Can any sort of morality be sustained in the absence of a divine moral lawgiver from which an objective moral standard can be derived and to whom we are all accountable? Atheist philosopher Joel Marks argues in his piece that it cannot (part 2), that the best atheists are left with is the subjective dislike of certain attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors.
Here’s the conclusion for those of you who are pressed for time:
I conclude that morality is largely superfluous in daily life, so its removal – once the initial shock had subsided – would at worst make no difference in the world. (I happen to believe – or just hope? – that its removal would make the world a better place, that is, more to our individual and collective liking. That would constitute an argument for amorality that has more going for it than simply conceptual housekeeping. But the thesis – call it ‘The Joy of Amorality’ – is an empirical one, so I would rely on more than just philosophy to defend it.)
A helpful analogy, at least for the atheist, is sin. Even though words like ‘sinful’ and ‘evil’ come naturally to the tongue as a description of, say, child-molesting, they do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God and hence the whole religious superstructure that would include such categories as sin and evil. Just so, I now maintain, nothing is literally right or wrong because there is no Morality. Yet, as with the non-existence of God, we human beings can still discover plenty of completely-naturally-explainable internal resources for motivating certain preferences. Thus, enough of us are sufficiently averse to the molesting of children, and would likely continue to be so if fully informed, to put it on the books as prohibited and punishable by our society.
As a side note; It amazes me that questions of moral grounding among mixed theistic/atheistic company generally trend towards the attack and defense of theistic morality. It is very rare to see any atheistic ground for morality along the lines of what Sam Harris attempted to do in his book “Moral Landscape”. Its very easy to throw mud at someone, but its a lot harder to bake that mud into bricks, form those bricks into a home, and attempt to live in it.
Bonus: Here is another helpful commentary from the perspective that love is the driving force behind morality.