Ethical Realism

January 18, 2011

Questions For Atheistic Moral Realists Answered

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 4:21 am
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The Thinking Christian, Tom Gilson, thinks moral realism requires God, and says that the following questions are somehow a problem for atheistic moral realists (mainly concerning a potential eternal moral reality.) I will respond to the questions using my own perspective, but atheists and theists alike will disagree about how to best answer them:

1. What is a moral value or duty; specifically, to whom or what is it a value, and to whom or what is the duty directed, owed, or pointed?

Moral duty is an ambiguous term that can have different meanings. My preferred definition is “what should be done due to the great importance (intrinsic value) involved when it’s not too difficult to do it.” Duties are owed to people and other sentient beings either because they or their conscious states have intrinsic value. For example, you have a duty not to kill people because their life has intrinsic value.

Moral realism doesn’t require that duties exist as abstract entities. We can agree to have duties by understanding the importance intrinsic values. You ought to do certain things because it is intrinsically good to do so, even if there are no “duties” of the abstract highly demanding variety.

Imagine if Christianity is true. In that case you would still exist after you die, so it would be mysterious why killing people is such a big deal. Some Christians admit that death is not such a big deal. Some religious people have become suicide bombers for that reason.

2. To whom or what was it directed, owed, or pointed when there was no person in the universe toward whom it could have been so pointed?

Intrinsic values determine what we ought to do. If there are no people and nothing of intrinsic value, then there is nothing one ought to do. However, it is conceptually true that a person named John ought not punch his brother Charlie in the face for absolutely no reason while they are watching television together. This situation might never happen, but it is still true.

This question is like asking, “Was tyrannosaurus rex a dinosaur before dinosaurs existed?” There was no such thing yet, but the fact that tyrannosaurus rex is a dinosaur is conceptually true—and that conceptual truth is timeless.

Would a Christian think that an essence of tyrannosaurus rex must exist for all eternity? Could such an essense be used to prove that God must exist—because such an essence couldn’t exist without God? I think not.

3. Who or what held any responsibility for these moral values or duties before there was any intelligent life?

No one. Moral responsibility requires a mind with a certain level of rationality. You can’t have moral responsibility without intelligent life.

If Christianity is true, then God would qualify as “intelligent life” and this question would be nonsense.

4. In what did these values or duties inhere, or in other words, where did they exist?

The word “exist” is a strange word concerning properties. Where does the solidity of my hand exist? Does it exist in my hand? Intrinsic values are properties of consciousness (minds) or states of consciousness. If conscious life has intrinsic value, then conscious life has the property of intrinsic goodness. I suppose the property exists within consciousness, if anywhere.

5. Was there such a thing as evil while the stars and planets were forming? What was it?

Moral realism doesn’t require the concept of “evil,” but the main idea of evil seems to be that someone is malicious and enjoys harming others. The definition of evil can be true even before life exists, but evil does not exist without actual evil people. This question is similar to question #2 above—and the answer is similar to the fact that tyrannosaurus rex would conceptually count as a dinosaur before it actually exists.

6. Was killing immoral for the first 3 billion or so years of evolution, before humans arrived? Jordan says yes; but animals killing animals certainly wasn’t immoral then, nor is it now. There was no immoral killing until humans came, as far as I know.

It is immoral for morally responsible people to kill as a conceptual truth, but there were no such morally responsible people during that time. Again, see #2 above.

When humans arrived, what was it about us that made it (frequently) immoral for us to kill? Note that we take it that it’s not just about killing each other; we often consider it immoral to kill animals, too.

We have the rationality required to find out that something has value and the ability to control ourselves and act according to our moral beliefs.

8. Moral standards have changed over time, and in fact have oscillated back and forth on some issues (abortion, infanticide, homosexual relationships, for example). Jordan seems to take it that this moment in history represents the “right” moment on abortion, I think; he definitely takes it that this is the “right” moment on homosexuality. So where we’re heading as a culture on homosexual rights is in the direction of what has been eternally morally true. How can he be sure of this? What is the measuring stick? Is this not possibly chronological/cultural chauvinism?

We have no good reason to think homosexuality is wrong. The fact that a so-called holy book says its wrong is not a good argument and means no more than a holy book that says eating shellfish is wrong—or the countless other examples of strange things put in holy books.

It might be possible that homosexuality is wrong just like it might be possible that standing on one’s head is wrong. Sure, it’s possible in some far-fetched sense, but it’s implausible. We simply need to reject that things are immoral unless we have a good reason to say that they are. To say something is immoral can harm people, and we shouldn’t be causing harm without a good reason for doing so.

9. And to tie together two of the previous bullets, does Jordan think that seven billion years ago it was morally that same-sex couples should have the right to unite and call it marriage?

If consenting homosexual people want to marry each other, then they should have that right. That’s true conceptually even though there were no such consenting homosexual adults during a long period of time. (Again, see #2 above.)


  1. The primary ambiguity here, in your Nietzsche article from March, in comments on various posts of mine, is what you mean by “intrinsic value”. You use the word a lot and it does a tremendous amount of the heavy lifting in your accounts and yet I do not have a clear idea of how you determine what is or is not of intrinsic value on your account. Have you spelled this out anywhere?

    Comment by Camels With Hammers — January 18, 2011 @ 11:37 am | Reply

  2. James, thanks for the answers. I’m downloading your ebook on this topic, and I hope to be back for more discussion after I read it.

    Comment by Tom Gilson — January 18, 2011 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

    • Sounds great, Tom. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

      Comment by James Gray — January 19, 2011 @ 12:25 am | Reply

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