P.Z. Myers on atheism and objective morality

by Henry McQuale

Being an atheist, I have had the pleasure of some putatively well-meaning Christians (of the Jehova’s Witness subspecies) well-meaningly informing me that, as an atheist, I should be a moral nihilist if I wanted to be a coherent disbeliever. Since I am not a murderous serial nun-rapist nor compulsive baby-eater, their conclusion was that I was evidently incapable of following the implications of my ungodly denial to the very end, which, to them, was moral nihilism.

Their idea was simple: God is not only the creator of the universe and all its physical laws, but also the creator and only ground of the world’s moral order, with all its moral laws. If you accept this, then the very idea of there not being a God implies that no objective morality is possible -If there is no God, then everything is permitted, as the mindlessly repeated  saying never gets tired of saying. So, in their minds, an atheist is faced by the choice between moral nihilism or an incoherent good and moral life.

What they were trying to get at -I think-  was that since objective morality wasn’t possible without God,  then I should believe in God. This, of course is an invalid argument, an appeal to consequences: the non-existence of something has this or that undesirable consequence, therefore that something must exist. Ergo it exists. Why this not works is easy to say: the fact that something has consequences that we don’t like or desire is not proof that said thing does not exist or is not the case (reductions to the absurd, on the other hand, are valid, but they don’t show that because something has undesired implications therefore it must not be true, but that because something implies absurdities or logical impossibilities then it must not be true), but the point of this entry is not to show how these kinds of arguments for the existence of God fail, but that the idea of atheism implying nihilism is wrong.

And that is what PZ Myers (whose excellent and wicked Pharyngula blog you should all read) attempted in a recent post. The “objective morality gotcha”, as he calls it, is precisely what I have described in the paragraphs above, and he thinks it is actually more of a rhetorical device abused in debate by the religious than a sincere observation about the logical implications of atheism. I am sure that is the case very often, but at least I think my Jehova’s Witnesses were earnestly befuddled by the fact that I was an atheist and not an amoral monster. But whatever the case, that is not what interests me right now.

What interests me is the way in which PZ attacked the idea, a way that is, I think, flawed. In response to a Christian asking why he wouldn’t torture a toddler, he says:

If I were confronted with such a question, I would say that no, I would not torture toddlers because I do live by an objective set of moral principles that allow me to assess whether an action is moral or not. It is not a subjective morality; I do not reject torture of toddlers or anyone else because I think it is icky (although, of course, I do), but because it breaks my moral code.

An objective set of moral principles? As a moral anti-realist with dreams of moral objectivity, when someone says she or he has found a set of objective moral principles it makes my hopes go up, but it also makes my trigger happy anti-disappointment defense mechanisms alert.

What are PZ’s  ungodly non subjective principles that make his ungodly moral reasoning possible? He has four that he considers the basics of an objective humanist morality:

1-Interest. Am I even interested in carrying out a particular action? There’s a wide range of possible actions I can take at all times, and all of them have consequences. In this realm of possibilities, most options never come up: I have never been in situation where I desire or am compelled to torture a toddler, nor can I imagine a likely scenario for such an activity. It is a non-decision; my default choice is to not torture, and the only time the choice comes up is in bizarre abstract questions by not-very-bright philosophers.

2-Consent. If I’m contemplating an action, I’d next consider whether all participants agree to engage in the action. If it isn’t consensual, it probably isn’t a good idea. Where does this value come from? Not gods, but self-interest. I do not want things done to me against my will, so I participate in a social contract that requires me to respect others’ autonomy as well. I also find a non-coercive, cooperative culture to better facilitate human flourishing.

3-Harm. I avoid behaviors that cause harm to others. Again, this is not done because an authority told me to do no harm, but is derived from self-interest and empathy. I do not want to be harmed, so I should not harm others. And because I, like most human beings, have empathy, seeing harm done to others causes me genuine distress.

4-Stigma. This should be the least of my four reasons, but face it, sometimes we are constrained by convention. There are activities we all are interested in doing, that do no harm and may be done with consenting partners, but we keep them private or restrain ourselves to some degree because law or fashion demand it. These are human and social constraints, not at all divine, and are also not universal or absolute — they can and do change over time. And sometimes, when cultural biases cause harm, I think we have a moral obligation to change the culture.

I -as, I think, every reasonable and civilized 21st Century individual would- find these (with the possible exception of the fourth one) to be fine principles to base one’s morality on. I agree with them and I do my best to always act upon them; I live my life -and I have no reason to believe PZ doesn’t- as if they were simply and objectively true. But there is a problem: the fact that I agree with them, no matter how vehemently, tells us nothing about their objectivity or lack thereof.

And the problem is that PZ does absolutely nothing to prove they are objective. He merely asserts they are. And it comes to me as obvious and instinctive to reply: Sure, those are very nice principles, but what makes you think they are themselves objectively good? No minimally inquisitive Christian would miss the opportunity to reply the same thing. Now, they do avoid appealing to a divine authority, as Christians typically do, but PZ doesn’t tell where they come from or attempts to justify them. Self-interest and empathy can explain them, but they don’t justify them. For that we  would have to justify self-interest and empathy as objective moral foundations.  But PZ remains silent. One can still argue that there are many actions that are good and that violate the principles of interest, harm and stigma by questioning the objectivity of self-interest, empathy and fear of stigma. As much as I would love it to be the case, empathy  has not been shown to be objectively good.

I don’t know if PZ had this in mind, but maybe one could argue that empathy, self-interest and fear of social stigma are natural (innate) dispositions shared by most human beings that whose moral sense has not been warped by religious indoctrination, but to say that their innateness means that those moral principles, even if they prove to be evolutionarily advantageous to both individuals and societies, are therefore objectively good, is to commit the naturalistic fallacy.

So PZ disappoints the atheists and makes the believers laugh, since his principles, at least until they are justified, cannot be called objective.

But I don’t think we need an objective set of moral principles to prove the believers wrong. And In fact, if PZ had been more modest with his pretensions, he could have given this perfectly good answer, in three parts: First, atheists don’t need to be moral nihilists. There is nothing about atheism that implies that: atheism simply refers to a lack of belief in God or gods. The religious think this implies moral nihilism because they assume that God is the only thing that could make morality possible, or that the only kind of real morality is objective morality and that only God can secure that. I think these assumptions are unwarranted. To me there is nothing obvious about the idea that God and only God can make morality possible, objective or not. Until those assumptions are sufficiently justified there is no reason to take them seriously. Second, and as a counterattack, we can show that religious morality is just as unjustified as any other, including atheistic morality, and this brings us to our old friend Euthyphro: Are actions good because God commands them or are actions commanded by God because they are good? If they are good merely because God commands them, then aren’t they arbitrary? If it is God’s will alone that determines the goodness of an action, then that means that actions or deeds are not good or evil in themselves, so one can imagine God commanding the murder of thousands of babies and it becoming good in virtue of his commanding it. This is not objective. God being the most powerful being in the universe is not enough to bring objectivity in such a way. We need reasons to justify his commands and this horn of the dilemma does not provide them at all. If, on the other hand, God commands actions or deeds because they are good, then we can ask: what makes them good, if not God, who becomes merely an intermediary? If we accept that we need a justification for them, then we just move the problem one step behind and the theist is in the same problem as the atheist is. If one tries to argue that this good that God commands is just self-evident or a brute fact of the universe and that god commands knowing it is good, then we have to ask why is it that the atheists cannot appeal to this brute goodness that transcends God? I don’t think there is any response to the dilemma that can save the religious idea that only God can be the source of objective morality. And third, one can simply show the religious that one has a set of moral principles which were not arbitrarily chosen, if not objectively good. This last thing is what PZ has done: he listed what he has identified as his basic moral principles; he didn’t show they are objective, but it is clear that they are not arbitrary: we don’t choose to be interested in what we are interested, we don’t choose to be self-interested (I guess we can sometimes act against our self-interest, but self-interest remains as non-arbitrary) and we don’t choose to feel empathy -we just do, for whatever reason. Be it innate or in part the product of social agreement, the fact is that most atheist don’t do whatever they want, arbitrarily, as the religious think we should.

That is as good as an answer can be to the “objective morality gotcha”. We don’t torture toddlers because we operate under moral principles that don’t let us. Those moral principles are not objective, but neither are the principles of the religious. They can only work in so far as we live in a society that embraces them, although that embracing is not itself a justification of their objectivity. This still leaves open the question of how do we solve moral disputes if there are no objective principles to appeal to. I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that, if there’s any answer to that, it won’t be simple.