May 02

Some Brief Thoughts on Morality

I have yet to make a grand post which sketches my view on how atheists can have morality. I realize this is a glaring omission; however, when you lose your faith and become an atheist, you then are tasked with building a new worldview. This can take time and you will probably make many mistakes along the way. I know I have made mistakes just in the past year since starting this blog. Bearing that in mind, I’m taking my time to read and consider several views. The leading candidates for me thus far are Rawls-style Contractarianism and Desirism.

For now, I want to briefly discuss the grounding of morality. There has been a lot of discussion following the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on whether God is the only possible ground for morality. Many will argue this is the case, and I think it’s even the reason C.S. Lewis switched teams. So, let’s consider the problem of grounding morality.

It seems to me that certain theories only manage to compound problems when it comes to explaining morality. For example, a Divine Command theorist rests morality on two questionable assumptions – the existence of God and the existence of divine commands. Even if God exists, it is not clear that it would provide commands. And, of course, you have the very tricky epistemological issue of how to determine what those commands actually are. Most moral theories have such issues of epistemology, but I would say this one is especially tricky.

You could also ground morality in some kind of Platonic form. Maybe morality just exists in some sense, like logic and abstract objects do (at least according to platonists). Again, you are basing morality on something which may not even exist.

Or perhaps morality is grounded in something like well-being, happiness, virtue, etc. Again, there is a lot of vagueness surrounding what these terms even pick out in the actual world.

Can these approaches really be the best solution given our available evidence? These all seem to have problems that could keep them from ever even getting off the ground. With questions of moral ontology, it seems much better to begin with things we already know exist. For example, say you are a city planner and you have to decide where a park should be located. You have one person telling you there is an open field near their house while another person is telling you about a novel they read which takes place in said town. In the novel, a beautiful meadow on a hillside is described and it sounds like the perfect place for the new park. Now, the planner has a decision. Should he use the field or go searching for a possibly fictional meadow? I think many would choose the field.

So, why not ground morality in something more concrete – something we know exists and that we can use to weigh decisions? That is why I tend toward theories that ground morality in something like reason or desire. They are not without their own issues to solve, but we can avoid many of the problems with the traditional approaches. And, if nothing else, at least we know they are real!

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  1. Mike

    I should have clarified that the point is not that God is the only possible ground for morality. Rather, it is that God is the only possible ground for “objective” morality. I would disagree with this for a number of reasons too, but that probably deserves its own post.

  2. Anonymous

    I have several questions about this post.

    Isn’t morality a learned behavior? Is morality not faith-based thinking? Why is morality necessary? Who decides what is moral and what is not? Each individual? Isn’t morality subject to personal experiences, and therefore subject to possible, multiple changes? Wouldn’t the idea of morality be completely flawed based only on one person’s experiences? Why do you have to have a world view at all? Wouldn’t our desires influence our morals and vise versa? Is it acceptable to assume that logic and reason can be trusted to answer all things? Is it reasonable to assume some questions cannot be answered? Are my questions the exact point you are trying to make? I’m not sure if you actually said anything in this post at all!

  3. Mike

    “Isn’t morality a learned behavior?”

    Some people think it is. I’m talking about the grounding of morality, though – it’s foundation. For example, you can learn 2+2=4, but that doesn’t tell you why it equals four. I’m saying if morality is really “out there” in some way, then it makes more sense to say it’s grounded in something that obviously exists.

    “Is morality not faith-based thinking?”

    I’m not sure what you mean with this one.

    “Why is morality necessary?”

    I don’t know that it is necessary. At various times in my life I have doubted whether there is such a thing.

    “Who decides what is moral and what is not? Each individual? Isn’t morality subject to personal experiences, and therefore subject to possible, multiple changes? Wouldn’t the idea of morality be completely flawed based only on one person’s experiences?”

    Well that’s why people try to find a grounding for objective morality, like I’m trying to do. We are saying that it’s right or wrong independently of whether anyone believes it or not. Moral subjectivism accounts for the changing of morals over tiem very well, but doesn’t account for things like feeling that keeping slaves in the past was somehow wrong. Also, even if morality is really objective, our experience of it would still be subjective and I think that gets at some of what you’re saying.

    “Why do you have to have a world view at all?”

    I suppose in theory you don’t, but I don’t know anyone who functions without one.

    ‘Wouldn’t our desires influence our morals and vise versa?”

    If you want to know about desirism, check out this page: http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/

    “Is it acceptable to assume that logic and reason can be trusted to answer all things? Is it reasonable to assume some questions cannot be answered?”

    Well, you have to start somewhere, and I think logic is a good place to start. Some questions cannot be answered. Here are two examples: Incompleteness Theorems (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del's_incompleteness_theorems) and Uncertainty Principle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty_principle).

    “Are my questions the exact point you are trying to make?”


    “I’m not sure if you actually said anything in this post at all!”

    Well, hopefully I got at least one thing across – If you’re going to try and ground morality in something, you’re better off using something that you know exists.

  4. Ryan

    I don’t see how God can be the ground for objective morality anyway. Why is a behavior good? Because God says so? Then it is subjective. Because it simply is good and God kindly lets us know? Then God is the messenger, not the source. Because, literally, God is good(ness)? This doesn’t make any sense to me; I don’t see how an entity can be synonymous with a concept. And then there’s that pesky issue of how theists interpret their sacred texts: as soon as interpretation (not to mention translation) enters the equation, doesn’t the resulting moral system become at least somewhat subjective regardless of God’s objectivity?

    In any case, we have to be sure that we’re all thinking of objectivity the same way when we talk about it. Many theists beg the question by building God into the definition of objectivity, then describing their God-given moral code as objective. There is definitely a difference between that sort of objectivity and the objectivity of 2 + 2 = 4.

    I am always inevitably drawn to utilitarian arguments, particularly the sort of “rule utilitarianism” that I believe proceeds from concepts like the original position and veil of ignorance. (I’m glad to see that you appreciate Rawls as well.) It seems to me that, if we must be absolutely consistent and choose only one moral system, this is the way to go, as it preserves the traditional stability and long-term benefits of rights as well as the flexibility to adjust moral positions when new information comes to light. It is as grounded in the real world and widely appealing as any moral system, I imagine, will ever be. But it still has its problems and oversights. What do we do when we recognize them? What standards do we use to resolve them if we can’t use the utilitarian system? How do we reconcile the new standards with the old? And so I am not sure that we really must be absolutely consistent and choose only one moral system. This is not a satisfying conclusion, but we must confront it anyway. Better to struggle along that path than to simply accept what a book tells us to do–or, more accurately, what we believe it tells us to do.

  5. Mike

    Yes, that choice about God being essentially good seems to be the choice du jour, and I also can’t make sense of it. If nothing else, it doesn’t really seem to escape the arbitrariness problem in the Euthyphro dilemma. Theists will say it is essential and necessary, but I often argue in return that the only thing logically stemming from a necessary being is existence in all possible worlds, not particular moral preferences. They simply stick it in to evade the issue. It’s a deus ex machina, like so many theistic “solutions” to problems. So, I would agree that it is subjective. Plus, you then have to bite the bullet on weird things, like that murder is good when God does it or commands it.

    Ryan, have you seen Michael Sandel’s Justice course yet? It’s really good and talks through a number of philosophical issues of justice and morality. It’s basically a free seat in his Harvard course. http://www.justiceharvard.org/

    It really rekindled a passion for political and ethical philosophy in me.

  6. Ryan

    No, I haven’t. But now I will sit through all 12 episodes. I strongly believe that ethical philosophy is the most important type of philosophy and should be mandatory in public education. The common religious fear that we will lose our moral code if we lose religion is not entirely unfounded, but that is only because we do not require classes on civics, ethics, and so on. As you say, we are tasked with building a new worldview, but we must do so without the old, convenient religious tools. When we aren’t given a foundation in secular ethics and don’t have the personal motivation to look into the subject ourselves, we may submit to mere tradition, law, or even nihilism. We may flippantly dismiss certain rules and suggestions simply because we associate them with religion, not bothering to consider if they may have secular merit.

    Freedom can be intoxicating, but it must be moderated by responsibility. If we can’t find it within ourselves to exercise that responsibility on our own, then, as is often the case, we invite the government to do it for us with more laws, regulations, and education. It is no surprise that a large part of our population–the Christian Right–fears precisely this, but I’m just as wary of the libertarians and Randians who have the same fear but have put their faith in a new god, complete with invisible hand: the free market. Unfortunately, we aren’t ready for that sort of freedom. If we are ever to be, we must first establish a strong ethical foundation, free of superstition and arbitrary rules.

    Perhaps I’ll get back to you on the Justice course.

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