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 11, 2011 at 12:50pm
OK, maybe "flavor" is a bad analogy.  But from what I know about anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, physics, and so forth, the idea that morality (a human filter overlaid on the world) would exist without human minds is a long stretch.  The Universe without the human cognitive filter is a soup of bubbling spacetime; even the hard boundaries between objects is a filter imposed by the limitations of human perception and the super-atomic scale of human interaction with the environment.  I'm highly doubtful that a bubbling soup of spacetime fluctuations - quarks popping into and out of existence, electromagnetic ripples, anN-dimensional surface of waves and bursts, and so forth - has anything to do with morality.  To me, it's like saying that the beauty of a work of art is embedded in the strong nuclear force that binds neutrons to protons.
Comment by Albert Bakker on April 11, 2011 at 2:06pm

My beliefs are in complete agreement with you. But they are beliefs, not certainties.

The fact remains that just about every meta-ethical position one can take has some serious criticisms to answer, all have advantages over the competition and none is provably right. If someone is interested in getting headaches on a regular basis, philosophy of meta ethics is for you.

Comment by Tom Margolis on April 11, 2011 at 2:19pm

Ah, well, at some point, the evidence is so overwhelming that hypotheses (beliefs) act like certainties.  I have no absolute proof that the center of the Moon is not composed of peanut butter and fairy dust, or that frogs are not time-traveling robot aliens with magical powers which make them seem to be frogs - those are just "beliefs" of mine - but the evidence supporting my beliefs is so overwhelming that we can act as if they are not true.  Same with dinosaurs: we can't *prove* that they existed, but I bet we're all comfortable believing that they did due to the overwhelming supportive evidence.


*Nothing* is provably right.  The essence of the scientific method is falsifiability, not provability.  So, I'm comfortable with my certainty that frogs aren't robots, the Moon doesn't have a peanut-buttery center, and bubbling spacetime doesn't have feelings.  But that's just me!


This is a fascinating dialog, by the way; thanks for carrying it along.

Comment by Albert Bakker on April 11, 2011 at 3:35pm

Yes, but you cannot apply the tools for scientific demarcation, as are still being developed within the philosophy of science by the way, directly to meta-ethics.

I'm going to cut a few corners here, but in science you don't disprove a hypothesis, for example "the center of the Moon is composed of peanut butter" but you come up with an experiment (can be purely observational) with a maximal difference between the outcomes of the Moon having a core of peanut butter or a core of any other material.

If one fails to come up with an experiment then the null hypothesis is that the Moon would not be a super-highly improbable anomalous exception to our entire consistent body of background knowledge about astronomical objects. This is where deviations from naive falsificationism mostly happen I think.

You can't apply this methodology straightforwardly to differentiate between moral philosophies that are internally consistent and with the body of background knowledge.

We can say that, with all the knowledge we have of neurology and for example the correspondences between lesions in certain parts of the brain and certain typical deviations from what you could call normal moral behavior or influence on decision processes it would seem to suggest a high probability at least that morality doesn't exist separate from brain processes as it is actualized by the brain and revealed through behavior. But actually it says nothing about moral propositions being objective and existing (in metaphysical sense of course) separate from a person regardless of his/ her ability to act accordingly, just because moral truths exist separate from the moral judgments and moral behavior of that person. So you can't decide upon studying observables, id moral behavior.

That's why I think extremely smart moral philosophers will go on defending all sides in an ever proliferating spectrum of ever more sophisticated positions and the discussion will go on to become so complex, difficult and specialized that nobody can oversee the entirety of the field or even much beyond their own niche.

I don't really have a stake in this. On the one side to me it seems unnecessary and superfluous to propose that morality exists separate from us. And on the other side I can see the advantages of such a philosophy as it would simplify things markedly for a science of morality, but really I am undecided in this matter. I am in doubt you could say, an agnostic.

Comment by Tom Margolis on April 11, 2011 at 4:01pm
OK - maybe quarks feel lust.
Comment by Albert Bakker on April 11, 2011 at 4:20pm

Well could be, they seem really happy in couples or threesomes. On an aside feeling lust isn't a moral proposition.

Comment by Tom Margolis on April 11, 2011 at 5:00pm
Alright - lust is not a moral proposition. How about this?:
"Quarks are influenced by [insert moral proposition here]."
My point remains the same.
Comment by Albert Bakker on April 12, 2011 at 12:53am
I'm not sure which point you are trying to make because really the validity of the realist position is not depending on inanimate objects being influenced by the truth or falsehood of a moral proposition whether moral claims are facts or opinions.
Comment by Tom Margolis on April 12, 2011 at 9:13am

My mistake.  I thought we were still addressing the original post, which addressed morality without God, where:

"The terms ethics and morality can be used interchangeably..."

In a Universe without Life - say, just after the Big Bang - ethics don't exist, because ethics are a mental construct of humans (and possibly of other animals).

I suspect the particular term "moral proposition" means something besides ethics in the semantics of philosophy, and I suspect that meaning is what you were addressing. 

Anyway, now that the conversation has veered off into a semantic debate, we can probably drop it.  We agree that ethics don't exist without humans, which addresses the issue of "morality without God".

Comment by Albert Bakker on April 12, 2011 at 4:33pm

Alright,I agree. On all things practical we seem to agree anyway.


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