moral right from wrong.

Again, even if Smith (and Dennett) were correct about that, it wouldn’t follow that moral realism is false. The sentences “Moral realism is true” and “Moral skepticism is true” are logically consistent: it could be the case that there are objective moral values and duties, but we have no realiable way of knowing what they are.

More important, neither Smith nor Dennett claim “Atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.”

Thomas Nagel: Steve’s next link is to a blog post quoting Thomas Nagel. Quoting Daniel Dennett, Nagel endorses the view that if everything reduces to physics, then there is no naturalistic answer to a cosmic question. The cosmic question is put into square brackets. I haven’t read Nagel’s 2010 book, so I can’t tell if the words in the bracket come from Nagel or from Steve. I don’t have enough context for the quotation to make sense of the question put in the square brackets. In any case, I agree that with Nagel that naturalism is nonteleological.

I do not find, however, an argument (in Steve’s post) for the conclusion that the non-teleological nature of naturalism is logically incompatible with moral realism. To be charitable to Steve, perhaps the idea is that if physical reality is not teleological (which, according to naturalism, it isn’t), then moral realism is necessarily false. But the truth of that is far from obvious. There is no logical contradiction between “There is no cosmic teleology (i.e., the universe was not created for a purpose)” and “Moral realism is true.” First, it could be the case that God does not exist, in which case there is no cosmic teleology, but some version of Platonism is true (and so moral values exist as abstract objects). Second, it could be the case that God does not exist and a neo-Aristotelian approach to ethics like that found in Larry Arnhart’s book, Darwinian Natural Right, is correct. But Arnhart’s neo-Aristotelian (and Humean and Darwinian) approach to ethics is a realist approach to ethics.

Michael Ruse: Steve’s next link is to a post which mentions Michael Ruse and myself. Regarding Steve’s numbered points in that blog post, I will say this. I agree with Steve’s (i): it is legitimate to quote what various atheists have said about morality, in order to defend the claim that some atheists have made certain statements about morality. (ii) I agree with this also. This is why the moral anti-realist arguments of Shermer, Rosenberg, and others fail. Turning to (iii), Steve argues that I have misinterpreted Ruse. Now that would require an entire blog post of its own.

For now, I will simply point out that (1) even if Ruse’s argument were correct, it would provide no support for the claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible; and (2) Ruse’s moral anti-realist argument fails because it commits the genetic fallacy. Indeed, it contains the very confusion Steve described in his (ii): Ruse confuses moral psychology with moral ontology. So both Steve and I agree that Ruse’s argument against moral realism fails.

Quentin Smith: Steve’s final link is to a post which appears to quote from either the abstract or body of an essay by Smith. Steve’s post quotes from Smith’s own website, which is now defunct, which makes it impossible to get the paper from that website. (An Internet search for a copy of the paper on other websites was equally unsuccessful.) But it appears Smith’s website published an article of his 2003 essay, “Moral Realism and Infinite Spacetime Imply Moral Nihilism,” which was published in an anthology.

I find everything about that blog post fascinating. Smith wrote a book (“Ethical and Religious Thought…”) published in 1997 by Yale University Press in which he defends moral realism. But I did come across an essay by philosopher Michael Almeida, which aims to refute Smith’s essay. (See here.) Almeida’s essay begans with the following sentences:

“Quentin Smith has recently advanced an argument for ‘moral nihilism’. He derives moral nihilism, unexpectedly, from global moral realism and a principle of value aggregation….”

So, according to one of Smith’s critics (Almeida), even in Smith’s 2003 essay, Smith still accepted moral realism. Furthermore, notice how Almeida summarizes Smith’s argument for nihilism: because “global moral realism” and “value aggregation theory” are true, then nihilism is true. That shows that Smith was not defending the claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.

Moving onto point (iv) in Steve’s comment, he writes, “Jeff then acts as though, unless someone is an expert in metaethics, you should simply ignore their arguments.” No. Steve is tearing down a straw man of his own creation. Steve’s objection forgets the fact that I was (mistakenly) responding to his references to other atheists as if they were inductive arguments from authority. In THAT context, it is appropriate to point out that some of Steve’s atheists do not have the relevant expertise.

I agree with Steve that if we are told that we should believe X on the basis of some argument Y (and Y is not an argument from authority), then it is of course legitimate to consider argument Y, regardless of whether the person making it has the relevant expertise or not.

Regarding (v), Steve saddles me with a view I do not hold and, again, tears down a straw man of his own creation. The issue is not whether this person or that person has something worthwhile to say on the subject of evolutionary ethics or evolutionary psychology. The issue is whether this person or that person is an expert on metaethics. Expertise in evolutionary ethics or evolutionary psychology does not constitute expertise in metaethics.

As for (vi), I look forward to reading Steve’s critiques of especially G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica and Erik Wielenberg’s Robust Ethics.

 


HAYS

Jeff says Robert Adams would reject the claim that atheism is incompatible with moral realism. Perhaps Jeff can quote where Adams has said that.

In Finite and Infinite Goods, Adams details a position in which the standard of goodness is defined by the divine nature. Finite things are only good insofar as they exemplify divine goodness. Given that framework, it’s hard to see how Adams could also say atheism is consistent with moral realism, absent the necessary source and standard of goodness. So is Jeff saying Adams has elsewhere taken a position that’s logically at odds with what he said in Finite and Infinite Goods?

“Steve tries to dismiss the entire point about inductive arguments from authority, as if that were an idiosyncratic interpretation of his remarks. I don’t claim to be able to read his or anyone else’s mind, so if it was not his intent to make an argument from authority, then I will take him at his word. Steve wasn’t making an argument from authority…So instead of making a logically incorrect inductive argument from authority, it is instead the case that Steve has simply brought up a bunch of irrelevancies to support his claim that ‘Atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.'”

i) So Jeff is telling us that he doesn’t know the difference between testimonial evidence and an argument from authority. When an atheist reacts to the statement that consistent atheism denies moral realism as if that’s a Christian strawman, it’s both relevant and legitimate to quote prominent atheists who concede that very claim.
That’s testimonial evidence to the contrary. A witness needn’t be an authority figure to be a reliable witness.

ii) Over and above that, there are atheists who give reasons for their rejection of moral realism. So that’s hardly an argument from authority, as if you should accept their position on their say-so alone. Rather, they explain why they reject moral realism, given their commitment to atheism, and the attendant implications thereof.
Jeff’s characterization is muddle-headed.


LOWDER

Jeff says Robert Adams would reject the claim that atheism is incompatible with moral realism. Perhaps Jeff can quote where Adams has said that.

This is one of those times where a person reads something they wrote the day before, shake their head, and ask, “What was I thinking when I wrote that?”

Steve is right and I was wrong. I got my theists mixed up. I meant to write Louis Pojman, not Robert Adams.

But Adams did write something very interesting in his book, Finite and Infinite Goods. I’ll have to find the passage when I get home, but the gist of it was something like this:

“Because I define excellence in a way that relates moral obligation to the commands of a loving God, excellence in that sense could not exist in a world without God. But a naturalist or an atheist could define excellence in an objective, realistic way that would be very similar [I think he uses the word “indistinguishable”] to what I call excellence, and so there would be little practical difference between the two.”

Or something to that effect. Given my mixup on Adams vs. Pojman, I won’t blame anyone if they want to wait until I produce the exact quotation.

[A short time later, I (Lowder) posted the following:]

Found it, courtesy of Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature:

“What is true about goodness if God does not exist, or is not in fact a suitable candidate for the role of the Good? This is a conditional question about the actual world, not about other possible worlds; and I am confident of my answer to it. If there is no God, or if God is in fact not a suitable candidate for the role of the Good, then my theory is false, but there may be some other salient, suitable candidate, and so some other theory of the nature of the good may be true.

“Against the background I offer the less ambitious approach to the corresponding question about other possible worlds, which I asked on the assumption that God does exist, and is a suitable candidate, in the actual world. A deity would have to satisfy certain conditions (for instance, not being sadistic, and not loving cowardice) in order to be the salient candidate for filling the role indicated by our concept of the Good, thought it is part of the point of my theory that such requirements do not completely determine what the deity would be like. If there is a God that satisfies these conditions imposed by our concepts, we might say, then excellence is the property of faithfully imaging such a God, or of resembling such a God in such a way as to give God a reason for loving. In worlds where no such God exists, nothing would have that property, and therefore nothing would be excellent. But beings like us in such a world might have a concept subjectively indistinguishable from our concept of excellence, and there might be an objective property that corresponded to it well enough, and in a sufficiently salient way, to be the property signified by it, though it would not be the property that we in fact signify by ‘excellent’.
— Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, p. 46.
(All italics are from the original; boldface is mine)

I’ve always respected Adams’ work on theistic metaethics and this highly nuanced passage is an example of why.

I could be wrong, but I interpret Adams to be saying:

(1) Atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism, IF realist/objective moral obligations are determined according to Adams’ theory of excellence and his modified divine command theory are true.

He does NOT seem to be saying:

(2) Atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism about moral obligations.

In fact, depending upon how you interpret it, the end of the quotation I just provided seems to be either (a) Adams, saying in his own words, that atheism is compatible with moral obligation, if his theory of moral obligation is wrong; or (b) the difference between what counts as morally right/wrong/permitted on his theory vs. some secular alternative makes no practical difference.

And I think that Adams rejects:

(3) Atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism about moral value.

I think that Adams rejects (3) because he defends a Modified Divine Command Theory of moral obligation (what is morally permitted, prohibited, or obligatory), but he subscribes to a Divine Independence Theory (my name) of moral value (what is morally good or bad).

In fact, now that I think about it, the statement:

(4) Atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism.

Entails both (2) and (3). Even if it were the case that atheism were logically incompatible with realism about moral obligation, it could still be the case that that atheism is logically consistent with realism about moral value. Because (4) doesn’t make a distinction between moral obligation and moral value, showing that atheism is logically compatible with moral value is, all by itself, sufficient to refute (4).

So maybe I was correct to list Robert Adams after all.


HAYS

‪Jeffery Jay Lowder‬ 

”It’s ironic that, in an exchange about the alleged superiority of theistic metaethics, Steve is rude to his dialectical opponents who are atheists.”

i) Suppose for the sake of argument that Jeff’s allegation is true. Keith Parsons, who’s a regular contributor to the Secular Outpost, routinely makes rude comments about Christians.

Likewise, the historical library and modern library at the Secular Web contains articles by atheists that make rude comments about Christians. So it’s instructive to see Jeff’s double standard on display (even assuming that his allegation is true).

ii) But this brings us to a substantive point: Jeff thinks that he is important. That his dignity is important.

This is one of Jeff’s intellectual problems. He’s never allowed himself to appreciate the reductionistic consequences of atheism for human significance.

If atheism is true, then Jeff is worthless. Everything is worthless.

Jeff is a temporary entity that came into existence for no good reason, that will soon pass out of existence. Jeff is interchangeable with billions of other human biological units. He will be replaced.

If atheism is true, Jeff’s existence has no intrinsic value. At best, it’s only subjectively valuable–the way some Nazis (alleged) valued Jews as as raw material for lamp shades.


LOWDER

‪i) Suppose for the sake of argument that Jeff’s allegation is true. Keith Parsons, who’s a regular contributor to the Secular Outpost, routinely makes rude comments about Christians.

You can’t be serious. You’re using the same excuse my children use, “But he did it, too!”, as if that makes it okay. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

I don’t remember off the top of my head Keith Parsons making sweeping generalizations about all Christians. But if I’m wrong about that and/or if he has been rude in some other way, then he was wrong to do so and I will condemn it.

Likewise, the historical library and modern library at the Secular Web contains articles by atheists that make rude comments about Christians. So it’s instructive to see Jeff’s double standard on display (even assuming that his allegation is true).

I tried very hard to prevent this from happening in the modern library at the Secular Web while I held a leadership position and I doubt very much that this happened while I was the editor. If it has happened, that is regrettable. I am even willing to try to bring any items in this category to the attention of Keith Augustine, who is the current editor, to try to get them fixed. But, again, this is mere deflection by Steve. This doesn’t excuse Steve’s rudeness.

ii) But this brings us to a substantive point: Jeff thinks that he is important. That his dignity is important.

This is just more deflection on Steve’s part. In effect, he’s saying, “I’m justified in being rude to atheists because atheists can’t justify condemning me for my rudeness.” Even if it were the case that an atheist could not justifying a complaint about being treated rudely, it would still be the case that, as a theist, Steve is a moral realist. But as we’ve seen, Steve has been unable to demonstrate a logical inconsistency between atheism and moral realism.

This is one of Jeff’s intellectual problems. He’s never allowed himself to appreciate the reductionistic consequences of atheism for human significance.

This is one of Steve’s intellectual problems. (See how easy it is to mirror Steve’s condescension right back at him?) He’s never been able to grasp the significance of the distinction between ‘cosmic’ or ‘ultimate’ significance and non-cosmic, non-ultimate significance, or the fact that “life has no ultimate significance” allows for “life has significance.” It’s a bit like complaining that winning one million dollars or even just one hundred dollars from the lottery has no value because the money won’t last as long as you would like.

If atheism is true, then Jeff is worthless. Everything is worthless.

If everything is worthless, then the fact that “everything is worthless” is itself worthless and we should pay no attention to it.

Jeff is a temporary entity that came into existence for no good reason, that will soon pass out of existence. Jeff is interchangeable with billions of other human biological units. He will be replaced.

Analogy:

If I win a finite amount of money from the lottery, that money will not last forever.
Therefore, it has no value.

That argument fails for the same reason Steve’s argument fails. A thing does not need to have an infinite amount of value–or value for an infinite duration–in order to have value.

If atheism is true, Jeff’s existence has no intrinsic value. At best, it’s only subjectively valuable–the way some Nazis (alleged) valued Jews as as raw material for lamp shades.

Although this statement begs the question, it doesn’t work. Steve, like many theists and atheists, has confused “intrinsic value” with “objective value.” But these are separate concepts. There are four possibilities:

(1) Objectively intrinsically valuable
(2) Objectively extrinsically valuable
(3) Subjectively intrinsically valuable
(4) Subjectively extrinsically valuable

(These four possibilities become eight if you add in the possibility of having disvalue.)

A better name for “intrinsic value” might be “non-derivative value” and a better name for “extrinsic value” might be “derivative value.” If I ask you, “Why do you like to go rowing?” and you answer, “Because I love the feeling of the scull breaking through the water when the boat is at a full sprint,” your answer reveals that, for you, rowing is extrinsically or derivatively valuable: it is valuable because it is a means to an end. If you then ask, “Why do you like the feeling of the scull breaking through the water when the boat is at a full sprint?” and you answer, “I just do,” then that feeling is intrinsically (non-derivatively) valuable to you: it is an end, not a means to an end.

The point is that, as soon as you make the distinction between intrinsic vs. extrinsic or derivative vs. non-derivative types of value, it is trivial to show that, even on the most reductionistic, materialistic versions of atheism, there can still be intrinsic (aka non-derivative) value.


In fairness to Steve, I’ll mention that, as of the time I wrote this blog post, he had written a couple of other replies to me I have not quoted here. I have not quoted them because I think they are either redundant or irrelevant, but interested parties can judge for themselves. See here and here.


In summary, Hays has been unable to justify his assertion that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. As support for that claim, he referenced the statements and/or arguments of 10 alleged atheists. But, as summarized below, none of these alleged atheists, in the statements quoted by Steve, provide any support whatsoever for his claim.

  • 1 of the alleged atheists (Pardi) is a Christian philosopher. Furthermore, nothing Pardi wrote supports Hays’ claim of a logical incompatibility between atheism and moral realism.
  • Of the 9 actual atheists:
    • 7 of the 9 atheists made statements and/or presented arguments which were utterly irrelevant to the alleged logical incompatibility of atheism and moral realism:
      • 1 atheist (Sharon Street) argues that evolutionary naturalism provides a defeater for the belief that moral realism is true. (In other words, she is making a point about moral epistemology, not moral ontology. But Hays’ argument is ontological.)
      • 3 atheists (Owen Flannagan, Michael Ruse, and Alex Rosenberg) presented an evolutionary explanation for the origin of our belief in moral realism, but, unlike Street, did not claim it was a defeater for moral realism (for naturalists).
      • 1 atheist (Massimo Pigliucci ) presented an argument against moral realism that had nothing whatsoever to do with the alleged logical incompatibility of atheism and moral realism.
      • 1 atheist (John Maynard Smith) presented a pragmatic, epistemological argument against moral realism. Smith’s argument provided no support for Hays’ ontological claim.
      • 1 atheist (Quentin Smith) is a moral realist. The paper referenced by Steve provided no support whatsoever for the claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.
    • 2 of the 9 atheists which might be charitably interpreted as making an argument relevant to the alleged logical incompatibility of atheism and moral realism.
      • 1 atheist (Joel Marks) presented the discredited, “Laws Require a Lawgiver Argument.”
      • 1 atheist (Thomas Nagel) made the observation that naturalism is non-teleological. It was difficult to understand Nagel’s point without having additional context about the passage from which Hays quoted. But Hays’ quotation of Nagel did not contain an argument for the conclusion that the non-teleological nature of naturalism is logically incompatible with moral realism.
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