In Part 1, you hopefully saw that atheism does not need to entail objective morality in order to coherently present the problem of evil. But we were still left with the major question of whether secular morality even makes sense. This is not simply a theistic claim; you will find plenty of atheists that agree. In this post, I’ll discuss one possible way to create a framework for morality without requiring a god.
Before I begin, I want to address a few potential concerns. Definitions have a lot to do with the conclusions. This is true of anything, but there is especially fuzzy language about morality. People throw around terms like “intrinsic value” and “objective” like Benjamins in a rap video. Always seek to clarify these terms.
I also want to say that I don’t think it’s required of any atheist to be a moral realist. My goal with this article is not to tell atheists how they should think; it’s to respond to the popular theistic claim that such moral realism is not even possible.
Is secular morality coherent?
To say that a worldview is coherent is to say that it agrees with itself internally. For example, imagine an atheist who prays every night. Those two things (being an atheist and praying) would not form a coherent worldview. So, what we want to do here is discover whether it’s coherent for an atheist to say something is really wrong without presupposing a god or co-opting theistic morality.
What is morality?
Let’s start with an important definition, so we can know our target. By morality, I mean reasons for action. For the theist, their reason for acting a certain way is because it is commanded or desired by God. For the atheist, we will see that we can also provide reasons for action. This is a commonly accepted definition, but some people will not be satisfied with it. If so, have them spell out precisely what they mean by morality. Test their claim to see if it actually reduces to this definition (it often will). Be wary of definitions that go beyond this, as they may beg the question. They also may be based on something that is not part of your worldview. Since the claim is that we cannot make sense of morality in a coherent way with our worldview, any such definition should not concern us. If someone says that morality is an account of what makes unicorns happy, then my rejection of that is perfectly consistent with my worldview. Barring some better definition, I think finding reasons for action that are objective will be a good target for this article.
What is objective? Must it be necessary?
You will find many uses of the term objective. William Lane Craig often describes objective as meaning: it’s true whether or not anyone believes that it’s true. In other words, if Germany had won WWII and brainwashed everyone to forget what happened, their actions would still be wrong.[i] In demonstrating how secular morality can be objective, I will try to meet the requirements outlined by Craig.
Some will say objective means necessary, but this has never been demonstrated to my satisfaction. For example, there is an objective answer to this question: “How far is the tip of the Empire State Building from the tip of Olympus Mons at time t?” This relationship between the points is contingent (not necessary), but also has an objectively true answer. There is a fact of the matter. Similarly, I see no reason to tie objective morality with necessity or with moral absolutes. It may be the case that every time you have two related things you will have the same outcome under the model I will sketch (rape is an example), but there is no requirement for it. If we can show that our moral statements can be tied to a fact of the matter, like the example above, then I’d say we have something objective. Whether or not anyone knows the distance between the two points, there is a true answer.
Regarding necessity, I actually see a pretty good parallel between atheism and theism. It’s a mistake to think that theism is comprised entirely of moral absolutes. The Bible says murder is wrong and yet we have several cases of murder commanded by God in the Bible or even actually committed by God. So, obviously the definition of “wrong” in a typical Christian worldview is not synonymous with necessity. However, there might be some small class of things that Christians will propose that God would always view as wrong.[ii] I think we can give a secular account like this, as well. We can recognize that wrongness depends on circumstances, except for a small class of things that would be prohibited under any circumstances.
Can secular morality be objective?
So, we want to know whether a secular moral system can provide objective reasons for action. We could do this exercise with a wide variety of ethical systems and still achieve objectivity, but I’ll stick to one for the sake of simplicity.[iii] I will be answering these questions from the standpoint of a contractarian influenced by John Rawls. I’m not going to do it justice here, but I’ll explain the theory briefly.
This contractarian framework invites us into a thought experiment where we imagine a perfectly rational being behind a veil of ignorance. This being has to determine how it would it would act without knowing the position it will occupy. So, the rational being could be a victim of rape, a poor person, a wealthy mogul, etc. We can now consider whether the rational being has reasons to promote and praise certain actions and to prevent and condemn other actions.
Now, is there an objective fact of the matter when we look at the events of 9/11? Yes, a perfectly rational being would have reasons to prevent and condemn the actions of the terrorists. This is a clear-cut case. Having these reasons is analogous to saying it is wrong under our definitions.
This is a pretty good start, but I think we can go one step further. For what should we say is the foundation of these beliefs? At first glance, you might think the foundation is the perfectly rational being. That would be a problem, though, since there really is no perfectly rational being, veil of ignorance, original position, etc. That is just a thought experiment developed by Rawls. Instead, I’m going to propose something pretty abstract is happening here. Under a contractarian framework, I think we get truth value from reference to a proposition. For example, to say we have reasons to prevent and condemn action x is to say that the following proposition is true: “A perfectly rational being in the original position would have reasons to prevent and condemn action x.” What we are really grounding our morality in is rationality itself and we can point to these propositional truths in order to be describing an objectively true fact of the matter.
Once we reach this point, we also reach a puzzle. Why should we do what is dictated by reason? This seems circular, right? What reason do we have to follow reason (and what reason for that reason, and so on)? Well, I think reaching reason as a stopping point is good enough. It seems basic in the same way that we cannot justify inference without begging the question. Yet, we still accept inference. Or theists reach God and we might get into the same type of puzzle. I think any theory reaches a stopping point like this, so I’m not particularly troubled by this worry and don’t think it should count against the theory.
Can secular morality account for intrinsic value?
No, and it shouldn’t try because intrinsic value does not exist. I would argue that no system adequately accounts for any such thing. Consider this quote from Luke Nix:
Christian theism, specifically, holds that all people are created in the Image of God, thus possess intrinsic value. According to atheism, there is no difference between a common house fly and a human that gives it intrinsic value.
First, notice the last sentence. There is no difference between human and fly to give it intrinsic value. Well, no, of course not because there is no such thing. But that is not the same thing as saying there is no difference between them at all. Secular moral systems can recognize the differences between these two creatures perfectly well. Now let’s see how he supports intrinsic value: it is in virtue of being created in the image of God. I’m not even sure what this means. Is this because we look like God? No, that can’t be the case or statues that look like us would have it too. The only realistic sentiment I can draw from this is that we are valuable because God values us. And there’s the crux of the matter. That is not intrinsic value—it’s just regular old value coming from an external source.
After all that, let’s see how our system compares to theistic morality.
The only difference in the table above is that one theory has its foundation in God and the other in rationality. Thus, we have met all the requirements, but with a secular foundation.
[i] I think he’s also said in debates that it’s independent of human beings, but I think that’s too problematic in the things allowed under that loose of a definition.
[ii] If nothing else, this list could include blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
[iii] I think desire utilitarianism may be a particularly strong candidate, but I don’t know it well enough to defend it. I actually think this particular contractarian philosophy might reduce down to desirism, but that probably won’t be necessary to show my point.
- The Lazy Person’s Guide to Dismantling the Moral Argument
- Some Brief Thoughts on Morality
- Atheism and Evil: Part 1