Who Needs Morality?

The debate between Theists and Atheists about whether  morality exists, is difficult to focus on due to the misunderstanding between the question “does morality exist”, and “can an Atheist act in a moral manner”.  The equivocation is usually made on the part of the Atheist, though I am not trying to belittle or accuse the Atheist of intentionally subverting the issue, I think there is a genuine misunderstanding of the question at hand.  The tack I wish to take here is this: on the view of Atheism, is morality even possible?  Whether subjective or objective, is any type of morality even possible if Atheism, which by definition must affirm Metaphysical Naturalism, is true.

Metaphysical Naturalism (hereafter refered to as Naturalism) is defined as the “philosophical worldview and belief system that holds that there is nothing but natural things, forces, and causes of the kind studied by the natural sciences, i.e., those required to understand our physical environment and having mechanical properties amenable to mathematical modeling. Metaphysical naturalism holds that all concepts related to consciousness or to the mind refer to entities which are reducible to or supervene on natural things, forces and causes. More specifically, it rejects the objective existence of any supernatural thing, force or cause, such as occur in humanity’s various religions, as well as any form of teleology. It sees all “supernatural” things as explainable in purely natural terms. It is not merely a view about what science currently studies, but also about what science might discover in the future. Metaphysical naturalism is a monistic and not a dualistic view of reality.”

So the question is, can the idea that morality of any kind, be it objective or subjective, exist on the Naturalistic worldview?  Let me first address what above I described as the equivocation in the common debate.  Here is an image which represents the equivocation depicting Bill Gates and Warren Buffett with captions claiming the two have donated millions of dollars to charities, concluding the two are “Good without God” (though I do not know if Gates and Buffett are Atheists, I have to assume they are otherwise the ad is pointless), and asserting that Christian evangelist Pat Robertson has donated little to nothing to charities thusly making him “heartless”.  Here is where–if the Atheist is making the argument–we encounter the problem.  Putting aside the meaning of “good” and “evil” for the moment, it is obvious that Atheists can do good things without the belief God exists.  We all know people who do not believe in God who are very helpful, courteous, and charitable, this is not in dispute.

This is why we know the Atheist who says “good without God” misses the point.  What is at the center of the debate, is how the idea of “good” and “evil” are grounded in the Naturalist’s view, not whether Atheists do good or evil things.  How can the Naturalist say something is good?  If the concept is based on the individual or society, good and evil are merely preferences.  They cannot be argued for or against since no one has a true obligation to play by the same rules.  Adherence to good and abstinence from evil is at the whim the individual(s) contemplating the action.  The notions of what is good or evil can be adjusted whenever and to whatever based on the desires of the populace, thus making no action whatsoever good or evil, but rather desirable or undesirable under the current conditions.  Most Atheists will agree and support the idea that a subjective view of morality is true.  Here is what I question, how is even the idea of a subjective right and wrong, good and evil possible on the view of Naturalism?

On the view of Naturalism everything is matter.  Our bodies are a collection of molecules, like dirt, rocks, grass, etc.  Just another grouping of cells forming an organism; we are simply cells in motion.  When we consider our interactions with others, we are not interacting with “people” per se, but molecules interacting with other molecules.  If Naturalism is true, then I do not see how there can be a true difference between intentionally causing physical pain to a child for the mere pleasure it brings someone, and a leaf falling to the ground.  The concept of personhood or the state of being a person is not possible on Naturalism.  Our bodies are matter.  Since our mind (not to be confused with our brain), intentionality, anger, and other non-physical states are not possible on Naturalism, due to their lack of physicality.  For instance, you cannot weigh your motive, or level of anger with a scale, or observe it under a microscope.  They do not physically exist and therefore do not exist on Naturalism.

How then does the Naturalist get from merely recording and describing the interaction between forms of matter, to assigning a label of good or evil to the content of the interaction without making an appeal to a non-existent, non-physical concept?  To even lay claim to a subjective morality, how can the Naturalist stay consistent with his worldview yet make any appeal to a non-physical concept such as good or evil, right and wrong?  How can the Naturalist differentiate between say, burning a child with cigarettes, and an avalanche?  Any appeal to morality, even subjective morality, violates his worldview.  The concept of morality is illusory.

The Naturalist is in the awkward position of having to borrow aspects from a super-natural worldview in order to distinguish between acts of good and evil and simple interaction between forms of matter.  Just acknowledging the concepts of good and evil; right and wrong; love and hate require the existence of a non-physical realm, a realm which Naturalism denies.  This is among the many reasons Naturalism fails as a viable worldview.  Naturalism cannot account for the reality of non-physical concepts on its own, it must venture outside its own parameters and look to other worldviews (worldviews which Naturalism by definition considers false) to explain certain phenomena.  This notion alone, should cause one to consider the “truth” of Naturalism as highly suspect.


Related Article: Borrowed Capital, Natural Blindness, Oh The Humanity


  1. I was following you up until you asked the question “how is even the idea of a subjective right and wrong, good and evil possible on the view of Naturalism?”

    I consider myself a Naturalist, and from my point of view it seems that you have a misunderstanding of Naturalism. The “Mind”, emotions, intentionality, etc., are all chemical reactions. Neurology may not be as developed enough as we’d like it to be and many things remain un-mappable, but at this point in history one cannot say “Anger doesn’t physically exist”.

    “Good” and “Evil” are linguistic inventions used to explain something more emotional, i.e. chemical. It is subjective because chemical reactions differ person to person. Or at least that is my own take on it.

    The rest I agree with you, the ad campaign isn’t particularly that good.

  2. K Krow: But your complaint only serves to ilucidate my point in all the more detail, Namely that any true morality of any kind can only be illusory. By explaining that “emotions” are nothing more than chemical reactions does nothing to refute my argument, in fact it just strengthens it by giving more detail. For instance, the emotion of compassion is only a chemical effect on brain matter, which causes physical effects in our bodies, is no different than a chemical reaction in a beaker where the fluid over-flows onto the counter. You cannot say one chemical reaction is any “better” or “worse” than another.

    Anger does not physically exist, manifestations perhaps: a beaten wife, a kicked dog, but those are simple physical reactions to a chemical process, like the over-flow of contents from the beaker. On what grounds can you say beating a wife or kicking a dog is truly a bad thing? On your Naturalistic worldview all you can say is you personally do not like or prefer the particular physical reaction.

    Additionally, it is not subjective because chemical reactions differ from person to person, we must take each individual on his own physical make-up. We do not say an over-flow in one beaker is subjective because in a different beaker there is an explosion because the chemical reactions are different. No, they are both objective results caused by different compositions of chemicals.

    • I do not mean to say that anger exists as some kind of “anger chemical”, that courses through our bodies, and causes us to do anger things, but to say that it is a result of other reactions. Simply by reading these words a reaction is occurring; your brain see’s the words, your larynx subvocalizes what you read (assuming you don’t know how to speed read), the neurons in your brain spring into action, translating and creating emotion responses when what is translated require them. In some cases, the result may be anger. In this way, anger exists.

      However I am in agreement that we cannot objectively state that anything is better or worse than something else. To say that something is “better” or “worse” would require standards to measure them by. If, in some case, “50” was optimal, then 48 would be “worse” than 49. Just as morality requires a standard. I cannot in any sense give a judgment that kicking a child is worse than giving a candy to a child, without some kind of standard to give such judgment by. And that standard is entirely personal. “Spanking a child is wrong because of personal, negative, experiences”, for example. It seems to me that you are assuming that morality must exist outside of this, that morality must be something that stands on its own without any pesky humans to label things as “moral” or “immoral”.

      I believe that people are inherently good. That is, they only wish to do things that they consider “right”. But that is just it, it’s them that determines what is right and wrong. Society, family units, culture, peer groups, etc., in a way, normalizes the moral standard. But in no way does it make it universal or objective. And in no way does it have to be explained through supernatural means.

      • “But that is just it, it’s them that determines what is right and wrong. Society, family units, culture, peer groups, etc”

        I will let you have the last word on the rest of your response, but I want to focus on this statement you made. On this view American slavery was right, since it was individuals and the society as a whole deemed it right. Same with Nazi Germany. If it is societies who collectivly determine what is right we cannot say either of these are wrong. Also people like Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement were wrong. Since they went against the grain of what society deemed right. Are you willing to admit this? If not why not?

        Additionally, if 21st American society for whatever reason determined killing Naturalists where ever you find one was a good thing, would it be a good thing to kill Naturalists? If your peer group, family, culture, and society as a whole, came to believe this, could you make yourself believe it too based upon the collective’s new fancy? On what grounds could you object, since if they now believe it is good to kill Naturalists, you would be asking them to do a bad thing?

        How do you make sense of this?

        • Certainly we, today, have a sense that slavery and the Holocaust were both morally wrong, but if they were always considered morally wrong, and were considered morally wrong by the people who partook in them, then they wouldn’t have happened. Many of the people (in power; that’s the important thing) thought that their respective morally-horrific-acts-by-today’s-standards were not so morally horrific, but in fact were pretty good ideas.

          Slavery was for a long time considered perfectly normal and a way of life. Slavery was originally just about the losers, if you lost you were enslaved. It developed into a “racial” issue when the idea of slavery became less popular, and “race” became the excuse in order to maintain the tradition of slavery. The Holocaust was the “moral excuse” to get the German population to support and fight against the National Social’s enemies and for the NS’s ideologies. Nothing is more unifying than a common enemy, and the Jew’s were the perfect target.

          That fact is that it is this difference in standards of morality that allows us to look back in the past and accuse people of history of being morally wrong. To say that the South prior to the American Civil War was “evil” or “morally wrong” because of their support of slavery ignores their own views on slavery, the tradition of slavery, and how the economics was built of slavery. Very few people who were well established in the South considered slavery morally reprehensible, and considered the North’s actions “morally wrong”, as it seemingly was a war against their way of life and traditions.

          Martin Luther King was not “morally wrong” because he went against the grains of society. It’s significantly more complicated than that. He served to bring attention to the idea that was already perpetrating American society- equality. He, in a way, helped form the moral standards of today. Going against the status quo is only really considered morally wrong by people who consider them of Conservative bend, which, surprise, was exactly the same people who were opposed to the Civil Rights Movement.

          • I see you are describing the conditions present for the Holocaust and American slavery, that the people of the time considered it a good thing and had their “reasons”. But the question was not what they believed about their actions, but were they right about their actions given their belief it was right? Remember you advocated it is society which dictates the rights and wrongs. Both of those societies dictated those practices were a moral good. So, I am asking you, were those societies correct in their belief that American slavery and the extermination of Jews (for what ever reason) were morally good?

            • By my own standards today, certainly not. In regards to the Holocaust most people at the time considered the actions too horrific to even be possible.

              In regards to Slavery, people who were opposed to it considered it morally wrong, and people who were for it considered it the status quo. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who argued that slavery was a “Moral Good”.

              As for your question, were they right about their actions given their belief it was right/were those societies correct in their belief that American slavery and the extermination of Jews were morally good? The answer to that would require a universal moral standard, which doesn’t exist. I can only answer based upon my own standards, or guess as to the standards of others.

              • Well, it would seem as though American slavery and the Holocost were good, according to the “society decides” approach to morality. Since you brought up the fact that there were some who opposed the status quo. How many in the society in agreement or disagreement to an act is enough to make it the societal decision. Foe instance, how many people within the particular society must consider murder a moral bad in order to make it so? A simple majority, or must it be a higher differential?

              • Societal decision:

                “Many of the people (in power; that’s the important thing) thought that their respective morally-horrific-acts-by-today’s-standards were not so morally horrific, but in fact were pretty good ideas.”

                I emphasized “in power” for a reason. A very persuasive leader can convince a lot of people to do things that the persuasive leader see’s as morally right or correct, even if the people under him/her don’t agree (See Milgram Experiment). Morality is determined on a person by person basis, societal morality is determined by who is in charge.

                And even so, there will always be people who think differently, even among any given group of supposedly “like-minded” individuals. To say that Nazi Germany felt exterminating Jews was a good thing is really only a snapshot of the moral thoughts of its radical leaders, not of the population as a whole.

              • Ok, but the question still remains, there were people who thought American slavery and the Holocaust were good, was American slavery and the Holocaust good because a majority of the people believe them to be, or were they wrong?

                You keep imposing your current personal assessment, “I believe it was wrong but I cannot say for them”, I am asking you about them in their time in their circumstance, they believed they were right. Were they right? The possible answers are: “yes, American slavery and the Holocaust was good because the people determined them so, and since it is society, and individuals decide what is good and bad, those events were good”. Or ” no, even though those people who believed those events to be good were in fact mistaken.”

                This is where the bankruptcy of Naturalism shines brightest. I think we both know those two events were morally atrocious even though those involved believe they were good, but in order to be consistant with your worldview you must deny them as such. I have no problem whatsoever recognizing those events as moral evils whether the perpetrators involved believed otherwise.

              • Certainly, they were morally atrocious. It is because we both have an idea of human rights/equality that we find these activities atrocious. In regards to the Holocaust y my own standards they were wrong. By the standards of others they were wrong. By their own standards they were right. Because human rights were not in the forefront of their thought; but nationalism. Under the moral guidance of Nationalism, exterminating undesirables, as well as slavery, is considered a moral good; as it helps (or at least was argued to help) the well being of the Nation.

                Now it is entirely possible for us to forever look back at the Holocaust and consider it a moral evil. It is entirely possible that we will forever look back at slavery and consider it a moral evil. It is entirely possible that we may forever consider Human Rights and Equality that which defines Morality. But it is not set in stone. We may just shift to a Nationalist Philosophy and declare slavery/extermination of undesirables a moral good, just as we may shift into a Environmentalist guidance and argue that anything that helps/hinders the environment is what dictates that which is morally good or evil, which can be taken in many ways.

                In short, it’s not set in stone, it’s not universal. As for your question directly, “I am asking you about them in their time in their circumstance, they believed they were right. Were they right?”

                Again, I think they were wrong by my standards, but they thought they were right by theirs. There simply is no universal “Right” or “Wrong” answer to this question. They are not simply “Wrong”, unless we were to define human rights and equality as fundamental definitions of morality, which may possibly be true for now but it was not for then.

  3. As I am sure you expected, I have multiple issues with this post. The issues start with the first sentence. That morality exists is not even a question, so far as I am concerned. Any atheist who would claim otherwise is wrong.
    I find that atheists sometimes have a habit of arguing untenable positions because they feel that to walk into an argument charged with religious language will result in an inability to express their views in a way that is philosophically defensible. Perhaps they feel that those are their views, in which case they are arguing from intellectual laziness- they throw the baby out with the bathwater.
    There is nothing inherently religious or contingent on the supernatural about morality- or even objective morality. Theists seize upon the idea that there is no philosophically tenable explanation for morality, or logic, in an atheistic universe. The problem with this idea is that it, too, is steeped in intellectual laziness. That an average atheist hasn’t engaged in the intellectual exercise of accounting for their beliefs does not mean that there exists no naturalistic account for them; any more than a Christian who cannot account for “the problem of evil” is proof that Christianity is untenable.
    The problem with your argument that morality can only be strictly illusory in an atheistic worldview is that it ignores that if this is the case, then many things we objectively observe are strictly illusory as well. The leaves of a tree are not green, they consist of matter that absorbs every wavelength of light save green. The ground I walk on is not solid, there is more empty space than there is matter. Gravity is an illusion, it is a force that affects matter but has no material quality. I think you are applying rules to perception that you grant for some cases in naturalism, but wish to disallow in others.

    Morality is like gravity. It has no material quality. That does not mean that through basic laws, we cannot objectively gauge it’s effect on material things, where applicable.

  4. Great post. I always say the atheist (which includes the agnostic and secular humanist) cannot bear the consequences of his own philosophy so he has to borrow from a superior one: Christianity.

    • I just wish they were more upfront about it. It just seems so obvious what the natural conclusion of atheism is (about morality), but why is it so difficult to see by Atheists? I mean, if everything is only matter, where does any nonphysical anything come from?

  5. @GeorgeW

    What do you mean that Christians cannot account for the problem of evil?


    At no point does an atheist borrow moral philosophy from Christians. To assume that morality stems from Christianity would be a Genetic Fallacy. It would be better to assume that Christians and Atheists share certain cultural notions that they grow up with dependent on the given culture, including morality of that culture.

    As to the issue of morality being absolute and unquestionable, these arguments are very weak. It cannot “clearly” exist without argument. I can think of many cases where my sense of morality differs from someone else, and it cannot be clearly explained whether our sense of morality differs on a relativistic sense or that one of us is less moral than the other.

    For example, I have no moral issues with abortion yet another (possibly Chrisitan) person would. I have no moral issues with premarital sex, doctor assisted euthanasia, homosexuality, or stem-cell research, yet there are plenty of Christian and otherwise people who do have moral issues with the above. Does that make me morally inferior? Or is my morality different because of the cultures we grew up in?

    Additionally, the “Problem of Evil” is an often discussed topic in philosophy regarding religion, summarized as follows:

    If there is a god, and this god is an omniscient, omnipotent, omni-benevolent being, how do you explain evil?

    In short, the idea of a all-powerful and perfectly good god [The Christian God] and a world with evil in [This particular world] it doesn’t make any logical sense.

    • @Crow

      The genetic fallacy says no such thing. It says something is wrong because of where it came from. What is meant by borrowing from the Christian view is that Atheists, Naturalists, must borrow the sense of value in the first place. Matter is matter. Immaterial things like value cannot be derived from matter alone. There is nothing prescriptive about matter. It tells us what is, not what ought to be. The Christian view tells us what ought to be.

      Whether you are right or wrong about your views on abortion, premarital sex, etc. are not determined by what you, I, or society thinks. That’s like thinking that you and a car full of friends determine what the speed limit on a particular street is. There is one, whether you obey it, and you and your friends determine how fast you want to drive is irrelevant to what the speed limit on the street is.

      You fail to take into account many important factors when considering the problem of evil.

      • My mistake, I was thinking of something else when I thought of genetic fallacy. I apparently forget the name of the fallacy, but the gist is while moral thought (or ‘moral zeitgeist’) has developed alongside Christianity, it is completely unjustifiable to say that this morality stemmed from Christianity. Morality even amongst Christians has been constantly changing throughout the years since it began, and to this day still varies widely amongst even fellow Christians.

        The problem with your argument is that the Christian view tells people what ought to be, but lacks any valuable authority to do so. It is a book written by humans based on their own sense of morality. This sense of morality often conflicts with our own more modern and very different sense of morality, typically in regards to stoning, the respect of women, slavery, infanticide, genocide, etc. You don’t read the Bible, find something about morality, and conclude that it is moral because it’s in the Bible; you read the Bible, find something about morality that agrees with what you already consider to be moral, and agree with it.

        Calling Christianity the guide to morality is, honestly, quite odd to me. There is an incredible disconnect between morality offered in the Bible and the morality of the people who follow the Bible.

        As for whether I’m right or wrong, I never stated that I was right or wrong. I think I’m right, I think that everyone thinks that they are right. I don’t know of many people who hold moral positions who think that they are wrong. However, if I were in a society where all of my peers and family considered something I held to be morally right to be morally right, how could I possibly conclude otherwise? It can be argued that religion would give an answer to this by giving a concrete and absolute definition of what is morally right or wrong, but this argument does absolutely nothing to prove that it is the case. It would be convenient, but nothing more.

        There is a parallel between morality and law, however, as we usually erect law for practical and moral reasons. The speed limit for example is to prevent reckless driving resulting in deaths, a usually unwanted occurrence. Even without any code of universal morality it would make perfect sense to teach people right and wrong in order to establish a safe society, ‘right’ being things that promote a safe society and ‘wrong’ being those things that hinder. The question is the logic behind the reasoning for morality, which, as you may guess by my atheism, leads us to disagree about certain moral issues as certain arguments are invalid to my way of thinking.

        As for the “Problem of Evil”, I wasn’t making the argument, only explaining it. The argument for the existence of God is incredibly complex and often changing depending on who you are speaking to, thus I don’t personally prof the Problem of Evil argument unless the argument specifically warrants it, such that an individuals perception of God becomes logically inconsistent with the existence of evil, usually in the form of an omni-benevolent god and all-controlling god who controls each individuals destiny and possibly even actions. I don’t think that you are making that argument, so I won’t argue the point, as I have plenty of other disagreements to worry about.


  1. […] and subjective.  Heck, I can’t even see how morality itself is even arrived at on Atheism (Who Needs Morality?, Good Move, Sir, From Which Worldview Does Human Equality Naturally Flow?).  But I’m not arguing […]

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