Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Can atheists be moral?

This page is meant to index the entire series of posts I wrote on atheism and morality. The topic of the series is whether atheists can adopt the moral point of view rationally, when it goes against their self-interest to do so.

The series

First of all, I wrote up a list of questions to use to interview atheists about their views.

Second, I posted the raw results of my survey.

Third, I listed the minimal requirements that any worldview must support for in order to ground rational morality.

Fourth, I argued that atheism does not ground any of these requirements.

Fifth, I argued that Christian theism does ground all of these requirements.

Sixth, I posted my own answers to the questions.

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. A post examining other ways that the secular-left kills millions of people is here. Atheistic scholars explain what morality means on atheism, including Richard Dawkins and Michael Ruse.

79 Responses

  1. Canbuhay says:

    Atheists can be moral – unfortunately, they can’t say what is moral – that’s the problem. Morality in a naturalistic worldview is at best an arbitrary law that can’t be enforced (so it really isn’t a law) or mere preference.

    There’s no way around it from an atheistic perspective.

    • pg says:

      Atheists are able to adhere to the view and practice of “do unto others.” They just don’t have any (known) recourse for their mistakes, which can make them throw up their hands in despair. Many times they find their values in the discoveries of Science — and science eventually confirms what the Bible said all along, since the Bible is the Truth, for instance in regard to the permanent effects of oxytocin (released during sex) on the brain: it has now been confirmed scientifically through studies of the brain that we only truly can bond with one individual, after that, the adhesive or velcro of intimacy starts to wear off. I am seeing a psychologist who is an atheist, and it works for me. He is more honest and empathetic than a lot of Christians. We do however deal only in the “here and now”. It is more a life coaching kind of thing than “tell me about your mother,” which is why it works for me, I think. Also, I did let him know up front that I would like to get through the course of therapy with my Faith intact, so he tip toes around that topic and my values with respect and gives it a lot of space.

  2. Craig says:

    I’ve been reading your blog and some of the debates. I have a question. In your view, does God have reasons for the moral laws that he dictates, or can they be completely arbitrary? In other words, could God command stealing and killing, and that would be moral because he said so?

    • Thanks for your fine comment. This is the Euthyphro dilemma. My answer is that the moral laws flow necessarily from God’s own moral nature. Since his nature is unchanging, they cannot be changed. So this is a variant of divine command theory but with a fixed moral standard that is INSIDE God, not external to him. Since he designs us, he gets to specify what counts as moral behavior based on his unchanging nature. Much as the inventor of cricket gets to specify what counts as a score and what counts as a foul.

      • Craig says:

        Okay, i appreciate the metaphor, but not sure if you answered my question. Could he have dictated something that we currently view as immoral such as murder or child abuse? Are the rules that he designs us with, arbitrary?

        • NO! Those rules are fixed because God is unchanging and those rules come from his moral nature.

          • Craig says:

            Ok, next question, does God have reasons for his rules, or do they simply come from his nature?

          • From his nature.

          • Drew says:

            Everything ultimately comes from God, so what other reason could God have for doing something other than a desire to do it?

            Consider your example of murder. If God glorified murder, that would contradict his own separate desire to preserve and glorify himself. Humans are made in God’s image, and destroying that image is an insult to God. If God condoned murder, it would contradict his other desire (self-glorification) which would create an illogical paradox. So no, God couldn’t support something like that, because it wouldn’t make any sense. It would be like making a round triangle.

          • Alex Costa says:

            I generally agree. Reality (as we know it) has probably a more intimate connection with God than the one we are aware. I believe there are Universal ethical laws, though they are not objective laws, like science. If God is the concept of Love (like the reality outside Plato’s cave) then it’s impossible for murder to be glorified by God. It would become contrary ti His nature.

          • arendtian says:

            This ‘way out’ of the Euthyphro dilemma seems to me to do nothing to establish the necessity of God for objective moral values. The position I assume you are defending is that the only possible source of objective morality must be God and you attempt to avoid the Euthyphro problem this raises by asserting that the objective nature of morality is NOT the product of God’s decree or will (which would make morality unobjective) and is NOT established simply by divine decree (which would make God simply an arbitrary dictator) … rather the source of morality’s objectiveness is found in the proposition that moral goodness itself is simply the essential nature of God’s being–a “fixed moral standard that is INSIDE God, not external to him.”

            This does not resolve the dilemma! If we accept your claim then “the Good” is now entirely, necessarily non-contingent on God’s will. In fact, it seems, God’s will is now entirely contingent on an appeal to his own fixed, objective nature (as you admit). But if this is the case then what need is there of a personal God in order to establish objective moral values? Your position just throws God in willy-nilly as an extra and needless proposition. You reject wholesale that morality cannot be an objective fact about the universe or about “being itself” and then assert that it must be an objective fact about God’s being that is nonetheless not dependent on his will or personal nature. But if you are perfectly comfortable asserting that “the Good” can just be “an objective fact” about God’s being (without appeal to his personhood) then why should you be uncomfortable with an assertion that claims morality is simply an “objective fact” about a non-personal universe (or simply “existence”) itself? When all is said and done a “personal God” adds nothing to the establishment of an objective morality and the atheist is on just as solid a foundation as the theist in defending objective morality. Anything other than a divine command theory will not necessitate God because the only thing that fundamentally distinguishes God from simple existence as a whole (in terms of moral foundations at least) is his personhood. If that is unnecessary to establish morality then there is no reason to assume God is necessary for the task. And if the theist must appeal to the divine command theory to make sense of God’s necessity in establishing a moral order then (as the Euthyphro problem clearly shows) the theist is not appealing to objective morality.

          • We have independent evidence of the existence of a Creator and Designer from science, including arguments such as the Kalam and fine-tuning arguments, which feature premises supported by mainstream scientific observations. It is easy to see how the Creator and Designer of the universe could create humans with free will and enforce on them a certain standard for the way they “ought to be” and then hold them accountable. God is a personal being, and his own unchanging character grounds the standard of good and evil that applies to us, his free creatures.

            On the other hand, we have no independent evidence of objective moral values in an atheistic worldview. And with no Creator and Designer of the universe, there is no one to whom these moral duties are owed. Without a non-physical mind, we humans would have no free will to choose to be good or evil. With no life after death, our decisions have no ultimate significance. I am not comfortable making counter-factual assertions like “objective moral rules exist as a brute fact” without an argument featuring premises supported by independent, verifiable evidence, such as the cosmic microwave background radiation or the observations concerning the fine-tuning of the gravitational constant for forming stable stars.

            There is no way humans “ought to be” on atheism – the universe and humans are accidents, on atheism. This is why atheists find atheism so attractive – it offers them freedom from the demands of morality and an escape from the accountability they would face for rebelling against God and trying to get what’s good their own way for a few dozen years.

            Atheism cannot ground morality rationally in five different ways. It is zero for five. Christian theism grounds all five of the minimum requirements for rationally-grounded morality. It is five for five.

          • arendtian says:

            I think you misunderstand the force (or at least the potential force if it is correct) of my argument. In essence, what I think it shows is that the Euthyphro problem is not resolved by the move you make and as such the logical consequences of the dilemma stand. Your “5 different ways” hardly constitutes an argument against atheism.

            [SNIP! (regarding the poll of atheists, which is irrelevant to my case]

            But, my argument is not ultimately about problems the atheist may face in trying to finding meaning/value in the world. Rather, what I want to assert is that the theist is no better off in these regards and that is true whether or not God actually exists. All these other arguments (Kalam, etc) are simply beside the point. Even if we could all agree that these other arguments do the trick and they show conclusively that there must be a divine creator (and I think you are far too quick to assume that (1) these are established “victors” in the debate and (2) science is on your side) that still does not show us any reason why God is the source of or even necessary to establish objective moral values. In fact, as the Euthyphro problem shows, it is actually quite problematic to assume God is the source of morality. IF the implications of the Euthyphro problem are correct (and I think they are) and IF you have no way of digging yourself out of the dilemma (which is what I think I have shown above) then the theist has no coherent reason to suggest that God is a necessary presupposition for objective morality. I’d even go so far to assert that it is very likely incoherent to demand the connection. Given this the axiological defense of God quickly fails.

            Interesting blog, by the way. I just stumbled on it by chance but I have been enjoying wandering through it!

          • I have nothing to add to my previous statement. I can’t even discern an argument in what you’ve said, so to me it has no force. It’s just speculation.

            I don’t think that Euthyphro’s dilemma has any force given what I said previously. On Christian theism, the standard of good and evil is not arbitrary and it is not external to God. We have independent reasons to believe God exists. As the Creator and Designer, he is in a unique position to specify how his creatures, who possess free wills, ought to behave. I didn’t make an axiological argument for God. I made the Kalam and fine-tuning arguments. You had no refutation of anything I said. Atheism draws a complete blank on questions of morality. It can’t ground any of the 5 minimum requirements I listed, whereas Christian theism grounds all 5.

            On the atheistic view, what we ought to do is either determined by our personal preferences or the majority opinion of our culture in the time and place that we arbitrarily exist. So it’s either personal preference or fashion of the culture, which varies by time and place. On atheism, moral values are illusory and you are left with amorality and determinism.

            If you want to dispute any of my 5 minimal requirements, go ahead.
            If you want to explain how atheism grounds the 5 minimal requirements, go ahead.
            If you want to argue that Christianity does not ground the 5 requirements, go ahead.

            I’m a deontologist with virtue ethics sympathies.

    • craig says:

      Sorry been a while since i’ve been on this site so its taken me a while to reply.

      It sounds like God is arbitrary based upon what you said, because he does not have actual, valid reasons for the moral laws. They just are “part of his nature” which he cannot change. This seems odd to me. Most moral laws even within the judeo-christian religion seem based on actual reasons. Stealing is wrong because it harms the person stolen from, hurt society and trust, etc. Killing is wrong for many of the same reasons.

      Also, it almost sounds like that this nature of God is something higher up and more essential than his free will.

      • There are no valid reasons for the moral laws outside of God. They were not made for social cohesion or to please humans. They flow from God’s unchanging nature and character. God created the universe, he gets to decide how we ought to be, what we ought to do to flourish. The reason why the moral laws are what they are is because they are rooted in the will of the Creator.

        • craig says:

          So you’re saying that morality has nothing to do with the well being of humans, they are just to please God? If God’s nature were that he loved cruelties such as rape and torture, would that make rape and torture just and good?

          • Human beings are pleased best when they serve God.

            God’s nature is unchanging and so he would not order humans to commit cruelties.

            Without God, these things you mentioned are not even wrong. There is no standard without a design. No way we ought to be. Just opinions and evolving fashions.

        • craig says:

          This also brings up another problem. If all that matters in morality is pleasing God, regardless of its effects on humans, animals or presumably any other being such as aliens or angels, then this would seem to portray God as infinitely selfish, which is the opposite of what most religious folk seem to want to say about God.

          • Serving God is what is best for us in the long run, because it is what we were designed to do. Although in the short run it thwarts our hedonism and our autonomy. The goal is to become the kind of person who can comfortably spend eternity with God in Heaven. The first step is repentance. The second step is re-prioritization and active engagement. But there is freedom because there are lots of “good” things to do within the bounds of the Bible, and you choose what plan to execute within those bounds.

        • craig says:

          I’m trying to avoid the super skinny text that the indention that this site causes so i apologize if this seems a weird place to reply.

          I was not arguing that God’s nature would change, merely speculating that if God’s nature happen to be different from “before time began” so to speak, that nature could justify things like murder and cruelty because the effects of moral laws on humans are ultimately unimportant to God. This is a major problem i have with many religions, because they are in essence saying that the rules are more important than the people. Whereas I believe that even if God exists, he established the moral rules in order to serve and protect humans, not the other way around.

          Regardless, it sounds like you and i are saying almost the same thing. That morality is derived based on the results they have on human beings. However, you are adding that God wants the best for us and therefore requires a certain way of life that is in our best interest, to bring us closer to him, even though we don’t realize it at the time. Is this correct?

          • Yes, it’s correct. Except there is a HIGHER moral obligation to know God’s existence and character. THEN to love your neighbor as yourself.

            In Matt. 22:34-40, an expert in the law asks Jesus about the greatest commandment. Jesus’ response isn’t, “Silly man! All of the laws are equal!” No, he tells him that the greatest command is to love God and the second greatest command is to love your neighbor. Clearly the man who loves his neighbor but does not love God is committing the greater sin. God comes first.

            I stole that from “Tough Questions Answered” by the way. A great blog.

            I wrote a whole post on it and I urge you to read it.

            The other thing is that by love your neighbor, I don’t mean make my neighbor happy. I mean love my neighbor by helping him to love God. And if I have to feed you to demonstrate God’s love, fine. But more likely it will involve theology and apologetics. Telling you, then proving it. Maybe over lunch, and I’ll pay.

          • Craig says:

            What you have basically agreed to then, is only a slight variation on utilitarianism. The only difference is that you’re saying the greatest good for us, what will ultimately make us happy, is to know God. You have also agreed that God’s nature is such that while he’s not about giving in to our every hedonistic wish, the morality he desires of us is in fact for our own good, not something arbitrary.

            If that is the case, then your morality is not all that much difference from many atheists, skeptics or non-Christians. Nor is it necessary to introduce God in order to determine, at least to some extent, an objective morality. You merely have to ask on any given action, how it will affect other people. You may not get perfect certainty on every moral question, but the basics: don’t lie, don’t steal, etc. are obvious. In theory, it is possible to find the answer to every moral question based on looking at its results given enough information, although in practice it may be difficult and of course people will disagree. But their agreement or disagreement does not mean objective morality doesn’t exist without God or make it pointless to find.

            This is validated by real life experience and history. Thousands of cultures have had at least basic understanding of morality, regardless of whether they new about christianity or not, whether they worshiped deities, spirits or nothing at all, as in the case of many forms of Buddhism. They may not all be equal and providing a moral framework–i’m not suggesting cultural relativism. Merely that the golden rule (which predates Christ), when you take out the God part, is known experientially by everyone at every time, to greater or lesser degrees. Therefore, objective morality can be determined, albeit imperfectly without a belief in God, just like objective standard of physics or math.

            I’d also ask, why does God want to be known and loved so much? Why has he deemed obedience and worship of himself more important than the happiness or suffering of his creatures? That again sounds selfish and egotistic, unless i’m misunderstanding you. Thanks.

            “We must not think Pride is something God forbids because He is offended at it, or that Humility is something He demands as due to His own dignity – as if God Himself was proud. He is not in the least worried about His dignity.” – C. S. Lewis

          • Actually there is nothing in common between the two systems.

            There is no objective morality on atheism.
            Humans have no more value than any other matter on atheism.
            There is no one to whom moral duties are owed on atheism.
            There is no free will on atheism, so no moral choices.
            There is no life after death, so no reason to be moral when it goes against your selfish interests here and now.
            There is no objective purpose to life on atheism.
            There is no way humans ought to be on atheism.

            So, no. Morality has no meaning on atheism. Atheism pre-supposes a closed system of deterministic behavior by collocations of atoms. There is no way those atoms ought to be, and no way they could even choose. You might as well walk into the server room and order them to love one another. It’s meaningless.

            Christian theism grounds all the requirements for morality, atheism grounds none. There is nothing in common between the two worldviews. One has morality and the other is totally amoral. Not immoral. Amoral. Atheism just has a random universe of particles in motion that will eventually stop moving in the heat death of the universe.

            Regarding paragraph 2, all you have there is assertions and personal opinions. Paragraph 3 are your observations of arbitrary habits that the volved primates in different times and places have adopted. But that is not objective morality – it’s personal opinion and accidental cultural fashions. Most people like chocolate (personal preference) wear shoes (cultural preference), but is there an objective moral obligation to? Of course not. That’s what you argument is. You don’t have morality there, you have personal tastes and cultural fashions. Objective means independent of what anyone thinks – since what people think is just opinion and fashion, and not really right and wrong. Right and wrong do not apply to personal tastes and cultural fashions. Not the the way that math applies, for example. For Christians, morality is like math – there is a right answer no matter what people think. For atheists, morality is like taste and fashion – watch what people do and imitate them to avoid social disapproval and punishment. But in private, act as you wish to make yourself happy, including rape, murder and anything else you want. Nothing is right or wrong on atheism. There’s no way you ought to be. Just don’t get caught!

            “I’d also ask, why does God want to be known and loved so much?”

            That’s what is best for us – to know him and love him. He wills for us to flourish in the only way we can – in a love relationship with him.

          • Craig says:

            Hi WK,

            I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think you are partially right. I think what I was espousing was utilitarianism or at least a soft form of it and equating it with atheism. You’re right–atheism, or more specifically, naturalism, is value-less. As you put it, its not immoral, its amoral. Atheism, naturalism and science, in general, tell us nothing about morals. Atheism simply says, there are no gods or supernatural beings that stand outside the universe.

            On the other hand, you seem to be saying that atheism is completely contradictory to an objective morality. If you only define objective morality as “a law we ought to follow given by a divine law-giver” then you’re right on that one too, by definition. So I think we have to back up and ask, what IS an objective morality?

            If by objective you mean its rooted in the real world, and not simply our individual preferences, culture, etc. then I think one CAN believe an objective morality as well as not believing in gods. I agree with christians that morality is like math (or science) and that there is a right answer. We both agreed earlier that morality is based on what is best for human beings–in your case faith and obedience to God does that best. However, even if there is no God or gods, I think we can still talk about what is best for human beings. We could in theory, measure what makes humans the most happy, healthy, satisfied and prevent misery, destruction etc. In short, morality is “what works” just as science and math is what works. Mathematicians or physicists in general do not worry about whether the mathematical principles are put in place by a designer or a way for their mind to understand the universe. it just works. We may all differ and have different opinions on morality, but this doesn’t mean its relative. Scientists have different theories of physics, biology, etc and these theories get tested and you throw out what doesn’t work. Similarly you can do the same thing with morality.

            Let me ask you something. Why do you feel that you must obey God? Is it because you owe him your allegiance? An atheist could just as easily say he owes his parents, country, friends or even humanity in general, his allegiance. Is it because you love God? An atheist could just as easily say he loves his family and other human beings. Is it because you fear punishment and desire reward in the hereafter? An atheist could say he fears legal punishment or even just guilt of doing things wrong, and desires the rewards of a clear conscience, respect from his fellows, etc. Either way, its about relationship. All we disagree on is whether a supernatural being is involved in a relationship with human beings. Objective morality exists either way as long as their are conscious beings of some kind involved. I think that you are just injecting a supernatural agent as a “final authority” for morals where one isn’t needed.

        • donsevers says:

          >the moral laws are what they are is because they are rooted in the will of the Creator.

          Still, it doesn’t follow from this that we should, or could, follow such laws. We have options. But if your God is real, we’re in a bind. Even if we can get and stay on his good side, we can’t be sure our loved ones will. The First Great commandment trumps the Second.

          Every Christian must answer: How would you feel if you were the only one to make it to Heaven? One Christian told me “Even then, God’s presence would suffice.” That’s the Christian answer all right.

          Under Christianity, this is possible. Suppose you think it’s unlikely. What number would be acceptable to you?

          https://www.facebook.com/notes/don-severs/animal-farm/10150692366329005

      • A Proud Canadian says:

        Hmm I think I see where you’re going here. To a degree I agree with both of your positions. I think God’s moral law is based both on the nature of man and the nature of God. God designed man a certain way and for a certain purpose, and then; because of his perfectly good character, he gave us moral laws that if followed allow us to fulfill our design intent. Of course then you could say that because the nature of man is a result of the nature of God then really it’s only the nature of God that matters.

        In other news it’s sort of funny to see how atheist theories of fall all over themselves trying to make sense of moral intuitions without God and without purpose.

        http://lovinitinaz.blogspot.com/2011/02/virtual-reality-and-secular-morality.html

    • pg says:

      he did command the hebrews to commit genocide and looting when they entered Caanan (if I remember right). it was moral for that time because he said so. but later on there is an exception as he commands them to treat “the alien in their midst” fairly. also, the hebrews were not supposed to intermarry other people but to rid the earth of them — but with Ruth (the moabite) marrying Boaz, was an exception.

      what determines whether a rule is bendable or not? could I myself claim an exception (like those above) just because I think God said so?

  3. Craig says:

    I think utilitarianism is the closest thing to an objective set of values that atheists and skeptics can have. Morality exists to benefit the greatest amount of people and prevent suffering. Sometimes, this requires personal sacrifice. Whether an atheist is willing to make sacrifices like these depend on how committed they are to the happiness of others.

    What is interesting is that indirectly, even many fundamentalist Christians are somewhat utilitarian. They believe that they should be moral to obey god, but they obey god for their own personal happiness and the happiness of others, even if its not in this life. Believing the right things and doing the right things in obedience to god means more people will go to heaven and be happy.

    • arendtian says:

      I am an atheist and a Kantian (though I am quickly falling in love with “virtue ethics” … though I don’t see much of a conflict between the two.)

      • Neither Kant nor virtue ethics are compatible with atheism, in my view. Kant was a theist, and he grounded objective morality in God. A useful question for you to ask given where you are now is “What is the ontological status of moral prescriptions on my view?” and also ask yourself “Why should I be moral when it goes against my self-interest and I can avoid detection and punishment by the society I live in?”.

        • Bharat Ramakrishna says:

          Because it makes me feel bad. Where does this feeling come from? Well you would say God, but me an atheist says it’s because of evolutionary reasons. I would argue that there is no such thing as objective morality, only subjective.
          As mentioned before, utilitarianism is the closest thing to an objective set of values…but in the end morality is subjective.
          I think a better question to ask is Do people need a belief in God to be moral? I would say not.

  4. Rob Quinn says:

    I respectfully submit that anybody who wants the gold-standard for a rational justification of morality, go read “The Virtue of Selfishness” by Ayn Rand.

    She also demonstrates how religion is actually anti-moral; it actually reduces man’s ability to make choices that promote and enhance his life.

    • Thanks for your comment Rob.

      My understanding is that Ayn Rand is an atheist. If there is no Designer of the universe, there there is no design of the universe and no way we ought to be. So, Ayn is just expressing her personal preferences about how people ought to be, and that is not objective. By objective, I mean a standard of how humans ought to behave whether anyone believes it or not. Short of that standard, we would be left with individual preferences or arbitrary cultural conventions.

      • timmah says:

        In the “Can we be good without God?” talk that Bill Craig has on the Veritas forum, the QA section of the talk has someone ask about Ayn Rand, and refer to her statements. I can’t remember what Bill said in response, but I think it was basically affirmed again that her virtues and morality were subjective, and not objective, like you said above.

        http://veritas.org/media/talks/604

      • John Donohue says:

        Rand was not ‘an atheist’ the way theists use the word. Ayn Rand was an Objectivist. That Objectivism is an atheistic philosophy is true, but trivial. What is important is the affirmation of ‘this world of particulars’ as reality and the only reality. If you say that is a crank philosophy then you condemn Aristotle and most scientists, as well.

        The problem theists bring upon themselves is a lust for infinite perfection. This hunger is a marker that the person has not accepted objective reality. They have not fully individuated on earth. The theist’s lust for infinite perfection makes them think ‘morality’ or ‘ethics’ or indeed their axiomatic belief, God, must be perfect as revealed. This immediately leads to the conclusion ‘if an ethics is not grounded in God then it is just a personal preference or arbitrary cultural convention and does not provide the Absolute Truth of “how we ought to be.”‘ The theist is pinned in the totalizing dichotomy of man’s ethics being perfect, universally true and eternal as given by God versus the trivial whim of insignificant animals.

        Rand, on the other hand, does not presuppose God. She does not presuppose a supernatural realm. She accepts the primacy of existence, which simply means that objective reality, this universe of particulars in fact does exist, that it subsumes all existents and there can be no thing not included in “objective reality.” The ‘primacy’ part of this is: the conscious human mind is part of this objective reality, and it does not create it. First, reality exists, second we are in reality.

        In the introduction to the book already recommended, The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand asks the usually-avoided question: why does man need an ethical code at all? I won’t give you the answer; I don’t want you to be deprived of the ‘read of a lifetime.’

        John Donohue
        Pasadena, CA

        • Thanks John.

          Are Ayn Rand’s ideas about how we should act her own opinions or is she specifying objective moral duties that apply to people regardless of each person’s opinions?

          Also, I wonder where she gets consciousness from in a material universe. It seems to me that on atheism, there would be no free will, and therefore moral choices would be impossible.

          Furthermore, how does she explain the origin of all matter at the big bang? What caused the physical universe to come into being?

          • John Donohue says:

            WK: “Are Ayn Rand’s ideas about how we should act her own opinions or is she specifying objective moral duties that apply to people regardless of each person’s opinions?”

            Rand’s ethics are neither ‘opinions’ nor ‘specifications.’ The first implies a trivial whim, the second requires a force “applying” the duties. Rand is far above the first and utterly rejects the second.

            WK: “Also, I wonder where she gets consciousness from in a material universe. It seems to me that on atheism, there would be no free will, and therefore moral choices would be impossible.”

            It is quite the opposite. Every act you perform must be chosen. Man has no way to survive without thinking, choosing and acting (free will). By everything you do you prove consciousness, because you are in a material universe, and if you do not think, choose and act the universe will destroy you. Unless the choice is non-existence (death), man must exercise his will according to the judgments integrated through his consciousness.

            I will throw in two kickers to the above.
            1) the artificial imposition of edicts from a source not of reality, such as from God, can be seen as a threat to life because if listened to will impede free choice.
            2) my above paragraph gets you close to the “read of a lifetime”, namely Rand’s answer to ‘why does man need a moral code at all?’

            I would choose to respond to your third part later. This is a discussion of morality.

          • 1) For one, I do not see a third option between subjective and objective morality. Either Rand is a subjectivist or an objectivist. If the latter, then God exists as the ground for objective moral values and duties. If the former, then why should we be interested in her opinions as opposed to anyone else?

            2) Consciousness. Either Rand believes in materialism with respect to humans or she doesn’t. If the latter, then she must account for the origin of non-physical minds that can escape biological determinism. If the former, then free will is impossible.

          • John Donohue says:

            1) Yes I know you do not see it. That is your error; you cannot see objective reality. I already spoke of the reasons above, the lust for infinite perfection as a buffer against accepting your reality as a human being. This is so strong it allows you to be proud to use the word “objective” with “God”, a violent contradiction.

            2) Please identify a non-physical mind.

            For anyone reading this interested in the teaser about Rand’s question “Why does man need a moral code?”, here is a link.

            http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/morality.html

            John Donohue
            Pasadena, CA

          • 1) OK, so you decline to answer the question. My view is that Rand is offering her personal preferences, and some people find those preferences fetching. I do not. And she offers no ARGUMENTS as to why her views should be taken as authoritative. I want to see a deductive argument with valid form. By the way, I am using the principle of bivalence here: either moral values and duties are subjective or they are not subjective. Are you a postmodern who denies the validity of the laws of logic?

            One must answer aye or nay: are these “moral” rules of Ayn’s her personal preferences, or are they objective? If there are objective, what is their ontological foundation? Where in the material world is it stated that humans are more valuable than cockroaches? Where in the material world does it say that humans “ought to do” X or Y?

            2) You. Either you have a non-physical mind that is capable of free will and rationality, or all of your behaviors, including what you write, is biologically determined by chemicals in your brain that were selected for fleeing, feeding, fighting and… reproduction. If you don’t have a non-physical mind, everything you say is non-rational and everything you do is amoral – because machines don’t make moral choices. If you do have a non-physical mind, then atheism is false, and Rand’s whole worldview collapses.

          • John Donohue says:

            1) No, you decline to resolve your contradiction that morality from God is “objective.” No discussion can go anywhere with that in the way. And no, Rand will never offer her ethics as “authoritative.” She is not running for dictator. She offers massive arguments for why humans would be wise to follow “rational self interest” as an ethical code. Her arguments for it eventually lead to deductive analysis of what does and does not belong in this code, but not until the all existents in said arguments are proven to exist by rational induction. Are you willing to abide by that?

            2) A non-physical mind is a contradiction in terms and cannot exist. It is a ghost in the machine. That a human being is 100% physical does not rule out free will. I have already proven that in an above post. Once one becomes mature enough to argue the point of free will only in the context of objective reality — where everything has a finite identity — it becomes apparent that man indeed cannot escape the fact that his decision to think, choose and act is not only free but urgent for his existence.

          • John Donohue says:

            You added on to your post, so here are my added responses:
            “By the way, I am using the principle of bivalence here: either moral values and duties are subjective or they are not subjective. Are you a postmodern who denies the validity of the laws of logic?”
            No I am an Objectivist who does not a priori presume that ethics must consist of duties.

            2) added….
            You have invented the impossible idea of a non-physical mind in desperate attempt to avoid the street-level, survival/prospering truth of free will: it is that which keeps you in existence.

          • OK, that’s it for me. Thanks for playing!

          • Samuel says:

            I know this is not my argument but I would like to say somethings just to sort them out in my own mind.

            First off, according to Mr Donohue, “She [Rand] accepts the primacy of existence… The ‘primacy’ part of this is: the conscious human mind is part of this objective reality, and it does not create it.” I think you need to re-read the section where she says that in her book. If she indeed does say the above, then I would have to say her argument lacks ARGUMENT, like WK was saying.

            Second, for the sake of my own understanding, Mr. Donohue was having difficulty with WK stating that Objective reality is dependent on God. WK’s point is irrelevant of God, rather that objectivity needs to come from something. From your own writing you have stated that in your view, objectivity comes from the human mind, not outside of it. Which ironically, is subjective.

      • donsevers says:

        Objective morality seems to imply that there would be right and wrong actions in an otherwise empty universe. This is senseless, of course. Craig is right when he says moral actions occur in the context of relationships. Believers simply have an extra relationship: an authoritarian god, somewhat like an additional force of nature.

        Atheists are simply the ethicists who don’t need the heady label of ‘objective’. Our situational ethics are sufficient and actually better for us precisely BECAUSE they are not fixed. Having said that, much of our morality is set by human biology.

        As Sam Harris points out, there are many ways to elevate human flourishing, but there are many more ways to reduce it. In his view, we can compare ethical standards and objectively rank them according to this standard. Apart from making life possible, which is laudable, Yahweh’s subsequent behavior toward humans appears in a valley. Sure, some humans do fine, but this only means God plays favorites. But hey, that’s His nature.

        • Mhssu says:

          A non-objective ethics is a non-normative ethics. This, of course, is no ethics at all.

          God uniquely grounds the normativity of ethics precisely in virtue of his authoritative (as opposed to coercive) power and personal nature.

    • Drew says:

      If all we do is enhance our own lives, then we wind up like the worthless socialists and like Barack Obama. Ayn Rand is flawed.

  5. arendtian says:

    Last post for me (assuming it gets posted) and I’ll leave you in peace winteryknight. For what it is worth John D. I’ve read the virtue of selfishness a few times in the past (though admittedly it has been a long time past) and what I recall most about it is that it is grossly under-argued and full of untenable, baseless assumptions. In terms of objectivism, the various ‘self-evident propositions’ that sit at the heart of her philosophy are not nearly as self-evident as she seems to assume and the many assumptions (logical leaps really) she makes based on them simply do not follow. As one example, she asserts (does not ultimately defend) the claim that “perception . . . gives [us] the ability to be aware, not of a single stimuli, but of entities, of things.” Well, the idea that we perceive metaphysical reality directly, immediately and accurately is very likely nonsense (as the bulk of Western philosophy very concretely argues), is probably at best grounded on a naive understanding of the concept of truth, and most importantly does not follow from her “Axiom of Existence” (i.e. “existence exist”). Unfortunately, (in typical Randian fashion) she defends all of this by little more than snide comments and insults.

    Another example, her rejection of the “is/ought” gap (which ultimately sits at the heart of her “objective” egoism) is also undefendable and largely undefended. If I recall correctly, her entire rejection of this rather central and established philosophical insight amounts to a single statement: “The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the relation between ‘is’ and ‘ought’.” Again, she seems content to simply ignore the details of the position and long history of the debate (which is rich) and just assert it is wrong without bothering to rationally defend her position. In terms of egoism itself, James Rachel’s arguments against it, as simple as they are, seem to me to do more than enough to render Rand’s moral position absurd. Egoism is quite simply arbitrary.

    Rand is interesting enough in her own right but she is a mediocre philosopher. To compare Rand to Aristotle is weak at best. She certainly steals a great deal from Aristotle but her’s is like some sick caricature of his original and very impressive ideas.

    • I’m glad you mentioned the “is/ought” fallacy. I was going to bring that up but you beat me to it. You can’t derive a way that the universe, and humans, ought to be without a Designer. If materialism is true, there is no Designer of the universe. If there is no Designer, there is no Design. If there is no Design, there is no way the universe ought to be. If there is no way the universe ought to be, there is no way we ought to be. If there is no way we ought to be, then there are not moral obligations.

      On atheism, the material world is all there is. Actions are biologically determined. Rationally and moral decision-making are impossible unless there is a non-physical mind that can make inferences and choose freely between moral and immoral alternatives.

      Regarding the axiom of “existence exists” she is just ignorant of current theories of the origin of the universe. She thinks the universe is eternal, which is at odds with the current best theory from the state of the art in astronomy and physics. The universe is 15 billion years old, and came into being out of nothing. The cause of the universe was supernatural, and we must therefore allow for the supernatural and investigate it using science, history and philosophy.

  6. arendtian says:

    Alright … a moment of weakness. You lured me in with your claims about the “is/ought gap.” As far as I can tell the distinction doesn’t help your position any more than it does Rand’s. If we accept the lessons of the is/ought fallacy then you can’t really “derive” a way that humans “ought to be” based on the bland assertion of a “designer God” either–not at least insomuch as He is a designer of self-aware, valuing beings.

    The point of the “is/ought gap” argument is that (for beings capable of valuing) there is a world of difference between “what is” and “what ought to be” … and it is a fundamental mistake to conflate these things. As a glib example of this problem (in the rather controversial moral issue of abortion): a friend of mine has a bumper sticker on her car that says “abortion stops a beating heart.” Now, clearly she is morally condemning abortion. But in truth this is really little more than a statement of “fact” and as a mere fact it doesn’t really tell us anything about the morality of abortion or what abortion means to us as human beings. While she certainly wants to drag other presuppositions into this “bumper-sticker” argument, the simple truth is that you could know every conceivable “fact” about abortion–every biological fact, every historical fact, every social implication imaginable, (etc.) and you still would not know the value or the meaning of the practice as it manifests itself in the world. That is a different sort of question and it is, quite simply, not something that can be resolved by mere appeal to data. We naturally work from “facts” in these sorts of debates but these facts cannot substitute for value or meaning.

    What I would argue is that religion faces the same basic problem. It commits the same error you tacitly assert it avoids—religion functions by making a good number of assertions of “fact” and assumes that from these facts it has already resolved the question of value. Religion asserts things like “God exists,” “God is the creator of everything,” “God has decreed a set moral laws,” “you survive the death of your body as an immaterial soul,” “Jesus died for your sins,” “you are a flawed sinner” (etc.) … and then it proceed as if the bald assertion of these “facts” has somehow answered all the deeper questions of meaning and value behind them–it hasn’t. Nothing in the raw “fact” that God exists or the “fact” that God created everything, or the “fact” that Jesus died for your sins (assuming that these are indeed facts) tells us what the meaning or value of these things are. Why would God creating you (instead of your existence being simply a natural phenomenon) give your life any absolute meaning? Why should a human being, having been “created in the image of God” somehow confer great value on its life? Why in the world would an eternal life-after-death be any less absurd or any more meaningful than simply ceasing to exist wholesale after the death of the body? Religion fails just as dismally as science and materialism at explaining the meaning/value of things (though in science’s defense it isn’t pretending to be answering these questions).

    If your religion pushes you to ask these questions (questions of value) then it is not really functioning as a religion (which simply proposes these as assumed fact) rather it is functioning as philosophy and I would actually assert that all of this is itself inherently a philosophical concern. Philosophy pushes us into endless, serious questioning with the inherent risk of losing yourself; Religion as religion gives you the answers and thus puts an end to questioning. Heidegger (whatever his other flaws) explains this beautifully–and though this is directed specifically at Christianity and ontological questions I would assert the point applies to religion as a whole and the questions of meaning. He writes:

    “Anyone for whom the Bible is divine revelation and truth has the answer to the question ‘Why [is there existence] rather than nothing?’ even before it is asked: everything that is, except God himself, has been created by him. God himself, the increate creator, ‘is.’ One who holds to such faith can in a way participate in the asking of our question, but he cannot really question without ceasing to be a believer and taking all the consequences of such a step. He will only be able to as ‘as if’ … On the other hand a faith that does not perpetually expose itself to the possibility of unfaith is no faith but merely a convince: the believer simply makes up his mind to adhere to the traditional doctrine. This is neither faith nor questioning, but the indifference of those who can busy themselves with everything, sometimes even displaying a keen interest in faith as well as questioning.”

  7. xxx says:

    The moral argument is so simple, and yet if you look around the net, many people just don’t understand it.

    This isn’t an argument about the existence of God, existence of morality, or even about the morality of theists vs atheists.

    Further, it’s not even an argument that is purely from theists. Atheists throughout the centuries have written about moral nihilism. Nietzsche is probably the famous one. It’s the ‘new atheists’ that don’t get it and refuse to accept this philosophical truth.

    This argument also does not need to mention The Bible or Christianity at all. This is a purely philosophical argument.

    I would re-phrase the argument like this: you can not believe that there is no external impartial objective source for our moral standard, and at the same time believe to have objective morality or even any moral at all.

    You need to have external source to be able to say that the standard is objective. I would argue that self-regulating isn’t objective at all.

    The external source must also have the right to impose the moral standard to us. Without this, we’ll be just taking the standard we like, hence not objective at all.

    Going further morality must be objective or it is not morality, but just an illusion or perception or notion. We might think morality is real, but it really is just something we happen to pick up while we’re evolving.

    In evolution, no action is inherently moral or immoral. If we feel bad about stealing, it’s because we’re deluded due to a built in biological/chemical/hormone that we picked up from the evolution process. Something like atavism (an evolution throwback) if you like.

    To be able to say that for example, rape is immoral in all culture, at all time, independent of the currently established law, then rape must be inherently immoral. That would imply that there is objective moral standard.

    If there is a nation that thinks rape is fine, without objective moral standard, we can not say that they are immoral at all. They just happened to evolve differently than us; they’ve evolved on a different path and did not pick up the survival trait we got. It might be socially-inconvenient, but it is not really immoral. They just ended up at different evolution end point than our culture and so on what basis do we impose moral standard on them?

    • Racing Boo says:

      This argument also does not need to mention The Bible or Christianity at all. This is a purely philosophical argument.

      That’s probably just as well because the Bible undermines your argument in several places. If morality is not external to God, how are we to understand passages such as Nehemiah 9:13 – “You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good.” Or Psalm 119:127/8 – “Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold and because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path.” Psalm 19:7-11, ok, I’m not going to type it all out, but the psalmist is also praising God’s laws and commands, something that would seem to be rather pointless if their goodness is purely by virtue of God’s command.

      Further, philosophical arguments are all very well, if you stick to philosophy. My opinion is that many theistic philosophical arguments rely on religious arguments to overcome their philosophical difficulties. The wiggle out of Euthyphro described elsewhere in the thread is a classic example (our god has different qualities to the Greek gods so the dilemma doesn’t apply).

      • xxx says:

        Hmm, how exactly does The Bible undermines my morality argument?

        • Racing Boo says:

          My point is why should the Biblical authors make such judgements about God’s precepts, when God cannot issue an illegal or unjust decree? It’s pointless tautology, like saying God is God, or good is good. The standard must exist outside of God to make any sense of these passages.

          You need to have external source to be able to say that the standard is objective. I would argue that self-regulating isn’t objective at all.

          One could make the same argument against God’s self-regulation, unless you let him off the hook with special pleading.

          No-one has demonstrated that non-theistic ethics are necessarily subjective. Euthyphro shows that theistic ethics are not necessarily objective.

          I believe there is a standard for all things, an open-ended continuum which exists only where we intersect it, and only exists because we are capable of conceptualising it (in much the same way as we are capable of imagining an absolutely straight line, but no such thing exists, anywhere, either in nature or in human construction). Each person has their own idea of where an action lies on the continuum, and by experience and consensus they do line up. Just as a country’s laws do not and should not have one lawgiver (and yet judges are capable of passing “objective” judgements based thereon), neither do moral laws have just one lawgiver. I’m aware that this doesn’t resolve the philosophical problems faced, but it makes more sense to me than an objective standard residing in one personality.

          • xxx says:

            1. The Biblical authors were inspired by God. They did not make judgment about God.

            2. God, being the creator of universe, obviously has the authority and right to set moral standard. That moral standard is objective for human.

          • xxx says:

            And God does not self-regulate, He regulates human beings.

    • caal1234 says:

      Love your summary, xxx.

      The conclusion that there can be no objective moral values (because there is no God and therefore no external source or grounding for the existence of objective moral facts) is a sad one. There are indeed atheists who do not believe that objective moral values are brute facts which don’t need explaining. For these individuals, doing the right thing only amounts to doing what is legal and what caters to their best interest (ala survival of the fittest).

      This position is more rational than that of atheists who insist there are objective moral values, but they either fail to ground them or insist they don’t need grounding, they just are. When dealing with such nihilists, I don’t know how to argue for the existence of objective moral values, since most won’t agree that humans simply know them by the same way we perceive physical reality. Any ideas?

  8. [...] This is all part of my series discussing whether morality is rationally grounded by atheism. [...]

  9. Homer says:

    Yes, athiests can be moral because morals acts arise from being human being created in God’s image. It is in man’s nature to be moral as it is to hate or love. Denying God’s existence does not automatically remove you from moral behaviours. However, morality cannot be arbitrary since being arbitary in moral conducts would would remove a person from being good. His actions would have noting to do with free will. Free will, is what essentntially makes a behaviour moral. Therefore God’s goodness cannot be seperated from deliberate choice, his acts cannot be arbitary.

  10. Alexander says:

    I would love to take the quiz, or your survey or whatever.

  11. I wrote New Atheist: Nietzsche’s English Flat Heads today showing that New Atheist have no ontological ground for their objective secular moral standard. Its amazing a lot atheist in reddit love the post.

    http://withalliamgod.wordpress.com/2012/06/08/new-atheists-nietzsches-english-flat-heads/

    Thanks Wintery Knight

  12. One of the most fascinating things about atheists and morality is that moral issues tend to be the ground of their chief complaints about God. But where the moral groundwork to critique God comes from remains a mystery.

    • Mark Jones says:

      I do not know where my moral groundwork to critique the morality of Bible comes from, but if you cannot see that the acts of killing and other cruelty recorded in the Bible as being carried out by God or by his followers at His command are wrong, then you morality is seriously at fault.

      • Remington says:

        I don’t know on what grounds I say this, but if you think that position is rational, your logic is seriously messed up.

        • emarkjones says:

          I do not say my position is logical, but I still say that a sense of morality clearly tells us that the behaviour of God as set out in the Bible is wrong.

          • Remington says:

            My sense of morality doesn’t clearly tell me that. And if you’re not saying your claim is logical, why should anyone care about your claim to begin with?

          • What you mean by wrong, within your atheistic view, is that you don’t like it, in the same way that I don’t like liver. You have personal preferences and I have personal preferences. There is nothing more to morality than preferences and customs on slavery. On your view, the choice to own slaves is the same as the choice to drive on the left or right side of the road. It’s just an arbitrary custom, and you have feelings about it because of the time and place where you are. And the most you can say about people who own slaves is “I wouldn’t do that”, not that it’s wrong objectively.

            Whatever beliefs you have about morality are your opinions, but in worldview, there is nothing OUT THERE OBJECTIVELY that is a real standard for how humans ought to be. Atheism means no human rights, no moral values, no moral duties, no free will, no accountability. It’s the complete no-morality worldview.

          • Annie says:

            Wintery Knight,

            I would have to say that my atheist best friend agrees with you. But I don’t know how to take the discussion any further since she says that there are no morals, but there are standards and laws the human communities agree on as they evolve. But she doesn’t see why that is a problem.

          • Mark Jones says:

            Dear Wintery Knight,
            I understand the point you are making, but at least with my atheistic no-morality I believe that slavery is wrong, along with the rest of the civilised world. If society still followed the objective morality of the Bible we would only be concerning ourselves with how badly we beat our slaves.

          • My point is that slavery is not obejctively wrong on your view, so you have no standing to press the point, sir.

            You are annoyed with other people because they don’t like the same flavor of ice cream that you like, in your place and time. There’s no standard that exists that can make that judgment anything more than that.

            Regarding slavery in the Bible, you’re just wrong, it’s more like indentured servitude:

            http://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/paul-copan-on-whether-the-bible-endorses-slavery/

            Finally, most atheists are pro-abortion (97% according to a recent survey), so if you are one of them, then you are not just for enslaving people, you’re for murdering them, too.

          • Annie, to help your friend see what is wrong with moral relativism, you can bring up several points. The first is the Holocaust. Nazi Germany killed millions of Jews, gypsies, disabled, and others. But it was legal. These people had been determined, by culture, to be non-persons. So, if culture decides morality, these things were morally acceptable. Does she agree with that?

            Secondly, you can point to Islamic nations. They allow the beating, stoning, killing, and disfigurement of women for any number of infractions – such as wearing Western clothing, refusing their husbands sex, or bringing “shame” to the family. Women are considered property of men. But this is a deep cultural belief. If society makes morality, these things are perfectly acceptable. Does she agree with this?

            These are just a couple of examples. There are many more you could use (such as the acceptance of slavery in times past, or the practice of cannibalism). The point is to show that if morality is subjective and relative, being created by society, then any number of horrific things are okay if society decides they are.

            People may like the idea of society setting morality, but they inherently wince at the idea of murder, slavery, and genocide being okay. That is due to the law of God “written on the heart” as the Bible says. We all bear an innate sense of morality as part of the image of God in us, and we know, somewhere within us, that these things are wrong.

      • Anonymous says:

        I agree with you that my morality would be seriously at fault if my knowledge of the killings in the Bible were limited. Since we are talking about morality, which God possesses to perfection, I would be careful about making assessments at face value as I would be relying on my morality, which cannot be grounded outside of God, to assess God’s morality. Therefore it would make sense to look into it, and Paul Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster” is a good start.

  13. Andrew says:

    “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 link to the ‘hear and see him present the paper’ no longer goes to the audio / video you refer to. It simply goes to the main page of Veritas. Do you know of someplace else where I can listen to / watch this presentation?

  14. Jordan Garrett says:

    I don’t understand why theists say that Atheists cannot be moral. For my part, the Euthyphro Dilemma illustrates that you can’t reduce “The Good” down to Divine commands or to the “nature” of God, because if He were cruel, capricious, unforgiving, unjust and hateful, he would, absurdly, be “Good”. Theists object that God cannot possibly be all these things. After all, He is the “Maximally Greatest Being”, and he wouldn’t be maximally great if he possessed those characteristics.

    Isn’t that acknowledging an independent standard of perfection, however? Theists can object and say God’s nature makes those traits good, but:

    A) That begs the question of God’s existence, and whether or not He possesses the nature that theists (such as Muslims, Jews and Christians) ascribe to Him. But how can God’s character be the standard of perfection if His existence is not indisputable, let alone his “personality”, so to speak? Whether theists **want** to admit it or not, and I’m not saying that they are not very bright individuals (I bemoan the arrogance of some atheists who think otherwise, and postulate themselves as the flagbearers of “reason”), the idea of being “Christ-like” and “Godly” is a standard of perfection measured up against a hypothetical ideal, not necessarily a concrete reality.

    IE: What the Gospels report what type of person Jesus was and what God is purportedly supposed to be like, are not how they necessarily were or are in reality, to the extent they ever existed/do exist; to assert that seriously begs the question. Theists cannot accuse atheists such as Dawkins of intellectual hubris, while assuming that their own presuppositions are necessarily true and hold outside of their own subjective mindsets, in reality. That, friends, is called a double standard.

    B) If God’s eternal nature was always that he was benevolent and good-natured, as opposed to malevolent and full of ill-will, then it seems that we’re simply fortuitous that the Ruler of the Universe is not Hitler on a cosmic scale (Yay, Godwin’s Law!), to the extent that we concede He exists (Hypothetically, for myself). Theists such as WK and others may object that God is the greatest conceivable being and so he is necessarily just, kind, forgiving and so on, but by so doing they’ve impaled themselves on the horns of a cruel dilemma. If God’s nature is the only standard of moral goodness, and anything contrary to it is evil, which they must admit is true, then there is NO trait he must possess by necessity to qualify as the greatest conceivable being, so ANY trait He could possess and we could attribute to Him, would make Him just as “Good” as He currently is. Even to the extent that he exists and his nature is good, if His nature is only good because it corresponds to God’s nature, then the Good is arbitrary.

    Thus, not only can an Atheist be moral, but I’d say that in some ways, “Infidel” morality is superior than it’s theistic variants, because we’re grounding it not in persons of a divine nature, but independent and inviolable principles and ideals. They may not be “Eternal principles”, or transcendent ones, if we’re being honest with ourselves (Nature has very little concern with justice and compassion and so on, in and of itself.), but they are principles that, insofar as we hold them to as individuals, ennoble us. It’s easy to say we are “Made in God’s image” and thus are inherently worthy of respect (A position I don’t disagree with, at least the respect part), but it’s a hell of a lot harder to hold yourself up to a standard whereby one earns their respect.

  15. Jordan Garrett says:

    By the way, just to clarify a couple points, if WK does not mind too much. To the extent that people will be responding to what I say, I want to represent my position as accurately as possible, with no room for misunderstanding:

    1) To the extent that there is a form of Goodness or independent standard of perfection, Euthyphro shows that it cannot be found in the existence of a God. Kant, for instance, believed that there was an ideal that humans were supposed to attain to, and that it was their duty to do so, independently of whether or not they wished to. To me, that is certainly a noble ideal of a great enlightenment humanist (and a philosopher who many Christians respect, I’m sure), but it is viciously circular to assume the existence of that sort of platonic form if you will.

    2) By inviolable principles (which was a poor choice of wording on my part), I mean that they are principles, to the extent they are held by individuals, which are not open to debate. For instance, I may believe in justice and equality for all people. Just as a Christian does not need to justify their belief in God so long as they personally experience His presence in their lives, I think there are values that we are justified in holding and which require no further regress of justification. As I said, I doubt they are eternal or transcendent values (I doubt sincerely that justice existed “Out there” during the stone age, or when we were sacrificing each other to volcanoes), but that in itself does not make them meaningless. Monetary values don’t exist “out there”, but one would hardly claim the value of money is meaningless, for instance.

    • Hey Jordan, just a few points:

      “Thus, not only can an Atheist be moral, but I’d say that in some ways, “Infidel” morality is superior than it’s theistic variants.”

      Well, that atheists can behave morally is not really being questioned here – the question, as you know, relates to its ontological grounding in reality.

      “By inviolable principles … I mean that they are principles, to the extent they are held by individuals, which are not open to debate. For instance, I may believe in justice and equality for all people. Just as a Christian does not need to justify their belief in God so long as they personally experience His presence in their lives, I think there are values that we are justified in holding and which require no further regress of justification.”

      With all due respect Jordan, why should they not be up for debate? Why should your ethical principles – a product of one’s undirected cultural and societal evolution – not be open to critique? Isn’t this a rather arbitrary line in the sand?

      On this model, rather like money, the values we attach to morality are culturally-relative phenomena. What makes your culture’s belief in (and definition of) “justice and compassion” the epoch of ethical evolution rather than another culture which allows the majority of people to live in a glorious utopia, but makes a tiny, hated group suffer horribly as a scapegoat or surf class? Whose principles matter most – the one with the most people who share it? What if the ‘utopia’ thrives on the backs of those people and even outnumbers your group?

      In fact, there just is no real epoch of morality here – just what happens to be beneficial to the reproduction and survival of people group A at time T. That society has their evolutionary pathway, you have yours – in such a nature, apart from brute strength, blind chance and natural selection, what decides the definition of ‘good’ or the ‘inviolable principles’ we should abide by? More to the point, why should any sufficiently powerful, cunning and cynical individual abide by it (rather than pay lip service)?

      Anyway, enough of my silly mini-rant. :P

  16. John says:

    Morals are based on emotions, feelings. Not intellect. Though intellect may play a small role, it’s our emotions that drive us to moral behavior or refrain us from behaving immorally. Think about it, what causes us to refrain from behaving immorally?Our empathy, sympathy, guilt, etc. Pure intellect or reason (if there was such a thing) would not stop us from acting immoral. It’s our emotions. Plain and simple. Oh, by the way, it’s also objective. I know many of us would like to inject intellect into this argument, but that’s not what makes us moral. Atheists and theists alike.

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