I've been recruited to talk about God and Morality at a Christian conference for college students this weekend. I've consolidate and updated some of my previous class notes on this issue on Moral Arguments for God's Existence for an introductory course dealing in part with God's existence and then a more ethics-focused discussion of issues about God as a Basis for Morality in an introductory ethics class. So here are my newly organized, though largely not new, notes consolidating the two, sometimes simplifying and sometimes expanding.
Ethics Without God?: The Moral Impotence of Atheism
Jeremy Pierce, 7 Feb 2004
naturalism �the natural world known to us through physics (and disciplines building on physics, e.g. chemistry, biology, psychology, economics, history, etc.) is all there is, and we shouldn�t postulate the existence of anything else.
What are moral truths? How do they fit into this picture of naturalism? The naturalist�s goal is to find some set of truths in the natural realm that moral truths are about.
Compare: heat is something in the natural world. It was once thought to be a substance that would make things hotter when it was present in larger quantities. Now we know it�s just the average kinetic energy of participles. That�s all heat realty is. All the truths about heat are explained by all the truths about the kinetic energy of particles. Naturalists want to do the same thing with morality. They want all truths about morality to be based in truths about the natural world. Here are some common answers:
1. Moral beliefs = those that give survival advantage by natural selection (Nietzsche)
This might explain where our beliefs about morality came from, but if this is all there is to morality, then it�s just an illusion. Most people won�t really believe there�s nothing wrong with torturing a three-year-old just for the fun of it. If
people have trouble with this, ask them if they think it�s wrong to hate gay people or for a priest to molest an altar boy. Most people don�t really deny morality when it comes down to the things they care about. They just want to say what they and people they like do is ok. It�s really almost impossible to believe what Nietzsche says, and Nietzsche himself had trouble being consistent (e.g. he kept talking about how morally wrong-headed Christianity is).
2. Moral obligation = our feelings of obligation (David Hume)
On the first version of this view moral truths do exist, and they�re about something � about our feelings and attitudes. This view has two problems. First, it means we can�t disagree. If my statement that terrorism is wrong is about my belief, and Bin Laden�s statement that it�s ok is about his, then we still might agree. I agree that he does believe terrorism is ok. This just can�t be what�s going on with our moral speech. Second, the view makes us infallible, so long as we know what our beliefs are. If I know that I disagree with abortion, then I know it�s wrong. If John Kerry knows that he thinks it�s ok, then he knows it�s ok. But surely Hitler was wrong in thinking it was ok to commit genocide against the Jews!
So sometimes this view takes a different tactic. There aren�t really moral truths,
but moral statements aren�t false either, as Nietzsche would have wanted.
They�re not the sort of thing that can be true or false, just as it isn�t true or
false that chocolate ice cream is better than black raspberry. Some people
prefer one or the other and thus have different attitudes, but there�s no
truth or falsity of either one. My claim that 9/11 was morally wrong is
only an expression of my attitude, one like expressing my distaste for
coffee or my love of chocolate. When I say it, I�m not reporting a truth.
I�m expressing my values (thus the view is called emotivism) in the same
way someone might express emotion by shouting profanities. That sort of
outburst isn�t true or false. That�s not the kind of speech it is.
If �infallible� means always true, then this dodges that problem, since moral truths now have no truth or falsity. Thus they�re never true! However, they�re also never false, and you might think of infallibility as never being wrong. On this view, we�re still never wrong. Also we do now disagree in terms of expressing different values. We disagree in the same way people might on whether they like coffee. But doesn�t it seem as if moral disputes are over something of more substance than whether we like something? Even worse, there�s no point in giving reasons for your views if this is all morality is. If it�s not about true or false, there�s no reason to give arguments for moral beliefs, and yet that seems to be the right way to convince someone that something is good or bad.
Another problem with this sort of view is that we often think something is wrong but do it anyway. For instance, how many people believe sex before marriage is wrong but still do it? How many people cheat on taxes but say they know it�s wrong? This shows that we at least think morality is about something more than what we happen to believe.
3. Moral truths = truths about enlightened self-interest (Thomas Hobbes)
Morality is what�s best for us in the long run. We can make agreements with each other to achieve that, and whatever would be the best way to make those agreements would be the correct moral truths. As it happens, most moral beliefs do coincide with what�s in our best interests, so this doesn�t end up with very different moral beliefs than what we already have. It just says that that�s all it is to be a moral truth � to be in our best interests.
One issue � are these truths about what�s in our individual self-interest? If so, this seems arbitrary. Why am I more important than anyone else? Does this mean it�s right to abuse people if only I can assure that it�s in my best interests? Wasn�t slavery in the best interests of slave-owners?
So perhaps it�s about collective self-interest. One problem is the difficulty figuring out what the collection is. Is it my culture? What if I�m in two overlapping cultures (religious, ethnic, class, location, etc.)? Is it all of humans? Then isn�t that arbitrarily saying that animals don�t have any moral status? This is at least a hard difficulty to get around. A second problem is that some things seem wrong even if they�re in the best interests of the majority (e.g. killing a black man in the 1880s, say, for a rape of a white girl that he didn�t commit simply to stop a mob from rioting). The most serious problem with this view (that�s also true of all the previous views) is that it doesn�t really give a basis for morality. For one thing, what counts as in our best interests? Isn�t that a notion that involves valuing something? But why value some things over others? Doesn�t the notion of things having real value assume something beyond the items physics tells us about?
4. Moral truths are somehow beyond what physics can ground
This leaves us thinking that it�s very hard to fit these moral truths into the sort of thing the natural world consists of � what physics tells us about and what we can construct by building on that to higher levels. If this is right, then we have an interesting choice. The following three claims can�t all be true. At least one of them must be false:
1) Naturalism is true.
2) Moral truths don�t fit into a naturalistic theory of the universe.
3) There are moral truths.
If you hold any two of these claims, you can�t consistently believe the third. We�ve seen how difficult it is to deny 2. Unless you want to take Nietzsche�s view, 3 is also true. That means 1 must be false. Does that mean there�s a God? Not necessarily, but look at the remaining options for someone who wants to be an atheist.
A) Moral truths have no explanation.
B) Moral truths are necessary.
C) God�s nature explains moral truths.
Maybe moral truths exist and are somehow beyond the stuff of physics, but maybe there�s no God. If so, we�re in a strange situation. In almost all matters, when something is true it seems right to be able to ask why it�s true. There must be some explanation for every truth, whether we can know it or not. View A just says there�s no explanation at all for why moral truths are true or even why there are any moral truths. Yet these things are somehow supposed to govern our actions? That�s a bit odd.
So maybe moral truths just had to be true. They couldn�t have been otherwise, even if there were no people. There wouldn�t be anyone to have to follow them, but that�s ok. They�d be like the laws of mathematics or logic. 2+2=4 even if there aren�t four things. However, doesn�t it seem strange that there happen to be beings that fall under the morality that these necessary truths are about? These moral truths are true of necessity, so there didn�t have to be any beings that they govern. The chances of beings coming along that happen to fit with these moral truths is pretty low. It�s surprising enough a coincidence that it calls out for explanation, and a designer would explain it. [I got this argument from Greg Ganssle, "Necessary Moral Truths and the Need for Explanation," Philosophia Christi, Series 2. Vol. 2, No. 1 (2000).] So this view even gives some reason to believe in God anyway, so you might as well go with C.
5. Objection to God as a source of morality: Plato�s Euthyphro problem
One problem is often given against the view that God explains morality. Are good things good because God says they�re good, or does God just declare them good from seeing their independent goodness?
The most obvious way is if God simply decides what is morally good, but that seems arbitrary. God could have declared killing to be wonderful. So most theists don�t want to say that. We haven�t explained why God would say which things are good. There�s really no explanation here.
Does God just declare it out of seeing that it is independently true? If so, it seems to be an external limitation on God, who isn�t supposed to have such limitations. Morality would give God obligations, and it�s really something external to God. Many theists would be uncomfortable with that. It limits God. Also, this doesn�t allow the moral argument to get going, since the moral truths would have to be independent of God. God�s nature isn�t explaining them after all, and we�re back to square one.
Thomas Aquinas gives a response to Plato�s objection with a third option: God�s perfect nature explains morality. God, as a perfect being in every other way, explains what moral perfection is. A perfectly wise, omniscient, and rational being knows what is best for any creature given its own nature, and morality flows out of that. If so, then moral truths aren�t external to God, so there�s no external limitation. The moral argument isn�t immediately defeated, since God�s nature does the explaining. It�s not as if God just chooses out of lots of options what is good or evil, so it�s not arbitrary. It�s out of God�s nature, something essential to being a perfect being.