Ethical Realism

January 29, 2011

Luke Nix’s Concerns About Atheistic Moral Absolutism

Luke Nix thinks that a satisfying sort of morality requires God. Without God, morality would be a matter of opinion, mere consensus, or cultural customs. Such an unsatisfying sort of morality is “relativism” or a form of “moral anti-realism.” He thinks a satisfying morality should be in some sense “absolute” (of a moral realist variety).1 We both mainly agree what a satisfying morality should look like. It shouldn’t be relativistic or a form of anti-realism. However, I don’t agree that God is required for moral realism. I have already responded to his argument in “An Argument Against Atheistic Moral Realism.” However, my response doesn’t answer all his concerns. I had a discussion with him on his blog and I found out many of his concerns. I wasn’t able to post my reply on his website (perhaps because of my use of html), so I will post it here.

1. How is moral realism relevant?

Nix says,

I want to point out that the debate is not whether morality (regardless of type) is real. It can be real that someone has the opinion that murder is wrong, and that opinion be based on something else real, like pain. The fact that it is real does not change the fact that it is an opinion.

…The debate is not about whether morality is real, but what kind of morality is real. The distinction between objective, relative, and subjective morality is extremely important in this debate. If such a distinction is not made, then those on the different sides will be talking past one another, and fruitful debate will be impossible.

Moral realism is not the position that morality is merely an opinion. It is the position that there is something like “moral reality” and there are moral facts. A moral “opinion” is true if it corresponds to the facts. Moral realism is exactly the right understanding of morality that could be described as “absolute” rather than “relativistic.” Moral realism doesn’t say that morality is “real” if it is a “matter of opinion,” a “matter of personal preference,” consensus, or cultural customs.

The words “objective” and “subjective” are ambiguous words and need to be carefully defined. What we call “subjective” or “relative” morality is generally taken to be a form of “moral anti-realism”—but these words must be defined before we can decide.

For example, “objective” can mean “a reliable method to find truth.” In that case a relativist believes in “objective morality” because we can easily study the beliefs of a culture to determine what is “right and wrong.”

“Subjective” can mean “exists in the mind, or is mind-dependent.” In that case thoughts are subjective—including mathematical thoughts. That certainly doesn’t mean mathematics is unreliable, illusory, or a matter of opinion.

2. Pain is subjective, so how can it be relevant to absolute morality?

Nix says,

Keep in mind that pain is subjective. People have differing thresholds of pain tolerance. Any moral propositions that are determined based on pain is ultimately subjective.

Define “subjective.” It’s a fact that pain is intrinsically bad. That’s not merely an “opinion.”

One definition of subjective is “it exists in your mind.” Thoughts exist in my mind, but they are real. Pain exists in my mind, but it is real. I can experience that pain is “bad.” The fact that pain is intrinsically bad isn’t just an “opinion” just because pain is in my mind.

There is another sense of “subjective” that means “there is no reliable method to determine the truth.” It could be argued that it’s merely my opinion that pain is bad because there is no reliable way to know that pain is bad. However, I know that everyone agrees with me that pain is bad. They don’t want me to torture them (in part) because their pain is experienced as bad as well.

Nix continues this concern when he says,

If you wish to say that we know based on pain, we’re right back to it being subjective at best (explained above), and circular at worst (morality is based on pain, but pain is based on morality).

If you wish to cite agreement on the level of pain and the resulting moral proposition, that is fine, but that only allows morality to go past the individual to the cultural level. All cultures would have to agree that a proposition was morally “right” or “wrong” (see above with the problem here).

First, I don’t care about agreement, but the words “right” and “wrong” are less significant than “intrinsically good” and “intrinsically bad.”

Second, morality might not be definable in non-moral terms. That would be a form of reductionism that says morality is “nothing but” something else. We might have no choice but have “circular” definitions for moral terms insofar as we can’t give reductionistic definitions.

Third, I never said morality is “based on pain.” Morality is based on intrinsic value. Morality is based on “whatever is truly important.” For example, if human life has intrinsic value, then (all things equal), it’s wrong to kill people.

3. Pain exists only because of people, but doesn’t “absolute” morality exist even if people don’t?

Nix says,

[Pain is subjective.] Which means that it [pain] does not transcend humanity. It cannot even transcend the individual into a culture (relative morality), much less all humanity, or even the entire world. The real morality that you speak of is a subjective morality. It is dependent upon our opinions, not independent of them.

Wrong. Someone could falsely say that pain isn’t intrinsically bad. Pain is bad. That’s exactly why I should give someone an aspirin if they have a headache. It’s common sense.

If you are going to get hung up on the fact that pain exists in the mind (which is irrelevant), then you should know that it’s possible that human beings could also have intrinsic value. I don’t think moral realism requires that human beings have intrinsic value, but it is a common assumption.

Of course, without minds there are no people. Are people therefore “subjective?” Do people only exist because of our “opinions?”

Finally, there are conceptual truths about morality that transcend human existence. For example, “All things equal, it’s wrong to torture people” is true even before people exist. It just doesn’t apply to anyone before people exist. I discuss such “timeless” conceptual moral truths in more detail in “Questions for Atheistic Moral Realists Answered.”

4. If morality depends on people, then it wouldn’t exist before people exist.

Nix says,

If consciousness originated with the brain, value originated with consciousness, and morality is based on value, then morality had an origination sometime after the origination of the brain. This means that any morality would not be real prior to that point in time, so it cannot be applied to any creature living prior to that time, or even any creature living at the same time that does not possess a minimum of a brain

Is that a problem? If any people exist, then morality is relevant to them. Why would we want morality to be relevant when people aren’t around?

Also, there are conceptual moral truths that don’t need anything to exist, as I mentioned above.

5. If morality is absolute, then it must exist before people.

Nix says,

If morality transcends our opinions (thus the individual, culture, and species) then it would have to (at the minimum) begin with the universe.

You are confusing “objective truth” with something else. It is true that dinosaurs are animals before dinosaurs existed, but that “conceptual truth” would be irrelevant before they existed. This fact is not up for debate and does not rely on “human opinion.”

That gravity exists wouldn’t be true before the universe exists either, but it’s still true and has nothing to do with our “opinions.”

6. What does “right” or “wrong” mean for an atheist?

Nix says,

Keep in mind that determining in a proposition is morally right or wrong assumes that we have a unit of measure to compare to. How do we know what “right” or “wrong” even mean on naturalism?

First, there is no consensus with what those words mean to anyone—naturalist or not. Second, atheists don’t have to be naturalists. It’s possible to be a Platonist, intuitionist, etc. Third, I would suggest that “right” means something like “a course of action that promotes intrinsic goods and avoids intrinsic evils.” “Wrong” means something like “does not promote intrinsic goods or avoiding intrinsic evils.” We say that something is wrong, such as torture, because it is so horrific and brings about something significantly intrinsically bad (suffering). I don’t know of a definition that can make it much more clear how important it is that we do the right thing.

How do I know what “right” and “wrong” mean? First, I hear people use the word and learn the language. Second, I can decide what people “should” mean by the words. What would be the best use of the words? I think the best use of the words would capture how important moral actions are because “so much is at stake.”

7. Doesn’t God explain moral realism best?

Nix says,

Theism solves all the problems. Theism grounds morality in the nature of God.

First, I don’t deny that it is possible that theism can explain moral realism. Second, I’m not convinced that “theistic moral realism” is the best understanding or explanation for morality.

I personally don’t find theistic moral realism to be plausible for the following reasons:

One, I don’t find the existence of God to be plausible.

Two, it’s more modest and preferable for our theories to make no reference to such questionable entities as God. Even theists prefer our current scientific explanations for lightning over the belief that God directly causes lightning—and Christian biologists agree that “atheistic evolution” is more plausible than the view that God is intervening in evolution.

Three, I am more convinced that moral realism is true than that God exists.

Four, I think it’s quite easy to understand why morality is “absolute” and why moral realism is true without referring to God. My own form of moral realism is much more satisfying to me than the alternatives.

Five, I don’t think theistic moral realism explains morality very well. In particular, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered (or the answers are not satisfying to me):

  1. How can we know God’s nature? If we found out God is cruel would that prove cruelty is good or that God isn’t good after all?
  2. If God is good, how does that tell me how a human being can be good? Obviously being an “absentee” father is not a good idea for humans.
  3. If God’s nature is the basis for morality, then that “theory” should help “explain” real world moral problems. Let’s start with something simple. Why is “pain is bad” true because of God’s existence? (Or: Why is it true that I should give a stranger an aspirin who has a headache?)
  4. Very few people have actually used God’s mere existence to justify moral claims. Even Christians tend not to think that way. It sounds quite esoteric. In fact, most people know right from wrong through experience. They can experience that pleasure is good and pain is bad. They can experience that happiness is good, but suffering is bad. I think they can even experience their own life as having value. What gives people pain, pleasure, happiness, suffering, (and survival) is quite similar so I can know a lot about morality just by treating others how we want to be treated. A greater understanding of other people’s unique situation and unique needs can also help. (If I was homeless, might need food, etc.)


1 Some people talk about “moral absolutism” in an extreme sense that “the situation is not relevant to morality.” That is not what is at issue here. I argue against the extremist sort of “moral absolutism” here. I defend a modest sort of “moral absolutism” here.


  1. Just from the top two points, which is all I’ve read so far:

    The fact that it is real does not change the fact that it is an opinion.

    I think that’s a rather confused statement. Opinions try to track truth. I may have an opinion that, say, the Bush tax cuts lead to decline in revenue, but that opinion may also happen to be true and we don’t say this truth “is” an opinion.

    If morality is based on something real, and you have an opinion that is real, all that means is your opinion agrees with what happens to be true. The fact that you can have opinions about what truth is does not make truth opinion-based.

    Tangling up whether morality is real with the fact that people also have opinions that it is real is just confusion about how opinions weigh on the issue.

    The debate is not about whether morality is real, but what kind of morality is real. The distinction between objective, relative, and subjective morality is extremely important in this debate.

    One cannot just peg the concept of “objectivity” to their own preferred version of morality, and it sounds like that’s what Mr. Nix is trying to do. It looks like he’s trying to show that if relativism is wrong and moral objectivism is right, then religious morality wins by default since only from within religion can one have objective morality.

    This kind of argument can’t handle atheistic objective morality. So he’s trying to repair his argument by making atheistic morality fall on the wrong side of his objective/subjective distinction. Then he can use all the usual arguments against “subjective” morality.

    But once you start using objective/subjective simply to classify whether a position meets a special (theistic) definition of objectivity, you can’t use the usual arguments in favor of objectivity and against subjectivity because those are about different things.

    Lastly, Nix says

    Keep in mind that pain is subjective. People have differing thresholds of pain tolerance. Any moral propositions that are determined based on pain is ultimately subjective.

    That doesn’t mean there can’t be laws that account for the variation. Imagine if someone said there could be no objective study of weather because weather is different depending on the location and time of year. Such an argument would be lacking in imagination.

    And being subjective doesn’t necessarily mean non-objective. Subjective can be understood as a subset of the objective, rather than as something outside of or parallel to the objective. And I think that makes the most sense of subjectivity.

    Comment by josef johann — January 29, 2011 @ 6:24 pm | Reply

    • I think you made a lot of good points. I agree with what you said about opinion. When I said morality isn’t “a matter of opinion” I am talking about relativism and the view that morality is a matter or preference similar to people who say “beauty is to the eye of the beholder.”

      Comment by James Gray — January 29, 2011 @ 9:40 pm | Reply

  2. While I’m here,

    [Pain is subjective.] Which means that it [pain] does not transcend humanity.

    In humans pain becomes real when the brain is in a certain state. The possibility of being in pain is transcendent as a description of a way a brain (or otherwise conscious entity) can be. It is meaningful regardless of whether it is embodied in a particular person.

    Comment by josef johann — January 29, 2011 @ 6:29 pm | Reply

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