Morality again

There’s a popular evangelical Christian argument against atheism which involves morality somehow.

In the unsophisticated form it’s that atheism leads to immorality (like the caller on a radio talk show Dawkins was on in the US, who said that if he thought there wasn’t a God he probably would murder his neighbour). This isn’t really worth engaging with, because it’s not an argument that atheism is false.

In the more sophisticated form the argument is that atheism, if true, necessarily means that morality is an arbitrary personal opinion. But we strongly feel that some things are just wrong regardless of anyone’s opinion (in this argument, rape and the Nazis are the canonical examples of things that are just wrong). This contradicts atheism, so atheism must be false.

The latter form of the argument came up recently in an interview that Premier Christian Radio’s Justin Brierley did with Richard Dawkins after a debate Dawkins was in. Brierley wrote a piece about it on the UCCF‘s BeThinking.org site. robhu has posted about it on his journal, and has a poll on what people think about the morality of very bad things. Some lively discussion has ensued there.
Edit: but unfortunately Rob deleted his LiveJournal a while back. Here’s what I said:

Although this “OMG you atheists can’t claim Hilter/rape is wrong” argument seems popular among evangelicals at the moment, I’m not sure what the argument against atheism actually is.

Most atheists demonstrably do claim that Hilter and rape are wrong, so the argument seems to be that such claims aren’t well-founded if atheism is true, so that atheism is inconsistent.

There are atheists who are moral realists, although I’ve not checked whether their arguments are any good. Still, there are some serious names in that Wikipedia article (and Ayn Rand), so I’d be reluctant to conclude that they’re inconsistent without looking into it.

Even if atheism is inconsistent with the existence of moral absolutes (note: I originally wrote “moral realism” here, but that’s not the topic), in the absence of evidence that there is such a thing as objective morality, this sort of argument does not seem to demonstrate that atheism is false, merely that if atheism is true, the universe is not as we’d like it to be (in the sense that we’d like it if there were moral absolutes). The objection to atheism on these grounds seems to be wishful thinking.

Personally, while I think there could be beings who thought that rape and Hitler were not wrong, most of us are not such beings and (crucially) do not want ourselves or others to become such beings. That is, arguments that these things are wrong can be recognised by most humans, but aren’t guaranteed by the universe/God/whatever.

I also responded to one of Rob’s objections:

You suggest that it’s wishful thinking if our deepest sense of what is true does not match up with your criteria for objective proof of that sense. Which I take to be a position where you say you have some strong inner sense that say the holocaust is wrong (even if everyone who disagrees is exterminated or brainwashed to believe otherwise), but because that doesn’t match with the worldview you have (that is there is no God, and so no objective morality) you say that it’s just wishful thinking. For those of us have the worldview that God is real, it makes a great of deal of sense.

So, if I understand what you’re saying, “our” is moral absolutists, “your” is me, right? So you’re saying I, pw201, have a strong sense that Bad Stuff is wrong (which is true), further, that I think it’ll be wrong even if everyone else disagrees (which is true). But I also think such a position (i.e. my own) is wishful thinking, which means I look a bit silly.

But in fact what I think is wishful thinking is the objection to atheism on the grounds that it would mean there are no moral absolutes, because the only grounds for that objection I’m aware of at the moment is that the objector would like it if there were moral absolutes, not that there actually are moral absolutes.

You might be saying that what I’ve said about Bad Stuff two paragraphs ago means I do accept that there are moral absolutes, but in fact all I’ve said is what I think, not that God/the Platonic Form of Moralty agrees with me.

24 thoughts on “Morality again”

  1. In my life I have noticed that there is a moral difference between being an atheist and being a Christian. I can think of at few examples of situations where as an atheist I would have acted in a more immoral way (because no one would know, and I can definitely get away with it) whereas now I wouldn’t (partly because all things are seen, but mostly because I want to be like Jesus).

    My experience probably doesn’t directly translate over to others, and the stuff I’ve noticed is fairly small change stuff (although I’ve probably been nudged to do the right thing on bigger stuff).

    1. But why can’t an atheist feel nudged to do the right thing using an entirely scientific argument that assumes god does not exist?

      Why do religions exist? Answer because they work in a survival of the fittest sense. Religion generally teaches ‘Love thy neighbour’. Why is this policy the best policy in a survival of the fittest sense?

      A policy of deviant behaviour when you can get away with it seems likely to be superior. But is it? I think this can be explained away as people who believe in what they are doing achieve far more than people who are depressed or feel they have no purpose. Hence an atheist can decide that they need a purpose in life and to achieve it they need to believe in what they are doing. It is appropriate to learn from religion though they do not believe in God.

    2. This never seems to work the other way around.

      Atheists never seem to think that something is immoral, convert to Christianity and then discover that it was moral after all.

      Here is one thing the Bible claims is moral behaviour. Or is it?

      Is it really moral behaviour to give all your money to the poor for example?

      Of course, Christians don’t HAVE to give all their money to the poor, but that is a different point. Is it morally correct to give all your money to the poor?

  2. This contradicts atheism, so atheism must be false.

    I once heard somebody arguing for the existence of an absolute morality in a way that didn’t require a god to have dictated it. His thesis, as I recall, was basically that the behaviour of sentient minds in the presence of an absolute morality is analogous to that of iron filings in the presence of a magnetic field: morality pervades the universe in such a way that sentient minds can attune to it, and this is why most people’s basic morality agrees on things like rape and the Nazis – like the iron filings, most people’s internal moral senses end up pointing in basically the same direction. But, of course, local friction and crowding effects mean that not all the filings point in exactly the same direction, and a few point way off the mark – and so it is with people, where we see a lot of lively discussion around areas less clear-cut than rape and Nazism, and a few people are rapists and/or Nazis regardless of the prevailing force. I think his suggestion was that the general agreement of people’s moral senses on the basics actually constituted evidence for the existence of an absolute moral force gently pointing them all in the same direction.

    I don’t believe a word of it, naturally, but I thought I’d just chuck it in to complicate the argument, by giving a possible way of decoupling absolute morality from God 🙂

    1. Then I’d want to know how that absolute morality, and the relation between it and minds, fits into that person’s overall ontology. To say that moral realism is incompatible with atheism, if atheism is just defined as not-theism, is a stronger claim than to say that it’s incompatible with the kind of reductive materialism that Dawkins espouses. Dawkins himself seems to agree that his worldview won’t support moral realism.

      Of course, it’s possible to respond by saying that moral realism is false. But then I wish people who think this wouldn’t intermittently make comments which seem to presuppose that moral realism is actually true, e.g. by saying that there are things which, morally, we should or shouldn’t do, or comparing their moral views with those of other people in a way which suggests some standard external to both.

      1. I’m not sure how denying moral realism stops someone from saying there are things which we should or should not do.

        I agree that people who deny moral realism can’t compare their moral views to those of other people using an external standard, but they can appeal to more general principles which they might share with those other people. For example, a vegetarian might argue with someone who’s happy to eat meat but recognises that causing unnecessary suffering is bad, saying that eating meat is actually causing such suffering.

        1. Why should you do some things and not do other things?

          If you say you should be moral because God will punish you if you are immoral, the question naturally arises, why should I care whether or not I get punished?

          If the answer is that being punished is bad for your well-being, we at last get to some common ground on the subject of morals.

          We can then say that things like rape, murder, torture etc are bad for the well-being of humanity in general and individuals in particular.

          If the Christian response to that is why should he care about the well-being of humanity in general and individuals in particular, then he is open to the same question of why should he care about whether or not humanity goes to Hell.

          So atheists can be moral for exactly the very same reasons that Christians can be moral – they are concerned about the well-being of humanity in general and individuals in particular.

        2. Perhaps we need to distinguish two different senses of “should”. If I say something like “If you want to catch the bus, you should leave now”, the “should” is merely expressing a relation between a goal and an action necessary to achieve that goal. But the normative ethical “should” isn’t like that, I think. Compare “You should believe justice is good”. I submit that this is more like the “should” of “you should believe that 2+2=4” – not because of any necessary consequences of not believing that, but rather because it’s objectively true. But to believe that there are objectively true moral facts, you have to be a moral realist, right?

          I agree with your second paragraph. Are you a vegetarian?

          1. So you should give money to charity because it is objectively true that giving money to charity is good, and not because you want to further the goals of the charity?

            It is true that Paris is the capital of France. I should believe that, because it is true, but why ‘should’ I go to Paris, just because I should believe that Paris is the capital of France?

            No, the should of ‘You should behave morally’ is because you want to obtain certain goals, and moral behaviour is the behaviour which reaches those goals.

            1. So you should give money to charity because it is objectively true that giving money to charity is good, and not because you want to further the goals of the charity?

              Could be either, or both. I give money to charities whose goals I want to promote, precisely because I believe those goals to be objectively good.

              It is true that Paris is the capital of France. I should believe that, because it is true,

              Yes.

              but why ‘should’ I go to Paris, just because I should believe that Paris is the capital of France?

              I don’t follow. When did I suggest this?

              No, the should of ‘You should behave morally’ is because you want to obtain certain goals, and moral behaviour is the behaviour which reaches those goals.

              Are there certain goals which are themselves objectively good? I say yes, and that it is precisely this which is presupposed in most moral discourse.

              I’m confused about your use of “you” in the last comment, as well. Do you mean the impersonal “one”, or me? Because at times it looks as if you’re doing both or mixing them up. If I say to you, “you should treat other people with respect”, do you think that’s because of some goal I wish to achieve through that behaviour on your part? That would make moral discourse just a power conflict. No, I say that because I believe “people should treat each other with respect” to be a fact, and if it is a fact then my belief is true. If it’s not a fact, then I have no basis on which to make that claim of you.

              1. MATT
                No, I say that because I believe “people should treat each other with respect” to be a fact, and if it is a fact then my belief is true

                CARR
                And it is a fact that you should not kick the ball into your own net in football.

                There is no rule in football about it. It is not against the laws of the game.

                But if you want to achieve the object of the game, then it is objectively wrong to kick the ball in your own net.

                If you want to acheive the goal of increasing the well-being of humanity in general, and individuals in particular, then you should (in general) respect other people.

                This is no more mysterious than a claim that you should avoid kicking the ball in your own net in football.

                Compare the Christian view , as expressed by Justin when talking to Dawkins ‘When you make a value judgement don’t you immediately step yourself outside of this evolutionary process and say that the reason this is good is that it’s good.’

                The reason something is good is that it’s good?

                Philosophers call this a ‘tautology’, not an ‘argument’.

                1. The football analogy is useful in other ways.

                  Everybody agrees on the goals of football – to score more goals than the other side. This goal is imposed on us form outside (just as the universe imposes on us a human nature which predisposes us to find some things increase our well-being, while certain things decrease our well-being)

                  But people disagree on whether 4-4-2 , 4-3-3, 3-5-1-1 is the best system to achieve those goals in football.

                  I guess Christians can come along and say that because people disagree on the best system to achieve these goals, then everything is purely subjective and we have no right to say that 4-4-2 is a better system than kicking the ball in your net at every opportunity.

                  1. It’s a bad analogy. The rules of football are a set of conventions, and playing football (so, keeping to those conventions) is something people choose to do or not to do. So,

                    If you want to achieve the goal of increasing the well-being of humanity in general, and individuals in particular, then you should (in general) respect other people.

                    But what do you say to someone who doesn’t want to “increase the well-being of humanity in general”, other than him/herself? It’s not as if you can go up to unsporty people and tell them “you [morally] should play football”, if they’ve chosen not to.

                    1. As I already explained, the rules of football are a given, just as the laws of nature are a given.

                      You are not going to change them the next time you play football. They were set by humans, but they count now as fixed rules.

                      How do you convince people to behave morally if they do not want to increase the well-being of humanity in general and individuals in particular?

                      How do you convince people to behave morally if they think their individual well-being will be increased by being punished by your alleged god?

                      It is exactly the same problem.

                      Does Matt think going to Heaven will improve the well-being of humanity?

                      Why should we care about going to Heaven, if we don’t care about well-being?

                      Matt’s morality suffers from the problem Matt outlines , that there is no need to be moral, if you don’t care about the rewards that moral behaviour brings.

                      Matt’s comment is like somebody who queries economics by claiming that economists cannot say what ‘goods’ are and that only God can say what good is.

                      Economists would just ignore such comments. Goods are what society defines as goods and economics is the study of how they can be made optimal.

                      Well-being is a human construct, and morality is the science of seeing how well-being can be made optimal.

                      There is no more need for the supernatural in morality than there is a need for a god to tell economists what ‘goods’ are.

          2. I don’t think people are morally obliged to believe that 2 + 2 = 4, although I think it’s true. I suppose that when I make statements that other people “should” do something, I am at least partly making a statement about how I’d like the world to be, that is, there implicit goals in what I say. If everyone’s goals for the world were completely disjoint, that sort of thing wouldn’t work, because the person wouldn’t recognise my claim on them and there’d be no-one to help me with people who don’t recognise my claim and are stronger than me. This might be the sort of world that theists are envisaging when they talk about how atheism leads to moral chaos or whatever.

            But in fact the world isn’t like that. People have at least some common ideas about how they want the world to be. Some of the common goals seem innate to most humans, some of them we’re taught, maybe the stuff that we’re taught hooks into stuff that is basic to human brains. You could ascribe this to evolution or follow C.S. Lewis and blame God.

            Anyhoo, we are where we are, which is that a bunch of us are aware of stuff that seems right as distinct from stuff that we actually always want or do. If I want to make moral claims effective on you, I have to find some way of working with where you are starting from (like the evangelising vegetarian), or I have to find enough people who agree with me that it’s not worth your while fighting us (or if you can’t be convinced that it’s not worth while, enough of us that we can win). I’m happy to use “you should/shouldn’t do X” in either of those senses. I currently don’t see anything else to morality, but I know not all atheists would agree.

            In the case of my example, I’m not a vegetarian, because I don’t take animal suffering as seriously as human suffering (ISTM that suffering is somewhat tied to self-awareness: for example, an animal probably doesn’t realise it’s about to die, unlike a condemned man). scribb1e is mostly veggie but has other dietary restrictions which make that tricky sometimes (e.g. if we eat in restaurants).

  3. Rather at risk of having the same flaw as Pascal’s Wager I’d have thought – even if you accepted that without religion there was no morality it’d still leave the question “which religion?”

    1. That isn’t a flaw.

      If you accepts that absolute morality exists and that this requires there to be a God (and you’re right), it gets you a step closer to the truth. It would rule out atheism so further time spent on investigating the problem could be spent more profitably.

      That it doesn’t demonstrate which God is the correct one is not a flaw, as that was not the purpose of the argument. From there you can look at other arguments and evidence to determine which God you think is the correct one.

      1. So your tasks are:

        1. Show that there is an absolute morality. (IMO, you have already failed, because there is such variety in morality from culture to culture and time to time.)
        2. Show that absolute morality requires at least one god
        3. Show which gods these are

        All these seems more than a little ridiculous. The desirability of an absolute morality hasn’t even been demonstrated, not to mention the strange assumption that a supernatural being somehow fits into the mix.

        1. Those aren’t my tasks. I’m responding to ‘Rather at risk of having the same flaw as Pascal’s Wager I’d have thought – even if you accepted that without religion there was no morality it’d still leave the question “which religion?”’.

      2. Depends what form the argument is presented in, doesn’t it? You can certainly produce a version with all the details of which religion is being argued in favor of filed off, but in practice that’s not what usually happens.

        1. Maybe. I’ve never seen a very strong attempt to argue for a particular God, although I’ve seen some moderately strong attempts to argue for the Judeo Christian God (William Lane Craig sometimes tries to go this far).

          Usually I’ve seen the argument as being just about theism versus atheism. Certain assumptions are made about the God that theism here refers to, but those are pretty minimal (compared to the amount one could say if they were arguing for a very particular God).

          In the places where I’ve seen the moral argument used it’s one of several arguments used to point towards a particular God, and is not in of itself enough considered good evidence for that particular God.

          I think you’re right though – it’d be much harder to build (and much easier to attack) an argument for the specific God X than an argument for God or a God with Y minimal moral attributes.

  4. To break down paragraph 3:
    1) Atheism means that morality is personal opinion
    2) More than one person shares moral position X
    3) Therefore (1) is wrong

    I can’t see how (2) contradicts (1) in the slightest. Just because multiple people share a given moral position (rape is wrong) that doesn’t make it objective – it just makes it a shared value.

  5. Subject: Justin Brierley and rape
    Justin Brierley said that rape was absolutely morally wrong, and would be , even if he belonged to a specied that had evolved to believe that rape was right.

    The Bible agrees, and says rape is wrong. At least, the rape of a virgin is wrong.

    Deuteronomy 22
    If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.

    Absolute morality or Biblical morality? The choice is clear.

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