Chad Meister: can atheists rationally ground morality?

Philosopher Chad Meister takes a look at the attempts of some prominent atheists to make rational sense of morality within their worldviews.

Here is the abstract:

Atheists often argue that they can make moral claims and live good moral lives without believing in God. Many theists agree, but the real issue is whether atheism can provide a justification for morality. A number of leading atheists currently writing on this issue are opposed to moral relativism, given its obvious and horrific ramifications, and have attempted to provide a justification for a nonrelative morality. Three such attempts are discussed in this article: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s position that objective morality simply “is”; Richard Dawkins’s position that morality is based on the selfish gene; and Michael Ruse and Edward Wilson’s position that morality is an evolutionary illusion. Each of these positions, it turns out, is problematic. Sinnott-Armstrong affirms an objective morality, but affirming something and justifying it are two very different matters. Dawkins spells out his selfish gene approach by including four fundamental criteria, but his approach has virtually nothing to do with morality—with real right and wrong, good and evil. Finally, Ruse and Wilson disagree with Dawkins and maintain that belief in morality is just an adaptation put in place by evolution to further our reproductive ends. On their view, morality is simply an illusion foisted on us by our genes to get us to cooperate and to advance the species. But have they considered the ramifications of such a view? Each of these positions fails to provide the justification necessary for a universal, objective morality—the kind of morality in which good and evil are clearly understood and delineated.

[…]We can get to the heart of the atheist’s dilemma with a graphic but true example. Some years ago serial killer Ted Bundy, who confessed to over thirty murders, was interviewed about his gruesome activities. Consider the frightening words to his victim as he describes them:

Then I learned that all moral judgments are “value judgments,” that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either “right” or “wrong”….I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable “value judgment” that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these “others”? Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as “moral” or “good” and others as “immoral” or “bad”? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me—after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.5

While I am in no way accusing atheists in general of being Ted Bundy-like, the question I have for the atheist is simply this: On what moral grounds can you provide a response to Bundy? The atheistic options are limited. If morality has nothing to do with God, as atheists suppose, what does it have to do with? One response the atheist could offer is moral relativism, either personal or cultural. The personal moral relativist affirms that morality is an individual matter; you decide for yourself what is morally right and wrong. But on this view, what could one say to Bundy? Not much, other than “I don’t like what you believe; it offends me how you brutalize women.” For the personal relativist, however, who really cares (other than you) that you are offended by someone else’s actions? On this view we each decide our own morality, and when my morality clashes with yours, there is no final arbiter other than perhaps that the stronger of us forces the other to agree. But this kind of Nietzschean “might makes right” ethic has horrific consequences, and one need only be reminded of the Nazi reign of terror to see it in full bloom. This is one reason why thoughtful atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and others don’t go there.6

But what about cultural moral relativism—the view that moral claims are the inventions of a given culture? Most thoughtful atheists don’t tread here either, and this is one reason why: If right and wrong are cultural inventions, then it would always be wrong for someone within that culture to speak out against them. If culture defines right and wrong, then who are you to challenge it? For example, to speak out against slavery in Great Britain in the seventeenth century would have been morally wrong, for it was culturally acceptable. But surely it was a morally good thing for William Wilberforce and others to strive against the prevailing currents of their time and place to abolish the slave trade. For the cultural moral relativist, all moral reformers—Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, Jr., even Jesus and Gandhi, to name a few—would be in the wrong. But who would agree with this conclusion? Thankfully, most leading atheists agree that moral relativism is doomed.7

So what do they affirm? Here are three accounts that recent atheists have defended: (1) objective morality simply “is,” (2) morality is based on the selfish gene, and (3) morality is an evolutionary illusion.8 Let’s take a brief look at each of them.

Have you ever heard any of these three categories of objections? If so, click on through and see Chad Meister’s responses.

5 thoughts on “Chad Meister: can atheists rationally ground morality?”

  1. Yes, Dawkins and the others are really arguing that there’s no objective right and wrong. The concepts of good and bad only make sense in relation to our human concerns. They really believe that.

    Chad Meister seems to jump to the conclusion that this atheist morality would be a terrible thing. He supposes that it would condone Stalin and Mao. But would it really?

    An atheist could argue that Stalin and Mao were immoral because their actions did not promote the spread of their genes. Or the genes of their country people. The fact that Stalin and Mao are widely vilified today is a good indicator that they violated atheist-evolutionary morality. No one wants to be compared to them!


    1. Lol, you call that (genes) the basis for immorality? Haha, so women who take contraceptives are immoral? I thought I heard Dawkins say we ought to fight against the selfish nature of our genes. Again that is incoherent, why fight?


  2. Personally I think A criteria for moral behaviour is that it be sensible, individually sensible, even if everyone around you isn’t being moral. This can only be the case if there’s a god to keep us accountable. So even IF you take the atheist position that objective morality simply *IS*, the lack of ultimate accountability on atheism, and the fact that acting morally is often the least rational position in a prisoners dilemna without atheism, means that that stance is just an illusion.


  3. These are prominent atheists? I would think that the most obvious answer would be the “golden rule”, which isn’t restricted to Christianity. I would say to Mr. Bundy, how about live and let live? Do unto others as you would have them do into you? At the very least, most people would prefer to live safely from the trespasses of others, and one cannot do so without at least attempting to do so themselves. How can you expect others to do what you cannot do yourself? I think the only way we can prove to ourselves that it is okay to step outside everyday unarmed is to accept that if we can do it, so can everyone else. And for those moments when we are forced to kill, we must also convince ourselves that there was no other option, or that it couldn’t have been averted without knowing it was going to happen beforehand (such as accidents). Unfortunately, we have to acknowledge that some people out there have no morals. To Mr. Bundy I would say, this is why we lock people like you up for life, or execute them. He lost his freedom to live because of his decisions to live without morality. His argument was that he did these things to prove that he was free. Well he was free, until he tried to prove it. Now I’m still free, and he lost one of the only freedoms he really could have exercised, and that was the freedom to die or face death in a manner he chooses. He had zero control of his outcome once he was caught.


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