Apologist: “There can’t be morality without a god!”
Audience: “Oh no! That would mean violence in the streets! Chaos would reign! Humankind would be done for! We must believe in a deity!”
This is the type of impression that many apologists try to create when they use the moral argument. Their approach is little more than scare tactic woven with the underlying (and unwarranted) premise that morality must come from a deity and the (fallacious) conclusion that, since the lack of a deity would lead to moral anarchy and chaos, there must be a god. The argument is at heart an appeal to consequences fallacy arguing that god must be real, since the absence of a god would have horrifying consequences. My pen pal Bunto Skiffler has a brilliant analogy for this argument comparing the apologetic to Day Without a Mexican. If god were to not exist, then we would suddenly plunge into moral mayhem, right? Wrong. Once more, apologists have failed to grasp the underlying issue. While appeals to consequences are fallacious for deriving an “is,” they are perfectly valid for deriving a “should” or “ought.”
Paradoxical, right? Normally the argument goes that you can’t get an “ought” from an “is,” and now I am saying that we have an “ought” but not an “is”? Well, not exactly. It is fallacious to derive an “is” (in this case, god) from anxiety about consequences, but the sources of those anxieties stem from a different “is.” Furthermore, one can, in fact, derive an “ought” from two “is’s”. In the case of our anxiety about anarchy and chaos, there are at least two “is’s,” which derives a completely reasonable “ought”:
- “Is”: humans have a desire for survival, safety, and well-being
- “Is”: anarchy (in this case, a lack of social controls on behavior) leads to the collapse of society, which would negatively impact our survival, safety, and well-being
- “Ought”: humans ought (i.e. it is in our rational interest) to implement social controls on behavior
More could be said in unpacking these terms, but that’s the gist of it: we have an ought. Apologists (and even some skeptics) will now object that I have not really derived a “moral” ought, but am using ought in a different way, and this lies at the heart of the confusion! For the longest time I could not grasp why there is so much misunderstanding and frustration about this issue, but I have now realized that both sides are actually talking past each other. What I am referring to is a “teleological” ought, whereas apologists are referring to a “deontological” ought.
We are already into arcane philosophical verbiage, but bear with me. Both of these terms are critical to different schools of moral philosophy.
Teleology is derived from the Greek τέλος (“end/goal”) and, in the case of moral philosophy, is a system of ethics that maintains that moral imperatives are based on the outcomes of certain behaviors. The τέλος is the “is” in this school of ethics. If behavior X serves the τέλος, it is good. If behavior Y goes against the τέλος, it is bad. In short, teleological ethics derive conditional “if/should” imperatives.
What is the τέλος we are working towards? It varies depending on which teleological moral philosophy you are talking about, but in the case of my moral philosophy, Normative Ethical Subjectivism, I have adapted Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to illustrate the regress of our goals. The actions that lead us up the pyramid are the ones that are “good” (in that
they serve our needs), the ones that lead us down are “bad” (in that they go against our needs). Our needs are biologically and psychologically ingrained in us, and thus are the “is.” The actions we evaluate depending on their effect upon these needs form the “ought/ought not.” Whenever I use terms, such as good, bad, should, must, ought, I am referring to this specific paradigm.
Apologists, however, often mistake what I am referring to. This is because most apologists conceive of morality in terms of a deontological system of ethics. Deontology is derived from the Greek δέον (duty/obligation). A deontological system of ethics bases moral imperatives on universal rules and the duty to fulfill them. In short, deontological ethics derive unconditional “just should” imperatives, where we ought to follow moral rules regardless of their consequences.
Where does this notion that there can’t be morality without a god come from? At face value it is little more than a sweeping unwarranted assertion. Even for a deontological system of ethics, I can conceive of atheistic sources of moral duty (e.g. Platonic forms or moral duty being intrensic to reason). I do not believe that these forms of moral duty exist, but there is no reason that a deity is, by definition, necessary for such moral duty (not to mention the whole Euthyphro dilemma about where god gets his duty from).
But the real source of the criticism is the objection that empirical naturalism cannot account for moral imperatives. I will only agree that I see no way that empiricism can account for deontological moral imperatives, as I see no way of empirically observing duty. Empiricism can, however, account for teleological moral imperatives. One can empirically observe (or at least reasonably infer) innate human needs and then empirically demonstrate which actions help and which actions harm our needs. Then one can reasonably derive a teleological ought through empirical observation.
The deontological ought translates to, “you have an unconditional duty to do this.” I do not believe that any such duty exists. When I use the term ought, I am referring to a teleological ought, which translates to, “it is rationally within your interest to do this.”
A great strength about teleological oughts is that even deontologists use them in practical imperatives. For example: if one is working to save electricity, then he ought to turn of the lights when he leaves home. A deontologist would agree that this is reasonable, but would not call it a moral imperative. This is because deontologists draw a qualitative distinction between practical imperatives (things that serve ends) and moral imperatives (things necessitated by duty).
For a teleological system of ethics, the distinction is not qualitative but rather quantitative. Not turning off the light might not be immoral, per se, but that is only because the consequence of wasting a little electricity would be fairly marginal. For a teleological system of ethics, moral imperatives instead belong to a category of behaviors that have very severe consequences: murder, theft, rape, etc. These actions are far more destructive towards our individual and social needs and thus bear a higher consequence. A teleological system of ethics thus categorizes them as moral imperatives based on a quantitative distinction.
When does the practical imperative become the moral imperative in a teleological system of ethics? Technically moral imperatives are practical imperatives, but the point of emphasizing the moral distinction can be hazy. In the case of recreational drug use, for example, I can say that it is impractical for a person wanting good health to use drugs. But is it immoral for a person to use drugs? I would say that it is a borderline moral issue. I like to distinguish between:
1. Simple Practicalities (things of marginal consequence)
2. Folkways (things that we should probably encourage/avoid and praise/look down upon)
3. Mores (things of severe enough consequence that we should socially mandate/prohibit them).
The distinction between these categories depends on their quantitative impact. Recreational drug use, in my opinion, lies somewhere between folkways and mores in terms of whether we should just discourage or outright prohibit it. An issue such a driving intoxicated, however, I think is of severe enough consequence to belong in the mores category and be prohibited.
Is a teleological system of ethics objective? I would say no, unless one thinks that nature itself is working towards some goal. But we don’t see hurricanes bending around cities or any such sort of phenomena to suggest that nature has moral affinities. Instead, morality is a subjective human concern, in that it depends on the goals of a subjective observer. Does this make morality relative and pointless? Not at all. Morality is normative, in that people are biologically and psychologically ingrained to have the same needs, as seen in Maslow’s hierarchy. We thus have a common basis to evaluate individual and social acitons based on the consequences to those needs.
In terms of survival, safety, and economic and social well-being, Western democracies have performed better than any other society throughout history in providing for our needs. Such a system requires respect for human rights, social equality, and restrictions on certain anti-social behaviors. Without such a system in place, life would be nasty, brutish, short, and would go against our needs. We thus have a very strong teleological ought for preventing the dooms day that apologists envision if there is no god. Deontological oughts are not necessary, however, to keep a society that is orderly, humane, and prosperous, as teleological oughts can accommodate for those concerns. No god required.
One still might object that I am not accounting for morality in the strict sense of the term. But this is only allowing deontology to hog the playground. Teleological systems of ethics go all the way back to Aristotle, Epicurus, and Mill. For as long as moral philosophy has been discusses, teleological ethics has been a school of thought just as much as deontological ethics. What we really need to distinguish between is not whether a theist or an atheist can provide a basis for morality, but what type of morality they are providing a basis for. I see no need for a magical deity in order to have a teleological system of ethics.
Interesting enough, most Christian beliefs are teleological when you really break them down. For many, the whole quest of the Christian lifestyle is to get into Heaven and receive maximal joy. The greatest evil is to go to Hell and receive maximal pain. Heaven is desirable and Hell is undesirable. God determines who goes where, so we should obey him. The τέλος in this paradigm is still to achieve happiness, which provides the basis for obeying god. Thus, morality for many Christians is actually based on a teleological pursuit of happiness, rather than the deontological duty to obey god.
I will grant, however, that if someone were willing to go to Hell and be genuinely miserable, just because god had ordered them to do so through duty, then he or she would be a true deontologist. That is the ugly reality of deontology. In a teleological system, morals serve as means to the end of serving us. In a deontological one, we are the means to serving moral duty. If someone were willing to genuinely and eternally be in pain, not even have a “feel good” sense about doing the right thing, just to obey an edict mandated by god, then I will grant that they truly follow a deontological sense of duty. I would gladly elect to be immoral under such a system.
[I am planning to expand this older essay into a new essay on naturalist and secular humanist ethics, as part of my blog series “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” on my philosophy blog Civitas Humana. As such, some of the content above may be revised in the newer version, which I post a link to here, once it is finished. -MWF 9/29/15]