- Francis Collins, 2008 lecture at UC Berkeley
A common complaint leveraged by theists is that atheism provides no foundation for morality, and fair enough at that: the mere lack of belief in a deity is metaethically inert. But so too is the active belief in such, so whatever. Theists sometimes go one step farther and insist that, even if we atheists managed to set up a solid foundation for morality, our general lack of belief in an afterlife destroys any sense of "ultimate accountability" or what-have-you, taking all the "oomph" out of whatever ethical system we'd care to imagine. Fine and dandy: religion cannot be used as a cudgel to beat us into good behavior, since we've inoculated ourselves against it. But theists must also acknowledge that the cudgel doesn't even work on their own: time and time again we hear news stories about prominent theists who are just as prone to error as the rest of us (some of them even moreso), and demographic studies continue to support the conclusion that, whatever the effects of atheism are on a populace, they are certainly not bad by any measure.
Today I'm going to crack open the vault of highly-guarded, mission-critical atheist secrets and admit that there is no objective basis for morality. Not just for atheists, mind you: no truly objective ethical system is even possible. Period. To do this, I'm going to have to get down to the Serious Business of defining what "truly objective ethical system" means, outlining the conditions for such a thing existing, showing that reality is not like that, demonstrating that normative ethical theories fail to bridge any gap left, and positing a basis for Humanist morality in the aftermath. Probably not in that exact order, though.
Morality is fundamentally descriptive and prescriptive: any system of ethics worth its salt must tell you, respectively, what it is and why you should care. In other words, descriptivity defines what the good is, and prescriptivity is where the "should" comes from. These two demands cannot be meshed in a consistent, coherent, non-arbitrary fashion under any system of ethics. As soon as you meet the descriptive requirement and hash out just what the good is, anyone is free to shrug and ask, "So?" But if you start at the other end, meeting the prescriptive requirement and trying to work back to the descriptive requirement, you'll run into a quagmire of inconsistent motivations, cultural relativism, and other such philosophical boogeymen that have plagued ethicists for centuries.
Immanuel Kant recognized this problem and tried to address it directly by showing that rationality entails morality: if one is a rational being, then one will be compelled to care about morality - and we all want to be rational, right? Were this to ever be conclusively demonstrated, it would be a genuinely exciting development in the field of ethics! However, Kant failed. Don't get me wrong - I like Kant's idea very much, I just think he has the bad fortune of being flat-out wrong. Philippa Foot, author of the famous trolley problem, shows in Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives that morality, like etiquette, only holds sway over a person if that person already wants to be moral. In other words, no categorical imperative can have any "oomph" unless you already buy into it - the "oomph" comes from within you, not from the imperative itself. Moreover, deontological theories of ethics fail categorically by their very nature, in that they are by definition duty-based: no matter what set of duties you come up with, the question of "why" can never be finally answered; i.e. deontological theories are always arbitrary at root.
Virtue (or "Areteic," from the Greek word arete, usually translated as "excellence") theories of ethics cannot bridge this gap, either. Aristotle's characterization of Man as the anima rationale is perhaps an anticipation of Kant's attempt to marry rationality and morality, but virtue theories are categorically arbitrary as well because they rely on contingent facts about human nature and individuals. "This is what it means to be a good person," says the virtue theorist, then adding under-the-breath, "With respect to various contingent factors related to your rather circumstantial existence." Why these factors and not those? Well, these are the ones we have to work with because they're the case (for us, at the moment), but others could be just as easily, and were it so, that would change morality - making it inconsistent between possibilities. As an example, Aristotle states that "courage" is a virtue between the vices of cowardice and recklessness. How courageous one should be, however, depends not only on one's own strength, but also the strength of the opposition and how these facts compare. Arnold Schwarzenegger ought to be more courageous than Woody Allen. But Audie Murphy is a goddamned hero. When trying to explain things like this, it's easy to give in to the temptation to ascribe "moral luck" to some people - Audie Murphy's heroic actions, independent of his small stature, could easily have gotten anyone killed and so shouldn't be considered to be generally advisable to anyone. He's just lucky that it happened to work out for him. But then Arnold is just lucky that he's capable of a higher degree of courage than Woody is, and Woody is conversely lucky that less courage is required of him. But what of people who are naturally cowardly? Their moral luck seems to have handed them a bum deal. What use is it to come up with these virtues when they seem to vary so wildly between individuals, and the exemplars can go so far beyond the reach of most "normal" people?
Consequentialist ethical frameworks tend to be better at consistently and coherently meeting descriptive requirements, but only arbitrarily so - and the prescriptivity is just as lacking as in deontology, for similar reasons. The reason that any consequentialist theory (which seeks to maximize "the good" as actualized via consequences of actions) must fail at identifying a non-arbitrary starting point for morality is that consequentialism assumes that "the good" is something "out there in the world," which is simply not the case. For the good to be out there in the world, for it to be a "thing" that is able to be maximized, there must be a moral substance, otherwise we could not point at it and say "That is what is meant by 'the good.'" The term "substance" is used loosely here, for "happiness" also counts as a "moral substance" if that is what's meant by the good: "happiness" may be analyzed in terms of brain states of living beings, it is an objective and quantifiable thing that we can point at out in the world. But the question of how, why, and whether the good is happiness has yet to be answered in any rigorous manner.
All three of these objections apply equally to all three ethical frameworks, because they are fundamentally interchangeable. By this I mean simply that any one of them could be stated perfectly well in terms of any other:
Consequentialism wearing a Deontological hat: We have a duty to act in a way that maximizes good consequences.Because each of these general frameworks may be phrased in terms of the others, any objection to one theory applies with equal weight to all of them. Ultimately, normative ethics as a whole could be summed up in the statement, "Maximizing the good is a duty that morally good people perform." Specific formulations of this maxim differ only in the placement of emphasis, and they all fail to conclusively answer the questions of what the good is, why it's a duty to maximize it, and how it ought to be done; in other words, any normative theory of ethics may be objected to with a simple "Says who?"
Deontology wearing a Consequentialist hat: The consequences we must seek to maximize involve people satisfying their duties.
Consequentialism wearing an Areteic hat: Good people act in such a way as to maximize the best consequences, and we should act as they do.
Virtue Ethics wearing a Consequentialist hat: The consequences we must seek to maximize involve people obtaining the best sets of characteristics.
Virtue Ethics wearing a Deontological hat: We have a duty to behave as our role models behave.
Deontology wearing an Areteic hat: Good people act in such a way as to satisfy their duties, and we should act like good people.
Not even divine command theories can escape this. So God says this is good? Why does that count? The Euthyphro problem shows handily that the relationship between God and morality is an open question at best (and, when taken seriously, it shows that God has no power over moral facts). And while using Heaven and Hell as motivators can certainly set up a hypothetical imperative that is convincing to some, the power to reward or punish simply is not an argument, cannot tell us what is right or wrong, and does not constitute a foundation for an ethical system; it is merely a brute fact about the world, The End. The presence or absence of any gods quite simply has no bearing whatsoever on moral facts, whether they exist or not.
All of this is corollary to the fact that when we talk about "the good," we are not talking about something out in the world, we are talking about ideas in our own heads. Without a moral substance to point at and say, "That is the stuff from which goodness is made," there can be no such thing as objective morality: because morality is only in our heads, and objectivity refers to a quality that is not merely in our heads, the two concepts "objective" and "morality" are intrinsically opposed to one another. Not even God - any god at all - can get around this. Under a divine command system of ethics, God simply projects his own ideas of good and bad onto the world, rewarding and punishing according to his own ideas. Without God, we project just the same, but with "jail" instead of "Hell" for a cudgel to threaten those who fall too far out of line.
So what's a Humanist to do? Well, if morality isn't written into the world, then by the stars that died to make us, we'll write it in ourselves. So what if we can only project our ideas of good and bad on to the world? We'll just continue to refine our ideas and continue to project them on to the world. "But if there's no objective standard for morality," comes the cry, along with much hand-wringing and general whining, "Then, then, umm... then there's no objective standard for morality!" So? What do you want, a score? The Universe does not give a shit if you rape a pile of babies or not, which means that we mortals must be all the more vigilant against such things if we don't want them to happen. Morality simply is Foot's hypothetical imperatives, it is the emotivist's gut reactions, it is the non-cognitivist's covert commands, and we need to take these facts on board and work from there to create the kind of society we want.
What kind of society do we want, anyhow? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I want a liberal, progressive, permissive society that values individual liberties and freedom of conscience as well as social cohesion, that discourages meddlesome bullshit and reprimands unprovoked violence. I want a society where people really take to heart the idea that it's more important to get along than to get your way all the time. To make this kind of society, some rules will be useful and some will be stupid. "Live and let live" is a good start, but it lacks punch. "If you don't approve of what informed and consenting adults do to themselves and each other in the privacy of their own homes, then leave them to it and live your own damn life according to your own damn principles" is a bit closer. "Don't do drugs for fun," on the other hand, strikes me as a stupid rule. "Don't do drugs to the point that you neglect your responsibilities," by contrast, is a useful rule of thumb. Hell, I'll even go one better: "Don't do anything to the point that you neglect your responsibilities." Ooh, even better: "The key to all things is moderation, and that includes moderation." Golly, this is almost starting to sound like Buddhism's Middle Way... which in turn sounds an awful lot like the Aristotelian mean... which can also be phrased in consequentialist or deontological terms... look, I'm sure you can see where this is going by now. We can't get to morality from nothing, but we can get to hypothetical imperatives from existing values, and then as long as you play by your own rules, it doesn't matter which normative framework you use: all roads lead to Rome.
Just as there is no possibility of externally justifying induction, there is also no possibility of externally justifying morality. You can't get to "therefore induction works" unless you already buy into a system that gets you to "therefores," and you can't get a "you should do x" unless you already buy into a system that generates "shoulds" in the first place. But this isn't a problem - in fact, trying to work around this non-problem has generated a plethora of rather ingenious tools: the veil of ignorance, the social contract, the second formulation of the categorical imperative, the utility calculus, these are all useful tools for helping us figure out how to get what we want once we've identified what it is that we want. Similarly, a variety of strategies/moves are available to help one win at chess, should one desire to do so. Most people, I'd wager, just want to live their lives in peace, find some form of employment that's meaningful to them, and have some fun on the side. Great! Some people want to make sure that nobody else "sticks it in the naughty place," though, and they're meddlesome haters. Fuck the haters, and fuck their meddlesome, hand-wringing bullshit.
OK, so what does all this have to do with Humanism? Well, how about the fact that we're human? Humans come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and flavors, and if we want to make a society where everyone can live their lives in peace, find some form of employment that's meaningful to them, and have some fun on the side, then we need to accommodate as many of these shapes, sizes, and flavors as possible. This involves being permissive and inclusive, and having a general cultural outlook of "fuck the haters and fuck their meddlesome bullshit." We should also try to fix rapists, murderers, thieves, and other such criminals who actually harm people, and lock them up if we can't. The morality we project onto the world, if we want to create a Humanist society, should be a morality appropriate to humans. It should deliver goals that humans can meet, it should prohibit only those actions as are harmful to others, and it should permit just about everything else. These kinds of rules will be conducive to a Humanist society, no matter whether there's a single objective moral fact in the world or not.
At the end of the day, it well and truly does not matter that there's no moral substance, because we still have values. If we want to see those values realized - and we surely do, for that's what makes them "values" - then we ought to live them, to act as our own ethical cornerstones. That's the basis of a Humanist morality. That's the only practical basis possible for any morality.
This post was featured in the 39th Humanist Symposium.