As I see it, the current discussion about the relation between theism, atheism and morality is bedeviled by two false and often unexamined assumptions.
First, it is assumed that if an act is self-evidently wrong, then that counts against a theistic account of morality.
Second, it is assumed that if a theistic account of morality is correct, moral injunctions must be derived from the fact that God exists.
In support of the first assumption, it is sometimes argued that if an action (such as torturing babies) is self-evidently wrong, then not only theists but also atheists can recognize it as wrong – in which case, we can know that the action is wrong without having to invoke God’s will in order to support our claim.
But we might still need to posit the existence of God in order to explain the fact that there are actions that are morally right and wrong, even if we can easily recognize which acts are right and wrong without first having to ask what God wants.
The second assumption envisages moral injunctions as if they were Divine decrees. But moral norms can presuppose the existence of God, without necessarily being decreed by God.
Let’s suppose that some actions are self-evidently wrong, and let us also grant that not only theists but also atheists can know that these acts are wrong. Before the atheists start smugly congratulating themselves for arriving at a knowledge of these moral norms without having to posit God, they should ask themselves this simple question:
Isn’t it a very startling fact that there are normative statements about the world which are true?
Norms aren’t just descriptive; they are also prescriptive. If norms are part of the “warp-and-woof” of reality, then we can actually formulate true statements about what beings of a certain kind (e.g. humans) ought to do and ought not to do.
This is very, very odd. Where on earth do these “oughts” come from? Are they grounded in individuals’ wants, perhaps?
They certainly don’t come from the wants of people who have moral obligations. If they did, then first of all, our having those obligations would be contingent upon our wanting certain goods, which would seriously weaken the claim that moral norms containing these “oughts” are self-evident, as people want very different things; and secondly, we could only know the truth of these moral norms via an indirect process of introspection, rather than knowing them immediately, as we claim to do.
Do these “oughts” spring from the wants of the subjects towards whom we have these obligations – in other words, the wants of “morally significant others”? Again, the answer has to be no. If that were the case, then the applicability of moral norms relating to these subjects would rest upon the (contingent) fact that they always want certain goods (which is empirically doubtful). It would also follow that we could only know the truth of moral norms relating to these “morally significant others” by first figuring out what they wanted – which conflicts with the common experience we have of knowing these norms immediately, and without having to inquire about anyone’s wants.
Let me give a simple example. Let’s suppose that a baby is in hospital, because of breathing-related problems. A Bird VIP Infant ventilator (like the one illustrated above, courtesy of Brian Hall and Wikipedia) moves breathable air into and out of the baby’s lungs, as the baby is physically unable to breathe. You’re a nurse on night duty in the hospital’s neonatal ward. You suddenly notice that one of the tubes that was connected to the baby has fallen out. The baby is still asleep. What do you do? It’s a no-brainer. You re-insert the tube, of course! You didn’t have to ask yourself what you wanted, or what the baby wanted. That’s because you already knew what the baby needed.
Are moral norms grounded in the needs of others, as opposed to their wants? This makes a lot more sense. But this answer does not go far enough. What makes a need normative, after all?
Needs are normative, insofar as they relate to an individual’s thriving, or flourishing. Put simply, when an individual’s needs are not met, it fails to thrive. Moral norms, then, ultimately rest on facts relating to individuals’ conditions of thriving.
Now, in order to ascertain what makes an individual thrive, we need to know what kind of thing it is – in other words, what its nature is. The nature of a dog, which needs meat and daily exercise, is obviously very different from that of a sloth, which needs neither.
The conclusion we seem to have reached is this. A creature of a certain kind has conditions of thriving, which are based on the built-in ends (or if you will, the telos) that characterizes beings of that kind. These built-in ends are the foundations of moral norms relating to individuals of that kind.
What that means is that teleology is a basic and irreducible feature of the cosmos. That in itself is a very odd fact. There are classes (or kinds) of beings which cannot be characterized in descriptive terms alone. In order to adequately characterize them, we need to refer to their built-in ends – in other words, we need to use prescriptive language.
An atheist may freely acknowledge that this is an odd and somewhat striking fact about the world, without feeling the slightest need to give up their atheism. But there’s more.
The mere fact that creatures of a certain kind have built-in ends could never serve as an adequate foundation for moral norms relating to those creatures. “What’s that got to do with us?” you might reasonably ask. “How do you derive a moral obligation on our part from the existence of a frustrated end, or an unmet need, on the part of some other individual – especially if that individual happens to be of a different kind from ourselves? Why should we care?”
There’s more. One could ask: “What’s to stop us from re-designing the nature of living things, and altering their built-in ends in a way that suits us?”
Here’s an example of what I mean. The philosopher Bernard Rollin has proposed that we should render food animals and experimental animals decerebrate (and thus incapable of pain) through genetic engineering. A decerebrate animal would now be a different kind of being, with a different (non-conscious) kind of functioning. We could enjoy the taste of meat, and no-one would be hurt. And yet, the idea of altering the basic nature of animals in such a fashion strikes most people as self-evidently wrong. But why?
There’s more. Someone might ask: “What’s to stop us from re-designing our psyches, so that the suffering of other needy individuals – especially individuals of a different kind from ourselves – no longer bothers us?” This isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. According to a recent BBC news report, scientists writing in Brain magazine are claiming that psychopaths are capable of experiencing empathy – but unlike the rest of us, they can switch it on and off at will (Brain (2013) 136 (8): 2550-2562, doi: 10.1093/brain/awt190). What if we could make ourselves like that? Would it be wrong to re-fashion ourselves like that? If so, why?
The only way to put a stop to this line of questioning and to close the Pandora’s box that it opens is to posit that our own thriving, as human beings, is essentially linked with that of other beings, and that for us to stunt either their natures (e.g. by depriving sentient animals of the ability to feel) or our own (e.g. by making ourselves less empathetic) is to do irreparable harm to ourselves, irrespective of what other advantages we might gain (e.g. longevity or intelligence). Only if our well-being is essentially tied to that of other individuals – and even to that of other kinds of creatures – does it follow that we are bound to treat the built-in ends of creatures as morally normative. For if there are no essential ties of this kind between our natures and those of our fellow human beings and other morally significant creatures, then we are indeed free to redesign ourselves – and other creatures – as we wish.
Now, if atheistic readers of this post have followed my argument so far, they should be going green around the gills by now. It was odd enough that we live in a universe in which “ought” is just as basic as “is”, for living creatures. Now it turns out that our own well-being is so irrevocably tied to that of other morally significant beings in such a way that unless we respect their built-in ends, we will only end up harming ourselves.
In a godless universe, this would be an extremely fortuitous fact. We should not expect “Mother Nature” to have arranged things so perfectly: after all, Nature is blind and wholly lacking in intelligence. But in a theistic universe, this would be precisely the sort of thing we would expect a Deity to do, in order to curb the pretensions of any creatures (such as ourselves) that might grow “too big for their boots” and succumb to pride, in presuming to alter the plan laid down by the Author of Nature.
The upshot of the foregoing discussion is that although we can often know the content of our moral obligations immediately, without having to invoke God, and although these moral obligations are more than mere decrees that God might make or revoke at will, the fact that we have moral obligations, and that we are ethically bound to respect the norms built into Nature itself, can only be satisfactorily explained with reference to God.
It follows that if there are self-evident moral truths of the kind I have described above, then there must be a God, after all.