Atheism is Amoralism

There are atheist Traditionalists. But apart from an appeal to their own personal preferences, they cannot propose any arguments that support their Traditionalist views. This because if God does not exist, then as Dostoyevsky pointed out, everything is permitted.

Secular rightists are generally indignant at that notion. They’ve got plenty of arguments! Evolution has formed us as moral animals, and that justifies characterizing human moral sentiments as founded in objective reality. I get this argument all the time. Less often, I hear appeals to non-theistic Natural Law. While I appreciate the earnest honesty of their professors, these arguments won’t do. Why?

Note first that in what follows I am not trying to figure out whether the God of Israel, or any other god, is good. That’s an issue that we can only think about addressing if we first establish that there is such a thing as an objective good to begin with. If there isn’t, then there is just no point in trying to figure out whether any god – or for that matter any of our actions – are good or evil, for if there is in objective reality no such thing as good, then nothing is really any good, or bad. We might think or feel that things are good or bad, but if there is no objective truth about what is good or bad, there is no way we can be correct in such thoughts and feelings – or incorrect, for that matter – and those thoughts and feelings are completely illusory. They have nothing to do with the real world, because there is nothing out there for our moral thoughts and feelings to be correct about.   

Properly speaking, then, we ought to be clear that the only thing we can possibly mean by “morality” is “objective morality.” We ought to understand that “objective morality” is really redundant. Morality has to be objective, or it isn’t really morality at all. So we ought to say just, “morality,” instead. And, instead of saying “merely subjective morality,” or “merely conventional morality,” we should say, more precisely, “merely subjective opinion,” and “mere convention,” leaving morality out of it.

If there is no objective standard of good or evil – if there is no such thing as morality – then we ought not even to talk about morality.

But we would like to talk about morality, wouldn’t we? We do it all the time. It is the main matter of our conversations with each other. It would be odd indeed if the whole converse of society were just insane ravings. That seems at the least extremely unlikely. How would a species that spent all its time worrying about illusions get along in the world, after all – let alone take over the planet? 

So, let’s stipulate that there is indeed an objective standard of good and evil – that there are things we ought to do, and things we ought not to do, and that the obligation we apprehend in that word “ought” is, not just a vapor of our imagination, but a feature of reality, that is binding upon us regardless of what anyone thinks about it – and, indeed, regardless whether there is any thinking going on at all. If this is the case, then there can be such a thing as moral reasoning – we can try to figure out what it is, exactly, that we ought, and ought not, to do. 

The question before us then, is this: could objectively true morality exist in the absence of an omnipotent, omniscient, necessary Creator?

If there were such a being, then obviously it would follow, just from the fact of his existence, that there would be an objective morality. That’s because, being omniscient, he could not possibly err: all his thoughts would be true, so that if he thought x were good, then x really would be good, automatically. So, that option is pretty much settled: if God exists, there can be such a thing as morality. Indeed, if God exists, there cannot fail to be morality.

Can there be such a thing as morality, if God does not exist?  

There are a number of theories about how that might work, but they all boil down to just two, really. Both argue that morality has arisen naturally. They differ on what it has arisen from. There is an ancient answer to that question of the ultimate source of morality, and a modern one.

The modern answer is that morality has arisen from … well, from nothing. On this view, we have moral feelings at all only because it just so happened that we evolved as social organisms, and the reproductive advantages of society derive from cooperation, which is facilitated by rules and standards of cooperation – customs, laws, conventions, and so forth. Rules are advantageous, and that’s why we have them. They feel to us as though they are binding, but really they are no more binding upon us than, say, the rules of baseball. And because they are the product of a long process of meaningless, happenstantial events that are not ordered to any particular end, they are themselves completely meaningless, and happenstantial – i.e., totally arbitrary, and lacking all moral force.

The problem with the theory that morality is basically noise is that you can’t use it to convince someone whose moral feelings disagree with yours that he is wrong, and ought to behave differently. Nor can he convince you. If you made such an argument to a sociopath who took this position on the sources of morality, but who had a taste for human meat, he could just look at you and say, “I don’t want to play the game you are playing. Your rules are just the outcome of a long process of totally contingent events, each of which was governed by nothing but happenstance. Every one of them might have turned out differently. Well, I’m another contingent happenstance just like all the others that went to make up your rules. And I’m playing by my own rules.” And he would be correct. Because under his theory, the rules of society are not really moral, in the sense that they are not objectively binding on us; they do not oblige us, whether we like it or not.

If we want to play baseball, we have to abide by the rules of that game. But if we decide we want to play a different game, the rules of baseball won’t any longer apply to us at all. Moral rules are not like that; there is no getting out of them. So, this theory fails. It may tell us how we evolved our social rules, and how they work to our advantage in the world, but it cannot tell us whether our rules are right, or whether our moral views are true. Thus it is not really a theory about morality, properly so called, at all, but rather a theory about the moral sentiments.

Now, it is interesting to note that the discovery by evolution of the moral law is just what we would have expected to happen, in the event that there really was an objective moral law out there. Evolution fits organisms to reality, and we would expect therefore that such a procedure would tend to generate creatures that were generally well fitted to the moral aspects of the world, just as it would fit them to, say, its gravitational aspects. Under this Natural Law alternative, there is an objective morality, and it is built into the structure of the world in rather the same way that gravity is. This theory would argue, for example, that the only reason rules of social cooperation do actually work to our advantage is that they are objectively good rules for us to follow, and their objective goodness means that we really ought to follow them.

It is possible to believe in Natural Law without believing in God. But there is a problem with that: what could then make the Natural Law binding on us? It’s the Law of the Universe; but so what? If I can break it – and I can, in a way that is not possible with the Law of Gravity – why shouldn’t I? We have moved from the theory that evolution just so happened, for no reason, as to form us as beings that feel we ought to cooperate well with each other, to the theory that evolution did this because it really is good that we cooperate well with each other, or to survive and reproduce. But, in so doing, all we have done is kick the problem of the ultimate source of morality a bit further down the road.

If there is a Natural Law but no God, then morality turns out to be just as much a matter of happenstance as it did under the evolutionary theory. The only difference between the two theories is in where they locate the sheer happenstance at the root of what we call morality. Under the evolutionary theory, morality arose as a matter of sheer happenstance within the history of our universe. The atheist Natural Law theory says that it arose as an integral aspect of our universe that, because there is no God, itself arose as a matter of sheer happenstance, mere brute fact. Under this theory, the sociopathic cannibal could say, “I recognize that there is a Natural Law that says I ought not to kill and eat you. But the Natural Law, like the rest of existence, is a matter of sheer happenstance. I, too, am a matter of happenstance, and I happen to feel differently about morality than the rest of our universe.” And he’d be right.

In the absence of God, both the theories we’ve talked about boil down in the end to “there is no absolutely binding, objective moral truth, but rather only happenstance.” When push comes to shove, then, the only way there can be such a thing as morality is if there is an omniscient, necessary God who knows without possibility of error what is right.

42 thoughts on “Atheism is Amoralism

  1. Full disclosure; I am an atheist.

    Hello Kristor. I feel I should respond here, not for the purpose of convincing you atheism is true but merely for the purpose of reassuring all the atheists out there that it is possible to be a “good Traditionalist” and an atheist at the same time. Conversion to Christianity is desirable for most atheists (I would argue) but it is not absolutely necessary to lead a moral life or to have a moral purpose.

    My understanding is that to be a Traditionalist one must believe in what I would call the “externally imposed moral order” that is independent of human will either individually or collectively. The “externally imposed moral order” can be translated as God; an atheist can even “believe in God” as long as the atheist defines “God” to mean “the externally imposed moral order.” In this way of defining Traditionalism an atheist can be a “true Traditionalist” just as much as a Christian can.

    So, the “externally imposed moral order” is objective reality and objective morality. All have a duty to obey “the externally imposed moral order” whether they believe in any such thing or not because objective reality is objective reality regardless of one’s opinion on the matter. Of course, an atheist can willfully disobey what he is obliged to do but the mere capacity to disobey in no way alters what one’s moral duty is. This goes for both Christians and atheists. An atheist might say “my morality is different from your morality so I’ll just do what I want and call it good” but such fatuous declarations in no way alter the objective reality of what is right and what is wrong. A Christian to can declare various heresies to be “the true meaning” of the Christian faith but simply saying it doesn’t make it so.

    So, the question comes up, where does atheist objective morality come from? It comes from the material world, from evolution, from what we know of life from our own personal experiences. What is good is moral; for instance happiness is moral. Happiness is moral because it feels good. Life is therefore moral because life is the vehicle through which we have the capacity to feel good. Bad is the opposite of good so suffering is therefore bad. That which causes suffering is then immoral. These are the basic building blocks of atheist objective morality.

    The foundational atheist belief regarding “the way the world works” is evolution by natural selection. It is true that evolution is driven by mindless random chance but the outcomes of evolution are not random in the least. Evolution creates a bias towards morality for the simple reason that “that which is good” leads to survival and continued existence while “that which is bad” leads to death and disappearance. The “good” creature will survive and pass on its genes while the “bad” creature will not survive and will therefore vanish. The end result of this process is a vast preponderance of “good” creatures and very few “bad” creatures. In this way mindless random chance is the mechanism through which moral order is created.

    I personally believe that a “God concept” is necessary for an atheist to function well; the Christian will automatically have a “God concept” since God is embedded within the Christian faith. It is therefore the atheist’s job to construct a “God concept” for themselves so that they to will have what the Christian already possesses. Alternatively the atheist might simply convert to Christianity. For those atheists who can sincerely convert to Christianity conversion to Christianity is probably the better path. However, it is possible for an atheist to construct a functional “God concept” while still being an atheist. In this way through this mechanism an atheist can be a Traditionalist according to what I understand a Traditionalist to be.

    I will add, an atheist that does not accept the reality of an “externally imposed moral order” is placing himself outside of the Traditionalist camp regardless of how much he claims to agree with specific policy positions or goals typical of Traditionalism. In other words an atheist should be acceptable as “part of the club” even while being an atheist as long as he agrees that there is an “externally imposed moral order” that he is obligated to obey. A Christian can automatically be assumed to be accepting of such an “externally imposed moral order” that he is obligated to obey since such a duty is intrinsic to Christianity itself.

    • If one is free to choose his God concept then how is the moral order ”externally imposed.” If this is traditionalism, then I’m the Pope.

    • How is evolution “good”? Evolution is amoral. It asks only what leads to survival and reproduction. Many things that are considered “bad” by nearly all traditional moralities can in fact be successful evolutionary strategies.

  2. Kristor,
    I see that you are using “Natural Law” as a synonym for the objective moral order. I feel that “Natural Law” is better reserved to that part of Moral Law that is accessible to human reason i.e. those propositions that can be derived from the moral axiom “man is a rational animal”.

    There are plenty of people that believe in Moral Law but do not believe in Natural Law ,e g, Muslims, Hindus and many Protestants.

    Natural Law is a specifically Catholic concept and depends upon an awareness of a gap between natural and supernatural orders. That God is a First Cause and not the Only Cause thereby the natural order is created. Please note that “natural” implies stability in itself.

    • For many traditional Protestants (e.g. Lutherans I think) natural law is an important basis for Biblical exegesis. So I don’t think it is a Catholic concept unless you mean Catholic in the broad sense.

  3. I apologize if I’m not doing justice to your system, but doesn’t it commit you to the proposition that “whatever is, is right”? You seem to be saying that every being that survives is a good being, and every act that confers satisfaction is a good act. Wouldn’t this make a shark attack good? The shark is going to survive longer than his victim, so the shark is better, and the shark will surely be satisfied.

    I can’t say I’ve thought this through, but if I were an atheist seeking to ground morality in the mundane world, I’d stay away from the shifting sands of evolution. I’d go back to older notions of an Order of Being.

  4. I don’t see how God’s omniscience can explain the existence of anything.

    If an omniscient God thinks that X is objectively good, then of course we can conclude that X really is objectively good — but God’s opinion would be the effect, not the cause, of that state of affairs. Omniscience means that one’s beliefs conform perfectly to reality, not that reality changes to conform to your beliefs. God’s belief in morality would be conclusive evidence for the existence of morality, but it would not be a reason for its existence.

    Using God’s omniscience to explain morality is like using it to explain the existence of the earth. (Why does the earth exist? Because God thinks it exists, and he can’t be wrong!)

    • I wasn’t trying to explain anything. I was arguing that if God does not exist, then there can be no such thing as an objective morality; but that if he does, there cannot fail to be an objective morality, because being omniscient, God cannot fail to know perfectly what is good. I was silent as to the cause of that good.

      But you raise an interesting point. It is called the Euthyphro dilemma. If the Good is Good regardless of what God thinks or does, then the Good is prior to God, and God is not therefore supreme; but if the Good is what it is on account of what God thinks or does, then the Good is arbitrary.

      But the Euthyphro dilemma misconstrues both God and the Good. For God to qualify as First Cause, he must be an Unmoved Mover. As unmoved, God cannot change. Thus it is a mistake to think that there might be anything prior to him, such as the Good, or by the same token, that there might be anything after him. So, it is not the case that first there is the Good, and then God comes to know the Good; and neither is it the case that first there is God, and then God determines the Good. Rather, God’s knowledge of the Good, as changeless, is also necessary and, ipso facto, eternal. So the Good neither precedes nor succeeds him; the very notion that there might be something before or after an eternal being is incoherent.

      The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it well; I quote here at length, so that you get the general drift, that leads up to the passage I have highlighted at the end:

      … if we are not to be irreverent in our concept of God, but to represent Him as best we can, we must try to conceive Him as excluding all, even the least, change or succession; and his duration, consequently, as being without even a possible past or future, but a never beginning and a never-ending, absolutely unchangeable “now.” This is how eternity is presented in Catholic philosophy and theology. The notion is of special interest in helping us to realize, however, faintly, the relations of God to created things, especially with regard to His foreknowledge. In Him there is no before or after, and therefore no foreknowledge, objectively; the distinction which we are wont to draw between His knowledge or intelligence or science or prescience and His knowledge or vision is merely our way of representing things, natural enough to us, but not by any means objective or real in Him. There is no real objective difference between His intelligence and His vision, nor between either of these and the Divine substance in which there is no possibility of difference or change. That infinitely perfect substantial intelligence, immense as it is eternal, and withal existing entire and immutable as an indivisible point in space and as an indivisible instant in time, is coextensive, in the sense of being intimately present, with the space-extension and the time-succession of all creatures; not beside them, nor parallel with them, nor before or after them; but present in and with them, sustaining them, co-operating with them, and therefore seeing — not foreseeing — what they may do at any particular point of the space-extension, or at any instant of the time-extension, in which they may exist or operate. God may be considered as an immovable point in the centre of a world which, whether as a more or less closely connected group of granulated individuals, or as an absolutely continuous ether mass, turns round Him as a sphere may be supposed to turn in all directions round its centre (St. Thomas, Cont. Gent., I, c. lxvi). The imagery, however, must be corrected by noting that while in the time-line God’s duration is an ever-enduring point or “now”, his immensity in the space-line is not at all like the centre of a circle or sphere; but is a point, rather, which is coextensive with, in the sense of being intimately present to, every other point, actual or possible, in the continuous or discontinuous mass that is supposed to move around Him.

      Bearing this correcting notion well in mind, we may conceive Him as this immovable point in the centre of an ever-moving, though here and there continuous, circle or sphere. The space and time relations are constantly changing between Him and the moving things around Him, not through any change in Him, but only by reason of the constant change in them. In them there is before and after, but not in Him, Who is equally present to them all, no matter how or when they may have come into being, or how they may succeed one another in time or in space. Some of them are free acts; and almost from the time the human mind began to speculate on these questions, and wherever still there are any even rudimentary speculations, the question has arisen and does arise as to how an act can be free not to happen if, as we suppose, God’s absolutely infallible foresight saw from all eternity that it was to be. To this Catholic philosophy supplies the only answer which can be given; that it is not true to say that God either saw or foresaw anything, or that He will see it, but only that He sees it. And as my seeing you act does not interfere with your freedom of action, but I see you acting freely or necessarily, as the case may be, so God sees all finite things, quiescent or active, acting of necessity or freely, according to what may be objectively real, without in the least interfering thereby with the mode or equality of their existence or of their action. Here again, however, care must be taken not to conceive the Divine knowledge as being determined by what the finite may be or do; somewhat as we see things because the knowledge is borne in upon us from what we see. It is not from the infinite that God gets His knowledge, but from His own Divine essence, in which all things are represented or mirrored as they are, existing or merely possible, necessary or free.

      So there is no problem of what came first, the Good or God.

  5. While I appreciate the earnest honesty of their professors, these arguments won’t do.

    I quite disagree about the “earnest honesty” — the error of their thinking has been carefully explained, in great depth, and still they persist in their incorrect denials and incorrect assertions/affirmations.

    There comes a point when when it is no longer reasonable, nor rational, to consider such error to be honest error.

  6. The commonplace observation that atheists can be as virtuous as theists has no tendency to show that morality does not require a transcendental foundation.

  7. Thanks for this post. It roughly mimics my own thinking on the matter.

    I struggled for a long time with the fact that I could come up with no logically consistent philosophy that didn’t end in nihilistic hedonism. However, that never satisfied me. Only the supernatural could supply it. Knowing exactly what is objectively good is more difficult, but if you’ve accepted its existence your already rejecting nearly all of mainstream society.

  8. First of all, I did not intend my comment as a comprehensive moral system. I simply meant to offer some basics regarding how an atheist can understand objective morality without a supernatural God. In the religious narrative the source of the moral order is simply that God made it so. In atheism the moral order spontaneously arises from natural processes; namely through evolution by natural selection. In both religion and atheism an objective reality that leads to objective morality exists, the dispute is where the moral order comes from.

    I advocate the position that the moral order is “externally imposed” by a force outside of the will of man. Most atheists today would disagree with me on that point, they would claim that moral order is something that human beings construct and that mere men can decide for themselves how the moral order should operate.

    So, the first principle is that objective reality and objective morality exists; that both reality and morality are objective.

    Bruce B.

    If one is free to choose his God concept then how is the moral order ”externally imposed.” If this is traditionalism, then I’m the Pope.

    What I said is that an atheist should construct a God concept in order to be able to function well as an atheist. Christianity provides a God concept automatically, the atheist however needs to deliberately “construct” a God concept so that the atheist to can have an orderly and effective moral system. The point is that the atheist constructed God concept needs to reflect reality as closely as possible if it is to work well and achieve its intended goal. It makes perfectly good sense for the atheist to simply copy the Christian understanding of God and embrace a secularized version of the Christian God for themselves. The atheist is “free to choose his God concept” but a God concept will only work and provide benefits if it is a close approximation to reality. Reality is what is “externally imposed”; the God concept then is an effort to match reality as closely as possible.


    You seem to be saying that every being that survives is a good being, and every act that confers satisfaction is a good act. Wouldn’t this make a shark attack good?

    I am not saying that every being that survives is a good being, I am saying that every being that survives has a tendency to be a good being; that survival itself implies positive characteristics that enabled the survival and reproduction in the first place. There is a tendency towards the good but that does not mean everything is good. There is the central tendency and then there are errors or dysfunctions that are contrary to the central tendency. There is health but there is also deviation from health which is called disease. The system of life works most of the time but it doesn’t work all the time. Natural selection dictates that dysfunction that is too severe or too long lasting will be eliminated through death or failure to reproduce. What is left is pretty good but not perfect.

    As far as shark attacks are concerned, there are two parties involved in the shark attack; the shark itself and the creature the shark is eating. The shark attack benefits the shark but harms the object of the shark attack. In order to come to a moral judgment regarding the goodness or badness of an act one has to consider all the parties affected. There are different ways such moral judgments can be approached but it is precisely the complexity often involved in making moral judgments that requires an overarching system of moral rules to guide ones behavior. This is where obedience to God comes in; obedience to God is the best way to organize ones moral structure. This however presents a problem for the atheist who doesn’t believe in God. The solution for the atheist is to construct a “God concept” that is based on the “externally imposed moral order” and then to obey the “God” the atheist has designed for himself. This then allows the atheist to “obey God” thereby giving the atheist a functional moral structure similar to what Christianity gives to Christians. This then allows the atheist to function well in society and enables the atheist to support a moral code that works for the society overall.

    Of course if an atheist doesn’t want to bother with all of this (and he is so designed) he can convert to Christianity instead and that will work just as well.

    • Jesse, my friend, you are already a theist in practice. Out of curiosity, and not with any urge to browbeat you out of your atheism, what is it about theism that prevents you from that final step to just being a theist, period full stop? You see that objective reality exists, better even than most modern Christians. In what could such a reality consist – i.e., how could there possibly be such a thing – in the absence of a perfect, omniscient Subject whose experience, as being the only truly comprehensive and perfectly accurate perspective, can lay claim to being that of the objectively true frame of reference?

      • I think the fundamental difference between a theist and an atheist is that the theist sees the world as being organized from the top down while the atheist sees the world as being organized from the bottom up. Either there is a pre-existing order that then imposes order upon that which is beneath itself (God being the pre-existing order that then creates an orderly world) or alternatively the starting point is chaos and the multitudinous chaotic particles spontaneously organize themselves following a few simple rules (“survival of the fittest” being a simple rule that drives the organization and development of life forms). To me order spontaneously arising from chaos seems to match the world around me and my own personal experiences much better than a hypothesized all knowing all powerful all benevolent supernatural God. I look around me and I see chaos in a mostly organized and mostly predictable form. This is exactly what I’d expect with chaos being the starting point and organization then spontaneously arising from chaos. I don’t get any sense that a supernatural force is out there and so I am inclined to think such a supernatural force does not exist.

        In terms of living one’s life, however, imagining the world to be chaos is no good; it doesn’t tell you what to do and it doesn’t tell you what your purpose in life is. What is most typical for atheists when confronted with the chaos of life is to create a set of rules or principles for themselves to follow to impose order on an otherwise chaotic moral landscape. Principles like “freedom” and “equality” are classic examples of the kinds of moral rules an atheist will come up with in their effort to impose a moral order upon the world around them. This “list of rules” approach however is insufficient to the task of creating a moral order for oneself and the community one lives in. In order to lead a successful life and to have an orderly sustainable community one needs God; one needs one central organizing theme that all other moral rules and principles are derivative of and subordinate to. So, the atheist must take the chaotic semi-ordered world around them and impose upon it a structured hierarchal order with God at the top and in charge. The atheist not believing in God will then define “God” to mean something the atheist can believe in such as my formulation of the “externally imposed moral order.”

        The atheist views the world as order arising from chaos. The atheist then imposes upon the world a God so that life will be ordered and meaningful. This is the explanation behind the “God fearing” atheist. For an atheist such as myself this is as far as the process goes since it is still true that when I look at the world around me I see the hallmarks of order that has arisen from chaos with no evidence of anything supernatural going on. God is necessary for an individual and a society overall to sustain itself but that is not evidence that a literal supernatural God exists.

      • (excuse my terrible typing on my Android)

        That was how I felt about chaos and morality when I was an atheist. Jesse, your world view is very magical. Order spontaneously jumping out of a chaos of matter and energy that are objectively there? A desire to rationalize your life and behaviors, despite the chaos? I came to realize that if I was going to engage in magical thinking, ishould engage in the best one out there: the personal-infinite creator. Just like you I admitted the power of the philosophy, but could not acceept the supernatural claims. But then I started calling out to God. At first I felt like an idiot and cussed myself out. But eventually He came to me, and now I see the supernatural that you cannot now see.

        Jesse, What happens when youget on your face and cry out in submission and desperation to God?

  9. “If there were such a being, then obviously it would follow, just from the fact of his existence, that there would be an objective morality. That’s because, being omniscient, he could not possibly err: all his thoughts would be true, so that if he thought x were good, then x really would be good, automatically. So, that option is pretty much settled: if God exists, there can be such a thing as morality. Indeed, if God exists, there cannot fail to be morality.”

    Is it that simple? Remember that for a real amoralist, ethical claims are meaningless, so to not have an answer to an ethical question isn’t really to lack knowledge. One could use arguments similar to the one above to say that theism rules out there being any meaningless questions. For example, I would say that the question of what is the color of any particular sound has meaningful answer, and I won’t change my mind if someone says “but God is omniscient; therefore he must know what is the color of birds chirping and leaves rustling; therefore these things must have colors.” If God exists and there is no morality, He simply wouldn’t think that anything is good.

    • Thanks, bonald. It’s a good question, but I’m pretty sure it really is that simple: if God exists there cannot fail to be morality. Of any statement, omniscience cannot but know whether it is first meaningful and second true. There are moral propositions that even we can tell are meaningful, and God cannot therefore fail to have judged their truth. There are presumably moral propositions pertinent to other worlds, whose meaningfulness we cannot judge. But omniscience can.

      But I worry I might not have understood your point.

      • Sorry for the delay in responding. I suppose what I’m saying is that if we are sure some moral propositions are meaningful, then the issue of whether there is objective morality is settled already.

  10. This is in response to another person on another site where we were discussing whether one could be moral without God (there may be some stuff about liberalism/fertility/eugenics in there, but its an aside to this discussion):

    Allow me to get a little philosophical here. Why should anyone care about “more life satisfaction” in and of itself? What makes life satisfaction “good”? How can there even be a concept of “good” without the spiritual?

    You might argue along the lines of, “why you got to be so high and mighty, it feels good so just do it.” That’s singular though. If it feels good for you then do it. It has nothing to do with other people feeling good. Why should anyone care about anyone else’s life satisfaction? Fear of reprisal maybe. But there are so many instances when reprisal can be brushed aside reasonably. Even if we posit some kind of evolutionary social altruism gene there is no way that works past small and immediate groups (say the mob boss who treats his own family nice but kills for a living). It’s not an explanation for why someone should make a personal sacrifice for “society”. And without individuals making sacrifices for “society” even when they don’t have to the whole idea behind these liberal schemes break down.

    If there is no God, no objective good, why do you care if anyone else achieves any life satisfaction? I can see no logical reason. The only possible result of this line of thinking is nihilistic hedonism. At least if we’re going to be honest with each other and not rely on a bunch of cheap God substitutes we don’t want to call God.

    I’ve had two main moral crisis in my life. One when I was working on wall street and one now with a corrupt government regulator I’m trying to get fired. In each case its the atheists that have been the most disgusting in deed.

    On wall street is was the Ayn Rand quoting nihilist who told me, “I don’t care about fucking accounting irregularities. Fuck the fucking client just tell me what I need to know to move this pig.” He wasn’t alone, it was the entire ethos of the industry. It’s why I left.

    When I was gathering people to expose the corrupt head of our department I went to talk to two different people. One was a very religious man with a family and a lot to lose. After explaining the situation to him the first words out of his mouth were, “it’s the right thing to do.” No discussion of the personal potential consequences of failure was entertained. When I went to talk with my atheist party line progressive colleague who spouts about social justice all the time, has no family to support, and a large trust fund that paid for his free house the first words out of his mouth were, “what’s in it for me.” At the end of the day, when you’ve really got to boil down a philosophy and take a stand, all that liberal stuff about the good of society goes out the window if you don’t believe there is an objective good out there worth defending. It’s all peacocking. There is no real substance deep down.

    I recently finished reading “That Hideous Strength”. The book is about an evil technocratic organization and it was written in the 1940s where the “progressive element” is firmly eugenic. It was an amazingly accurate portrayal of both corrupt bureaucracies and the inevitable reduction of all atheistic thinking to its natural nihilistic end. The main character, Mark, is a firmly atheistic progressive man. As his world collapses around him he comes to a simple epiphany:

    “His ‘scientific’ outlook had never been a real philosophy believed with blood and heart. It had lived only in his brain, and was a part of that public self which was now failing him.”

    You can’t get a philosophy of blood and heart from materialism. Materialism is never going to logically say to you, “do that which is materially bad for you simply because it is ‘good’.” And yet moral action requires it. Real people need to make real moral decisions that make all these schemes of your work. These technocratic organizations are full of people, they aren’t rupe goldberg devises that your push a button and out comes social justice. The whole idea of materialist based moral outcomes collapses back into itself.

  11. Now I might be completely off my rocker here, but doesn’t the idea of an “externally imposed moral order” combined with atheism (or perhaps universalism) sound an awful lot like free-masonry…..? And does anyone here think that is a good idea? Would be delighted to hear your opinions.

    • Sounds to me like Stoicism. They’ve got a Logos, but it isn’t a Demiurge, isn’t an actuality.

      Question is, how does a set of equations – the Logos of the Stoics – actually *do* anything?

  12. I think the Marquis de Sade can illuminate this discussion further. He was one of a very rare species – a truly consistent atheist. Although he was not a good thinker nor an especially good writer, his ideas – however poorly expressed – were perfectly logical. If God does not exist, he proposed, then Matter is all that exists. If there is Nothing which lies beyond or behind this matter; if there is no Divine Being, then human beings are nothing more than the matter which composes their bodies. Essentially, human beings are nothing more than meat puppets.  De Sade expressed it this way: ‘Pedantic louts, hangmen, scribblers, legislators, tonsured scum, what are you going to do once we are here? What will happen to your laws, your morality, your Gods, your hell, when it is demonstrated that such and such a flow of humours, a certain type of fibres, a specific degree of acidity in the blood…are sufficient to make of a man the object of your punishments or your rewards?’ (cited in Erik Von Kuhnelt-Leddihn, “Liberty or Equality?”) This is why he believed that the body (especially the sexual organs and their functions) was the ONLY arena for studying human beings. ‘What makes [de Sade] unique, however, is a dogged determination to tell the truth about the human condition, a truth that he located, not in a soul or spirit, but….in the sexual body, which for him was the only reality’ (John Phillips, “The Marquis de Sade: A Very Short Introduction, 2005). After all, if Matter is all that exists, then there is nothing left to study EXCEPT the body – there’s no point studying something that doesn’t exist (in this case, a soul or ‘divine spark’). Man, therefore, is no greater than the sum of his parts. If this is so, then every particle in the Universe is no more special than any other particle. And if no particle is more special than another, then that means the ‘clump of particles’ that make up human beings is no more special than the clumps of particles that make up, say, a rock or a chair. If, as de Sade insisted, human beings are nothing more than clumps of matter, then man can find no basis for establishing the value of his life above that of stone or a splinter. After all, what makes your atoms so much better than other atoms in the universe? Why are they so special, and other atoms less so? (This is probably why he argued the principle of radical equality should extend to animals and plants, as well as humans (Erik Von Kuhnelt-Leddihn). Although why this equality shouldn’t extend to crystals and mud is surely an oversight on his part!). If, therefore, God does not exist as de Sade insisted, then there is only one logical impulse for human action: the fulfillment of the appetites. If the body is all a human being ‘is’, then only the needs of his body are ‘real’. Any other needs – love, truth, morals, life-purpose – are literally imaginary: they are fantasies conjured up by brain-matter, delusions that have no existence in the world of particles (to need something that one knows cannot exist – a more hopeless prospect is literally inconceivable!) There are no higher Ideals to live and fight for, since those Ideals are the arbitrary products of a man’s head, with no objective existence outside him (Here we can see that atheism can easily descend into solipsism). The cold indifference of Nature can reveal no purpose or direction for human action. As Nietzsche once said of the Stoics, who thought to derive a code of conduct from the workings of ‘Nature’: ‘”According to nature” you want to live? O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time: imagine indifference itself as a power – how could you live according to indifference?’ (“Beyond Good and Evil”) If there is therefore no Divine guidance or leading, then life is truly a random set of events, “one damn thing after another” (H. A. L. Fisher).  This is expressed forcefully in the writings of the Marquis, especially in his novels. In “120 Days of Sodom” the protagonists, four evil lechers, carry out a series of escalating tortures upon the bodies of young victims for sexual gratification. In the surviving manuscript (the novel was never finished) the Marquis describes the list of tortures as a – MENU. A list whereby one may feed (and expand) an ‘appetite’, this time for sexual perversions. The flesh has no purpose but for the gratification of desire, since good and evil are fictions. Another feature of his writing illustrates his materialist philosophy. Throughout his writings there is an obsessive preoccupation with sexual fetishes and the (usually grotesque) features of his characters. Both are explored in extremely graphic detail. The sizes a character’s genitals is a recurring motif, and one scholar points out that the accuracy of de Sade’s ‘encyclopedic’ knowledge of human sexuality ‘is borne out by modern studies’ (John Phillips). This ‘obsession’ is not merely a perverse case of voyeurism; rather, it is the ruthless, consistent application of atheistic materialism to probe the nature of man in a world without God. If the flesh is all that a human being ‘is’, then this truth must be hammered into the consciences of more timid minds. What better way to highlight this than to present the human body in the most repulsive ways imaginable? Here we see the perversity of de Sade serves a purpose: to illustrate that without God man has nothing to strive for beyond his appetites, for these are the only needs which are real.  In conclusion: without God, all that man ‘is’ is no better than any ‘thing’ else in the universe. Nature provides no discernible meaning for life, and hence no discernible morality; as Nietzsche pointed out, living according to ‘Nature’ is absurd: it is ‘all over the place’, being both harsh and pleasant, both cruel and benevolent, both ugly and beautiful, both barren and fertile. If there is no objective morality, there is neither good nor evil. And if there is neither good nor evil, then every action is as good as another. And if every action is as good as another, then there is no meaning to our actions. And if there is no meaning to our actions, then there is no purpose to life. And if there is no purpose to life – then life is truly absurd.

    • Man, therefore, is no greater than the sum of his parts.

      A quibble —

      Nothing is greater than (i.e. ‘more than’) the sum of its parts. When people use that silly phrase, they are implicitly — or explicitly — assuming materialism. But, some the parts of a thing are non-material and/or immaterial, such as the thing’s history and so on. In the case, at least, of human beings, one of the parts of the being being always overlooked by the users of that phrase is the most important part, his mind/spirit/soul.

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  15. Dostoievsky never said that “if there is no God, everything is permitted”. What he actually said (in Brothers Karamazov, in a conversation between Alyosha and Ivan) is that if there is no immortality, then everything is permitted. There is a huge difference between the two statements: if humans have no eternal life, why care about what God thinks at all? And that is why God is also irrelevant for morality. What matters is that believers hold that when a man dies, he may be punished for his sins by that God.
    Hence…might makes right. For believers, anyway.

    • Well, there is a pretty good argument that he did indeed say just that. In a well-regarded recent translation of the Brothers Karamazov (Part 4, Book 11, Chapter 4), Mitya quotes himself to Alyosha, “Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted …”

      Why should humans care what God thinks if, like the Sadducees, they do not believe they have everlasting life? As the Sadducees would have been quick to say: Because he is God. If God exists, then his notion of the moral truth just is the moral truth; and his knowledge of moral truths makes true moral statements binding on all creatures, automatically. For example, if God knows murder to be evil, then murder just is evil. If he doesn’t, then it isn’t. And that’s all there is to it.

      This all follows from God’s omniscience. It is omniscience that makes moral facts factual.

  16. I as a still-atheist-but-not-very-sure-of-it-anymore reactionary would say the issue is that you focus too much on morality being something that “binds”. Something mandatory. I agree it is necessary to enforce morality, but that is the last step, not the first. We just agree in moral rules and enforce it because we can and want to. But bindingness, mandatoriness is not really part of the first steps IMHO. Rather, we just figure out what works, what leads to good outcomes (objectively good outcomes, yes, a certain amount of Aristotelean, teleological philosophy is necessary) both on personal and social levels. Natural law and all that. Then enforce that.

    Seriously, why do Christians always jump to the idea of morality being binding, mandatory? That is just a technical matter of enforcement later on, not figuring it out. For figuring it out all you need is objective good. Of course you need that.

    So we are just the good guys who care about the objective good of other people and ourselves. And we just hope a lot of good and smart guys will agree what the objective good is and how to get it. And with those who do not agree eventually it will come to a fight, we in or they win, if we win, we will enforce our ideas, regardless of whether they like it or not.

    So this is what I don’t understand. Assume for the sake of simplicity that the trads, cons, reactionaries are the good guys who have a fairly correct idea of what the objective good is and care about the objective good of all. And libs are either stupid or don’t care. When you talk about morality being binding in the first step, you are basically saying we could somehow force, coerce libs or other bad guys by the force of the rational argument to accept morally correct ideas? What is the point of that? Ideas are not guns. You enforce things with guns. With ideas people agree because they want to agree, there is little point or possibility in forcing people to agree merely by ideas. Or if you really want to try that, maybe you try to make those ideas look all sweet and sexy. I.e. use propaganda.

    But at any rate how to enforce morally correct ideas is really the last step, that of expedience. In the first steps, when figuring them out, why should they be binding in any sense? It is enough if they lead to the objective good of all. We are the good guys, we like that. We want that. The not good guys are just excluded from the discussion and we can discuss later on the expedience of how to make them behave.

    • I don’t know if Kristor is tacking comments on his posts right now, so I’ve approved this one and will try to answer it. Moral laws are obviously not binding in the same way that natural laws are binding, and there is a range of opinion as to how they bind. In many religious traditions violation of the moral law results in suffering at some point in the future. This is the Karma of Hinduism or the Hell of Christianity. Secular thought has trouble with this since it acknowledges no power to enforce an ultimate retribution, but most secularists seem to have a vague notion that “what goes around comes around.” So moral laws are understood as binding whether or not society enforces them.

      I don’t understand why anyone would seek to discover a moral law that was not binding in the sense stated above. I wish to avoid future suffering. If there were no prospect of future suffering, why would I care about these toothless “laws”? And if I succeed in discovering one of these moral laws, I will obviously make compliance binding on myself and anyone I care about.

      For instance, the moral law condemns adultery. Observation shows that adultery indeed leads to suffering, although not always of the adulterous pair. Knowing this, I will obviously seek to bind myself and others with rules that prevent and punish adultery.

      • Talking about suffering is IMHO a bit confusing, because it conflates two concepts. One is the good and the bad. Objective good and bad are rather obviously larger concepts than suffering, pretty much how the presence or absence of physical pain is not the only aspect of health and inspect, and how there is more to medicine than administering painkillers. The other aspect is that the bad guys who don’t care about the objective good of other people need to be forced to via punishment, suffering. If there is an ultimate supernatural punishment, great. If not, we just need a really good police.

        But enforcement and punishment should not be the first, but the last steps. First figure out what is objectively good and get the good guys who care about the objective good of the others. Then try everybody else follow it in nice ways. If fails, try the not so nice ways.

        So this is what I mean. Starting a talk about morality with saying if there is no God, everything is permitted, sounds like we all would do all kinds of stupid and evil things all the time if they are permitted. But it is not so. Smart people want for themselves the objective good, not just whatever desire or passion arises in them. Good people want for others the objective good, too. Bad people don’t, so we must tell them you are not permitted. If God says the same, great, obviously that kind of infinitely powerful support is very helpful. But it is not really necessary for the first steps. Just because shooting myself in the foot is permitted, it doesn’t mean I am an idiot who wants to do it. And even if shooting someone else in the foot is permitted, good people don’t want to do it either. And they get together, make a law against shooting people in the foot and enforce it.

  17. > If there were no prospect of future suffering, why would I care about these toothless “laws”?

    Because you are smart, and you want the objective good for yourself even if the objective bad does not manifest in suffering. Because you are a good guy and you want the same for others.

    • Actually not 100% so, I retract. There is a difference between being personally good and politically good. Nobody is capable of being good all the time just because they are that perfect. The reason we make laws is not only to deal with the bad guys but to also commit ourselves to good behavior. Political goodness means we figure out how we should do, not based on how we usually do but how we should, making such laws, that carry teeth of punishment, thus even forcing ourselves to commit to it.

      I am 100% sure that tradcons, reactionaries etc. are really good guys, all of then, in the political sense. Not in the personal sense. In the heat of passion, in a moment of weakness, they, too, might violate the objective good of others. Political good guy means they are willing to sign a social contract that says this is verboten under the pain of punishment, and willing to commit some resources to the costs of enforcing it. Personal goodness is hard, but political goodness is not very hard. It really does not require being a saint. Well, if signing that social contract is public, even politically not very good guys would sign it because they don’t want to look like bad guys, to lose face. At least if there is a serious agreement about what the objective good is. That is, of course, where our problems are coming from.

    • I would define suffering as any privation of possible goodness. I’m leaving out many complicating factors, but I do not limit suffering to acute suffering or agony. Even Stoicism, which places the highest value on “duty for duty’s sake,” maintains that there is something like a “day of reckoning.” There are many good reasons to say that “virtue is its own reward,” but we would be right to wonder if virtue never ever had any reward but virtue itself.

    • Dividualist and JM: sorry for my long silence at the Orthosphere, and in particular with respect to your conversation here. I’ve been absorbed with a massive business deal in real life, for the last many months. I hope that its pressure on my time shall soon abate somewhat, so that I may resume my previous level of participation here. God send it may be so. He may not! If not, rest assured that it is because I am doing his work in another sphere. Honest.

      Dividualist, thank you for your engagement with the topics raised in the post; JM, thank you for your thoughtful responses to his queries.

      Dividualist, when we Christians say that moral laws are binding, we mean that they are binding in virtue of the very fact that, as you have noticed, they are objective. We have no choice about what is right and wrong; the moral law is built into the universe, prior and superior to and regardless of any of our acts or deliberations, so that – Lucifer’s arguments at Eden notwithstanding – we have no choice about them. They are there for us to discover to begin with because they precede and found all human action.

      Morality is built into the universe because it is implicit in game theory, the truths of which are eternal and necessary.

      So, they are binding in the sense that we can’t just make them up for ourselves. Other natural laws are binding upon us in exactly that way. They are not optional. They are factual.

      Note that both natural law and the moral sorts of natural law can be disobeyed. But this can be done only by means of a pretense or error, in thinking that they can be abrogated. You can jump off a cliff under the misapprehension that gravity is not in effect; so likewise you can kill someone under the misapprehension that murder is not wrong.

      Here then is the link between the eternal necessary objectivity of moral law – and all the other necessary truths, as of mathematics, logic, metaphysics, and so forth – and theism: there is no such thing as a fact that is not concretely actual. It cannot be the case that the moral laws are factually true unless they are actually concrete. And this is to say that the moral laws cannot be factually true unless they are implicit in a concrete actuality, or in some congeries of concrete actualities.

      Notice then that, for obvious reasons, contingent actualities such as ourselves and all other creatures whatsoever cannot be eternal facts. No array of contingent actualities then, howsoever large, could suffice to ground eternal moral law. Ergo, etc.

      On now to the mandatory aspect of the moral law. Obedience to the moral law is mandatory for all creatures – not just us – because it is the only way to be good; and, to be at all is to try to be good; for, what is not good at all lacks all goods, including the good of existence. So, whatever exists is trying to be good, by its own frail faltering lights. Lots of what exists fails thereat; viz., Judas, Eve, Lucifer and yours truly. But, all such failures are the result of efforts to enact and achieve some good, however misguided or mistaken. Otherwise, they would never have been undertaken in the first place.

      Now, were any of the foregoing otherwise, there could be no such procedure as you notice, of good men doing their best to ascertain the objective moral law, to follow it, and then at last enforcing it upon their fellows – and upon themselves – with dire social and political ukases and penalties. Were any of the foregoing otherwise, there would be nothing of a moral character out there in the world for our moral intellects to discern. Nor then either would there be any bad outcomes characteristic of certain acts. There could then be no way to be good, or for that matter to be bad. The notions of goodness and evil would then be simply nonsense, like the notion of the square circle.

      If there were no objective moral law grounded in some eternal moral fact, there could be no such thing as a problem. Natural selection could not in that case therefore have fitted us to avoid problems. Survival in that case could not have been a good; indeed, it could not even have been a thing; for, where there are no problems, there is no solving or surmounting them.

      The absolute goodness of survival, and the absolute evil of death, are the foreconditions of natural selection. If there were no reason to choose survival over death, death would be universal; for, it is the most thermodynamically stable state of affairs.

      Liberals, pragmatists of the reductionist persuasion (i.e., most pragmatists), and advocates of the notion of evolutionary morality – of morality as being nothing more than our adventitious social discovery and community memory of what has happened to work out well enough so far as to have avoided biological and social disaster – tend usually to forget that the disaster under the scythe of natural selection which they adduce to support their hypotheses *simply could not happen* if it were not for the fact that the moral law is built into the universe, and into game theory, so that it is eternal and immutable. If murder were not absolutely wrong, it could not so reliably turn out badly. So then likewise for all the other infractions of the moral law. They do indeed generally turn out badly. But they are not wrong because they turn out badly. On the contrary: they tend to turn out badly because they are wrong.

      • Thanks, Kristor. This really reminds me of something I tend to detect that for people of older times truth and justice were the same thing. That is, to act justly is to act in accordance with the truth of the situation. So for them it required no explanation while e.g. one must keep promises, it just followed from the very fact of the promise, of what a promise means.

        I myself tend to have sometimes the idea, that if we only would not lie, we could not commit any other wrong act either. That is, e.g. to refuse repaying a loan when one can, involves at some level the denial that it was a loan.

        So I might have misunderstood your post because I interpreted it a bit like Divine Command Theory, at least it sounded like we need God for morality because someone has to give orders.

        Now it sounds more like you are saying if moral law is built into the universe, it requires a law-giver. I don’t see the necessary connection. To quote Feser, Medievals saw teleology everywhere, but did not immediately jumped to God, they believed it takes a few more step to derive God’s, it is not just like the telos of the heart is to pump blood: hence God exists. Not that simple.

        So I think one can discover a great deal about the moral law built into the universe without really spotting God. If we would simply say the telos of a society is to reproduce itself, one could derive a large chunk of conservative philosophy from that. You just look at what conditions inside the house are best for having and raising children and you extrapolate it to society.

      • It’s interesting that you mention game theory. We were discussing a while ago on Jim’s blog game theory vs. Christ’s moral teachings. The solution seems to be that one extra mile is really just one extra mile and not more. Its purpose is to clarify potential misunderstandings. A basic good strategy for tit-for-tat games is to start cooperating, then mirror whatever the other player does, cooperate with cooperators and defect on defectors, but when you are stuck in a long chain of mutual defection, offer a cooperative move as a sign of willingness to reconcile. I.e. be just, but occasionally do show forgiveness. What Christ is saying with offering the other face to slap is this: if you see a hostile move, offer a cooperative move. Once. Because it can be just a misunderstanding. But only once. If your other face is slapped, you just have proof that the other player is a bad guy, and then you switch back to Old Testament mode and proceed to kick his butt. Peace on Earth to men of good will. Hence, war on Earth to men of ill will. And this is just the method to determine who is who.

      • You are definitely on the right track in taking me to understand Truth and Justice as ultimately coterminous. Divine Command theory has never appealed to me. I don’t have any quarrel with it – God’s commands must be dispositive of moral truth, by the definition of God. It’s just that if we don’t make it clear that God’s command is integral with his very being, and thus with his perfect reason and omniscience – that he commands in virtue of what he is – then the reader can be left with the impression that his command is capricious, and might have been otherwise, rather than inherent in his essential nature, and rational. That’s one of the mistakes the Mohammedans are stuck in. The Christian nominalists, likewise.

        The reason a law needs a law-giver is that things cannot be influenced by something that is inactual. Everything that comes to us comes from some definite thing, or things. If we make an exception to this principle for the natural law – whether of gravity or of marriage – then it is hard to see how that law might influence us. Considered by themselves as nothing more than abstract ideas, Newton’s Laws don’t *do* anything. They don’t *act.* So, they can’t exert any *effect.* The Laws exert effects only insofar as they are present and thus operative in some actual things, as aspects of their essential characters. Only if the Laws are expressed in all the members of a system can that system behave according to those Laws – or, for that matter, be a system in the first place.

        Laws or truths – same sort of thing, in the final analysis – that are eternal, such as those of morality and mathematics, must then originate in some eternal entity, as aspects of his essential nature. And no contingent, finite, or temporal entity can suffice to the establishment of an eternal truth. Such entities can suffice only to the establishment of contingent, finite, or temporary truths.

        Your comments about Christ’s injunction to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile are I think apt. My experience with them is that their reward to our contemplation is without limit; they are immensely deep, and discover to us bottomless depths of moral truth.


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