Friday, January 25, 2013

Atheism and Moral Subjectivity

The first and most fundamental question that anyone should ask when considering the subject of morality is not ‘what is right or wrong thing to do’ or ‘how ought I behave’ but rather ‘what do words like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ really mean? Do they refer to anything that actually exists in the nature of things or acts, or are they just subjective human evaluations of behaviour? These kinds of questions are grouped under the heading ‘meta-ethics.’ Meta-ethics focuses on the nature of morality – what morality is about – as distinct from  what is actually the right (or wrong) thing to do in any given situation.

This essay will reflect on the way in which meta-ethics has been discussed in the context of the God debate. I want to suggest that atheist attempts to defend a form of moral objectivism or moral realism have been weak and has exposed them to justified criticism from theists. Atheists would be on firmer metaphysical ground if the began the, admittedly difficult, task of fleshing out and explaining a convincing and palatable form of moral subjectivism.

There are many important sub-theories and complexities within meta-ethics but, for the purposes of this essay, we can confine ourselves to defining the two major positions.

The first and by far the most popular, including among secularists and atheists, is moral objectivism or moral realism. On this view, ‘right’ and wrong’ refers to objective moral facts or laws, which exist independently of what anyone happens to desire or prefer. In other words, there are some actions that are just wrong (or right) period and it is possible for us to attain sound knowledge about these moral realities.

The second minority view, and the one I hold, is known as ethical subjectivism. This view rejects the existence of moral facts and instead explains our morality entirely in natural terms such as human desires, preferences, man-made rules and the consequences of actions and how we, in turn feel about the consequences of those actions. Ted Trainer puts it well: ‘the subjectivist understands that there is no more to be considered about an action than things like the effects it has on people, the effect people would like to experience and the ways they would like others to behave. In other words, subjectivist believe there are only desires and consequences and no things like right and goodness or any other moral qualities addition to desires and consequences’ (Trainer, 1985, p.2).

Let me explain these two views with reference to an example. Recently in Melbourne the community was horrified to learn about the unprovoked and random rape and murder off ABC reporter Jill Meagher. Jill was innocently walking home after a night out with friends when she was taken by a complete stranger and never returned.

When contemplating this most people have no hesitation in saying that what happened to Jill was, in fact, wrong. Even if, in some twisted scenario, everyone society had no problem with the rape and murder of innocents, it would still have been wrong. In other words, it was wrong irrespective of what anyone happened to think about it, and anyone who fails to see that is obviously failing to appreciate the moral law.

But for the subjectivist this is mistaken. There was nothing objectively wrong with what happened to Jill. The rapist contravened no moral law that exists, somehow or somewhere, in the fabric of the universe. Please show me, the subjectivist asks, where these moral facts are and how you know about them? In addition to your feeling of disgust and disapproval, what is this moral quality of ‘wrongness’ that you detect in acts such as those inflicted on Jill? The wood in a wooden table has certain properties that, in some sense, exist independent of what anyone thinks. The wood, that is, has ‘objective’ properties. But, for the subjectivist, the same is not true for this mysterious moral quality that you say some acts/behaviours have! These moral qualities are as metaphysically problematic as fairies, or evil spirits, or indeed God! There is simply no evidence for them, and therefore no good reason to think such qualities exist. Or, alternatively, they ‘exist’ but only in the minds of humans.

Now, to be clear, most normal/nice subjectivists would, like everyone else, be deeply appalled at what happened to Jill. They detest such behaviour and, like the rest of the community, are likely to rally in frustration and anger that such a thing could happen in our society. They would want for us to develop laws, policies and procedures that prevent, or at least minimise, the risk of this type of destructive violence ever happening again. I am a subjectivist and this is, indeed, how I feel. But, alas, we subjectivist cannot say that what happened to Jill was wrong. At best I can say it was ‘wrong’ according to my values. But if other people have other values/preferences I cannot say they are in anyway wrong to hold them.

I guess you will now be able to see why subjectivism has been the least popular meta-ethical theory!

Moral Realism in the God Debate:

The unpopularity of subjectivism extends to atheists. In the recent God debates with Christians, many atheists have been at pains to argue that moral facts, of some sort, do exist. Thus we have leading U.S atheist Richard Carrier passionately arguing in the book End of Christianity (which I highly recommend) that ‘moral facts naturally exist and science can find them.’ Sam Harris has argued along similar lines.

But the weakness inherent in atheist attempts to justify moral realism, was brought home to me very clearly when listening to the excellent Christian podcast 'unbelievable' which recently held a discussion on the topic.
The atheist could certainly give a compelling explanation for why humans, as a social-species would have developed moral systems. As David Eller notes humans, like other social animals, ‘tend reasonably to develop interests in the behaviour of others and capacities to determine and to influence that behaviour’ (Eller, 2010, 362-3). This is because social living depends on a degree of ‘social regularity’ which requires all members of the group to share common expectations about the way oneself and others should be treated. When you add to this the capacities which humans have such as: the ability (due to ‘mirror neurons’) to empathise with others - literally ‘feel what others feel’ – and to inhibit one’s own actions, as well as remember previous interactions (and therefore learn from them), and to use complex language in order to accurately communicate desires, you have the material basis for complex moral systems. These can then be developed and enhanced, albeit in diverse ways across cultures, via cultural evolution and social-psychology.

But the Christian rightly pushed the atheist to explain how, given his naturalistic understanding of the universe, he could justify believing in moral truth. Why were some moral positions correct or false, irrespective of what people wanted, preferred, or desired? How had this mysterious moral realm evolved? The atheist was, frankly, stumbling for an answer, and contradicting himself at every turn. ‘Yes,’ he agreed, slavery and sexism and the concentration camps where absolutely wrong for all time, despite the fact that some cultures had, at times, believed the exact opposite. But no he was not a ‘moral realist’ but rather a ‘quasi realist...whatever that was supposed to mean!

The theist, on the other hand, could give a straightforward reason for why moral truth exist: they derive, of course, from the will of God. Now, as most of you will be aware, this ‘divine command’ view of ethics is not without its problems. Theists are obliged to explain why different cultures and individuals have perceived God’s moral law in such diverse and contradictory ways. Also, as Plato made clear in Euthyphro dilemma, if morality is the product simply of God’s command, morality amounts to whatever God happens to prefer. If, for example, God decreed that what happened to Jill was 'right' then it would be! In this sense, the divine command view of ethics, as many have noted, is ironically a form of moral subjectivism. There is no moral truth independent of what God subjectively desires or approves. And God could approve anything; he invents the rules, he owns the game!

But despite these problems, the theist, unlike the atheist, did at least have some basis for believing in an objective morality for humans. That is, whatever God happens to decree. The atheist, by contrast, had no basis whatever to ground his belief in moral truth.

Atheist attempts to detect moral facts through science

As I mentioned, a number of prominent atheists have recently made attempts to justify their belief in objective moral fact. Have they provided us subjectivist sceptics with a convincing case? I am most familiar with Richard Carrier’s argument, so will focus on that.

Carrier tries to ground the existence of moral facts in natural desires shared by all humans. We all have similar biological desires, not just for sex and food, but for love, companionship, belonging, and, ultimately, happiness. He points out, rightly, that there is now a science of happiness, which enables to understand the broad parameters of what makes people happy.

Carrier does not assume that we will all act rationally to achieve our strongest desires. Humans, in all kinds of ways, can be mistaken how best to achieve their own ends. Smokers, for example, seem to be putting their long term quality of life at risk for short term pleasure/addiction. So Carrier qualifies himself. All humans, when rationally and fully informed, will have similar desires for happiness or a sound quality of life. Acting on these desires is for Carrier a moral imperative. We ‘ought’ to act to satisfy our rational desires for happiness. These are, he claims, ‘moral facts’ that science can detect.

Carrier makes a further qualification: differing environmental conditions may change how we ought to act. For example, most of the time humans want to live in societies where they are free from killing, however, in some situations we find it necessary to kill in self-defence. According to Carrier, this does not undermine the existence of moral facts because ‘any system of true moral facts will already include the fact that if we were forced into the same conditions, we would be compelled by the same imperatives that then obtain’ (Carrier, 2011, p353) In other words, fundamental human desires are always the same, across cultures; it’s just that environmental conditions may change how we act to achieve those desires.

Carrier summarizing his argument as follows:

‘as human beings share all the same primary biological desires (which are not limited to the so-called based desires for, say food and sex but include, as science has demonstrated, desires for love and companionship and joy and fulfilment and more, ordered in similar hierarchies of ultimate and instrumental necessities), and only such desires can ever rationally entail (in conjunction with knowledge) an informed conclusion about we most want, it follows that we will all (when rational and equally informed) desire most the very same thing (when in the same circumstances) which logically entails that the same moral facts will be true for us all. Therefore, universal moral facts must necessarily exist.’ (Carrier, 2011, p356)

The argument is very weak for two reasons.

First, contrary to what he claims, Carrier has utterly failed to demonstrate that humans share similar value hierarchies, even when fully and rationally informed. Right off the bat, we should note that Carrier’s model assumes a form of moral egoism – the individual should act so as to satisfy their own fundamental desires – but, as David Eller notes many cultural groups regard egoism, even of Carrier’s enlightened kind, ‘as the very antithesis of morality’ (Eller, 2010, p.359). Christians, for example, (at least those who pay attention to Jesus) are likely to believe the highest form of moral virtue, far from being about the rational pursuit of our individual desires, is self denial; i.e ‘the man who loses his life gains it’. So we cannot assume that people necessarily place supreme value on their-own happiness.

Also, while most people may place high value on their own happiness, people differ immensely in the weight they give to the interests of others. And this, not surprisingly, leads people to assess the behaviour of themselves and others in very different ways.

Take for example, a ‘rational robber’ who steals believing he won’t get caught. Let us assume the robber is correct in thinking he will not get caught. This particular robber happens to place a very high value on the wealth and freedom he will gain from stealing, and cares relatively little about the misery he will inflict on his victims. It follows that the most rational thing for the robber to do, in light of his own value hierarchy, is to steal! Most people, however, unlike the robber, will place some intrinsic negative value on the misery of the victim (putting aside the fact that they are also likely to believe, wrongly, that stealing is inherently wrong). So what we have here is an irreconcilable clash of fundamental values.

Or, to take another example, consider charitable giving to humanitarian causes. Today in affluent societies most of us have lots of surplus income that we could easily give to assist millions of people suffering from grinding and probably fatal poverty. Despite most people being aware of the basic situation and their power to do something to alleviate it, we typically find a great variety of response. Some give a bit to humanitarian causes, some a lot. Probably the vast majority spend the bulk of their surplus income on utter trivialities when viewed in light of the vast ocean of urgent and serious human need. There is, in other words, a spectrum of responses from a ‘saintly’ Mother Teresa like devotion to the urgent needs of the distant other, on the one hand, to utter disregard, on the other. Carrier might say that whether or not we give to distant others is not a ‘moral’ issue. But why not? Clearly we have the power to alleviate suffering and we either choose to do so or not, depending on the degree to which we care about the suffering of the distant other. The issue here has nothing to do with whether we are rationally informed about the situation, and everything to do with different value hierarchies.

These examples powerfully illustrate Carrier’s mistake in assuming that humans, when fully and rationally informed, will share similar values and desires. Put simply, people differ in the degree to which they care about their own happiness and the happiness of others. This, of course, totally undermines Carrier’s argument for moral facts because it crucially depends on a mythical state of rational agreement on human values.

The second problem with Carriers argument is even more fundamental. Even if humans did share similar value hierarchies, this would not show that moral facts exist! All it would show is that there is considerable inter-subjective agreement among humans on ultimate values. It would then be true that certain courses of action would be instrumentally effective in achieving those values. People, however, would be under no ‘moral duty’ or ‘obligation’ to follow these courses of action. These would correctly be viewed as no more than wise choices. Effective means to ends. For example, if everyone agreed that we wanted an orderly and peaceful society it would be wise to institute rules and procedures that minimise rape and murder, such as that suffered by Jill. There would, of course, be nothing inherently wrong about rape and murder it would just sensible to curb such behaviour, given we want peace and harmony.

This, of course, is not what most people mean when they talk about moral facts. They believe that what happened to Jill was wrong regardless of what anyone happens to prefer! Carrier’s so called ‘moral facts’ or not really facts in this sense at all. They are just rational choices in light of shared human values. Carrier has done nothing to show that some behaviour have an inherent quality of ‘wrongness’ that exists in addition to human preferences and desires. And this is exactly what he has to show in order to establish the existence of moral facts.

For all this, Carrier does actually come close to explaining the nature of morality in terms that would be acceptable to a subjectivist. For the subjectivist the only ‘stuff’ out of which we can construct a man-made moral system is desires and consequences. Morality can only be about the creation of wise rules, procedures and behaviours that will be instrumentally effective in bringing about results we all want. In this sense, Carrier is right that morality can be reduced entirely to a scientific or empirical investigation of what are the most effective means to our desired ends. Where Carrier errs is by adding a totally unsubstantiated metaphysical category – namely ‘moral facts,’ – on top of this entirely naturalistic framework.

Should Atheist come clean on the subjectivity of morality?

In the realm of meta-ethics, atheist’s have a real dilemma. If they claim ‘moral facts’ exist they have a metaphysical problem not dissimilar to the problem of the theist who claims God exists (or the child who claims fairies exist). How could the atheist possibly begin to show that moral facts exist? As I have argued, their best attempts have thus far been unconvincing. On the other hand, moral subjectivism is very counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. If atheist started exposing the widespread moral law delusion would they begin to lose credibility among the majority of people who feel quite certain moral facts exist and who are likely to be thrown into a dreadful pit of existential uncertainty if they abandon this belief? But then can atheists, who attempt to expose the ‘God delusion’ willingly promote an even more fundamental and widespread delusion in the form of the moral law assumption? I will leave you to ponder.


David Eller, ‘Christianity does not provide the basis for morality,’ in ‘The Christian Delusion: Why faith fails,’ John Loftus (ed), Prometheus Books, 201o.

Fredrick Trainer, ‘The Nature of Morality: An introduction to the Subjectivist Perspective,’ School of Education, University of NSW, 1985

Richard Carrier, Moral facts naturally exist and (and science could find them), in ‘The End of Christianity’, John Loftus (ed), Prometheus Books, 2010

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