Ethical Realism

July 27, 2010

Is Atheism Immoral?

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 5:58 am
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Is atheism immoral, evil, sinful, satanic, or unholy? Atheists are one of the most hated groups in the United States. Many religious people openly admit they think that atheism is immoral. I will argue that atheism is not immoral. First, I will give some evidence that atheists are despised. Second, I will describe two ways people think atheism is immoral. Third, I will provide arguments that atheism is not immoral. Fourth, I will take a look at arguments people use to conclude that atheism is immoral. If we have good reason to believe that atheism can be morally permissible (rational from an individual’s standpoint) and we have no reason to think atheism is immoral, then we should agree that atheism is not immoral.

Atheists are despised.

The fact that atheists are commonly despised is well supported by polls and scientific research. A study by the University of Minnesota found that 47.6% of Americans disapprove of a marriage between their child and an atheist.1 (This can be compared to 33.5% of Americans who disapprove of their child marrying a Muslim.) We should approve of our children marrying a person who identifies with any racial or religious group as long as the individual is a good person. I suppose being an atheist or Muslim is believed to automatically disqualify you from being a good person.

A gallop poll conducted in 2007 also found out that only 45% of Americans would vote for a well qualified atheist for president.2 (This can be compared to 55% of Americans would would vote for a well qualified homosexual for president.) Again, we should vote for the most qualified candidate. I suppose atheism and homosexuality are taken to automatically disqualify you from being qualified.

Not only is atheism despised by many people, but it is often openly despised. The Catholic Church officially states that atheism is a violation of the first commandment—Do not have any Gods before me. This is taken to mean, “Worship me, and no other Gods.” There are also websites that also provide arguments (or assertions) that atheism is immoral. For example, DailyMorality.com3 and Kreitsauce’s Musings4

Finally, the hatred against atheists have lead to intolerant behavior. Many personal accounts of discrimination can be found at Secularhumanism.org.5 For example, many atheists experience harassment. Some public intolerance towards atheism has also been documented on the Atheist Ethicist.6 For example, Representative Monique Davis condemned atheism during a testimony before the House State Government Administration Committee in Springfield Illinois.

Two ways people think atheism is immoral.

When people think that atheism is immoral, it isn’t always clear what that means. There are at least two different things it can mean:

  1. It is immoral to disbelieve in God.
  2. Atheists are immoral.

It is immoral to disbelieve in God.

To think it is immoral to disbelieve in God can mean the following:

  1. Lacking a belief in God is morally wrong.
  2. Believing that God doesn’t exist is morally wrong.

Atheists are immoral.

To think that atheists are immoral can mean the following:

  1. All atheists are immoral.
  2. Atheists tend to be less moral than theists.
  3. Atheism causes people to do immoral things.

Arguments that atheism is not immoral.

Why is atheism not immoral? Consider the following:

  1. It is morally right to believe whatever is sufficiently justified.
  2. Atheists are individuals and shouldn’t be judged as a group.
  3. We have no reason to think that atheism makes people immoral.

I will discuss each argument in detail:

1. It is morally right to believe whatever is sufficiently justified.

First, it might be true that many atheists have their beliefs for irrational reasons, but that is also true of theists.

Second, if anyone has beliefs for the right reasons, it would be people who study rationality, such as philosophers; and if anyone knows what religious beliefs are most justified, it is also philosophers. The fact is that philosophers have generally not been persuaded by arguments for God’s existence. The Philpapers survey found that 72.8% of philosophers “accept or lean towards atheism” and only 14.6% of philosophers “accept or lean towards theism.”

No argument for God’s existence is infallible. Arguments for God’s existence and objections to those arguments are available on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Third, we realize that the best beliefs are the “best justified.” To have unjustified beliefs, such as the belief that “torturing people willy nilly is right” is morally wrong, but to have justified beliefs, such as “torturing people willy nilly is wrong” is morally right. The proper function of our reasoning capacity is to produce well justified beliefs.

Fourth, is is not morally right to hold insufficiently justified beliefs. The idea that we should believe in God even if it is insufficiently justified is just as wrong as believing anything else without a good reason. Such insufficiently justified beliefs are dangerous. I discuss this issue in more detail in Intellectual Virtues, Dogmatism, Fanaticism, and Terrorism. I am not suggesting that believing in God can’t be sufficiently justified, but there are theists who think we can merely have faith that God exists.

Fifth, morality doesn’t determine what is true. Even if believing that gravity exists made us behave immorally, it would not be immoral to believe that gravity exists because it is obviously true.

Sixth, morality is a matter of choice, but we can’t always choose what we believe. We shouldn’t try to do things we can’t do. If someone can’t believe in God, then that person shouldn’t believe in God; and not everyone can believe in God.

I can’t believe in unicorns even if it made me feel great to have such a belief. I can’t help but believe in gravity even when I am falling out of an airplane to my death despite the fact that rejecting the existence of gravity would be quite comforting. Many atheists report their belief that God doesn’t exist to be like this. They would prefer that God exists because it is an exciting and comforting thought, but they have little choice but to disbelieve.

To conclude, well justified beliefs are morally superior than ones that aren’t well reasoned, but many atheists have provided a great deal of justification for their disbelief in God. We have no overriding reason to favor insufficiently justified beliefs over beliefs that are better justified.

2. Atheists are individuals and shouldn’t be judged as a group.

It is almost always wrong to judge a person merely on the basis of what group we associate that person with. More men go to prison than women, but that doesn’t mean you should dislike men in general. More ethnic minorities go to prison than Caucasians, but that doesn’t mean we should dislike ethnic minorities in general. To decide that someone is bad just because of the group they are part of is “prejudiced” because you are illegitimately prejudging what the person is like.

It might be that some groups primarily exist in the name of immorality, such as criminals or the Ku Klux Klan, but this is not the case for atheists.

3. We have no reason to think that atheism makes people immoral.

First, even though more men and minorities go to prison than women and Caucasians, that doesn’t mean that being a man or a minority makes you immoral. There can be something else causing men and minorities to become criminals. Some men are good people and some minorities are good people, and it isn’t entirely clear why certain groups are being overrepresented in prisons. In the same way there are some good atheists and some criminal atheists and there is no reason to think that atheism itself could make a person immoral.

Second, it might be true that belief in God can help motivate some people to have moral behavior, but that’s not true for everyone. Dogmatism and fanaticism are moral faults of some religious groups. Religion has often attempted to legitimize immoral behavior in the name of God, such as the inquisition and Al-Qaeda.

Third, it has been suggested that morality requires God, but atheists can have justified beliefs about moral facts just like everyone else. I discussed the fact that we can reason about morality and justify our beliefs in moral facts in Can We Reason About Morality? and such reasoning has nothing to do with God. In fact, most philosophers are (a) atheists and (b) moral realists. That means that most philosophers think that there are moral facts beyond our beliefs and feelings. The Philpapers survey found that 56.3% of philosophers “accept or lean toward moral realism” and only 27.7% “accept or lean towards anti-realism” despite the fact that only 14.6% identified with theism.

It should be noted that moral anti-realist philosophers attempt to justify the fact that we should try to be moral, and some moral beliefs are better than others despite the fact that they don’t believe morality is grounded in anything other than psychology and anthropology.

Arguments people use to conclude that atheism is immoral.

Many anti-atheists merely assert that atheism is immoral or leads to immoral behavior. I have already argued that such assertions are groundless. Now I will take a look at some actual arguments used by anti-atheists to prove that atheism is immoral:

  1. Atheism violates the first commandment.
  2. Statistics show atheists to be more immoral than usual.
  3. Many evil people were atheists.
  4. Atheist totalitarian regimes lead to more deaths than theist dominated cultures.
  5. Atheism is motivated by a desire to escape guilt.
  6. Atheism is immoral because it’s a lie.
  7. Atheists are arrogant because they can’t know God doesn’t exist.
  8. Atheists have no reason to be moral.

1. Atheism violates the first commandment.

The first commandment demands that we worship no god other than God. This can be taken to mean that we have to worship God, but we don’t need to worship any other God. However, a literal interpretation doesn’t imply that. The commandment doesn’t actually demand that we worship God.

Additionally, if we take the commandment to demand that we believe in God, then the commandment would violate our need to have beliefs based on reasons rather than authoritarian demands. I already argued the importance to have beliefs that are sufficiently justified and not all atheists have sufficient justification to believe in God.

There are some other passages of the Bible that might imply that atheism is immoral, and some people think that atheism must be immoral if the Bible says so. This is circular reasoning. No atheist is going to care what the Bible says about morality. You’re going to have to prove that the Bible is reliable and that God exists before an atheist will have any reason to care about the Bible.

Finally, if the Bible requires you to believe something unjustified or allow immoral behavior, then that is a reason to doubt the infallibility of the Bible. Christians aren’t going to put up with Mulims using the Koran to justify illegitimate beliefs or behavior, and no one else should put up with anyone else using holy books being abused in that way either. If the Bible demands people to allow or endorse immoral forms of prejudice, then that is a reason to reject the infallibility of the Bible rather tahn than it reason to allow or endorse immoral forms of prejudice.

Finally,

2. Statistics show atheists to be more immoral than usual.

Some people argue that atheists are overrepresented within prison populations or show a tendency to commit various immoral acts. I have already explained why this is in itself not a good argument. The fact that a group has been found to have a statistically significant characteristic does not mean that the group itself is the cause of the characteristic. For example, more men are criminals than women, but most men are not criminals, and we don’t think that being a man causes men to become criminals.

3. Many evil people were atheists.

Some people argue that Hitler, Mao, and Stalin were atheists; but even if that was true, it wouldn’t prove that atheism is immoral. There are immoral atheists and there are immoral theists. So what?

4. Atheist totalitarian regimes lead to more deaths than theist dominated cultures.

Some people argue that the totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin killed more people than theist dominated cultures. Even if it were true that these regimes were dominated by atheists, it would not prove that atheists are more evil than theists. No causal connection is established.

It wasn’t long ago that theists were merely competing with Buddhist (atheistic) countries to see which culture was more moral. That was a much longer time frame to compare atheistic and theistic cultures and the Buddhist cultures didn’t seem particularly immoral.

Additionally, European countries tend to be much less religious than the USA, and they aren’t having as much problems with criminality. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator [within a country] correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies.”7 If religion is so important for morality, then we would expect Europe to have more social problems than the USA.

5. Atheism is motivated by a desire to escape guilt.

It has been suggested that atheism is motivated by a desire to escape guilt rather than from rational justification, but this is pure speculation and it is certainly not true for everyone. I agree that some people probably believe in atheism from irrational emotional responses, but that can be true for everyone including theists. Additionally, there are at least two reasons to think such a response is false.

One, most people (including most atheists) would prefer that God exists because it is comforting to think that an all powerful and all good being is out to look out for us.

Two, Christianity can be used to escape guilt. Criminals have paid indulgences to clear away their crimes. Some Christians even suggest that immoral acts will all be forgiven for believers. That sounds like a license to be immoral if anything is.

Three, many atheists are very interested in morality and personal responsibility. Almost no atheist thinks that God must exist for morality to exist, and most atheists agree that they should be moral like everyone else. It is possible that guilt isn’t necessary for morality, but most atheists agree that they should have a sense of shame and regret.

6. Atheism is immoral because it’s a lie.

First, not all atheists claim to know the truth. Some merely say they “don’t believe” in God. I don’t believe that we can make a spaceship that can take us to far off galaxies, but maybe we can. In the same way some atheists don’t believe in God.

Second, some atheists do claim that God doesn’t exist, and it is possible that such a belief is false. However, a lie is an intentional attempt to deceive. Not all atheists attempt to spread their belief to others, and not all atheists intentionally try to deceive.

Third, if you believe something is true based on sufficient justification, then it is morally right to believe it.

Fourth, atheism is not always willfully negligent because even the most educated and informed people who spend a lot of time thinking about religion can come to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist.

Fifth, it is not immoral to believe something false as long as your belief is sufficiently justified. Newton’s theory of physics was very accurate, but the theory was actually false. Einstein’s theory of physics was found to be superior. Still, it was not immoral for Newton to falsely believe in his theory. It would have been absurd to ask people to disbelieve in Newton’s theory of physics because his theory was so incredibly justified, and it would be incredibly unjustified to ask people to disbelieve in Einstein’s theory of physics for the same reason.

7. Atheists are arrogant because they can’t know God doesn’t exist.

First, it might be that some atheists are arrogant, but many theists are arrogant as well. Religious arrogance has lead to religious fanaticism and terrorism. The USA does not suffer from atheistic fanaticism and terrorism to the same extent, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that some atheists are fanatics.

Second, not all atheists claim to know that God doesn’t exist.

Third, a person isn’t arrogant for believing something. We don’t know lots of things but our beliefs can still be sufficiently justified. Newton’s belief in his theory of physics was incredibly justified and he was not arrogant for holding such a belief. We don’t have to know something for certain for our belief to be morally right and rational. In the same way atheists might have sufficient justification to have their belief.

Fourth, I have already mentioned that most philosophers are atheists. It is incredibly arrogant to tell philosophers who spent their entire lives studying rationality and who have spent a great deal of time studying the arguments for God, and to tell them that they are arrogant for believing something that is based on their expert opinion.

8. Atheists have no reason to be moral.

Some people think that the only reason to be moral is the existence of God. If this is true, then atheists will have no reason to be moral and we might expect them to be less moral. It is true that atheists don’t believe in hell, but even many Christians admit that the threat of hell isn’t a good reason to be moral. We should be moral because it really is better.

Some people argue that atheists can’t possibly believe that being moral “really is better” than being immoral. That for atheists morality is just a social convention, instinctual response, or a result of empathy. This is false. I have already mentioned that most atheistic philosophers are moral realists, and no theory of moral realism I have ever read required us to believe in God. I find moral realism to be a common sense view with no need to speculate about a supernatural realm. This position is discussed in detail in my free ebook, Does Morality Require God?

Finally, even moral anti-realist philosophers who think that morality is merely a product of our psychology and/or is a human invention tend to think we have some reason to be moral. Social cooperation and solidarity has proved to be quite beneficial and it might be rational even from an egoistic standpoint.

Conclusion

People’s discrimination against atheism is incoherent. The fact that atheists are so despised contradicts the fact that Buddhists, Taoists, and other atheistic religions are not so despised. If someone is a Buddhist and an atheist as many atheists are, then are they hated or not? Perhaps atheists who create their own religions are no longer immoral.

Although atheists are despised by about half the population, such an attitude is misinformed bigotry. It is wrong to judge people based on their nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs. We should almost never judge anyone based on the group they are part of, and we have no good reason to do that to atheists. Atheism can be rational when it is based on sufficient justification and some people might have sufficient reason to endorse atheism. Finally, all the arguments that attempt to show that atheism is immoral are unsatisfactory and aren’t really reasons against atheism after all.

Updates:

7/27/10: (1) I added more information about my position against potential Biblical assertions against atheism. (2) I added the objection to atheism that atheists have no reason to be moral.  (3) I expanded the conclusion to mention the fact that discrimination against atheism is incoherent. (4) I added the fact that atheists probably don’t want to escape guilt considering that they tend to agree that morality and personal responsibility are very important.

Notes

1 Paulos, John Allen. “Who’s Counting: Distrusting Atheists.” 26 July 2010. <http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=1786422&page=1>. Published April 2, 2006.

3 “Atheism is Ignorance.” 26 July 2010. <http://www.dailymorality.com/atheism.html>.

4 “When Faith Justifies Mass Murder.” Kreitsauce’s Musings. 26 July 2010. <http://kreitsauce.wordpress.com/2009/01/12/atheism-and-mass-murder/>. Originally published January 12, 2009.

5 Downey, Margaret. “Discrimination against Atheists.” Secularhumanism.org. 26 July 2010. <http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/downey_24_4.htm>. Originally published May 27, 2004.

6 Fife, Alonzo. “Anti-Atheist Bigotry in 2008.” 26 July 2010. <http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2009/01/anti-atheist-bigotry-in-2008.html>. Originally published January 14, 2009.

7 “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.” Journal of Religion and Society. 26 July 2010. <http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html&gt;.

11 Comments »

  1. As an atheist, I somewhat disagree that atheism is not immoral. I think from the perspective of the religious zealot it IS immoral. His morality points toward the fact that anyone believing contrary to his religion belongs in Hell and is condemned. SO, yes he has absolute right to believe we are immoral.

    Personally, I believe that their are more atheists believing that God doesn’t or can’t exist. Also, not believing in God is not a far statment from “He doesn’t exist.”

    Comment by Bobby — July 27, 2010 @ 5:18 pm | Reply

    • Yes, people have a right to believe whatever they want. No, the belief is not rational just because religious authority says that atheists go to hell. We can’t believe what authority figures or books say when they encourage or validate intolerance without being able to give us a reason for doing so. I already made this point in the post and you haven’t said anything about why the argument fails.

      Comment by James Gray — July 27, 2010 @ 6:39 pm | Reply

  2. So tell me, why rape is immoral from atheism point of view?

    Comment by Jacob — July 28, 2010 @ 12:54 am | Reply

    • There are different moral theories that might have slightly different answers, but (a) I would find it immoral for other people to rape me and it is immoral for me to rape other people for the same reason, and (b) there is very little benefit from rape (pleasure) and a great deal of damage (psychological trauma, pain, etc.) It is immoral to cause people harm without a very good justification. For example, stealing bread to feed yourself might be necessary when it is impossible to attain food any other way. The damage caused would be a “necessary evil.”

      I don’t want to imply that atheists have a monopoly on this sort of explanation. People often say why something is right or wrong without reference to God. Almost all theist philosophers agree that secular morality is plausible. There is little to no serious debate about the role God plays in morality among actual philosophers.

      Comment by James Gray — July 28, 2010 @ 2:07 am | Reply

      • James,

        You just explained to us why rape is unpleasant or harmful. You haven’t explained why it is immoral. In your explanation, rape isn’t “wrong” any more than an abstract quality such as mercy could be called “right.” Even if we could accept this definition of morality, you’ve hinted that sufficient justification excuses otherwise immoral behavior. Is rape, then, ever justified? If an individual can become the measure of all things and justify rape to himself, does this make rape moral? Or, suppose a culture decides to legally permit rape under certain conditions. Does this make rape moral? But let’s take a step further back. If there is no divine lawgiver, no God Who has set humans apart from the rest of creation, then what is good for the human is good for animals. Why take part in speciesism? Some male sharks rape their mates, and some insects and arachnids eat their mates. Are those things immoral or not? With nothing to appeal to beyond ourselves, we’re left in a pretty bad situation!

        Comment by Kreitsauce — July 28, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

      • You just explained to us why rape is unpleasant or harmful. You haven’t explained why it is immoral.

        Right and wrong are based on benefits and harms. According to utilitarianism, you have to take a look at all the benefits and harms to know what we should do.

        Kant’s categorical imperative also requires us to consider the situation we are in to know right from wrong. To treat someone disrespectfully is wrong, but people who commit crimes (or intend to commit crimes) who are insane or overcome by anger are not in their right mind, so respecting them could require us to throw them into jail. Once they regain their reason (if they do), then they should agree that being put into jail was respectful.

        For more information about how the situation is relevant to morality, you might want to go here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/07/02/moral-absolutism-relativism-and-the-situation/

        In your explanation, rape isn’t “wrong” any more than an abstract quality such as mercy could be called “right.”

        It might be wrong in every situation that has ever occurred on the planet, but mercy can motivate people to unjust actions, such as letting murderers out of prison.

        Even if we could accept this definition of morality, you’ve hinted that sufficient justification excuses otherwise immoral behavior.

        That’s something every human being knows to be true. A doctor cutting a patient is different from cutting someone just to hurt them.

        Is rape, then, ever justified?

        I have never heard of a single instance when it was justified. It is always disrespectful and irrational as far as I can tell.

        If an individual can become the measure of all things and justify rape to himself, does this make rape moral?

        I never said an individual is the measure of all things. There are moral facts. There are real benefits and harms and it is immoral to harm people unless we have a very good reason for doing so.

        I already mentioned that atheists are often moral realists. That means that there can be real moral facts beyond our opinions and attitudes. Go here for more information: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2009/09/16/what-is-moral-realism/

        Moral realists can say that pain is “really bad.” It is “intrinsically bad.” There can be intrinsic values: Human existence might have intrinsic value, or example.

        This is the sort of thing that God’s morality should be based on as well. God shouldn’t claim to be right about morality just because he is powerful. He should say that killing people is wrong because people have value, or something like that.

        Some people equate “moral” with “God likes it.” These mean different things. It might be that God likes everything moral, but it isn’t moral only because God likes it.

        Or, suppose a culture decides to legally permit rape under certain conditions. Does this make rape moral?

        I don’t care what cultures think. They can be wrong about moral facts.

        But let’s take a step further back. If there is no divine lawgiver, no God Who has set humans apart from the rest of creation, then what is good for the human is good for animals.

        What is good for each animal is often different. Fish need water and humans need land. Human beings also have other needs and interests other animals don’t.

        Why take part in speciesism? Some male sharks rape their mates, and some insects and arachnids eat their mates. Are those things immoral or not?

        The idea of immorality is based on moral decisions. Those animals don’t make moral decisions.

        Speciesism is the idea that one species is superior just for being a different species, and that is wrong, but even Peter Singer admits that human interests are more important than animal interests.

        It might be true that people are more important than other animals for a reason other than species. We might have a better sort of mind that has more value, for example.

        With nothing to appeal to beyond ourselves, we’re left in a pretty bad situation!

        We can appeal to the actual world and actual moral facts. Blindly agreeing with unqualified religious authority is a bad situation. Actually observing moral reality and making moral decisions based on reality is not a bad situation.

        You seem to want to change the topic to: Does morality require God? I have already discussed this issue in detail and written about it here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/07/27/2010/06/09/does-morality-require-god-free-ebook/

        I know even more about intrinsic values, and I have written even more about intrinsic value (and moral realism). For more information go here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/01/21/is-there-a-meaning-of-life-free-ebook/

        Comment by James Gray — July 28, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

      • James,

        I tend to think that utilitarianism is a flawed view of morality. How can you determine what all of the benefits or flaws of an action will be? Without the gift of foresight, it’s impossible to really know what will happen. Therefore, it is impossible to truly make choices based on benefits and harms. It also puts minorities at a disadvantage. Consider the rape question. If thirty rapists gang raped a woman, the pleasure of thirty men outweighs the pain of one woman. At best, it would be more moral for thirty rapists to gang rape one woman than for them to individually rape thirty women. At least misery is contained to one person. In the end, there’s really only an artificial moral spectrum that we should stay to the “better” end of. Better is still somewhat arbitrary.

        Furthermore, how does one determine “sufficient justification” for immoral actions? A surgeon’s intentions may be noble and the outcome wonderful, but what if he chooses surgery for someone because of greed? Utilitarianism fails to address the greed, even if the surgery is beneficial. Or suppose the surgeon offers his services instead of a drug-based remedy, believing it to be best. During the surgery, his patient dies. However noble his intentions, however skilled his hands, he’s still killed a woman. There is no benefit to her. It may even be that the drug remedy would have worked. Now he has killed her when she didn’t have to die! Utilitarianism cannot deal with these issues.

        I’ve scanned your links, and I struggle with your concept of intrinsic value as well. While you see appealing to a deity as “spooky”, I question how you can call anything intrinsically valuable. When an individual or a society determines an action or a life determine something to be valuable, they have given something relative value. Intrinsic value means that something has value in and of itself, obviously. The real problem with atheism is that there is nothing in the universe with ultimate intrinsic value. Humans lack this value because we are just an accident of the universe. Abstract concepts such as good and evil are human creations, and therefore lack intrinsic value. Furthermore, we lack ultimate meaning and purpose, since our entire universe can only have relative meaning and purpose. We come from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing.

        Utilitarian, atheistic philosophy simply doesn’t cut it.

        Comment by Kreitsauce — July 29, 2010 @ 3:33 am

  3. I tend to think that utilitarianism is a flawed view of morality.

    Every theory about morality is probably flawed in various ways, but reasoning about morality is still something we do all the time. To criticize a highly successful moral theory for being flawed is just as pointless as criticizing highly successful scientific theories for being flawed. They might not be perfect, but they are pretty accurate and work pretty well.

    For example, using utilitarnism can reveal how immoral many decisions used in war are because the amount of people killed is taken to be pretty irrelevant as long as they are “not one of us.” Utilitarianism points out that everyone’s life matters, even if they aren’t “one of us.”

    If you think that you have figured out the right way to understand morality far beyond the most successful moral theories, then you know a lot more than Peter Singer and all the other philosophers who spent their entire lives devoted to understanding morality. That sounds unlikely.

    How can you determine what all of the benefits or flaws of an action will be?

    Sometimes you can’t. In that case you can’t know for sure what action will be “best.” You could use some information based on probability, but utilitarianism isn’t usually meant to be used for a “decision procedure.” What we actually do when we make decisions is somewhat different than what utilitarianism has to offer.

    Without the gift of foresight, it’s impossible to really know what will happen. Therefore, it is impossible to truly make choices based on benefits and harms.

    We know that killing people will lead to their death, and their life had value, which is lost. Therefore, killing people is almost never a good idea. If you can’t figure out the “benefits” of your actions, then you need to be careful and try your best not to hurt others. Better safe than sorry. A mistake that hurts people tends to be one not worth risking.

    It also puts minorities at a disadvantage. Consider the rape question. If thirty rapists gang raped a woman, the pleasure of thirty men outweighs the pain of one woman.

    Would the men feel that way about thirty men raping them? Obviously this argument fails. The pleasure from rape is superficial and negligible. It’s not even worth considering.

    We don’t really know how to weigh the pleasure of rapists versus the pain and horror of being raped, but just about everyone will agree that the pleasure involved wasn’t important enough to validate the action.

    There might be some situations with counter-intuitive results for utilitarianism, but that tends to be because an outcome of a horrible decision could end up being good. That just means that the ends don’t actually justify the means. We can’t take risks just to hope a decision will be for the best.

    At best, it would be more moral for thirty rapists to gang rape one woman than for them to individually rape thirty women. At least misery is contained to one person. In the end, there’s really only an artificial moral spectrum that we should stay to the “better” end of. Better is still somewhat arbitrary.

    Better is not arbitrary if there are real intrinsic values that exist. If anything really matters, then we should know that rape is wrong because it is so horrible. To say rape is wrong just because God dosn’t like it doesn’t help us understand why rape is wrong at all.

    Furthermore, how does one determine “sufficient justification” for immoral actions?

    By doing philosophy and trying to figure it out. “Sufficient justification” is a controversial topic and I don’t have a ready made theory on the topic. The easiest way to figure out what is right, wrong, or sufficiently justified, is to use analogies. If one action is wrong and we know why it’s wrong, then other actions similar in the relevant way will also be wrong for the same reason. If one action or belief isn’t sufficiently justified and we can find out why, then other actions and beliefs won’t be sufficiently justified for the same reasons.

    A surgeon’s intentions may be noble and the outcome wonderful, but what if he chooses surgery for someone because of greed? Utilitarianism fails to address the greed, even if the surgery is beneficial.

    Some theories of utilitarianism can give us ways to evaluate intentions and character traits. Such things would be wrong insofar as they lead to less benefits and more harms.

    Or suppose the surgeon offers his services instead of a drug-based remedy, believing it to be best. During the surgery, his patient dies. However noble his intentions, however skilled his hands, he’s still killed a woman. There is no benefit to her. It may even be that the drug remedy would have worked. Now he has killed her when she didn’t have to die! Utilitarianism cannot deal with these issues.

    Or you don’t understand utilitarianism. First, if utilitariaism exists to make decisions, then clearly no one will make decisions based on the actual RESULT of the action. Therefore, we have to make actions without utilitarianism or only with something like “expected results.”

    Second, utilitarianism can judge the results of an action as “bad” even if the action itself was good. Actions and results are two different things.

    I’ve scanned your links, and I struggle with your concept of intrinsic value as well. While you see appealing to a deity as “spooky”, I question how you can call anything intrinsically valuable. When an individual or a society determines an action or a life determine something to be valuable, they have given something relative value. Intrinsic value means that something has value in and of itself, obviously. The real problem with atheism is that there is nothing in the universe with ultimate intrinsic value.

    I don’t see an argument here. You are merely asserting something I believe to be false.

    Humans lack this value because we are just an accident of the universe.

    God could have created a universe with evolution and many intelligent alien life forms could evolve. To say such intelligent life is unimportant just because they exist from evolution and biology doesn’t make any sense to me.

    Minds exist because of our biology, and intrinsic value can also exist as part of the world just like minds. I already discussed this in much more detail and you can continue reading what I’ve already discussed about intrinsic value.

    Abstract concepts such as good and evil are human creations, and therefore lack intrinsic value.

    I never said they are human creations. That is your belief and I don’t know why you believe it.

    Furthermore, we lack ultimate meaning and purpose, since our entire universe can only have relative meaning and purpose. We come from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing.

    A fork exists because we want to use it as a tool to eat. It’s purpose is to help us eat. That is not the same thing as a human’s “meaningful life.” If a human being existed because of some purpose similar to a fork, that would not mean that we “really matter.” That is “relative meaning and purpose” rather than the sort anyone really cares about. If human beings have intrinsic value, then it is good that they exist. They don’t need to fulfill any “purpose” to derive meaning.

    At the same time intrinsic value can help you live a “good life.” It can tell you that helping save lives and making people happy really matters, so this is the sort of activity we should do.

    Utilitarian, atheistic philosophy simply doesn’t cut it.

    First, your objections to utilitarianism are well known by philosophers and yet many philosophers disagree that “utilitarianism doesn’t cut it.” That means that your argument fails. A few objections to a theory is not sufficient to prove it false. Every theory tends to be “inadequate” in various ways and they tend not to explain everything we would like them to.

    Second, atheists don’t have to be utiltiarians. Moral theory is not necessary to use moral reasoning. Argument by analogy and experience with morality is perfectly legitimate.

    Third, you might prefer Kant’s categorical imperative. It might be that utilitarianism is incomplete and a full understanding of morality also requires the categorical imperative.

    Fourth, even if secular morality “doesn’t cut it” that in no way would prove theistic morality (whatever that is) does “cut it.” If secular morality is the best we can get (and that is exactly what just about every philosopher alive believes), then any fault of secular morality would merely be a fault with moral reasoning at large.

    Imagine that I argue the following:

    1. Newton’s theory of physics can’t explain the orbit of Mercury around the Sun. (This is true!)
    2. Either Newton’s theory of physics is true or the religious dogma involving physics is true.
    3. If Newton’s theory can’t explain something then it’s false.
    4. Therefore, Newton’s theory is false.
    5. Therefore, the religious dogma involving physics is true.

    This argument clearly doesn’t work. “Theistic physics” is not proven superior to “secular physics” just because secular physics is imperfect. We later developed Einstein’s theory of physics and proved it was superior to Newton’s. There are still some holes in Einstein’s theory as well, but that doesn’t prove that theistic physics is SUPERIOR to secular physics.

    I must admit that ethical theory is still in the developing stages and it isn’t as accurate as scientific theories. However, that doesn’t mean we should immediately give up and decide it’s impossible to reason about morality. It is easy to reason about some cases in morality and much harder to reason about certain complected cases. There are uncontroversial moral facts and controversial ones.

    Comment by James Gray — July 29, 2010 @ 6:40 am | Reply

  4. Forgive me, but I’m still stuck on the intrinsic value thing. I do believe that ultimate good and evil, right and wrong, exist apart from ourselves, and I believe that these values are prescribed by God alone. Belief aside, however, I fail to see how you could say that value could be “intrinsic” and yet take an atheistic or even utilitarian view. There can be no inherent worth if there is not a Person, someone who can be truly authoritative, to say who or what is worthy or valuable. You can label value as intrinsic, but in the end value is only relative. Usefulness itself is relative as well, rendering utilitarian views as relativistic as well. From your links, I can’t really see that you can believe in ultimate meaning, purpose, or value.

    Comment by Kreitsauce — July 30, 2010 @ 3:53 am | Reply

    • Forgive me, but I’m still stuck on the intrinsic value thing. I do believe that ultimate good and evil, right and wrong, exist apart from ourselves, and I believe that these values are prescribed by God alone.

      Why do you believe that these values are prescribed by God alone? Does that mean what has value depends on the likes and dislikes of God or does it mean that God merely knows what has value? If he merely knows what has value, then it doesn’t seem to need to be “prescribed” by him.

      Belief aside, however, I fail to see how you could say that value could be “intrinsic” and yet take an atheistic or even utilitarian view. There can be no inherent worth if there is not a Person, someone who can be truly authoritative, to say who or what is worthy or valuable.

      It sounds like you are mixing up knowledge with reality. It is possible for reality to exist even if no one knows about it. It is possible for intrinsic values to exist before anyone knows about them. The fact that someone knows about intrinsic values is not what gives them reality.

      You already admitted that the intrinsic value does not depend on our beliefs. I don’t think they depend on God’s beliefs either. It’s that simple.

      You can label value as intrinsic, but in the end value is only relative.

      Prove it. You aren’t giving an argument, and something isn’t true just because you believe it.

      Usefulness itself is relative as well, rendering utilitarian views as relativistic as well.

      Yes, usefulness is relative to a purpose. No, utilitarian views are not necessarily relativistic.

      From your links, I can’t really see that you can believe in ultimate meaning, purpose, or value.

      Why not? I talk about the issue at great length. If your read my meaning of life ebook, then I think my position should be very clear to you. I provide an argument that intrinsic values exist there.

      If you agree that intrinsic values clearly exist, but you just think that it is because God makes them exist, then you might want to read the other ebook I pointed out. I discussed why God has nothing to do with intrinsic values there in great length. (At least, God has no more to do with morality than with physics.)

      If you disagree with my arguments, then first you must understand my arguments. In order to understand my arguments, first you must read them. If you are unwilling to put the effort into understanding my views, then you are not showing a serious interest in the issue and you might prefer to keep your own views without seriously considering the evidence at hand.

      If you have read my arguments and you can tell me why I am wrong, then I am all ears. I would like people to challenge me, help me improve my views, and possibly correct my thinking.

      Comment by James Gray — July 30, 2010 @ 5:27 am | Reply

  5. [...] Is Atheism Immoral? « Ethical Realism. Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

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