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 recognize 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.
Good without gods
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 base 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 thee 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. 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've reasoned 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 humans who crayon on expensive wall paper immoral, because we do not contribute them with 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 as 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, they each quote the first part of the law, demanding the others 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 others that it is wrong 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 too prevent greater suffering.
- Society 3 - Only males are allowed t 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 adults 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 elaborate in their own oppression, this is normally cause for greater concern, not less. Those why defend their abusers are the most comprehensively enslaved.
- Society 4 - ALL criminals are executed. Accessing this law, we can see its flawed, but no only because of 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 category in the case of serious crime. For example, while rape is a horrific form of abuse, punishing murder more severely will ted 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 smiling on a Tuesday is immoral. This cases no identifiable harm, so there are no valid grounds fr 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 work, 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 painting 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 were 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 approaches. But this does not commit us to saying that cultures are equally valid. Because some cultural differences are justified, it does no mean that all of them (as noted earlier, branding children as witches is categorically wrong to be rejected as the result of bad education not 'respected as a cultural truth') the fact at 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, but 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 needles harm, and recognizing relevant difference. It is though 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 a without religion or god we've no basis for on which to discuss morality, is without foundation. Plain empathy can trigger natural help responses to others distress and crate natural aversion to causing others harm. Likewise, the simple experience of living alongside others is a simple feedback about how our actions affect each other and how we might have to affect our conduct in response. The two prerequisites for reliable moral assessment are reason and accurate relevant information. Sound reasoning wont 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' determine how the universe works, how different life forms suffer or flourish, where responsibility lies, or would the short or long term consequences of actions are on an inter-personal or global scale. And these are considerations on which moral judgments depends.
Some often declare the territory of religion, moral development is actually something to which the scientific approach contributes far more and far more reliably due to is emphasis on reason, logic and evidence (the tools that help us discern what is true or false) on without which one cannot even formulate a valid argument. To make informed moral choices, and therefore moral progress, religion need 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 is doing what the rest of us do: searching their own conscience. An idea further supported by the finding at manipulating the subjects 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 in appreciating reasons to do some things and not others, capable of rationally assessing the consequences and justifications of our actions and beliefs. Where as 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 continuous changing world with new kinds of moral problems being generated all the time,d much harmful ignorance yet to overcome, 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 ten share our moral insights through education so that future generations can avoid repeating our harmful and foolish mistakes.
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
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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 ejvangelists 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.
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.
- Humanist morality Atheism wiki on Humanist morality