Theists usually believe that God is the author of morality, and that actions are only good or bad to the extent that God makes them so. A typical atheist rebuttal involves a reference to the Euthyphro dilemma: morality based on the absolute say-so of a supreme being seems to be no less arbitrary than the relativistic morality that theists decry.
This leaves open the question: how should unbelievers behave? Where does our understanding of morality ultimately come from? How do we know that our standards are correct in a meaningful and universal sense?
Although there is no such thing as unanimous agreement on complex philosophical issues, if we approach the question from a humanistic, scientific stand point, atheists ought to agree that there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions. Like science and mathematics, useful systems of morality derive from some basic axioms, or recognized assumptions.
A few possible axioms in morality are:
- Every person has their own feelings and desires, and they are more or less similar since they are based on the same brain chemistry.
- When I look inward to my own desires, I fundamentally desire to pursue happiness and avoid pain and suffering.
- Other people have these same basic desires, and these desires are valuable to them.
- With all else being equal, it is better for people to be happy than not be happy.
- Conflicts arise mainly because people's desire to be happy and avoid suffering conflict with each other. The goal of secular morality is to resolve those conflicts in the best possible way for all concerned.
A few natural consequences of these axioms:
- All else being equal, it is wrong to needlessly inflict suffering on people.
- Except for the case of self-preservation, with all else being equal, it is best to avoid killing other people (on the assumption that they don't want to be killed).
- Actions such as slavery and rape are wrong because they excessively limit people's happiness and freedom of action.
The rationale for secular morality can also be understood via the following observations:
- On the whole, humans desire the following: avoidance of death and suffering, and the achievement of happiness.
- Most humans realize that these desires are easiest achieved in an environment where the infliction of death and suffering are prohibited and the pursuit of happiness is permitted.
- Most humans also realize that the mores/laws that prevent their neighbors from harming them also prohibit them from harming their neighbors.
- Thus, within the framework of this understanding lies the foundation of secular morality.
Good without God
It is often argued that in a godless world, we would not have any basis for morality. Morality is principles with the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior or character. However, for many others, religion is the problem. Their rejection of religion, far from being motivated for escaping moral accountability as some claim, reflexes a conviction that its only through abandoning certain wide-spread religious ideas that progress towards a truly just, consistent morality is possible.
What do we use as a basis for morality? We know it is not power, the one with the gun might have means to impose their wishes, but this tells us nothing about their principles. we know it is not majority preference, if the spectacle of human sacrifices is the preferred entertainment of the majority, this does not make human sacrifice right. We know it is not tradition, the fact that a practice may have endured for many generations tells us nothing about its virtue. Although what is written in law may actually reflect what a society may deem right or wrong, we know law does not determine morality. Laws can be unjust. When asking this question, it can be useful to consider how we go about accessing moral problems.
- Society 1 - Children are branded witches and blamed for famines and floods. They are ostracized by their parents, starved, tortured, and killed. What can we say about this? Well, we know that these disasters are not due to magic but natural processes. So even before having to consider the moral dimension, we can reject this behavior outright as resulting from a false view of how nature works. What makes it a moral matter is what kind of harm it involves. For things that cause no harm, moral condemnation simply is not appropriate. For example, homosexuality is often misidentified as a moral issue, but gay relationships involve no intrinsic harm any more than mixed ones. Indeed, when classing harmless things as immoral results in persecution, we have reason to condemn the misclassification. Are the parents in this society morally blameworthy if they are genuinely ignorant of their wrongdoing? We do not call well-fed cats who kill mice, or small children who draws with crayon on expensive wall paper immoral, because we do not attribute to them the capacity to grasp reasons for not doing so. People who harm children as witches may have their capacity for reason undermined by false teachings and so be less blameworthy than knowing abusers. In a very important sense, moral responsibility can be said to operate within limits of education. This is why education, especially in science, is crucial to moral progress. Among other things, it helps eliminate our vulnerability to superstition-based abuse. Knowing better leaves us no excuse for not doing better. Once the justification for harmful practices is shown to be false, there is literally no reason for it to continue. This first scenario is about dehumanization, when the witch-finder convinces a parent that her child is evil (even demonic). This is a potent way of eroding empathy - an adaptive pro-social trait (lacking in psychopaths) which keeps us sensitive to others' suffering. During WWII, Jews were seen as vermin by their persecutors. Some paint the non-religious as degenerate or hell-fodder. Dehumanizing people is a known method for diminishing compassion and the guilt felt when abusing them. We learn much from history and the present-day about the horrors it can enable.
- Society 2 - The single lawmaker tells everyone "All who harm you will be punished, but you won't be punished for harming others." Persons A and B harm each other simultaneously, each quoting the first part of the law, demanding the other's punishment. The other quotes the second part, demanding immunity from punishment. According to the law, A and B must be both punished AND immune from punishment. This is the kind of absurdity that results from egocentric system where only one's own suffering, desires, etc. matter. If suffering is bad in principle then claiming it is wrong for others to hurt you while you hurt others would be appealing to the same notion of justice that requires you to recognize your own wrong-doing. This is not only why this reduces suffering, it is also rationally consistent to have basic prohibitions against causing needless harm to other humans, and by extension other life forms that we know have the capacity to experience suffering. Besides, part of morality's essence is adopting a plural view, recognizing our impact on others and adjusting our conduct in response. Of course sometimes causing harm is rationally premised. For example, we risk painful medical procedures if there is a compensating benefit to our health. And sometimes we have sufficient justification to harm others when acting in self-defense or to prevent greater suffering.
- Society 3 - Only males are allowed to learn to read and write. Is this just? Well, we know there is no valid basis for making literacy dependent on gender. We know the real reason institutions and individuals who restricted basic education throughout history is to keep others subservient. As noted earlier, more education decreases vulnerability to abuse. Forbidding female literacy is itself a mark of bad education and the unjust exercise of authority. But what if most of the women agreed with this rule, is it then acceptable? If an eight-year-old consents to an adult's sexual advances, are the advances acceptable? Of course not. This is why we do not only talk about consent, but capacity for informed consent. People kept purposely uneducated can reasonably be said to have diminished capacity for informed consent. The rule is oppressive in its construction, even if the women agree with it. Indeed, when people who have been made subservient participate in their own oppression, this is normally cause for greater concern, not less. Those who defend their abusers are the most comprehensively enslaved.
- Society 4 - ALL criminals are executed. Assessing this law, we can see it's flawed, but not only because disproportionate punishment is unjust. Under this rule those who commit minor crime (sch as littering) having nothing to lose but all to gain by killing witnesses (even suspecting witnesses). Murder can't increase the consequences for them. They can only inflate the chances of evading execution. In this way, execution for all crime actually encourages minor crimes to escalate. This gives us a reason to tailor punishment in the severity of the offense, especially in the case of serious crime. For example, while rape is a horrific form of abuse, punishing murder more severely will tend to deter rapists from also killing their victims. As before with indiscriminate execution, the rapist loses nothing, but might gain, by also committing murder.
- Society 5 - The leader declares that smiling on a Tuesday is immoral. This causes no identifiable harm, so there are no valid grounds for declaring it immoral. Nor can it be made immoral by making it a law and then saying it is immoral to break the law. If this was how our morality works any arbitrary behavior can be made immoral. We do not base morality on revelation based on authority. That would render us merely obedient. Moral behavior is doing what is right, not what we are told (unless what we are told is also right). This is why when asking "why is X immoral", appealing to scripture or a divine figure gets us nowhere. There must be valid independent reasons to define what is moral, right or wrong, good or bad. If intuition tells us what is immoral, we may ask what triggers the intuition? There must be valid reasons. Once we are dealing with valid reasons we're having a conversation that has no need to refer to scripture or authority (divine or otherwise). Valid reasons are available to us all.
- Society 6 - Feeding someone chocolate and making green paint are prohibited. The people of this society have a genetic intolerance to chocolate that causes them agonizing death. They also live in a remote island where green paint can only be made with a rare substance needed for a life-saving medicine. Differing biology or practical circumstances can explain why some populations live by different rules. Also, different cultures may deal effectively with the same issue despite different approaches. However, this does not commit us to saying that cultures are equally valid. Because some cultural differences are justified does not mean that all cultural differences are justified (as noted earlier, branding children as witches is categorically wrong and is to be rejected as the result of bad education, not 'respected as a cultural truth'). The fact that some cultures have cruel practices does not mean morality is therefore arbitrary and all opinions are equal. It simply reflects the fact that, just as moral development takes time to develop in the individual, it also takes time to develop in societies, with different societies developing at different rates. Some societies still believe in magic. Some have largely outgrown their belief in magic but not animal cruelty, racism, sexism, or homophobia. Some societies have largely outgrown all of these and are focused on advances in other areas effecting the well-being of the planet.
Reviewing these scenarios, it should be noted there is nothing arbitrary about the arguments given for improving education, graduating criminal punishment, prohibiting needless harm, and recognizing relevant difference. It is through such measures, as well as cultivating attitudes of cooperation and compromise (despite competing interests), that we are able to coexist with minimal suffering.
The worry that, without religion or god, we've no basis from which to discuss morality is without foundation. Plain empathy can trigger natural help responses to others' distress and create natural aversion to causing others harm. Likewise, the experience of living alongside others is a simple feedback about how our actions affect each other and how we might have to adjust our conduct in response. The human brain contains "mirror neurons" which mimic the activity of other parts of the brain or of other brains. This provides a biological foundation for empathy: individuals with mirror neurons, including humans and other primates, can actually feel what others feel. (Source: Thomas S. May, "Terms of Empathy: Your Pain in My Pain——If You Play Fair Game," Brain Work 16 (May—June 2006): 3)
The two prerequisites for reliable moral assessment are 1) reason and 2) accurate and relevant information. Sound reasoning won't lead to valid assessments if we are operating under flawed information, nor with sound information if our reasoning is flawed. Without sound reasoning and information, we can't determine how the universe works, how different life forms suffer or flourish, where responsibility lies, or the short- and long-term consequences of actions on an inter-personal or global scale. These are considerations on which moral judgments depends.
Some often declare morality the territory of religion. However, moral development is actually something to which the scientific approach contributes far more--and far more reliably--due to its emphasis on reason, logic, and evidence (the tools that help us discern what is true or false), without which one cannot even formulate a valid argument. To make informed moral choices, and therefore moral progress, religion needs science, but science does not need religion.
Indeed, findings in neurological science are pulling back the curtain in religious moral thought. In a revealing study by Nicholas Eply (Eply, N. et al 2009, "Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 106), Christian volunteers were asked to report their own views, the views of their deity, and the views of others on a range of controversial issues (such as legal euthanasia) while having their brain activity scanned. Results show that thinking about divine views activated the same brain regions as thinking about their own views, indicating that when believing themselves to be consulting the divine moral compass, theists may instead be doing what the rest of us do--searching their own conscience. This idea is further supported by the findings that manipulating the subject's beliefs consistently influence their views about divine beliefs. As Eply put it, "Intuiting God's beliefs... may serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one's own beliefs."
Some claim that without Gods, we are just animals. We are animals, but animals uniquely capable of appreciating reasons to do some things and not others, capable of rationally assessing the consequences and justifications of our actions and beliefs. Whereas certain religions traditionally use moral language to divide, control, and frighten people to obedience, there is a more appropriate and principled function for morality: to ease the challenges of coexistence. In a world of finite resources, each of us with different interests and desires, societies in which individuals coordinate different talents and develop effective ways to promote flourishing and harmonious living and minimizing conflict and needless suffering, will tend to be happier, more peaceful, and more productive than those who don't. Because we live in a continuously changing world with new kinds of moral problems being generated all the time, there is much harmful ignorance yet to overcome, and therefore there is an ongoing need to develop and redefine our moral understanding.
Our collective moral progress depends upon the extent to which we are able and -crucially- willing to examine our behavior and most cherished beliefs and then share our moral insights through education so that future generations can avoid repeating our harmful and foolish mistakes.
Good without Religion
Religions repeatably share that their faith system offers excellent moral standards. Christianity and other monotheistic religions often say that morality derives from their religion, and this is the only basis for morality. Imagine someone said to you that English provided the only basis for grammar. After you overcame your shock, you would respond that English is certainly not the only language with a grammar. You would add that grammar is not limited to language understood broadly as rules for combination and transformation, many phenomena have a grammar, from sports to baking. Nor is grammar the sole or essential component of language: language also includes sound systems, vocabularies, genres, and styles of speech. And you would remind the speaker that grammar does not depend on human language at all: some nonhuman species, including chimps and parrots, can produce grammatical—that is, orderly and rule-comforming—short sentences. Ultimately, you would want to explain that English does not “provide a basis” for grammar at all but rather represents one particular instance of grammar. English grammar is definitely not the only grammar in the world and even more definitely not the “real” grammar.
What religion does for morality and for society in general is move the authority, the responsibility, for rules and institutions out of human hands and then attributes the whole system to a nonhuman and superhuman source.
A non-naturalist intuitionist account
Atheism is often confused to be synonymous with naturalism, whether it be metaphysical, meta-ethical, or metaphilosophical. An atheist is entitled to the belief, especially if with warrant, that moral terms and properties are not reducible to natural ones. Moore's Open Question Argument is often cited as the basis for this notion.
Typical to moral non-naturalists is the view of ethical intuitionism. Ethical intuitionsts' are often subject to being misunderstood. The contention is not that intuitive moral propositions are the only true moral propositions. Rather, intuitionists contend that intuitions are the foundation of and the sufficient account for the existence of moral belief.
The crux is that intuitive propositions are at least prima facie justified. Prima facie justified beliefs are self-evident beliefs presumed to be true in the absence of strong enough evidence to warrant discarding the fundamental belief. In other words, they are foundational yet defeasible. Much of epistemology relies on foundationalism, and the notion of prima facie justified beliefs to escape the epistemic problem of an infinite regress.
The ethical intuitionist view is similar to foundationalism in epistemology. For any argument to have persuasion power, people must be operating on notions they take to be axiomatic (first principles). Considering this, the claim that it is unsound to assume moral axioms yet it's valid to assume the axioms of classical logic seems rather silly. The analogy works within the context of coherentism as well. For any coherentist epistemology, a coherentist meta-ethics follows from the same reasoning.
One of the leading proponents of ethical intuitionism in the 21st century is the atheist philosopher Michael Huemer. The most important aspect of his position is his epistemological theory of Phenominal Conservatism (PC). PC contends that it is reasonable to assume things are as they appear when lacking positive grounds for doubting these appearances. When weighing PC in your mind, it is important to know that other than perceptual appearances, we have introspective and memory-related appearances, as well as intellectual appearances. An example of a intellectual appearance is when you are evaluating q, you see that it follows from the truth of p. Whether you see that this inference is valid is something you see with your intellect, not with your senses.
PC goes as follows:
- If it seems to S' as if p, then, in the absence of defeaters, S thereby has at least a limited degree of justification for believing that p.
Seeming to S as if p is not the same state as S believing that p. PC would grant all beliefs on the spot otherwise. Secondly, PC does not say "if it seems to S that p, then necessarily p," nor does it say "if S believes p, then S is prima facie justified believing p", although that is consistent with general conservative epistemology. Lastly, S does not have at least prima facie justification for believing p simply because S believes that it appears to him that p; the fact that it seems to S that p grants S at least prima facie justification. This means that in a world where no conscious beings exist, the principle would still hold true.
There exists the notion that any position that denies PC is a self-defeating position. When weighing an idea in your mind, one usually considers an argument for it. However, the ball does not get rolling unless S knows a priori what distinguishes between what is arbitrary and what is meaningful (in the epistemic sense). Consider the following:
- (1) 2 = 7
- (2) Therefore, Kant was a woman
The premise for this argument does not appear true to any honest intellectual. There is no need to explain why the premise itself is arbitrary or why it does not entail the conclusion. It simply seems to be the case on an intellectual level. No one accepts that which appears false.
The phenemology of the matter is that fundamental beliefs are adopted because they seem true to us. An axiom, for example, may sometimes require analysis for it's truth to become apparent, but for the most part they seem true prima facie.
Intuitions are otherwise known as initial intellectual appearances. An example of a moral intuition would be "suffering is bad," while "the US should not have bombed Hiroshima or Nagasaki in 1945," is not a moral intuition; it depends on inference from other beliefs such as "killing innocents is wrong," or things of similar nature.
There exists the notion that the appearance of intuitions are illusory and they are really beliefs derived from subconscious inference. This position fails to explain not only the origin of moral belief, but the apparent conflict between intuitions and ethical theories meant to be held antecedent to all cases.
- (1) A runaway trolley is heading for a fork in the track. If it takes the left fork, it will collide with and kill five people; if it takes the right fork, it will collide with and kill one person. None of the people can be moved out of the way in time. There is a switch that determines which fork the trolley takes. It is presently set to send the trolley to the left. You can flip the switch, sending the trolley to the right instead. Do you flip the switch?
- (2) A doctor in a hospital has five patients who need organ transplants; otherwise, they will die. They all need different organs. He also has one healthy patient, in for a routine checkup, who happens to be compatible with the five. Should the doctor kill the healthy patient and distribute his organs to the other five?
The intuitive answer for most people to (1) is yes. The intuitive answer for most people to (2) is no. Some philosophers are consequentialists, which means they contend that that the proper answer is yes to both scenarios. This makes clear that one's moral intuitions are not dependent upon what one may believe about morality. Intuitions being (for the most part) separate from belief makes it a useful tool in discerning between competing moral beliefs and ethical theories.
Society is a construct that has arisen out of the need to enforce "good" behavior.
Game theory is a branch of mathematics that concerns itself with interactions between agents, with gains and losses, loosely called "games". To the extent that these mathematical models match reality, they can provide a mathematical underpinning for "moral" behavior, independent of the decrees of any god.
One interesting result of game theory is that the optimal strategy for a given player depends on whether the "game" is a one-time interaction or part of a longer series.
For example, assume that player A agrees to buy an object, say a book, from player B. Since A and B live in different cities, so A agrees to send a check for $50 to B, and B agrees to send the book to A.
At first glance, it would seem that A's optimal strategy is not to send a check: that way, if B sends him a book, he will have received the book for free; if B doesn't send him the book, he hasn't lost anything. Whereas if he sends B the check and B doesn't send A the book, A has lost $50. By a similar reasoning, B's best strategy is not to send the book, and hope that A sends him a check. If both A and B reason this way, they neither gain nor lose anything. (All moderately advanced societies have laws and law enforcement systems to prevent or reduce this type of thing.)
If, on the other hand, this is a repeating situation -- say, if A regularly shops at B's book store -- then the optimal strategy changes: the players remember the times in the past when they were cheated, and can anticipate that if they cheat this time, the other player will remember it next time. In this case, the optimal strategy is for both to play by the rules each time: A gains a book each time (and loses $50), and B gains $50 each time (and loses a book).
Biological basis for morality
One school of thought offers the notion that our genetic predisposition to survive as individuals has gradually shifted toward a desire to survive (and thrive) as a species. Our increased intelligence and understanding allows us to expand on simpler versions of social order that we witness in less-intelligent animals. In addition to utilizing our intelligence to analyze the outcomes of actions to determine the best outcome from a practical view, we are also empathetic beings who organize into complex social structures that range from simple families to nations, and beyond.
This claim that morality is a natural result of our intelligence and empathy is hardly new. The following quote from Charles Darwin expresses this concept clearly:
"Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man."
- — Charles Darwin
[These sections are not completed. Authors are encouraged to fill in more details.]
- "Another thing is why in the world would an atheist be moral? I understand there can be moral atheists and I do have a few atheist friends that I'm trying to work on. But why in the world would you be a moral atheist? You see, there is no point in it. If you don't believe in life after death is a thing, then as long as you are not going to jail, there is no point in being a moral atheist."
Unfortunately Christian stereotyping sometimes influences impressionable atheists and they assume that because they are atheists they can’t be moral or can’t be very moral. Youngsters whose characters have not fully developed yet are most vulnerable to negative stereotyping of this type. Liberal Christians rarely or never do this but Christian fundamentalists stereotype atheists far too often. One particularly nasty technique that Christian evangelists sometimes use is deliberately provoking atheists or perhaps others they want to convert into doing something wrong/many wrong things. Then they say something like, "There! See how bad you are! You need Jesus!" If conversion attempts are successful probably the wrong things the person did/was provoked into doing before conversion will be regularly used to make that person feel guilty and inferior so the leaders of the group can keep the sinner under control. One last detail, many religions drive fundamentalists to commit atrocities to innocents with unshakable self-righteousness; It is doubtful that being moral means doing what someone else/something tells you is "the only right thing" baselessly without analyzing it with any common sense or reason whatsoever.
If you are a teen
If you are a teen don’t let Christians convince you that you aren’t moral. You can be better than they are. You won’t set out to damage the confidence other people have and convince them that they can't be moral. You know that’s seriously wrong. You won’t imagine Jesus wants you to damage other peoples’ confidence that they can be moral.
Comparison with religious morality
- "I'd say only atheists can have meaningful moral opinions. "Because god said it is a sin" is not a meaningful opinion. Religion takes the meaning out of morality. When religious people are thoughtfully moral, it is usually in spite of their religious belief, not because of it."
- Humanist morality Atheism wiki on Humanist morality.
- Web page of an secular ethicist.
- "Ethical Intuitionism" by Michael Huemer proposes a foundation for secular morality.
- The Open Question Argument against ethical naturalism.
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