Debate

How good are atheist attempts to rationally ground moral values and duties?

One of my readers is an expert at the moral argument, and wrote a number of articles about his experiences talking to non-Christians about it. He comes from a liberal Christian background, so his views and experiences are not the result of growing up in a conservative Christian environment.

In the first article, he talks about what theists mean when we say that atheists can’t rationally ground objective morality:

They misunderstand us to be implying that they are immoral people. But this is not at all what we are saying. Since we believe that the moral law is incumbent upon every human, and is woven into the very fabric of our souls, we are not at all surprised to find even atheists dancing to its tune (to mix my metaphors). The fact that atheists very much want to be thought of as good people is only a tacit admission that they understand that there is such a thing as “good” and that it is good to be good. But if morality is merely a human convention, then the most that an atheist can be claiming is that they are morally fashionable.

There’s no moral credit for doing that.

In the second article, he talks about whether atheists can “reason” their way to correct moral views, if their conception of reality says that the universe and humans are accidents:

A chance ethical system cannot do the trick if it is true that there are right and wrong answers. If there are indeed objectively right answers to moral questions, then reason is certainly an ally, since it can help us to assess the conditions and marshal our intuitions, but it does not in itself make the answer right. Neither does an ethical system make right answers; it can only (if legitimate) help us to navigate through real passes with real reefs and currents. But you could never say that any ship of history had hit a reef unless you were first willing to admit that things such as ships and reefs actually existed. That’s a very big pill to swallow for anyone committed to a purely material world, where truth and ethics extend no farther than the will and imagination of the biochemical flukes we call “humans.”

In the third article, he takes on the argument by atheists that much of the moral evil in the world is due to theists:

When asking whether a behavior is caused by a belief system it must first be determined if that behavior is consistent with the beliefs in question. For a religion like Christianity there is some hope of doing so, since it is founded upon certain doctrines and is in possession of a guidebook — the Bible — to which one might appeal in making a ruling. For this reason a strong case can be made that most of what is commonly credited to Christianity is actually a violation of its fundamental principles. It is not consistent with Christianity; it is antithetical to it. And if something is inconsistent with a thing it is hard to make a case that it is caused by that thing.

In the fourth article, he talks about how atheists misunderstand the purpose of acting morally in Christianity:

The irony is that Christianity does not even teach that we win heaven by virtue of our good works. In fact, it may be the only religion that explicitly rejects such an idea. For example, Islam actually teaches that our good deeds must outweigh our bad, and Eastern religions teach that we must work our way to enlightenment through various moral and spiritual practices. By contrast, Christianity teaches that we must put aside our futile thoughts of measuring up to God’s perfect standard and throw ourselves upon the mercy of His court. We have but to accept, as spiritual beggars, the provision He has made to cover our sin and win our righteousness in Christ.

Good works come as a result of our love and gratitude toward our creator and redeemer; they are not the cause of our redemption. The Christian ideal is to be good for God’s sake, not for the sake of what He can do for us. God is not to be confused with Santa Claus. To think otherwise is to make the mistake that Satan made regarding Job’s motivation for righteous living (Job 1:9-11).

In the fifth article, he talks about whether atheists can rationally ground the claim that they are “good” at morality:

As it turns out, most atheists who like to think of themselves as moral do so with a sense that they are saying something particularly meaningful. The implication is that they have access to moral knowledge that they are committed to put into practice. It is something like saying that you are a good baseball player, which refers to a particular game with known rules and objectives that you skillfully follow. If this is not true, then a moral atheist is just asserting that they follow their own desires; they are saying little more than, “I do what I feel like doing, and whatever I do I call ‘good.'”

It might be a fun activity to read these posts, then find an atheist and ask them whether they are a good person, and what do they mean by “good” and “evil”.  Ask them whether they are making free decisions, and how can that be possible if they are just made out of matter. The moral argument is the most accessible argument to discuss with non-Christians.

12 thoughts on “How good are atheist attempts to rationally ground moral values and duties?”

  1. I look forward to reading these essays.

    to date, the best argument that I have ever read regarding the existence of an objective morality imprinted into humanity is the first part of C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity.”

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    1. I think the scientific arguments are best. The origin of the universe, the fine-tuning and the origin of life. All recently documented by stephen c. Meyer in his new book “The Return of the God Hypothesis”.

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  2. It looks like these essays provide good reasons to reject moral relativism. But many atheists are not moral relativists. They claim to be good people because they pursue evolutioary consequentialism.

    Depending on your understanding of objectivity, evolutionary consequentialism could be a kind of objective morality. After all, it’s universal among living things. It doesn’t depend on whether you like it or whether it makes you feel good. And it stays the same til the end of time.

    It might be a fun activity to study about evolutionary consequentialism. I’m sure lots of atheists will enjoy doing that activity with you, if the purpose is really to gain understanding.

    Here’s one place we could start: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-biology/

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    1. I actually discovered in my internet travels that few atheists wanted to own moral relativism. They wanted very much to be thought good and to have a basis for calling things they disliked “bad.” You’ll find in a few of those essays where I try to unpack what some of them proposed for their grounding. I actually didn’t encounter too many who wanted to put it all on evolution in a consistent way, but might have mentioned it as a contributor. Pointing to evolution as a source is a kind of tautology (whatever we do is because of evolution), but it doesn’t really give us a guiding framework for ethics. I think that many recognize that to attempt to extrapolate from it leads to things like Nazi eugenics pogroms. Few want to admit that, though they will nibble around the edges of it (e.g., euthanasia, abortion).
      In practice, they often hold a standard higher than whatever our genes are trying to tell us. As Dawkins said, “try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are all born selfish.”

      Here is a post where I discussed evolutionary morality:
      https://pspruett.blogspot.com/2007/12/evolutionary-morality.html
      Here’s one where I discussed Dawkins’ cognitive dissonance:

      Richard Dawkins’ Moral Bankruptcy and the Roots of the Minimalist Ethic

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      1. Just to pick one point: The Nazi eugenics program was an attempt at artificial selection, but evolutionary morality is all about natural selection. That’s a huge difference.

        The problem with artificial selection is that the people doing the selecting don’t really know what will be best in the long run. Their view is too narrow and short-term.

        Indeed, many misunderstandings about evolution come from taking too narrow a view, with short-term thinking.

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        1. I agree that if you want to do selective breeding, you are imposing your own objectives upon the project. Those may not align with what nature “wants.” However, the entire ideology behind eugenics (begun also in the US) came primarily from the acceptance of the truth of evolution and its perceived goals and outcomes.

          Minimally, natural selection acts to purify the gene pool and eliminate the dead weight. The Nazis took this idea (originating in the labs and universities, not just the mind of Hitler) and they put it into practice. The next step was more dubious, as measured by materialist evolutionary standards (but downright evil by more objective standards). Their acceptance of Darwin’s assessment of racial fitness and intellectual superiority, mixed with their own antisemitism and racial bias, drove them to “un-naturally” select for certain traits and exterminate other races.

          One might say that this was an interference with “natural” selection, given that in a global climate of equity and peace we might, for example, see the Jews take over the world. However, another aspect of evolution is in the idea that some things become better, which allow them to not only survive, but thrive, dominate, and replace competitors. The Nazis believed themselves to be an example of that, not just as a race (which they sought to hone via genetics), but as a nation. In education, technology, and military prowess, they were indeed superior to many of their neighbors. By evolutionary standards, they were contenders and (like the X-Men) thought they were the nexus of evolution and the inevitable next chapter of life on earth.

          If they had won, then, by evolutionary standards, they would have been right. They would have survived and dominated, which is all evolution “cares” about. To say they would have done it the “wrong” way or “unfairly” would be to bring a higher standard into the equation. But the other thing that a naturalistic evolutionary view of life brings with it is the very idea that there is no higher standard. It is basically winner takes all, and by that measure, the Nazis were perfectly consistent.

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          1. You write, “the entire ideology behind eugenics … came primarily from the acceptance of the truth of evolution and its perceived goals and outcomes.”

            It sounds like you are blaming evolutionary theory for people’s misunderstanding of it.

            —-

            If the Nazis had won, how long do you suppose their regime would have lasted? This is all speculation, of course, but survival for a few years or a few decades doesn’t count for much, from the perspective of evolutionary morality.

            I think you might be taking too narrow a view, with short-term thinking. The standard of evolutionary morality is not who wins this or that war. The standard, ultimately, is the survival or extinction of the human species.

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          2. Blame the theory? The theory itself cannot *do* anything. I simply connected those who advanced eugenic policy with their *perception* of the goals and outcomes of the theory. To say that natural selection (one part of the theory) acts to weed out the weak stock is a pretty uncontroversial claim. This, the Nazis practiced in an accelerated way, though they included more than just those with congenital problems. And part of their problem was the lack of modern technology to sort out what was genetically broken, different, or “inferior.”

            I separated that aspect of it from their more problematic idea that they were superior to standard human stock. They also extended their application of the theory to social darwinism, which eventually fell out of vogue.

            You are certainly right that a large or global Nazi regime would probably fall away eventually, as all regimes do, but it would certainly have affected the gene pool in the process.

            You seem to have an almost transcendental idea of what evolution’s intent really is, or what proper evolutionary thinking is. But it seems to me that it is effectively a descriptive gloss on the history of life. Whatever came to be at any snapshot in history, is evolution in action. So, if the Nazis, USSR, or China took over the world, well, that would be evolution in action, and further evolution might result in something else becoming dominant.

            You may well say, “That’s more a matter of very questionable social darwinist thinking. I’m talking about the evolution of the underlying gene pool of humanity.” It’s a reasonable point, but most social movements result in population changes. And if materialism (a common presumption of the “scientific” definition of evolution) is correct, then what we think, do, and believe is all just the output of that electro-chemical meatbag between our ears, which is molded by our genes.

            Standard of evolutionary morality? Evolution is an amoral system, and it “cares” about nothing and no species. It will, allegedly, crush a species out of existence, or change it to something new from within. And there is no “right” way to do any of this. Indeed, humanity might flourish better if we killed and ate the poor and deformed among us. It is only by applying a higher standard that we are inhibited from doing such things. When someone believes there is no such higher standard than themselves, and they believe they are the pinnacle of nature, as the Nazis did, then you’ve got friction within your species.

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  3. If matter is all there is, then how can any assembly of matter (e.g., a human, a brain, etc.) generate a morally sound choice of any sort?

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    1. I think pspruett summed up nicely when he wrote, “It is only by applying a higher standard that we are inhibited from doing such things.”

      But how do we know the higher standard? How do we know what particular things are good? Christians have the Bible. Nazis have “Mein Kampf.” Atheists have no higher standard in this sense. In fact, atheists argue that we can’t be certain what particular form of life will succeed best in the future.

      In another sense, atheists do have a higher standard which is life itself. Not any particular form of life, but just life in general. And this gives us many good insights. For example, we’re pretty sure that cooperation is a powerful tool to help us flourish in our lives. Another powerful tool is diversity. We think education and creativity are also important ways to promote the flourishing life.

      Atheists don’t want to kill and eat the poor because we have a natural sense that this wouldn’t be good for human life in the long run. We don’t need God to make a rule about this. The rule is already written in our hearts – by evolution.

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