Explore

Feedback archiveFeedback 2012

Atheism—no objective morality?

Published: 18 August 2012 (GMT+10)

Atheists often conflate the notion that atheism is amoral (because it provides no justification for objective morality) with the accusation that atheists are immoral. In this exchange Dr Don Batten responds to an atheist who falls for this confusion at first, but then attempts to offer an atheistic ground for objective morality.

Composite of images from stock.xchng Without God morality is nothing more than chemicals fizzing around in our heads.
Without God morality is nothing more than chemicals fizzing around in our heads.

Lee H. from the United Kingdom writes:

Without the existence of a god, there are plenty of things that would still matter, to a person and to a society. Arguably, that could indeed be the situation that we’re in right now. Religious faith and purposeful values are not mutually exclusive.

If people somehow knew that there really was no such thing as a god, then I expect there would still be plenty of things that matter, like family and friends, community, honesty, etc., just as there are in communities without religion today.

With or without the existence of a god, people can and do still make up their own rules. I agree that atheism seems unlikely to be the direct source of anyone’s civilized behaviour. However, there are plenty of other sources of civilized behaviour that have nothing to do with imaginary beings. Arguably, theism might be the direct source for many people’s bad behaviour.

The objective moral standards that are common to all people are naturally common to all atheists too. Atheists tend to value most of the same things that theists value. Christianity does not have a monopoly on ethical judgments and good behaviour. It never has and probably never will.

Atheists could potentially be more morally virtuous than Christians, or followers of any religion, because their behaviour is not influenced by such ridiculous ideas as “it’s written down, so do it” or “the silent invisible thing said do it, so do it” or “everyone else here is doing it, so do it”.

Don Batten responds:

Please note (again!): nowhere have we said that atheists can have no sense of morality or meaning and purpose in life. But what we are saying is that in their materialistic worldview, there is no logical basis for objective morality or ultimate meaning and purpose. Atheists who actually think about these things realize it, for example, Dr Will Provine—that evolutionary materialism (and there is hardly any other game in town for atheists) means no objective meaning, morals or purpose. I cited Aldous Huxley who sought a philosophy of meaninglessness by abandoning Christianity.

How can a materialist derive moral principles and purpose to our existence from mere energy and matter? There are just no ‘oughts’ in physics and chemistry. What is, is, that’s all.

Lee. H responded again:

There is a logical basis for morals, meaning and purpose without requiring the existence of a god. For all people, morality and purpose are developed through nature and nurture. For Christians and athetists alike, this may involve being prescribed behaviour by a trusted community.

The mere energy and matter of which you speak leads to wonderful biological constructs such as the human brain and social networks, through which our ideas about how to behave naturally emerge. I doubt that any atheist refers to a book to justify the righteousness of their behaviour, but instead looks to their environment and their social senses, which are provided to them by their material brain and every day general experience. Atheists may behave identically to a Christian in all of the respects that matter to a person and a society without the delay of a Sunday sermon. It clearly cannot ultimately matter to any person or society if they don’t believe in a Christian god, if they can be similarly kind, whether justified by your criteria or not.

If you would care to compare the actions of the human species with other social animals, you would observe many rules of behaviour that appear integral to the mutual benefit of the group, which are not revealed to them by any kind of religious education. It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to see humans as an animal that has developed its own peculiar set of social rules.

It seems patronizing in the least to assert that a person’s sense of morality cannot be “logically” justified without reference to the notion of a god. Your idea of atheists lacking and requiring a logical basis for their kindness, as if Christianity can somehow supply that, is absurd. Atheists may point squarely at the social and personal benefits of being good in order to justify their actions (if they ever needed to), which is often through an understanding of the reason for such behaviour. In comparison, many theists evidently assume that something is good merely because they have been told that it is so. If any group is on shaky ground when it comes to justifying their actions, it is those pointing to a silent invisible authority that is indistinguishable from an imaginary being.

I worry that anybody that requires an organised religion to dictate to them how they should behave is in danger of using numerous logical fallacies to justify all sorts of evil acts. Instead, I would hope that all people instead source their morality from something more reliable. Even if a person cannot explain scientifically, or even spiritually, why they ought to do good, this does not detract from the value of their actions. Atheists do not need to prove how energy and matter can logically support their behaviour, good or bad. Instead, I think the burden is on the theists to explain how the out-of-date speculations of a small group of superstitious ghost worshipers can possibly be a more reliable authority on good behaviour than their own common sense, for goodness sake.

DB:

Dear Lee,

I don’t think you have added anything to what you have already said, which was answered.

At the risk of sounding tedious:

“Please note (again!): nowhere have we said that atheists can have no sense of morality or meaning and purpose in life. But what we are saying is that in their materialistic worldview, there is no logical basis for objective morality or ultimate meaning and purpose.”

What you have said here is basically, ‘moral values are whatever people make up and agree upon’. How is that a “logical basis for objective morality”?

Sincerely,

Don Batten

LH:

Hi Don,

Needless to say, I’m not satisfied with your answers, and I don’t think you’ve properly considered my answers either, so the feeling is mutual. Nevertheless, I’m happy to continue.

You seem to respect the tool of logic, so I’ll try to answer your most recent question quite directly, using logic.

To begin with, I must point out that just because something has a logical basis, that does not mean that it is necessarily true. Logic is more concerned with the validity of reasoning and the nature of arguments than with the truth values themselves. For example, I could construct a logical argument for the moon being made of cheese, but that would not necessarily prove that the moon was indeed made of cheese. Here’s a perfectly “logical” argument for the moon being made of cheese:

Premise 1: Every object in the sky is made of cheese.
Premise 2: The moon is an object in the sky.
Therefore: The moon is made of cheese.

As you can see, a logical argument can also be an absurdly misguided one. Obviously it is the premises here that you want to worry about more than the logical validity. However, I suppose logic can help to demonstrate whether an argument is valid, in the sense that the conclusion is consistent with the premises, etc. Maybe if I humour you, you might indulge me by taking the time to understand what I’m saying, instead of being so blinkered.

I gather that you’re asking me to demonstrate that “the moral values that people make up and agree upon” is “an objective morality” on the basis of some kind of logic. Sure, I’ll try to do that for you. I’ll try to use deductive reasoning, since that’s less open to criticism. I guess it will help if I avoid using any formal logical language.

I suspect this isn’t what you want to hear. Well, it isn’t really want I wanted to discuss with you either, but hey, it’s your call.

To begin with, I’ll unfortunately have to start by stating defining all the various terms. This will probably seem tedious but seems necessary in order to construct a logical case from scratch. These definitions are sourced from Wikipedia and Wiktionary. Feel free to argue for your own definitions. Unfortunately, many arguments seem to result in semantic debates, probably because people naturally make different assumptions about the meanings of words, especially with regards to their scope and context.

Please note, again, that I don’t think this is the right way to resolve our differences. I could ask you to provide a “logical basis” for theism and we’d still be left arguing about assumptions.

Anyway…

Definition A: In this context, something is objective if it is “mind-independent”, i.e., its truth values are not met by the judgment of a conscious entity or subject.

Definition B: In this context, a morality is a differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good (or right) and those that are bad (or wrong).

Combined definition AB: In this context, an objective morality is a differentiation of intentions, decisions and actions between those that are good (or right) and those that are bad (or wrong), the judgment of which is not determined by a conscious entity or subject.

Definition C: In this context, something is moral if it is concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.

Definition D: In this context, a value is either a personal or cultural value.

Combined definition CD: In this context, a moral value is a personal or cultural value that is concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.

Definition E: A relative value is subjective, depending on individual and cultural views, and is therefore synonymous with personal and cultural value.

Combined definition CDE: In this context, a moral value is subjective, depending on individual and cultural views.

Definition F: In this context, something is subjective if it is formed, as in opinions, based upon a person’s feelings or intuition, not upon observation or reasoning; coming more from within the observer than from observations of the external environment. Or, something that results from or pertains to personal mindsets or experience, arising from perceptive mental conditions within the brain and not necessarily from external stimuli.

Combined definition CDEF: In this context, moral values are formed, as in opinions, based upon a person’s feelings or intuition, not upon observation or reasoning; coming more from within the observer than from observations of the external environment. Or, something that results from or pertains to personal mindsets or experience, arising from perceptive mental conditions within the brain and not necessarily from external stimuli.

Definition P: In this context, something is made up when it is invented or fabricated.

Definition Q: In this context, something is agreed upon when several parties share a view or opinion.

Definition H: In this context, a conscious entity is an entity that is aware of its own existence or aware of its own awareness.

Definition I: In this context, a subject is a being that has subjective experiences, subjective consciousness or a relationship with another entity.

Definition J: In this context, a party is a person or group of persons that compose a single entity which can be identified as one for the purposes of the law.

Now for some assumptions… Feel free to question these.

Assumption K: Several parties (as a collective entity) (Definition J) is not a conscious entity (Definition H) because it is not aware of its own existence or awareness, and it is not a subject (Definition I) because it is not a being in its own right. Therefore, the agreement (Definition Q) of several parties (Definition J) can only be objective (Definition A). This should be intuitively recognisable from the notion of democratic elections and juries to the questioning of criminals about their alibis, etc. Similarly, the agreement of several parties (as one entity) can only be objective for the same reasons. Call that assumption K2. Both are merely illustrative.

Assumption L: The moral values of people (as a collective entity) (Definition CD) is not a conscious entity (Definition H) because it is not aware of its own existence or awareness, and it is not a subject (Definition I) because it is not a being in its own right. Therefore, the moral values of people (as a collective entity) (Definition CD) can only be objective (Definition A). I expect you might disagree with me on this one, but you called for logic, not evidence. I think it’s a reasonable assumption.

Assumption M: The moral values of people (as a collective entity) (Definition CD) are personal or cultural values that are concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character, which is a differentiation of intentions, decisions and actions between those that are good (or right) and those that are bad (or wrong), i.e. a morality (Definition A).

Assumption N: The moral values of people (as a collective entity) (Definition CD) are both objective (Assumption L) and a morality (Assumption M). Therefore the moral values of people (as a collective entity) (Definition CD) is an objective morality (Definition AB).

Assumption O: The moral values that people make up and agree upon is a subset of the moral values of people (as a collective entity). Therefore any deductions that are true of the moral values of people (as a collective entity) are true of the moral values that people make up and agree upon.

In conclusion, it follows logically from the given definitions and a few basic assumptions (which might not have necessarily been so reasonable) that the moral values (Definition CD) that people make up and agree upon is an objective morality (Definition AB).

In any case, it’s a moot point. You should really be asking yourself whether there really is such a thing as a god and whether everything else you believe about that particular figment of your imagination is true as well. I mean…. seriously? Come on. It’s just disappointing to know that so many people believe such absolute nonsense. Why? Why? Tell me. I really don’t understand. To me, the idea has always seemed so absurd and ridiculous, as though someone could just tell a few stories about this thing, but conveniently none of it was testable, and then expect people to believe it. Are theists all just completely gullible or can’t they tell fact from fiction? You’re talking about things that aren’t there. It’s just crazy. Or maybe like a child, believing in fairies or something… Well, I gather you have the right to believe what you want, as long as it isn’t hurting anyone. I gather religion does keep all these fanatics under some control, like a drug, and does seem to push them in generally the right direction of being nice to each other. Then again, it does seem dangerous to perhaps base decisions on something so hypothetical. A bit like getting all your financial advice from a cartoon character.

By the way, according to Wikipedia, “The subject—object problem, a longstanding philosophical issue, is concerned with the analysis of human experience, and of what within experience is subjective and what is objective.”—So even the distinction between the subjective and the objective is not so obvious, in case you wanted to pursue that wild goose.

Now that I’ve given you what you asked for, at least consider the rest of what I’m saying.

If you still want to focus on logic, here are some criticisms. Primarily, you are attempting at a “straw man” attack on atheists, i.e. you’re trying to make atheists look foolish by asserting that atheism has no logical basis. It would be similar to me saying that theism is not based on reason, so theists must all be unreasonable. Even if were true that atheism or theism had no logical basis, which might indeed be the case for many people, e.g. “It just makes sense to me.”, then that would not prove that the conclusion itself was necessarily false. That logical fallacy is known as the “argument from fallacy”. I’m just trying to educate you here because you’re making illogical arguments.

If you want to argue constructively with anyone, I suggest you focus on the assumptions that people are making. Let’s start by looking at all the assumptions atheists make and compare them to the known, testable certainties. Then let’s compare all the assumptions theists make, and then compared to the known, testable certainties. You’ll find that theists are making a lot more assertions than atheists, claiming all sorts of things that they don’t know to be true. If you want to argue that theists can indeed be certain about the existence of a god, then I’ll need to ask you many more questions about how you arrived at that conclusion. I’m ready when you are! If you want to argue that we cannot really be certain of anything, then I agree and give you this answer:

“To explain a mystery, one might try to fill in all the blanks. Some guesses might turn out to be wrong, while other attempts carry on being neither proven nor disproven. One might never know the true answer. Indeed, the answer might be unknowable. But one thing’s for sure: The more you know for sure, the less you have to guess. So if you’re ever compelled to solve a mystery, you should seek the explanation with the most certainty and the least assumption.”

By that reasoning, the scientific method looks like a reliable approach to learning. Also, with respect to the god hypothesis, atheism looks like the guess with the least assumptions.

Kind regards,

Lee

DB:

Hi Lee,

There was no need for the lecture on logic, apparently because I said, “there is no logical basis for objective morality or ultimate meaning and purpose”, where I used ‘logical’ in the common sense of “Characterized by clear, sound reasoning” (dictionary), rather than in the formal logic sense. I know the difference between valid and sound arguments in formal logic. With your interest in formal logic, you might find this interesting: Loving God with all your mind: logic and creation

I think I have distilled your long, involved argument down to its essence:

If an individual thinks something is moral/immoral, that is not objective (that is, it is subjective).

However, if a group of people think something is moral/immoral, then it is now an objective moral standard.

This all depends on your raft of stipulative definitions/assumptions.

So, let’s test this materialistic basis for moral absolutes with a real world scenario:

If one person thinks it is OK to eat other people (e.g. Jeffrey Dahmer), then that is just his subjective opinion.

However, if a tribe of people in Papua decide that it is moral to kill and eat other people (as they have done in the past), then the same behaviour is now ‘moral’?

Hmmm … an objective moral standard?

Apologies if I have misunderstood, but you did not make it easy.

You also finish by saying that “the scientific method looks like a reliable approach to learning.” But you have not arrived at any basis for objective morality using the scientific method! Furthermore, the ‘scientific method’ is not capable of investigating the origin of everything because there are no repeatable experiments possible (see ‘It’s not science).

As for atheism needing less assumptions than theism (actually, I am not just about theism but Christianity, a particular version of theism) and probabilities, etc., you are showing your pre-existing bias (axiomatic assumptions) here, I think. For a different perspective of how reasonable materialistic assumptions are, see: Familiarity breeds … respect? The materialistic view contradicts the most established principal of reason and rationality (and science), that of cause and effect. No one has ever seen anything begin to exist without a sufficient cause, yet materialists believe that the greatest beginning of all, the universe, had no cause (see: Who created God? and Physicists: The universe had a beginning). That would have to be the most improbable event possible, scientifically speaking. And then I could mention the origin of life; another fantastically improbable beginning with no sufficient cause. It takes a lot of ‘faith’ to be a materialist.

Kind regards,

Don

PS. I just came across this, an independent source that backs up what I have said, that evolution (‘science’) provides no basis for objective morality and in fact undermines it: Consternation over Ben Carson, Evolution, and Morality.

Helpful Resources