Atheist Jerry Coyne explains why morality is impossible for atheists

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson about to do philosophy
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson about to do philosophy

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

You need 5 things:

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.

Theism rationally grounds all 5 of these. Atheism cannot ground any of them.

Let’s take a look at #4: free will and see how atheism deals with that.

Atheism and free will?

Here’s prominent atheist Jerry Coyne’s editorial in USA Today to explain why atheists can’t ground free will.


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. No free will means no morality.

Here are some more atheists to explain 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.

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, believing in free will, expecting praise and blame for complying with the arbitrary standards of their peer group, etc. But there is nothing more to morality on atheism that imitating the herd – at least when the herd is around to watch them. And when the herd loses its Judeo-Christian foundation – watch out. That’s when the real atheism comes out, and you can see it on display in the Planned Parenthood videos. When God disappears from a society, anything is permissible.

74 thoughts on “Atheist Jerry Coyne explains why morality is impossible for atheists”

  1. “village atheists”

    I like that. In light of the opening verse of Ps 14 it’s apropos.

    The fool has said in his heart,
    “There is no God.”

    Village atheist => village idiot… not a far stretch.


    1. Most atheists with whom I have shared this line of reasoning protest that they are good people, they know the difference between right & wrong & choose to do what’s right. When I ask why they choose what they believe to be right, they usually reply by appeal to social convention (e.g., social evolution, cf., Coyne), sometimes Kant’s Categorical Imperative or some version of utilitatianism. These all boil down to some version of intuitionism, i.e., subjectivism. When I ask for an objective basis for moral choices, most don’t understand what that means. When I explain it to them, they are stumped.


      1. I think the social convention is just convenience. They go along with what others are doing around them so long as they are being policed by social pressures. But in an atheist regime like North Korea, that has no Judeo-Christian influence, you see the real atheism. Or in cases like Planned Parenthood, behind closed doors with defenseless unborn babies.


      2. Thats because they are just baffled by your mental acrobatics to produce a decision that comes naturally to them.


  2. “Let’s review what you need in your worldview in order to have a rationally grounded system of morality.”

    Well, there’s your problem. Who said these things are what you need? Is this list in the Bible somewhere? I get the feeling someone made this up and it wasn’t God.

    But let me at least partially agree with you. Actually, I’ll go further than you. Atheism says absolutely nothing about morality. It is totally silent on the matter. It carries with it neither prescription nor proscription. You might as well leave atheism completely out of the equation because it has no bearing on the topic whatsoever.

    But compassion and empathy, these have something to say about how we behave. And I can tell you this: my compassion and empathy would never allow me to order genocide, or to drown the entire world save eight, or to kill a husband and wife for lying, or to execute men fro picking up sticks on a particular day of the week, or to command the victim of rape to marry the perpetrator, or to offer my daughters to be raped to be hospitable to my guests, or to sacrifice my daughter to fulfill a vow for a military victory, or to command someone to commit filicide to say “Just kidding!” at the last moment, or to torture millions of people for all eternity because they didn’t accept my “gift”.

    Oh, I know you have rationales for every one of these. Or at least a “God’s ways are above our ways” in reply. But I don’t buy it. There is no justification for this behavior. It is nothing more than result of being a backward, uneducated, tribal, imperfect, bipedal, glorified ape overwhelmed with survival instincts and coping with the implications of a newly evolved frontal lobe.

    Maybe morality is impossible for atheists. But it’s entirely possible for humans.


      1. I did not say they were not needed. I questioned their source. But I will quickly deny the validity of free will, moral accountability and ultimate significance for morality.

        Free will is a very elusive concept with more and more science backing up a model which does not support the common understanding of free will. Moral accountability in the context of the article means COSMIC moral accountability which means a deity in which I don’t find sufficient reason for believing. Ultimate significance is also a deistic/theistic concept which, for me, fails for the same reason as cosmic moral accountability.

        (Not commenting on the first two should not be construed as an acceptance of their validity. I’m just trying to get to an answer for your question.)

        The “grounding” for my morality has already been provided: compassion and empathy. I feel pain and I understand (to some extent) the pain that others feel. I desire not to feel pain myself and I desire to have others not feel pain. This motivates me to treat others well or “morally”. Other than “Do good, don’t harm”, that’s about as simple an explanation as I can offer.

        I recommend watching the debate between Craig and Kagan on morality to get a slightly more expanded understanding of secular morality. (Note that Craig seems confused through much of the discussion.)

        To take another step toward understanding a secular view, I suggest Dillahunty’s talk on the Superiority of Secular Morality.

        If you haven’t had enough by then, read anything on morality by Paul Bloom or take his course called Moralities of Everyday Life for free starting in October. (It’s totally worth the time and effort.)


        1. Just FYI on the Craig-Kagan debate, Craig was instructed to pull punches by the organizers:

          A much better debate on morality where Craig was free to operate with both hands:

          And another:

          And I blogged on Dillahunty’s morality here – he has none:

          He thinks that it is not a fact that concentration camps are evil, and that is in keeping with the moral relativism that atheism REQUIRES.


          1. I don’t see in your post (of 2009-04-07) where Craig thinks he was handcuffed in the Kagan debate.


          2. Yeah, sorry. I wrote the wrong date. I don’t see in the 2009-04-17 post where Craig thinks he was handcuffed.


          3. Yeah that’s because I’m an idiot and sent you the wrong link, wasting your time:


            I did respond briefly to Prof. Kagan’s view… but I didn’t press the point because our hosts with the Veritas Forum had made it very clear to me that they were not interested in having a knock-down debate but a friendly dialogue that would foster a warm and inviting atmosphere for non-believing students at Columbia. The goal was simply to get the issues out on the table in a congenial, welcoming environment, which I think we did.



        2. If you deny free will, then you need to eliminate “ought” from your vocabulary. You can’t get an “ought” from an “is,” and ought implies can. It is absurd to say that someone ought to do what is physically impossible. It is obvious to any sane person that beating a dog for refusing to talk is irrational, because the dog can’t talk no matter how much you beat it. If free will doesn’t exist, however, then punishing or even criticizing people for immoral behavior is just as irrational as beating a dog for refusing to talk. If there is no ability to do good and avoid evil, neither can there be any obligation to do so.


          1. You are muddying the meaning of “free will”. You’re blurring the science with our experience. And even if we argue that we don’t have free will, we don’t KNOW this yet. Scientifically, the problem is still open. Regardless, not having “free will” does not mean there’s “no ability to do good and avoid evil”. It does not mean that apathy should reign. And your analogy with the dog is lacking on several levels.


        3. Chip,
          Compassion and empathy are meaningless terms(like good and evil) tied to nothing more than subjective personal feelings at any given moment. Whether you “feel” like treating someone in any particular way is relative to your state of mind, feelings, and personal biases. It is only relevance is how it might effect you personally.


          1. Robert,

            Yes, it is all subjective (especially in the sense that there is no external authority imposing a morality on us). I have repeatedly affirmed that this is so. What’s your point?

            The only problem with your post is that you think there is a limitation in that, as humans, we think ONLY about how things affect us individually. The compassion and empathy you deride as “meaningless” is exactly what causes many of us to consider how our actions affect others.


          2. Chip,
            I appreciate your attempt to give a faux-universal (most people believe) application to what you agree is a subjective reality. I fear though, you trying to put a shine on a turd(to use an old expression). For instance, you say we’ve done away with slavery or al least made it illegal, except slavery is alive and well in its many forms. You say we all agree torturing babies is wrong, yet that is exactly what we champion in the pro-abortion movement. Here’s the problem I see with individuals who use this faux-universalism, it’s an attempt to apply a standard beyond one’s own personal preference. An atheist can no more speak of an us, a we, or an “everybody” believes this or that, than he or she can say “ought or should.” It has no relevant meaning in a reality void of any universal purpose other than existence. I understand there’s something within you that wants there to be more, but I would ascribe that to a yearning for the eternal.
            I must also add that I believe your biblical understanding is short sighted. Several examples you gave fail the category test.


          3. You may disagree with my opinion but you clearly do not understand me. You say “I understand there’s something within you that wants there to be more…” No. The only thing I want here is to understand reality as best as I can. I want to believe as many true things and reject as many false thing as possible.

            At the moment, I reject the proposition that any god exists. Even more so that I am bound by any rules supposedly dictated by one of these gods. I simply do not see sufficient evidence to support this as comporting with reality. And as such I must treat human behavior, morals, etc. as a cooperative, god-lacking endeavor, one in which I desire to maximize the well-being of as many people as possible. If, on the whole, most people did not behave that way, it seems unlikely that we would have gotten to this point as a species.

            In my mind, this means that slavery should be condemned (whether legal or not). It means that abortion should be allowed and it should be combined with a strong emphasis on birth control so that abortion is minimally necessary. It means many other things as well.

            I can speak of “us”. I MUST speak of “us”. Since I believe there is no one else out there, it is my only choice. Your attempt to brush away the practical consequences of my beliefs (or lack thereof) is childish. I am an atheist. Whether you agree with me or not, it would behoove you to concede that I will deal with life in that context.

            If you read my other posts in the larger thread, you should see that I try very hard to distinguish between “cosmic” meaning and “temporal” meaning. And I think I have consistently agreed that atheism implies that there is no cosmic meaning to life. But temporal meaning, on the other hand, is very present and relevant. (The funny thing is that no Christian seems to have anything to say on this. They all want to focus on the lack of cosmic meaning which I already agree with.)

            It doesn’t surprise me that you think my biblical interpretations are “short-sighted”. But this thread is probably not the appropriate place to get into that. All I can say is that I’ve read and studied the Bible (and religions in general) off and on for more than 40 years in various forms including college level classes, commentaries, devotionals, discussions, lectures, talks, informal Bible studies, formal Bible studies, topical studies and much more. I would wager real money that I know more about the Bible than at least 95% of self-professed Christians. Whether that makes me short-sighted or not, I can’t really say.


          4. >>Even more so that I am bound by any rules supposedly dictated by one of these gods. <>And as such 《I》 must treat human behavior, morals, etc. as a cooperative, god-lacking endeavor, one in which 《I》desire to maximize the well-being of as many people as possible. If, on the whole, most people did not behave that way, it seems unlikely that we would have gotten to this point as a species.<>It means that abortion should be allowed and it should be combined with a strong emphasis on birth control so that abortion is minimally necessary. It means many other things as well.<>Your attempt to brush away the practical consequences of my beliefs (or lack thereof) is childish.<>The funny thing is that no Christian seems to have anything to say on this. They all want to focus on the lack of cosmic meaning which I already agree with.<>It doesn’t surprise me that you think my biblical interpretations are “short-sighted”. <<

            I say it's short sighted in this sense. Whenever people point to the "violent acts,"(another post) in the Bible as proof of a sadistic God who shouldn't be revered, I shake my head. God does not kill anyone(in the cosmic sense), he simply removes them from this temporal existence.


          5. No, it’s not, Chip, that’s my point. I would imagine you and I are close in age, I have been where you are now.
            Living as an atheist, there was one reality I couldn’t escape. If I take this world as current atheism (and most of the scientific community) says is my reality, then what am I faced with? The reality I had to face was this, I am one organism along side billions of other organisms doomed to extinction. The cruel joke is, I am the only organism with(for no reason at all) the cognitive faculties to realize this very reality.
            I liken it to analogy of a endless war. You don’t know why it was started or when it will end. Your not on the front lines where people are dying right in front of you, but you still in danger as the effects of war touch everybody. So, what do you do to avoid your inevitable extinction? You distract yourself with whatever will keep you from contemplating the inevitable. It really doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it occupies what time you have left.
            The day this hit me I realized, I have a choice. I can accept this depressing reality by occupying my time with… whatever(pleasure, pain, even helping others avoid their inevitable reality) or I can have Faith that there is a different reality, one I cannot fully grasp from my vantage point and start there. This is what I hope and pray for from conversations like these. I’m not here to convert you or anyone else, Chip. My hope is that maybe, just maybe, you’ll consider a different reality. I’ve enjoyed our discussion and wish you nothing but the best.

            Blessings to you and your family,


          6. 1) What is the point of thinking of God as removing people from temporal existence rather than killing them? Is there actually a single case of divine homicide that is NOT retributive? I’m trying to think of one and I can’t. They are all a punishment for something. The execution is intended to punish for an offense and deter more people from offending. Did anyone in the Bible ever say “It’s ok. He’s only being removed from this temporal existence.” (Jews are very ambivalent on the after-life remember.) What kind of insanity is that? Killing someone instills fear in other humans. Do you think God doesn’t know that’s how human react? As far as I can tell, the only reason to take your view is to make the murders more palatable.

            2) “The reality I had to face was this… The cruel joke is… …this depressing reality…” I’ll try not to nitpick your words but here’s how I read what you said. You saw the implications of atheism (really, naturalism) and you couldn’t handle it. You had no argument against it other than its conclusions were repugnant to you. And so you turned to theism. You weren’t convinced by arguments for God or the Bible or whatever. You were just bothered so much by what you saw that you needed something else.

            I can say exactly what you said: “I have been where you are now.” I believed in your “different reality” for a very long time until I the cognitive dissonance built up to a point where (and I say this utterly without hyperbole) I risked my own sanity. I turned away because the logic, the consistency, the sensibility necessary for a coherent Christian worldview is just not to be found. As I said before, I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. And that desire is not predicated on how happy or depressed I feel about what I learn. It matters to me only that it is true (or as close as we can get).

            Your words, “different reality”, are even a distraction from the point. There is only one reality, whether it’s naturalism or deism or theism or whatever. But with no (and I mean ZERO) evidence for any kind of supernatural realm, it is reckless and even dangerous to believe in it. But show me the money and I’ll change my mind.

            I can imagine a very entertaining, lively, fruitful evening of dinner and conversation with you given our respective changes of heart and mind. Perhaps, one day.

            I wish you all the best as well.


    1. You may be right, Chip Salonna, that in its simplest form “Atheism says absolutely nothing about morality. It is totally silent on the matter.” This observation merely notes the poverty of Atheism as a worldview. But thoughtful Atheists (e.g., Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, Richard Dawking, do deal with morality. All humans do. How can any thoughtful human go through life by saying “absolutely nothing about morality”? Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”


      1. You’re right. And I don’t see atheism as a worldview. It is a single position on a single, binary issue: Does God exist? My worldview would be better characterized as humanism.

        The “thoughtful atheists” you mention are “thoughtful people” dealing with morality as compassionate and sympathetic people, not as atheists. I do not deny it is important to think about these things. But trying to disparage atheists because atheism itself does not address is a straw man and a pointless endeavor. If one wants to discuss morality with me (an atheist), be prepared to discuss it as a humanistic effort.


        1. I would sooner discuss calculus with a cat than discuss morality with an atheist. There is no capability there, rationally speaking. At best, I would be listening to subjective personal preferences that have no basis in reality, except that they feel good to the atheist. That’s not interesting to me. I am a moral realist concerned with virtue and prescriptive morality. I’m not interested in talking to someone who thinks that infanticide is right or wrong, depending on the conventions that vary over different times and places. There is a word for people who think that morality is illusory.


          1. “I’m not interested in talking to someone who thinks that infanticide is right or wrong, depending on the conventions that vary over different times and places.”

            Is this not an apt description of the God of the Bible?

            Liked by 1 person

          2. LOL! Good one, I must admit.

            First point, objectively speaking, you have no place to stand to make moral judgements. You have no objective opinion on infanticide, from within your worldview. That’s the first point.

            Second point, God is the author of life, and so he is allowed to give and take life, the same way we are allowed to smash paintings that we make if we don’t like them.

            Third, you need to read the book mentioned in this post:

            Or this:

            Fourth, are you pro-life? If you are not pro-life, what are you complaining about – you support killing children. And almost all atheists are pro-abortion, which makes these complaints about the lives of others quite suspect. I suspect that atheists complain about the Bible violence not because they care about morality, but because they care about getting rid of people who make moral judgments on them. You don’t want to be shamed yourself for whatever it is you do that I would disagree with, so you attack the whole enterprise of judging. But you don’t give a rip about other people – and that’s what studies show about secular people and charitable giving:


          3. Thats very judgemental wk. You are judging Chip based on other atheist you have either met or read about which is truly unfair. I dont judge you based on every close minded christian i have met.


          4. 1) Totally agree, because by “objective” I think you mean to imply an authority outside ourselves. I don’t believe this exists. Therefore, no objective reference for me.

            2) I don’t believe in God so this point means nothing to me.

            3) If you agree to read a book of my choice, maybe I will.

            4) Long difficult discussion. I will side-step abortion for now and just say that your proposed motivations for atheists’ complaints regarding divine morality are cynical and unfounded. There are plenty of examples (and studies) showing the care that atheists have for other people. There are also plenty of “Christians” who behave immorally. They are all people. Some do lots of good things. Some, not so much.


  3. Chip, no one here is saying that atheists cannot behave morally. What is being said is that on atheism, one cannot ground moral values and duties. You say compassion and empathy grounds your morality? Why? You are smuggling in an objective moral value: namely that we should be good to others. Why? On atheism, we’re all just worthless carbon blobs all doomed to the same fate: the heat death of the universe. If I’ve got the power to get away with being cruel to others (think Stalin, Mao, etc.) then why shouldn’t I? All of your so-called “morality” is just your subjective opinion, and can be safely ignored by anyone with the power and the inclination to do it. Please answer me this: on atheism, what is “good”, what is ” evil”, and WHY SHOULD I BE GOOD (whatever that is)?


    1. Mark,

      Your questions are reasonable and I will try to answer them briefly but honestly. But if you truly want to understand my answer you will have to set aside your view of morality and, more generally, of the supernatural. Whether I’m right or wrong, you have to remember that I don’t believe in a deity. I come from the point of view that the physical cosmos is all there is. If that is clear, then we can proceed.

      “What is good/evil?”

      There is no definitive definition of what is good and what is evil. I agree that there is essentially universal agreement on some “bad” things (torturing babies for fun) and some “good” things (sharing food with a starving person). And there is a lot of grey area. (Read something like to get a feel for how big the grey area actually is.)

      With that in mind, I will say that I lean toward Sam Harris’ description of good as that which enhances our well-being. The actions which lead to a better life for individuals or groups are those which we call ‘good’. It is a form of utilitarianism, favoring the most good (or well-being) for the most people. Yes, there are a LOT of potential pitfalls (look up the Trolley Problem and its many variants). But we struggle through and we know better now how to enhance well-being than we did 100 or 1000 or 10,000 years ago (e.g., Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery in 1981).

      Yes, there is no absolute standard. There never will be without a deity. We, ourselves, have to wrestle with these issues and decide and fail and try again and come to a conclusion and consensus if we are going to enhance well-being for all. That’s just the way it is. A hard, uphill climb. But it is our responsibility to each other to do the best we can for as long as we can.

      “Why should I be good?”

      Because you value life and the well-being of sentient, sapient creatures. You might say “But why value life?” Do you prefer living to being dead? Do you prefer your husband or wife or child to be alive as opposed to dead? Do you want to suffer or thrive? Do you want your kids to suffer? How about your neighbor? It is our heritage to desire life. It is the preference or nearly everyone. Why not live if you can and enjoy life and feel good about it? If you do not see the value in life, even WITHOUT a deity, even WITHOUT a cosmic purpose, even WITHOUT an afterlife and a heaven, then there is no further discussion to be had.

      Yes, yes, yes. There is no divine authority to punish Mao and Hitler and anyone who chooses to do what we all call evil. Yes, you can rape and pillage and watch the world burn as much as you want. But must of us don’t want to do that. And most of us will try to stop you from doing that and punish you for it because we don’t want those things done to us. But (stepping back into the standard Christian view for a moment), what punishment awaits the pedophile who repents on his deathbed? There are problems of justice with your view as well. But this is why people like me, who don’t believe in an afterlife, want to work for justice now, because we don’t think there is any justice waiting for them in death.

      Yes, everything I’m saying is my “subjective opinion” in the sense that there is no cosmic standard. But I emphasize, AGAIN, that you say this just because you want this objective reference point for morality. Frankly, I do, too. I want one. Really I do. It would make things a lot easier. But I don’t believe it exists. And so I must decide for myself what I want to do to make my life, and the lives of those around me, the best they, can be. And this is what is good.

      I hope this makes sense. I welcome further questions.


      1. 1. I distinguish good and bad as follows – Things I like are good, things I don’t like are bad, simple! Being kind to children makes the children happy, torturing makes them unhappy. I possess this magical ability called empathy (which the writer obviously lacks) that compels me to treat others the way I would like to be treated. You only need the standard if you’re a psychopath.
        2. I am not obliged to do a good thing instead of a bad thing, I choose to do it because it makes me feel good too. Call it selfish if you like, makes no difference to me.
        3. I cant disregard my moral obligations because I have none. None the less, I still do the things you might think I’m morally obliged to because I see them as the right things to do.
        4. I don’t think this guy understands the meaning of “free will”… nor how deduction works. You see.. the things have to be related in a causal relationship somehow.
        5. There hes claiming that he has no motivator to behave in a moral fashion other than either the carrot or a stick.

        This one was way too easy, the guy obviously has an impaired sense of empathy and you can’t expect a cripple in a wheelchair to keep up in a marathon. Question is though, was he born this way or did his indoctrination destroy his natural ability to be a decent human being?


        1. For anyone who might be wondering…

          I am unable to do anything but stare blankly at Karl’s reply for it responds not to what I said but what I can only imagine are the preconceived ideas he has about me and/or my position.


        2. If a person who is psychopathic enjoys doing things the rest of society deems bad due to a lack of empathy, then the person is acting rightly according to you. According to your first statement, anything goes as long as the person in some way enjoys what is done. However, I suspect you disapprove of actions that are deemed “bad” that a psychopath is enabled to commit because of his lack of empathy. This lack of empathy can be learned though, some evil people aren’t born that way, some learn it from society, some learn it from the prison system, and some may learn it from doing small bad things over and over again until they move on to something worse. In this way, a person can be desethitized to a point that they no longer consider if something is right or wrong unless their is a personal consequence attached to an action. According to what you’ve said, even this person is still right because he/she likes it.


          1. Monty,

            I’m not absolutely sure but I think you’re directing these comments at me.

            You have misunderstood my position. I’m NOT saying that morality is doing what one likes. I’m saying that an action is likely (but not guaranteed) to be moral if it results in an increase in individual or corporate well-being. The action may be something one does not like doing. But because if increases well-being, it is a good thing to do. Can you see how this is detached from personal preferences (aside from a preference for an increase in well-being)?


          2. Your standard of well-being is your standard. It’s not an objective standard. You’re stating your personal opinion of well-being, but others would differ, which is why it degrades to relativism. There is nothing that exists out there in the universe that makes your opinion binding on anyone else, in an atheistic universe. Stalin’s opinion of well-being is different from the Ukrainian peasants he starved to death. And there is nothing objective in your atheistic universe to distinguish who is right. On a Darwinian view, might makes right, it’s survival of the fittest, and you will never be able to defend universal human rights on an atheistic worldview. They come from a Creator.


          3. Chip
            Thank you for replying, but my comment was directed at Karls post. I apologize for not clarifying in my post, but your argument is clarified, thanks.
            I see the difference between preference and well being, but why is it important for humanists to seek what betters themselves or their community/society. Also, why is this considered good?


          4. Right or wrong is subjective. We can form a universal notion of right/wrong by popular opinion but every person still has their personal understanding of it. If the psychopath didn’t feel like what they were doing was right then why would he do it in the first place? Doesn’t mean the rest of us have to agree.

            When you penalize/reward people for their good/bad behavior as judged by their peers, you don’t teach them right or wrong. You teach them what others think is right or wrong and how they will react upon going against them. There is an important distinction between penalty and rehabilitation, the former banks on the subject to make a logical choice not to offend and the latter tries to change the subject so he wouldn’t want to offend in the first place.

            Religion as mostly based on penalty/reward is one of those things that can compel people to go against their own sense of right/wrong. When it works out, it is perceived as heightening the morality of those people but its really just an invisible gun to their head.

            Truly moral people don’t need threats of hell or promises of heaven to be nice to each other. They can feel what others feel and take pleasure in shared well being.


          5. Monty,

            First, I think I must apologize to Karl. Given his other comments here, I think I read his post above in the exact opposite way from what he intended. Sorry.

            And I obviously didn’t understand you were responding to him rather than me. The perils of the written word. Oh, well.

            To your question…

            “[W]hy is it important for humanists to seek what betters themselves or their community/society. Also, why is this considered good?”

            Is this question different from the one I answered above? It is important to seek well-being because we value it. It makes people feel better, more happy, more satisfied It is good just for that reason, that lives are improved. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, you can see why this is important if you ask yourself whether you prefer to live or die, to suffer or thrive.

            If you’re confused because you see this as groundless, I understand. But remember that I have rejected any claim of the supernatural. If it bothers you to see this approach to morality as arbitrary and subjective, consider for a moment what you would base your morality on if you did not believe in God. This is my situation. From your point of view, my morality is completely arbitrary. From my point of view, it is necessarily so.

            Does that help?


      2. “Yes, everything I’m saying is my “subjective opinion” in the sense that there is no cosmic standard.”

        Then your morality is *different* than Christian morality. To so it’s the same morality is an equivocation. Your morality is a subjective fact grounded in individual subjects with various human desires and urges, ours is an objective fact grounded in one unchanging objective reality – God’s perfect nature.


        1. “Then your morality is *different* than Christian morality.”

          I never claimed otherwise, did I? If so, I misspoke, because, as I said early on, my morality would never bring me to do the things ordered by the God of the Bible.

          “Your morality is a subjective fact grounded in individual subjects with various human desires and urges, ours is an objective fact grounded in one unchanging objective reality – God’s perfect nature.”

          I get this. But given that I was a Christian for a LONG time, and that I considered deeply my faith, ultimately coming to the point where I could no longer believe that your god exists, how would you propose I structure and explain my morality? I have explained it as well as I can in as few words as I can manage. Unless, you (re)convince that God exists, I cannot accept the morality you subscribe to and so I subscribe to that which I have already explained.


  4. hey, i’m not gonna do you the courtesy of reading your [CENSORED] so i don’t really expect you to not do the same, but here’s a fact for ya: we get to choose our own morality. we don’t have to blindly follow what others tell us to do like the religious do. not to mention, practically every religion promotes hatred and violence. if that’s my [CENSORED] competition? i might as well be a [CENSORED] paragon of virtue and kindness.


  5. On some level, I think there’s a false dichotomy between atheism and theism about morality. Hypothetically, you could argue for some sort of utilitarianism on atheism, and then you could claim said utilitarianism is a way of grounding objective moral values. There are two issues with such a belief, of course. First, what if something we consider evil is best for the majority of people? Does that inherently make it good? Second, how does this not boil down to personal preference? Many would claim that Obamacare is an overall good thing for society. Many others would argue the opposite. How do you reconcile the two under utilitarianism, take a poll?

    To me, it doesn’t seem as though you can actually ground objective moral values and duties under naturalism in any consistent way. This is also why moral subjectivism fails.

    Finally, contra WK, I think Rosenberg actually does realize the implications of his view. Dawkins and Coyne seem to believe in some Enlightenment fairy story where atheism inherently begets progress. In fact, almost all of the militant atheists do.


  6. It seems to me that neither Shelley Kagan nor Matt Dillahunty nor Jerry Coyne (and perhaps Chip Salonna) grasp the concept of “objective morality” including “objective moral values,” “objective moral duties,” and “objective moral accountability.” Social contract theory never provides any “objective morality.” It merely articulates the evolutionary subjective collection of moral values, duties and accountabilities that some particular group of people agree to share at a particular time and place. That’s relativism, not “objective morality.” The popularity of relativism is irrelevant.

    Just because 2 people agree on the terms of their moral interactions (or 2 million, or 2 billion or 2 trillion people agree for 2 years or 2 millennia or 2 trillion millennia) does not turn their subjective collective moralities into an “objective morality.” Shelley Kagan’s appeals to some imagined collection of “perfectly rational people” does not turn their subjective collective moralities into an “objective morality,” especially when he admits that no such collection of “perfectly rational people” exist.

    A little anecdote may illustrate. In 2012-13 I dialogued with a very kind and courteous atheist mother who had previously served as a self-described committed Christian Sunday School teacher before becoming an atheist. In July, 2013, Dr. Ben Levin (a world renouned expert on K-12 education, then a tenuredd education professor at U of Toronto, previously a deputy minister of education in Ontario, previously deputy minister of education in Manitoba) was arrested and charged with seven charges related to his pedophilia with global involvements. In April 2014 in a plea bargin he pled guilty to three of these and is now in prison.

    The atheist mother and I agreed that Dr. Levin’s beliefs and behaviours related to pedophilia were clearly immoral (objectively so). I then repeatedly invited the atheist mother to provide a rational foundation on atheist assumptions for our shared judgement that Dr. Levin’s beliefs and behaviours were objectively wrong, not because of anyone’s subjective feelings or likes, social contracts, etc. Some months later she reported to me that she received some 300 replies to her queries about my question from her atheist community, but did not consider any of them worthy to pass along to me. I can imagine that none of these 300 replies came from Jerry Coyne, or Shelley Kagan or Matt Dillahunty or Chip Salonna. I seriously doubt that this quartet of atheist apologists even grasp the concept of “objective morality.” Certainly no version of social contract theory does.

    “Do no harm” and “maximize everyone’s well-being” begs the question: How can an atheist objectively determine what is actually “harm” or “well-being”?


    1. Al,

      I believe I know what “objective morality” is as you consider it. But you are welcome to enlighten me. Regardless, at the risk of being misinterpreted yet again, I summarize my position thusly: I don’t believe “objective morality” exists.

      You ask “How can an atheist objectively determine what is actually ‘harm’ or ‘well-being’?” There are two ways to approach this.

      The answer which Harris gives to this question is “How does anyone objectively determine what ‘healthy’ is?” In brief, the standard today for “healthy” is far different than it was 100 years ago, which differs from that of 100 years prior. The USDA healthy eating recommendations change regularly. Examples go on and on so I won’t bore you with them. But the point is we have some idea what “healthy” is and we make steps toward this goal, perhaps in fits and starts with hesitations and failures, but also with long-term progress despite the vagueness of the definition. So it is with well-being. It may not be perfectly defined but we have an idea of some things it is and some that it’s not. Given that starvation, crime, slavery, etc. still exist, practical applications for increasing “well-being”, however ill-defined, are not hard to find.

      We can also answer your question by asking how a Christian knows what is moral and what isn’t? As pointed out by Eli Carlyle farther down, Christians continually disagree on what is right behavior and what isn’t. Certainly the Bible doesn’t offer a solution to every conceivable moral dilemma. There are no formulas to determine the rightness of a particular behavior in a particular situation. And from the outside, those claiming affiliation with Christ differ greatly on many issues of morality. How then does an outsider know whom to believe? The problem you present seems equally intractable. Will you hold us to a standard you can’t seem to meet?


      1. Objective morality means “beyond human opinion.” If there is no God, there is nothing beyond human opinion. In terms of right and wrong, that is.
        You say you don’t believe objective morality exists. Let me ask you this: Was the Holocaust wrong? If you say yes, then you DO believe objective morality exists. If you say no, then what you are really saying is that what Hitler did WAS ONLY A MATTER OF OPINION.
        Which is it, Chip? Yes or no?


        1. In this post featuring Matt Dillahunty, he could not declare that it was a fact that Dauchau, a concentration camp, was evil:

          And I think that’s standard atheism. It’s not a FACT that anything is wrong on atheism. They have private, personal, subjective opinions about “well-being” and there is no reality to it. It’s just their opinion. They use the language of moral objectivity to sort appear as if they care about morality and understand it, but really it’s just personal preferences they are expressing. And that is really scary when you understand that about them. Whether the Holocaust was wrong or not is personal preference, on atheism. Either opinion is fine, depending on who is calculating the “well-being”.

          Theists are the only people who treat morality as reasoning about facts, and who make decisions about morality the same way they make decisions about facts.


        2. Mark writes: “Was the Holocaust wrong? If you say yes, then you DO believe objective morality exists. If you say no, then what you are really saying is that what Hitler did WAS ONLY A MATTER OF OPINION.
          Which is it, Chip? Yes or no?”

          This illustrates a common misunderstanding of secular morality, or, perhaps more accurately, a poor thought process. You ask a question in order to make a point which is fine. But the problem is you forcefully interpret the answer (again!) within the limits of your belief system. To understand my answer, you MUST understand my belief system and the context in which I think about this. That context is that I do not believe that a god exists and therefore objective morality also does not exist. You need not agree with me but you also may not force my square answer into one of your round pigeon holes.

          My answer is yes, the Holocaust was wrong. It is “yes” not because I think there’s some ultimate authority saying so, not because I think it violates some cosmic law, not because I believe objective morality exists; it is “yes” because the Holocaust decreased well-being on a staggering scale. It is “yes” because it perpetrated a hatred and violence on millions of individuals that I would not have wanted perpetrated against me. It is “yes” because it created unimaginable suffering.

          Once again, I answer “yes” to your question for reasons that do not fall in line with your thinking. If you continue to assert that I believe in objective morality when I have explicitly stated that I don’t and explained exactly why I think some things are wrong, then you are being either self-deceptive or willfully ignorant. Please don’t do that.


          1. Chip,

            Earlier you wrote:

            But let me at least partially agree with you. Actually, I’ll go further than you. Atheism says absolutely nothing about morality. It is totally silent on the matter. It carries with it neither prescription nor proscription. You might as well leave atheism completely out of the equation because it has no bearing on the topic whatsoever.

            In your latest comment, you wrote:

            That context is that I do not believe that a god exists and therefore objective morality also does not exist.

            Do you see the contradiction between the two statements? And why do you think “I believe objective morality also does not exist” follows from “I do not believe that a god exists”?


          2. Yes, I can see the contradiction. I was being a little loose with my language. So, here’s some clarification.

            I admit that it could be the case that if objective morality exists, it may exist without a deity. I don’t know. But generally, it’s theists making the claim for objective morality and it’s almost always ends up being related to their theism. So, I took a short cut. I see very little argumentation for objective morality divorced from theism. Harris is a notable exception.

            I stand by my statement that atheism, in and of itself, does not speak to morality. But if you want from me a secular argument that objective morality does not exist, you won’t get it. Like the god claim, I see little to no evidence for it. I suppose you could say, in addition to being an atheist, I’m also an a-objective-moralist. To be very specific, I reject the claim that objective morality exists (regardless of the status of god and especially as imagined by theists) while not claiming that objective morality doesn’t exist. But, as a matter of practicality, I act and argue as if objective morality doesn’t exist.


          3. Yes, I agree with you that atheism doesn’t speak to morality. If God does not exist, that tells us that any God-based theory of morality (such as Divine Command Theory) is false, but that’s it.


          4. Why is “decreasing well-being on a staggering scale” wrong? What is wrong with hatred and violence? Why can’t I create unimaginable suffering for others, seeing as how we’re all just carbon blobs doomed to death anyway, and I can get away with it? If there is no objective morality then NOTHING IS REALLY WRONG. It’s just your OPINION that decreasing/increasing suffering is right/wrong. Unless this is BEYOND OPINION, then you like chocolate and I like vanilla. You like helping Jews and I like helping get rid of them. You have given me NO REASON to believe that helping people is better than hurting them. You have simply asserted it. And yet if it is OBJECTIVELY wrong to hurt instead of help people, then THAT is an objective moral value, and you DO believe that at least one exists.


          5. You continue to view my answer from your worldview and I guarantee you, it’s not going to work. You are asking for an objective, trans-cosmic reason why wrong is wrong. The possibility that suffering intentionally caused will go unpunished fills you with fear because it means the cosmos is unplanned, uncaused, and winding it’s way into an inevitable, unavoidable, whimpering, pathetic, painfully slow heat death.

            It’s scary. Unquestionably. It makes me feel unimaginably insignificant, useless and purposeless when I think about it. And this also means, as you put it, “NOTHING IS REALLY WRONG”. Yes, that is my view. There is no arbiter. There is no final judge. There is no god. There is only what we see and feel.

            I’ve made my peace with that and resigned myself to my own fate – death. But it helps nothing to give up now. Despite the complete, utter, cosmic uselessness of my life, I choose to see it as having value now. I choose to take it as the most rare privilege to be among the living, a speck of self-aware atoms in an endless sea of randomness. It’s crazy that I’m here at all. How many other possible people will never be? And yet I get to be here. It’s insanely humbling in the truest sense.

            But it’s exactly the rarity of my life that which makes it valuable, just for this moment, but valuable nevertheless. And that same reason is why my wife and kids are valuable and my mother and father are valuable and why you’re valuable and every life is valuable. And because these lives are valuable, it is wrong to cause suffering. Not in the cosmic sense, but in a temporal sense, a communal sense, an empathetic sense.

            I can give you no further answer.


          6. Why does it matter that it reduced well-being on a large scale (and it sure didn’t reduce well-being for the SS)? Why should anyone have lifted a finger to stop it? Who cares if millions of untermensch die for the benefit of the Aryan Master Race? By asserting that the Holocaust was wrong because it reduced well-being, you are imputing intrinsic value to human life, but your worldview rejects that notion. Otherwise, you can dismiss people or groups you don’t like as worthless, and therefore their suffering can be ignored or even celebrated.


  7. It’s rather ironic when Christians criticize subjective morality, given that no two Christians have identical moral standards. Is birth control moral? Divorce? Masturbation? Alcohol? Military service? Capital punishment? Depends on which Christian you ask.

    150 years ago, Christians couldn’t even agree on slavery. One has to wonder why Christians come to different conclusions on so many moral issues. Is God telling different Christians different things? Or is God’s communication so vague and ambiguous it is easily misinterpreted by even the most attentive listener?

    Regardless of one’s preferred explanation, the problem remains: Despite the common insistence that it’s based on something objective, an individual Christian’s morality appears just as subjective as anyone else’s.


    1. The issue that I and everyone else is discussing is whether there are objective moral values and objective moral duties. We are not talking about how anyone knows them, or what different people think. To be more technical, we are discussing moral ontology, not moral epistemology.


      1. And if you don’t even know what these objective moral values are, how can you so confidently assert that such moral objectivity exists?


        1. I think people can know that objective moral values and duties exist, and that this is compatible with there being some conflicts on peripheral issues. But the more important problem is whether they exist or not. If they exist, then we can know about them, even if we disagree on infant baptist vs believer’s baptism. But if they do not exist, and on atheism there is no such thing as morality as a category, then the who discussion is meaningless. Saying we ought to attach value to anything or that we ought to do any action, on atheism, is meaningless. It refers to nothing. It is just individuals and groups expressing opinions, and there is no way to adjudicate between them – ON ATHEISM.


  8. Yes, we are discussing moral ontology, not moral epistemology. Some people believe (as I do, WK, WLCraig, etc.) that some objectively correct moral values do exist in fact (e.g., that Dr. Ben Levin’s exploiting children for sexual gratification & counselling others how to do so successfully is objectively morally wrong, no matter who or how many think it is right). That various people disagree about the validity of this value is irrelevant to its existence. That there are issues for which discovering the objectively correct moral values are difficult is irrelevant to the existence of any objectively correct moral values.

    Some people believe (as I do, WK, WLCraig, etc.) that on the basis of atheist assumptions it is impossible to establish that any objectively correct moral values do exist. We have seen this in the cases of the atheists who have posted and been mentioned on this thread. They reject objective moral values. They merely assert what they like subjectively, whether individually or collectivly.

    That Dr. Levin believes his exploiting children for sexual gratification is morally healthy behaviour (as a world renouned expert in children’s education) does not make that belief morally correct. Atheists seem to be helpless in any attempt to say otherwise. This does not suggest that all atheists would agree with Dr. Levin on this issue. This merely suggests one fundemental flaw in the moral ontology of all atheists.


  9. I am wondering how anyone thinks they have an “objective” anything when it comes to morality. I am sure you understand that there are moral dilemmas that can be presented to any assertion. Is it wrong to intentionally kill someone? Sure. Unless that person is trying to kill you or your loved ones, then it becomes not so “objective”. Morality is not cut and dried, objectively true for any situation. There are always circumstances that muddy the water and different people will react differently based on that situation, not the moral question. Do you have a list of what these “objective moral” values, duties, and obligations are? Or do they change based on the specific circumstances? Or are objective morals simply a vague concept, so ill-defined as to not have much meaning? When I am faced with a moral dilemma,, where do I find these objective morals to make my decision for me?


    1. Not sure how objective morality was presented to you, but the correct way to understand it is that there is a hierarchy of moral absolutes, with some being weightier than others. Which one applies depends on the situation. For example, the duty to save an innocent life is more important than the duty to tell the truth to murderers.

      Read this:


    2. Not really. Objective morality does not mean simplistic morality. It is not subjective to say that man is created in the Image and Likeness of God, and therefore, it is always wrong to initiate force against innocent people. If anyone does initiate force against an innocent person, the victim and any witnesses have the right to use such force as is appropriate to stop the attack (i.e. using sufficient force to stop the attack, but not greater than the harm reasonably anticipated by letting the attack continue unabated). If anyone is guilty of wrongdoing, he shall be punished by the proper authorities, and private individuals are not permitted to take revenge on their own. Those accused of wrongdoing have the right to contest the accusation before an impartial court, including the right to cross-examine witnesses against them, the right to call witnesses in their defense, and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.


  10. But wait. When religious people pick and choose what parts of the Bible to follow and which to ignore, aren’t they using the same moral compass that atheists use?


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