Tag Archives: morality

Can atheism provide a suitable foundation for morality of any sort?

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.


Worst possible misery for everyone

Sam Harris, in his book “The Moral Landscape”, defines good as that which moves away from “the worst possible misery”.

Once we conceive of “the worst possible misery for everyone” then we can talk about taking incremental steps towards this abyss. -Sam Harris, Moral Landscape, pg 39

While listening to Sam’s opening speech in his recent debate with William Lane Craig (audio, video), it occurred to me that by “misery”, Sam means, “physical misery”. That made me wonder, what about nonphysical misery? It seems that Sam’s dedication to physical materialism could prove to be a great hinderance here.

The best example of non-physical pain in my estimation is phantom pain experienced by amputees. In this case its the memory of a limb is the source of pain. I’m sure physicalists would argue that the neurons in the brain which supposedly constitute memories are the physical source of pain in this instance, but it seems like a stretch to think that memories themselves could be the source of pain since, in our memories, our limbs are still in tact. Phantom pain is not only the recollection of a limb that no longer exists, but an extrapolation from there that the body must be in pain since the limb is no longer providing feedback to the nervous system.

Next to phantom pain for non-existent limbs would be psycogenic pain, ie mental disorders. Mental anguish is one of the most common forms of pain we experience all the time. From mild discomfort (ie small insults or slights) to insurmountable pain (ie the loss of a loved one).

In conclusion I believe there is sufficient evidence for the claim that metaphysical pain trumps physical pain in

  • Duration – it is not possible to remove metaphysical pain through medication or amputation.
  • Intensity – while both metaphysical pain can be mitigated somewhat through medication, its intensity is not limited by natural constraints.
  • Capacity – physical pain does end at some point. Nerves get overloaded and either shut down (become numb) or the body builds a tolerance or the body itself shuts down (ie the person passes out). Metaphysical pain is bound by none of these physical constraints.

So if the greatest possible pain is not confined to physical states of affairs, it follows that any solution to the problem of pain would need to entail a metaphysical component to it if it is to be a complete and coherent. Sam’s solution is simply incomplete. It fails to adequately address metaphysical pain which would still exist even under the most ideal physical circumstances. And since it is possible for the metaphysical to effect the physical, and not vice versa, it also follows that any solution to the problem of pain should come primarialy from a metaphysical source, not a physical one.

So while I agree with Sam that morality would entail the transition from a state of pain to a state of pleasure, I find Sam’s solution to be shallow and incomplete. The greatest possible pain is not physical, its metaphysical. So the solution we ought to be looking for, if we are serious about looking for an exhaustive solution, should be metaphysical, not physical.


Is God the only possible foundation for objective morality?

On Quora I was invited to help answer the question “Is God the only possible foundation for objective morality?”. The following is my contribution.

Yes, without an objective moral lawgiver the notion of an objective moral law is absurd.

The fundamental question when it comes to the establishment of any moral system is where obligation is derived. From a naturalistic perspective it appears that the best we can do is describe what is and can consequently never arrive at an obligatory ought. For that, it seems that a competent moral authority is required.

The formula goes like this (borrowed from notes on a recent debate):

Two claims

  • if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties
  • if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties

To further expand on the above two points:

  • Theism provides a rational ground for morality in the character of God who, properly defined, is the maximal being who is worthy of worship.
  • Atheism does not provide a sound foundation for objective morality and further fails to provide the ability to ground moral duty since it provides no rational basis for human freedom.

This topic has the propensity to produce many rabbit trails on related topics so to remain on this topic we need to keep in mind that the scope of this question is limited to moral ontology. What makes something good or bad. Not moral epistemology or how we know whether something is good or not. In a recent debate with Sam Harris, Bill Craig used the example that ancient persons knew what light and darkness was even though they had no knowledge of the physical properties of light.

Many times altruism is posited as a possible secular source for morality. The problem with that theory, though, is that nature’s propensity for cruelty and suffering shows that secular morality is a myth. In order for an appeal to altruism to be credible on a naturalistic account of the universe, the existence of a selfless gene would need to be established.

While it is possible for all humans to know, intrinsically, certain moral truths, the question of foundation requires that we not care so much about the specifics of morality and, instead, focus on whence they are derived.

Here are a few excellent resources on this topic:


Meet Blinky, the helpful robot

Blinky™ from Ruairi Robinson on Vimeo.

The above video is EXTREMELY well done for a 12 minute short. What makes it even more chilling, however, is how in a recent debate regarding the meaning of life, the question was asked about making sure Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics should be imprinted in all robotics. One of the responders, and it was left unchallenged by all, emphatically said “No!”.

The lesson is simple, morality does not come from within a being.


Blaise Pascal on universals and particulars

From Pensées 40:

If we wished to prove the examples which we take to prove other things, we should have to take those other things to be examples; for, as we always believe the difficulty is in what we wish to prove, we find the examples clearer and a help to demonstration.
Thus, when we wish to demonstrate a general theorem, we must give the rule as applied to a particular case; but if we wish to demonstrate a particular case, we must begin with the general rule. For we always find the thing obscure which we wish to prove and that clear which we use for the proof; for, when a thing is put forward to be proved, we first fill ourselves with the imagination that it is, therefore, obscure and, on the contrary, that what is to prove it is clear, and so we understand it easily.
Obscurity is the inherent problem with systems of thought that begin with man (particulars) and not with God (universal). That is why materialism, ethical objectivism, and moral relativism all end up in an incoherent mess when followed to their conclusion.

G.K. Chesterton on progressivism

In Heretics pg. 16-17 G.K. Chesterton writes:

Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.

I believe Mr Chesterton’s words are just as true today as they were nearly a century ago.


Rational Self Interest

The following is a portion of an email conversation (reposted with permission) I had with Dan Barber regarding the foundation for morality.

Morality is only objectively grounded when you have an object to ground it upon. which object? A single, solitary human with a mind. Without humans and his mind, there is no need for morality.
Ask yourself do we need a moral code at all? What for? The answer is yes! Because man has not the automatic instincts like all other animated life forms do. We have to learn about our nature and the space that we live within, Using our creative mind. All things related to how the mind works most effectively has to do with morality. All things that destroy the mind are against human life.

The individual is only moral if he is acting in his own rational self interest to foster the continuation and flourishing of his life using his healthy mind to do so within the knowledge that is available to him ~of course. (and absolutely he is best served by having many kind and loving relationships all around to help him – this the system of trade as his only moral means to relate with anyone else and still be non-contradicted. (remaining moral)

Not relying on the corrupted minds of a collective. Who tell him to hope and pray for knowledge received from the heavens or elsewhere. (the collective always works to destroy the individual minds. It has to. How does a healthy mind function? Compared to a dysfunctional one? One is moral the other is not. Why bother making the distinction if there is no objective morality.

Consider Fred Phelps and his “God Hates Fags” campaign. By what objective standard is he wrong about God killing those people in Arizona? He has Bible scripture that proves his point! Subjective as hell! Either Fred’s mind is good or not good. What makes it not good?

How would you destroy a healthy mind? In my opinion, “faith” is by far the greatest tool known to man. It says pay no attention to reality. live and think by an alternative method. A method in fact that we “the faithful” do control
But, alas, I stand in no mans way to destroy his own mind, after all it is HIS to destroy. As long as he does not also think he has a right to destroy mine. I will after all always act morally in my own self defense and do what is needed to stop him. He is certainly suicidal when he attempts that behavior. History is full to the brim with those kinds of deaths!

There are no conflicts of interest concerning , rational; self interest and any other individual’s RSI. within the conflict lies the irrationality, every time!
There is only a conflict when one or many attempt to enslave the efforts instead of trade for the efforts of any given individual. Suicide again. When you deal with the moral man who loves and honors his own life!

And here is my response:

We are in agreement with regards to the assertion that morality is rational and objective. I spent some time yesterday and today listening to the Ayn Rand lecture you posted on your Facebook page and reading up on objectivism.

For the most part I agree with your position regarding the ontology of ethics, that is, that they simply exist as part of the furniture of the universe. However there are a few problems I believe exist when the attempt is made to ground such ethics in rationality or the human mind.

The first problem is, whose mind are we grounding these in? One of the problems of being contingent beings is that we cannot be 100% sure of our thoughts and thus anything we come up with on our own has the possibility of being flawed at worst or non-optimal at best. Its easy to consider an insane person’s rationality as flawed because we are making such an observation from a more or less neutral position. But what happens when two apparently rational people, like you and I, disagree over something like the rationality of homosexual behavior? Whose view of rationality should we consider to be the most correct? How can we objectively determine which one should win out?

I would be prone to arguing that we can’t unless we posses Cartesian certainty or knowledge of all things (omniscience).

That brings me to the second flaw I see in what you’ve proposed. How do we go about knowing, with any degree of certainty, what this ultimate rational standard entails? It would seem that without the completely rational knower from our first dilemma giving us special revelation as to what is and is not rational, we would have no way of knowing what is and is not rational with regard to our self-interests.

So I would propose that your view of rational self-interest is incomplete without an ultimate rational mind who reveals to contingent rational minds like ours what is and is not rational, particularly with regard to self-interest.


The problem with physical morality

If you suppose that you are nothing more than the molecules that make you up, then the only thing you can own are molecules. However that poses a problem since our bodies are constantly changing out molecules. In fact, 98% of the molecules in our bodies are replaced yearly.

There is not a core of molecules that persists, so the best we can say is that we are only leasing the molecules of our physical bodies. So when we talk about moral obligation, it seems dubious to center it on a physical object since that object does not persist. The molecules that made up Jeffery Dahmer when he killed all his victims did not make him up 2 years hence, so should we have released him since his “bad” molecules were now dissipated?


Calvin and Hobbes on moral relativism

[HT Stephen Notman]


Could God have made morality different?

From a friend of mine on Facebook:

could God have made morality different? If the answer is yes, then it shows morality is subjective because it could have been different. If no, then why not?

The best way to answer this question is to define morality properly. This is a variation on the question “is something good because God declares it to be good or is something good because it is good in itself.”

This is a question that cuts to the ontology (being) of good but I would argue that if we accept the premise that good is something independent of God then we don’t run into any issues down the line.

I would argue that goodness, like logic, finds its ultimate root in God’s character. That is, the way we know goodness is by understanding God’s being.

So the question of whether God could have made morality different could be rephrased like this: Could God exist in any other way than He currently exists?

If we understand God to be a necessary being who is unchangeable and whom exists in all possible words (the definition of a necessary object/being) then the answer is no.

This question is also logically related to the question of whether God can create a rock so big He couldn’t move it. The answer of “no” is not because of some limitation in God but because of the necessity of God and what flows from His being. In the case of the rock that would be logic. Its a logical category fallacy to assert that God could create a rock that retains its physical dimensions so as to be considered a rock while equaling a metaphysical being.

The same can be said for morality. It cannot be any other way than it is because it finds its definition and meaning in the being/character of God. And as a necessary being, God could not exist in any other form than His current one.