Ethical Realism

June 7, 2011

Philosophical Thought & An Illustration of An Objection

We can learn how to think more like a philosopher by engaging in philosophical debate, reading philosophy, thinking about the nature of philosophical argumentation, and examining the thought process of philosophers. A philosophy professor can be very helpful as a guide to help people engage in philosophical argumentation by helping them verbalize their arguments and avoid fallacious reasoning. Since I am writing about philosophical argumentation, I am not able to help guide your philosophical thoughts as you engage in philosophical debate. However, I can help you peer into the thoughts of someone who engages in philosophical thought. In particular, I will discuss the thinking involved with constructing a philosophical objection.

Imagine Rose and Tina have a discussion and Rose argues the following:

It’s immoral to be an atheist because the belief in God is needed to act morally. The evidence can be found in the Bible. For example, Psalm 14 states, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.”

Step 1: What’s Tina’s argument?

Tina disagrees with Rose’s argument. She doesn’t immediately know what to say to Rose about that argument, but she spends time thinking about it and decides to write an email to Rose about why she disagrees. Before coming up with an objection to explain why she disagrees, Tina will think about what exactly Rose wants to argue. She should explain Rose’s argument to the best of her ability and make sure to be charitable to Rose’s argument rather than to distort it. She has to prove that the best formulation of the argument will fail because if Tina can prove that the most persuasive formulation of Rose’s argument is unconvincing or implausible, then the debate could be over. Otherwise Rose could just rephrase and clarify her argument and the whole debate will have to start all over again. When we only refute a poor formulation of an argument, then people will not only be insulted, but they will find our objections to be irrelevant to their beliefs. Of course, this is just an ideal we can try to live up to. Tina might not live up to this ideal perfectly, even if she gives it a good try.

What exactly is Rose’s argument? It has one explicit premise and a conclusion:

  1. The belief in God is needed to act morally.
  2. Therefore, it’s immoral to be an atheist.

However, this argument has an invalid argument form as it is currently stated. Perhaps the belief in God is needed to act morally, but it might still be morally permitted to be an atheist. For example, if it’s impossible to believe in God, then it might not be immoral to be an atheist, even if it is needed to act morally. To demand the impossible is inappropriate. Nonetheless, the argument can be given a valid argument form by figuring out what assumption is missing from the argument. Tina decides that the hidden premise is “if the belief in God is needed to act morally, then it’s immoral to be an atheist.” We can then re-write the argument as the following:

  1. The belief in God is needed to act morally.
  2. If the belief in God is needed to act morally, then it’s immoral to be an atheist.
  3. Therefore, it’s immoral to be an atheist.

This is now a valid argument—if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. It’s impossible for the premises to be true, and the conclusion to be false at the same time.

Tina still isn’t done analyzing the argument because she needs to fully understand why Rose would agree with the premises. She needs to know—what’s the best justification for the premises? Let’s consider the justification for them:

Premise 1: The belief in God is needed to act morally

Why is the belief in God needed to act morally? Rose thinks that the Bible says so, which would be an appeal to authority. However, arguments from authority are often fallacious and they will only succeed when the authority can provide sufficient justification for their claims. In this case the Bible doesn’t actually provide the scientific research to prove it’s claim.

Nonetheless, there might be a better justification. Rose could argue that some people might seem to behave in accordance with morality, but only people who believe in God have true moral worth insofar as they act because of their moral beliefs and proper moral reasoning. For example, evil people might give to charity to help improve their reputation without having any moral worth. The decision to give to charity in this example seems to be the right thing to do but it wasn’t done because it’s the right thing to do. Evil people could give to charity, even if it wasn’t the right thing to do as long as it seems likely to improve their reputation.

On the other hand a good person can give to charity because it’s the right thing to do, and will only give to charity when she believes it’s the right thing to do (based on her moral reasoning).

Why would anyone think atheists can’t behave morally? Why can’t they be good people? That is unclear.

Premise 2: If the belief in God is needed to act morally, then it’s immoral to be an atheist

It’s wrong to choose to live in a state that makes it impossible to act morally. For example, it would be wrong to choose to live one’s life asleep, to go insane, or to permanently lose one’s responsibility through continual intoxication. The question is then to what extent one has a duty to try to believe in God. If a person is convinced that believing in God is needed to be moral, then it seems likely that such a person would at least have reason to study the most sophisticated arguments in favor of God.

Step 2: Why disagree with the premises?

Although Tina disagrees that it’s immoral to be an atheist, she must still agree with Rose as long as Rose’s argument is sound—if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. If the premises are rationally required, then the conclusion is rationally required. The question is then whether Tina can find anything wrong with the premises. She considers each premise and why someone could rationally disagree with it:

Premise 1: The belief in God is needed to act morally

Tina will find this premise to be unconvincing for two reasons. First, atheists often do act in accordance with morality. Second, many atheists believe in right and wrong. Perhaps Tina is ultimately right that morality requires God, but many atheists disagree. Atheists can have moral worth as long as they can know enough about morality and choose to do the right thing because it’s the right thing. Atheists are not required to know the ultimate reality involving morality. Whether God actually created morality is not something anyone fully understands. Tina could say, “Assuming morality exists but God doesn’t, the atheist can still act morally and have moral worth.”

It might be impossible to know when an action has real moral worth. It’s hard to know when a person does the right thing as a result of moral reason rather than as a result of self-interest and nonmoral desires. We might deceive ourselves into thinking we are more morally virtuous than we really are. Nonetheless, this seems like no more of a problem for atheists than for theists.

Premise 2: If the belief in God is needed to act morally, then it’s immoral to be an atheist

A potential problem with this premise is that it’s not obvious that atheists can choose to be theists. First, not all atheists think the belief in God is required for morality, so they aren’t interested in finding a reason to believe in God. Second, even atheists who were at one time convinced that God was needed for morality and tried to persuade themselves that God exists might no longer be persuaded. It might not really be up to us to believe in God because we tend to believe whatever seems to be probably true based on the evidence available. Therefore, premise 2 is inadequately justified because we ought not do what is impossible of us. Even if God was needed to act morally, it seems plausible that atheists could still be unconvinced that God exists based on their ability to reason, and they might not have a choice to believe in God when they think it’s likely that God doesn’t exist. It can’t be morally wrong when it’s impossible for us to do otherwise.

Another potential problem with the premise is that it is plausible to think that we ought to believe whatever is likely true based on the available evidence. If atheists have good reasons to be atheists, then it might be unethical for them to believe that God exists.

Step 3: Presentation of the objection

Once Tina knows why one of the premises of Rose’s argument is inadequately justified, she already has an objection, and she can explain to the best of her ability why the argument is unconvincing. At this point Tina has already thought of her objection, but it still needs to be written out.

Note that Tina is prepared to explain why Rose’s argument is unjustified, even though she isn’t yet prepared to prove that being an atheist isn’t immoral. Perhaps there’s another more convincing argument that could prove that it’s morally wrong to be an atheist. Tina could eventually provide her own argument to prove that atheism isn’t immoral, but that is not the task at hand here. The task at hand here is to fully explain why Rose’s argument is unconvincing. Tina can use a variety of argument strategies, give examples, and perhaps even use a thought experiment.

Rose’s argument will require at least two premises to reach the conclusion, so all Tina has to do to make her point is prove a single premise of Rose’s argument to be unjustified. For this reason she decides to only discuss why premise 1 is unjustified:

I will present an objection to the argument that “being an atheist is immoral because (a) we need to believe in God to be moral; and (b) if we need to believe in God to be moral, then it’s immoral to be an atheist.” I will discuss two ways to justify the premise that we need to believe in God to be moral: One, the Bible says so. Two, it’s impossible for atheists to behave as a result of moral reasoning. I will argue that neither of these justifications are persuasive enough to accept the premise. First, the biblical source is a fallacious appeal to authority. Second, some atheists seem capable of moral reasoning.

A biblical source doesn’t prove it to be true because we don’t know that the Bible is infallible or inerrant, and we might not even interpret the Bible correctly. The idea that atheists can’t possibly do anything good is unjustified insofar as there is no scientific study with that conclusion, but it also seems false based on our experience that atheists don’t go around committing crimes or hurting people. Using the Bible as a justification for an argument is inappropriate because the authority we appeal to must be able to independently justify its conclusions, but the Bible doesn’t do that in this case. Additionally, an appeal to authority is fallacious when the authority is controversial. The Bible is an authority used by many people, but it is controversial and it contradicts similar sources of religious authorities, such as the Qur’an. We can’t use the Bible as an authority in a debate for the same reason we can’t use the Qur’an as an authority in a debate, and for the same reason we can’t use the controversial opinion of a scientist as an authority in a debate when there is disagreement among the relevant scientists.

Although the Bible might not be an adequate justification, it might be claimed that atheists can’t be moral insofar as they can’t do the right thing by being motivated by moral reason. An evil person can give to charity to improve their reputation, but this action has no moral worth because it wasn’t done to help people as a result of moral reasoning. Perhaps atheists only act out of self-interest rather than as a result of moral reasoning. However, we have no reason to think that atheists can’t believe in morality and be motivated as a result of their moral reasoning. In fact, many atheists say that they do believe in morality and try to use moral reasoning. A good example is Epicurus, who was an atheist philosopher who developed his own virtue ethics. Many other moral philosophers alive today are atheists, such as Peter Singer. Their life’s work is to understand moral reason, and they don’t think God has anything to do with it. Well known atheist scientists Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan were also interested in being moral, understanding morality, and using moral reasoning. You can read some of Carl Sagan’s thoughts about morality in his essay “The Rules of the Game” (PDF).

Rather than thinking atheists can’t be moral, it seems more plausible to think that such slanderous beliefs against atheists is immoral. It’s wrong to discriminate against groups of people without a very strong justification to do so. The idea that atheists can’t be moral seems like little more than a form of dehumanizing (or demonizing) prejudice. People have claimed that their “enemies” are evil, inhuman, subhuman, animalistic, and irrational throughout history. Atheists were seen as evil (as people who do abominable works and incapable of doing good works), as subhuman (as people who are incapable of moral reason), animalistic (people who act out of emotion instead of reason), and so on. Similarly dehumanizing things are occasionally said about women, black people, Muslims, and homosexuals. Imagine that someone claims that women, blacks, Muslims, or homosexuals are incapable of being moral or being motivated from moral reason. This seems like blatant prejudice against these minority groups, and yet people still think it’s true about atheists. Why exactly atheists deserve this sort of discrimination but no one else does is unclear. It seems analogous to the same sort of prejudice against the other groups. We all have heard about racism, sexism, and homophobia. Prejudice against Muslims is still somewhat fashionable, but we now have the term ‘Islamophobia.’ Perhaps we should call prejudice against atheists ‘atheistophobia.’

I haven’t proven the premise that “we need to believe in God to be moral” to be false once and for all, but I have given us reasons to reject this premise, and to even find it to be immoral and unreasonable to have such a belief.

Step 4: Consider counterarguments

Although Tina has already explained her objection, more could still be said. It’s usually a good idea to consider why people will disagree with your argument and try to explain why such counterarguments aren’t persuasive. Why would anyone disagree with Tina’s objection? For one thing theists could equate “morality” with “obedience to God.” If morality is nothing but the requirement that we obey God’s commands, then atheists can’t be moral. Perhaps the moral theories that atheists accept are false systems that only resemble proper moral reasoning. Tina will anticipate this objection and give the following reply:

Firstly, if morality is nothing but obedience to God’s commands, then it seems reasonable to agree that atheists can’t act based on moral reason because atheists don’t believe in commandments given by God. However, it’s implausible that morality is nothing other than obedience to God’s commands. Such a notion raises the question about whether or not those commandments are justified from moral reasoning. Suppose God does exist. Does God forbid murder simply because she doesn’t like it, or does she dislike murder because she knows that murder is wrong? If God only forbids whatever she doesn’t like, then her commandments are subjective demands that don’t seem to have the kind of importance we intuitively expect morality to have. Our parents can dislike our behavior (e.g. marrying someone of another race), but such demands can be immoral and we can have a good reason to be disobedient. It’s not clear why God’s desires and demands are so different than that of anyone else (unless they are based on moral knowledge beyond God’s desires).

Secondly, if we can explain why murder is wrong without discussing God’s desires, then morality and God are conceptually separable for people, and we can use moral reasoning without believing in God. For example, human life might have value, and it might be wrong to destroy things with value without a sufficiently good reason to do so. Murderers don’t have sufficiently good reasons for killing people, and that could be why murder is wrong. This is a much more plausible option. God doesn’t have to be mentioned in any of this, so atheists are able to use moral reasoning without believing in God. If God exists and murder is wrong, then she could forbid murder because she knows why murder is wrong. If God doesn’t exist and murder is wrong, then we can still know why murder is wrong.

Even if God is the source of all morality, it is not clear that we need God to reason about morality properly or to make moral decisions. Perhaps God is the source of the entire universe, but that wouldn’t stop atheists from reasoning about the universe. Atheists would not then have to deny the existence of the universe. It would also seem possible for atheists to reason about morality and accept the existence of morality, even if God is the source of morality.

Thirdly, if we assume that morality is nothing other than obedience to God, then we might wonder if morality is arbitrary. We all agree that morality must include the idea that murder is wrong, but if morality is nothing other than our conformity to the desires of God, then it’s not entirely clear that murder is always wrong or will always be wrong. What God commanded us in the past isn’t necessarily what God will always command because—for all we know—God’s desires could change. It’s also not clear why we should even care about the arbitrary and subjective interests of God.

Fourthly, very few moral philosophers think morality requires God, and the view that morality is nothing other than obedience to God contradicts the opinions of just about every moral philosopher. Consequentialists and deontologists are the main groups of moral philosophers, but their moral theories can be applied without assuming the existence of God. The assumption that God exists is rarely even introduced in moral philosophy. Consequentialists, such as Peter Singer, think we should do whatever does the most good and the least amount of bad. W. D. Ross, a deontologist, thinks we have duties to keep our promises, help people, refuse to hurt people, etc.; but none of these duties mentions God.

My point is not that morality couldn’t possibly be created by God, but that (a) the belief that real morality is nothing but obedience to God is counterintuitive, and (b) that very smart people who are very interested in being morally reasonable usually don’t think moral reason requires the belief in God. The idea of proving that atheists can’t be moral be defining morality in a theistic way is unacceptable based on the tradition of moral philosophy—the closest thing we have to moral expert opinion. It’s not how the philosophical tradition currently understands morality.

I haven’t proven that morality is more than obedience to God’s commandments once and for all, but I have shown this position to be counterintuitive and given us reason to reject it based on the actual tradition of moral philosophy.


Each “step” discussed here requires a great deal of thought. A theoretical understanding of good reasoning and a great deal of practice can do a lot to help us improve our ability to be reasonable, and I hope that the illustration of philosophical thinking above will also help.

(Updated 11/25/2013)

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