A recent post by Barry Arrington started an interesting and lively discussion about morality, whether it is objective and, if so, how it might be grounded. Barry provided the job description for a clinical ethicist and then asked how a materialist could apply for such a job in good faith, given the inability of the materialist to ground his moral and ethical views in anything more solid, objective and enduring than his own subjective opinions and the opinions of his fellow materialists.
In the ensuing discussion, it seemed that many attempts were made to divert attention away from the core issue that materialism can offer no ultimate grounding for objective moral values and duties. Instead, comments were made in which certain persons recast the original question as a claim that atheists are incapable of behaving morally, or that all atheists personally believe that there is no such thing as right and wrong.
Of course, this is not at all what was claimed. It is manifestly false that all atheists personally believe there is no such thing as right and wrong. And nobody with any sense doubts that atheists are perfectly capable of behaving morally and ethically if they so desire. The point, rather, is that the atheist who believes there really is such a thing as right and wrong, good and bad, is incapable of providing a rational basis for his belief, and the atheist who chooses to behave morally is incapable of offering any rational argument for why anybody else should feel compelled to do so if they are not similarly inclined.
After all, if Richard Dawkins is right when he says that we live in a universe that has, at bottom, “nothing but blind pitiless indifference,”[F/N 1] why should we disagree with him when he declares in the same breath that there is also “no evil and no good”? If all of reality is absolutely reducible to mindless matter and energy, why should we expect that it would have any moral aspect at all? There is nothing about a quark, an atom, or any other constituent or conglomeration of matter in any configuration than can account for the real existence of any moral law by which we humans might be bound. Why should reality contain a set of objective moral values and duties that ought to compel the behaviour of humans if they are nothing more than relatively advanced primates living “on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe” [F/N 2] and are the end result of a “meaningless and purposeless process (i.e. naturalistic evolution) that did not have [them] in mind”? [F/N 3] The very notion is absurd.
Why Does it Matter?
A casual observer presented with these facts might well ask why any of this really matters. And, indeed, why does it even matter? Does it make any difference whether morality is objective or merely subjective? And does it matter whether we believe in the objectivity of morality?
Interestingly, the atheist participants in the discussion succeeded in offering some good arguments for why a belief in the objectivity of moral values and duties really does make a difference, even if they may have done so unintentionally.
For example, in comment #34, Acartia_bogart said this:
“Nobody, including theists, can objectively demonstrate that anybody’s morality is superior than anybody else’s.”
When Barry pointed out to him that he had just “effectively demonstrated the point of the [original post]” (#36), Acartia_bogart adjusted his claim in comment #41 to say that instead of referring to “anybody” he should have said “any group”, such that his claim can be understood like this:
‘Nobody, including theists, can objectively demonstrate that any group’s (e.g. atheists or theists) morality is superior to any other group’s morality.’
Of course, on materialism, Acartia_bogart is absolutely right, but the substitution of a group in place of an individual does nothing to lessen his confirmation of Barry’s original point. In reality, not only is it not possible on materialism to objectively demonstrate (or even argue) that the morality of one group is better or worse than another, but it is impossible to objectively demonstrate that the morality of any group or person is either good or bad at all, because there is no objective standard against which their morality can be measured. Furthermore, this observation cannot be limited merely to the general groups of theists and atheists. Acartia_bogart’s comment applies equally well to any group of any size. And so, by what standard do we measure the actions of the Nazis as a group? Or the Soviet Communist Party in their promotion of Marxism-Lenninism and the rampant suffering and death that atheistic ideology caused? Or, for that matter, the hateful actions of the Westboro Baptist Church? On materialism, there is no standard by which any of these groups can be judged, much less condemned. A materialist can say he disagrees with these things, but he can’t offer any coherent reason for why his opinion should be considered normative or why anyone should feel compelled to submit to it.
Acartia_bogart’s comment was not the only telling one, however. Mark Frank also offered some interesting observations. In discussing the role of a clinical ethicist, he matter-of-factly states in comment #142:
“It is not uncommon for jobs to require people to do things they think immoral.”
To commenter StephenB, who would likely agree that he has strong a priori moral principles due to his belief in objective morality, Mark Frank says in #156:
“My inclination would be to say that someone with strong a priori moral principles such as yourself would be very uncomfortable performing a job which involved setting your own moral principles aside.”
In #171, Mark Frank also says this:
“A moral relativist is perfectly capable of supporting the moral purposes of an organisation – indeed he/she is better equipped to do this than a moral objectivist as this involves making moral decisions relative to the moral framework of the organisation. (In practice moral relativists do have their own views and may find their subjective opinion differs from that of the organisation – but they are likely to find it easier than an obectivist to put aside their moral views and work according to the organisation’s).”
Like Acartia_bogart, Mark’s comments are right on the money. And that’s the problem. If a moral relativist finds himself in a work situation that requires him to act in a way that he deems immoral, what of it? If some situation requires that he set aside his own moral principles and act in a way that runs contrary to them, he need not feel very uncomfortable with this. Certainly he will find it much easier to do so than would a moral objectivist. After all, in casting aside his own moral code in order to operate according to the strictures and liberties of one with which he disagrees, it’s not like the relativist believes he has contravened any objective moral truths. And it seems like a paycheque is as good an impetus as any to toss one’s own relative moral opinions to the wind. Why shouldn’t the moral relativist ignore his own moral views if he deems it to be of worthwhile benefit? It seems to me that the relative ease with which a moral relativist can cast off his own moral constraints ought to be considered a bug of relativism, not a feature.
One of the functions of a moral system is to curb the more ignoble aspects of our imperfect human nature, such as a tendency toward greed and overwhelming self-interest. And yet, how much power can a moral code have to curb such tendencies toward unbalanced self-interest if we believe it is nothing more than a useful fiction that we adhere to because we think it will benefit society at large, which is primarily of importance because that will, in turn, benefit us? Can a moral code have much of a chance to prevent us from acting against the best interests of others for our own gratification if the only rational reason we can see for following it is because it generally and ultimately serves our own interests? Who’s to say that, on any given occasion, we might not prefer to have our cake and eat it, too, choosing to temporarily disregard our moral code for our immediate benefit; especially if we have a reasonable expectation that our actions in the present won’t come back to haunt us in the future? Furthermore, if we decide to do such a thing, who, on the assumption of materialism, can say we have done anything wrong?
It should be noted that the types of comments considered here from Acartia_bogart and Mark Frank are not merely the random opinions of some internet commenters. Box, one of the participants in the discussion, offered a lengthy quote from the well-known atheist, Alex Rosenberg, who is a philosophy professor at Duke University. The quote, which expresses views not remotely unique to Rosenberg, merits duplication here in full.
Taken from Box’s comment (#174):
First, nihilism can’t condemn Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, or those who fomented the Armenian genocide or the Rwandan one. If there is no such thing as “morally forbidden,” then what Mohamed Atta did on September 11, 2001, was not morally forbidden. Of course, it was not permitted either. But still, don’t we want to have grounds to condemn these monsters? Nihilism seems to cut that ground out from under us.
Second, if we admit to being nihilists, then people won’t trust us. We won’t be left alone when there is loose change around. We won’t be relied on to be sure small children stay out of trouble.
Third, and worst of all, if nihilism gets any traction, society will be destroyed. We will find ourselves back in Thomas Hobbes’s famous state of nature, where “the life of man is solitary, mean, nasty, brutish and short.” Surely, we don’t want to be nihilists if we can possibly avoid it. (Or at least, we don’t want the other people around us to be nihilists.)
Scientism can’t avoid nihilism. We need to make the best of it. For our own self-respect, we need to show that nihilism doesn’t have the three problems just mentioned—no grounds to condemn Hitler, lots of reasons for other people to distrust us, and even reasons why no one should trust anyone else. We need to be convinced that these unacceptable outcomes are not ones that atheism and scientism are committed to. Such outcomes would be more than merely a public relations nightmare for scientism. They might prevent us from swallowing nihilism ourselves, and that would start unraveling scientism.
To avoid these outcomes, people have been searching for scientifically respectable justification of morality for least a century and a half. The trouble is that over the same 150 years or so, the reasons for nihilism have continued to mount. Both the failure to find an ethics that everyone can agree on and the scientific explanation of the origin and persistence of moral norms have made nihilism more and more plausible while remaining just as unappetizing.
[A.Rosenberg, The Atheist Guide to Reality, ch.5] – emphasis mine
Scientism, which entails materialism, cannot avoid nihilism. Of course, it is not the reliance on science, per se, that necessitates nihilism. Rather, it is the insistence that science must be strictly materialistic in nature. For at least 150 years, people have been trying to find some rational way to affirm materialism without also affirming a nihilistic moral relativism. They have been trying because, unlike the many cavalier atheists who are typically involved in these discussions across the internet, they realize that it really does matter whether humans believe in the objective reality of binding moral values and duties. It matters so much, in fact, that even atheists like Rosenberg recognize that society itself would be utterly destroyed if the logically necessary implications of materialism were widely accepted. In other words, if atheistic materialism were to prosper and the atheists decided to live in a way that was logically consistent with their basic beliefs about reality, society as we know it would ultimately disappear. And so in Rosenberg we witness an interesting internal conflict in which he is determined to affirm scientism, materialism and nihilism, and yet he can’t quite get over the fact that the actions of people like Hitler seem like they must really be wrong.
Rosenberg also makes another interesting observation. He notes that if people were to recognize the necessary nihilistic implications of scientific materialism and subsequently reject the truth of those implications, materialism, and the scientism it supports, would unravel. I completely agree. People typically like to think that their worldview is in some way logically coherent, but if the premises underlying their worldview lead inevitably to conclusions that they strongly believe are false, contrary to the evidence of their experience, and in conflict with other basic beliefs they hold more strongly and believe are more warranted, then the only reasonable course of action is to accept that one or more of the premises underlying their worldview must be false.
Arguments Against Objective Morality
But is the concept of Objective Morality actually true such that it should rightly overturn Materialism? Might it be that in believing there are at least some things that are really morally wrong we are simply mistaken? For example, in spite of our overwhelming sense that it is really morally wrong to torture and murder a child for fun, could it be that such actions are merely socially unacceptable because they happen to contravene an arbitrary set of behavioural guidelines that have been agreed on by a majority of people in a particular society? Can an argument be made against the reality of any objective moral values and duties – the existence of which most people hold to be self-evident – without first assuming the truth of Materialism as a starting point? During the discussion, Acartia_bogart offered such an argument. Here is what he said:
I accept the fact that theists believe that god provided objective morality is real. But I argue that they are nothing more than a set of rules that various societies over the centuries have established because they are beneficial to an individual’s and a society’s ability to survive and thrive. . . . If morals are truly objective and given by god, why do different religions, and even different sects within the same religion, not have the same objective morals?
As anyone remotely familiar with the debate over the objectivity of morality will recognize, this is the most common argument offered against the idea that morals are truly objective. It is also ill-conceived, because it confuses the issues of moral ontology (the basic existence of moral truths) and moral epistemology (our ability to get to know those moral truths if they exist). That humans may fail to naturally grasp all moral truths perfectly does not necessitate the conclusion that the moral truths are not there to be grasped at all. That humans manage to naturally grasp many moral truths but not all is perfectly consistent with the Judeo-Christian doctrine of mankind’s fall. It is also worth noting that, absent some kind of psychological pathology, humans naturally feel a compulsion to do whatever they happen to think is morally right, whether they happen to be correct or not. Furthermore, unless they have scarred their conscience beyond repair through sustained abuse of it, they will often experience negative psychological and physiological effects when they act in a way that they truly believe is wrong.
That there happen to be differences of opinion over what really is “the good” in some cases, even among theists, only highlights why the theist can reasonably expect some form of moral direction from the Creator of material reality and the ground of moral truths if the theist is right in thinking that such a Being exists, for why would he create a material reality that includes a moral dimension and cause to exist intelligent moral agents such as our ourselves who feel the moral prodding of a conscience if he does not care that we live according to the moral values and duties that he grounds. And if he cares, why would he not aid us in understanding his desires? Christians believe that the Creator has instructed humans in regard to his moral desires and, indeed, when it comes to those individuals and organizations that profess to be Christian but have brought about pain and suffering in various forms at different points in history, including the present, the problem almost universally stems from either ignoring or going beyond the moral dictates in the Bible that Christians admit they ought to follow as their guide. [F/N 4]
And what about the fact that non-Christians and even non-theists are capable of behaving morally or developing useful moral systems that are in many ways similar to Judeo-Christian morality? Does this other common argument somehow undermine the idea that morality is objective and grounded in God? Of course not. For one thing, some such moral systems are actually modeled on the Judeo-Christian framework in the first place, even if they have afterwards excised their own foundation. That, however, is a minor point. The more important one is that this state of affairs is expected under theism because it is believed that God implanted in humanity a natural grasp of his moral laws, even if their ability to discern them (a matter of moral epistemology) has been degraded. In fact, the apostle Paul makes this very point in Romans 2: 14, 15, when he says:
For when people of the nations, who do not have law, do by nature the things of the law, these people, although not having law, are a law to themselves. They are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them, and by their own thoughts they are being accused or even excused.
It should not be expected under theism that humans would be incapable of discerning any moral truths at all without the assistance of an external guide. In fact, they should be expected to naturally grasp a good many such moral truths. However, there are points at which our ability to discern right and wrong breaks down, where issues become grey, and we can sometimes fool ourselves about whether some course of action is truly good or merely in line with our own desires. At these times, a Christian believes the Bible can reliably adjust their thinking onto a proper moral course.
So, in short, the most common arguments against the existence of objective morality that do no simply assume Materialism carry no logical force whatsoever. Rather, the strongest ‘argument’ against the existence of objective moral values and duties remains the mere assumption that materialism is true. That is why Materialism, as a philosophical approach to reality, is so destructive to society and even basic human rights when it is believed in earnest. While it is perfectly possible for a theist to ignore his conscience and for a Christian to disregard the moral guidelines he finds in the Bible, it is also possible to say that, in so doing, the theist has acted in a way that is inconsistent with his most basic beliefs about reality and that his actions are objectively wrong. It is also possible for one theist to rationally reason with another that he really ought to live in accord with certain moral standards; that they are indeed binding upon him. Conversely, within the framework of materialism, no moral system will ever be binding on humans. It will never be capable of rationally grounding any oughts. No matter how well constructed it may seem to be, no matter how useful, any man or woman will always have an absolute defeater near at hand in the form of two simple words: I disagree.
In light of all this, and considering the ultimate importance of this issue and the incredibly negative effects that even thoughtful and informed atheists admit would ensue if the necessary implications of Materialism were widely grasped and accepted, why do so many atheist philosophers and scientists cling to Materialism as a true picture of reality? What is the root of the obsession with naturalism in the sciences? And what evidence and arguments are marshalled in support of the truth of Materialism? Well, if I’m invited back as a guest author in the future, I would like to consider some of these questions.
1 Richard Dawkins. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995)
2 Carl Sagan. Cosmos (1980)
3 George Gaylord Simpson. The Meaning of Evolution (1967)
4 It perhaps needs to be pointed out pre-emptively that Christians are not subject to the guidelines of the Mosaic Law, which, in addition to making plain to the Jews the need for the redemptive power of the promised messiah, was intended to keep them absolutely separate from the morally vile and idolatrous nations that surrounded them so as to prevent contamination by those people, especially in terms of their worship.