Although atheism has been charged with failing to provide an objective foundation for morality, what the complainants are really referring to is ‘naturalism’. The complainants believe that theism represents the only position capable of guaranteeing a sound meta-ethical foundation for objective moral value. This is not correct. There are, to be sure, numerous internally plausible non-naturalistic options: options which are open, in principle, both to atheists and to theists. As it turns out, theism, representing one among the non-naturalist options, is a very bad position to take regarding the task at hand.
What is really on offer is a view known as divine command theory, which is consistent with various religious conceptions of theism. Divine command theory faces numerous problems, which I have detailed elsewhere, and can’t be taken seriously for our purposes. I have also written previously (in a paper titled, “Justice, Morality and God”) about how the reasoning behind the ‘Moral Argument’ is contradictory to the peculiar religious Christian perspective. These are serious challenges which have had unserious responses (if at all) from theistic proponents. If they hope their position to be taken seriously, then they ought to respond to these problems, and until or unless they do their case is lost.
Regarding the original challenge it is fair to say that there isn’t one. Atheists (qua atheism) are quite capable of adopting some non-naturalist grounding for their morality. It seems, actually, that they quite often do so. Theists also require some non-natural grounding other than God if they are to maintain an objectivist perspective on morality. Quite clearly, then, the existence of goodness can’t be said to depend on God. That atheists have no beliefs in God is not a serious problem for the atheist who wishes to hold an objectivist perspective on morality.
The deeper problem (the hard problem), which is anyway more interesting, is between naturalism and normative objectivism– especially when the naturalist views science, and the scientific method, as epistemically reliable and truth-tracking. It’s not clear how many atheists are also naturalists: how many would be willing to suggest that all that exists is whatever physics says exists? How many would say that everything which exists is either identical with, made up of, or consistent with the ontology of fundamental physics? Whatever the answer, insofar as naturalism is correct, the hard problem is of more than mere academic interest, but should have practical import as well.
Normative directives, of any sort, depend on a normative logic. Normative propositions, of any sort, are the deductive conclusions of normative arguments. Their general structure is of the following sort: Y is valuable, and doing X will vindicate/contravene Y, so we should/should not do X. Some practical examples might look like the following: “we should follow the constitution of the country, and stealing money will go against the constitution, therefore we shouldn’t steal money”. Or perhaps, “humans are intrinsically valuable, and torturing a person is an affront to their value, therefore we shouldn’t torture people”. Or even (the golden rule), “fairness is good, and treating others the way you would like to be treated is fair, therefore we should treat others as we would like to be treated”.
The problem, which every position faces, is in finding justification for their values. Where some value can be justified as being absolutely true, the deduced normative directive would also be absolutely true, where the value is objectively true, the normative directive would be objectively true (keeping in mind that absolutism and objectivism are distinct notions). Where the value is epistemically subjectively true (its truth depends on opinion), so too will be the normative directive. Where there is no justification for the value, there is no justification for the normative directive. All of this should be fairly obvious.
Non-naturalists suggest that ‘value’ is to be found in certain non-natural ‘facts’. It has always been unclear how this suggestion is supposed to work, and I doubt that it really does. My issue here, though, is not with the non-naturalist, whose position we can consider misguided and false. My issue is with the naturalist. The naturalist has the problem of ‘locating’ value in the natural world. The problem is that nothing in physics, or in the other sciences, suggest (at least at first glance) that anything is of value in the way necessary for normativity: there’s just fermions and bosons, to paraphrase Alex Rosenberg.
It’s very unclear, for example, where in the world ‘human rights’ will be discovered, or what the naturalist foundation for ‘the constitution’ would look like. These things, plausibly, are social constructions – there aren’t, I suggest, real facts about them, except for the facts we invent and recognize. What this leaves one with is the problem about which theists make a lot of noise – and not entirely for the wrong reasons. Norms, of any sort, if they are social constructions, are epistemically subjective, and thus to one degree or another they are problematically relative. The implications of this aren’t favourable.
What this means, if it is correct, is that it isn’t possible to say of anything that it is wrong, or that it is right. If this is true, there has, officially, been no moral progress at all, and nothing could count as moral regress. Mandela, for example, was not good to advocate non-racialism, and apartheid was not bad for oppressing non-whites. The holocaust was not wrong, and what Hitler did was permissible. Rape, murder, theft, etc. aren’t bad things to do, and we have no reason to condemn them. The list, obviously, can be expanded.
This is what is meant when it is suggested that without God we cannot be good. It isn’t that atheists would be immoral people, and that if only they found God they would be moral. It isn’t even that religious people are particularly good people. Rather it is that nothing could count as moral or immoral, because there would be, it is suggested, no sense to normative claims. Of course, the theist is technically mistaken, because morality could exist even if God didn’t exist. But suppose the challenged is levelled (appropriately) at the naturalist from the non-naturalist, and with this supposition the challenge begins to make a great deal of sense. If naturalism is true, and if value can’t be located in the natural world, then there aren’t rational grounds from which to give normative evaluations of the world.
These implications should be troubling. When pushed to the limit, most people would suggest that some things are actually really wrong. People think that there are states of the world which would really be better (or worse) than others. If naturalism doesn’t afford us the capacity to make these judgments, then a number of very uncomfortable implications follow. I will give some examples below to further make the point.
Much of the force of the ‘new atheism’ has been socio-political. It isn’t only the (intellectual) suggestion that faith is epistemically unreliable, but also the (moral) suggestion that faith is morally problematic: it causes people to do bad things. Atheists are fond of pointing to the multitudinous moral problems with the Bible, and other popular religious books. We are fond of pointing out that traditional African fears of witchcraft and ancestors (which often lead to torture and murder) are not only intellectually absurd, but are also morally dubious. Politically, as a nation, we are concerned with the ill-advised policy decisions which our government makes. We object on normative grounds that they shouldn’t do such things. We bemoan racism at the government level, and at more local levels, for similar normative reasons – racism shouldn’t happen. Globally people take sides on the various world conflicts: USA should, or shouldn’t, intervene in the Middle East; NATO should, or shouldn’t, intervene in Libya; the Muslim Brotherhood should, or shouldn’t, come to power; Swaziland should, or shouldn’t, have democratic election.
It should be, I think, obvious that there is some kind of problem: for if we cannot locate value in the natural world then we lack the rational capacity to make these (and other) judgements. Making such judgments or, worse still, acting on them, would be patently irrational and unjustified. It is in our interest then to meet this challenge with some seriousness.
Once we interpret the ‘moral challenge to atheism’ in a more plausible light, we see that the challenge is actually quite severe. To meet this challenge, then, is a difficult task, for which, I think, the numerous typical forms of response are insufficient. It is probably more appropriate, in the limit, to speak simply of ‘the moral challenge’ (in general), since it seems that even non-naturalist solutions face certain shortcomings. My focus here, though, is on naturalism, and how people often don’t succeed in plausibly defending it – even when they mistakenly think that have succeeded. My focus is on meeting the moral challenge, and uncovering and explaining which strategies won’t work.
The theist, I have argued, is not correct in supposing that if God didn’t exist objective moral values wouldn’t exist. But we can give their challenge a more plausible interpretation. And, to this more plausible challenge one form of response, which is to point out the moral failings of the holy texts, will no longer do. It isn’t a solution to point out morally problematic features of holy texts. There are, to our common sense, many obvious examples where the holy texts fail to meet our moral standards, or fail to be consistent with human rights, or whatever. But the problem isn’t about whether or not the holy texts are good moral guides, the problem is about whether or not there is anything moral at all. The claim is that naturalism does not afford us the capacity to use normative language in any objective way – it is begging the question, and missing the point, to suggest that holy texts aren’t sufficiently moral. These kinds of responses seem to be borne from a misunderstanding of the problem.
Others wave their hands and feverishly gesture at human rights, secular humanism, the golden rule, or some other value-set, and announce that those are the solutions to the problem. With these value-systems a variety of moral problems (could) become tractable. Controversies around rape, or bestiality, or whatever else, are solvable (at least to some degree) by deferring to these value-systems. These would be solutions if there really were such things as human rights, or if the principles of secular humanism were true, or if the values underpinning the golden rule were correct, or whatever else. The question, however, is about whether or not these value systems are correct: the question is about how we would justify the values which we posit.
Deferring to human rights (or any similar system) isn’t enough to meet this challenge, and to think it is a solution is to miss the point of the problem. A similar issue exists when talking, instead of a whole system of values, of one value in particular. Popular candidates include, freedom, equality, fairness, consent, but they aren’t limited to this selection. No doubt, from those values, if they were objectively true, normative propositions could be derived. Again, though, the question is about whether or not those values are objectively true, and what is required is a justification for those values – it isn’t sufficient just to mention them and assume they are true.
Still others propose common sense, or innate moral sense, or something of that sort, as the arbiter of morality. It’s suggested that people just know what is moral, or its just common sense that some things are moral and others are immoral. The Golden Rule, or some vague notion of inalienable rights, or better yet notions of love and compassion also features here among the common-sense solutions. As persuasive as these suggestions can be, they aren’t themselves solutions to the real problem. Common-sense, in any case, can be heavily informed by context: it is, for example, common sense to comfort and seek justice for a rape victim where we live. It is, on the other hand, common sense to feel dishonour and kill the rape victim where other people live. Common-sense, informed as it is by context, cannot adequately serve its role for objective normative arbitration. The same problem as before, nevertheless, exists, despite mentioning these, and other similar, notions. The problem is about finding a justification for our values – it is about demonstrating that those values are correct – and not simply assuming certain values.
There are some who (at least in what they write) endorse relativism. I feel as if, for those people, they don’t understand the enormity of the problem. As I see it normative relativism is similar in kind to extreme scepticism about knowledge: they aren’t features of our world, they are problems of our world which need solving. In this way, our ‘common sense’, while it won’t serve as an answer, will serve as a catalyst for further investigation. Its common sense to suppose that we know some things (our own name, that we are reading an essay, etc.). It turns out to be harder to justify knowledge claims than it might first seem, but this is just an indication that we need to do more work, and not an invitation to give up. I can say it tentatively, but the same, I think, is true regarding normative problems.
Then there are some who seem to misunderstand the problem of subjectivism, and its relationship with relativism and objectivism. Some suggest that all moral claims are subjective and that it isn’t sensible at all to speak about objective moral claims – but this is just to misunderstand how emergently subjective things can generate objectively real things. It is also to fail to see that if all moral claims are epistemically subjective this leads to the very enormous problem of relativism (or, perhaps, nihilism). For there to be objectivity about morals (that is, for example, for it to be true that raping and torturing innocent children is wrong) it matters quite crucially which variety of subjectivism our values comport with – and it matters that we have justification for whichever claims we make. Once more, justification is rarely on offer.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that religion or theism can solve these problems. It has proven historically and conceptually to be entirely unworthy of our support. What I mean to suggest is that the typical responses from (let me call the group) Freethinkers are not sufficient either. They represent failures to grasp to fullness of the issue. I hope, then, to have clarified what the problem is, to have represented the enormity of the problem, and to show why the common responses do not work.
I don’t even, really, want to suggest that the systems we currently have are altogether in error. I merely want to show that they stand, currently, without a sufficient naturalist justification. They rely on assumptions which are either left dangling without a foundation, or which are connected with intellectually dubious non-naturalist metaphysical beliefs. I have suggested a solution to these problems, which has at the foundation level a very austere value-ontology, but I also suggested that there are ‘translations’ from this lower level to higher levels. I’d go so far as to hypothesize that many of the normative beliefs we hold are, actually, translatable in this way. The demonstration of that claim is, though, for another time.
Further, I’m not advocating that, with the awareness of these problems in mind, we begin to act sceptically or indecisively about the social problems we encounter on a day-to-day basis. Speaking analogously, we have developed a ‘folk-physics’, which is used quite extensively to solve the simple daily problems of moving around the world and interacting with other bodies. We have developed a ‘folk-psychology’ with which to anticipate, explain and react to the behaviour of other things and people.
These folk-theories aren’t true reflections of reality, but they (sort of) serve our practical needs, up to certain levels of complexity. We have also developed a ‘folk-morality’ which contains principles which guide our behaviour in the world. I have noted before that these theoretical problems only have serious import during ‘frontier moments’. This is true of physics, psychology and morality. No doubt, however, a deeper understanding of physics and psychology should change how we see the world at a practical level as well. The same will prove true of a deeper understanding of morality.
I have tried to make some headway along the path of enquiry which I think should be taken. I’m confident in my proposals, but I am also aware that they may be mistaken. What won’t prove to be mistaken, I’m sure, is that something-like my suggestions will be needed in order to make sense of normativity from a naturalist perspective.
It is a mistake to think that these pressing problems have their solution in the pages of holy texts. But the religious hit upon something true when they say that our current normative systems depend on religious metaphysics. They are correct in the same way someone would be in saying that alchemy depended on misguided supernatural beliefs. What is to be gleaned from this remark is not that alchemy should be defended, but rather that, since the system on which it rests is a mistake, it should be upgraded (resulting historically in chemistry). Its development will see the elimination of some dearly held features, and the addition of features which seem at first counter intuitive. But where intuition (common sense) is dependent on a context largely (mis)guided by incorrect beliefs, counter intuitive results might be a good thing.
The same lesson, I suggest, can be gleaned regarding our current normative systems. They are predicated, no doubt, on religious metaphysics, but religious metaphysics are wrong. We shouldn’t be surprised that our current normative systems are difficult to justify scientifically, because in large measure we have thought about them (because of the metaphysics on which they are predicated) incorrectly. To have results which appear counter intuitive is, perhaps, an indication of being on the correct path – and while the journey is initially confusing or scary, the results will make the journey worth the trauma.
What I want to leave with are a few suggestions. One is that theists should begin to take notice of the world around them. They should respond with intellectual rigor to the severe problems which their pet theories face. They should, further, admit defeat when they have been defeated, as is surely the case regarding the ontological relationship between Goodness and God. Freethinkers who are naturalists should be aware of the problems that their position faces. They should be aware that many of the common responses are not intellectually acceptable. We should all be aware that normativity is a real theoretical and practical problem which we face together as a species. Finding a solution to this problem is in the interest of everyone. I have given some suggestions, incomplete as they are, as to how we might proceed. And if my suggestions lead us to dead ends, we should not let despair overtake us – we should push on to find other, better, solutions. This requires hard work, and only through that hard work will we find the answers.