I see three glaring problems with this argument:
- There’s nothing about theism that makes objective morality more plausible.
- There’s nothing about atheism which makes objective reality less plausible.
- Many moral skeptics (who don’t believe in objective morality) argue that in the absence of objective morality, ethical judgments are still meaningful even if they aren’t true.
1. It’s not clear how God could form the basis of objective reality. The most naive theistic argument, Divine Command Theory, asserts that morality is what God commands. One common objection goes like this:
Is X good because God commands it, or does God command X because it is good? If God commands X because X is good, then God’s commands are subject to an external standard of goodness. If X is good because God commands it, that would mean rape and slaughter would be good if God commanded them, which is absurd. (And why wouldn’t God command rape and slaughter unless they were wrong independently?)
Ask your friend how God could possibly be responsible for an objective morality. It is not obvious.
2. Some things are just true. Not everything can be explained by something else: if B explains A and C explains B, then C needs an explanation D, but what explains D? And so on. So there must be at least one truth that isn’t explained by other truths, and I can imagine no reason why there couldn’t be lots of them, so why not morality? Some people do argue that morality can’t be objective, but whether God exists or not is irrelevant to all the decent arguments I’ve seen.
3. This one is more tricky. If there are no moral facts, then it’s unclear whether moral judgments can have any meaning beyond mere preference. There have been volumes written on the subject (most of which makes for very dry reading), but I will limit myself to the following observation: despite appearances, self-interest turns out to be an excellent baseline for a moral code. There will be some people whose interest is in the harm of others, but then those others (most of us) have to be responsible for protecting their own interest; this is not news. It seems to me that the majority of us will have our own interests best served by peaceful coexistence. If we define morality as serving our interests, it must preserve such a peace, so we’ll be in good position to condemn thievery, murder, etc.
If we proceed this way, my moral beliefs are not true because they are not based on anything “out there”, but only on how best to facilitate our own ends. Nevertheless, I would feel naturally compelled to stand by my morals and fight those who act immorally, so my moral judgments appear equivalent to the “morality” that people talk about as though it were objective.
Personally, I am not sure whether moral facts exist. My intuition strongly objects to moral skepticism, but I don’t see an easy way around the arguments in its favor.
For further reading, I can recommend Daniel Fincke’s (of the blog Camels with Hammers) writings on the subject, as here and here, who describes a moral system based on self interest. Adam Lee (who writes Daylight Atheism) has an excellent essay on this subject, where he argues for a universal moral code. He finishes up arguing that religion is broadly incompatible with morality.
I can also recommend Thomas Nagel’s (big deal philosopher and no friend to new atheists) review of Sam Harris’s dubious book The Moral Landscape. The review gives a readable overview of moral philosophy and explains some of the nuances very well.
Posted: November 9th 2012
See all questions answered by George Locke