Is morality rational, on atheism?

UPDATE: Welcome readers from the the Western Experience! Thanks for the link, Jason!

Last week, I posted a list of 13 questions that Christians could use to get discussions going with their atheist friends. We got 10 responses to the questions. Yesterday, we took a look at the minimal requirements for robust, prescriptive morality. Today, we’ll evaluate atheism, as represented by the 10 respondents to the survey, to see whether the minimal requirements are rationally grounded by atheism.

1) Objective moral values: NOT GROUNDED

All ten respondents stated that moral values have no mind-independent existence. In other words, they are purely subjective. Eight of the respondents thought that each person should decide for themselves what is moral for them, and 2 thought that each person should act in accordance with the arbitrary social conventions of the culture where they lived. Those standards change over time and in different places, of course. They are arbitrary.

2) Objective moral duties: NOT GROUNDED

All ten respondents said that there was no such thing as objective moral values, and so there can be no objective moral duties either. Most people said that their own preferences were the source of subjective moral values. But a duty owed to oneself can be canceled when things get difficult. The best attempt was the social contract answer, but this fails because the social contract is arbitrary. There is no reason to limit your happiness because of an arbitrary social contract, so long as you can escape the social consequences of disobedience.

3) Moral accountability: NOT GROUNDED

Nine respondents did not believe in God. The one who did believe said that God did not care about our actions. Therefore, there is no accountability for the decisions we make. So long as we can avoid the consequences for violating the arbitrary fashions of the time and place where we live, nothing will happen to us if we put our happiness above the needs of our feelings of “empathy” for others.

4) Free will: NOT GROUNDED

All ten respondents were materialists, and therefore did not believe in minds or souls independent of the material that makes up the body. Therefore, everything that humans do is fully determined by the genetic programming and the sensory inputs. To expect moral choices or moral responsibility on atheism is like expecting the same from a computer. Physical systems don’t have free will. There is no “ought to do” for lumps of matter that are not designed by anyone for any specific purpose.

5) Ultimate significance: NOT GROUNDED

All ten of the respondents were materialists, so life ends in the grave for them. Scientists have discovered that in the future, the amount of usable energy, such as the heat and light emitted by stars, will run down to zero, the “heat death of the universe”. What this means is that the entire universe will become cold and lifeless at some point. Humans are therefore doomed to extinction no matter how they act.

Conclusion

On atheism, there is no reason for an atheist to constrain his pursuit of happiness. If he does take into account the needs of others because of feelings and emotions (“empathy”), he is acting irrationally. Feelings are not logical arguments. There is no such thing as a “moral” action on atheism, all actions are undertaken for pleasure or personal preference.

In the survey results, none of the ten respondents could oppose slavery on rational grounds, none of the ten respondents could perform self-sacrificial acts on rational grounds, and none of the ten respondents could explain why murder was wrong, on rational grounds. They may have chosen the right alternative, but only based on emotion, not on reason.

As Greg Koukl argues, morality is not rationally grounded on atheism. Now, it is true that atheists act inconsistently in ways that seem to be moral. This is because:

  1. Judeo-Christian morality is still floating around in out Western society, even though it is on the way out due to materialist persecution of public religious expression and the Judeo-Christian theology that grounded morality
  2. Regardless of what materialism says, God made the universe with objective moral values, and humans with free will, so even if people say that morality is relative and that they are machines, they may still act inconsistently to do the right thing, since their views are mistaken, especially if the costs are minimal

But when the heat is really on, they will cave in to their desires. Rational grounding is needed in order to do the right thing when there are consequences for doing the right thing.

Further study

You can get the full story on the requirements for rational morality in a published, peer-reviewed paper written by William Lane Craig here. You can also hear and see him present the paper to an audience of students and faculty at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2008. The audio is clipped at 67 minutes, the video is the full 84 minutes. There is 45 minutes of Q&A, with many atheist challengers.

The video of this lecture is the best material you can get on this issue, and the Q&A from the hostile audience is vital to the lesson. More debates on atheism and morality can be found on the debate and lecture page.

You can find a post contrasting the morality of an authentic, consistent Christian with an authentic, consistent non-Christian here. A post examining how atheism is responsible for the deaths of 100 million innocent people in the 20th century alone is here. A post analyzing the tiny number of deaths that religion was responsible for is here.

24 thoughts on “Is morality rational, on atheism?”

  1. Hey WK,

    Sorry it took so long. I finished your questions and my answers can be found at the link on my name on this comment.

    Ben

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  2. Simply making up a reason to act in a particular way, and then saying that you’re acting in a particular way because of that reason is irrational, because you are asserting a falsehood as a truth.

    A person’s wants, desires, preferences, emotions and feelings are facts about the world; acting on them is entirely rational.

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    1. @The Barefoot Bum

      Tune in at 4 PM today where I will evaluate whether Christian theism has any better answers for the need for moral foundations in order to ground moral actions.

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      1. @Wintery Knight

        Your survey is flawed. There are multiple times when an answer amounts to “yes”, but you count it as a no. Examples:

        Question 9: Could you condemn slavery in a society where it was accepted, on rational grounds? [NO: 10] [YES: 0]

        “Would use evidence that all people are basically similar neurologically, and ask slaveowners to empathize with enslaved. Might work with Thomas Jefferson.”

        Question 8: Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger? [NO: 10] [YES: 0]
        “I use happiness in more of an Aristotelian sense. Happiness is not something that I necessarily feel at this very moment. I know that I would feel bad if the little girl died, but it would be more than just immediate feelings.”

        Question 11: Is there an objective purpose to life, (or does each person decide for themselves)? [NO: 10] [YES: 0]

        Why does a purpose to life need to be accepted by everyone to be moral? Unless by objective you mean that you can substantiate whether or not you have upheld your standards.

        Even more important: What you should have done in your study, is two things. First, ask “What does the word moral mean?”. After you find this, you must determine whether or not Atheists can fit this definition.

        Let me try:
        “morality – concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong; right or good conduct ”
        Defined by:
        http://www.google.ca/search?hl=en&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla%3Aen-GB%3Aofficial&hs=8da&q=define%3A+moral&btnG=Search&meta=

        Can Atheists distinguish between right and wrong? They do so everyday. Do they think that there is a universal, objective right or wrong? Not necessarily, but that is not a necessary requirement. I can be personally moral simply by asking myself what principles I value as right for me, and then constructing conduct that adheres to them.

        For example, if I it were my principle to base everything as a utilitarian trying to minimize total harm, then suddenly I am left in a situation where I would be willing to self-sacrifice for others(especially the young), since there is more life amongst the young, and amongst two people than me, etc. etc.

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        1. I am looking for a RATIONAL ground for adopting the moral point of view, not self-interested pleasure. There is not RATIONAL ground for morality on atheism. Empathy is irrational. Happiness is irrational. Subjectivism is irrational. I want a RATIONAL ground for morality. The title of the post is “Is morality RATIONAL, on atheism”. It’s not about whether you can ape the outward actions of the majority of your herd, which vary arbitrarily by time and place.

          I defined morality to mean OBJECTIVE MORALITY. Morality that does not depend on personal opinions and cultural fashions. On atheism, there is no OBJECTIVE MORALITY. There is only personal preferences and cultural fashions, which are arbitrary, and vary by time and place. When an atheist apes the actions of the majority of his herd in order to feel pleasure or avoid being though unfashionable, that is not what we mean by MORALITY. The word MORALITY does not even make sense on atheism.

          What atheists do is not morality, it’s the pursuit of pleasure, and it results in 50 million unborn children dead, not to mention millions of deaths from other atheist delusions like communism. NOTHING is right or wrong on atheism. No moral law. No consciousness. No free will. No life after death. No meaning in life. No purpose in life. Atheists are just living like animals. There is no way they ought to be. It’s the morality of the sociopath.

          Just FYI utilitarian grounds the abuse of minority because it promotes the happiness of the majority. Mass murder and slavery are morally justified on utilitarianism. There is no such thing as human rights in an accidental universe.

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          1. Whats the rational (sorry, RATIONAL) reason to do the right thing on Theism, exactly?

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          2. The question to be answered is why should a person act in a self-sacrificial way when it does not give them pleasure and may even result in punishment. On atheism, self-sacrifice is irrational because morality is illusory, we have no free will, and life is temporary. Your life purpose on atheism is to be as happy as possible before you die, and there is no room for self-sacrificial love just to be good. So it is not rational to sacrifice yourself for the “moral law”. There is no moral law, on atheism. That’s what I mean when I say that morality is not rational on atheism. I mean self-sacrificial morality is not rational, and it seems to me that this morality is the only kind that counts.

            But here’s what is true on Christian theism:

            1) the moral law is real (objective) not subjective and not arbitrary
            2) humans have free will – we are not biologically determined
            3) there is a real Creator/Designer who says we ought to obey the moral law
            4) there is a final judgment where our free choices to obey or not are measured
            5) obedience to the moral law affects the quality (not duration) of that eternal life
            6) the author of the moral law loves us self-sacrificially

            And what does all of this mean, on Christian Theism:

            There is an objective moral standard that specifies what we (morally) ought to do on Christian theism, like self-sacrificial love. Our capacity to make a choice to accomodate that moral obligation is real, because we have consciousness and free will on Christian theism. There is a real way we ought to be, and a real capacity to choose to be that way. But sometimes being good that way sets us back, personally. Is self-sacrificial love rational when it reduces our pleasure in this life? What happens when doing the right thing results in LESS happiness in this life and maybe even LESS time to live in this life? Is self-sacrifice rational on Christianity?

            Well, there are two thing better than a finite amount of happiness in this life and a finite duration of this life. And that’s an infinite amount of happiness and an infinite duration of life. If we could get that by taking a little short-term pain here and now, then it would make sense for us to suffer now and get something better later, if the world really were designed that way as a matter of fact. And that’s what Christian theists believe is the case.

            So, on Christian theism, self-sacrificial love is rational because it is in our own best interest to do so AND because it’s what we were designed to do. It’s the way the world is that makes it rational, and that objective reality can be investigated and sustained in a debate using the standard arguments. Self-sacrifice is rational on Christian theism because there is a state of affairs that makes it rational.

            But there is more to it than just self-interest. You have to remember that Jesus’ self-sacrificial death on our behalf is a kind of call to action as well. It may be that many or even most Christians never think about rational self-interest. They think of relationships. They look around at the world and they are willing to take on the obligations of the moral law in the context of having a relationship with God. They don’t think of obeying the moral law as a way to get eternal happiness and eternal life, but as the only possible rational response to another person who sacrifices themselves to love them. It’s not just that we want eternal life, or eternal happiness. We want a relationship with that person who loves us. We have a desire to be loved in a non-temporary way. We want to know that other person as he really is. I would not call that desire self-interest. I’m thinking of what I feel like when I ask a woman to spend time talking to me over a meal that I will pay for, and she says yes. She probably isn’t thinking that she is doing this in order to be made 100% happy with no demands on her own behavior. There is something more going on there than self-interest – she wants to have a relationship, and she is willing to make adjustments to have that relationship. Most Christians aren’t thinking that they are going to have eternal life or eternal happiness. They want to know who this person is and they are not concerned about the fact that this person wants them to act a certain way as part of that relationship. We want the relationship. It’s rational for us to act in a way that keeps the relationship going.

            Normally, to get a relationship started, I give a woman a book to read or a DVD to watch. That’s not fun. But it is a gift. Either she is going to want to know this person who chose her or she isn’t. Maybe she thinks I will make her happy, but that’s not why she takes that first step to follow me. She wants the relationship.

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          3. don’t think this works.

            As you say, Christians doing the good things (lets just ignore works/grace etc.) brings them goods post mortem thanks to god. But this makes is enlightened self-interest – Christians, believing that Christianity is true, likewise believe that their self-sacrifice pays off in the end. I always find it strange when people who push the moral argument use this as a plus. On Atheism, genuine altruism is possible – because it really can be self-sacrifice. You can just lose out.

            And besides, maybe it _is_ to your own benefit to live a moral life, even if it means that you sometimes lose out. Perhaps (following the Greeks) real happiness does arise from a moral life, and not from shafting everyone else. I really wouldn’t want to live a life of continually defecting, even if I could get away with it perfectly.

            Your relationship example, ironically, hands me a case study for just this. Suppose someone prefers to be in a relationship where they are the subject and object of genuine self-sacrifical love. This being genuine implies there’s at least a risk of them having to self-sacrifice. But, providing they like the relationship enough, it still pays off. As Atheists can love people too, then they have reasons for genuine self-sacrifice. Exactly the same moves can be made for doxastic attitudes related to other altruistic behaviour (e.g. charity).

            [None of this matters if Atheism really does entail moral nihilism or rubbish meta-ethics. But no one who actually does meta-ethics thinks this: either you come up with non-realist conceptions like norm-expressivism which don’t short-change our moral world, or you do realism by irreducible kinds, naturalism, etc. So the broader metaphysics/epistemology is considered pretty safe (or no more unsafe than Divine Command/whatever theories) short of carpet-bombing the field. Motivation is the issue which the literature considers, but I’ve suggested, not an insurmountable one.

            Of course, individual Atheists (like those you surveyed) might have rubbish meta-ethics which lead to nihilism, but that doesn’t mean that their Atheism necessarily does. Besides, most people are rubbish at meta-ethics, regardless of religious stripe.]

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          4. I would say that Christians are rational to be moral in two senses. The first is like drinking water. We were designed by a designer to need water, so we can live, and it makes no sense to substitute sand for water. Similarly, the state of affairs we are in is that we were designed for a relationship – a relationship where we need to compromise on our own selfishness and instead act in a way that respects the character of the Designer – what he is really like. Approaching the Designer in a relationship where there are certain adjustments that need to be made is the way the world is. It’s no more self-interested than drinking water to live. When you couple that with the idea that this person loves us more than any other person, what reason is there not to pursue that relationship?

            But on atheism we have:
            – no free will
            – no objective moral obligations
            – no objective moral value of other humans
            – no final objective judgment, just own subjective feelings
            – no afterlife that makes suffering for doing right rational in the long run
            – no relationship with a loving person that makes it easier for us to yield our autonomy

            On atheism, what you call losing out means that you lose out and it makes no difference that you did lose out, ultimately. On Christian theism, when you lose out to your self-will, it makes a huge difference on into eternity. On atheism, losing out (altruism) is irrational. On Christianity, losing out (denying yourself in this life to take GOD’s character into account) makes a difference in that ongoing relationship with God. He knows what you did, and you know what you did, and that goes on. Not like on atheism where everyone dies in the heat death of the universe. So what an atheist does by substituting a perishable human for God makes no sense. In the long run, we’re all dead, to coin a phrase. (on atheism)

            Why diminish your happiness for nothing, on atheism? It’s necessarily not rational! You can do what you want to do, but being good is not rational. The objective state of affairs on atheism doesn’t ground self-sacrificial love. Love that sets you back.

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  3. In the survey results, none of the ten respondents could oppose slavery on rational grounds, none of the ten respondents could perform self-sacrificial acts on rational grounds, and none of the ten respondents could explain why murder was wrong, on rational grounds. They may have chosen the right alternative, but only based on emotion, not on reason.

    You do realize that logic and rationallity entails premises at some point that are themselves not proven? In other words, having a “reason” for acting is not itself evidence for anything, other than you had a “reason”.

    If by rational ground you mean the conclussion follows logically from a set of premises, then I can give a rational reason for opposing slavery. Mine derives from my own empathic views about other people and my agreeing to fight for universal legal protections for all people. Your opposition to slavery is possibly rational in that it derives from from the premises that 1)God exists, 2)God has provided a set of rules, 3)One of these rules is that “Slavery is Wrong!” 4)One ought to follow the rules of God.

    Some of these premises may be factually true, but not all of them. Certainly, 4) can not be shown factually true and if it is the conclusion of some other logically sound argument, that argument must have premises that are unproven. Somewhere in any rational “system” there will be premises that must be acepted as true without argument.

    As BB points out above, it is rational for me to act towards my happiness. It is rational for me to seek things I desire. It is rational to act in accordance with facts about the world.

    You seem to have a simplistic (and uncharitable) notion about what we mean by desire. Desire is not just what I emotionally want right now. It is a complicated set of intellectual and emotional responses to the world. I can really want (desire) to do something right now (like smoke) but also really desire to not do something (like quit smoking). Just because I desire to smoke now does not mean I will. I can rationally recognize that in order to be happy in a world of six billion people I can’t have everything that I want. I have to share this world with many other people. Sometimes I have to give up something today to get something tomorrow becasue this is an effective way for me to get happiness. This is rational.

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  4. “In the survey results, none of the ten respondents could oppose slavery on rational grounds, none of the ten respondents could perform self-sacrificial acts on rational grounds, and none of the ten respondents could explain why murder was wrong, on rational grounds. They may have chosen the right alternative, but only based on emotion, not on reason.”

    Which strangely enough mirrors actual human experience, where people make moral judgments without first going through an entire process of deciding what is rational. Unless you can demonstrate that it’s a) desirable and b) possible to make moral judgments that don’t involve the emotions, then your position seems a little self-defeating.

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  5. Lane’s premise is flawed. He assumes that only absolute morality leads to goodness. There is no rational basis that requires such a proposition, and therefore absoluteness is merely sufficient and not necessary for goodness or morality.

    We don’t need a higher power for binding morality; we only need each other and to want what’s best for our families, our society, and (yes, gasp!) even ourselves.

    Given that morality changes over time, I have never understood how anyone can claim it possesses the quality of absoluteness.

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    1. You keep talking about “good”, “evil”, “best” and “goodness”.

      Where does the standard of good and evil come from, on your view?

      Is it:

      1) your opinion (i.e. – personal preference)
      2) the arbitrary standards of your culture in this time and place (i.e. – fashion)
      3) an objective standard made by a Creator and Designer
      4) something else (be explicit)

      Then explain to me why I should care about this standard when it goes against my self-interest, on your view. Why would it be rational and prudent for me to care about this standard when I act, so long as I can avoid the social consequences of being “unfashionable” by concealment, or by exercising power.

      Be very specific and answer the questions asked.

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  6. “On atheism, there is no reason for an atheist to constrain his pursuit of happiness.”

    That depends on what you mean by happiness. If by happiness you mean fleeting pleasures, you are absolutely wrong. There are plenty of reasons for atheists to delay gratification and avoid things that are pleasurable but risky or harmful. A simple cost/benefit analysis would show you why.

    However if you’re referring to true happiness – the deeply satisfying self actualization type of happiness – then you’re absolutely right. There is no reason for an atheist to constrain his pursuit of happiness. The way to do that is to pursue one’s rational self interest, and in practice that means behaving in a principled and moral way.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I am interesting in some of the details, rather than the thinly-veiled insults to my intelligence.

      NAME the reasons why atheists should sacrifice their own lives for strangers. Be SPECIFIC. I want to know what the reason is. Otherwise, I’ll know that it’s just bluster and you have no reason to curtail your own ammoral hedonism, and that you will use and abuse anyone weaker than yourself so long as you can avoid being caught and punished.

      You mention morality. What is the means of existence of the moral standard that you are using? Where does it exist, and how did it come to be? I want SPECIFICS. Otherwise I will know that what you mean by “morality” is just your personal tastes and preferences, which are arbitary. And then we’ll know that atheists have no morality, and no reason to sacrifice their interests for anyone else’s.

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  7. I assure you that I did not intend to insult your intelligence in any way.

    In many scenarios (if not all) where one could theoretically sacrifice their life and save another, the eventual outcome can not be predicted with 100% certainty. Meaning that in the end, both lives could be lost, your life would not be forfeited in the end or the person would die anyway and you would live despite your efforts.

    In practice this means that each situation must be carefully considered to examine those possibilities and the risks of each outcome occurring. (Of course in scenarios where there isn’t that kind of time, that’s really moot and a person’s instinct takes over but let’s ignore that for now.)

    Let’s look at the following scenario: A child is drowning and I know how to swim. No one else is around, and there would be no bragging rights involved. Knowing that I know how to swim, I jump in and save the child. As an atheist, these are my three main considerations when I do so.

    1. I can swim. If I didn’t know how to swim, jumping in would be irrational as the most likely outcome would be us both drowning and the attempt would be even worse than useless.

    2. Even though I am risking my life – I would be safer if I did not jump in – the risk to my life is lower than my risk getting into a car and going to work every morning. Therefore the risk is acceptable.

    3. Saving the child would make me profoundly happy, and letting the child drown would make me profoundly unhappy. So unhappy that I’m not sure if I would be able to live with myself.

    Now you may say that’s just a matter of personal whim, but it’s not. Empathy and consideration for others is a profound part of what it means to be human and it always has been. There are sociopaths in the world, but they are as damaged and psychologically abnormal as people who run around thinking they see little green Martians.

    There is evidence that from the earliest humans onward, people have been partly “selfish” and partly cooperative. It’s our nature, and it hasn’t changed. People acted that way long before anything even resembling our current manifestation of religion came along. Modern religion is, among other things, the product of intelligent minds trying to make the world make sense by drawing a bullseye around targets that would be there anyway.

    So why should an atheist not abuse anyone weaker than themselves assuming they could avoid being caught and punished? Because doing so would go against their human nature, and going against one’s nature has severe psychological consequences causing severe unhappiness.

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    1. OK, I understand now. I see 3) as a real reason for acting, but my problem with 3) is that there are going to be times when the right thing to do doesn’t make you happy, and what will you do then?

      Regarding your comments on empathy, I agree that those faculties are needed for morality, but I am asking a philosophical question. Why should I be moral when it makes me unhappy to be moral? What should I do when the right thing to do damages me personally, maybe even killing me?

      I am not so much interesting in observations about what people have always done, because that doesn’t matter to me today when I have to decide whether I am going to set aside my selfish desire for happiness NOW in order to do what is right for someone else. It seems to me that on your view, it would be irrational to set aside your own happiness in this life to do right, because happiness in this life is all you have.

      We have to set aside the question of why religion was invented, because, as a Christian, the only question that concerns me about religion is whether Christianity is true. I.e. – did God create the universe, and life, and did Jesus rise from the dead. Those are evidential questions. The problem that religion tries to solve is: what is the truth about origins, meaning and purpose? If I go back 2000 years, will I see Jesus coming out of the tomb unassisted? If I go back 14 billion years, does the entire physical universe come into being out of nothing with no material cause?

      So now we have clarity on some issues, (but still disagreement, as Dennis Prager says), but I am still concerned about where moral rules fit into your view. Where do prescriptive statements of what we ought to do come from? Is it personal preference based on what makes each person happy? Is it cultural fashions based on the majority view of different peoples in different times and places? Or is it an external standard that applies regardless of what humans may believe individually or collectively? (on your view)

      Also, if matter is all there is, how would you reconcile free will with a materialist conception of human beings? You can’t have moral choices without free will, and you can’t have free will without a non-physical self that is not determined by the physical interactions in your brain, because then your actions would be determined.

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  8. When would doing the “right thing” make me unhappy? And by unhappy, I mean the deep dissatisfaction that comes from not following one’s rational self interest. Trading temporary unhappiness for deeper, long term happiness is a no brainer. In fact, Christianity uses this fact to its advantage (heaven, anyone?).

    “Why should I be moral when it makes me unhappy to be moral? What should I do when the right thing to do damages me personally, maybe even killing me?”

    I can’t think of a scenario in which that choice would exist. For example, a soldier fighting for a cause he believes in might put himself at extreme risk. However he is standing up for what he truly believes and is therefore acting in his own self interest. So he is not being self sacrificial, particularly in the Kantian sense. He is doing the opposite. His actions are self affirming.

    “We have to set aside the question of why religion was invented, because, as a Christian, the only question that concerns me about religion is whether Christianity is true. I.e. – did God create the universe, and life, and did Jesus rise from the dead. Those are evidential questions.”

    Fine, I’m okay with that.

    As for your question about what Atheists think people ought to do, I can’t speak for all Atheists on that one. However I certainly don’t believe in any external standard that applies to everyone, in every time and place. What I do believe is that each person should act in his or her rational self interest. Often, that means acting in a way that simultaneously benefits others.

    An example of making a moral decision based on rational self interest: I walk into a grocery store and see a tasty apple. I could steal it. Why don’t I? Because there is a chance I might get caught, certainly. Because I could so easily just pay for it. Because I own property myself and think it is in my self interest to participate in a system that protects my property as well as the property of others. Because I have a reputation of integrity and do not even want to take the smallest chance that it would be tarnished just because I stole an apple.

    Something to consider is that people can often sniff out a person who is likely to be a cheater, so it makes sense to be honest even inside your own head to avoid being ostracized by society.

    As for free will, no there is no non physical self such as the soul or Cartesian theater. Who we are is made up of our genes and our experiences, although decisions themselves are extremely complicated things and are difficult to predict.

    So no, will is not free. However just because we can explain how people make decisions that does not mean that we should remove punishment since people’s behavior changes based on incentives and disincentives. Basically, free will is an illusion however society’s laws and mores are part of the environmental package that affect people’s decisions. So even in the absence of real free will, it makes sense to hold people responsible for their actions.

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    1. “I can’t think of a scenario in which that choice would exist.”

      Suppose you were living back in the days of slavery. Would you sacrifice 25 years of your life, your health, and your reputation in the community, in order to try to abolish the slave trade, like William Wilberforce? You would have nothing to gain in this life. You are never going to see an atheist sacrifice his own happiness like William Wilberforce did. He was an evangelical Christian, so he had grounds for sacrificing himself to save others. Atheists don’t sacrifice themselves for moral rules unless it makes them happy to do so in this life. Christians sacrifice themselves for moral rules and they don’t care if it makes them unhappy in this life.

      And, I just want to ask again about the means of existence of moral prescriptions (e.g. – thou shalt not murder). Is the prescriptive moral rule “thou shalt not murder” a personal preference based on what makes each person happy? Is it cultural fashions based on the majority view of different peoples in different times and places? Or is it an external standard that applies regardless of what humans may believe individually or collectively?

      Kim Jong Il has a wonderful time murdering people who make him unhappy and he faces no consequences. Can you say that what he is doing is wrong? He is just doing what is in his rational self-interest and what makes him happy. Isn’t that your rule for what counts as moral? Why is it immoral for him to make himself happy by killing innocent people? He feels good. He isn’t going to be face any consequences in this life. What is rational objection to what he is doing?

      Also, if you deny free will then you deny morality choices. Morality presumes the ability to make choices to do good or evil. If there is no free will, then the whole notion of good and evil actions is dead. If there is no free will, then NO ONE does good and NO ONE does evil. We are just dancing to the beat of our DNA. So we are back to my point that morality is not rationally grounded on atheism.

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  9. I might spend 25 years trying to abolish slavery if I believed in the cause strongly. The underlying reasons for doing so would be empathy and self fulfillment. However I certainly would not do so out of a sense of duty. The idea of self sacrifice is at its core destructive and anti-human. The idea that it’s necessarily positive is something that you seem to take for granted. Don’t.

    Individual whims are not what I am advocating for. Rational self interest is. “Thou shalt not kill” is a rule that developed not because killing another person is inherently wrong. And it certainly predates the Bible. There are all sorts of circumstances in which killing another person is socially acceptable even today. Self defense, for example. War. Punishment.

    In order for society to function, people can’t go around killing each other. If a person in society breaks that rule, there are prices to pay and not just the ones society levies. If he is a sociopath or a psychopath, he won’t have any psychological consequences – like tortuous guilt. However the vast majority of people are not sociopaths or psychopaths.

    Kim Jong is a sociopath. You are correct in that a sociopath has no rational justification to stop doing horrible things unless he is forced to. Which is why the rest of us should stop him.

    There is no such thing as morality. Or Good. Or Evil. However we certainly do not just march to the beat of our DNA. If we did, identical twins would have identical minds. However there is still beneficial and detrimental.

    Getting back the to Kim Jong example, say he was a Christian. Believed in all the tenets of Christianity – heaven, hell, the whole bit. And he made the decision not to kill people even though it’s fun for him based purely on the idea that he was afraid of hell and wanted the goodies of heaven.

    How would he be different than the average Christian? Do you really think people resist adultery because God said to? If they do, it’s because it’s comforting for them to have an authority figure who knows everything and that they can follow unquestioningly. The vast majority of Christians (at least try to) act in their rational self interest – much as an atheist would. It’s human nature. Oh and there’s always the carrot of heaven to look forward to.

    And while we’re on that subject, I find it very interesting that there are no rules in Christianity that would be followed just because God said so. They all have understandable reasons behind them. Don’t steal, don’t envy, don’t kill – fine and dandy. But whatever happened to “don’t eat shellfish” or “don’t mix wool and linen together”? I know, Jesus conveniently nixed those. But as an intelligent person, doesn’t it make you wonder?

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    1. “The underlying reasons for doing so would be empathy and self fulfillment.”

      Empathy is not a reason it’s a feeling. That means that your subjective emotions are deciding what is right for you. But if people should do what feels right to them, then you have no way of condemning slavery. You would have no reason to say that what slavers did by owning slaves is wrong. They are just following their feelings, like you are. There is nothing really wrong with owning slaves on your view. You just don’t like it, just like I don’t like turnips.

      “Do what is in your rational self-interest”.

      Is that your personal preference? Morality isn’t doing what you feel is right. Morality is bringing your conduct in line with a standard that exists independently of you. So on your view you are not MORAL, you are AMORAL – you don’t believe that there is any way you ought to act outside of your own self-interest. This is the same morality as dictators, who do what they want based on their self-interest. Your reason for acting is IDENTICAL to that of Kim Jong Il. He has not external standard, and nor do you. You would say to him “do what is in your rational self-interest” and he would reply “I agree and that’s what I do”. You are not able to condemn killing innocent people when it is in the self-interest of the murderer to murder. He is as justified as you, based on his personal preferences.

      “In order for society to function, people can’t go around killing each other.”

      If a murderer can escape the social consequences of murdering someone, what is really wrong with murder on your view? People can go around killing other people (on your view) so long as it is in their self-interest and they do not get caught. It it makes them feel fulfilled, then why not? Suppose you are married and on a business trip, and you can have an affair with an old friend who would never tell anyone. Where is the standard that says it is wrong to commit adultery when you can get away with it and it will make you happy? If it is up to personal preferences, then how can you complain if your spouse does this to you? It’s just personal preferences that determines what people should do. Rational self-interest. Each person decides what feels right to them, and everyone is right in their own eyes.

      So to sum up your view:

      1) There is no free will, and therefore no moral choices
      2) There are no objective standards of right and wrong
      3) There are no objective human rights, such as the right to life
      4) There are no objective duties
      5) There is no judgment for those who do evil and escape the consequences (if I spot you objective “evil”)
      6) There is no reward for those who do good and are punished for it (if I spot you objective “good”)
      7) There is no moral significance for any of our choices ultimately, we just choose what makes us happy

      That isn’t what people mean by morality. I believe in real right and wrong. Not everything that is right makes a person happy. Not everything that is wrong makes a person unhappy. Your view is not morality, it is the denial of morality. This is the denial of right and wrong. This is the denial of good and evil.

      Not trying to be mean, I like the way your write very much. Nothing personal, just arguing against your view.

      By the way, I am a radical capitalist and a small government conservative. So we may agree there.

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      1. Empathy is not just a feeling. It is an essential feature of human nature. It is an intensely powerful motivational factor, and not something that is easily ignored. It’s a subjective feeling in that people feel it subjectively, but all normal people experience the feeling.

        The reason why dehumanization of particular groups of people is necessary in order to have institutions like slavery or horrific exterminations like the Holocaust is precisely because of empathy. Those societies (general in the case of slavery, Germany in the case of the Holocaust) could not have stood by and allowed it if they considered the victims to be human and thus feel empathy for them.

        During the time that slavery existed, slave owners were not doing the wrong thing. However they did act against their rational self interest if they treated their slaves badly, sacrificing productivity for cheap laughs.

        Rational self interest and personal preference are not the same. By the way, I am not moral because I don’t believe in morality. However I do act in a way that is commonly considered to be moral. I have never said otherwise.

        I can’t condemn Kim Jong’s actions any more than I can condemn the actions of any other mentally ill person. However I can call for the actions to be forcibly stopped and I do.

        “If a murderer can escape the social consequences of murdering someone, what is really wrong with murder on your view? People can go around killing other people (on your view) so long as it is in their self-interest and they do not get caught. It it makes them feel fulfilled, then why not?”

        That assumes that the way society treats a murderer is arbitrary and the way people feel about committing murder is arbitrary as well. It’s not. However assuming that there was society of aliens (since this scenario doesn’t make sense involving humans) that allowed murder and where all the aliens were essentially sociopaths, there would be nothing wrong with murder in that scenario.

        “Suppose you are married and on a business trip, and you can have an affair with an old friend who would never tell anyone. Where is the standard that says it is wrong to commit adultery when you can get away with it and it will make you happy?”

        There isn’t any in that scenario but that’s not how real life works, except of course for sociopaths/psychopaths who somehow have some way of knowing for sure that they won’t get caught.

        In real life, people form attachments to their spouse. They feel guilty if they cheat. They value the special bond they have with their spouse and don’t want to ruin it. They fear getting caught.

        People who cheat do so for a lot of reasons. But they are usually not people who are happy in their marriage but feel like getting a little on the side just for the heck of it.

        “If it is up to personal preferences, then how can you complain if your spouse does this to you?”

        I can’t and I wouldn’t. However I would sure as hell make sure he faced the consequences.

        “Rational self-interest. Each person decides what feels right to them, and everyone is right in their own eyes.”

        No. That’s not what rational self interest means.

        “1) There is no free will, and therefore no moral choices”
        Yes

        “2) There are no objective standards of right and wrong”
        Yes

        “3) There are no objective human rights, such as the right to life”
        Yes

        “4) There are no objective duties”

        “5) There is no judgment for those who do evil and escape the consequences (if I spot you objective “evil”)”
        How about we substitute “evil” for “actions that society deems objectionable”. That depends on what you mean by judgment. Think less of them? Absolutely. Punish them? Hell yeah.

        “6) There is no reward for those who do good and are punished for it (if I spot you objective “good”)”
        If you substitute “good” for “acting in one’s rational self interest in an unpopular way” then there absolutely are rewards. There just aren’t any in heaven. Don’t underestimate personal gratification.

        “7) There is no moral significance for any of our choices ultimately, we just choose what makes us happy”

        No. There is no moral significance, but the results are best if one acts in their rational self interest.

        Argue against my view all you want. I don’t take offense. You are the best debate partner I’ve had in literally years and I’m enjoying this very much.

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