The Story of the Moral

Dr. William Vallicella, in a discussion at Maverick Philosopher about whether religion is simply a quest for comfort, asked me the following question:

Can an atheist be moral? Yes, of course, in one sense, and indeed more moral than some theists. But the more interesting question would be whether an atheist would have an objective basis for an objective morality. In other words, even if it is true that many atheists are morally superior to many theists relative to some agreed-upon standard of behavior, would these atheists be justified in making the moral judgments they do if there is no God? Perhaps, but the answer to this is not obvious, whereas the answer to the first question is obvious.

While there are those who have tried to devise such a scheme, I think their efforts are misplaced; I will not try to establish an “objective morality” here, because I see no need for one.

First, we should note that to the atheist the supposed bedrock upon which theists base their moral framework — the word of God — is an illusion anyway, so there is no compelling evidence for their claim to a truly objective morality. To the nonbeliever, one of two things must be happening: either the theist is simply following orders from a set of texts and teachings that are quite contingent and arbitrary as regards their content, or those texts and teachings actually codify a moral sense that generally exists in us anyway, and the veneer of Divine origin that is applied to these moral precepts is simply a social mechanism that intensifies the pressure to conform, and provides a mechanism to resist change over time, an anchor against drift.

My feeling is that the second description is essentially the case, and I think that this is indicated by the fact that even those who argue most vociferously that an objective moral code is necessary, and that this code can be found in Scripture, seem nevertheless to pick and choose according to their own innate moral compass. For example, Exodus suggests that a child who smites his parent must be put to death, and that we must not suffer witches to live. The Old Testament is liberally peppered with harsh injunctions of this sort, but you would be hard put to find a theologian these days who argues that such premises should be part of our moral repertoire, even though they are allegedly clear instructions from God. Stoned an adulteress lately?

The fact is that the everyday moral decisions we make are not weighed against a set of absolute rules, but rely upon, as Patricia Churchland has put it, a set of social “skills” that we are predisposed to as part of our genetic legacy, and which are further refined and personalized by our social context and individual history. There are indeed moral precepts that appear to be human universals, and which are likely part of our evolutionary heritage: proscriptions against murder and incest, for example, are found in all cultures. Other layers of morality vary from culture to culture, or, within cultures, from era to era — some quite strikingly so, as in the changing attitudes here in America having to do with slavery, for example. (The God of the Old Testament, by the way, seems quite untroubled by slavery; see, for instance, Leviticus 25:44.)

But if we have no objective basis for morality, must we then slip into a grey and relativistic worldview in which we have no justification for condemning what we see as the immoral acts of other groups? Absolutely not. If we view, say, female genital mutilation as morally wrong because of the suffering it inflicts on subjugated and helpless girls, then there is no reason why we should not work for its eradication. The fact that no moral system may ultimately rest on objective bedrock does not mean that we must abandon our particular moral intuitions. If we prefer to live in a society where such cruelty is not practiced, why would we not act accordingly? Should we freeze in our tracks because we consider ourselves incapable of making moral decisions on our own, in the absence of a supernatural authority figure, a Heavenly Father, to sign the orders? It’s time we grew up, and began to take some responsibility for ourselves.

Finally, the absence of an objective basis for morality in the absence of God is sometimes trotted out in defense of theism itself; a notion that clearly has things backward. Even if it were impossible to live morally guided lives in God’s absence — and I am quite certain that it is not — the fact would not in itself constitute evidence for God’s existence. Arguments based on such preferences — on how we would rather that things be, or that they must be a certain way because it would be awful if they were otherwise — are worthless. What we want, of course, is the truth.


  1. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm, and Happy New Year!
    Truth in advertising compels me to mention that, as I understand the notion, I’m an “objectivist” when it comes to ethics (but no sort of “scripturalist”). I guess I’m confused about how you’re using the terms ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ in this context. Any clarifiction would be appreciated.

    Posted January 2, 2007 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob, and happy New Year to you as well.

    Yes, I’d be glad to clarify. As Bill used the term, and as I understand it generally to be used, “objective morality” means that there is a framework for ethics that is based not on our intuitive moral sense, but upon a foundation that is external to (and prior to) all human culture and biology: namely the commands of God.

    A “subjective” morality is one that is not grounded in this way, but which is, rather, an emergent property of human culture, evolution, and personal development, subject to recursive examination, analysis, and, if needed, modification (as in our attitude toward slavery).

    Posted January 2, 2007 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  3. the one eyed man says

    I believe that a strong case can be made for an objective morality based on the categorical imperative (“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law”).

    The weakness in this argument is that we may disagree about which maxims ought to be universal law. However, I think this is an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good, as the disagreements would be at the margin. Using the categorical imperative as a starting point, I think reasonable people could devise an objective morality which would be universally applicable.

    Posted January 2, 2007 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    Because each person would have the choice of maxims, I can’t really see how that would be objective enough, other than that it would rely on the commonalities of our wired-in intuitive morality. But we have that already.

    My angle here is to question the assumption that there is any need to mount it all on a philosophically “objective” footing.

    Posted January 2, 2007 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I guess I don’t see objectivism as closely linked to a divine command theory — so maybe we just use terms a bit differently. From my perspective, that something might be dependent on (or emerge from) culture or biology needn’t count against objectivity, so long as the relevant aspects of culture/biology are themselves objective.

    Posted January 2, 2007 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Right, our biology is about as objective as it gets. There is nothing intrinsically moral about it, though; we are simply wired up to have dispositions, both favorable and averse, to certain types of social behavior.

    But social context, learned behavior, and our own choices can trump biology; we may be predisposed toward rape, for example, but have acculturated ourselves to see it as immoral. So not all of our ethics can be thought as being built straight out of biology, and I don’t know if we can be as “objective” about culture. Anyway, just because we are prewired to behave a certain way doesn’t make it morally right. We get to make our own decisions about what we think is ethically right.

    To believers in God, an ethics based on divine commandment fills the bill nicely. But I’m saying we need none of it; in fact it seems to me not very adult to insist on basing our ethics on some supernatural parental authority to whom we absolutely defer. As I said above, I think we ought to be able to outgrow such a dependency.

    Posted January 2, 2007 at 4:38 pm | Permalink
  7. bob koepp says

    Hi again Malcolm – I figure that maths wouldn’t exist without culture — yet mathematical truths are as objective as can be. And I think something similar could be the case with morality.

    As for divine commands, if their force derives from reasons rather than simply from the brute fact that they are commanded, then they too are in the ballpark of objectivism. If the commands in question aren’t based in reason, then divine command theory seems to me to represent a particularly extreme form of subjectivism (i.e., what could well be the whims of just one subject determine the content of morality).

    Still, I think our differences might be merely verbal.

    Posted January 2, 2007 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, there may, I suppose, be an argument that could be made that the same fundamental morality will always evolve in any sufficiently intelligent social organisms, but, not feeling the need for morality to be “objective” in the first place, I will leave that spadework to others.

    And as for exactly how morality depends on God’s commands, that is a discussion that goes all the way back to Plato, and which is ongoing over at Bill’s place as we speak — and is one that has a little too much angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin in it for my liking, especially given that I have grave doubts about God’s existence in the first place. The whole business seems to me, as Bill himself put it, like a lot of “medieval mumbo-jumbo”.

    Posted January 2, 2007 at 5:57 pm | Permalink
  9. God says

    Malcolm, I’ve been having some doubts about your existence as well.

    Posted January 2, 2007 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Hi God,

    I’m sorry you’re having doubts about my existence. Unlike some all-powerful deities I could name, however, I’ll be glad to make an unambiguous demonstration, if you like.

    I used to have doubts about my existence too, until I realized that if I didn’t exist my pants wouldn’t be staying up.

    Anyway, thanks for commenting.

    Posted January 2, 2007 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

One Trackback

  1. By waka waka waka » Blog Archive » No Problem Here on February 4, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    [...] This is simply not the case, as I argue in this recent post, and as can be multiply confirmed by reading the positions staked out by such prominent atheist activists as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. There is a perfectly reasonable evolutionary account that can be given for why we have the moral intuitions we have — intuitions that are so strong, and so universal across cultural boundaries, that they can appear, evidently even to highly sophisticated thinkers, to have the weight of a priori truths. In a sense they could , I suppose, even be argued to have an objective existence — not in the theistic sense that Drs. Rhoda and Vallicella are plumping for, however, but rather in the sense that the adaptive advantage conferred by such moral intuitions, which is described more succinctly by game theory than theology, might be expected to apply quite repeatably to the evolutionary development of any sufficiently intelligent and social organisms. [...]

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