Theists often say that atheism is incompatible with objective morality. This point is not that atheists are bad people or can’t understand morality. The point is that they think there has to be a basis (found in reality) for morality to be objective, and they think only God can be that basis. Many atheists don’t think there’s objective morality, and they might agree that atheism is incompatible with objective morality. However, I will argue that atheism and objective morality are compatible.
I will provide some important terminology, introduce Plato’s “Euthyphro,” explain the possible connection between theism and objective morality, describe other types of objective morality, argue that atheism and objective morality are compatible, and briefly illustrate a view of objective morality.
What does it mean to think that atheism is incompatible with objective morality? And what do we mean by ‘atheism’ and ‘objective morality?’
In this context, I define atheism in the following way:
atheism – The view that gods don’t exist.
Some people define atheism as “lacking a belief in a god,” but that is not the right definition in this context because the question is if we need god to have objective morality. The issue is if the belief that gods don’t exist is compatible with the existence of objective morality.
I define objective morality (or moral objectivism) in the following way:
objective morality – (1) The view that there are moral facts that are mind-independent. Objective morality excludes views of moral facts that depend on subjective states or conventions. This form of moral objectivism requires a rejection of “moral subjectivism” and “moral constructivism.” (2) ‘Moral objectivism’ is sometimes used as a synonym for “moral realism.” (3) The view that there are true moral statements that are not true merely due to a convention or subjective state.
People rarely explain what they mean by ‘objective morality’ in a precise way, and it is not entirely clear what people mean by the term. I think that there are at least these three different definitions people can have in mind.
The first definition requires a certain type of moral realism, the second definition requires any type of moral realism, and the third definition could be compatible with moral anti-realism. For example, someone might think that it is rational for people to try to achieve certain goals (like avoid pain), and certain moral systems are needed for people to achieve those goals; but such people might think there are no “moral facts.”
I suspect that most theists who argue that God is required for morality are thinking that there is a “moral reality”—that morality isn’t just about achieving goals or having certain beliefs. (If it were, then I have no idea why they think God would be needed for morality.) Instead, morality has a connection to reality itself. For example, a view of objective morality might claim that “slavery is wrong” is true because slavery makes the world a worse place. Perhaps it makes people suffer needlessly. We have a reason not to cause needless suffering—perhaps because suffering is intrinsically bad.
Factual truth can be contrasted with fictional truth or institutional truths. We might say that it’s true that Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker’s Street, even though Sherlock Holmes is fictional. We might also say that it’s true that $5 is worth more than $1, even though money is not part of reality beyond the interests of people. The view that morality is objective in the moral realist sense is the view that morality is part of reality itself beyond fiction or our interests. (It could be a fact about suffering that we have a reason not to cause needless suffering, or that suffering is intrinsically bad.)
I define ‘moral realism,’ ‘moral fact,’ and ‘intrinsic value’ as the following:
moral realism – The belief that moral facts exist, and that true moral propositions are true because of moral facts—not merely true because of our beliefs or desires (such as a social contract, convention, popular opinion, or agreement). Many moral realists believe that intrinsic values exist. A moral realist could say, “Murder is wrong because human life has intrinsic value, not merely because you believe that it’s wrong.” Some philosophers argue that moral realism requires a rejection of “moral constructivism” and “subjectivism,” but that is a contentious issue. See “moral fact” and “moral anti-realism” for more information.
moral fact – The reality, relations, or state of affairs that make moral statements true. One potential example is “all things equal, torture is morally wrong” because suffering is intrinsically bad (or that we have a reason not to cause pain). Moral facts are not taken to be facts that only concern our beliefs and desires. Saying that it’s a fact that torturing is morally wrong could not refer to the fact that people of some society agree that pain is bad.
intrinsic value – Something with value just for existing. We might say happiness is “good for its own sake” to reflect that it is good without merely being useful to help us attain some other goal. If something is intrinsically good, then it is something we should try to promote. For example, if human life is intrinsically good, then all things equal, saving lives would plausibly be (a) rational, (b) a good thing to do, and (c) the right thing to do.
When talking about objective morality in this context, I will defend the compatibility between certain types of moral realism and atheism. However, that does not require me to argue that moral realism is true, and it certainly doesn’t require that I argue that intrinsic values exist. My point is merely that if there’s objective morality (in the sense that moral realism is true), then we can’t jump to the conclusion that a god exists. It is possible that no gods exist and that there’s objective morality.
One famous dialogue related to the question about a divine relationship to morality is Plato’s “Euthyphro,” where Socrates questions the view that what is pious is based on whatever the gods prefer. Is it pious to worship the gods because they want us to or because there is a good reason to worship the gods? We can ask a similar question about morality—All else equal, is it morally wrong to do something (such as torture people) because God doesn’t like it or because there is a good reason to think such a thing? If it’s just because God (or people in general) don’t like certain actions, then morality is subjective. If there is a good reason to think that some actions are wrong, then we need to know what that reason is. One possible answer to that question is that God’s existence somehow makes morality exist, but there are other possible answers, which I discuss below.
The possible connection between theism and objective morality
I do not deny that theism and objective morality are compatible, and I know of two different theistic types of moral realism:
One view is idealism. This is the view that God is the embodiment of perfection (the ideal person), and our level of virtue is determined by comparing ourselves to God. We all fall short of being perfect insofar as we are not omnipotent, omniscient, or morally perfect; but some of us do a better job than others. Some people are more like god than others insofar as they are wise, helpful, and refuse to cause needless suffering.
Another view is Thomism or natural law. This is the view that God created the universe (and everything in it) for some purpose (to do something good), and we can try to find out what those reasons are in order to do good things. In that case we will need to know what made things ‘good.’
One important question to ask about the Thomistic view is—Would those things cease to be good if God stopped existing? We need to know why some things are intrinsically good and others are bad. We might trust that God has a purpose for everything based on understanding what’s good and bad, but we still need to know how to determine when something is intrinsically good or bad. We also need to know that what determines intrinsic value is God himself or we might think the natural world might be sufficient for intrinsic values to exist.
One problem with these two theistic types of objective morality is that they seem to have little to no relation to why we actually think actions are right or wrong. I don’t think people investigate God’s nature to know that causing needless pain is morally wrong, or that they investigate God’s plan to know that causing needless pain is morally wrong either.
Other types of objective morality
The main reason to think that atheism and objective morality are compatible is because the study of morality that focuses on the basis for morality (called ‘meta-ethics’) is the specialization of philosophers, and those philosophers have developed plausible views of meta-ethics that have nothing to do with God. In particular, the moral realist views called “naturalism” and “intuitionism” don’t require God to exist, and they would fit under any of the three definitions of ‘objective morality.’ I do not claim to know that objective morality exists, but these are two of the more plausible meta-ethical theories that have been developed, and these two views don’t requires us to assume God exists.
I describe these two views in the following way:
Moral naturalism – The view that moral facts are ordinary facts of the same physical reality described by scientists (biology, psychology, and physics), and we know about these facts through observation. Many naturalists think that we can observe moral facts because they are identical to other natural facts. For example, pain and intrinsic badness could be identical—two ways to see the same thing. Philosophers argue that scientists discovered that water and H2O are identical and we can discover that pain and intrinsic badness are the same thing in a similar way.
Moral naturalism clearly requires no assumption of God because the natural world is taken to be a sufficient basis for morality. I realize that it can be argued that the natural world itself couldn’t exist without God, but atheists obviously don’t agree with that conclusion. Also, if God is required for the natural world to exist, then we would have no reason to single out morality as something that requires God because pretty much everything would require God anyway. Finally, note that we know that the natural world exists with greater certainty than we know that God exists. If we find out that God doesn’t exist, then we would still agree that the natural world exists.
What would it be like if moral naturalism were true? Perhaps our experience of suffering would be enough for us to know that “suffering” means the same thing as “intrinsically bad.” Perhaps we would then know that “all things equal, causing suffering is morally wrong” insofar as “morally wrong” means the same thing as “causes something intrinsically bad to exist without an overriding reason to do so.”
There’s also a somewhat similar view of meta-ethics to naturalism that we can know certain things about morality through observation without asserting any particular identity relation, which we could call epistemic moral naturalism. For example, the experience of suffering could be enough to know that suffering is intrinsically bad without necessarily requiring us to think that being intrinsically bad is identical to suffering. Instead, we might think that suffering is part of the world, and being intrinsically bad is a property of suffering (and perhaps it is also a property of something else). (Go here for information about a book that argues for a view similar to this.)
Meta-ethical intuitionism – (Also known as “moral non-naturalism.”) The view that observation is insufficient to explain all of our moral knowledge and at least some of our moral knowledge is based on intuition or contemplation that enables us to know self-evident facts. Once we fully understand a moral statement, that can be enough to know if it’s true. For example, it might be self-evident that all pain is intrinsically bad to anyone who fully understands what “pain” and “intrinsically bad” refer to. This is much like our knowledge of mathematics and logic. We can know that “2+2=4” just by understanding what the statement is saying. (Go here for information about a book that argues for this view.)
Meta-ethical intuitionism is compatible with multiple views of knowledge and reality, so it doesn’t require that we say that the natural world is all that exists. Let’s say meta-ethical intutionism is true, and the natural world is all that exists. In that case we might experience things that are intrinsically good or bad (such as suffering), but we might say that the concept of suffering itself requires us to know that suffering is intrinsically bad. If so, it would be theoretically possible to know that suffering is intrinsically bad just by understanding the concept.
An alternative type of intuitionism refers to platonism—the view that there are abstract objects that don’t exist in space or time. The first platonist was Plato, who argued that there are Forms (ideal ways for things to be), and that we could figure out what the Forms are. Plato thought the forms existed outside space and time. They are eternal and unchanging. We could then figure out what the ideal justice is like and try to apply that definition of justice to our lives or society at large.
What would it be like if platonism is true? The concept of suffering could be an abstract entity in that it describes something that doesn’t necessarily exist in the natural world. There could be conceptual relationships concerning suffering that are true, even when there is no suffering in the world. Perhaps could know that the concept of suffering requires us to know that suffering is intrinsically bad, and we could use that information to know that it is better for a world to have less needless suffering rather than more.
Note that meta-ethics is about the basis for morality, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us what is right or wrong by itself. Normative theories of ethics (such as Kantianism or utilitarianism) are meant to tell us when an action is morally right or wrong. For example, Utilitarianism would tell us that happiness is the only intrinsically good thing and suffering is the only intrinsically bad thing, and an action is right when it is the best option in terms of how happy it will cause people to be (or it’s right to the extent that it would realize that goal). There are clearly moral theories that do not require God’s existence (at least insofar as anything does not require God’s existence). (Go here for more information.)
Atheism and objective morality are compatible
As far as we know any of the above meta-ethical theories could be true, and philosophers continue to debate over which is most plausible. I would certainly not say that we know that naturalism is false or that intuitionism requires something more than the natural world or platonism. Morality could exist because things like suffering exist, or perhaps because of concepts (which might be abstract objects). The basis of morality is not necessarily God.
The view that God is the only possible basis for objective morality requires us to reject every meta-ethical view that doesn’t require God’s existence. That would require us to know that they are false, but we don’t know that at this time. Therefore, to say that God is the only basis for objective morality requires us to jump to a conclusion.
It has not been proven once and for all that God really is the basis for morality, and if God is the basis for morality, we have not proven once and for all why that is the case. If it is rationally permissible to assume that God is the basis for morality because of a preferred view of meta-ethics, then I would think it would also be rationally permissible for someone else to assume that God isn’t the basis for morality because of a different preferred view of meta-ethics. It would seem hypocritical to me to just assume one’s own view about such unproven matters has to be correct and everyone else is being irrational. And yet that is exactly what many theists seem to be doing who claim that God is the only possible basis for objective morality. They are saying we should assume that God is the basis for morality, and we should assume atheists are being irrational for assuming that God isn’t the basis for morality—even though philosophers have developed plausible versions of moral realism that are compatible with atheism.
Some philosophers argue that their favorite view of meta-ethics is the best one. They argue that there are problems with alternative views, and their favorite view seems to have the fewest problems. That’s good. We are more likely to have justified beliefs when we study the philosophical issues in detail and argue for our own views. However, I would not say that any philosopher has necessarily succeeded in proving that a certain meta-ethical view is the best at this point in time. The debate isn’t over yet, and I would not just assume people are being irrational for disagreeing with any meta-ethical view in particular. A philosopher might be justified on a personal level to think a certain meta-ethical view is best based on her personal understanding of things, but it would be going a step further to claim that no one else should disagree.
I think explaining a view of objective morality in detail can help illustrate how objective morality can exist whether or not God exists. I am not saying that the view I will present is true, but I would like to think it makes sense at the very least.
The basis of objective morality (assuming there is one) is controversial and any particular view about such a thing is going to be less plausible than statements, such as “all things equal, torture is morally wrong.” The question is how we can know statements like that to be true. The answer to that question is not obvious.
Consider that we think we know “all things equal, torture is morally wrong.” The idea here is that we shouldn’t torture people unless we have an overriding reason to do so, and there might never actually be an overriding reason to do such a thing.
Some people might say we have a reason not to torture people and they might think that’s enough. Perhaps there are no explanations to there being reasons like that. However, I think there could be explanations for such reasons. One potential reason is that suffering is intrinsically bad, and the whole point of torture is to cause suffering. Given the option of a world full of happy people and one where everyone suffers endlessly, we should prefer to have a world full of happy people. Saying that suffering is intrinsically bad means suffering is bad just for existing. There might be a sufficient reason to cause suffering, such as when it is necessary for a greater good. But in the absence of any overriding reasons to cause suffering, we shouldn’t do it.
The view that happiness is the only intrinsically good thing and suffering is the only intrinsically bad thing is called utilitarianism. Let’s assume utilitarianism is correct. The main idea of utilitarianism is that we should try to maximize happiness and minimize suffering. An action that maximizes suffering is morally right (at least to the extent that it maximizes suffering), and one that causes needless suffering is morally wrong (at least to the extent that it fails to maximize suffering or causes needless suffering).
Does the existence of intrinsic value require God? I see no reason to think so. The view that happiness is intrinsically good and suffering is intrinsically bad only requires that happiness and suffering exist in order for such things to matter for ethical decisions. We might wonder if intrinsic value requires us to say that something strange properties exist in the world, but even if so, I see no reason to think God would also be required.
You have experienced suffering in your life and experienced that it is intrinsically bad. You realize that the suffering you experience is just as bad when other people experience it. God doesn’t have to tell you it’s intrinsically bad. You can experience it for yourself.
The illustration here seems to be compatible with both theism and atheism. It is secular in the sense that it doesn’t require us to know if gods exist or not.
- Does Morality Require God?
- Morality, God, Relativism, and Nihilism
- Everyday Arguments that Morality Requires God
- William Lane Craig’s Moral Argument For God
- What Are Moral Facts?
- The Debate Over Moral Realism
- Five Meta-Ethical Theories
- FAQ On Intrinsic Value
- The Euthyphro (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- The Euthyphro (The text)