Chad Meister: can atheists make sense of 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.

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.

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. 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.

8 thoughts on “Chad Meister: can atheists make sense of morality?”

  1. Meister’s argument against an objective moral system (known by its proponents as moral realism) without God is question-begging, to say the least. He argues that realists must answer ontological questions and epistemological questions about moral properties separately. The realist can easily reply with the analogy of vision. We are epistemologically justified in believing what we see is in front of us is real (read: exists in our ontology) because vision is a reliable method of knowing, as confirmed by empirical knowledge. Thus, the ontological argument is that what exists in front of us is real because it is the best explanation for why we see what we do given epistemological justification for believing what we see. This same argument can be applied to moral properties: we perceive an action as wrong, and we are epistemologically justified in believing this because the ontological existence of the moral properties that make that act wrong figure in the best explanation for why we make that judgment. This is epistemological justification enough! Meister’s argument has been met, unless by justification he means a sort of greater purpose that justifies why morality exists. But this is to beg the question in favor of God, as surely this kind of reason could only be provided by a higher power. Thus, the moral realist can offer epistemological justification for moral truths, but Meister wants theological justification for moral truths because he presumes they are needed for an objective morality. Stated like this it is clear that he assumes the truth of his conclusion. Thanks for sharing!


    1. This argument has nothing to do with epistemology. The argument is about ontology. What grounds the existence of objective moral values and duties? On atheism, there is no grounding. We are accidents, the universe is an accident, and there is no reason to believe that we have some special value or special obligations to one another that are independent of our opinions and preferences – which vary by time and place. For an atheist, all questions of right and wrong are like adopting clothing preferences. Standards of what is acceptable evolve and there is no objective way to measure better vs worse. Who is to say that saris are better than bow ties? The scary thing is when you realize that this is how atheists understand prohibitions on slavery and abortion, or endorsements of marital fidelity or charity.


      1. I quote, “By arguing for a belief in or knowledge of morality without providing a justification for morality, atheists confuse moral epistemology (moral knowledge) with moral ontology (foundational existence of morality). […] As already noted, being moral and having a reasonable foundation or justification for being moral are two very different issues.” This seemed to be the only argument given against moral realism, so I pursued it, and showed how it is an invalid argument. Moreover, epistemology has everything to do with ontology because epistemological principles are needed to justify an entry into our ontology; epistemology is central to all philosophical pursuits.

        As for what grounds the existence of objective moral properties: naturalistic physical properties, because moral properties are supervenient and emergent properties of physical states of affairs. The mind is a non-physical thing that emerges from the complex causal nexus of physical brain states. The mind supervenes on the brain because if we made an exact duplicate of a brain and both brains were in the same brain state, then both minds would be in the same mental state. A supervenes on B if there can be no change in A without there being a change in B. Likewise with moral properties: if two states of affairs are exactly identical in their non-moral properties then they are identical in their moral properties. On this account is not an “accident” that wrongness supervenes on the physical act of harming someone because there is a nomological and physically necessary causal relation between the non-moral properties and the emergent moral properties.


        1. So, during the Jurassic age, when there were no human beings, there was no morality, right? It seems to me that what you’ve done here is given an account of morality that is relative. That is, it is relative to the chemical make-up of people’s brains. (Note: I am a substance dualist, not a materialist, but let’s go with materialism for the sake of argument). The chemical make up of people’s brains obviously change over time and from place to place. And, on your view, that means that morality changes from place to place and at different times. So, these leaves with relativism, which is what I argued before.

          There is no objective morality on atheism, because the universe is an accident and we are accidents. What an atheist can do is describe what different groups of people with different evolved brain chemistry arrangements believe. An atheist can say “those people think slavery is right, because of their brain chemicals” and an atheist can say “those people think that abortion is right because of their brain chemicals” and an atheist can say “those people think Nazism is right because of their brain chemicals”. But there is no way for an atheist to make any objective moral judgments about different evolved customs and conventions in different times and places, because morality is arbitrary on atheism.

          And that’s what concerns thinking people about atheism – the lack on an objective standard. It’s that atheists think that morality is like choosing what is appropriate dress or what is appropriate food. Brains evolved by chance, and what brains think is moral is also unguided and arbitrary, varying by time and place, with no way for one brain to judge another brain as “right” or “wring” except by majority rule.

          Moreover, it seems to me that you are a materialist, so here are some other problems with morality on atheism.

          1) Atheism means no free will, so you can’t make moral choices anyway.
          2) Atheism means no ultimate judgment when you die for what you’ve done. So on atheism, you can do whatever you like to feel happy, because society’s conventions are just arbitrary by time and place. If you can get away with enslaving people, killing unborn children or engaging in sex tourism with children, by all means do it. Just don’t get caught and judged by your society’s arbitrary conventions. Self-sacrificial acts of goodness are particularly irrational on atheism.
          3) Atheism means no human rights, such as the right to life. Human beings are accidents. They are just animals who evolved by accident.

          Morality is a thing that simply doesn’t apply to atheists. Atheists can be moral if they feel like it, by sensing the moral values and duties that are set by a Creator and Designer. But then they are just sensing a realm of objective moral values and objective moral duties that they cannot account for in their own worldview.


          1. No, I am claiming that during the Jurassic Age there were moral properties that obtained on physical states of affairs. Correctly stated moral propositions if true, would be objectively true. I described what I take to be the correct view (emergentism, otherwise known as property dualism, so you are wrong that I am a materialist) of consciousness to describe the concept of supervenience. I then noted that just as mental states are emergent and supervenient on brain states, so to moral properties are emergent and supervenient on non-moral properties. “Moral properties are emergent and supervenient on non-moral properties”. I never claimed that moral properties are emergent and supervenient on brain states per the “brain chemistry” theory you incorrectly attributed to me, that would indeed be relativism.

            Think of it this way. There is a grouping of atoms, say two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2o). It is in virtue of that chemical makeup that this molecule has the phenomenal properties of wetness, liquidity, transparentness, etc. We have called the entity that has these phenomenal properties ‘water’ since before we knew ‘water’ was composed of H2o, but nevertheless, when we pointed to water and said ‘water’, aside from pointing to the phenomenal entity that we experience, we were also pointing to H2o. Our interaction with the phenomenal properties of water was in virtue of our interaction with the atomic structure of water, such that the atomic structure causally regulated the use of our term ‘water’. Thus, when we discovered that the atomic structure of water is H2o, we posited a synthetic necessary identity claim “water is H2o”. It is a necessary identity claim because in all possible worlds anything that is called water is composed of H2o because H2o regulates the use of the term ‘water’, and it is a synthetic identity precisely because it is not an analytic identity: no amount of conceptual analysis of the term ‘water’ would have yielded the conclusion that it is composed of H2o.

            The atheistic moral realist is well within his rights in positing something similar for moral properties. It is in virtue of the subvening non-moral properties of an action or state of affairs that it has the supervening moral properties that it does. So the moral property ‘good’ might be causally regulated by one or a set of non-moral properties, in that our experiencing the moral property ‘goodness’ was in virtue of experiencing non-moral properties. If this is so then our moral principles will be synthetic necessary identities because non-moral properties will causally regulate the use of moral property terms across all possible worlds. The result is that there is nothing “accidental” or “arbitrary” about morality for the scientifically-minded atheistic moral realist. A moral property supervenes on the non-moral properties it does as a matter of logical necessity. Because there is a necessary entailment between certain moral properties and certain subvening non-moral properties the moral realist has no difficulty in saying that the actions of Nazis were and are morally wrong, and that slavery was and is morally wrong.

            As for your final notes.
            1. I have already noted that I am not in fact a materialist, but a property dualist, such that whatever story you can provide for free will I can likewise attribute. There is a connection between property dualism and agent-causal libertarianism, the strongest pro-free will view now on offer. Atheists can coherently subscribe to property dualism, so it remains a mystery why atheists cannot believe in free will as you claim.
            2. This point just assumes that without final judgment there cannot be moral objectivity. If moral realism is true then human agents can hold each other accountable for morally wrong actions. I endeavored above to show how moral realism is a viable position, so if you’re worried about objective standards and accountability moral realism provides it.
            3. Negative rights, which are rights not to be treated in certain ways can be derived from moral duties, which are duties to treat persons in certain ways, and which the moral realist can adequately provide from the moral principles based on the moral properties that obtain in the world.


  2. This type of discussion is so silly, What difference does it make if atheists have a societal basis for morals and Christians have to be coerced into morality for fear of being flung into the pits of Hell? As long as the end result is that people behave morally, who cares where the motivation comes from? This ranks right up there with “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”.


    1. Christians have to be coerced into morality for fear of being flung into the pits of Hell

      I assume you are arguing in good faith and you don’t only want to feel superior to people that think different from you, which your dismissive tone could imply. So I am going to answer you in good faith (with my broken English, because I am a foreigner).

      You have a simplistic understanding of Christianity. Christianity is not an insurance against Hell. We don’t try to be moral because we expect that God pays us for our good behavior, the way a bank gives us interests for our saving behavior. Christianity is not transactional.

      In fact, there are branches of Christianity (Calvinism comes to mind) that claim that, nothing of what we do affects our going to Heaven or Hell. If we are predestined to Hell, nothing we do could change that. This is Calvinism but every branch of Christianity assumes that only God knows if we are going to be saved. So no amount of good works (moral behavior) makes our salvation safe.

      So why are we moral? We are moral because we believe God said us so. As Christians, we believe that God made us so His will deserves to be done. He is worthy of being obeyed.

      As long as the end result is that people behave morally,

      The problem is: when people stop believing morality is objective, they start bending morality to fit their own convenience. They always find a good reason to justify their own misbehavior. The human brain is a rationalizing machine.

      This is why civility and morality are in decline in our society. No society in the world has survived without a strong objective basis of morality and ours won’t be an exception.


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