Can there be moral accountability if there is no life after death?

William Lane Craig answers a question.

You need moral accountability for morality to be rational, otherwise the only reason for being moral would be to have happy feelings and to avoid unhappy feelings – which is not prescriptive morality at all, but just self-interest. But that is only one of the things that you need for a person to have a rational basis for acting morally.

Here’s the full list:

1) Objective moral values

There needs to be a way to distinguish what is good from what is bad. For example, the moral standard might specify that being kind to children is good, but torturing them for fun is bad. If the standard is purely subjective, then people could believe anything and each person would be justified in doing right in their own eyes. Even a “social contract” is just based on people’s opinions. So we need a standard that applies regardless of what people’s individual and collective opinions are.

2) Objective moral duties

Moral duties (moral obligations) refer to the actions that are obligatory based on the moral values defined in 1). Suppose we spot you 1) as an atheist. Why are you obligated to do the good thing, rather than the bad thing? To whom is this obligation owed? Why is rational for you to limit your actions based upon this obligation when it is against your self-interest? Why let other people’s expectations decide what is good for you, especially if you can avoid the consequences of their disapproval?

3) Moral accountability

Suppose we spot you 1) and 2) as an atheist. What difference does it make to you if you just go ahead and disregard your moral obligations to whomever? Is there any reward or punishment for your choice to do right or do wrong? What’s in it for you?

4) Free will

In order for agents to make free moral choices, they must be able to act or abstain from acting by exercising their free will. If there is no free will, then moral choices are impossible. If there are no moral choices, then no one can be held responsible for anything they do. If there is no moral responsibility, then there can be no praise and blame. But then it becomes impossible to praise any action as good or evil.

5) Ultimate significance

Finally, beyond the concept of reward and punishment in 3), we can also ask the question “what does it matter?”. Suppose you do live a good life and you get a reward: 1000 chocolate sundaes. And when you’ve finished eating them, you die for real and that’s the end. In other words, the reward is satisfying, but not really meaningful, ultimately. It’s hard to see how moral actions can be meaningful, ultimately, unless their consequences last on into the future.

If you don’t have a rational basis for acting morally, then you will only do it when you want to feel happy, and avoid feeling unhappy. You’ll do it if you feel like it, if people are watching, etc. But you won’t do the right thing if it gets in the way of your selfishness.

For a really good debate on whether morality is real on Christianity and/or atheism, listen to this debate with Glenn Peoples against Cambridge philosopher Arif Ahmed.

If you would like to hear another good debate on whether Christianity and/or atheism can ground some of these requirements, then click here. This one features Sean McDowell.

And here’s a debate that I did with one of our best atheist commenters, Moo.

More about atheistic concepts of morality

Some debates on God and morality

7 thoughts on “Can there be moral accountability if there is no life after death?”

  1. You raise a number of pre-requisites for morality that not everyone will agree with and for which you do not give a strong motivation. Effectively, you are begging the question.

    Let us just look at “You need moral accountability for morality to be rational, otherwise the only reason for being moral would be to have happy feelings and to avoid unhappy feelings […]”:

    1. Even with accountability it would be a matter of self-interest: I do (not) do this-and-that in order to avoid punishment. Indeed, it is arguably more so than without accountability. Kohlberg even rates obedience and punishment orientation as the lowest step of morality. Cf.'s_stages_of_moral_development

    2. Self-interest is not the only thing that can govern our actions. Notably, abstract considerations can be very important, e.g. in form of the golden rule, the related categorical imperative, or as conclusions drawn from abstract principles. The page linked to above gives a number of intermediary alternatives.


    1. I know what you are thinking, but the dynamic in a relationship with God, the ground of objective morality, is not fear. This is something you will hardly hear people talking about. When you have a relationship with God, you don’t really think much about what he is going to do to you. It is more like getting to know a person and then willingly making little adjustments to your behavior out of respect and gratitude that someone so great is interested in you.

      Think of yourself as on a soccer field that has been built by the inventor of the game of soccer. He has purchased all the equipment for you and your team. And he has also mailed you instructions to the game, trained you on how to play with classes and more books, etc. Finally the day comes and your find yourself on the field and the inventor of the game takes his place in the stands. Would you be animated by the fear of losing the game? Is that the only reason to follow the rules and to score? Are you not grateful to the man in the audience who has made all of this, bought the equipment, and then trained you to be able to play well?

      In this case the audience is God, and he makes the field and the rules. If you knew that he had made the field, bought the equipment, and designed the game at great cost and effort, then you might be interested in playing well and scoring just to honor and respect him. That’s what the life of a Christian is actually like. There is a relationship. We are aware of what that other person wants. He acts first to love us. We respond. Fear is not the animating cause here. It is gratitude, and the desire to move the relationship along.


      1. Well, your comment now gives a different impression from your original post. Notably, to me, “accountability” implies the presence of consequences in cases of neglect, incompetence, whatnot. (The exact nature of the consequences can vary considerably with the context, say from a mere “I am disappointed in you”-speech to life-time imprisonment, but there are consequences of a “punishing” nature.)

        Even so, there is a strong element of self-serving involved in your example, a kind of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” or “you scratched my back, so I will scratch your back” (even if on an unconscious level). In effect, the rules are not followed because they are good rules, but out of gratitude to the maker of the rules. Revisiting Kohlberg, we would have moved from stage 1 (out of six) to, probably, the border line between 2 and 3.

        (As an aside: I do not claim that Kohlberg has the ultimate truth in issues of morality; however, his classification is very popular and influential, and matches my own impressions so far reasonably well.)


        1. Yeah, it’s possible to escape detection and punishment in this life if you are wealthy and sneaky. And also, not everything that society punishes you for is bad. E.g. – you might me arrested for having a debate with a Muslim and offending them by telling them the facts about Islam and history.

          Well, I’m going to say that there is an element of truth in what you are saying too. But I am saying to you, that if Christianity is true and Jesus dies to save you from your sins, then there is SOMETHING ELSE at work there. That’s all I am saying. And then when you go through life finding books and debates, going to conferences and hearing different views, understanding non-Christians and how they feel about God, and meeting other Christians, and doing things together and accomplishing things, there is a relationship that is being built because of the time and place where God has placed you. It is like solving a mystery with friends.


        2. Michael, it seems to me that Christian morality is very much like stage 6.
          From your link: “In Stage six (universal ethical principles driven), moral reasoning is based on abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles. Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. Decisions are reached categorically in an absolute way, ”
          We believe- and have reason to believe- in universal ethical principles. We believe in justice and disobeying unjust laws (an example of unjust laws would be laws preventing people from talking about their faith, or laws telling an employer to take a certain percentage of women/ blacks when the white men applying are more qualified). We believe in absolutes.


          1. To avoid misunderstandings: I do not say that Christian morality would necessarily be on one of the lower levels—just that the particulars discussed here would be on these levels and that Wintery Knight begs the question when comparing “Christian” and “Atheist” morality.

            When we look at a more general picture, there will be a great variation from person to person and anyone (be he Atheist, Christian, or yet something else) can be on any one of the levels. There is, for instance, an enormous difference between “I will do X, in order to get into heaven.” (self-serving) and “I will do X, because it follows from the principle of forgiveness taught by Jesus that this is the right action.” (abstract reasoning).


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