Atheist Philosophers Don’t Want God to Exist?

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 31, 2009 in Criticism of Atheists,Ethics,General Atheism

shafer-landauTheists often claim that atheists reject God because they don’t want him to exist. Of course, this is no argument for God. And, however many atheists are biased by their hope that God doesn’t exist, there are far more believers who are biased by their hope that God does exist.

But I think theists are right. There are many atheists who reject God because they don’t want him to exist.  Today, I’d like to present just one line of evidence for this.

Clearly, I agree with atheist philosophers that God doesn’t exist. I even think they are usually more rational than theistic philosophers in considering the arguments for and against God’s existence.

But I’m not so sure atheist philosophers are more rational in general. It seems to me they are, just like everybody else, quite persuaded by what they want to be true.

In particular, I think many atheists badly want there to be objective moral values, and don’t want there to be a God, and this affects the way they argue for moral realism and against God.

Frankly, I think atheists make stunningly bad arguments for the existence of moral values. Ones that often take the same form as theistic arguments for the existence of God. I must ask the atheist moral realist: if you reject the weak and strained arguments for theism, why don’t you reject your own weak and strained arguments for moral realism? I think it’s because they really want there to be objective moral values, and this corrupts their thinking.

Think about it. Traditionally, moral values are spooky things. You can’t measure them, just like you can’t measure God. You can only “sense” them, much as you might “sense” God. Moral values are supposedly invisible, eternal, and non-physical like God. How could somebody reject all the arguments for God, then turn around and argue that moral values do exist?

I have already eviscerated the arguments of atheist lay-philosopher Stefan Molyneaux and his book Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics. But maybe that’s unfair. Let me turn instead to the moral arguments of professional atheist philosophers.

Russ Shafer-Landau, in Moral Realism: A Defence, argues for ethical non-naturalism – the view that moral properties exist but cannot be reduced to natural properties. One way he does this is by sneakily shifting the burden of proof in a way usually reserved for Christian apologists (page 66):

[Some] philosophers do not believe that there are any moral properties… [But] moral vocabulary, categories, and evaluative practices are so deeply embedded in our conception of ourselves and our world as to be [undeniable]. This doesn’t mean that moral properties must exist, but it does mean that the burden [of proof] is very squarely on those who would do away with them.

This sounds exactly like the Christian philosopher who argues that because the idea of God is so popular, and so ingrained in our conceptions of the world and our language about it, that therefore the burden of proof lies with the person who denies God.

But these are silly arguments. The skeptic need not disprove the existence of everything asserted to him – gods, fairies, moral values, unicorns, UFOs, or electricity. Rather, it’s the duty of the person making a claim to prove it is correct. In the case of gods and fairies, this is rather difficult. In the case of electricity, this is easily done.

So, does Shafer-Landau have any positive arguments for ethical non-naturalism?

None that I could find. He blunts the force of many common criticisms, but he doesn’t offer a positive argument or any positive evidence that moral properties exist. All he says is that people generally feel that moral properties exist, so they must exist. Again, this sounds like a bad theistic argument!

(To be fair, Shafer-Landau recognizes the parallels between arguments against theological realism and those against moral realism, and he wrote a paper about it, to which I will respond when I can.)

Second, consider Erik Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.

Wielenberg founds his theory of morality on the notion of intrinsic value. So, what are some intrinsically good activities? Wielenberg writes:

My list… would include falling in love, engaging in intellectually stimulating activity, being creative… experiencing pleasure… and teaching.

…And how can I justify my list of intrinsically worthwhile activities? I am afraid I have no philosophical proof… [but] many of the things we know are such that we cannot give [proof]… Claims about what is intrinsically good are the axioms of ethical theory; they are the starting points, the first principles. As such, they are unlikely to be the sorts of things that can be proved. Nevertheless, it is perfectly consistent to say that some activities are intrinsically valuable – and that we know what some of these are.1

Sounds like Plantinga to me! Wielenberg might as well have written: “God is the only necessary being. How do I know? I can’t offer any proof, but many things we know are unproven, like the existence of other minds. I take the claim that God is necessary as a first principle, so it can’t be proved, but I can still say I know it to be true.”

Wielenberg gives another lame argument, this time for the intrinsic goodness of falling in love and the intrinsic badness of pain, on page 50:

…if we must choose whether to accept some philosophical principle about knowledge or to accept some obvious truth such as that I know I have hands, we should accept the obvious truth… An epistemology that leads to the conclusion that individuals cannot know they have hands should be rejected; similarly, a metaphysics that leads to the conclusion that falling in love is not intrinsically good, or that pain is not intrinsically evil, should be rejected.

Basically, these things must have intrinsic value because it’s just “obvious” to Wielenberg that they do. This is just as bad as when William Lane Craig argues that “Without God, moral values can’t exist. But we all know moral values do exist. Therefore, God exists.”

No. It’s not at all obvious to me that falling in love is intrinsically good, nor that pain is intrinsically bad. The “obviousness” of something is not a good criteria for knowledge. It used to be obvious that the earth was flat and ruled by invisible spirits, but those things simply aren’t true.

How does Wielenberg allow himself to be persuaded by such bad arguments for moral realism, but not by similar arguments for theism? My best guess is that he really wants objective moral values to exist, but he doesn’t want God to exist.

I’ll let Alonzo Fyfe sum up the rest of Wielenberg’s arguments:

Wielenberg claims that moral properties are transcendental unanalyzable ‘ought’ properties that cannot bear any relationship to the ‘is’ universe even though they are supposed to govern and be applied to actions that can only occur in the ‘is’ universe.

…[Wielenberg] can give us very little (no) information on what these properties are. He can tell us what they are not (they are not ‘is’ properties)… He tells good stories that suggest that certain things could not possibly be wrong – but he tells us nothing about what they are and why they cannot be wrong. Indeed, [Wielenberg's] transcendental moral properties are at least as mysterious as any God concept.

camb-companion-atheismThird, consider David Brink’s defense of moral realism in his chapter “The Autonomy of Ethics” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism:

There might be no objective moral standards. Our moral thinking and discourse might be systematically mistaken. But this would be a revisionary conclusion, to be accepted only as the result of extended and compelling argument that the commitments of ethical objectivity are unsustainable. ( (Page 149.))

Here, Brink wants to make moral realism the default stance simply because it is what our ignorant, ancient ancestors have always believed. But could not the theist argue that theism is the default position because in the past people have always believed in the supernatural? Surely Brink would reject such reasoning, and yet he maintains the exact same form of reasoning with regard to moral realism!

His method for knowing objective moral values is no stronger:

Secular moral theory should begin with considered moral convictions.2

Basically, Brink is saying that the most important test for moral value is what feels right and wrong. How strange! Would Brink accept the theist who argues that God must exist because he really, really feels it in his heart? And yet Brink says we should trust our feelings when it comes to moral realism. (I’ve argued against this more thoroughly over here.)

Wait, aren’t you a moral realist?

Yes. The great irony, here, is that I am a moral realist. I reject the existence of God, but I defend the existence of objective moral values.

I, too, want objective moral values to exist. But six months ago, I had given up on them. I had read all the major theories of moral realism, and their arguments were so bad (as you’ve seen above) that I rejected them as firmly as I rejected the awful arguments given in support of God’s existence. I even wrote an essay about the impossibility of moral realism, and how to live a “good” life in a universe without moral values.

I had stopped looking for objective moral values. Then, quite by surprise, I stumbled on desire utilitarianism. For the first time, here were arguments for moral realism that actually made sense and referred only to things that actually exist.

Quite aware of my affection for moral realism, I knew I had to be extra careful; extra skeptical. So I pummeled it with all the objections I could muster, but the theory withstood them all. I wouldn’t say it’s proven, but it’s at least quite plausible. Because of my emotional attraction to moral realism I am skeptical of desire utilitarianism, but for now I think it’s the most plausible theory of ethics I’ve heard. The arguments defending it are actually quite clear and logical, unlike the arguments for moral realism I attacked above. See for yourself.

Why Atheists Hope God Doesn’t Exist

But back to the point of this essay. My point is that many atheists reject bad theistic arguments, but deploy similarly flawed arguments to defend their own brand of moral realism. I think this might be because they hope God doesn’t exist, but they also hope moral values do exist.

It’s clear to most of us why we’d like moral values to exist. But why do atheists hope that God does not exist? Here are some possible reasons:

  • Religion is typically against moral and intellectual progress, since “the whole truth” was supposedly revealed many centuries ago.
  • The idea of a cosmic dictator who convicts you of thoughtcrime is distasteful.
  • Atheists want to be free to do what they like, without observing a long list of arbitrary commands from a big powerful guy in the sky.
  • If God exists, it seems he must be unfathomably malicious, considering all the pointless suffering he inflicts upon or allows in humans and other animals.

Whatever their reasons, I’d like to see both theists and atheists admit and confront their biases, and extract those biases from their arguments – whether they’re talking about the existence of God or moral realism or anything else.

  1. Page 34. []
  2. Page 157. []

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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

atimetorend May 31, 2009 at 4:08 am

Luke, great job writing on these issues in a way a layperson such as myself can understand, compelling piece.

A lot of philosophy is confusing because it just doesn’t make sense, but it can take a lot of background to understand why it doesn’t make sense. You do a good job of explaining why things don’t make sense. And the balanced approach you take goes a long way in lending credibility to your statements. For the non-trained, often the approach is what I end up judging rather than the arguments themselves.

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Yair May 31, 2009 at 5:09 am

Your critique is good, but it is unsatisfactory in that it doesn’t really address the meta-ethical position of intuitivism. You just SAY that we should not trust our moral intuitions, and present anecdotal evidence to back it up (such morals changing with the times). You never come to grip with the core argument of intuitivism – that our basic moral intuitions are as basic as our basic logical intuitions, and therefore beyond right or wrong.

I support moral-sense-based humanism: morality is the operation of our moral sense(s), and the latter is to a large degree uniform across the human species. The only argument I can see  raised against it above is the changing-moralities argument. But to take your own tack, this reminds me of the theistic argument that we should believe in God because of the social consequences of atheism. To both, my answer is two-fold: (a) consequences have nothing to do with the truth of the matter, and (b) these aren’t even the consequences.

I don’t want moral objectives truths to exist. I don’t even know what that means. How can moral objective truths be relevant to my own moral thinking? This strikes as a very Platonic, not to say religious, line of thought. Even if such a thing were to exist, why should it be called “Moral” truths, rather than, say, “Boojam” truths? The only morality that actually exists is the one that is directing humans, not some abstract or transcendant idea.

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mikespeir May 31, 2009 at 5:19 am

I find myself not wanting God to exist, but it wasn’t always so.  I used to be a Christian.  It was quite the desperate, soul-crunching struggle to come to terms with the likelihood that there is, in fact, no God.  But once one comes to an opinion–however one comes to it–one develops an emotional attachment to it.  Thereafter, however well supported by reason and evidence, we argue for it primarily for emotional reasons.

No, I don’t want there to be a god.  On the other hand, if I were handed convincing evidence for God, I would have to accept it.  I would dread having to endure the same gut-wrenching process of de-conversion from one point of view and re-conversion to another.  I might fight long and hard to find alternative explanations to account for the new information.  But, failing that, I have enough respect for the value of truth that I would have to yield and make the journey back to faith.

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Lorkas May 31, 2009 at 5:45 am

“Traditionally, moral values are spooky things.”

Made me think of spooky action.

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Lorkas May 31, 2009 at 5:51 am

What are morals made of?

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Kip May 31, 2009 at 6:17 am

I’m an atheist, and I hope (some sort of) God does exist.  Probably not the Christian God, though.

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lukeprog May 31, 2009 at 9:14 am

atimetorend,

Thanks – that is exactly what I’m trying to do.

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lukeprog May 31, 2009 at 9:17 am

Yair,

Of course, you’re absolutely right – I shall have to do a more comprehensive series on why I reject moral sense theories.

Yair, it sounds like you are describing a theory of descriptive ethics, but not a theory prescriptive ethics. That is, you recognize that there are things that humans do that they tend to call “moral” or “immoral”, but these actions are not OBJECTIVELY moral or immoral. Is that correct?

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cartesian May 31, 2009 at 9:44 am

Luke,
Discussing desire utilitarianism, you say:
>>For the first time, here were arguments for moral realism that actually made sense and referred only to things that actually exist.>>

So just what is your favorite argument for moral realism? You spend a lot of space in this post criticizing other people’s arguments for moral realism, and then you say that you’re a moral realist on the basis of compelling arguments. This leaves me wondering what those arguments could be. Will you share them with us?

 (Please don’t link me to some other document. I’d really appreciate it if you could please just locate the argument for me and copy and paste it here, as you did for Shafer-Landau, Wielenberg, and Brink.)

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lukeprog May 31, 2009 at 11:08 am

I do not have a favorite argument for moral realism in general. I only have arguments for one particular theory of moral realism: desire utilitarianism.

What I want to do is explain desire utilitarianism from the ground up, as if I had to convince a Martian the moral values exist, and bear the relationships described in desire utilitarian theory. To do that, I’m going to first speed through an ‘Intro to Ethics’ course. Then I’m going to explain why non-cognitivist theories fail. Then I’m going to defend an error theory of morality, but show why it need not be the end of the story for morality. From there, I’m going to explain the grounds for desire utilitarianism.

Because I want to do things this way, I’m afraid you’ll have to be patient. People have also asked me to write comprehensive rebuttals to the EEAN and many other things, and of course all of these will require patience on the part of my readers. I do try to make this a blog with mostly high-quality posts, but that takes time.

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Lorkas May 31, 2009 at 11:40 am

I guess I’ll have to be patient as well, because I’m left wondering why you accept moral realism as well.

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Reginald Selkirk May 31, 2009 at 11:44 am

Frankly, I think atheists make stunningly bad arguments for the existence of free will.

I think it’s because they really want there to be free will, and this corrupts their thinking.

I changed a few words. Hope you don’t mind.

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Yair May 31, 2009 at 12:13 pm

lukeprog:Yair, it sounds like you are describing a theory of descriptive ethics, but not a theory prescriptive ethics. That is, you recognize that there are things that humans do that they tend to call “moral” or “immoral”, but these actions are not OBJECTIVELY moral or immoral. Is that correct?

Almost correct. Yes, the theory is descriptive, and describes what humans call “moral” rather than what is “objectively” moral in some supra-human (“objective”) sense. But no, the theory is not descriptive in that it doesn’t ultimately assign The Good to an is, but rather to what humans would think/do in an ideal situation (perfect knowledge, no illusion or delusion, perfect rational analysis, and so on). And no, the theory actually is prescriptive in that it prescribes how we ought to determine what to do, but it does so in a way that is not universal – it prescribes moral judgment X for people with moral cognitive structure Y, not a single moral judgment for all agents irrespective of their moral desires/sense.
 
I’d add a comment that this is what I interpret Hume as saying. For example, http://www.springerlink.com/content/w641183x976g3887/ here this structure is made explicit. Hume raised the is-ought problem, and this everyone knows. But Hume also solved the problem, and this everyone ignores. Hume’s solution, and my solution, is that once the “is” being considered is human “ought”, a proper “ought’ enters the discussion and one can resume talk about what “ought” to be done – in a human, not transcendental, sense.

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Andy May 31, 2009 at 1:16 pm

Hi Luke,
Honestly, I don’t buy your major premise that atheists don’t want god to exist. However I do think atheists would be totally freaked out if god proved his existence!

As an atheist myself, I really wish there was a god. I’d hope it wasn’t the jealous violent Christian god of the old testament, but there you go. I hate the idea of my non-existence so I’d be happy as larry to find out there was an afterlife. Of course, I’d probably be sent to the fiery pits of hell. Bummer.

Actually I think you’ve phrased it slightly wrong. I think what you should have said was “Why atheists don’t want religion to exist”, or even ”Why atheists don’t want beliefs of religion to be true”. Now that, I’d certainly agree with, but it’s a very different thing from not wanting god to exist. In that context your final 4 statements then make sense to me, but they don’t about god as a concept in itself.

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lukeprog May 31, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Reginald Selkirk: Frankly, I think atheists make stunningly bad arguments for the existence of free will. … I think it’s because they really want there to be free will, and this corrupts their thinking.

No kidding! The arguments for free will are, I think, even worse than the arguments for moral realism.

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lukeprog May 31, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Yair,

Desire utilitarianism is actually not all that different from one possible interpretation of Hume’s moral theory, either. Except I have no need to postulate an Ideal Observer. I can merely say that a desire which DOES (in fact) tend to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts is a good desire.

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Dace May 31, 2009 at 4:35 pm

“My point is that many atheists reject bad theistic arguments, but deploy similarly flawed arguments to defend their own brand of moral realism. I think this might be because they hope God doesn’t exist, but they also hope moral values do exist.”

Luke, I don’t think this is a very good argument. Whilst I agree with you that atheists often give a poor defence of moral realism, all this shows is that they are probably allowing their wishes to cloud their thinking on this issue. It cannot be concluded from this that they have any hopes regarding the existence of God whatsoever – perfect disinterestedness regarding theism with bias regarding ethics is completely compatible with the information you present.
I agree that some atheists are hypocrites, whether they are aware of this or not. I think it’s a good point that atheists are generally no more rational than theists – theists often compartmentalize their religious convictions, but are elsewhere completely rational.

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Andrew Marshall May 31, 2009 at 5:10 pm

I am in agreement with Yair in that existence of objective moral truths seems a very Platonic line of thought.  To my way of thinking, certain abstract “objects” are so clearly constructed to provide vocabulary for observations about structure, meta-observations, self-referential observations, and other theory-organizing purposes, that their “existence” is immediate and incontrovertible (what is controvertible is the usefulness of said “objects”).   This includes moral values, freewill, and consciousness.  

It seems like a category error to lump UFO’s and God in with moral values.  But then, I have no idea what it means that objective moral values exist.  What do we say about the crocodile who eats children?  It has violated universal moral laws?  Most of us wouldn’t say that, I’d wager.  We’d say it knows no better.  But who on death row knew better?  In a very real sense, none of them.  They are but crocodiles, perceived as threats to almost all humans, by their nature.  We can say, instead, they are rational people who had choices and chose to do wrong, but clearly many such people have very different understandings of right and wrong as you and me.  But it’s as though there were shame in admitting we are not universally justified in condemning them, only contextually justified.

One frightening (or ridiculous) consequence of a transcendental or Platonic morality is the possibility that we all fail the moral laws, miserably.  (Sounds almost religious, doesn’t it?) In such a universe, we might later discover (say, after death) that our whole life was one act of evil following another.  In fact, it is non-sensical, since we have no way to anchor our concept of “evil” down, other than by the actions we witness as evil.  There cannot be an “evil” we are guilty of that is entirely beyond our perception.  Isn’t this a problem for the people who assert the existence of objective moral values?

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lukeprog May 31, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Andrew, I think the only way to respond to your points is with a presentation of desire utilitarianism, which I’m coming to later.

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Chuck June 1, 2009 at 5:52 am

Andrew, morality can be universal without having to be  transcendental. (As an aside, I think we would all do a lot better if we stop describing moral values as “objective”. There is too much confusion regarding that term.)

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Reginald Selkirk June 1, 2009 at 7:24 am

We can stop quibbling over details now. Game Over! June Geoffrey Berg has a new book and For the first time in human history multiple, absolute, valid, logical, simple disproofs of God’s existence have been published. They’re absolute and valid. June Geoffrey Berg says so. We can all go home.

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Sergio Barrio Tarnawiecki June 1, 2009 at 7:58 am

I worry about the danger of religious fanaticism, whatever its brand. They disguise themselves as the source of ethics and morality, and under such mask they cover up massive perversity. We, the atheists, must develop a scientific notion of ethics as an alternative to the fake religious ethics. I have worked on this for a number of years, alone, almost lonely, and wish to have some space to share my views. My blog (http://www.palabra-de-hombre.blogspot.com) deals with the issue of masculinity from an atheist ethical perspective. I have a long MSc dissertation on the issue of ethics for sexual education from an equally atheist perspective. Any suggestions? I am 66 now, and wish to find a path to let my work be useful.

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Andrew Marshall June 1, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Chuck, I’m not sure I understand the point of your distinction.  If there are universal morals, don’t we risk the possibility that we are completely misguided as to what those universal morals are?  

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Lorkas June 2, 2009 at 12:51 pm

The strange thing, I think, about people who make this point is that it completely depends on what you mean by “God”.

If you mean “the ultimate judge who will deal infinite reward and punishment on the basis of your beliefs while you were alive”, then yea, I hope that God doesn’t exist. Or if you mean “the supreme being who watches over all of us yet allows violent, gruesome accidents to occur, resulting in painful loss of life”, then I hope that God doesn’t exist (I’d rather think that things just happen than think that some being has the power to stop horrible accidents and disease, but chooses not to).

However, if you’re talking about the deist God, who created the universe and then left it alone, I am completely neutral on that question. I don’t think that there’s any reason to believe it, but I don’t want it to exist or not to exist.

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Lee A. P. June 12, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Atheists don’t want the God that is logically posited by evangelical Christianity to exist, for obvious reasons.

I see no reason why they would not be open to another type of God given suffecient reason and evidence.

But there is a great lack of religious philosphers promoting any other tyoe of God!

You would expect religious philosphers to be making cases for all sorts of Gods but in the US it boils dowen to Christian God” v Atheism.  that is kinda odd now that I really think about it.

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lukeprog June 12, 2009 at 7:49 pm

Lee,

Love it! Great comment.

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Steven Carr June 24, 2009 at 12:00 am

Richard Dawkins wrote ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthristy ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”.

Guess what? Richard Dawkins does not want Yahweh to exist.

Fair enough, but Dawkins should admit and confront his bias, rather than keeping quiet.

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Evan July 17, 2009 at 1:47 am

Hi Mark.

I think the ethical question you’re posing has a far simpler answer, but one that requires a few admissions first. The first admission is that morality differs from place-to-place. Second is that moral ideas cross-pollute with contact, but to inconsistent degrees. The third, and most relevant in my opinion, is that the consistent moral values that could almost be perceived to be objective are in fact those that promote societal function. Taking a step back from being stuck inside of society, we see that humans achieve more, and thrive better when working in groups, communities etc. It then follows, if we accept meme theory, that ethics that allow for successful group behaviour will be strong memes, and the societies that exhibit them will flourish, eventually supplanting those that do not exhibit such tendencies. In a similar vein, witnessing the success of such societies can account for the cross-pollination of such values, creating what on the surface might appear to be objective moral values. An obvious example here would be the seemingly objective principle “stealing is wrong”. To claim it as truly objective would be ludicrous in light of the existence of more than enough bandit societies (small bands and the likes) throughout history, but across the globe today we see an almost universal villifying of theft. Countries thrive by getting citizens to work, to produce, and the incentive here is for citizens to reap benefits of their labour. Should that benefit be freely stolen, or should the citizens obtain their wealth through theft rather than productive toil, then the society fails to produce, and ultimately fails. Hence any society that grows successfully must first establish a common meme of villifying theft.

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el zorro9 September 5, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Hi Mark,
I’m new to philosophy. I don’t know if there is a philsosophic method. But I do think that we can use reason either to support or defend a particular argument or belief.
To me:
1. Beliefs are things learned by imitation (e.g. children learn what to do and what not from their superiors like parents, teachers or from their peers). We just repeat certain actions and after a while, they become habits. I think that’s how moral behavior come to exist.
2. why should our parents, teachers etc teach us moral behavior? I think they may have found that it’s better to have them than not. Why better? “Moral” behavior promote security, social stability. If the number of those who think like this is sufficiently large, some of them may think of institutionalizing the same by formal “education” in school or informally at home. They do so through books and other media and personal examples and words.
3. There is a part of the brain which is specifically geared to recognizing other people’s faces and to monitoring their reaction to what we do or say. This might have evolutionary origin as people started to live in community instead of alone because there is obvious survival value for the community to possess this mental and emotional equipment: it fosters and facilitate co-operation. Because of this, we are rewarded by neurochemicals with a “pleasant feeling” if we do things which are socially approved. So we continue doing so. And from a long history of “is”, we derive the “ought” of morality. It acquires its “prescriptive” value merely from the weight and authority of “tradition” the origin of which may have become obscure.
4. Then at some point in history, some clever people tried and successfully “anthropomorphosed” this “social necessity” into a person, a father figure and lawgiver or God. To me, God is just a form of making something abstract into something more “personal” and more “concrete” and therefore more socially effective by giving a “face” to the abstract but socially necessary “moral” principles required for the survival of the community. The idea of God is modelled after earthly tribal chiefs, kings etc. Whether we invented this “supernatural” God is a question of historical accident. Some societies have it e.g the Jews and some don’t e.g. China.
5. If the above analysis is correct, then we should not worry about whether morality needs justification by God. Whether or not they can or have to be justified by the command of God or by the social “command” of particular societies, morality exists “objectively” in the sense that all known societies have one form or another of it. If any justification is required for morality, the answer to me is simple:the need for morality is social. If there is just one person in the entire world, there would have been no necessity for any morality. It becomes irrelevant.

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Michael September 5, 2009 at 11:28 pm

I think the line of reasoning here can be taken even further to say that we should not be realists about the existence of the real world. The main real argument people probably have for the real world is that it’s so very “basic” and “intrinsic to our very being”. Would you then say that people who are “real-world realists” are being as irrational as Christians?
Obviously some beliefs must be properly basic/atomic. It is not entirely unreasonable to suggest that our intuitions such as that killing is wrong fall under this (although of course there is a huge element of subjectivity here, especially when some might consider the existence of God as properly basic).
So I think these discussions run into problems in that we don’t have some objective way to discuss what beliefs should be properly basic. On this I don’t think any philosopher (atheist, theist, whatever) has the answer — at least for the time being.

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Michael September 5, 2009 at 11:30 pm

Also this post is on the COTG published just now at http://anadder.com/cotg

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John B. Hodges September 13, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Understanding evolution provides a basis for ethics. Some animals are social animals, who survive by cooperating in groups. Humans are the most social of any, cooperating in groups that include millions.

Morality serves to maintain peaceful and cooperative relations among group members. Moral rules are like the “practical syllogism” of Aristotle: If you want X, then you ought to do Y. If you want to maintain peaceful relations, don’t kill, steal, lie, or break agreements. Do not do to others what you would not wish done to you.

There is a “natural” goal of living things, in the sense that it is favored by natural selection: promote the health of your family, where “health” is defined as the ability to survive, and “family” is “all who share your genes, to the degree that they share your genes”. This is called “inclusive fitness” by biologists.

Understanding the evolution of social animals gives us a simple standard for judging our neighbors. A “good” person is a desirable neighbor, from the point of view of people who wish to live in peace and raise families.

Such an ethic is not “universal”, but we can predict that it will be widely popular across cultures, times and places, because it is based on universal human nature. It is “objective” only in the sense that it is a consequentialist ethic that has an ultimate goal that is objectively measureable, to at least some degree. So questions of whether a particular item or action is “good”, “bad”, “right”, or “wrong” become objective questions that can be adressed by scientific procedures.

See my essay ATHEIST FOUNDATIONS OF ETHICS at
http://civic.bev.net/atheistsnrv/articles/definition.html

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lukeprog September 13, 2009 at 3:51 pm

John B. Hodges,

Every brand of evolutionary ethics I know of has failed. See here.

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cl March 28, 2010 at 2:28 am

Great post. Stumbled on it by complete accident while searching for something else, but it’s actually quite helpful in my understanding of how and why you came to your conclusions on desirism.

I’m not so sure atheist philosophers are more rational in general. It seems to me they are, just like everybody else, quite persuaded by what they want to be true.

But of course; desires are the only reasons for action that exist, and the study of philosophy constitutes action. We’re all persuaded by our desires. It is, like you said, a matter of keeping them in check and remaining aware of their potentially confounding influences.

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Broceratops April 27, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Just a quick aside in reference to the link to the paragraphs on the failure of evolutionary ethics: You constructed a good refutation of evolutionary ethics insofar as the idea has been proposed to be justificatory of the belief that currently held moral sensibilities “must be correct, because the evolved”…. but is there not also branches of evolutionary ethics whose focus is not so much on the demonstrability of ethical realism, nor the justification of a particular model of ethics versus another possible model, but rather on a descriptive account of how the common currently observable moral sensibilities may have derived their origin (in other words an explanation of WHY we think what we think about morals) by investigating what, if any survival & reproductive advantages may have been afforded to ancestors who believed it not kosher to do certain things?

I actually don’t consider myself in that camp personally, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it, because in the brief paragraph you seemed mostly interested in refuting those who asserted evolution to be a reliable epistemological grounds upon which to base an affirmative appraisal of the moral intuitions it produced.

(Nice article BTW).

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Broceratops April 27, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Ooops…Forgot to subscribe when I submitted that last post. (Ignore this post).

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doaftheloaf June 15, 2011 at 1:54 pm

I looked up desire utiloitarianism, and from what I saw it is still a subjective theory of morality. You have not located an objective moral source (no one else has either), and as such, there is no reason to believe there is one.

Luke, I find it hard to believe that someone of your intellect would fall for this philosophy…or at least find it sufficient as a theory of moral realism. It centers on desires, which are entirely subjective, and even if everyone on the planet agreed on this system of morality, got along, and worked together to ensure and enhance the lives of everyone else, that would not make any moral value inherently applicable to everybody.

Find the objective moral source, whatever it is, or moral relativism is the only sensible position, no matter what you want to be true. Desire utilitarianism, like the others, fails to show how moral values are objective or real, instead of a subjective human construct.

You want objective moral values to exist; I understand that. It certainly doesn’t mean that they do.

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Goodman June 20, 2011 at 9:36 am

The samething can be said with theist; they want god to exist.

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Ricky James Moore II November 24, 2011 at 5:47 am

As you say in another post, you don’t care if God exists. Well, I don’t care if ‘morality’ exists. It’s just a bunch of gibberish and double-talk. Your so-called moral realism is just shifting the popular label to your pet preferences. Just like some people say ‘God is really just the Universe.’

Moral philosophy is a bunch of fucking garbage perpetuated by tools and wankers. Seriously.

Get a pair of balls like Ray Brassier and stop pretending your primate-brain social signaling bullshit reflects objective imperatives.

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