In graduate school, I took a class on Meta-ethics taught by an atheist, marxist philosopher. I wrote a sizable paper entitled Some Reflections on The Sufficiency and Necessity of God for Objective Morality. When the professor returned the graded paper to me, I had never seen so much red ink before! He literally filled every square inch of white space with comments — not just the margins, but the back of each page and between every line of the double spaced paper! He disagreed entirely with my thesis, even though we shared common ground that morality is objective not subjective. We agreed on the existence of objective moral values, but differed on whether God was the foundation for them or not. Nevertheless, he did give me an A+. :)
As I have contended in other articles in this series, most people, like my professor and I, intuitively know that some objective moral values, principles, or facts exist. Phenomenologically, this experience is common ground, and thus the starting point for our discussions on morality. We all know that torturing toddlers for sport is objectively morally wrong! Having acknowledged that objective moral values exist, the obvious questions then arise:
How could such objective values exist? Where do they come from? What makes them objective, binding, and obligatory, especially on those who disagree?
How could such objective values exist? Where do they come from?
These are questions about foundations. Many people agree that we know objective moral values and obligations exist, but wonder what the foundation for them is. What grounds their objectivity? What makes them objective and morally obligatory? Many people, both at the popular and scholarly levels, have this intuition that, if God does not exist, it is difficult to see how there could be any objective foundation for good and evil.1
In Can Objective Morality Exist Without God?, I argued that if there is no God, then all that exists is space, time, matter, and energy. How do you get ethics from different arrangements of space, time, matter, and energy? A purely materialistic universe would be morally indifferent. Moral judgments would be just subjective—merely expressions of personal tastes. Or they might be just social conventions that society has agreed upon so that people can live together without chaos. But in neither case would they be objectively binding moral obligations!
The question is not, "Can we formulate a system of ethics without reference to God?" If the atheist assumes that human beings have objective value, there is no reason to think that he cannot work out a system of ethics, and possibly one with which the theist would largely agree. Nor is the question, "Can we recognize the existence of objective moral principles without reference to God?" We don't need to believe in God to recognize, for example, that we should love our children. It is not the absence of belief in God, but the absence of God that is the problem for objective morality.
The atheistic ethicist, Richard Taylor, captures this intuition when he writes, “to say that something is wrong because [...] it is forbidden by God, is [...] perfectly understandable to anyone who believes in a law-giving God. But to say that something is wrong [...] even though no God exists to forbid it, is not understandable. The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone.”2
The concept of objective morality loses all real meaning in a universe devoid of God. There would be no real objective right and wrong! The brilliant philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein candidly admitted that if there are ethical absolutes they would have to have come to man from outside the human situation: “Ethics, if it is anything,” he wrote, “is supernatural…”3
J. L. Mackie, one of the most outspoken atheists of the 20th century, agrees, “Moral properties are most unlikely to have arisen without an all-powerful god to create them.”4
Atheist and secular humanist Paul Kurtz focuses the issue clearly when he writes, “The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation” [that is to say, their foundation in reality]. “If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?”5
What are some of the alternatives, apart from the existence of God, that non-theists offer as a foundation for objective morality? One of my professor’s counter-arguments was based on the fact that we both knew objective moral values were real. He claimed since we both knew that objective moral values existed, and since the definition of knowledge is justified/warranted true belief, it follows that the existence of moral values was objectively true.
He was right that knowledge does entail truth in an objective sense. But clearly he was confusing the epistemological and ontological categories. That we both knew objective moral obligations existed rather than just hoped they did, is an epistemological fact about our knowledge and the degree of confidence we each had, (a fact and confidence that I am relying upon others to recognize as examples of moral atrocities are highlighted), but has no bearing on the ontological basis for what makes those moral values objective and obligatory.
Our knowledge of them was a function of them being objectively true and warranted, yes, but not what made them warranted and objectively true! He wasn’t actually furnishing an ontological foundation for objective morality at all. He had not shown that our knowledge of objective moral obligations itself provided the foundation or grounding for objective moral obligations. He was merely pointing out that we both agree that morality is objectively true, but had still not provided any basis for them being so. Are there better non-theistic hypotheses for grounding objective, obligatory moral values than my professor’s?
Can Human Flourishing Ground Objective Moral Obligations?
I have engaged in dozens of public debates on university campuses on this issue of whether the existence of God is needed as the foundation for objective, obligatory moral values, or whether a non-theistic foundation for objective morality can be found. Most of my interlocutors just confused the theistic claim for the necessity of God’s existence for objective moral obligations with the claim that belief in God is necessary for the existence of objective moral obligations. No one is making the latter claim and rebuttals against it are tilting at windmills, uselessly targeting a straw man. I urge non-theists to recognize this and take seriously the issue of “ontological foundations”, as Kurtz urges. What makes these moral values objective, obligatory, and morally binding? How could they be more than just personal preferences or social conventions?
Some of my interlocutors, influenced by secular humanism, claim that objective moral values can be grounded in human beings, human needs, human flourishing, empathy, and usually with a little socio-biological evolution thrown in to give it a “scientific” feel. For example, the Humanist Manifesto III, written in 2003 asserts,
“Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns [...] We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity. Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.”6
Typically my fellow debaters would express something like, “since I don’t want to suffer, and since other humans are like me, and I can experience empathy for them, I conclude that I ought to treat them with their welfare and human flourishing in mind and that they should respond in kind.” This is enough, in their view, to provide a ground for objective moral duties—no appeal to any deity is required. That is, morality promotes individual or social benefits and survival for humans. Whatever promotes human flourishing and survival is good. Whatever doesn't promote human flourishing and survival is bad. That is all we need for objectivity in morality, they claim. There is no need for God.
Critical Assumption Unavailable To The Atheist
However, the problem with human flourishing being the foundation for objective moral obligations is that it is based on the essential, indispensable assumption that human beings are objectively valuable and have inherent worth and dignity.
But if there is no Creator God, what are human beings other than just accidental arrangements of atoms? If a human being is purely a physical organism with no immaterial aspects to his being like a soul or mind, then he is not qualitatively different from other animal species. Therefore, to regard human morality as objective would be to fall into the trap of speciesism.7 Supplementing human flourishing with the principle of utility “the greatest good for the greatest number” is no improvement since this just means “the greatest good for the greatest number of humans”. But why humans? Why not bacteria, fish, chimpanzees, or an alien race if there is such a thing? Given atheistic materialism, there is no reason to think human beings are objectively more valuable than rats, mosquitoes, or any other life forms.
In addition, since atheistic materialism entails that human beings have no mind or soul distinct from the brain, everything a human thinks or does is determined (not just influenced, but determined) by one's genetic make-up and the input of the senses. There is no personal agent who freely chooses. Everything one thinks and does is nothing but a result of chemical reactions. We are like a marionette whose actions are beyond its control. What moral value does a marionette or its movements have?8 And clearly, such a being would not be morally responsible for any of its actions.
It is critical to note what I am not saying. I am not saying that an atheist cannot be moral, only that if there is no God, there are no objective, obligatory moral values or principles, which is contrary to what we have already established, that torturing toddlers for sport (and numerous other abhorrent actions) are objectively wrong. And that in the absence of a God creating human beings in his image, humans would not be the kind of beings whose value could provide the basis for morality any more than any other animate or inanimate entity; nor the type of beings whose thoughts and actions are under their own control so as to make them morally culpable.
Notice the Humanist Manifesto III states, “We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity.” That is wonderful, but they have provided no ground for that commitment. It is an arbitrary choice in a world of myriads of animate and inanimate entities. Remember earlier I acknowledged that if we assume that humans are objectively valuable, we could probably develop a coherent system of ethics. But if God does not exist we do not have access to that assumption. Humans, like everything else in the universe, would be just unintentional alignments of atoms, and therefore, we cannot justifiably claim that they are objectively valuable. This assumption is usually adopted uncritically by most people, including moral philosophers. I have found that virtually all attempts to provide a foundation for objective morality apart from God make this assumption that humans are objectively valuable, but that assumption is not available to the atheist.
Moreover, coherence is not a sufficient condition for objective truth. It is possible to be consistent, yet false. An internally consistent system of ethics would not necessarily be objectively true, obligatory, and morally binding on those who disagree. The Nazi ethic was internally consistent; it needed a vantage point from outside to judge it.9
Secular humanists try to ground values in human welfare. They think human flourishing provides a basis for objective moral values and obligations. But, as atheists, they have no access to the assumptions of objective human value, worth, dignity, undetermined moral freedom of choice, nor moral culpability. They could reason in an objective manner given those assumptions, but that is still not a foundation for objective moral obligations. Without those assumptions being grounded, all that logically flows from them is still ultimately groundless and unjustified.
However, and maybe ironically, I do point to human dignity and human flourishing as common ground between theist and atheist, and really between all people, to work together on public policy, the application of morals. And to a large degree, this is what has happened in Western culture because of the influence of the residue of Christian doctrine in our society. For example, the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was based on the assumption of the equal value, worth, and dignity of all human beings, but did not provide a justification or foundation for that assumption—it would have been near impossible to get enough worldwide agreement on what the foundation was.
If someone is willing to start with the assumption that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity, I am happy, even eager, to work together with them to promote that fundamental idea as well as promote human flourishing for the common good. It may be the case that I think I have a foundation for the assumption of human inherent worth and dignity, and I don’t think some others do, but that still does not stop me from cooperating with them. In that situation, the issue of foundations for our assumptions is bracketed, put off to the side, like with the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But in this discussion about whether objective moral facts exist, the issue of ontological foundations is, well, ‘foundational’! It is important to discover which worldviews can actually provide a foundation for objective moral facts and which ones cannot. Claiming that human flourishing can somehow provide a foundation for objective moral facts is an unjustified assertion—one that we can give a pass to when we are trying to work together towards the common good, but one that needs to be critically evaluated when we are trying to find a legitimate ontological foundation for objectively binding moral values.
Furthermore, including the contention that morality has just evolved because it promoted human flourishing and survival, although rhetorically effective in our scientific culture, doesn’t rationally strengthen the case for human flourishing as a foundation for objective moral obligations. Why? Because, if morality evolved because it produced survival benefits, we would not have a justification for objective morality, but merely an explanation for how moral beliefs arose. In fact, it would be difficult to see how these beliefs or behaviors could even be considered morality anymore. They would be mere suggestions for survival, a far cry from objective moral principles. Does self-preservation really capture what we mean when we say something is moral? Does mere prudence really capture what we mean by morality? On this evolutionary model, we would feel that objective moral principles exist, but they really wouldn't. Are you really willing to accept the idea that while rape, murder, and discrimination feel wrong, they really aren't? And once we've figured out that our feeling of morality with regard to say, rape, is just a biological adaptation inculcated into us over millions of years, then we would have no reason to regard rape as objectively wrong anymore.10
There are additional problems with the claim that morality promotes individual and societal benefits and survival. To deal with these it is helpful to consider the two categories of society and the individual one at a time.
Societal Benefits And Survival
First, let's consider the idea that the social welfare or survival of the species is the basis for objective morality. As individuals we agree to a social contract — certain rules that promote well-being for society and flourishing of the human species.
It is important to see that survival and flourishing of the individual and survival and flourishing of the society or the species can't both be the basis of objective moral obligations. Clearly, they can be in conflict. It is not always the case that the survival of the species is in an individual's self-interest. Survival of the species could clearly require personal sacrifice or even the death of individual members.
In addition, even though the idea of a social contract could be helpful to a society, it can't provide us with what we are looking for—an objective basis for moral obligations. There is nothing that would make the rules objective and morally binding on those who disagree. A contract is not binding on one who doesn't 'sign' it—on one who is committed solely to one’s own welfare.11 Ethics based on social contract is still relative ethics.
And why should one be committed to the general welfare of society? Why should one sacrifice for others’ well-being? If the answer is that human beings have intrinsic value and that is why we should be committed to the welfare of society, the response is that there is no basis for this according to the atheistic worldview, as we've seen. We've seen that we just can't assume the objective value of humans in a universe where everything is the accidental arrangement of atoms. We may be "higher" on the evolutionary scale, but this only means we are more complex, not more valuable. What could we say to an alien race that valued humans as the latest in nouveau cuisine? There is no objective basis in the atheistic worldview that would make it wrong for aliens to eat humans.12
And why should one sacrifice one's own interests for the sake of billions of other people (or even sentient creatures) who will live in the future? There is no objective basis for asserting that sacrifice is the right thing to do.13
Furthermore, if whatever promotes the survival of the species is the basis for objective moral obligations, then it follows that it would be morally right to exterminate the sick, the aged, and the handicapped who could be a drain on society or contaminate the gene pool. Deep down, however, we know this is wrong. And it’s called “eugenics”! The world was significantly influenced by eugenics as a way to improve the human race in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it has now largely been discredited as unscientific, racist, and immoral.
Lastly, a social contract does not seem to be an adequate explanation for the depth of our moral revulsion over some of the atrocities we see human beings perpetrate. Imagine that you had a daughter who was brutally tortured, raped, mutilated, and murdered. Would your response to the perpetrator be an appeal to some social contract that he has violated? On the contrary, we would all agree that something far deeper than a social convention has been transgressed. The depth of our response would suggest that we think something outrageously immoral has taken place, not that a mere contract has been broken!14 Social benefits and survival of the species, therefore, as objective foundations for morality, are wholly inadequate.
But maybe one will respond that the reason an individual should be committed to the general welfare of society is that he or she will benefit from such a society. Thus, the basis for morality now becomes self-interest. I will benefit from a society that is flourishing and surviving without chaos and therefore, I should be committed to the social contract.
Although at first glance it might seem to make some sense that individual self-interest and survival could be the foundation of objective morality, upon closer scrutiny we see that it fits neither our notion nor our practice of morality. First, don't we expend a lot of time and energy teaching children not to look out for their own interests only, not to be self-centered? Yet here we are suggesting that self-interest is actually the basis for morality!
If one can benefit from doing harm to another without getting caught, is it right? Clearly not! And yet if self-interest were really the basis for morality, it would not only not be wrong, it would be the morally right thing to do. Moreover, if self-interest is the basis of morality then we should do good to others, not for their sake, but for our sake. This smacks of manipulation, not what we normally consider noble behavior. It is no enhancement to call it enlightened self-interest, since this means little more than being cleverly self-centered.
Besides, self-interest cannot substantiate at least one action both theists and atheists agree is morally good and noble, namely the sacrifice of one's life for another. Why should I sacrifice, especially my life, for the sake of someone else? In the atheist worldview, there can be no good reason for adopting such a self-negating course of action. The sacrifice of one's life is the complete and final sacrifice. In the atheistic worldview, death is simply not in an individual's self-interest, because death is the end of one's existence and thus of self-interest!15
Again, imagine that your four-year-old daughter is brutally tortured, raped, mutilated, and murdered. Has the perpetrator done something outrageously immoral, or has he merely done something that is not in his self-interest and does not aid his survival (assuming he gets caught), and that is what is wrong with his action? Clearly not! A moral abomination has taken place!
It is clear that acting out of self-interest may often be inconsistent with acting morally. To build our moral lives on a foundation of self-interest doesn't fit our experience and understanding of morality. Self-interest, as well, fails as a foundation for objective moral obligations.
During my time in graduate school at the University of Toronto, the philosophy department was known, not only for being one of the largest philosophy faculties in the world, but also one of the most diverse. The common joke was that no matter what philosophical viewpoint you held, you would be able to find a professor who, not only taught it, but believed it too!
On this issue of foundations for objective moral obligations, in contrast to my marxist professor, another one of my former professors, wrote a journal article evaluating atheistic humanism in which he summarized his analysis well: “God must be accepted as one of those conditions without which morality cannot exist. Man knows the death of God spells the death of morality but he chooses not to notice.”16
Atheistic humanism clearly fails as a foundation for objective moral obligations. In my next article we will consider whether atheistic moral platonism, the view that objective moral principles just exist in some strange way as part of the metaphysical furniture of the universe, can successfully accomplish this elusive task of providing a grounding for objectively binding moral obligations apart from God.
Copyright 2021 Michael Horner. Used by permission.
- Much of this article is taken from W. L. Craig in an audio tape of a debate between Craig and Dr. Henry Morgentaler at the University of Toronto, January 21, 1993 entitled The Foundation of Morality: Natural or Supernatural?
- Richard Taylor, Ethics, Faith and Reason (Prentice Hall, 1985), pp.90, 84.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Wittgenstein's Lectures on Ethics," Philosophical Review, 1965, 74:7
- J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982), p.115.
- Cited by Craig in Craig/Morgentaler debate
- Craig in Craig/Morgentaler debate
- R. Z. Friedman, “Does the ‘Death of God’ Really Matter? - A Critique of Kai Nielsen’s Humanistic Ethics,” International Philosophical Quarterly, 1983, 23 :321-332.