The issue of morality comes up a lot in debates between atheists and Christians. Christians say that it’s impossible for there to be morality without God and we have no right to say a murderer did anything wrong, while atheists say that it’s impossible for God to be omnibenevolent when, according to the Bible, he has killed millions of people. As is often the case in formal debates, it becomes more about scoring political points than really investigating the issues. I think people on both sides should give a little more thought to the basis of their moral beliefs.
It seems to me that most people make moral judgments primarily based on intuition. Both atheists and theists intuitively feel that there is something deeply immoral about killing or raping someone. They also intuitively feel that things like kindness, honesty, and generosity are good. I think abortion polling illustrates that many religious people rely on intuition rather than their religion when it comes to religious matters. For example, in a poll from earlier this year, 50% of Catholics said that abortions should be legal in most cases and only 16% said it should be illegal in all cases, despite the Catholic Church’s clear stance that abortion is deeply immoral.
But some people do not merely go by intuition and end up adhering to a certain system of morality. Some theists try hard to behave as they think God wants them to, and some atheists try to behave as they think they should based on some variety of utilitarianism (or some other ethical theory). Of course, people may still be relying on their intuition when choosing a religion or an ethical theory. If a believer intuitively believes that it is wrong to prevent gay people from getting married, he will probably be less likely to join an extremely conservative church. If an atheist feels that people have a moral obligation to help the poor, he’s probably not going to adopt Social Darwinism. But I think that many people do not go further and try to figure out why God’s will or a certain brand of utilitarianism is the standard of morality.
I think that many atheists have a very weak foundation for their morality (of course, this does not mean that atheists cannot be moral people, as people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have been incredibly generous). Some atheists believe that something like happiness or preference satisfaction has intrinsic value and this serves as the foundation for morality. The problem with this is that there’s no reason to think that intrinsic values exist, and people’s behavior can be explained without resorting to a strange entity that we have no evidence for. I think that atheists who reject God because he’s a strange entity that we have no evidence for, but believe that intrinsic values exist without any evidence are being inconsistent.
However, morality is an even bigger problem for Christians. Atheism itself does not make any claims about morality and if there is no such thing as objective morality, that does not invalidate atheism. However, an important part of mainstream Christianity is that God is omnibenevolent. If God could not possibly be good in a meaningful way, that would pose a serious problem for Christians. The Euthyphro Dilemma asks whether God commands things because they are good or whether they are good because God commands them. If God commands things because they are good, then God is not the source of morality and Christians have the same problem of having to explain the foundation of morality that atheists do. But they also have the added problem of trying to reconcile this morality with God’s actions in the Old Testament (such as Numbers 31). If God is the source of morality, then God’s morality is arbitrary and God could have made murder good and love bad if he had wanted to (and he could have made us intuitively see murder as good). Most people try to get around this problem by saying that God’s nature itself is good, but then you have the problem of whether God is good because his nature has the properties of moral goodness, or whether the properties are good merely because God has them. There have been attempts to reconcile this problem, but I don’t think any of them work. Wes Morriston, although himself a theist, sees serious problems with the answers believers typically give to the Euthyphro dilemma. If you have a chance, I encourage you check out two articles that he has recently written on the subject: http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/wes/GodGood.pdf and http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/wes/WhatIfGod.pdf.
But even if all current models of morality do not work, that wouldn’t prove that morality does not exist any more than proving to ancient people that Zeus did not exist would have proven that there could not be a God that actually does exist. However, I actually do think there is a moral theory that has a good chance of being correct: desirism. It’s a relatively recent theory so it needs to be subjected to more scrutiny before concluding that it’s correct, but it seems to avoid the common pitfalls of other moral theories. Basically desirism says that desires are the only reasons for action that exist and that a good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires. For example, a desire to rape is a bad desire because either the desires of the rape victim to not be raped are thwarted, or the desires of the rapist to rape are thwarted. We all act based on our desires. It’s not like there’s something intrinsically good about kindness that forces us to be kind against our will, we are kind because we have the desire to be kind (and that is a good desire). Divine morality would not prevent someone who desired to kill someone from killing that person if they did not desire to go to heaven or please God. Similarly, divine command theory does not somehow force someone to be moral regardless of their desires. However, there are means such as the legal system, praise, and condemnation which can give people a strong desire not to do evil acts. The threat of hell is not the only means of inducing someone to act morally. I’ll try to explore desirism in a little more depth in future posts, but if you want to read more about it, I suggest checking out this article on desirism.