I recently wrote a piece claiming that the non-religious person who acts in the “right” way can be seen as more virtuous then the religious person who acts in the same way simply due to the separate reasons for their actions. (see here) This claim can be attacked from many angles and it should be but the main intention of the piece behind the hyperbole was to specifically criticize the idea that God must be viewed as the author of morality and therefore obeyed because his commands are moral. My cousin provided a very valid and difficult question after reading my thoughts and this piece is my attempt to both answer his question and to give further evidence in favor of my original position. My cousin said:
"Zach, just thought I'd throw a comment in here for thought. I follow your blog often and think you bring up some good questions. Where does the concept of morality come from? How does an atheist decide what the "right thing to do" is? Doesn't just the mere notion of morality imply that it isn't something we can determine but must be outside of ourselves...something all humans regardless of religious/nonreligious bent must either be in compliance with or not...therefore implying some absolute. The simple fact that we have a concept of what is right and wrong I would argue implies that we understand there is a greater natural law that covers us all...therefore there is good, and there is bad...and regardless of what we as humans are trying to accomplish with them, good and bad remain constant. So if good is always good and bad is always bad then we must ask how there could possibly be some natural law or absolute morality without acknowledging some singular greater power that must have created that order...right? It would be impossible for an atheist to "do good" were there not an established and absolute moral code by which "good" was defined. Because of that...I think that "because God said so" is actually the same reasoning as "because it's the right thing to do". What are your thoughts? your cousin Brian."
So let’s begin with the question do we need God to have an objective morality? Only after answering this question can one move on and discusses how an objective morality can be ascertained without God. My answer is no, we do not need God to have an objective morality further I would say in order to have any kind of objective morality God, if he exists, cannot be the source of it without pushing ethics into the realm of relativism. (From this point on please realize that when I use the term God I am referring to the traditional God of the Abrahamic faiths who is described as omnipotent, omniscient and all-good. The possible existence of a first mover or some deist type of God is not important here)
Now most who disagree offer some sort of view that objective moral standards or moral laws require the existence of God and that without God and his authority there would be no absolute moral standards that humans would need to follow. This view rejects the possibility of an autonomous morality apart from God and thereby necessitates that God reveals his will to us so that we can know what is moral. Whereas if God does not exist we are left with either nihilism (there are no truths about ethics) or relativism (moral truths are relative to the outlook or beliefs of a given culture or individuals). In short morality is inseparable from God. But I don’t think it’s that simple.
If God exists he can have multiple roles concerning morality. The first one, and the one most important to this piece, is a metaphysical role. In this role both the existence and nature of morality depends upon God’s existence and his will. It is God’s will that determines what is moral; good and evil. The second role God can play is an epistemological role meaning he provides us with crucial knowledge about what is morally good and evil. God can play this role whether or not he plays the metaphysical role. Clearly those who believe God is the metaphysical author of morality must believe God is also the epistemological source for our knowledge about what is moral. But even if one does not believe God’s will is the metaphysical source of morality that defines what is good and evil one can maintain that it is still a trustworthy indicator of what is. Finally, God can play a motivational role in ethics. This would be when God provides various incentives or reasons to be moral such as the common idea of heaven and hell, which gives people prudent reasons to be moral.
While there are valid reasons to believe God plays some or all of these moral roles I think that most people who believe in God’s metaphysical authorship of morality have failed take into account what the implications actually are. If we look at Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates and Euthyphro discuss the idea of what is good and Euthyphro says that what is good is what the gods love. Now the question that arises from this and has continued down through history is: Is something good because God loves (commands) it or does God love (command) it because it is good? If the latter is true then what is good or right can be defined by something independent of God and God’s authority is not needed to underwrite morality therefore morality is autonomous from God. But if the first part is true and God defines what is good then God can make any act moral or immoral based simply upon his preference. Actions such as killing, lying and stealing only become immoral if God says not to do them likewise actions such as giving to the needy, feeding the hungry or helping the sick only become moral if God says to do them simply put all acts are amoral until God speaks. Similarly genocides, slavery, inquisitions and the holocaust are all morally neutral events that can only be seen as good or bad based on God’s desire at a given moment. Once one sees this, whether or not they believe God would or would not command us to do certain things, the counterintuitive implications of God’s metaphysical involvement in morality starts to become clear. A God who defines what is good (love, justice, etc.) based upon his own will is thereby above what is good and cannot be defined by it, calling God good (loving, just) becomes a hollow statement like saying God is God and the fact is that if this is true then in principle any action is permissible, in short morality is relative.
Moral relativism is the idea that truth is relative to the social mores of various cultures or to the individual wills of people and if we accept God as the creator of morality moral relativism is true the only thing that differs is whose will matters, it is God’s will instead of people’s but the actions themselves are still decided based on an individual’s (God) partiality and inclinations. This is why one could (and many do) argue that Moses’ genocide of the Minidites was moral and Hitler’s genocide of the Jews was immoral because genocide itself is not the issue the issue is whether God commanded it at that given time or not. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.” and if he was right and if God is the author of morality then by definition he was acting morally. Again one cannot point to God’s goodness (his nature) as a reason he would or would not command something without implying goodness has some sort of inherent quality independent from God that makes him favor it. The fact is that once God is placed above morality as its creator he cannot be defined or even described by it.
God’s metaphysical involvement with morality can now be seen for the problem that it is to Christians who would try and explain what is right and wrong to those who do not already agree with them because if morality is not autonomous from God then the only way to determine what is moral is by authority, specifically God’s. The only moral argument that Christians ultimately have to support any action becomes “because God says so.” Any attempt by a Christian to demonstrate how certain actions can be shown moral or immoral apart from specific divine commands will fail unless the Christian is willing to agree that morality is autonomous of God, though the Christian can still maintain that God is a big help in showing us what it is moral. Some Christians have done this like Thomas Aquinas who forwarded a natural theology that claimed moral properties depended upon their own nature not God’s will which allows morality to be determined apart from God’s specific revelation. So whether one is a theist or not I believe one must be willing to admit that not only is an objective morality possible apart from God but it is necessary or forfeit the idea of an objective morality altogether.
Before moving on I want to add that if one does accept the metaphysical role of God in morality one must still answer two questions: how do I know what God’s will is and why should I obey it? The answers to these two questions go back to the other two roles God can play in morality; epistemological and motivational. The second question, “why should I obey God’s will?” is easy to answer. God is omnipotent and he will punish you if you don’t obey him whereas he will reward you if you do obey. As reasonable as that is it also makes it clear that self-interest and prudence become very important factors in acting morality. This is not necessarily a bad thing but many people, particularly in the modern period, would not like the sound of this idea yet the fact remains that this has been orthodox teaching throughout the history of the Church. Heaven and hell have always been the Church’s central and most effective apologetic tools.
The first question, “how do I know what God’s will is?” is the difficult one to answer and one that I believe again demonstrates the futility of religion in providing a sound moral foundation. To determine the will of God, when it cannot be attained naturally (independent of God), means one must rely upon divine revelation to know what is right. But every religion offers its own scriptures, miracles, prophecies and personal experiences to justify their claims as knowing the will of God for humanity but none of them provides a way to test the validly of their claims against the competing claims of other religion. Whether it’s the Tanak, the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon or numerous other scriptures all of them say they are given by God and explain God’s will yet none of them can be verified apart from themselves and none of them provide a noticeably better case for themselves in comparison with the others. In short their competing claims cancel each other out to those on the outside trying to determine what God’s will actually is. In addition all of these scriptures command both good and evil things. The Bible in particular is filled with competing worldviews and contradictory morals, which even those who accept it’s authority constantly fight over (often violently) trying to determine its meaning in any given context. I would argue that it is not in fact scripture that leads people to their knowledge of morality but rather their knowledge of morality that leads people to their interpretation of scripture. I recently read an essay were the author compared the Bible to a Rorschach test. The passages people choose to emphasize reflect as much as they shape their moral character and interests.
Further compounding this problem is the simple fact that if God truly is the source and author of morality one would expect that both religious people and religious nations would be more moral then atheists/agnostics and secular nations but that simply is not the case. Not only is there no proof that religion makes people or nations better then their more secular counterparts there is a long history demonstrating how religion makes people and nations do horrible things; Moses’ slaughter of the Midianites, the Inquisition, the Crusades, witch hunts, Sunni vs Shiites, 9/11 and many, many more. In the end the religious don’t have a leg to stand on when they claim God is needed to make society better, history shows otherwise.
So whether or not God exists, the existence of an objective morality requires an independent source from God. So if morality is autonomous of God and it can be objective the question is how do we know or find this objective moral standard? As I enter this section let me say straight out that I do not have a clear cut answer to this question. What I do have, as I have shown, are clear cut reasons to reject the idea of the need for God in morality, particularly in a metaphysical role and reasons to believe that an objective morality remains possible. So while I do not have all the answers one would want to these questions I have more then enough reasons to leave behind the beliefs of my past. I would say that not being certain of the truth is no reason to hold on to what is patently false no matter how comfortable it makes you feel.
Before moving on let me make a quick distinction between moral absolutism and moral objectivism. Moral absolutists believe that there are moral principles, relating specifically to human actions that cannot be overridden and therefore must never be violated in any situation. Issues such as the consequences of the actions, the character of the person committing the act and the motives of that person ultimately do not matter for moral absolutism. The simple fact is that there are actions that are always right and actions that are always wrong. This is what I believe most people think of when they think of an objective morality. An example would be Immanuel Kant. Kant’s first moral principle is called the Categorical Imperative: “Act so that the maxim of your action could become a universal law of human conduct.” One of the logical consequences Kant drew from this was that one is never justified in telling falsehoods. That sounds fine but it creates problems when accepted. As an example if an absolutist were helping Jewish people escape death in Nazi Germany by hiding them in their house and a solider came to the door and asked them if there were any Jewish people in the house then the absolutist must tell the truth (yes there are) or simply not speak because it is never okay to lie. Moral objectivists need not go that far and do not posit any principles that can never be overridden, at least not in unqualified general forms. So I reject moral absolutism while maintaining a belief in moral objectivity.
Now there have been many people much smarter than I who have believed that morality could be both autonomous and objective without God’s divine authorship so I want to look briefly at some those people’s moral ideas. It’s also worth noting that many of those people still believed in God. Since I mentioned Kant I will start with him. For Kant ethics were autonomous from God and God just like humanity had to obey the same moral principles. Morality is an intrinsic good and reason is the guide for us to find these principles. Morality can be known a priori (deduced) therefore everyone can find it. Further morality can have no purpose outside of itself, which means one must do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Following the Categorical Imperative, which we already looked at Kant’s second moral principle was, “Treat every man as an end and never as a means only.” This idea can be seen as a simple form of the principle of the rights of man though it remains vague not helping demonstrate what one should do whenever two people’s interests conflict but it’s still of value in postulating morals without God.
Now I believe Kant has some great ideas, particularly the value he places on reason, though he has his own definition of what reason is, but a lot of his system I cannot follow (both due to my limited understanding of it and its practical implications). For one Kant believed that both God and immortality were necessary for ethics to work. Immortality is necessary because Kant believed that anything one “ought” to do implies one “can” do it therefore since we ought to be morally perfect we must be able to be morally perfect and clearly this life is not enough time for that to happen so there must be some type of afterlife in which we can continue in our progress to perfection. God is necessary to be a moral scorekeeper and enforce the moral law, basically rewarding each according to his or her work. I clearly do not agree with these ideas. Another problem I see is that Kant limits the goal of moral perfection to the individual. I agree that no person can achieve moral perfection in their lifetime but I think the goal of perfection must be viewed as a social goal as much as an individual one. As social animals I believe humans must view our moral striving as more then separate exclusive attempts to become perfect. Rather our moral progress is communal as we are both affected by those around us and as we affect those around us especially those who come after us. If one seeks only the perfection of ones own self then yes that one person will fail (plus is that goal truly moral?) but if one works for the betterment of humanity as a whole then I believe one’s individual life can be a moral success upon death. On the practical side Kant’s ethics are divorced entirely from the consequences of ones actions; morality is its own end. Thus Kant rejects any type of utilitarian ethics which views morality not in purely metaphysical terms but also based on the consequences of one’s actions.
I do believe the consequences of one’s actions matter and examining those consequences provides us another good foundation for identifying right moral actions without God. The most famous system that determines what is right and wrong based primarily on the consequences of our actions is utilitarianism. Unlike Kant’s system which examines only the rightness of an action itself utilitarianism views the right act as the one that produces the best effects. Thus in the previous example concerning whether it is okay or not to lie to the Nazis for the sake of the Jewish people you were trying to help, a utilitarian would argue that one should lie and that lying is the moral thing to do as it will produce the best results. Happiness becomes a key goal in utilitarianism. This is often scoffed at by religious people who connect this word mostly with fleeting forms of physical pleasure but what makes humans, both as a group and as individuals, “truly” happy is a complex question that often leads people to the same virtues proclaimed by most religions, while also avoiding their vices. Some philosophers have sought to combine elements of both Kantian and utilitarian ethics.
One philosopher who helps demonstrate this is Kai Nielsen. First he says that belief in God is not necessary for moral action. Nielsen notes that while there may be a historical relationship between religion and ethics, there is no theoretical connection between them thus ethics may stand independently of any theological considerations. Nielsen states that there are intrinsically good things in life that are worth living for and that provide happiness. He believes that both secular and religious ethics revolve around similar principles of justice, respect for others and benevolence and that our common nature and quest for the good life is the only grounding morality needs. And despite the hardships of life and the difficulties we must face we should face them without needing to accept the unaccountable mystery or absurdity of religion.
There are other moral theories, which do not need God as a foundation (see Rights Theories like John Locke’s and John Rawls’ or the Virtue Ethics of Aristotle) but just looking at the few ideas I did I believe one can began to see very valid starting points for morality that make no mention of God. For myself I believe that through the use of human reason and empirical observation true moral actions can be “discovered” or made. As I approach moral issues I usually begin as a historian, attempt to be a philosopher and wish to be a scientist.
I always start with history. I believe one must take into account the evolutionary model of human existence and see the development of morality in connection with social communities. Ideas of right and wrong developed in connection with humans’ interactions with one another. Even though religions have changed this, practically speaking I’m not certain that there are any right or wrong actions one can commit if one is alone, separated from any human community. Think of one person existing on the moon by themselves what is right and wrong for that person to do, morally speaking? Justice, benevolence and respect are all values that only make sense in a communal setting. Likewise killing, stealing and lying all require multiple participants; at least one person doing the wrong and one person being wronged. I believe seeing this helps us explain the growth of morality in history. And like I said when I was critiquing Kant I believe morality must be seen as a social goal as much as an individual one. Now the fact that morality has a natural, not supernatural origin does not negate the possibility of an objective morality. Certain values are necessary for communities to survive and the larger the community becomes the more clearly these values can be seen and express themselves. Obviously cultures have displayed vast differences when it comes to moral actions but quite often there remain commonalities in the moral intent of their actions. Herodotus (485-430 BCE), a Greek historian, documented the existence of cultural relativism very early on, which leads to the question of whether ethical relativism must follow? He observed:
"For if one were to offer men to choose out of all the customs in the world such as seemed to them the best, they would examine the whole number, and end by preferring their own; so convinced are they that their own usages far surpass those of all others. Unless, therefore, a man was mad, it is not likely that he would make sport of such matters. That people have this feeling about their laws may be seen by very many proofs: among others, by the following. Darius, after he had got the kingdom, called into his presence certain Greeks who were at hand, and asked—“What he should pay them to eat the bodies of their fathers when they died?” To which they answered, that there was no sum that would tempt them to do such a thing. He then sent for certain Indians, of the race called Callatians, men who eat their fathers, and asked them, while the Greeks stood by, and knew by the help of an interpreter all that was said—“What he should give them to burn the bodies of their fathers at their decease?” The Indians exclaimed aloud, and bade him forbear such language. Such is men’s wont herein; and Pindar was right, in my judgment, when he said, “Custom is the king o’er all.”
If we look simply at the actions of the two groups we see that the Greeks burned their dead while the Callatians ate theirs. Now if we ask who acted morally we could look to the sky hoping God tells someone what he wants (though he could want contradictory things for each group) or we could examine how one’s culture affects one’s beliefs and actions. Now while each culture acted differently in regards to their deceased both acted based on similar moral principles, that of love and respect for one’s community and elders. The fact that neither side would even think of changing their custom demonstrates how strongly their convictions of love and respect lied beneath their differing actions. This is just one tiny example but I use it to illustrate that I think there is a difference between understanding cultural differences and simply resigning ourselves to the idea of ethical relativism.
Moving on from history I then try to jump into philosophy. I rely on what I have seen and studied in an attempt to explain why people acted as they did, what worked and what didn’t and thus determine how we should act now; I use the particulars to look for universals. Here my philosophical weaknesses become clear for while I still believe moral objectivity is possible as of yet I am unable to describe a fully functional philosophical system that clearly lays it all out. Of course I’m not sure anyone (religious or not) has yet, though some systems have done a lot better then others.
Finally I tend to value science and its methods as the best tools for discerning a true objective morality. Science values evidence over authority and I believe that difference is the difference between having an arbitrary morality based upon authority that cannot be questioned or corrected (God’s) and an objective morality based upon evidence that is open to examination and modification. Evidence is vital to ethics because the choices that people make are based on the facts they have and having the wrong information often leads to the wrong actions. The right thing to do for someone who knows they are treating a person with epilepsy is very different from the “right” thing to do for someone who believes that they are saving a person possessed by a demon. We have come to better understand the world around us, not thanks to God or any divine revelations but rather though the use of our reason so it is by gaining a greater understanding of the natural world, not the supernatural that allows for continued progress in the field of ethics. Science is about discovering the truth that is already around us not inventing truth for its own purposes. Whether it’s learning about medicine and diseases, weather patterns, psychology, biology, physiology or numerous other sciences the information (the facts) that we learn enables us to have a more objective view of reality and so to a more objective view of morality.
Clearly I have not been able to define or describe a complete system of objective morality further I can’t even say for sure that there is such a thing as an objective morality, there certainly isn’t if God is in charge, yet I believe there is one. But I do not think that means morality must be some metaphysical reality outside of human existence that would be true even if humanity didn’t exist, like mathematics or logic rather I believe morality is tied to humanity and cannot be seen as something outside of our communal selves. In that sense morality is not a natural law of the universe but rather a natural law of human existence. Ethics is the study of what ought to be not what is and as such it is tied to human potential, our potential to rise above our insignificance and powerlessness in the universe and create, think, judge, and live committed to inspiring ideals and I find that exciting. True morality is not to be found arguing over the fickle wishes of an unseen and speechless deity but rather by rising up to learn about the world we live in and working together for the betterment of the people around us and thus of people everywhere.