In discussions concerning the ontological foundations of objective morality, there has traditionally been an understanding among atheists and theists alike that if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. The word “objective” is being used here to mean that the ontological foundation (being) of moral values is not rooted in or subject to opinion or belief. This acknowledgement lay at the heart of nihilism, in which Nietszche famously proclaimed the death of God and, consequently, the destruction of any objective foundation for morality or meaning. Likewise, the French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, reflecting upon a statement uttered by a character in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), says:
“Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself…. Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimize our behavior.” (1)
Elsewhere, Sartre argues that value is attached to the choice itself, such that “…we can never choose evil.” (2)
The affirmation that God’s existence is the necessary prerequisite for objective morality is still frequently recognized by many atheists as being consistent with materialism:
“The idea of political or legal obligation is clear enough… Similarly, the idea of an obligation higher than this, referred to as moral obligation, is clear enough, provided reference to some lawgiver higher…than those of the state is understood. In other words, our moral obligations can…be understood as those that are imposed by God…. But what if this higher-than-human lawgiver is no longer taken into account? Does the concept of moral obligation…still make sense? …The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone.” (3)
“The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.” (4)
“The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?” (5)
Stated formally, one could construe the argument against objective morality this way:
- If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
- God does not exist.
- Therefore, objective moral values do not exist.
While the second premise possesses a clearly insurmountable burden of proof, most atheists are content with arguments in favor of its plausibility rather than its certainty; and the inability to prove the truth of a negative does not render the argument invalid.
For many years, atheists nearly universally maintained the validity of this argument (or some variation thereof), but it has recently been scrutinized by such figures as Sam Harris and Richard Carrier, who have sought eagerly to make a case for the objectivity of moral values apart from the existence of God. While the attempt is undoubtedly worthy of some admiration in its intent, being an overt recognition that there is such a thing as “good” and “evil,” and therefore at least attempting to provide some sort of meaningful foundation for morality and ethics, the justification for the case made in its favor is suspect.
The basis for morality, suggests Harris, is the “flourishing and well-being of conscious creatures.” That is to say, that which contributes to the flourishing of conscious creatures constitutes the Good and that which harms conscious creatures is Evil. But this seems merely to define the “good” to mean “the flourishing of conscious creatures,” such that “…it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good.’ He continues: “It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is ‘good,’ is whether it is conducive to, or obstructive of, some deeper form of well-being” (6).
And yet Harris seems to have ignored the deeper question with which we are immediately presented: what good reason is there to think that the flourishing of conscious creatures actually is morally Good? An arbitrary definition certainly cannot constitute any kind of ontological ground; and if Harris’ definition is not, in fact, arbitrary, then by what criteria has he fashioned it? If there is such a thing as Good and Evil there must be a Moral Law by which to distinguish one from the other. The question, then, granting as Harris does that objective moral values exist, is not “what is good?,” since this concerns moral epistemology; rather it is “by what Standard do we differentiate between Good and Evil, and why is it the Standard at all?”
The flourishing of conscious creatures cannot be the Good simply because we, as conscious creatures, desire it. This seems an obviously insufficient ground; for desire is inherently subjective. Even so, a universal desire does not constitute an ontological foundation for why one ought to do anything. Indeed, Harris acknowledges that our apparently universal desire to flourish cannot itself form the foundation for the Good: “We must continually remind ourselves that there is a difference between what is natural and what is actually good for us” (p. 101). In other words, there is no necessary correlation between that which we desire and that which positively affects our flourishing. This seems evidently true; for one’s desire to achieve happiness through the use of methamphetamines, for example, will eventually end in ruin.
But again, why think that the “good” is that which contributes only to the flourishing of conscious creatures, rather than unconscious creatures, or why the “good” must involve flourishing at all? If materialism is true, are not we all destined for utter annihilation? Musing upon such thoughts, Soren Kierkegaard wrote:
“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?” (7)
Whence comes goodness? And life? And consciousness? “From the abyss,” answers the materialist, “And to it we shall return. But cheer up.”
1. Sartre, Jean Paul, “Existentialism and Humanism,” French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre, ed. Leonard M. Marsak (New York: Meridian, 1961), p. 485
2. Sartre, Jean Paul, “Existentialism,” Reprinted in A Casebook on Existentialism, ed. William V. Spanos (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966), p. 279
3. Taylor, Richard, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985), p. 83-84
4. Ruse, Michael, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 262-269
5. Kurtz, Paul, Forbidden Fruit. Prometheus. 1988, p. 65
6. Harris, Sam, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010) p. 12
7. Kierkegaard, Soren, Fear and Trembling (Penguin Classics, 1985), p. 14