by Jason Loveless
Most atheists have had an occasion or three wherein a presumably well-meaning religious adherent (probably a Christian in these here God-blessed States) expresses curiosity about how some aspect of atheism works. Likely top-3 in any atheist’s experience is morality, usually expressed as a variation of the question, “How do you determine what’s right and wrong without a supreme law-giver?” The atheist might simply — and rightly — point out that atheists do no worse than theists on measures of moral behavior, and are significantly better in some respects (e.g. percentage of prison populations). While correct, this response doesn’t precisely answer the question above and, crucially, it invites the retort, “Well, you’re just using the religious morals societies have adopted.” Because morality is a decidedly complex and often near-inscrutable field of philosophy, well-crafted responses can be difficult to come by on a whim. To that end, I intend to discuss three useful counterarguments, two of which rely upon the technique known in philosophy as reductio ad absurdum, but which in practice simply assumes the soundness of an opponent’s argument for the purpose of demonstrating that a contradiction or absurdity still arises. You’ve no doubt encountered this sort of reply before; it usually begins, “Let’s assume you’re right. It still won’t work because…” Henceforth, we will take as givens that both that an all-powerful creator exists and that said creator has an interest in our behaviors, and we’ll see where that takes us.
I. God-given morality and Euthyphro
Now that we’ve solved the initial problem of the existence of a god who cares how we act, how can we try to get objective morality from said god? Well, we could posit that our god tells us what’s right and what’s wrong; a Christian, for example, might say that God ‘revealed’ such things in the Bible. God is, after all, the creator of everything (save himself, we suppose), and morals must therefore be among those created things. This is a pretty unsophisticated bit of reasoning, and I’m guessing you can already see the problem with it. Plato, in fact, spotted the flaw hundreds of years before any recognizably modern monotheisms took hold. In his Euthyphro dialogues, Plato’s character Socrates asks the question of Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Though not specifically about morality, the principle is trivially applied to both morality and monotheism, and it highlights the problem with the God-tells-us-what’s-moral scenario: If it is moral because God says so, then morality is merely the opinion of God. Any behavior might be allowed if God decrees it; murder and rape are just a revelation away, and we’ve no philosophical foundation to object. If God says rape is moral, then it must be so. Few are comfortable with that position, but our Euthyphro-derived principle deftly skewers the other horn of the dilemma as well: If God merely passes on morality from some other source, how do we know we can trust God to pass it on accurately and besides, why do we need God’s guidance in the first place? And, as you’ve no doubt noticed, we haven’t actually solved the problem of a source for morality; the second horn of the dilemma simply assumes the existence of an extra-God morality without elaboration. We’re forced to keep looking, it seems.
II. God’s nature
As we might expect, Plato hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed by theologians and philosophers these two-and-a-half millennia. No less luminous religious thinkers than Aquinas and Anselm have rejected the Dilemma as false. There is a third option, they (among many others) say: As Anselm expert Katherin Rogers puts it, “God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.” Okay. So, what can we make of this? Well, apparently God has a nature. At this point, we’d do well to ask what a nature even is or at least what implications arise from God having a nature. Conveniently, Euthyphro provides some initial guidance here, too, in the form of another dilemma: Is God’s nature changeable (by God or anyone else), or is it immutable? Let’s assume the first horn of our new dilemma: Suppose God can change its own nature at will. Doesn’t that reduce to the first horn of the original dilemma? Moral values derive from God’s nature, but God can make and remake its nature in any particular way. We’re still stuck with seemingly arbitrary decisions, only this time at a slightly different level of abstraction: Upon what basis does God make and remake its nature? Let’s try the second horn: God’s nature is unchangeable; the moral values that derive therefrom are, presumably, unchangeable as well. That’s fine, but what does it mean for us? The first thing I notice is that we’ve only established that God’s immutable nature-derived moral values are themselves immutable. We haven’t actually determined that they are good, or right, or useful, or worthwhile, or… well, anything helpful at all. The chasm from ‘immutable’ to ‘good’ can’t be crossed simply by placing those terms in juxtaposition. We’re rightfully expecting some additional information, but we’re not getting it.
Since a standard objection to a dilemma is to assert its falsity — that’s the source of the ‘God’s nature’ objection, after all — let’s head that off at the pass. What would a third option to our ‘God’s nature’ dilemma look like? Well, it might be the case that God’s nature is only changeable under certain circumstances. The obvious question begged, then, is, “Under which circumstances is God’s nature changeable?” More importantly, are those circumstances determined by or independent of God? If you think that question looks a whole lot like the one we asked about God’s nature in the first place, then you’re not alone. This line of reasoning leads to an infinite regress, as we’ve just seen, wherein any attempt to falsity a dilemma at one level entails a new level with a similar dilemma. As you’ve no doubt realized, this sort of thinking gets us nowhere. Or rather, it claims there’s a place to go, only we can’t get there.
III. The Remains of Objectivity
Now that we’ve made a right mess of God-derived morality (objective and otherwise), is there anything left? At this point, we probably ought to take a moment to consider what it means to be objective. In philosophy, a proposition is objective if it is true independent of a mind-having being’s state of acceptance of or feelings about its truth. This is in contrast to a subjective proposition, which depends entirely on the value placed upon it by a mind-having being. To illustrate the differences, consider Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.
That it consists of oil upon canvas is an objective proposition; that it is beautiful or haunting or evocative or horrible is a subjective proposition. An object that P considers beautiful might be judged horrible by R; there is no external criterion to which P might point R and say, “See? The painting really is beautiful” with the same justification as P could say, “See? The painting really is oil on canvas.” When we substitute morality for artwork, however, things become much less straightforward. If P says, “It’s morally wrong to ride a bicycle in the rain,” what could she mean? If P had said, “According to objective facts about the world, riding a bike in the rain ought not be done by anyone ever,” we’d ask from which facts could one possibly derive a moral proscription, scoff at whatever the answer might be, and move on to the next exhibit. Is that because we’ve looked at the One True List of Things That Are Wrong and noted that ‘riding a bicycle in the rain’ is absent? Probably not. More likely, we’re relying on the well-attested principle that mere facts about the world cannot, by themselves, produce a conclusion that a behavior is right or wrong. David Hume called it the “is-ought problem,” and noted that there must be an independent — and, thanks to our work above, God-free — moral principle invoked in order to make a moral statement.
Finally. So, what’s an “independent, God-free moral principle”? Believe me when I tell you that the number of words offered in examination of that question far exceeds the capacity of any reasonable individual to investigate and certainly constitutes a good-sized library in and of itself. It’s absolutely correct to say that there are serious objections to every attempt at a secular, objective morality thus far offered, and almost certainly correct to say that no unassailable system is forthcoming. Consider Sam Harris’ much-debated popular work, The Moral Landscape. Harris argues, in effect, that moral goods are those things that increase the well-being of self-aware entities. If, upon reading that, your reaction was something like, “Well, why ought I care about the well-being of self-aware entities?” then you’ve hit upon the problem — it’s always possible to ask “Why ought I do X” or “Why ought I care about Y,” and the attempt at a response is always another X or Y. One never comes upon a moral question for which “You just ought to” is a legitimately unquestionable answer.
Originally published on 2/2/2014 on former website
Anna – 2/8/2014
Good thoughts, and well put-together! This is always an interesting topic. My own current position is that of course there is no “objective” morality, and that our notions of right and wrong are instinctual in us, the result of our species’ evolution–we evolved to survive by depending on each other, so morality became a crucial survival skill. And it still is, in my opinion!
As for trying to discuss this matter intelligently with Christians, I confess I have no hope of having such a sensible conversation. I’m glad others, like you, do, though. But as a former Christian, I can just see my old self replying to you, “Well, you’re trying to understand God through human reason, and that will never work.” There is just no room for reason in Christianity and faith. That’s why I despair of having any intelligent debates with them. Good luck to you, though!