Objective Morality or Ethics is Possible Without god

In the April 7, 2011 debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig regarding whether or not objective morality is possible without god, Craig refused to accept that an objective morality of this type is possible; in fact, he said that if there were no god, objective morality would be impossible. He believes this to such an extent that he believes the use of the terms moral or morality must be reserved to those actions based on belief in and adherence to a god – specifically, the god of the christian faith.

This post will be a direct response to Craig. Debates do not really work with people such as this. They are more concerned with saying as much as they can in favour of their own position, of convincing the audience of the epistemological advantage they have over their opponent, rather than engaging honestly with them. So, Craig, in this post I hope to evidence that we can develop an objective morality in the absence of belief in (any) god. However, before I get into the argument proper, I feel it would be appropriate to discuss what we mean when we refer to ethics and morality.

The terms ethics and morality can be used interchangeably, though use of the term morality is most often associated with the ethical codes of a particular group of people, in particular, religious groups. So in a sense, Craig is right for associating morality with a religious belief, but to say that one cannot be moral, or ethical, without a belief in god is an unfounded utterance and cannot justifiably be made; given my secular nature, I will employ the term ethics here.

Ethics is defined by www.philosophypages.com as being concerned the evaluation of human conduct, or of evaluating what humans ought or ought not to do in general and in specific contexts. Ethical considerations are responsible for our valuations of right and wrong or good and bad. Ethical considerations govern everything from whether or not it is right or good to murder, to whether or not we should cheat on out taxes, or even if one religious group should be able to enforce their morality, regardless of its contents, upon the rest of a population who do not recognize the authority of those moral principles.

However, Craig argues that without an objective source for these ethical principles, an objective source of god, we who are immersed in the very activities we are trying to assign ethical evaluations too: agents in a subject reality cannot establish objective principles. While I will not go into an in depth discussion of this subject, I do wish to make an argument or two to demonstrate how we develop objective ethical principles.

Because we are not beginning with an assumption of a god who determines our ethics, we will use investigations of the world – what science, anthropology, history, sociology, and other disciplines. Science, for instance, reveals that human activities are causing large-scale environmental degradation – we are running out of top soil; our air is highly polluted; pesticides like DDT are present even in the polar ice caps; and, species are being hunted and fished to extinction – and that unless we change how we conduct ourselves, the earth will become toxic and incapable of sustaining life. Other disciplines like psychology and philosophy demonstrate that an entity that has interests has an interest in staying alive. We also know from these and other disciplines that entities beyond the class of humans have interests, and this includes, at minimum, other great apes and dolphins.

Given that life that has interests has an interest in staying alive, and given that species besides humans have these interests, these interests should determine how we conduct ourselves and interact with or affect the environment. Also, given our knowledge that human activities could result in the death of (nearly) all life on the planet, we must stop conducting ourselves as we have been. We must conduct ourselves in such a way that life can be maintained, if not flourish. Or, if you will, we ought to conduct ourselves in such a way that this planet remains hospitable to life.

Biology and animal psychology reveal that it is not only the human species of which some members are homosexual; other species, like dolphins, also have members who are homosexual. Furthermore, geneticists have discovered a “gay gene” demonstrating that homosexuality is more than the contents of one’s desires or beliefs; it is hardwired into who they are. We know that if we are basing or ethics on what experience and investigation reveal, then we have no justification, that is not arbitrary, to deny homosexuals the right to marry. And having no justification to deny such relationships, it would be wrong to do so. Or, if you will, we ought not to deny the validity of, nor prohibit in any way, these marriages.

These are just two examples, thought of rather on the spot, for how we can develop an objective morality without reference to, or a belief in, any god.

Others have provided arguments for ethical imperatives without making reference to god in their argument, even those who did believe in god. Kant, for instance, argued that for an action to be ethical, you must be able to will it to be a universal law, without this act of universalizing the principle ending up in contradiction. The example, commonly used, is lying. According to Kant we cannot will lying to be a universal law, because if everyone lied, lying would no longer be effective and thus redundant. On the other hand, there is no contradiction implied by universalizing the maxim that no one ever murder any other person. And Kant is but one example.

While this has been a cursory post offering an argument in favour of objective ethics not being reliant upon the existence and nature of a deity, I hope I have been successful in demonstrating my point. I would be open to discussing some of these points in more detail. Thanks for reading.

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Comment by Tom Margolis on April 10, 2011 at 7:56pm

As an atheist, I agree that morality has natural roots, but I think the above argument is superficial and beside the point.  Morality arises from the recognition that the Other is like me:  others feel pain as I do, others feel fear as I do, and so forth.  Morality - in particular, the Golden Rule - is essentially a form of generalized empathy.

The development of empathy is a natural part of the development of the human brain and of consciousness.  Around age one, humans begin to identify themselves as separate from the world and independent of other people.  Humans raised in functional environments naturally develop a sense of empathy - a recognition that others experience emotions as I do.  It takes a great deal of emotional and psychological abuse to produce a sociopath - a human with a stunted sense of empathy - but even the most isolated sociopath exhibits empathy under certain conditions (for instance, for particular animals).

Moral systems are extensions of an essential, natural attribute of human consciousness: empathy.  And the development of empathy in humans can be tracked independently of belief in a deity.

Comment by Brian Bridson on April 10, 2011 at 8:15pm
Tom. Please do not consider this the totality of my ethical understanding. I raised these as simple examples for how objective ethics can exist independent of belief in a god. Mirror neurons are an important example of why we need not look beyond ourselves for ethics development.
Comment by Ron V on April 10, 2011 at 9:51pm
Comment by Tom Margolis on April 10, 2011 at 10:10pm
Brian: OK!
Comment by Albert Bakker on April 11, 2011 at 1:24am

The term objective morality as I understand it being used by Craig referred specifically to moral realism.

Moral realism holds that there exist moral propositions that are true or false objectively, thus not for example derived from evolutionary adaptations resulting in altruistic behavior, but pre-existing to that and in principle even independent of biological life.

Rationalizing morality by derivation or trying to hone in on some sort of scientific understanding of a body of moral rules by taking for example some utilitarian standard as one of the criteria by which to measure effects is still standing with both legs in the realm of moral relativism. Or at least you cannot be sure, because these methods don't provide for a demarcation tool. Finding a unique answer to a moral question could still be time dependent for instance.

I think you are right that the existence of a God isn't necessary for objective morality as you understand it to be true, I'd go further and say moral realism could be true without a God and it could just as easily not. The other way around moral relativism could be true with a God.

Moral realism, especially in monotheistic, religious context leads to the Euthyphro dilemma: Is what is good because God commanded it or did God commanded what is good because it is good.

Comment by Loop Johnny on April 11, 2011 at 4:28am

I think this is too far-fetched. Why must we presume there is an objective morality when we ourselves are subjective. I think the answer to this is simple: we have a subjective ever-changing morality, not an objective, static one.

Firstly, morality (as I view it) is a set of actions each individual ought to take in order to maximise our overall efficiency ( like we all are cogs in a machine ). The example of environmentalism comes to mind since it requires a collective effort.

Let's presume that there is an objective morality. If that was so, then it would have to be the rulebook for every specie ( not just for human beings ) or hypothetical aliens. Since we know we cannot apply the same rules to any specie ( like "Thou shalt not kill" that we all view it as true, it may not be applicable to, let's say, bees or ants or any other organism that has to kill in order to maximise its overall efficiency ). That is why we are using some rules that we developed over time that just applies only to humans ( thus, making them to be subjective ). Maybe our morality wouldn't be  good for another population of a different organism.


In a world where there are no conscious beings ( let's say it is a universe full of rocks ) morality wouldn't be present ( thus, morality depends on the inhabitants of a certain environment -> so, it changes according to the environment and to the inhabitants -> so, that morality is subjective ).


To make it clear, morality is static IF the environment and the inhabitants are the same ( if the environment is Earth and the inhabitants are homo-sapiens-sapiens, then the ethics for them would be the same indifferent of the culture ). So, it is wrong, by todays standards, to kill or mutilate a young girl ( even though your Qu'ran tells you so ) because that would have future consequences that will slow our collective progress.


We can determine if an action is good or bad ( right;wrong ) by simulating ( usually we do that with our imagination ) what would be the outcome/consequences of that action. If the outcome fits our collective interests, then it is a good thing to do, and if the outcome would be against our interests ( causing more problems ) then that action is wrong. When I say "collective interests" I refer to the sum of all the interests each individual agent has in its system/environment. Similar to Sam Harris' moral landscape. I use "interest" instead of "well-being" because it is more encompassing.


I think in the future, computer simulations will better give us the answers to what actions might be right. We have to take into account the consequences from a collective point-of-view.

Comment by Albert Bakker on April 11, 2011 at 5:47am

If we were only able to make truth claims (besides conceptual ones) based on our subjective understanding of the world, that doesn't mean that those truths are therefore subjective. It just means our knowledge of them isn't necessarily complete.

Also it need not be necessarily so that if moral realism is true, I think, that moral incentives have equal weight in the behavior of every species. A moral obligation implies ability (including of course understanding.) Therefore an omnipotent God would have different moral obligations than humans, even if strictly the truth of the underlying moral proposition remains unchanged by this transformation.

Thus it remains to be seen if the Universe were void of life that therefore moral propositions aren't decidable in principle in such a Universe, were we theoretically able to probe it somehow from the outside. They might exist, but just not actualized through conscious beings acting morally or immorally. 

Personally I don't believe it either. I believe that morality is a quality that we superimpose on the interactions of conscious beings. The point is that philosophically it is as of yet unproven and possibly unprovable to decide whether or not moral realism is true and that it is contingent on the existence of a God, but not depending on it.

Comment by Tom Margolis on April 11, 2011 at 8:58am

> if the Universe were void of life...

Moral propositions in a Universe devoid of life makes no more sense than flavor in a Universe devoid of life.  Morality is, as Albert says, "a quality we superimpose", like flavor (which, like morality, has both physiological and psychological roots).  Morality requires value judgements.  Quarks and electromagnetic radiation are value-free; human minds impose value.

Comment by Tom Margolis on April 11, 2011 at 9:04am

> computer simulations will better give us the answers to what actions might be right

That's like saying that computer simulations will give us answers about what music is good, or what clothing is sexy.  Morality is not separable from the physiology, psychology, and emotions of humans.  Your cultural upbringing, your neurochemical state, your midbrain (molded through evolution), a strong smell in the room, your interpretation of social signals, and so forth, all influence and define moral decisions.


We *have* a computer that tells us what actions may be right: it's called the human mind.

Comment by Albert Bakker on April 11, 2011 at 12:18pm

"Moral propositions in a Universe devoid of life makes no more sense than flavor in a Universe devoid of life."

That sounds plausible, but is in fact begging the question if you imply that "making no more sense" means "is equally untrue." In your comparison you are presupposing that morality is like flavor, a quality that we as conscious beings impose on the world where there exists no such thing. But that was the question I tried to pose and clarify in my unfortunate example, whether a moral judgment really is something like judging a flavor or (if moral realism is true) is something more akin to guessing the true value of a constant of nature.

(On second thought, well actually third, maybe this all just leads to more obfuscation than clarity.)


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