[Originally published in Freethought Kampala]
“To be incapable of proof by reasoning is common to all first principles; to the first premises of our knowledge, as well as to those of our conduct. But the former, being matters of fact, may be the subject of a direct appeal to the faculties which judge of fact- namely, our senses, and our internal consciousness. Can an appeal be made to the same faculties on questions of practical ends? Or by what other faculty is cognisance taken of them?”
When an atheist is debating with a theist on the issue of morality, he will, at some point, criticize whatever concept of god the theist happens to be defending.
Let’s say this theist is a Christian. As you might expect, questions will be asked about one atrocity or another in the Old Testament, the evil nature of the Christian god, the concept of hell, or maybe the very nature of existence of evil in the world. For reasons such as these the Christian god, the atheist will argue, cannot be the basis for morality. The theist, in response, might try to offer an apologetic defense for those atrocities. He will probably also invoke Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense for the problem of evil to show that the existence of evil is consistent with the Christian god.
Christian apologist might turn the tables round at this point, and challenge the atheist to account for the standard of morality by which he is judging the Christian god. If this god is evil, by what standard has it been established that is he evil? And why should that standard be accepted as the default?
The atheist might then appeal to societal consensus, or to some utilitarian approach to determining good and evil and judge the Christian god by that. Of course, morality based on societal consensus or utilitarianism are fraught with serious problems, and if pressed hard enough, counter examples can be brought to bear that can undermine their use as moral standards.
For example, if, as per Utilitarianism, the atheist says good is what enhances wellbeing for the greatest number of individuals while minimizing harm, he then has the task of explaining to the theist what well-being is.
Well-being is a term that is impossible to determine outside the scope of every individual’s subjective personal experiences. For this reason it can differ from person to person in many areas and in many ways, rendering well-being an unreliable standard for deriving an objective, universal ethical principle by which to judge actions of people (or gods for that matter).
Aggregating these subjective views into a consensus still does not make the principle objective or universally applicable – it just makes it a subjective majority opinion.
An axiom is a “self-evident principle or one that is accepted as true without proof as the basis for argument.”
Suppose the atheist instead attempts to derive an objective standard for morality by appealing to a set of moral axioms as a standard by which to measure the morality of an action. Indeed, it is possible to determine that an action is objectively wrong, when measured against a specific moral axiom. But then all the theist has to do at this point to challenge this is to ask why we should accept the moral axiom the atheist is proposing. If the atheist says the axiom should be accepted because it is self evident, the theist just has to say it may not be self evident to all – and several counter examples exist that can be brought up to demonstrate that this is the case.
For example, atheists usually reject the theistic claim that ‘God’ is self-evident, or that belief in ‘God’ is properly basic. But If atheists reject these claims, then on what grounds, without resorting to special pleading, can they make a case for why the axioms they propose as the basis for morality are self-evident while the existence of ‘God’ is not?
The atheist moral realist thus seems stuck.
This is not to say that a theistic account of ethics fares any better. It does not. It still ends up reducing morality to the subjective whims of whichever deity one subscribes to, as shown by Euthyphro’s Dilemma:
Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say it is good because it is good?
A Christian might counter this by asserting that the objectivity of morality rests not on the whims of ‘God’, but on his essential nature. But this just moves the problem one step back without resolving it:
If God’s essential nature is good, because it is good, it implies that the objective standard for what is good does not rest in God’s essential nature, but in good itself, or some other external standard of ‘good’.
If on the other hand, God’s essential nature is good because good is whatever God’s essential nature is, then ‘good’ is subjective rather than objective. This is because if God’s essential nature was such that he considered rape to be a ‘good’, and it was true that objective moral values are grounded in ‘God’, then rape would be objectively morally good.
It also does not follow that just because an entity has an essential nature, that concepts derived from it, or dependant upon it, are objective. As a human being, my genetic make-up imbues me with predispositions towards all kinds of feelings, impulses, likes and dislikes – this is my nature. But this does not mean that the moral impulses that arise from my genetically determined predispositions represent intrinsic truths about reality. No. They simply represent my subjective feelings on an issue. Therefore, even if it were true that ‘God’ exists, and has a nature, and that nature was synonymous with ‘goodness’ – any moral values derived from ‘God’ would still be subjective. So even if it could be established that objective moral values do exist, they could not possibly be dependant upon ‘God’.
Some have pointed out that – ‘God’ or no ‘God’ – the notion objective moral values is in fact oxymoronic, or contradictory – because for a thing to be valued (an object – real or abstract), there has to be a thing valuing it (the subject).
Any moral “value”, therefore, would necessarily have to be subjective.
Basing Morality on ‘God’:
Apart from it being subjective, basing universal moral principles (i.e. applicable to all people under all circumstances) on the wishes or dictates of ‘God’ has other devastating problems.
First of all, not everyone believes that ‘God’ exists.
Also, among those that believe, people have different ideas about what constitutes ‘God’ – to some, theirs is a deity high in the heavens, interested in overseeing the lives of the creatures he created. To others, ‘God’ is simply nature – not a being.
Then there are those who do not accept there is one ‘God’, but that there are many.
Let’s be charitable and even suppose everyone believes in a single god – does this improve the situation? Not really, because whose revelation of this god counts as the authoritative one? The Islamic revelation? The Catholic revelation? The Mormon revelation?
“one man’s god is another man’s false god”
And lets not forget that each revelation has thousands of different interpretations. So while they may claim to believe in the same god, their interpretation of what they think this god has revealed to them differs from denomination to denomination, sect to sect, and believer to believer. Some of these differences are subtle, others are huge.
So for these and others reasons it therefore is problematic to develop universal moral principles on the basis of what some people think ‘God’ wants. We have centuries of religious war to remind us of the problems associated with such a venture.
Of values, desires, preferences:
Science helps us understand why we tend to have certain desires, and why we tend to find certain things (or behaviour by others) more desirable, or preferable, than others.
While the existence of these desires/preferences might be objective facts about ourselves, the desires and preferences themselves are subjective – often differing from individual to individual, and from culture to culture. As such, all axioms (basic principles) upon which both the theist and atheist ‘ground’ their perspectives about morality will always end up being subjective.
It is for this reason that I am an moral error theorist. I believe that moral claims are nothing more than expressions of the subjective preferences of those that claim them.
Care needed when debating ethics:
Because such difficulties exist, I think it is important that those of us who are atheists wanting to talk about ethics to tread slowly and carefully before making moral pronouncements on a whole range of issues.
Sadly, many of us do not, and so sometimes end up sounding just as dogmatic as the religious believers we criticize, when defending our moral positions. Our arguments for morality often sound like arguments for ‘God’, a point Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism captures very well in his post Many Atheists are Hypocrites about Morality. He writes:
But let’s get back to this question of how the atheist can justify his belief in objective moral facts.
Many atheists seem to think moral realism is obvious, and easy to prove. I disagree.
Consider the claim we moral realists are making. We generally claim there are invisible properties in the world not detectable by our usual tools of science, properties of an entirely different sort than the usual “is” facts of science. These are mysterious “ought” facts, and there is great disagreement about what they are or how we know them.
Now that is a strong claim. An extraordinary claim, we might say. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, right?
So what is the atheist’s extraordinary evidence for this claim? Usually, it’s something like this:
- “I experience a world of moral facts. I feel very strongly that rape is objectively wrong, and charity is objectively right.”
- “Almost everybody believes in moral facts. It’s just obvious. Until you can prove there aren’t any, I’m justified in believing what people have always believed: that some things are really right or wrong.”
Do those arguments look familiar? They should. They are the exact same arguments atheists reject when they are given for the existence of God.
Indeed Luke is right.
On the matter of OUGHTS:
In, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), philosopher David Hume wrote:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not.
This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.
The Is-Ought problem has plagued the mind of many a philosopher through the centuries, with seemingly no credible resolution.
Moral prescriptions (oughts) people tend to come up with are all conditional on desires and preferences – which are, by definition, subjective. For example:
If I want to others to survive – I OUGHT TO feed them
If I want to have friends – I OUGHT TO treat people they way they’d like to be treated by others.
If I want to abide by what ‘God’ says – I OUGHT to follow the Ten Commandments
But what happens if one asks WHY one ought to want others to survive, have friends or abide by what ‘God’ says? Any answer given will be subject to its own WHY as well. The “WHY” regress will continue until a point is reached beyond which the moral realist cannot go – a point for which there exists no rational justification. That point being…
Intuitions. Feelings. Instinct.
…which seems, to me, about as subjective as you can possibly get.
This viewpoint raises many interesting questions.
For example, if it is true as I allege – that morality is subjective – then can any coherent moral framework for society be constructed? And how would such a framework be binding? How is it that we seem to be getting along?
I know ethics is a highly complex subject, but I find it to be of great interest. I intend to pursue it further in follow up posts and hope to learn more in the process – especially in exploring the questions that my viewpoint raises.