Sep 19

Atheism and Evil: Part 2

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.

Quality Theism Atheism
Objectivity? Yes Yes
Necessity? Sometimes Sometimes
Foundation? God Rationality
Intrinsic Value? No No

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.

[UPDATE: I asked Alonzo Fyfe to comment on this argument, and he has responded here – http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2011/09/rejection-of-social-contract-theory.html. Check out his criticism of the argument. I’ll be following up with a response within a few days.]
[Based on feedback, I’ve created what should be a clearer version of this argument. It is cross-posted at An American Atheist]

[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.


Similar Posts:


1 ping

Skip to comment form

  1. Ryan

    In the original position, it is given that we are self-interested human beings (context) attempting to define the principles that will govern our society (purpose). Without context and purpose, rationality alone is simply a tool; it might as well be used to justify murder when one wants to kill. If context and purpose are necessary to morality but are themselves subjective, then I maintain that morality itself must be subjective. It is only possibly objective in the sense that, when given a context and purpose for morality, we might be able to determine the best course of action. You might call it a contingent objectivity. Compare this with the objectivity of math and logic, whose principles are not contingent.

    I’m not sure that we disagree. Perhaps I am being too strict with my definition of objectivity. Let me know what you think.

  2. Mike

    My claim is that we can ground morality in a framework using the same type of method as Rawls, but it won’t be exactly the same as setting up a just society. So, we don’t have to imagine the rational being as human or have all the same concerns. It’s more like asking what perfect rationality would dictate in any given situation.

    That situation will include context, but the purpose is just to decide what is rational. You can call this subjective because it changes along with context, but the answers seem objective to me in the normal sense of the term. They just aren’t generally necessary, except in a few cases where something would be prohibited in any context.

    The Christian will say that God would not permit x in any possible world and that prohibition is thus necessary. But that takes context into account. For example, it was apparently ok for God to kill children in Egypt. So, even the Christian doesn’t think that acts are wrong without context with the possible exception of blaspheming the holy spirit.

    I just want to say in the end that we can have just as good of a foundation or praising and condemning actions as a theist, if not better. I think it is possible, gives objective answers in any normal sense of the term, and is coherent with a secular worldview.

  3. Ryan

    There are a few lines in your post and reply to me that make me hesitate, such as:

    “That situation will include context, but the purpose is just to decide what is rational.”

    “What we are really grounding our morality in is rationality itself…”

    Don’t we have to ground morality in a desire/goal of some sort (the purpose), with rationality merely the tool for achieving it? Otherwise, how would you claim that murder is wrong? Murder is not irrational unless it is understood in a moral system that holds human life sacred, wants to create a just society, desires peace, etc. If morality must be grounded in some purpose and any given purpose is subjective, morality seems to be grounded in subjectivity.

    If you simply mean that objective morality is possible because we can employ reason to determine the best course of action given any context or purpose, then I can accept your terms. Since you have almost certainly read more on this subject than I, I’m curious to know if the argument I’m presenting is always just taken as a given (and therefore paid little mind) or, if not, where you have seen it come up, if ever.

    Also: how would you distinguish between morality, which you define as “reasons for action”, and motivations?

  4. Mike

    Ryan, here are some thoughts.

    I think sometimes the goal and the tool are the same thing. When that happens, you might be onto something that tells you that you’ve hit a wall where that thing is basic in the philosophical sense. So, you could say that your goal is rationality and the only way to be rational is to use reason. Or you could go a different route and say the goal is to approach perfect rationality, so it would be different than the tools used to reach it. I’m not sure I’m explaining that well, but I do think it’s clear how we can use the system to say murder is wrong (since something being wrong means we have reason to prevent and condemn the act or even the desire to commit the act). The system does value human life, peace, etc. but it doesn’t claim those things have intrinsic value. Rather, they have value based on other things. One thing I’m questioning myself on is whether I’m supposing rationality has intrinsic value. I’m not sure. I’m going to keep mulling this over.

    I think what you’re questioning is whether what I’ve presented is really an adequate grounding for objective morality. That is in line with other objections and many people would agree with you. Hell, I might agree with you! I could be wrong about this. I’m trying to work through it and see if it’s possible and I need to hear objections to clarify my own thoughts and explore certain concepts more. I’ve traditionally been a moral anti-realist, but I’m questioning that now after listening to several interviews with Alonzo Fyfe. Check this out if you have time and are interested: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=1469. I’ve listened to it three or four times. I’m trying to figure out if my claims are really synonymous with his claims if I take them down another level.

    I’ll have more to say on this, I’m sure, after I’ve thought about it for a while. One thing I think we can say with confidence, though, is that there is some misuse of claims about objective morality. We can make objective statements without them having these weird qualities, like moral absoluteness or necessity or intrinsic value.

  5. Mike

    Ok, here’s a bit more. I still think we’re in good shape.

    “Don’t we have to ground morality in a desire/goal of some sort (the purpose), with rationality merely the tool for achieving it? Otherwise, how would you claim that murder is wrong? Murder is not irrational unless it is understood in a moral system that holds human life sacred, wants to create a just society, desires peace, etc. If morality must be grounded in some purpose and any given purpose is subjective, morality seems to be grounded in subjectivity.”

    I think I can clarify some points here because what I’m suggesting can actually accomplish what you want. The goal is the morally just rules that come out of the reasoning behind the veil of ignorance. So, I think it is right to say that the reasoning would conclude with a goal of a peaceful society that does not include murder, etc. You can think of the outcome of this reasoning that comes up with general principles as defining the good. Once you have the good defined, you can then reason to right and wrong actions. So, if the good includes a desire for peace, then murder is wrong (or at least murder without justification).

    I think this is a better answer to your question than what I gave last time.

    “Also: how would you distinguish between morality, which you define as “reasons for action”, and motivations?”

    I forgot to answer this last time. It seems to me like a motivation comes after reasons for action (maybe they can come before, but it’s questionable). For example, you might reason that a certain action is a right action and then you are motivated to encourage or perform it. Similarly, you will be motivated to discourage and avoid wrong actions.

    I haven’t thought about this particular aspect enough to give a comprehensive answer, but I can say this. If they are tied together in an inseparable way, then it doesn’t matter what we call them because we are referring to this “thing” that includes reasons for action and motivation. If they are separable, then we can distinguish and it’s also not a problem. So, either we need to do nothing to fix the account or we just need to add whatever properties would capture the idea of motivation to what we mean by reasons for action. I think they are separable, though, since you can have a reason for action and not be specifically motivated to do something. Imagine someone insults you verbally to your face. You might have a motivation to punch them in the face, but it would conflict with the reasons for action that would come from a perfectly rational being. I’m just thinking this out as I type, but that seems about right to me.

    Hopefully that helps to shore up some things.

  6. Ryan

    I asked about the difference between a motivation and a reason because the two are sometimes synonymous in casual use. It is not always the case that a reason is actually reasoned, so I wasn’t sure if you were reducing the definition of morality to any reason for action (including emotion) or simply to a principled reason.

    But the question also gets at one of the points of the rest of my post. Which comes first: the motivation or the reason? It seems that unreasoned disgust–kneejerk, negative reactions to, say, homosexuality or abortion or incest–does indeed mold moral codes for many people. Often, reason is employed only afterwards in order to lend a semblance of credence to some feeling. And disgust is only one example of a motivation preceding a reason. I personally cannot justify slaughtering animals or the conditions in which those animals live before death, yet I still eat meat. My desire for succulent, well-seasoned flesh overpowers my strongest rational arguments against it. (I know; I’m weak.) And I commonly perceive among moral carnivores more of an interest in making an excuse for their behavior than actually justifying it. One’s upbringing–particularly under moral absolutist parents–can lead to similar behavior. To use myself as an example again: I was raised with the stereotypical Christian attitude towards extramarital sex and drugs. Even when I became an atheist, I ended up using reason to justify largely the same stances (minus the absolutism) at least partly because I was already comfortable with them and accustomed to thinking of those behaviors in a moral light.

    None of this means that reasoned morality is a total farce or simply unattainable. But it does suggest that what a perfectly rational being would decide is at least partly dependent on who is trying to figure that out. The veil of ignorance is only effective insofar as we can actually identify and divorce ourselves from those aspects of our individual identities that are not actually morally necessary. And even then, someone who sincerely believes that perfect rationality dictates the destruction of mankind (see: any computer-gone-rogue movie) is not going to see eye-to-eye with someone who wants to go on living. Is the desire to live even important to the perfectly rational being or does it view mass and even self-sacrifice as acceptable losses in the achievement of a goal?

    A related question for you to address (or not) whenever you have the time: If you accept that eating animals is morally acceptable, would you also accept that it is morally acceptable for a more advanced civilization of a more intelligent species to eat human beings? Why or why not? If you do not accept that eating animals is morally acceptable, suppose that we encountered a more advanced civilization of a more intelligent species that absolutely needed to eat meat to survive. Suppose also that technology to fulfill this need without death did not yet exist. Would it be okay for that species to eat meat, including humans? Why or why not? The point of this is, of course, to question precisely what perfect rationality dictates if we are no longer the top species.

  7. Mike

    I should clarify something and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. When I talk about reasons for action, I specifically mean intentional action (and I mean intention as used in philosophy specifically: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/intention/).

    So, for example, you perform an action when the doctor taps below your knee, but it is not intentional. If you plan and commit a murder, then obviously you did something intentional. It’s not exactly the same distinction as voluntary and involuntary, but you can think about along those basic lines if it’s helpful. I think what you mean by a saying a reason isn’t always reasoned is to say something like “I was startled because the doorbell rang.” So, there is a reason the person jumped, but it’s not like I underwent some contemplation or anything. That would not be an intentional action, though. I would question whether a reason for intentional action does not have some reasoning behind it (otherwise I don’t know why we’d call it a reason).

    In the real world we might have some gut reaction and then try to do backwards reasoning to justify it (to resolve cognitive dissonance or uphold some bias). However, if the foundation of morality is removed from that situation, then that is not problematic. The agent we envision in the thought experiment is perfectly rational, fully informed, and impartial. Think of a situation where we have clearly made moral prorgess–racism. We could describe this progress as moving closer to what this agent would do. This agent would already have the knowledge that people lacked about why people had different skin color. Thanks to knowing more about biology, we now are closer to being fully informed of the relevant details and make, I think, objectively better decisions when it comes to this issue. It didn’t matter if members of the KKK had some gut reaction and were disgusted by people with a different skin color. It was still objectively bad compared to our hypothetical agent.

    Does that adequately respond to the motivation question or am I off target? I’ll think about the rest and have to respond later. (As a side note, I do eat animals, but I often wonder if I’m being monstrous by doing it.)

  8. Ryan

    Your clarification helps. Now the question is whether your method is realistically rather than just theoretically possible. To what extent can imperfectly rational, self-interested beings who are prone to cognitive bias actually determine/agree upon what rationality dictates in any given situation?

    I thought of another issue to possibly trouble you, since I like to make you work: what is rational for the individual may not be rational for the group. Would you suggest that perfect rationality dictates that every individual make the choice that, when taken collectively, is best for the group, even when that choice on its own might be bad for the individual?

  9. Marlene

    I like your site and the conversations – but did want to make a small (and perhaps not completely relevant) comment – likely because it relates to me personally… You noted:

    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.

    I’m not sure about whether or not praying and holding the idea that God is not provable and not necessary in understanding or accepting the world as it is – whether the action of prayer itself from someone who does not hold any specific religious viewpoint forms a coherent or incoherent worldview…. BUT I do think that prayer and worship are natural human tendencies. And so, on a personal level, I pray automatically (of course, we may run into problems based on not knowing exactly what the term “praying” means to each of us) – but given that prayer is the act of being grateful, of in our minds saying thanks – of asking (mentally or aloud) for good things (blessing – health, etc…) – I pray all the time – it is natural for me and an act I perform in my mind routinely as I live my days. The fact that I don’t have a rational, clear, conscious definition or understanding of who or what I pray to is not a requirement for my prayer life.

    It appears to me that we are built for feelings of awe and wonder and that these feelings occur both naturally and for many, become part of their religious life as they define concretely the ‘persona’ to whom they attribute the origin of everything we can be in awe about…. For them, this “God” becomes a defined concept…. It appears to me that we naturally have feelings and thoughts that are about what we desire both for ourselves and others – feelings grounded in common pain and common lives – empathy…. For many, these feelings and thoughts become directed towards that more defined God or at least they assume they are in communication with God when they have these thoughts and feelings – so they ‘concretize’ their expressions linguistically and associate them with “GOD”.

    But the act of prayerfulness and the act or worship – which arise from natural emotional responses to our environment and our lives and the lives of others – these acts and performing them do NOT necessarily mean we hold an inconsistent or incoherent worldview. I don’t know what GOD means and don’t use the term – but I do pray naturally and regularly (or as I often say, “my life is a prayer”) – it is simply that I don’t define who or what I am praying to – only what I pray for or about. I worship naturally but without defining my feelings of worship as those directed towards a defined “God” figure….

    Worship and prayer are natural, healing and positive activities – they are in us all – perhaps they arise from our masculine and feminine biochemistry and sexual interactions and feelings – from the feelings we have at sexual climax when we are with a partner we love…. I suspect so, but don’t know. Nonetheless, I don’t think we need to denigrate the natural human tendency to worship or pray – nor should we throw these good-feeling and positive activities into the realm of the religious fanatics – or identify that participating in these activities and enjoying them somehow makes us intellectually inconsistent…. or intellectually inferior.

    Worship and prayer are not intellectual activities…. they are natural human tendencies and fulfill a need in most of us – I also enjoy religious music – but going to churches to hear their music and to listen to sermons that give me sometimes ‘food for thought’ doesn’t make me as one who has an “inconsistent worldview” – These actions are not comparable – to say – believing in non-violence and killing people for fun…. THAT would be a contradiction…. but praying and worship (unless you’re projecting from your own personal and limited assumptions about what prayer and worship actually are all about) are NOT contradictions to a non-theistic worldview…..

  10. Mike


    I’m fine with that. I would feel strange praying, but I don’t expect everyone else to be just like me or have the same emotional needs, etc. I don’t believe in ghosts, for example, but I have non religious friends who do and it’s not inconsistent for them.

    We can alter the example above to be something like a person who claims to be against murder in every instance, but is secretly a serial killer.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Ryan, I’ll try to respond to your comments here today. I got sucked into that free will discussion yesterday and by the end was pissed and had to take a break.

  11. Ryan


    Take all the time you need. I’m not exactly eager for pages of debate every day, but I do end up feeling obligated to respond.


    Be careful about attributing this drive to worship/prayer to human nature. I say this primarily because I lack that drive (and, depending on precisely what you mean, actually oppose it to a great extent) but also because the behavior has been popularized by religions all over the world. Just because one does not accept any religion or even deity does not mean one is not influenced by others’ behavior. This may be a primarily social phenomenon.

  12. Mike

    If anyone is interested, I’ve created a simpler version of this argument that I think presents a clearer case. It is posted at http://anamericanatheist.org/2011/09/27/atheism-and-evil-part-2/. The substance is basically the same, but I think it answers the theist’s challenge more plainly.

    The blog An American Atheist is a group blog and I recently joined them as a contributor. Some entries there will be cross-posted or modified from this blog and some will be original to their site.

  13. Mike


    You said:

    “Now the question is whether your method is realistically rather than just theoretically possible. To what extent can imperfectly rational, self-interested beings who are prone to cognitive bias actually determine/agree upon what rationality dictates in any given situation?”

    They won’t always be able to, but I do think we get closer. there are two specific ways we can get closer to this ideal, both of which have been improving over time which means this can also account for what we call moral progress (which is often considered a knock against secular theories).

    The first way is to gain more accurate information. There is no denying this has been happening and should continue. We know now that factual errors were committed when it was claimed that women or dark skinned people were inferior to white males. We know that bad fortune are not due to the will of gods, etc. The more accurate our information, the closer we can come to what the agent would choose.

    The second way is to just be more rational. So, we do have biases, but there are also certainly many cases where people recognize them and do things to lessen their effect. This is just one example among many, but hopefully it’s clear that we can improve in this way, which means we are moving closer toward our ideal.

    The ideal will never be reached, but moral progress (which is analogous in my model to moving closer to the ideal) can be made.

    You also said:

    “I thought of another issue to possibly trouble you, since I like to make you work: what is rational for the individual may not be rational for the group. Would you suggest that perfect rationality dictates that every individual make the choice that, when taken collectively, is best for the group, even when that choice on its own might be bad for the individual?”

    I’m honestly not sure what to say about groups. The written piece above was my first time trying to put a defense of this into writing, so I haven’t really thought through all the details yet and I’m still trying to consider various criticisms. I think it’s a valid question; I just don’t know the answer without taking some time to really sit down and consider it.

  1. Atheism and Evil: Part 1 | Foxhole Atheism

    […] time, I’ll tackle the more complex issue of how an atheist can coherently be a moral realist. (Part 2 is now published.) Bookmark on Delicious Digg this post Recommend on Facebook share via Reddit Share with Stumblers […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.