I recently watched a debate between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss; the former, a Christian Philosopher, and the latter, an atheist physicist – and I was overcome by a familiar frustration I’ve come to expect while watching atheists debate theists on the question of God and morality. Time and again, Craig made the point that if there is no God and therefore, no supremely perfect moral authority upon which to base the objectivity of our own moral assertions, then, it follows that moral claims have no objective truth value … only for Krauss to reply again and again, that of course our moral claims are objective because we reason them out using our evolved cognitive abilities and our innate understanding.
My source of frustration lies in the fact that, like Krauss, I’m an atheist … but, unlike Krauss, I agree with William Lane Craig. While I passionately reject the theism of Dr. Craig, I agree with him that when the concept of a supremely perfect lawgiver is abandoned – or a cosmic mind-independent source out of which objective moral laws arise – then what also must be eschewed is the notion that our moral claims have any objective, factual status. It’s highly frustrating to watch atheist thinkers that I deeply respect like Krauss, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Shelly Kagan and the late Christopher Hitchens fumble their way over territory that the great archetypal atheist Frederick Nietzsche rightly conceded to theism well over a century ago. It’s further testament to me, that too many contemporary scientists and atheist intellectuals are ill-equipped to engage in moral discourse because they are unfamiliar with the vast corpus of literature illuminating the subject. I should say, however, that while I think theism is better placed than atheism to argue for the objectivity of moral claims, it does so in the face of insurmountable problems: namely, and briefly stated, the claim that God exists is itself subjective and rests on bad evidence (if any); the Euthythro Dilemma, the problem of evil which implies that God is not actually a morally good being, and the endless plurality and relativity of religious claims to authority and revelation.
Nietzsche acknowledged, rightly in my view, that a moral claim could only assume the status of objective fact if it could be grounded in some factual state of affairs existing outside of ourselves, something ‘mind-independent’. He understood that the “wrongness” of murder, for example, could not be found anywhere in the murderous act itself, nor in the effects of that action. Hume established the fact/value gap long before him – that it is not possible to move from a set of objective facts about what “is” the case to an objective fact about what “ought” to be the case. The latter cannot be deduced or derived from the former. Thus moral claims represent values which we attach to facts, but which are not facts themselves. There are no facts out there in the world that make murder morally “wrong” in the way that there are facts out there in the world that make the statement, ‘water is H2O’, factually true.
Historically, the concept of God or gods afforded us an objective foundation on which to base our moral claims and assign them the status of ‘fact-hood’. But with the advent of Darwinian evolutionary theory, Nietzsche concluded that the concept of God was unnecessary and thus proclaimed the death of God, largely on those terms. For Nietzsche, the stage was set for a new morality, but one, crucially, conceived entirely by man and thus one without objectivity. Krauss, Harris and others would do well to accept the state of play here without trying to have their cake and eat it. If there is no source outside of ourselves on which to ground our moral claims then it surely follows that our moral claims cannot have the status of ‘fact-hood’.
I would like to outline my own moral position and demonstrate why I think it is the most consistent with an atheist position. To begin with, let me acknowledge several natural facts about the kind of creatures we are:
- Along with John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, I would argue that it is a natural fact that, on average and for the most part, human beings are averse to pain and that we desire pleasure/well-being.
- I would also argue that, on average and for the most part, human beings are social creatures capable of and inclined towards compassion, empathy, cooperation and the ability to think rationally about how best to minimize human suffering and increase human well-being.
- 1 & 2 explain, broadly speaking, why we behave “morally”.
- I reject the claim that objective moral facts exist and I contend that this rejection is one which best reflects the evidence from the empirical world and the natural facts of our human condition.
- For example, I contend that rape, pedophilia, murder, torture and genocide are not morally wrong, objectively speaking.
- Because of 1 & 2, however, I believe that rape, pedophilia etc. should not be permitted because they cause suffering … but I acknowledge that my moral assertion (the “should” part of my sentence) … has no objective truth value and thus carries no obligation. The only obligation is that which like-minded individuals impose upon themselves and each other by way of a social contract whereby laws and statutes are enacted, but in no sense is it established that these laws represent objective truth or have any transcendent authority. Consequently, there is nothing morally wrong with human suffering and we stand under no objective obligation to prevent it. It simply happens to be the case that most human beings don’t like to suffer and feel moved by the suffering of others and want to prevent it where they can. Equally, there is nothing morally right about human beings treating each other with respect and dignity and we stand under no objective obligation to do so. It just so happens that, despite our inner beast, most human beings are naturally inclined to treat other people with respect and dignity, and the construction of a rights based framework serves as a means to that end. Out of these natural facts it makes sense to construct a subjective morality, (as I argue we have) which reflects these underlying facts about the kind of creatures we are.
- Finally (and this is the reason why I think the new atheists lack the courage of their convictions), I concede that human beings who take pleasure in the suffering of others through a lack of compassion and empathy are not acting “immorally” in the sense defined. Furthermore, I acknowledge that if the natural facts were different and pedophilia, to take the most emotive example, did not bring about severe and irreparable physical and psychological harm but contributed to the well-being of all concerned… that, all things being equal, pedophilia would be permissible on atheist lines.
I conclude that 1-7 represent the most honest ethical position for an atheist to hold in contrast to atheists like Krauss and Harris who seem to think that they can reject God and yet retain moral objectivity.