If atheism is true, there’s no basis for objective moral values and duties. And if everything’s ultimately reducible to physical processes and matter just behaving according to law, it seems pretty tough to build a moral foundation that doesn’t leave you as a total subjectivist.
Here’s what I mean: If there’s no good and no evil, like Richard Dawkins says in his book, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, then there is “no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” in our universe. How’s that for a description of reality?
What this means is that if atheism’s true, then what’s “good” or what’s “evil” is basically just you saying what you happen to like or what you happen to not like. So as an atheist, you could say “I don’t happen to like the idea of human trafficking” or “I don’t prefer to be the victim of spousal abuse.” But you couldn’t have any kind of real, moral grounding to call it objectively evil—if atheism is true.
Mikel Del Rosario
Usually, for the moral argument to work, the Christian first has to paint his opponent as a normative relativist—as if that’s the only position available to opponents who reject your sort of substantive realism. I’m an atheist. I’m also not a normative relativist. Furthermore, Dawkins isn’t my voice. I have my own and thus, I will disagree with him about some things though as I show later, he’s not actually saying what Rosario thinks he’s saying.
Once setting aside the normative relativism you want us to accept, the next thing to do is to address the moral argument as usually formulated. To that we now turn. Thankfully, I’ve already addressed this argument before and at length.
Let’s consider the argument as commonly formulated:
P1 If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
P2 Objective moral values and duties do exist.
C Therefore, God exists.
Without providing any alternatives just yet, I’ll attack this argument directly. Starting with P1, it’s useful to point out the predilection that’s hiding in that sentence. How can you know that objective moral values and duties can’t exist even without a god? You can’t know that. Thus, you’re simply assuming that that’s the case; it follows that you’re imposing faith rather than knowledge. I agree with P2. P2 is the only sound premise in the argument. However, it is possible to have true premises and a false conclusion. That makes for an invalid argument. Let’s assume both premises are true. Though this would require a separate discussion, C is demonstrably false. The Judeo-Christian god doesn’t exist. God, according to Christianity, is triune. Thus, I can demonstrate that there’s no father or no son or no holy spirit. Those are my options. I am very adept at demonstrating the nonexistence of the father and the son based on the empirical methodology of history. By default, the holy spirit is cancelled out since they’re one. It follows that the argument is then invalid.
You argue that morality becomes relative if god doesn’t exist. Yet we seem to agree that it’s objective though, on my view, it can be demonstrated that the Judeo-Christian god doesn’t exist. The question is, how then is it objective without god? Can we offer an explanation? Ethics has become one of my focuses for precisely this reason and I’ve come across a few explanations that are compelling. Granted, some are incomplete. Some are less compelling than others. But the fact that an explanation is incomplete is no reason to reject it and it certainly doesn’t warrant certainty that there is no possible explanation. That’s precisely what Rosario claims, however: without god, not only can we not have objective morality, but we can’t offer an adequate explanation for its existence. This is false. Thus, relativism isn’t the consequence of morality without god.
Also, towards the end, he mentions moral ontology and seems to imply a distinction it has with moral epistemology. Relativism and objectivism do not have to be at odds. After all, even William Lane Craig acknowledges what I call moral classes (compare that to socioeconomic classes). For instance, the West has more moral knowledge than the Korowai in Papau, New Guinea and thus, Westerners are a higher moral class than the Korowai are. This relativistic knowledge rests on moral epistemology and not on moral ontology. Something can be objectively wrong though some culture or some person refuses to recognize it.
The Moral Argument for God rests on what Christine Korsgaard calls substantive realism—the view that states that “there are correct procedures for answering moral questions because there are moral truths or facts, which exist independently of those procedures, and which those procedures track.”1 Like Korsgaard, I agree that substantive realism begs the question since it assumes moral standards without providing a basis for them. What’s worse is that theistic substantive realism also assumes the existence of god and thus, further begs the question. It’s viciously circular. So, in light of this, what’s my alternative?
Korsgaards’s view—a view that I share—is procedural realism, which states that “there are answers to moral questions because there are correct procedures for arriving at them.”2 You can consider for example Kant’s CI procedure, a few of which are compatible with human moral behavior. This is a point argued forcefully in my recent essay on the possibility of a pluralistic moral algorithm.3 Also, the view is compatible with societal norms, moral universals, and the emergence of law at different times throughout history. If the procedures come before the answers, then there’s no need to assume that we know the answers before we find them. It follows that Adam Smith’s problem-solution idea is another procedure we can consult. I expound on that idea and formulate a working model that aligns with our moral behavior.4 Given what I’ve surveyed, it should be obvious to anyone that the apple has fallen far from the relativist tree.
Lastly, there’s something I need to correct in Rosario’s quote. He misquoted Dawkins and misunderstood what Dawkins is saying. Dawkins said the following:
"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”5
He’s not speaking of this relativism Rosario invokes. He’s clearly alluding to nihilism—both existential (made obvious by “no purpose”) and moral (made obvious by “no evil, no good”). Those are completely different views; they have no place in Rosario’s presentation. Apologists fancy themselves philosophers, but in my experience they’re always missing a key characteristic in every good philosopher: an attention to detail. To confuse relativism for nihilism is an egregious error.
Notes & Works Cited
1 Korsgaard, Christine M., and Onora Neill.The Sources of Normativity, p.36-37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.
3 The notion of a pluralistic moral algorithm and consequently, an individualistic moral algorithm can be related to procedural realism. Procedural realism states that “there are answers to moral questions because there are correct procedures for arriving at them.”Korsgaard adds that because people are rational agents, they have an ideal person they want to become and they thus guide their actions accordingly. What’s most important on her view is that moral agents self-legislate. Self-legislation aligns perfectly with the notion of both an individualistic and a pluralistic moral algorithm. It also aligns perfectly with Kant’s autonomy formulation of his categorical imperative which states that one should act in such a way that one’s will can regard itself at the same time as making universal laws through its maxims. Arguably, something much simpler than Kant’s formulation can be at play when speaking of autonomy and self-legislation. However, Kant’s formulation of the Kingdom of Ends takes us from individualistic to pluralistic because the formulation states that one should act as if one were through one’s maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.
4 See Here
5 Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, p.120. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1995. Print.