During the Q&A following my talk at UCSD, a young Christian woman asked, “Without God, how can you have any morality?”
The mostly skeptical audience laughed, as if it was a stupid question. Geez, not that again.
Well, it’s not a stupid question. Is a very good, important, difficult question.
I reminded the audience that many atheistic philosophers agree with the assumption of her question. They agree that without God there are no objective moral facts. In fact, one-third of philosophers think there are no objective moral facts. That’s no laughing matter.
I went on to say that most philosophers, of course, don’t think that adding a cosmic dictator to reality gets you objective moral facts. Divine command theory, because it grounds moral facts in the attitudes of a person, is by definition a subjective moral theory, not an objective one.
But let’s get back to this question of how the atheist can justify his belief in objective moral facts.
Many atheists seem to think moral realism is obvious, and easy to prove. I disagree.
Consider the claim we moral realists are making. We generally claim there are invisible properties in the world not detectable by our usual tools of science, properties of an entirely different sort than the usual “is” facts of science. These are mysterious “ought” facts, and there is great disagreement about what they are or how we know them.
Now that is a strong claim. An extraordinary claim, we might say. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, right?
So what is the atheist’s extraordinary evidence for this claim? Usually, it’s something like this:
- “I experience a world of moral facts. I feel very strongly that rape is objectively wrong, and charity is objectively right.”
- “Almost everybody believes in moral facts. It’s just obvious. Until you can prove there aren’t any, I’m justified in believing what people have always believed: that some things are really right or wrong.”
Do those arguments look familiar? They should. They are the exact same arguments atheists reject when they are given for the existence of God. Consider:
- “I experience God. I feel very strongly that he exists. I feel is presence, and I know that I know that I know that he exists.”
- “Almost everybody believes in some kind of God. It’s just obvious. Until you can prove God doesn’t exist, I’m justified in believing what people have always believed: that there is some kind of higher power.”
Atheists are skeptical of these arguments when given for the existence of God, but they are credulous and gullible toward these arguments when you replace the word ‘God’ with another mysterious thing called ‘moral facts.’
Like I said, many atheists do not believe in objective moral facts. But to those who do believe in objective moral facts, I must say: “That’s a pretty extraordinary claim. Please show me your extraordinary evidence.”
But of course I am an atheist and a moral realist, so I must think there is good argument and evidence in favor of objective moral facts. But I do not defend moral realism by appealing to my moral experience or popular consensus. It would be hypocritical of me to reject subjective experience and popular consensus as evidence for God while at the same time accepting subjective experience and popular consensus as evidence for moral realism.
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