Tag Archives: Consequentialism

What are the minimal requirements for rational morality?

UPDATE: Welcome readers from the the Western Experience! Thanks for the link, Jason!

Last week, I posted a list of 13 questions that Christians could use to get discussions going with their atheist friends. Basically, you ask your atheist friend out to lunch, ask them the questions. We got 10 responses to the questions, which I summarized here. And I had lunch with another one of my friends, another Jewish atheist, who goes to a Reformed synagogue, as well.

Basically, the questionnaire’s purpose is to establish whether atheism provides a rational foundation for moral behavior. Specifically, can atheism account for the minimal requirements for rational moral behavior (see below).

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.

Tomorrow, I will explain why the answers given by the atheists show that the worldview of atheism offers none of these 5 requirements, and that therefore morality is really, really, really irrational on atheism. Atheist can look over their shoulders at their neighbors, and act like them in order to feel happy that they are acting consistently with the arbitrary fashions of their herd, but that’s all they can do, on atheism.

Further study

You can get the full story on the requirements for rational morality in a published, peer-reviewed paper written by William Lane Craig here. You can also hear and see him present the paper to an audience of students and faculty at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2008. The audio is clipped at 67 minutes, the video is the full 84 minutes. There is 45 minutes of Q&A, with many atheist challengers.

The video of this lecture is the best material you can get on this issue, and the Q&A from the hostile audience is vital to the lesson. More debates on atheism and morality can be found on the debate and lecture page.

You can find a post contrasting the morality of an authentic, consistent Christian with an authentic, consistent non-Christian here. A post examining how atheism is responsible for the deaths of 100 million innocent people in the 20th century alone is here. A post analyzing the tiny number of deaths that religion was responsible for is here.