July 27, 2007

Moral Atheists - Good by what measure?

In all my interactions with atheists I have noticed a curious thing: they are very keen to be thought of as "good" people and insist that it does not require a deity in order to seek to act morally. Indeed, they claim that it is nobler to be good for its own sake than to be good for the sake of rewards gained or punishments avoided, which they believe theism entails. There are several problems inherent in this idea, but what I want to explore here is the problem of defining the "good" and considering whether we find atheists, in fact, acting according to such a definition.

(Note: for the purposes of this essay when I use the term "atheist" I mean anyone who builds his or her ethics apart from the idea that moral imperatives find their source outside of nature. I might alternately have chosen a term like "secular humanist," but that is at least a form of functional atheism.)

In my last post there was general agreement by my atheist respondents that morality must reduce to subjective human constructions in a world without anything beyond matter and human minds. Even if our moral urges come to us as a result of evolution or social conditioning it is still up to the individual to determine which, if any, of these urges is to be preferred. If it were to end here an atheist could have little further to say against those, like me, who disagree with them. It would simply be one preference holder against another, and all differences would be settled by sophistry and coercion (the emerging methodologies in our culture, by the way).

As it turns out, most atheists who like to think of themselves as moral do so with a sense that they are saying something particularly meaningful. The implication is that they have access to moral knowledge that they are committed to put into practice. It is something like saying that you are a good baseball player, which refers to a particular game with known rules and objectives that you skillfully follow. If this is not true, then a moral atheist is just asserting that they follow their own desires; they are saying little more than, "I do what I feel like doing, and whatever I do I call 'good.'"

For the atheist who insists on being seen as moral, he is faced with a humanistic version of Euthyphro's Dilemma. Either morality is something imposed upon him by forces outside of his control, or "good" is just whatever he happens to favor and "bad" is just whatever he happens to reject. The buck must stop somewhere, and for the atheist it must be somewhere within nature.

The solution to this dilemma as it applies to deity is not available, since human will and character is not, by nature, a uniform and unchanging thing that morality can be said to describe. The only universally descriptive axiom regarding human behavior is, "Nobody's perfect." Such a statement only begins to make sense if there is some "perfection" to which humans fail to conform. But if humans define the standard, and all humans fail it, from whence comes the impossible scale?

If morality is purely subjective, then it is meaningless to claim to be moral, since everyone is a subject and can be moral by definition. But if morality is not pure subjectivity, then to what external (though non-transcendent) standard could an atheist appeal in order to measure himself as "good?" In my experience, the three most common things offered are "reason," "moral intuition," and "natural constraints." Let's look at each and see where they fail the atheist, or vice versa.


As the late philosopher James Rachels said, "Morality is, at the very least, the effort to guide one's conduct by reason."

It's fine to be reasonable, and I'm not sure if anyone has ever claimed that their moral system was "unreasonable." Unfortunately, "reason" is not enough; it is no better than a car without fuel and a destination. If I told you to go to Xanadu, and you asked me how to get there, it would not be a helpful answer to say, "By car." Additionally, if you asked why you should care about going to Xanadu, I would have to appeal to something other than the car to make an answer.

As a car is only a tool for comfortable ground travel, reason is only a tool for careful, logical thinking. Tools in themselves do nothing; they must be employed for specific purposes. Someone wishing to use his reason must first be given ideas and objectives to process, like a math problem or a puzzle. And like a math problem, reason needs rules of engagement. For math, these are the laws of mathematics and logic, which may themselves be discovered by reason but are not produced by it. And like a puzzle, reason needs a known goal toward which to work.

Reason itself is not a moral system. It can only help you navigate through the world by way of the constraints and objectives contained within a given moral system. Reason may help to refine an existing system, but it is not the author of the foundations upon which any system rests. That foundation is something prior to the exercise of reason — things like preferences, intuitions, divine revelation, or natural constraints. If I see a woman drowning, I may use reason to assist me in determining the best way to provide aid, but it is something else that tells me that I ought to risk my safety to help her if I am able.

So, reason is not enough. It is only the vehicle between our true moral driver and our behavior destination. It still remains to identify what it is that employs our reason toward its ends.

Moral intuitions

One atheist recently said to me, "I do have objective moral standards. They just happen to be inspired by reason and compassion, not religion." Adding compassion we have gone a step further, but is it enough?

"Compassion" hints at something deep and emotional, which is not simply the product of reason. It is like our love of music, the scent of a rose, and the look of a sunset. These touch our hearts not because we have reasoned that they should, but because of the very mystery of human nature.

This same atheist (and others), when cornered on his grounding for certain moral positions, claimed that he just knew that some things were wrong. If a statement like this is not simply referring to deeply seated preferences, then it must be the case that there are shared human intuitions. A moral atheist might then claim to be a disciple of these intuitions.

If these are indeed human intuitions, then this implies that we are not required to merely introspect upon our own personal feelings on any given matter. Indeed, anyone else's feelings ought to be as good as our own. However, since we observe that there are differences of opinion on certain moral issues it must be the case that some people can be mistaken. They can either mismanage their intuitions, like applying the moral "good" of tolerance to criminal behavior, or they can warp them by way of personal bias, like saying that charity is not "good" because of the love of their own wealth.

Even if moral intuitions are real and universal things, the danger in leaning upon them is that one may easily mistake personal inclinations for actual intuitions. For this reason, a true student of moral intuitions will look to the corporate conscience of humanity to temper his subjectivity. He will also understand that no matter how much he might personally desire to engage in a behavior, or tolerate it in others, that behavior may in fact be contrary to our core intuitions.

In my observation of atheism it appears to be the case that they are primarily social liberals. There are many controversial behaviors that they are perfectly willing to tolerate or even celebrate, and the line is often drawn only where issues of harm and consent are at stake. But surely there is more to our moral intuitions than, "I won't rob and kill you if you don't rob and kill me."

In the process of being inclusive, atheists implicitly affirm as "good," or at least morally neutral, certain behaviors that may well be candidate items for our moral intuitions. I'll use homosexuality and abortion as examples. If our intuitions do not cover matters of sexuality, reproduction, and how we ought to treat our offspring, then I can't imagine that they are very comprehensive and helpful guides to begin with.

In spite of the increasing secularism of society and the continual advocacy for same-sex relationships homosexuals still find themselves victim of a large-scale cultural "homophobia." Even the most liberal states cannot seem to muster the votes to resist same-sex marriage bans. It takes judicial activism to circumvent the popular stance on this issue. And the average person (religious or otherwise) still has a reaction to flamingly effeminate males and struggles to push past the "yuck factor" when confronted with the reality of what homosexual relations actually entail (all jokes about attractive co-ed lesbians aside).

Are the limited gains toward the full acceptance of homosexuality just because society has not yet been fully "enlightened" to the virtues of sexual diversity, or is it that homosexuality actually rides against the current of our moral intuitions? What is it that should fire our intuitions that homosexuality is a morally good lifestyle: That families should consist of non-reproducing units? That penises and colons seem designed for each other? Homosexuality is an anomaly that defies sexual teleology from the most superficial to the deepest social level.

I suggest that it is merely the fact that some people happen to have desires for same-sex relations that causes us to wrestle with our intuitions about what is sexually natural and good. And this subjective bias seems to carry over to supporters of the behavior in that, according to The Journal of NIH Research, the strongest predictor of positive attitudes toward homosexuals is that an individual knows a homosexual. Having a personal investment in a behavior — either first-hand or via friends and family — fosters less objectivity regarding that behavior. And no matter how "nice" homosexuals might be, how much we may love a particular one, or how much pleasure they derive from their behavior, it says nothing about its moral status.

On the matter of abortion, a significant percentage of the population is flatly opposed to the practice. Of those who are "pro-choice," many are personally opposed to abortion. Of those not opposed to it, many say they don't like it and would like to make it rare. And of those who have actually had one, it is common to see them writing goodbye notes to their fetuses or suffering guilt and depression for years afterwards.

There is nothing on the face of it that would make parents killing their own offspring seem morally benign, and there is a reason why abortion centers prefer not to show ultrasounds to their customers, that abortion photos send pro-choice advocates into orbit, and that showing an abortion on TV is a taboo, or at least rare, act. It is an ugly thing that nobody likes and that we'd rather keep shrouded in privacy and ignorance, but that we feel "necessary" because some parents find their offspring's existence to conflict with their own personal desires.

Again, the reason we would override our moral intuitions regarding this nasty issue is merely to accommodate those who happen to want to do it. Indeed, it is murder if someone else kills an unborn baby, but it is just elective surgery if the mother gives consent to the act (remember, they call it "pro-choice," not "pro-abortion"). If no woman chose to terminate her pregnancy we would not intuit that we were missing a valuable maternal rite, just as if no one were compelled toward same-sex relations we would not feel that we were missing an important sexual demographic. Life would go on its merry way.

If one wishes to be considered "good" by measure of human intuitions, then it is not particularly noble to adhere only to those moral principles that one is not tempted to violate. The minimalistic ethic turns a deaf ear to a whole raft of moral intuitions and focuses, instead, primarily on those behaviors that have obvious impact to life and property and are already broadly condemned by all but sociopaths. It is pragmatic and little more. The typical atheist's libertarianism is not the pinnacle of virtue; it is simply an institutionalized apathy toward confronting common vice.

Natural constraint

Another atheist (near and dear to this blog), who is intent on finding an objective basis for his morality, has suggested what I will call "natural constraints." As I understand it, this is the idea that natural law and consequence provides the license and limits for our behavior. Just as gravity and topography guide the flow of water, physics guides the flow of morality. So, drug use and violence are "bad" because they damage body and mind, whereas love and charity are "good" because they contribute to physical and mental health. While this may be helpful input for certain moral equations, it is not adequate to define morality itself.

The funny thing about moral laws is that, unlike physical laws, we can choose to break them. Water has no choice but to flow downhill, just as we have no choice but to fall when tripped. However, no matter what the moral precept and where it originates, humans can manage to violate it. Even if it is true that natural health constraints play against such behaviors as smoking and overeating, it still remains to be argued why one should care about such consequences and curb ones behavior as a result. Nature and its workings are just neutral data and causal systems; one must impose a prior moral theory upon it to say how we ought to respond as a result of its operation. Some other premise must be supplied to make the connection between bad for you and morally bad to do.

While it may seem self-evident to assert that whatever is unhealthy for you and others is to be considered wrong, there are several problems inherent in this foundational idea of natural constraint theory.

First, many people don't concern themselves about consequences and some flat out rebuke them. How many millions of people regularly eat junk food, smoke cigarettes, drink too much, and/or are couch potatoes? The vast majority of these know there are health consequences, but either have made a conscious choice to gamble against them or are committed to take them when they come. A perfect example is one of my friend's responses when I commented on his affinity for meat and carbohydrates to the exclusion of vegetables. "Everybody dies sometime," he said. His own dining pleasure trumps all other considerations.

According to natural constraint theory, then, everyone who knowingly and intentionally embraces unhealthy pursuits is engaging in immoral behavior. From cigarettes to junk food to sunbathing: it's all vice. And since promiscuous sex and homosexuality are bedfellows with many undesirable consequences, then these become morally suspect as well. Merely having the desire — casually or compulsively — toward an unhealthy lifestyle would not change the morality of it, since exceptions to the rule of natural risk and consequence would negate the very system and return the atheist back to the dominance of subjective preference over any other criteria.

Second, in many cases it is not so apparent what is a "good" consequence or result. It is easy enough to say that we should not stab someone for health reasons, but it slightly complicates things to ask if a surgeon is wrong to cut. No problem there, I'm sure we can all agree that the end healing justifies the means in this case, but what about how we should treat the poor? What about our children? Should we just hand them whatever they need and desire? The answer to these questions will ultimately lead to further questions of purpose and ideals: what kinds of people do we want to make of our children and the underprivileged? What end do we have in mind and is it worth the necessary means to achieve it?

There can be diverse answers to such a question that all fit within a natural constraint ethic and which will influence how we arrive at our goals. For instance, if our goal is weighted more toward hard work and virtue than wealth and pleasure we may use distinctly different means in the process of getting there that would not otherwise seem reasonable to us. For this reason many important issues will be driven by philosophies that precede the natural constraint ethic. Where do those come from and how do they not reduce to preferences on par with a bias toward chocolate over vanilla ice cream?

Third, some things we will always insist to be wrong even though they harm nothing at all. For instance, if a doctor fondles a patient under anesthesia, who is "hurt," especially if the patient has no way of finding out? Is it only wrong if the person finds out, thus suffering emotional distress? Is it only wrong because the patient might find out? Nature and her effects cannot give us guidance here; we must appeal to some other more abstract principles of "rights," "privacy," and "consent," which are difficult enough on their own to defend as something other than subjective standards. We would need not only a transcendent standard of human dignity but a god's-eye witness of such "harmless," anonymous thrills to claim any wrong had actually been done.

Even if our responses to natural constraints were uniform and it could be said to be a self-evident basis for morality, I do not find that in practice the limits of nature are given principled deference. By "principled" I mean that the cues of nature are read and taken as the primary drivers of absolute morality. Nature would be said to whisper the ways of virtue and we would be her devoted students. As it turns out, nature is treated more like an overbearing father who is obeyed wherever necessary and evaded wherever possible.

Let's visit our twin issues of homosexuality and abortion again. An unbiased reading of nature suggests that sex is best reserved for long-term relationships between members of the opposite sex. Unwanted pregnancies, communicable diseases, and other related health issues (not to mention psychological issues) are clear consequences of a libertarian sexual ethic.

Someone committed to natural constraint theory would need to consider the idea that homosexuality should be classed as immoral due to the inherent risks involved, and that abortions are simply an ugly remediation for the consequences of bad sexual behavior. Instead, we find the moral status of the causal behaviors left unaddressed — nay, even celebrated — and all attention placed upon artificial preventative and corrective measures. In fact, if one is not on the bandwagon for HIV research, condoms for teens, and unrestricted abortions he is far more likely to be thought of as the immoral one.

Far from being students of natural law, atheists tend to make a practice of bending nature to serve their own wills. Someone declaring himself morally good by natural constraint theory may in fact be saying nothing more than, "I only do what science and nature allow me to get by with." By this measure, every advance of science puts more options on the moral buffet. This is hardly an impressively noble ethic, and I would wager that there are few atheists who would consent to anything close to this characterization of their claim to virtue.


As I've argued, for an atheist to make a claim to virtue he is either just saying that he successfully marches to his own drum or he is saying that he has a fixed standard, common to humanity (at minimum), by which he has held himself to account. Unfortunately, the various systems employed to objectify morality turn out to be inadequate and impotent. There is always something else not contained within the system that drives the application of it, even if it is only to answer the question of why one ought to care about that particular moral system. Additionally, the chosen system is not given preeminence in the atheist's moral thinking. It is trumped wherever it is found personally inconvenient or where it conflicts with ideology not derived from the system itself. I do not mean that atheists simply fail to live up to their own standards at all times, for that would be understandable; I mean that they consciously repudiate things that ought to be a part of those standards.

Even if atheists identify a moral system that they believe to be objective, and which they do in fact use to inform their moral choices, it is still personal desire that has the final say. Their will is king and their moral system is a hand-chosen adviser, to be heard or ignored according to their sovereign pleasure. In the end, they have not escaped a subjective moral relativism, which voids the idea that they can be "good" in a way that is universally meaningful. To repurpose a very old observation, if there is no king in Israel, then everyone will do what is right in his own eyes. Fortunately for the rest of us, the majority of atheists prefer to be liked and to avoid social chaos and poverty, and so they often make reasonably good citizens. But of course I am just assuming those to be good things based upon my own moral framework. I could be mistaken, but only if there is no God to invest us with real moral capital.

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