It’s all subjective

I find it frustrating when theists repeat over and over that atheists have no basis for morality. It’s an immature view that misunderstands both atheism and morality. The argument goes something like this:

Morality must be grounded. The only way it can be grounded is if it comes from somewhere outside humanity (at a minimum). Only a higher power can provide for such objectivity. Thus, atheism provides for no objective morality.

There are several problems here. First, I worded the summary specifically, so take note: It starts out talking about morality but then makes a switch to objective morality. This characterizes the number one mistake theists make, and it isn’t goal post moving. What they’re doing is assuming morality must be objective when talking about it in the first place. It’s classic Question Begging. (Goal post moving entails knowing where the goal posts are in the first place.) Second, so what if they’re right? If we follow the argument, it’s going to end in God. But did God tell them what argument to follow? How do they know their argument is right? Even if they can be highly certain, apply scientific standards to their process, and not a single person can find a flaw in their steps, they are still making an argument that necessarily lacks 100% certainty (just like every argument ever made). In other words, they have come to their conclusion via their own perspectives, via their own values, via their own reasoning, via their own abilities. At every point they have been arguing subjectively. Even if they are right, no one can objectively confirm as much.

So where does this leave us? Well, on a pretty level playing field. Once my argument is understood, a theist can no longer say he has an objective grounding for morality. He doesn’t. No one does. The best we can do is argue from our common needs and values. Fortunately, thanks to evolution, we have a lot of overlap there. That gives us a basis for talking about morality; indeed, it has been the basis of morality since the beginning of humanity and before.

5 Responses

  1. Well put.

  2. During his life Alan Watts said some very wise things and some rather silly things but I count this quote among the wisest. “It is fundamentally a matter of your own opinion that you accept the authority of the church to interpret the bible. You cannot escape in all matters of belief from opinion. In other words, it must become clear to you that you yourself create all the authorities you accept.” Defining one’s morality involves a number of subjective leaps, whether that morality is religiously based or based solely upon reason.

    A number of people have apparently been thinking deeply on the notion of a secular “objective morality.” Though I can’t say I’m yet decided on the matter, I have read Sam Harris’ book and have enjoyed watching his TED lecture a few times. I think he’s absolutely right regarding his concern for well-being and suffering over arbitrary propitiatory gestures and professions to a jealous god.

    Another contender who propounds a convincing theory for a secular morality is Yale philosopher, Shelly Kagan. He expounded upon it during his debate (available on YouTube) with William Lane Craig, proposing a contractarian approach in which we are each morally bound by certain moral obligations, whether or not we agree to do so.

    I’d prefer to take my moral instruction from literature and philosophy, thank you very much. The Ten Commandments aren’t even in the running.

  3. I have read Sam Harris’ book and have enjoyed watching his TED lecture a few times. I think he’s absolutely right regarding his concern for well-being and suffering over arbitrary propitiatory gestures and professions to a jealous god.

    Harris goes even further. He recently asserted that the notion and feeling of morality is too deeply ingrained in human society to jettison, and that his own mission was to co-opt the word to denote well-being.

  4. I find it frustrating when theists repeat over and over that atheists have no basis for morality.

    I take it as an admission that they have no persuasive arguments. Perhaps amusement is more appropriate than frustration.

  5. I am pretty much in full agreement with you here Michael H. I’ve written about this topic at my blog under the title, “Can We Know Right From Wrong? Absurdity and Being Condemned to Argue,” from a similar perspective as you.

    I suppose though that I can understand the desire for an objective morality, whether to form a perfect justification for our justice system, to calm our conscience, or to settle difficult moral debates once and for all. Admittedly the effect of accepting the lack of an objective morality was profound for me. I experienced disappointment, discouragement, and some fear the more I became certain that there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in themselves. Sartre describes the consequences of the nonexistence of God: “[W]e have neither behind us, nor before us, in the luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. We are left alone and without excuse.” There’s no doubt that this can be a daunting revelation.

    In his book Atheist Spirituality, French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville helped put my moral nihilistic anxiety to rest by simply pointing out that “Simply, we acknowledge that morals are only human. They are *our* morals, not those of the universe or the absolute. … We mustn’t count on the absolute to combat injustice for us.” Our responsibility to shape society and pursue our ideals is enough justification for the moral decisions we make – they do not be objectively true in order to have value to human beings and our societies. Perhaps our moral decisions even have more value being that they are owned by us and not by an all-powerful and all-knowing deity.

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