Atheism & Objective Morality

Since my story was published in Christianity Today, I’ve been getting a lot of negative feedback about the lack of evidence presented in the article. I don’t have time to write down all my thoughts, especially because I’ve been trying to write emails back to everyone who has written me so far. [A particularly trying task in light of the fact that lately I’ve been spending 8 hours a day at work looking at a computer screen.] Your letter will be put at the top of the response pile if you send it via snail mail.

One student wrote me:

You said that John Joseph Porter pointed to your inconsistency in believing in objective, universal moral categories. What do you think about consequentialist theories (i.e. preference utilitarianism) or even deontological theories (i.e. contractualism)? You seem to make a big jump; there are many moral theories that are objective but not theistic.

This depends on what you mean by “objective.” Do consequentialist theories or deontological theories work for constructing answers to our basic ethical questions? Yes. A utilitarian can give an explanation for why he chooses to push the fat man over the bridge to save the lives of five other people (I’m hoping you’ve read this example, else you’ll think I’m a weirdo, but I suppose all us philosophers are). But the utilitarian cannot explain why he values those people. In other words, he cannot answer the meta-ethical question of “why should I strive to maximize value?” So I would argue that my ethical philosophy was internally consistent but lacked sufficient meta-ethical justification.

Of course, you can ask the same questions toward Christians – why should I strive to love God? And I think the answer iles in Lewis’ response “God is goodness.” This is a bit of a Platonic resort, and I suppose I could have adopted a Platonic view of the good without believing in God. But then you’d have to wonder – what is this weird form of goodness and how did it get there? A self-caused universe didn’t seem to offer sufficient explanation on that front. (Again, not to say it’s impossible. But just that it would be rather unusual.) [Also note that here Christianity has a distinct advantage: the Trinitarian view both allows God to be personal and permits him to therefore be impersonal qualities like, for example, love!]

I would say this: when you’re choosing a worldview, you don’t have time to parse through every single possible question that might be posed nor to tease out every single possible contradiction. It’s taken centuries and the project is still unfinished! I appreciated the introduction to one of Hume’s books – “Amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” To me, this means: you still have to go on living your life. You can’t be the philosopher pondering it all without acting. You must eat, work, live, and love. As you do so, you will approach these actions with a particular perspective and philosophy. You cannot remain agnostic forever. There is no completely neutral perspective. With that in mind, you have to plant your flag somewhere. Christianity is where I plant my flag.

I chose Christianity because I think it offers the most complete framework for approaching the world: explaining ethics and meta-ethics, showing my sin, offering not only forgiveness but also redemption.

6 thoughts on “Atheism & Objective Morality

  1. Enjoy your thoughts. Question: how strong would your belief be IF there was no redemption available to you as a believer? I’ve sat through countless sermons where the emphasis was clearly on “this is the only way to eternal life”…which was met with several “amens” from the believers. In my mind, I am challenged by the obvious selfish allure from the proposition, and really wonder how full the collection baskets would be if the inverse proposition were proposed: “this is not the path to eternal life”…. In my view, it removes the superficial “payment” and would certainly provide a greater test of faith. Seems like nothing more than an evangelical tool. But, so does the “god-breathed” Bible– you know, the collection of writings over thousands of years, re-written, translated, compiled and edited by committee 400 years after Christ and edited by committee — and then edited again by Luther and the gang a mere 600 years ago.

    • I would still believe even if Christianity didn’t offer me redemption, because I would still find the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus compelling. The Christian confession is not “Believe for your sins have been forgiven” but rather “Jesus is Lord.” When the paralytic was lowered before Jesus, he didn’t say, “believe for your sins are forgiven” but it says he saw their faith first, and for that reason told him, “your sins are forgiven.”

      Of course, the Christian framework would in general be less compelling if it did not correctly identify our need for forgiveness and then fix the problem in the most logically satisfying way.

  2. Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him,and he will make your paths straight. Matthew 18:3 “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
    The gospel is simple enough that although we may not understand everything, even a child can understand it’s concept. I tell my children, it’s like a baby depends soley on it’s mother or father for everything. There would be no point in trying to explain trivial issues with a baby or a child who doesn’t have the intelluctual capacity to understand them. The child’s survival relies on complete trust in the caregiver. We are to do the same with God. We are not God, we do not have the mental capicity to understand everything, but we are to trust that He knows best and He’s given us His Word to live by. He did not leave us hung out to dry but He left us with His Word and with the help of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I think people get too caught up in trying to intelectualize everything, which is very unfortunate. Every man is a spiritual being and like Paul said, the flesh is always contending with the spiritual so we walk by faith, each and every day, one step at a time. The unredeemed man cannot understand spiritual things because it is the Holy Spirit that reveals all things spiritual. Also the Bible says that we are saved by FAITH in Jesus Christ and what He did on the cross, so we are to rest in that. People are emotional beings, but our emotions do not change what Christ has done. So when we feel distant from God or when there’s times we don’t feel His presence that doesn’t change anything because our salvation is not based on emotions it is based on our FAITH. And if you don’t quit, God won’t quit.

  3. My main problem with this passage in your article which I just read, goes like this:

    What a rational person does when failing to figure out how to fit a belief into the available evidence is to drop the belief: not to consider the belief evidence of the evidence.

    If you can’t figure out how to fit objective morality into a non-theistic framework (which isn’t that hard) then that’s not evidence of a theistic worldview. It’s reason to drop your belief in objective morality.

    You can add it back later when you figure it out.

    That said, I don’t find it particularly hard to figure it out. I have some more thoughts on your reply above, but I’ll add them later.

  4. Okay, and now for a more substantive reply:

    >This depends on what you mean by “objective.”

    Objective, as used by philosophy, which is ostensibly the topic at hand: with reference to the object of thought. As opposed (but not opposite) of subjective: with reference to the subject of thought.

    “Objective” need not refer to an ontologically existent entity. Many things that do not are considered objective. The validity of a syllogism is objective. A valid mathematical equation is objective. There is a distinction between epistimological objectivity and ontological objectivity. In these examples the target of the statement is the object of thought. In the first, the target is the validity of the syllogism; in the second, it is the equality of the equation. Neither a syllogism or an equation is a subject of thought. The subject is the one doing the thinking.

    For example “sushi tastes good”. The claim being made cannot be understood except with reference to the subject. The meaning of “good” is established by the subject, and attributed to the subject himself and not accessible on it’s own to the rest of us.

    All subjective statements have an objective counterpart. “Sushi tastes good.” uttered from the perspective of the subject is subjective. The exact same claim “Jerome finds that sushi tastes good.” is objective. Jerome is now the object of thought. It is true, for all observers, that Jerome either does or does not think that sushi tastes good. “Good” is still left up to Jerome to define: but the statement remains true or not true for everybody.

    In the branch of ethics generally called “moral objectivism”, this is the meaning of “objective.”[1]

    Given these definitions, as you mention, it is trivial to make an objective moral statement.

    1) Actions that lead to unhappyness are wrong.
    2) Actions that lead to happyness are right.
    3) Being shot leads to unhappyness.
    4) Bob shot John.
    5) Given 3 and 4, John is now unhappy.
    6) Given 1 and 5, Bob’s action in 4) is wrong

    See? Trivial. All rational parties must agree that the above is valid. The syllogism represents the moral reasoning. The validity of the moral reasoning is objective. We’re done. We have an objective moral system.

    And it may be obvious that we can create many, many objective moral systems. All equally objective. Simply alter 1) and 2).

    I strongly suspect you already know this, but there it is for any other readers.

    >This is a bit of a Platonic resort, and I suppose I could have adopted a Platonic view of the good without believing in God.

    You certainly could have. You also could have simply dropped the requirement that you must find an explanation for what you view as objective morality, and ceased being a moral objectivist, as I mentioned in my last post.

    It also does NOTHING to escape the problem. Asserting that there exists a platonic ideal of how one should be is not an escape from Hume’s is-ought problem. You’ve simply relabeled the ought as an is. It’s now an ‘is’, and there is no immediate reason you ought to follow it.

    Lets assume that these platonic ideals exist. Lets assume they are easy to understand, and easy to identify. Now, why ought anybody follow them?

    The only escape from the is-ought problem I’ve identified is to not escape from it. But to formulate both sides of the gap as independent. You can’t get from an is to an ought. But you can get from TWO is’s to an ought. The first ‘is’ is the current state of something. The second ‘is’ is a desired state of something. The ‘ought’ refers to the actions by which you can progress from the first state towards the second.

    And this can only be done with a desire, which is simply going to have to be an axiomatic starting point.

    1) I want to be happy.
    2) “ought” is defined as those actions which tends towards making me happy
    3) Some action tends towards making me happy.
    4) Therefor I ought to engage in that action.

    >“why should I strive to maximize value?”

    Because maximizing value tends towards meeting a desire you have. If you want to be happy, maximizing value tends towards that, therefor you ought to maximize value.

    This cleans up the justification side of things: but leaves hanging the explanation side of things. Which is okay, as a rational worldview does not demand an explanation, but only valid justification.[2]

    >But then you’d have to wonder – what is this weird form of goodness and how did it get there? A self-caused universe didn’t seem to offer sufficient explanation on that front. (Again, not to say it’s impossible. But just that it would be rather unusual.)

    “Wonder”, “Didn’t seem”. Wondering is different from evidence. If your position is that you accept Christianity, and it’s many multiple levels of claims, on the strength of these, then any criticism against your decisions on the basis of not being rational are warranted: because this is not rational.

    “Unusual”, just feels weird here. I’m not sure what it can even mean with reference to a single event. There is no way to judge whether an event that only occurred once is “usual” or not.

    All of which isn’t relevant. Because nobody needs be under a requirement to offer an explanation. “I don’t know why these things are as they are.” is the appropriate position to take if evidence of a suitable strength isn’t available.

    That said, it’s pretty trivial to explain why human minds have fundamental desires in light of evolution. Which I’ll go into if you care. =)

    Guess I’m done. As far as I can tell, there is no actual argument in here for the existence of God. You cross the is-ought barrier without justification. You make claims about what does and does not exist based on a preassumption of a position (moral objectivity). This comes down to you retrofitting reality to be as you need it to be to accept the positions you want to accept.[3]


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