In a recent post it was argued that to have objective meaning in life, it is sufficient that there be intrinsically good activities we can pursue. Naturally, for theists the question arises, how can there be intrinsically good things without God? Doesn’t the very concept of goodness require grounding in God?

Most Christians would say yes, we can’t make sense of goodness, or indeed any objective moral values* without God. Even many atheists are happy to concede that moral realism (as it is known) seems to require a transcendent source. Moore’s Open Question Argument showed that moral properties could not be natural properties, leading atheists to deny moral properties exist. For example, Mackie states that “moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events, without an all-powerful god to create them”. As an atheist, Mackie concludes that there are no objective moral values .

In recent years, though, some philosophers have put forward non-natural, non-theistic versions of moral realism. For example, Erik J. Wielenberg believes that some ethical truths are necessary truths, that they are “fundamental features of the universe that ground other truths”. According to Wielenberg, some ethical truths don’t need to be grounded in God. They are simply brute facts – facts without explanation – that we have to accept. As non-natural facts, they are sui generis, in a class of their own.

Surprisingly, this view also finds some support from theists. For example, philosopher Richard Swinburne states that “fundamental moral principles must be (logically) necessary”. William Lane Craig concurs: “I agree wholeheartedly with Swinburne that some moral truths are necessary truths”.

Craig’s statement is initially puzzling, given that he is the champion of the moral argument that has as its basis the premise that if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. But how can this be the case if there are necessary moral truths? Surely necessary moral truths are not dependent on the existence of God?

Craig’s position is that necessary truths still require an explanation. He quotes Shelly Kagan’s The Limits of Morality: “unless we have a coherent explanation of our moral principles, we don’t have a satisfactory ground for believing them to be true”. So Craig is arguing that Wielenberg needs to explain why there are some necessary ethical truths. Without such an explanation, we have no reason to believe these truths.

In effect, Craig’s argument is that while there are necessary ethical truths, there are no necessary ethical truths that have no explanation, i.e. brute facts.

This is redolent of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), which states that for every fact F, there must be an explanation why F is the case.

There are two issues for Craig, though, regarding the PSR. The first is that the PSR is usually restricted to contingent truths, not necessary truths. Contingent truths are those truths that could have been false. If the PSR does not apply to necessary truths, then we can’t insist that necessary ethical truths require an explanation. Secondly, the PSR is controversial and is not accepted by many philosophers. Consequently, it is not particularly helpful in strengthening Craig’s demand for explanation, as it requires its own detailed justification.

Craig does, however, seem to have a point. If the necessity of certain ethical truths can be better explained with theism, perhaps this view should be preferred over non-theistic alternatives such as Wielenberg’s. Craig uses the example of “2+2=4” being a necessary truth that is grounded in Peano’s axioms, the set of statements that define the properties of natural numbers.

What then is Craig’s explanation for necessary ethical truths? Unsurprisingly, he thinks they are grounded in the necessary existence of God. Because God necessarily exists, certain ethical truths also necessarily exist. There are complications with this relationship,  though, and there is considerable debate about its nature.

Additionally, God’s necessary existence is considered by some theists to be “the ultimate brute fact”, as Swinburne puts it. Swinburne thinks God’s existence is contingent and has no explanation. This allows Wielenberg to claim that grounding necessary ethical truths in God still terminates in a brute fact, and so it is no more explanatory than regarding ethical truths themselves as brute facts. However many philosophers of religion disagree with Swinburne’s views here, regarding God’s existence as logically necessary. The explanation for God’s existence is generally regarded as lying within his own divine nature, i.e. God’s existence is self-explanatory. Wielenberg certainly makes no suggestion that necessary ethical truths are self-explanatory.

An issue for Wielenberg’s view is the correspondence between moral facts and our moral beliefs. If the universe contains basic moral facts, and these moral facts are causally inert, how do they become correlated with our beliefs? This is what Terence Cuneo calls the “remarkable coincidence”, and which Sharon Street considers is enough to reject moral realism – what she calls the Darwinian dilemma. Evolution is aimed at survival and fitness only. If it has also shaped the cognitive faculties that produce our moral beliefs, why should we think these moral beliefs have any relation to moral facts? This is really an argument about moral knowledge. Moral facts may exist, but how could we ever know what they are?

Rather than postulating a direct connection, both David Enoch and Wielenberg argue that there is a third factor responsible for binding moral facts to moral beliefs. This third factor is adaptive, but has only an indirect correlation with moral facts – our fitness enhancing beliefs also happen to produce our moral beliefs.

In Enoch’s view, survival is good, and since evolution is directed to survival, we develop beliefs about what is good. This is not particularly convincing, as it seems that Enoch has replaced one coincidence with another – how the results of natural selection just happen to align with moral truth. Wielenberg’s more nuanced argument is that we developed certain cognitive faculties that produce basic motivational tendencies that are adaptive. He focuses on tendencies that protect personal boundaries, as they will increase survivability. These cognitive faculties also allow us to develop beliefs about our rights.

Such arguments still seem to be question-begging. We believe survival is good, and that we have certain rights, but these are moral beliefs called into question by Street’s argument. Enoch and Wielenberg have not completely defused the evolutionary debunking argument, as it is known.

Another concern is what is known as the Anscombe intuition about moral obligations. In her famous paper Modern Moral Philosophy,  Anscombe argues that the unique authoritative character of moral obligations requires a law-giver. It is difficult to see how moral facts (even if they are obligations) provide the robust obligation that a divine command theory supplies, and Wielenberg struggles to justify this.

Conclusion

Recent non-theistic accounts of moral facts such those of Wielenberg and Enoch do provide an account for objective moral values without God. On these views, moral facts exist without explanation. It is a puzzle how moral facts are correlated with our moral beliefs, given that evolution aims at survival and fitness, and why we are obligated to pay attention to these moral facts is unclear.

Theists explain moral facts by appealing to the necessary existence of God. On the theistic view, moral obligation is also explained, and there is an account of why moral facts are correlated with moral beliefs.

There seems little reason to accept Wielenberg or Enoch’s view that brute moral facts just happen to exist and happily match our moral beliefs. Street’s Darwinian dilemma is persuasive, and on an atheistic view, it seems more realistic to attribute our intuitions about moral facts to evolutionary advantage rather than defend moral realism together with our moral knowledge.

 

*Moral facts and moral properties are often used interchangeably. For example, it is a moral fact that inflicting unnecessary pain on conscious beings is wrong. This can be restated as inflicting unnecessary pain on conscious beings has the property of being morally wrong. What about objective moral values? Moral facts are facts about objective moral values.

 

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26 thoughts on “Can objective moral values exist without God?

  1. It seems to me that a lot of philosophers have made a fairly simple concept incomprehensible. The problem might better be addressed by the kind of people who write dictionaries. They are concerned with the practical problem of “what does the word ‘good’ mean?” On the philosophy side I suppose these would be the semanticists.

    We attribute the word “good” to those things that are beneficial to us, either as individuals, as societies, or as a species. And we call “bad” those things that harm us. What could be simpler?

    Moral judgment (questions of good and evil) become objective questions to the extent that we can objectively know what is actually good for us and what is actually harmful to us. And we objectively know a lot of this from medicine and science. For example, we know that it is objectively good to give the man dying in the desert a glass of water. And it is objectively bad to give the same glass of water to the guy drowning in the swimming pool. So there’s a lot of morality that is very simple.

    On the other hand, as the problems become more complex, it becomes more difficult to estimate whether we will be better off or worse off by things like instituting gay marriage.

    Moral intent (Kant’s “good will”) becomes the agape love in Matthew 22:35-40. Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest principle?”, and Jesus said the first principle is to love God and the second principle is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. As a Humanist, I translate that to “love Good, and to love Good for others as you love it for yourself”.

    And the meta-ethics is found in verse 40: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, the rules serve the love of good, for ourselves and others.

    Our deontological intuitions come from two places: 1) our instinctual application of objective moral judgment to simple, straightforward issues, and 2) those ethics we are taught by our parents, teachers, peers, etc. which then become instinctual by habit.

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    1. “We attribute the word “good” to those things that are beneficial to us, either as individuals, as societies, or as a species. And we call “bad” those things that harm us. What could be simpler?”

      I don’t think it is quite that simple. If by “good” you mean beneficial, you can always ask what is it about being beneficial that makes something good? (which is Moore’s open question argument).

      “Moral judgment (questions of good and evil) become objective questions to the extent that we can objectively know what is actually good for us and what is actually harmful to us. And we objectively know a lot of this from medicine and science. For example, we know that it is objectively good to give the man dying in the desert a glass of water. And it is objectively bad to give the same glass of water to the guy drowning in the swimming pool. So there’s a lot of morality that is very simple.”

      Why is it objectively good to prevent someone from dying of thirst? Why do we care at all?

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      1. By creation, or by nature, we do care. Every living organism comes with a built-in purpose: to survive, to thrive, and to reproduce. We observe this in the tree sending its roots into the ground and its leaves up to the sky. Under the microscope we observe parasites invading other life forms to survive and reproduce. We witness the lioness bring down the buffalo to feed her young. We see bees build hives, termites build mounds, and people build cities.

        When the biologist asks “Why?”, the common answer is that every extant life form comes with a built-in motive to satisfy its own needs for survival. We presume that evolution has pruned from the tree of life those species that lack this built-in drive or which could not successfully satisfy it.

        So this is the answer to “Why do we care at all?”, it is because we are built to care.

        And for social animals, like us, we have discovered that cooperation through mutual agreements better enables each of us to thrive. These agreements include the rules (laws and ethics) that we will live by.

        Are there any other unanswered questions?

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      2. We call something “good” if it meets a real need we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. Our basic physiological needs must be satisfied in order to survive. Everyone will agree that we need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, moderate temperatures, shelter, clothing, a mate to reproduce, etc. (We even use the term “goods” to refer to items of food, clothing, or other necessities.)

        Abraham Maslow wrote of a hierarchy of needs, beginning with physical necessities and ending at the top of the pyramid with self-actualization. There may be other schemes, but I’m not trying to explore them here. It is sufficient to the argument to stick with the physiological needs for now.

        Having needs and satisfying them is what distinguishes inanimate matter from living organisms. The reason living organism move (are animated) is to satisfy their needs. And thus every living organism is a purposeful causal agent, causing changes to its environment to satisfy a purpose to survive, thrive, and reproduce.

        From this very basic level we can immediately identify certain objective goods and objective harms — so objective as to be beyond reasonable dispute. Like the fact that it is morally good to give someone dying of thirst in the desert a glass of water and it is morally bad to give the same glass of water to someone drowning in the swimming pool.

        In a social world, where our moral objective is to achieve the best possible good and least possible harm for everyone, we can also make objective assertions such as, “It is morally wrong that some people starve while everyone else has excess food.”

        And this is not a subjective opinion. It is an objective conclusion based upon what people need to survive.

        Not every issue will be so clear cut. But this simple establishment of what is objectively good can lead us to the right questions to ask about any moral issue: “What are the benefits and harms that we can reasonably expect from choosing this rule versus that rule?”

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  2. Morality, history tells us, must have an underlying narrative to find its feet. In 1940’s Germany the moral outlook was based on national pride. We do this for the sake of a greater good. If “This” appears evil it is for the greater nation. We must kill to protect such and such within a larger domain. It was morally sound to kill off disabled people because of the cost to the nation and so on. Moreover, I can help an old lady across a road while holding bad thoughts about a neighbour. Jesus tells us He knows our thoughts, and that it is our inner mind that He seeks to heal. Therefore we can be morally good, but spiritually sick at the same time.

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    1. So we must state the meta-rule in a different way: The goal of morality must be the best possible good and least possible harm for EVERYONE. We don’t get to pick and choose a favorite race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.

      Also, a rule’s morality is judged relative to another rule. We used to have a rule that assured the slave owner that any runaway slaves would be returned. Now we have a rule that outlaws slavery. We choose between two possible rules (or courses of action) based upon how well each meets the objective measure of benefits and harms for everyone. Slavery was abolished because its harms were significant and its benefits were insignificant by comparison.

      And I agree with you about spiritual sickness. I like to call it the Two Heavens and the Two Hells. A person can have all the wealth (external Heaven) while still suffering psychological anguish (internal Hell). Or a person could live in the worst conditions (external Hell) but still make the best of it with a positive attitude (internal Heaven).

      The moral objective of Religion (whether Humanist or Christian) is to make us feel good about doing good and being good, especially in a world where the evil often prosper.

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      1. Marvin: “The goal of morality must be the best possible good and least possible harm for EVERYONE.”

        That sounds like utilitarianism, and it can have some scary consequences when the best possible good for the majority requires significant harm to a minority.

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      2. Formal Utilitarianism is unfortunately hooked to measuring good and harm in terms of pleasure and pain. And that is a false yardstick. Many of the things we find pleasurable are in fact quite bad for us. And many of the best things in life, like the birth of a child, involve significant pain. So the correct measure, even when not exact, is to ask “Is this really good for us? Or does it merely feel good?”

        This is important because we can often choose how we feel about things. We will bravely accept the pain of a vaccination against measles knowing it is good for us. But my sister tried to climb the curtain at the hospital to avoid getting a shot when we were both in to get our tonsils out.

        Changing how you view something can change how you feel about it. Therefore, the correct sequence is to first objectively identify what is good for us, and then choose to feel good about it. And this is what Religion does, it helps people to feel good about doing good and being good.

        When discussing utility, one must know “utility for what?” And the utility of pursuing the best possible good and least harm for everyone is that we increase the probability of getting closer to it. (After all, that which lacks utility is literally “good for nothing”).

        Any ethical rule must be of a nature that everyone can agree to it. As the number of people who disagree with a rule increases, the rule breaks down, becoming ineffective.

        To improve the chance of universal agreement, we have “rules for making rules”. In the Bible we have “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And also the Great Commandment in Matthew 22:35-40, which tells us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

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      3. “So the correct measure, even when not exact, is to ask “Is this really good for us? Or does it merely feel good?”

        Isn’t this circular? “Good” is what is “really good for us”? It still doesn’t answer the key question of ethics, what is “good”.

        “When discussing utility, one must know “utility for what?””

        This is what makes it subjective. Once we decide on our (subjective) measure, we can attempt (usually unsuccessfully) to measure utility, but our measure of utility will remain subjective. And deciding on utility as our definition for “good” is a subjective choice also.

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      4. It’s not subjective if it can be confirmed by every observer. I withhold water from the man dying of thirst and everyone observes him die. I give water to the man dying of thirst and everyone observes him live. Biological science can make these objective statements for nearly all living organisms. A small tree starved of sunlight will also die. The same tree, given water, nutrition, and sunlight will thrive.

        We can state with objective certainty that some things are in fact good for you and other things are in fact bad for you. That which aids life is generally good. That which harms life is generally bad. (And in John 10:10 Jesus says, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”)

        The reason for the rules in the Ten Commandments is to help us to live better together. These are matters of the quality of our lives. The same reasons are evident in New Testament commandments to feed the poor, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, and so on.

        It is basically all about how we survive and thrive, and which rules best serve this objective goal.

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      5. Marvin: “We can state with objective certainty that some things are in fact good for you and other things are in fact bad for you. That which aids life is generally good. That which harms life is generally bad.”

        No, what you’ve done is *define* “good” to be that which aids life, and “bad” to be that which harms life.

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      6. Yes. What I’ve done is to provide a definition of good whereby one can objectively determine what is good and what is not. And a morality based upon what is objectively good becomes an objective morality. The only caveat is that it is sometimes difficult to accurately estimate the benefits and harms of two different courses of action (or two rules). Nevertheless, this is pretty much what we all try to do when faced with a moral judgment, from questions of 55 vs 65 mph speed limits to questions of gay marriage. We each contemplate what benefits and what harms might arise from one course of action versus another.

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    2. “Morality, history tells us, must have an underlying narrative to find its feet. In 1940’s Germany the moral outlook was based on national pride.”

      This is one reason why most philosophers are moral realists – some things are wrong no matter what the underlying narrative.

      “Jesus tells us He knows our thoughts, and that it is our inner mind that He seeks to heal. Therefore we can be morally good, but spiritually sick at the same time.”

      Agreed. We can perform good actions for all kinds of reasons (although I’m not sure if performing good actions from an immoral motive makes someone morally good). Jesus was clear that God looks on the heart.

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    3. Marvin: “Yes. What I’ve done is to provide a definition of good whereby one can objectively determine what is good and what is not. And a morality based upon what is objectively good becomes an objective morality. ”

      What you’ve done is provide a definition of a subjective morality, based on your subjective choice of what is “good”.

      Sure, you can objectively determine what is “good” using your subjective yardstick. But there is no moral obligation for anyone to agree to share your yardstick for morality.

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      1. Right. That’s the whole practical problem. How do we obtain agreement upon a set of ethical rules to live by? All practical rights (eg, a right to life and property), and the rules that protect them define behavior that violates them (murder and theft),arise through mutual agreement.

        The basis of our agreement needs to be something besides subjectivity. We must share a common language to communicate. We must value (consider “good”) the same things, for example our lives and our property. And since everyone values their life and their property, we agree to respect and protect a right to life and a right to property for each other.

        Now, in theory, we could have made different rules. We could have said that “might makes right”, such that the strongest and most aggressive persons could take lives and take property at will. And it is because of these individuals that we must band together, because none of us could defend our right to life or property alone.

        So our arguments to each other must be made based upon objective facts. To me to convince you or for you to convince me, there must be something that we both agree upon from the start. And we both agree that life is innately a good thing, worth fighting for, worth defending, worth forming communities of mutual defense for, etc.

        Everyone agrees that life is good. There are exceptions to every rule of course, and in the case of “life is good” we have the problem of end-of-life illnesses and the potential for protracted and painful death that we each would rather avoid. So we seek out agreement on the exceptions as well.

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  3. Nice, but the open question is a bit more troublesome than you portray. It seems to show that moral ‘facts’, as such, do not supervene upon any circumstance in particular.
    But then the question remains: Upon what do they supervene, and if it is no particular circumstance or set of circumstances, then how do we propose to know about these moral facts?
    Do we know them by their use? Their use would seem to be entirely circumstantial – leading to a proliferation of ‘sub-facts’ in our exercise of moral judgement.
    Do we know them by authority? How do we verify that authority, except by its own assertion?
    Or do we know the moral facts by some inborn faculty, as Moore himself concluded? I’m assuming that you are familiar with the problems which arise from intuitionism…

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      1. And if moral facts come from God, how is it that he tells one person one thing and tells another person something else? You still have no rock upon which you can reliably anchor your morality.

        I would suggest that what we hear God saying is a reflection of our own moral judgment. And if we wish our judgment to be objective, then it must be grounded in empirical facts that can be objectively confirmed by all observers.

        Through biology we know what is good for a tree and what is bad for it. We do not know anything of the tree’s subjective experience, yet we can know what is objectively good for it by how it responds to water, nutrition, and sunlight. This is the door to objective morality.

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      2. Marvin: “And if moral facts come from God, how is it that he tells one person one thing and tells another person something else? You still have no rock upon which you can reliably anchor your morality.”

        In principle, we still have an objective moral standard even if in practice there is moral disagreement.

        Marvin: “Through biology we know what is good for a tree and what is bad for it. We do not know anything of the tree’s subjective experience, yet we can know what is objectively good for it by how it responds to water, nutrition, and sunlight. This is the door to objective morality.”

        What if we want to chop it down and use it to build nice wooden furniture?

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      3. If we decide to chop it down to build something we need, it would be objectively good for us but objectively bad for the tree. Morality is species specific. We call something good if it meets a real need we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species.

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      4. Marvin: “We call something good if it meets a real need we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species.”

        You’re not escaping Moore’s open question argument here. And you are defining good subjectively.

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      5. I’m not sure that I understand what Moore’s “open question” is. Do you understand it well enough to ask it? If you do then I’ll be happy to answer it. If you are not clear on the question yourself, perhaps Mr. Moore would like to join the discussion… 🙂

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      6. I try not to quote arguments I don’t understand.

        Moore’s basic open question is very simple (although some of the more recent attacks on it are very sophisticated). Let’s apply it to your assertion. You are saying “good” is equivalent to “meet a real need we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species.” But it’s a perfectly sensible question to ask, is it really true that this is good? The implication is that there is something more to “good” than your definition, otherwise the question would be meaningless.

        Hence Moore concludes moral facts cannot be reduced to natural properties. Which is why Wielenberg is trying to develop a non-theistic moral theory based on moral facts that are *irreducible* to natural properties.

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      7. My answer then is that the term “morally good” is (a) commonly used to refer to something that sustains or improves the life of a given species and (b) there is also the question of the perfection of Good (Plato, I think) which represents an ideal that is approachable (progressing closer to it by effort) but at the same time unreachable, and perhaps unknowable in its perfection.

        So that leaves us with incomplete answers, but still useful answers. For example, we may objectively say that this rule (outlaw slavery) or course of action produces better results (more moral) than that rule (enforce slavery) or course of action. But we cannot say for certain that we have or know the “best possible rule” as yet (eg, minimum wage and what follows as society progresses).

        One way that I have viewed God in the past is that of an anthropomorphic representation of perfect Good.

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