Can the worldview of atheism rationally ground moral judgements?

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.

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.

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.

The rest of Dr. Meister’s article deals with three atheistic attempts to get out of this problem.

7 thoughts on “Can the worldview of atheism rationally ground moral judgements?”

  1. “Can the worldview of atheism rationally ground moral judgements?”

    Only if one can give a logical answer as to why animated stardust like us should even care, or for that matter, even being aware of (not just the concept of morality) but of even being a sentient being, much less caring about furthering “our productive ends”? Now they can claim that morality is simply a construct of evolution, but again, if this is true, then so is all thought, including evil and murder. Without a supreme judge, which we call God, one man’s evil may and will eventually be another man’s good, and visa versa. Hitler and Stalin thought they were doing good things.

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  2. Your abstract is confusing. First you introduce three thinkers who dismiss relativism, but then you go into the Ted Bundy example which is all about relativism.

    What is this fixation Christians have with relativism? Do any serious thinkers really defend relativism? It looks like Christians are clinging to this bogeyman of relativism because it’s an easy strawman to knock down. And because they’re afraid to address the real issues of non-theistic morality.

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    1. John,

      Perhaps you missed this part:

      “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.”

      In other words, this article points out serious problems with the ideas of your three “thinkers” who dismiss relativism. Since their ideas on objective, non-theistic morality are found lacking, we are left with relativism.

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      1. I’d say present ideas about morality are threatening the survival of the species. BTW some people consider the very premise to be SPECIESIST.

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  3. Well, those three thinkers mentioned in the abstract are talking about some of the “real issues of non-theistic morality.” Those three are Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Richard Dawkins and Michael Ruse (with Edward Wilson) – in case you didn’t read the post. But if you wish to remain in your comfortable smugness and. like oogenhand, deny there are any serious issues here, I will sign off now.

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