Atheists and Morality: Moral Oughts

Atheists and Morality: Moral Oughts February 2, 2018

Religionists so often bang out the claim that atheists have no basis for a moral ought. Take this comment, from another thread (Atheists and Morality: On Christian Theories of Ethics):

Moral obligation ( ought ) and moral prohibition ( ought not ) make absolutely no sense in an essentially and ultimately meaningless existence.

All you have is biological behaviour on a planet that will eventually die out in a heat death. People assume the actions like rape and murder are bad and wrong. They are not if atheistic naturalism is true.

It is more in line with our moral experience to think that actions like murder are wrong. That can be the case only if there is a personal moral law giver external to humanity and that lawfully governs over humanity and prohibits such acts.

That does NOT require us to know anything about that Law Giver. It does not mean that the Law Giver is the God of Christianity and Bible.

On the brute fact of Naturalism why OUGHT anyone do anything if in the end it all ends up the same ?

You may hate certain people for doing certain actions but too bad for you because if atheistic naturalism is true, then everything ends up the same regardless.

Okay, let’s unpick this. So, what is an ought? Well, oughts should be seen in their larger context. All too often, we use language sloppily in a way that we take linguistic shortcuts. For example, if I say “I ought to change the oil in my car engine” then most people understand what I mean by implication and inference. This this is actually an apodosis, the part of a conditional sentence that usually starts with then. The problem is, we are missing the protasis, which is the first part of the conditional sentence that usually starts with an if. This is because we are clever enough to make the correct inference and work out what the speaker is meaning.

However, if we were being specific and accurate, we would include the protasis. In this case, the protasis would be “If I want my car engine to work well, then I ought to change the oil in my car engine.” Without the protasis, the sentence “I ought to change the oil in my car engine” is essentially meaningless. This is because you can place anything as the protasis and completely change the overall meaning of the sentence or, indeed, render the apodosis incorrect. In this case, if I said “If, as a scientist, I am testing how well engines work without oil in them” then adding the apodosis, “then I ought to change the oil in the car engine” will not make sense, and the whole sentence is problematic.

Thus the point to make here is that, although we often do it and can make sense of it, if we are to be precise, then we should always include the protasis in a conditional statement.

What religionists do is claim that atheists are not able to ground the moral oughts in a sentence. But oughts are goal-oriented and the goal is contained in a viable protasis. Let’s now turn the tables and see how this works with the theist. The theist states, “You ought to do X” where I will translate this into a generic statement that reads “You ought to be good.” The theist then claims that they have more philosophical right to say this than the atheist. But if I was to ask, simply, “Why?” to the theist, then we start to see how problems can arise. The theist is in danger, without a viable protasis, of merely asserting oughts in a vacuum, that you must be good…in order to be good. This is rather circular and tells us nothing. You ought to change the oil in the engine in order to change the oil in the engine. So, as it stands, the theist has no coherent grounding for their own moral obligations.

On further inspection, the other choices are twofold:

a) in order to get into heaven and avoid hell

b) because God told you so.

The first one looks rather consequentialist in nature and is very self-serving, though I suspect this is the reasoning that underpins a lot of religious thinking. On the other hand, because God told you so faces all the many problems that Divine Command Theories face (I list 16 of them here). Essentially, the only reason to do what God says is to be good, without any recourse to moral reasoning so that morality is at best arbitrary and a-rational and is simply the behaviour, essence or nature of God (as claimed).

When you ask the why question to the atheist, and keep asking that why question, then the answer continually derives down to an axiom or self-evident truth. This, in many moral value systems, ends up being happiness or pleasure (or lack of pain) or something similar, because these are self-evidently good: pleasure/happiness is self-evidently positive (with caveats and a lot of philospeak). An axiom is a preferable starting point, especially if it is a properly self-evident truth, than a circle or an infinite regress. These three ways of grounding are known as the Munchausen Trilemma.

If the atheist is using a consequentialist moral value system (and it is worth noting that this is not the only option for the atheist), then they might want to establish the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people, or something similar. The idea is that they are really and truly trying to make the world a better place. That’s pretty noble. This can hardly be said of the Chistian, for example, who appears to be trying to make their world a better place, but not the world as a whole. What this then means is that atheists arguably have a better ground and a nobler ground for moral oughts. If I want the world to be a better place, then I should be kind in this particular way.

What, then, is the viable protasis for the Christian? What is the if statement? Here are some options:

  • If I want to go to heaven/avoid hell
  • If I want to please God/be in union with God
  • If I want to be good
  • If I want to make the world a better place

The first three are either self-serving or tautologous. The fourth is at most equivalent to the atheist. However, if you are following what you think are God’s rules, then you are making the world a better place devoid of moral reasoning (otherwise the reasoning is what underpins the moral action as it does for the atheist) and you are merely putting your blind faith in the idea that by following God’s orders, you will make the world a better place (as opposed to making a rough calculation that it actually will).

Moral oughts are goal-oriented and require viable protases. It is not good enough to simply assert that atheists have no grounds for moral oughts. There are all sorts of oughts in every society on earth, and many have little or nothing to do with religious diktats. The UN Charter of Human Rights does a damned sight better job than the Bible at grounding moral oughts. Laws are passed by humans using moral and political reasoning all of the time without recourse to a divine lawgiver, and often, in different countries, with recourse to the wrong divine lawgiver!

So, to answer Craig’s question above:

On the brute fact of Naturalism why OUGHT anyone do anything if in the end it all ends up the same?

we must first establish the protasis. On what basis the if statements are gounded is the job of the moral value system.

And, as we know from over three thousand years of moral philosophy, there is no decent system that universally works. Every moral value system has its shortcomings.

I would suggest using the one that makes the world the most pleasant place to live for us and our children, and for the natural world around that supports us.

You may argue that this, at base, is eventually self-serving; perhaps it is. But not more so, and not in any significant categorically different manner to the theist. And that’s at best for the theist. The theist may get to match the atheist in the domain of moral oughts, but they cannot beat us.


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