What ‘works’ is not morality

Discussing ethics and morality with Atheists can prove to be frustrating, for everyone involved.  Theists will argue that an atheistic worldview cannot properly ground morality given naturalism.  And from that Atheists often hear ‘Atheists cannot behave morally unless they believe in God’.  But I haven’t ever made that argument.  We all know there are Atheists who are kind and charitable.  Then there is the Atheist who attempts to argue that no transcendent standard is necessary for example, altruism and nurturing help groups and individuals survive.  Therefore, behaving ‘morally’ is adequately explained on a naturalistic worldview.  The problem seems to be the words good and bad, and how the skeptic employs them.

The way nearly every skeptic I’ve discussed this with use the words good and bad differently from the way a Theist is using those words.  The Theist uses these terms employing an ontological rightness and wrongness.  The Atheist seems to be using these words in a functional or utilitarian sense.  The goodness or badness of something is dependent on the beneficial or disastrous result.  If the act is helpful to someone, or makes them generally feel good or happy or survive is good.  If the act hurts or harms, it’s bad.

This confuses the issue.  The Atheist argues with a sense of moral language, yet the structure of their argument uses utilitarian language: what works best.  This doesn’t work because the concept of morality is absent on the Naturalistic worldview.

In other words, good and bad are used equivocally.  In one sense, the Atheist intends them to be understood with values of rightness and wrongness.  But they are defended and used functionally.  Like moves in a game, there are good moves and bad moves.  The good moves (moral behavior) achieve the goal, capturing the opponent’s king (flourishing of the human species).  But this isn’t morality.  It’s utility couched in moral language.

This is made clear by asking the question: Why should someone do the morally good thing?  If the answer employs culture or society, that is relativism, which isn’t morality, it’s preference.  If the answer appeals to flourishing, that is a form of utilitarianism, again not morality.  On an aside, I find Atheists become upset when I persist in asking why.  I understand that behaving aids in flourishing, but why should I care beyond my own self and immediate progeny?

Without an unchanging standard that is outside the individual person — culture and society is nothing more than many individuals — only to preference and functionality can an appeal be made and neither is morality.  Preference holds no real authority.  It describes what most people want, but what is morally good is not determined by a vote.  Sometimes what the majority of the people want is morally evil i.e., the enslavement of Africans in early America, or the Roman Gladiators fighting to the death for entertainment.  Functionality only tells us what works, like driving directions.  Directions are not morally good or bad, they are useful or unuseful.

Of course, not being able to explain moral goodness and badness doesn’t mean atheism is false.  It merely exposes its inadequacy to account for the way the world is.


  1. And the last paragraph says it all. You use your worldview to try to account for the way the world is. An atheist looks at the way the world is, and forms his worldview.

    If you dropped a purely objective being onto the world today and said, how does it work (and he was smart enough), he’d conclude orbital mechanics, solar heating, the sun as an entropy engine, plate tectonics, lunar tides, a 5Bn year old planet, evolution & a dominant species who still maintained ‘tribal’ legacies.

    Without listening to what that species was arguing about, he’d have no chance of concluding god. Let alone your particular god.

    You are trying to anchor your worldview to a (recently, at least) unchanged 2000 year old book and 2000 years since of apologetics.

    My contention is that you are letting the tail wag the dog.

    But a nicely written piece. ;)

    • Stuart, youre right. However identifying the mechanics doesnt expain anything more than how. You dont get the whence. Knowing how an internal cumbustion engine works: valves, pistons, etc, doesnt tell you whether it was intended that way by an engineer or overall architect, or why theres an engine in the first place. Or whether there is a purpose to the mechanics and engine.

  2. My objective being would conclude that the sun formed out of gas and dust from a supernova and that the Earth was formed from remnants by gravity.

    IMO, the only ontological question of value is ‘How did the universe come to be?’. He is either smart enough to know the answer (given access to superior scientific knowledge than us), or smart enough to say ‘I don’t know’.

    I don’t think he could deduce that: morality exists on this planet, and it must be transcendent, therefore there must be a god.

    Seems like a very local set of conditions for deductions about ~10^24 stars / planets.

    • Whether something is moral or not is not a measurable thing. It doesnt have a weight or hight. So lets bring the conversation back to morality and utilitarianism.

  3. “Whether something is moral or not is not a measurable thing.” – if so, how do you know if you are a moral being or not?

    • I could cite being made in God’s image. We have a capacity for intentional beneficence or malace for instance. I also think its a properly basic intuition. Without being instructed we can recognize actions and weigh motives and know whether something is right or wrong. Do you deny that we are koral beings or are you just helping make a better discussion?

  4. I contend (as I think you do) that it IS measurable (innately, as you described), and also by society as a whole who make judgments which pass into law. (Not saying they’re all moral laws). Whenever one talks about intuition or ‘instinct’, it takes me back to evolution (and an impasse between you and I). We have evolved to recognize these actions and motives as doing so provides a selection advantage.

    We, as a race, are becoming more moral as time passes. Evolution has laid the basis with the Golden rule and we are building upon it through democracy and human rights movements. It is not fixed, absolute or transcendent.

  5. It is still morality, but the incremental advances of chess is a good analogy.

  6. Chess moves? Then at what point was murder, for example, a moral good? While murder may have been more commonplace at sometime, was the act (not a specific murder, but the act alone) ever considered a moral good? If not, how is it murder was always morally unacceptable? If so, at what point did is change from a good (or even not good or bad) to bad?

  7. Go back 250,000 years. Would killing members of a rival tribe to protect the food of your tribe be considered moral? It’s questionable. At some point we evolved to a point where random destruction of genes (ie murder) became untenable to the population and we started to self regulate by creating morality. Every human society that’s ever been discovered as independently evolved has had a ‘murder is bad’ ideology. If they hadn’t have had this, they wouldn’t have survived long enough to have been discovered. It’s evolved separately on many and every occasion.

  8. Stuart,
    Nonsensical speculations and assertions such as these are why the whole evolutionist worldview is nonsense.

    Your view of morality is that society decides what is or is not moral, with no moral standard – no moral law-giver. So when the Nazis decide it is moral to murder millions of Jews, or the Communists decided to murder millions of dissidents or other unwanteds, then you have no standard by which to claim what they did was immoral. After all, Hitler was even doing what he considered survival of the fittest, as he eliminated anyone he considered less fit – Jews, Slavs, Poles, Russians – let alone those who were invalid, had brain malfunctions, or were homosexuals or anything else he saw as unfit. Hitler was Darwinism put to the logical conclusion.

  9. Stuart,

    ” Would killing members of a rival tribe to protect the food of your tribe be considered moral?”

    If the rival tribe was looking to steal the food of another tribe, then it wouldn’t be murder. Death by starvation, should the tribe whose food was stolen had no other food sources, would be. Even if the rival tribe had no true desire to steal the food, the belief that they might would mitigate a charge of murder.

    Speculating about disparate peoples all viewing murder in the same way does not work to reject the notion that murder is inherently immoral. It works to confirm it. This moral understanding permeates all cultures. Murder was never a moral “good”.

  10. So the morality of murder can’t be linked a particular religion then?

  11. Marshalart,

    We are not too far apart. Your definition of murder, includes mitigation for other sorts of killing. Ie manslaughter (at least in the UK), unlawful killing, etc.

    We live in a time when mature(ish) legal systems have defined murder to be the immoral act. In various cultures, the legal definitions differ slightly reflecting slightly different moral attitudes, but on the whole they’re in agreement.

    I am too. Although I don’t believe in moral absolutes, the vast majority of what we’d term as murder today, is immoral.

  12. Glenn,

    I want to engage in conversation, but can’t with broad brush criticisms like that. If you point out something particular, I’ll try to address it.

    I can correct a misunderstanding you have, however. I’m not sure what an evolutionist world view is, but we are talking about the ontology of morals, not world views. Evolution took, and is taking place. I don’t promote survival of the fittest as my moral world view anymore than I promote jumping out of windows because gravity is real.

    The human race has risen above the relentless brutality of the natural world, as I’m very glad we have.

    Not that it’s the topic, but If you were looking for a word to describe my moral world view, humanist probably fits best.

    Hitler probably did think what he was doing was moral. Doesn’t make it so. I wouldn’t trust the moral compass of a man who was clearly insane. The rest of the world and history has passed judgment on him already.

    • Stuart,
      Your statements were all based on an evolutionist ideology – i.e., you accept evolution as true, which is quite the standard fare for humanists; all one has to do is read the teachings of Corliss Lamont and Paul Kurtz. The statements were all nonsense because they were just speculations and assumptions with no basis in facts.

      The issue is morals, yes, but you linked the subject to your evolutions idea of people being around 250,000 years ago, and then talked about how evolved a morality.

      The point is, that without an absolute moral law from a moral law-giver, you have no objective basis for claiming murder is immoral; all you have is personal opinion. That is indeed all the humanists have – personal opinions.

      It wasn’t just Hitler who thought what he was doing was moral, it was the belief of the NAZI party.

  13. John, I literally can’t argue with that! ;o)

  14. Glenn,

    I accept evolution as true because I have no choice.

    As stated previously, my world view is informed by the world. It is not a world view, like yours, which is informed by an ancient scripture and the world must fit around it. That is confirmation bias.

    Of course, as you know, once evolution is accepted there is no other view than to accept our morality evolved and very little in the universe is as absolute as you sound like you’d like things to be.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree it seems.

    • Stuart,

      Um, you DO have a choice whether or not to accept the lie of evolution. I chose to not believe it. No one is holding a gun to your head. You choose to accept it because of your own bias.

      My worldview is also formed by the world – by what horrors and sin I see in it, and knowing the ONLY thing with adequately explains it is what the Bible teaches.

      So it all points to the fact that YOUR morals are self-imposed based on YOUR opinion. You have no standard by which you can base your morals on.

      Why isn’t it moral to murder anyone we would consider as inferior and unworthy to live? By personal opinion – because you say so.

      A Christian doesn’t have the “luxury” of personal opinion when it comes to morality. God is the Moral Law-Giver and has given us the moral law. To disobey it is sin.

  15. Glenn,

    Of course, there is no compulsion in evolution. Just overwhelming scientific evidence.

    The fact you refer to it being a lie indicates you believe there is some sort of deliberate misleading of the world by scientists going on. This would be the biggest conspiracy the world has ever known perpetrated by every biology department at every university in the world. The rewards for the individual that presented the truth to the scientific community would be enormous, and yet we see no alternative hypotheses with any sort of evidence.

    What stops people believing in evolution? Preconceived religious notions or being scientifically illiterate (or both). The second group can have their minds changed, the first group cannot.

    I have an objective standard for my morals (objective, not absolute). That objective standard is the view of my fellow human beings past and present that has fed into culture, law and ideologies.

    For your world view, I presume you ignore scripture of the law giver when it comes to stoning people?

  16. Yes John. I understand you have this view.

  17. Stuart,

    Um, no. There is NO “overwhelming scientific evidence” for evolution. Not one fact, not one piece of actual evidence. Nothing but speculations and assumptions based on a bias that Darwin was correct. But it doesn’t fit the real world.

    IT is definitely a lie, but the world has been deceived to think it is the truth because they want an explanation for everything without resorting to God, even though they know in their heart that God is the answer. And there is indeed a large conspiracy to prevent any opposing view from being taught.

    I didn’t believe in evolution before I was a Christian, because it didn’t make sense logically. And I am NOT scientifically illiterate – I have studied the evolution/creation debate for almost 40 years. I know the answers on both sides. Both sides use forensic evidence, but only the creation side really makes sense. With the evolution side it is all speculations and assumptions which are much too complex and changing. Occam’s razor should force one to go with the simpler explanation.

    With people like you, evolution is your religion – and, as you noted, people with preconceived religious notions are not likely to change their mind.

    Your “objective standard” as you stated it is only your OWN standard. No one has to agree with you.

    Ah, the old stoning canard. No, I don’t ignore the Scripture at ANY point. The law for stoning as a way of capital punishment was what they had at the time. I have no problem with capital punishment, and I think more application of capital punishment would reduce our murder rate. Does it really matter what method is used? Hanging, shooting, electric chair?

    OH, I’ll bet your are complaining about the crimes for which stoning was prescribed! Well, the laws you are speaking of were for the nation of Israel and no one else. Israel was a theocracy initially, and then a kingdom. But it was set aside by God before all other nations as the nation to represent Him to the world. Therefore, they had to be more pure and holy, and execution for grievous crimes was to purify them.

    • I have a post on the evolutionary explanation for biodiversity which I’ll be releasing tomorrow morning. It should give those who believe it’s adequate to explain what we see will post the evidences which directly show evolution to be true.

  18. Stuart,

    “We are not too far apart.”

    Actually, I think we are. First of all, different cultures develop laws that reflect their ideas of what constitutes absolute murder versus killings that might have justification. Justification is what separates murder from killing. While the murderer will always have some justification for his crime, the law decides in advance of a crime’s commission, based often on past examples, what constitutes legitimate justification for killing. In addition, the law differentiates between one form of murder and another (say, manslaughter) for the purpose of providing just sentencing that fits the crime.

    But none of this dictates the morality of murder, only the legality of it in a civilized society. Without a civilized society, murder is still immoral. Think of it this way: We know that it is dangerous to jump off the top of a forty story building. No one need ever have done so for it to be dangerous. It is dangerous regardless of whether or not anyone even has ever considered jumping, much less actually doing it. The danger of jumping off a forty story building exists regardless. It simply is dangerous.

    It is the same with morality. An action is or isn’t moral whether we decide it is or not. This is the position of those within the Judeo-Christian tradition. The morality of an action existed before a person did to perpetrate the action. We discover what is moral or immoral, we don’t decide or choose or designate what is moral or immoral.

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