Part 9 in 20 Atheist answers to questions they supposedly can’t
12. How do we account for conscience?
13. On what basis can we make moral judgements?
Short answer: Evolutionary psychology for one, and naturalist can take moral realism or plump for anti-realist accounts and it’s no big deal.
Longer answer: Ethics and atheism are seldom considered natural bed-fellows, and morality is a common stick to beat atheists with. So how (and how much) is morality a problem for atheism?
One way it could be a problem is if atheism couldn’t provide a good explanation for moral experience or behaviour. How is it this tribe of hairless apes over time thought and felt that certain things were right and wrong even against their own self-interest? Or how they could communicate with one another about the same. This is the sort of stuff the first question is talking about.
This data doesn’t seem particularly troubling for atheism. Although it is hardly settled science how these faculties came to be, we can at least point to things like kin selection and reciprocal altruism to explain why some sort of morality might be advantageous, and then it is over to the cognitive psychologists to suggest how are brains can be wired up with a mix of nature and nurture towards that end. It doesn’t seem horrifically implausible that some account like that could be any good. Also (yet again), it seems well poised to account for the cultural plasticity of our moral norms, that our moral intuitions may often trade on cognitive bias, and other things besides; things theism has to stretch to accommodate.
But most of the discussion isn’t on this empirical question of whether there’s a successful ‘science of morality’. Rather we skip across the fact value distinction and talk about normative things instead: for if atheism is true, then surely morality cannot amount to anything more than some evolutionarily-convenient conventions for survival (or perhaps fossilized cultural norms, or whatever). There isn’t really a fact of the matter about “is rape wrong” in the same way as “Was Churchill alive in 1945?”, it all depends on attitudes, our evolutionary history, or whatever else. Yet that’s really problematic, because obviously there really are facts of the matter about at least some moral claims, so that’s evidence against atheism. Worse, unless you think there are moral facts, you have no particular reason to care about what is right or wrong beyond your self-interest. So atheism cannotground objective moral values, and worse, atheist cannot ‘do’ morality in a manner consistent with his worldview.
Although this line of argument is loved by apologists everywhere (I even tried to ape the verbiage in the last paragraph) it doesn’t really make many waves in philosophy of religion. I suspect this is because atheist has a plethora of responses available. Let’s talk about moral realism first.
- Atheist could go on the offensive and offer some debunking argument for our intuition there are objective moral values. If it is the case our intuition arises from an untrustworthy process, who cares?
- Atheist could go and offer some account of moral irrealism which does not seem intuitively repulsive. Maybe nuanced forms of relativism or norm-expressivism can fit the bill of doing justice to what we think our moral world is like.
- Atheist could offer some account of moral realism like ethical naturalism or intuitionism or whatever that preserves moral facts without recourse to God. Maybe good just reduces to pleasure, or supervenes on human flourishing, or whatever else.
- Alternatively, Atheist can go on the attack and suggest whatever theistic account of ethics is offered (e.g. divine command theory) should be rejected. Perhaps Euthythro is insoluble.
There’s no doubt more, but you get the idea. For the moral argument to go through, we need to show first that moral realism is true (contra error theory, subjectivism, relativism, non-cognitivism, &c) then show that the best candidate theory for moral realism is something theistic (contra ethical naturalism, ethical non-naturalism, &c). This basically requires carpet-bombing the entire meta-ethics literature so that only theistic ethics is left standing. Ethics remains controversial, and all of the positions above have many detractors – but so does theistic ethics, and there’s nothing to suggest that all the non-theistic competitors have known ‘silver bullet’ objections that knock them out. So what’s the big problem, here?
STEP Moral argument
STEP on Metaethics gives a neat overview on the subject (with a helpful slant towards discussing theistic ethics). The links below on non-cognitivism, realism &c. give at least some sampling of the field.
The Wiki gives an (appropriately sketchy) precis on the work done on morality and evolution.