Atheist Jerry Coyne explains why morality is impossible and incoherent for atheists

Let’s review what you need in your worldview in order to have a rationally grounded system of morality:

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.

Atheists can’t ground any of these.  Let’s take a closer look at #4.

Atheists can’t ground freedom of the will 

Here’s Jerry Coyne’s editorial in USA Today to explain why atheists can’t ground free will. (H/T Neil Simpson)

Excerpt:

And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output. Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.

If you don’t have free will, then you can’t make moral choices, and you can’t be held morally responsible.

Here are some more atheists to explain more about how atheists view morality.

William Provine says atheists have no free will, no moral accountability and no moral significance:

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

Michael Ruse says atheists have no objective moral standards:

The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.(Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269).

Richard Dawkins says atheists have no objective moral standards:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995))

When village atheists talk about how they can be moral without God, it’s important to ask them to justify the minimum requirements for rational morality. Atheists may act inconsistently with their worldview, expecting praise and blame for complying with the arbitrary standards of their peer group, but there is nothing more to morality on atheism that imitating the herd – when they are looking, anyway.

If you would like to hear a good debate where the importance of free will for morality is explained further, then click here.

Here is a good transcript of a debate on morality and atheism. And here’s a debate between William Lane Craig and secular humanist Paul Kurtz that you can watch on Youtube.

7 thoughts on “Atheist Jerry Coyne explains why morality is impossible and incoherent for atheists”

  1. Actually, it’s not so much that atheists have no free will or objective moral standards. It’s more that nobody–atheist or believer–has free will or objective moral standards. What these people are saying, based on reams of evidence in neurobiology, evolutionary biology, experimental psychology, and more, is that human beings have no free will or objective moral standards. Unless the faithful are no longer biologically human, these things apply to them as well. You don’t get to throw away data just because you don’t like what you think it says about you.

    The good news is, it is in our best interest–psychologically, biologically, and socially–to act morally; that is, to act in our long-term collective best interest. It is so important that we do this, that cultures have invented gods to lend support to systems that encourage us to act morally. We have made up “objective” moralities that disagree with one another in important details (a pretty big clue that they lack objectivity), because it really is important that we behave in ways that emphasize our long term survival. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is a good long-term strategy (I say this based on experimental evidence in game theory, not because of an ancient text; the strategy came before the scripture, and still can be supported by data), so a religion that preaches loving our neighbors is one that helps its adherents to thrive.

    Is it “objective”, in the sense you are using? Not at all. Different circumstances might have led to different strategies being successful, and different “objective” moralities being supported by different gods. Indeed, some of the proscriptions of ancient texts are obsolete, thanks to scientific advances. The downside to believing your morality is absolute is, you tend not to change even when change is warranted.

  2. Hi Cuttlefish,

    I think both atheists and theists agree that following our biological programming (even if it occasionally results in altruism) is not a good standard to have for objective morality. In fact, many theists agree with you that the morality that humans tend to follow is either genetically or socially programmed.

    Because of that the moral argument theists give is that on atheism there is no possibility for objective morality (the subjective programmed stuff is the only game in town) while on Christianity there is a possibility because God could either provide us a way to work around our materialist programming (a dualist perspective) or have provided some way for purely materialist beings to adapt to a standard of morality rested in God’s nature and therefore objective (a monist possibility). It sounds like your response is to accept the fact that on atheism morality is not objective. Because altruism has adaptive qualities I can see why that does not seem like a problem in a descriptive sense (it explains why we tend to value things like fairness and charity) but what about in a prescriptive sense? Should an individual value charity and fairness? Kim Jong Il seemed to get by pretty well without worrying about the suffering those in his country endured. What would you say to his successor?

    I have a few questions about what you said:

    “The downside to believing your morality is absolute is, you tend not to change even when change is warranted.”
    -On atheism when is change warranted? If the dominant strategy produced the morality religions developed when would we have to change it? Do you consider morality synonymous with our genes’ abilities to make copies?

    “The good news is, it is in our best interest–psychologically, biologically, and socially–to act morally; that is, to act in our long-term collective best interest.”
    -True, our genes benefit when their vessels cooperate during interactions with other vessels (as in they are able to make more copies of themselves). It seems there are vessels (conscious beings) that have found ways around the basic evolutionary game theory who are not interested in how many copies their genes make. Why should they care about long-term collective best interest?

  3. What these people are saying, based on reams of evidence in neurobiology, evolutionary biology, experimental psychology,

    Nonsense, because said “reams of evidence” aren’t what’s doing the legwork, apart from the use of a metaphysical context – usually a materialistic one. Remove the materialism, and the ‘reams of evidence’ don’t support the conclusion an iota.

    You don’t get to throw away data just because you don’t like what you think it says about you.

    You do, however, get to point out when it’s not the data doing the work, but the metaphysical interpretation of the data – and A) insofar as it’s metaphysical, it’s no longer scientific data alone, and B) if there’s a viable metaphysical alternative for interpreting the data, there’s plenty of reason to reject the alternative interpretation.

    I have little patience for people who hate science and try to abuse it for political and personal reasons. What you’re doing here is as bad as what hucksters pitching homeopathy engage in. “Reams of data show that homeopathy works!”, when in really it’s a selective interpretation of the data with assumptions built in. It’s worse here, since the existence and nature of objective morality and free will alike are not scientific questions – passing them off as being decided by scientific findings is either amazingly ignorant, or downright dishonest.

    The good news is, it is in our best interest–psychologically, biologically, and socially–to act morally;

    Unless it’s not. In fact, it’s very easy to imagine scenarios where it’s absolutely not in someone’s “best interest” to “act morally”. For instance, it’s immoral to kill one’s offspring, but it sure can be convenient. All this before realizing that “best interests” are no more objective than ‘morality’.

    The downside to believing your morality is absolute is, you tend not to change even when change is warranted.

    But there’s no “warrant” for “change” other than a subjective one anyway. Still, I like this argument: it basically amounts to, “slavery and vivisection of infants may be very important someday – can’t you see your morality is keeping us from that?”

    Winteryknight was dead on. The only difference I’d have is that it’s not ‘atheists’, but ‘atheism + materialism’ which leads to those conclusions, like it or not.

  4. When plotting a course from point A to point B, you can assume a flat frictionless plane, or you can actually take a look to see if there might be a mountain, swamp, or river you might want to take into account. “Objective morality” is a frictionless plane–a great idea in principle, but non-existent in the real world.

    I actually do not begin by assuming materialism; I am a pragmatist. I do reject dualism because it is internally incoherent and leads to circular explanations; if you assume your conclusions, you can find all sorts of things.

    Crude, if you think it’s “convenient” to kill one’s offspring, you have not quite grasped the “long term best interest of all” portion of morality. On the other hand, it is not unheard of for mothers to have drowned their children to insure they go to heaven. In practice, it seems, even systems of “objective morality” are interpreted by subjective people. The fact that we know these women have done something terribly wrong is testament to the primacy of morality over religion.

    1. ““Objective morality” is a frictionless plane–a great idea in principle, but non-existent in the real world.”

      And, I note again, this claim is utterly detached from science – it’s a metaphysical and philosophical question. If we’re just going to throw out assertions, I’ll play along: objective morality is the truth, and materialism is demonstrably false.

      “I actually do not begin by assuming materialism; I am a pragmatist. I do reject dualism because it is internally incoherent and leads to circular explanations; if you assume your conclusions, you can find all sorts of things.”

      What a coincidence! That’s the same exact reason I reject materialism. The difference is that I understand that discussions of free will, objective morality and otherwise are questions that science does not settle. You seem not to grasp that.

      “Crude, if you think it’s “convenient” to kill one’s offspring, you have not quite grasped the “long term best interest of all” portion of morality.”

      So you’re an ardent pro-lifer, correct? Or wait – I suppose sometimes exceptions are made to this “killing one’s offspring is bad” rule.

      And who gives two craps about the “long term best interest of all”? You claim morality is not objective, but you seem incapable of grasping just what that means. The fact that you think ‘the long term best interests of all’ should be the standard does not make said standard ‘objective’, and insofar as it’s subjective, it does not compel. The long or short term best interest of myself, or the people I immediately favor, may and often does dictate radically different actions. And the ‘long term best interest of all’ is, when objective morality is rejected, utterly nebulous. Guy A thinks the long term best interest of all would be to worship God if objective morality is false – and his view has just as much ‘objective’ weight as anyone else’s.

      On the other hand, it is not unheard of for mothers to have drowned their children to insure they go to heaven.

      Absolutely, there are some lunatics out there. So what? It’s as contrary as you can get to Christian teaching, and I think they’re wrong. Objectively wrong, as a matter of fact. Ah, but for you, that doesn’t exist – those mothers didn’t do anything wrong at all. At worst, they were mistaken about outcomes.

  5. I think the moral argument for God is the strongest argument in the toolkit of Christian philosophy. Good post WK. After reading your post I was reminded of what James Rachels wrote,

    “The doctrine of human dignity says that humans merit a level of moral concern wholly different from that accorded to mere animals; for this to be true, there would have to be some big, morally significant difference between them. Therefore, any adequate defense of human dignity would require some conception of human beings as radically different from other animals. But that is precisely what evolutionary theory calls into question. It makes us suspicious of any doctrine that sees large gaps of any sort between humans and all other creatures. This being so, a Darwinian may conclude that a successful defense of human dignity is most unlikely.”
    *James Rachels, Created from Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 171-72. Cf. pp. 93, 97, 171

    On naturalism, it’s difficult to defend the dignity of human beings as well as objective morality.

    David Hull who is the leading philosopher of evolutionary theory in the twentieth century wrote:

    “The implications of moving species from the metaphysical category that can appropriately be characterized in terms of “natures” to a category for which such characterizations are inappropriate are extensive and fundamental. If species evolve in anything like the way that Darwin thought they did, then they cannot possibly have the sort of natures that traditional philosophers claimed they did. If species in general lack natures, then so does Homo sapiens as a biological species. If homo sapiens lacks a nature, then no reference to biology can be made to support one’s claims about “human nature.” Perhaps all people are “persons,” share the same “personhood,” etc., but such claims must be explicated and defended with no reference to biology. Because so many moral, ethical, and political theories depend on some notion or other of human nature, Darwin’s theory brought into question all these theories. The implications are not entailments. One can always dissociate “Homo sapiens” from “human being,” but the result is a much less plausible position.”
    *David Hull, The Metaphysics of Evolution (Albany: State University of New York, 1989), pp. 74-75

    The notion of equal rights and equal worth for human persons is groundless on naturalism.

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