Feb 22 2011

Atheism and Morality – Jon Topping Responds

In response to my earlier post today, the target of my post, Jon Topping, wrote a response in the comments. I thank Jon for stopping by and participating in the conversation. One of the reasons I chose to respond to his YouTube video is because he is trying to frame the argument in terms of logic. Here is his response, with my responses:

Great write up, enjoyed it very much.
Atheism requires a naturalistic cause. Evolution is the only natural cause we know of. I would say evolution is not sufficient for atheism, but it is necessary.

To be clear, atheism is simply the absence of belief in a deity. Most (but certainly not all) atheists are also naturalists, meaning that they believe the universe follows natural laws of cause and effect and that it is not valid to introduce supernatural causes as an explanation for what we observe in the natural world. Certainly for a naturalist, evolution is the only game in town in terms of the origin of species. It actually does not deal with the origin of life, or the origin of the universe, although these are often conflated.

I would agree it’s a false dichotomy, if I didn’t leave the option for a third choice. I left the door open for another possibility to be shared with me. Even my argument structure (E) involves another possible solution. My second premise merely assumes there isn’t one, to which I say that if you disagree, then you must give me what “E” is.

I assume that “it” in the above paragraph is morality (Jon – correct me if I am wrong). But I did explicitly state what a “third” choice might be (and there is no reason to limit the list of choices to three). There are many moral systems beyond a faith-based system vs personal opinion. Secular philosophers have developed a system of ethics that are based upon near universal first principles and careful logic. This is more than just opinion, even though it is not a basis for metaphysical certitude.

On the survival of the fittest. You’re right to point out my flaw that leaves out communal benefit. However, I did address that this still leads to subjective morality, because communities can disagree. Even if we know instinctively that murder is wrong because of evolution, what do you do when communities disagree and slaughter whole people groups because they believe it benefits them? This follows the naturalistic view of the moral code does it not?

But I am not advocating a “naturalistic view of the moral code” – or at least that phrase is confusing. What I think Jon means is that our moral code should follow the dictates of nature. But this is not what  I believe, and not what philosophers generally argue. In fact I have argued specifically against this position in the past. Nature is what it is – and we should not try to derive our morality entirely from it.

The point of understanding evolution is to understand the nature and origin of our moral sense, and how that influences our feelings and thinking. This will help us avoid assuming that because we feel a certain way, it must be the universe telling us it is objectively right and moral. But our evolved feelings are not the sole basis of morality.

We likely evolved to feel tribal – to feel justified in attacking and killing other groups to defend our own group. But that does not make such actions OK. We can transcend our evolved morality and develop a more mature and civilized morality based upon a deeper understanding of the human condition and following the dictates of logic.

We can reason that a moral system that works does not allow for one group to wantonly destroy another, that there are better and more moral ways to resolve conflict.

A behavior or feeling is not moral because is occurs in nature, or because it is evolutionarily advantageous. There is no serious philosophy that holds such a view, and so it is little more than a straw man. Philosophical systems of morals flow logically from reasonable first principles, informed by knowledge but not determined by it. There are also value judgments, and we need to recognize when we are making value judgments.

It may just be my being green in this field, but while I could follow what you were saying, I’m having a hard time putting my finger on the main point to prove non-opinion based morality. Is it just that we have logically worked out what’s best for humanity, and this is true morality? Wouldn’t that still be up for debate when groups disagree? If I’m wrong (which I’m sure is the case here), please help me understand your argument better.
It seems like ethicists lay out the first principles, to which they say must be true because everyone agrees on them. The obvious question comes up, which you then seem to just say that our models are imperfect.

Even using the “what’s best for humanity” metric is a choice – a specific moral philosophy (called utilitarian). Not all moral systems are so utilitarian – rather I believe the best moral philosophy is one that combines principles (rights and privileges) with rules of interaction that involve outcomes, but are not solely determined by outcomes. For example, If I could improve life for all people by killing one person, should I? Could I kill one person to harvest their organs to save the lives of five other people?

We generally recognize that individuals have rights, and most fundamental among them is the right not to be killed. This right (a negative right) supercedes the utilitarian outcome of  saving other lives. Why – because when you follow the implications all the way through, that system makes the most logically consistent sense.

Of course our ethical systems are imperfect – because people are imperfect. But that is true of every ethical system (more on this below).

As for divine morality not being objective. I believe I’m missing your point again, because it seems like your saying that since religious people disagree, therefore it must be that God’s morality is based on the person. I’m sure this isn’t what you’re saying, so please correct me, because under this idea we place ourselves in God’s position. If we assume the existence of God, then it would be His morality, not ours, and some humans disagreeing would merely be misrepresenting His morality.

First, to be clear I don’t believe in God or any supernatural being and so I am not saying anything about God’s morality. I am stating a series of hypothetical situations involving God or any possible god and following through to the logical conclusion.

Whether or not God exists, no one has objective direct access to God or his moral code. All we have are people’s interpretation of what they think God’s moral code is. This is evidenced by the fact that there are hundreds of such interpretations in the world.  We can also take a historical view and see that the morals that people ascribe to God or their gods tend to follow our evolved moral sense, but also the local culture and history. In more primitive times, God’s morality was also primitive and barbaric. As cultures evolved, so did our concept of God and deific morality.

So even if an objective supernatural morality existed, no one knows what it is. And of course no one can demonstrate that such a code exists. So in reality the entire discussion is moot – because in the end we are left to figure morality out for ourselves. The fact that ancient texts like the bible prescribe a moral code is not helpful, because such sources are ambiguous, self contradictory, and allow for endless interpretations. And there are many conflicting sources.

The one point I really liked was by MKandefer. Even if God create us and tells us what’s moral, why obey Him? Even if God created time and space, why should I believe a triangle has three sides? For both cases, just because God made it that way doesn’t mean I have to believe it; I have been given the free will to reject truths. Although, if you do face God one day, and He points out that you knew He existed, and you knew how He wanted you to live, and you knew the consequences of rejecting Him, then you should obviously agree with the consequences, right?

But – nobody knows if God exists, and if such a being exists no one knows what his will is.  So the hypothetical situation is pointless. Just because someone chooses to have faith in one of the hundreds of belief systems that humans have come up with does not make it objective or true.

Further, since no one can prove that their faith is true, we have no choice but to work out a system of ethics that everyone can agree on. That leads us back to logic and ethical philosophy – a transparent, open, and logic-based system that works fairly for the most people. It does not have to be perfect to be useful, and lack of perfection does not mean we can ignore it willy-nilly.

But again (and this deserves emphasis) the only choices we really have is between forcing a sectarian faith-based system of morals onto other people, having everyone abide by whatever system they want, or coming up with a fair and logical system of morals that most people can agree on. We are not given the option of using a perfect deity-prescribed system of morals, because no one has access to any such system – probably (in my opinion) because no such system exists.

As for Euthyphro. I’m sure you’ve heard the counter-argument that morality exists within God. It’s the same with logic. God cannot do the illogical, not because He obeys something outside of Himself, and not because He arbitrarily says how it is, but because these laws are found within Himself. Morality emanates from God, and to go against it would go against His own nature. Mind giving me your response on that?

That is not a counter-argument – it’s a dodge. Saying that morality exists within God is just another way of saying that something is moral because God says so. In which case – why should we listen? If the answer is – because God will punish us with eternal damnation if we don’t – then that is your system of morals. It is based upon authority and the threat of punishment. Either that or it’s just self-referential – we should listen to God because God’s morals say we should.

If, on the other hand, you believe that God’s morals are inherently moral, that opens the door for humans to use logic and reason to figure those morals out for themselves.

In the end it doesn’t matter – because whatever you believe about God is just your belief. It’s faith. It cannot be verified or proven and therefore cannot serve as an objective basis for morals or anything else. If you base morality on your personal faith, and you expect the laws or other people to conform to that morality, then that amounts to you foisting your personal faith onto other people. Of course, other faiths will try to do the same thing – and you have no objective way to resolve your differences.


Atheism does not lead to murder. Atheists are generally moral law-abiding people, just like everyone else. We are happy, like most people, to follow the morals and ethics of our society. And for those who study such things, there is a basis for secular morality that rests upon firmer ground than any faith-based morality.

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