I am continually baffled by atheistic accounts of morality.* What, on atheism, gives us the grounds for stating that an action is wrong?
Morals can be either objective or subjective. The thrust of the following argument is intended to show that atheism cannot have objective morals. In other words, an atheist has no way to condemn some action as wrong, other than that it is wrong “in my opinion”.
There are only a few ways I have seen it argued that atheism can have objective moral values. These are:
1) Platonistic Atheism- Morals exist necessarily independently, as abstract objects (such as numbers).
2) Humanism- Humanity first. Humans are to be valued objectively, so morals can be based on what benefits the human race.
3) Science can answer moral questions, somehow.
There are horrendous difficulties with all three of these views.
Platonism about morality could be the best way for atheists to have a “way out”, if you will, for accepting objective morality. The existence of moral values such as “Justice” can be posited as brute facts of our existence. They just exist, and that’s all. The problems with this view are numerous.
First, on this view, the moral values of “Sloth”, “Hedonism,” “Masochism” are also platonic forms existing as brute facts. What reason can be given for choosing to prefer “Justice,” “Uprightness”, etc. over “Masochism,” “Hedonism,” etc.? If all of these things are simply brute facts, then why is it that some should be preferred over others? I see no non-question begging method for determining which values should be favored.
There is no reason, on atheism, to value one over the other. Second, how is it that (granting naturalist evolution) natural selection managed to line us up so wonderfully with what appears to be correct moral cognitions? Again, given that the morals themselves are brute facts of existence, it is utterly remarkable that we evolved in such a way as to line up with what appears to be the “good side” of the moral values (one might object by arguing that we don’t know either way, but then they would have to accept that somehow being a sadomasochist could be a moral good. I doubt very much this is a position worth even considering). Third, there is the thus-far ignored question as to what makes the idea of moral facts existing by brute fact even close to intelligible?
Given the huge problems with 1), and the fact that I consider this the strongest position for the atheist wishing to argue for objective morality, it seems these are dire straits indeed for the atheist ethicist.
2) is equally problematic, however, for a number of reasons. First is that humans often do not agree on what exactly is best for humanity. Which humans are allowed to determine what is right for the whole of society? Furthermore, 2) doesn’t actually provide objective morality at all. It merely sets an arbitrary line for morality–it is moral to act for the good of humanity. What basis is there for taking this assertion as truth? We are humans, but this doesn’t, on atheism, entitle us to any kind of superior ethical or cognitive status. Why is it that humans are objectively valued? It just pushes the problem of objective morality up one level.
FInally, 3) is utterly bankrupt as an explanation for objective morality. I have discussed this position before in more detail (see my discussion of Sam Harris’ attempt at articulating this unintelligible position). 3) basically asserts that somehow, we can empirically detect what is moral by figuring out what makes people happy. Surely, this is no way to detect objective morals, for even if the pool of test subjects is the entire human race, one day the entire human race may determine it makes us happy to kill other humans at will, and then this would be objectively, empirically, moral. It makes us happy, so it is moral! Clearly this is no way to save objective morality, for 1) it makes moral values arbitrary, which is clearly not objective, and 2) it falls victim to the same problems of either position 1) or 2) above, for it must grant one of these positions to pursue some background for determining reality. Sam Harris, in his discussion of this position, simply asserts that “Values are… facts” (see video cited in my link above). Wonderful! I agree that values are facts. But simply saying this doesn’t magically explain their existence.
The massive problems with any atheistic position which attempts to give credence to objective moral values show that the atheist really only has two positions open to him/her: 1) abandon the existence of objective moral values (a route not often taken, but when it is traveled, it leads to subjectivity of morals–which of course means we cannot condemn any action as “wrong” other than as a preference) or 2) abandon atheism and accept a position with better explanatory power for the objective moral facts. I suggest theism as one clear possibility.
*I am not suggesting that atheists cannot be moral people. Indeed, some great examples of moral people are friends of mine who are atheists. The point of this post is, instead, that atheism has no grounds for morality, other than total relativism.
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