Morality Without God: Does it Make Sense?

This has been the question for quite some time. Before I begin talking about this contentious issue, let me be clear. I am not asking whether or not atheists can have morals. Obviously, they can. Morals can exist without a belief in God. How do I know this? I have met atheists who have a sense of right and wrong. The real question I want to tackle is whether or not it logically makes sense to attribute “right” and “wrong” to anything without a concept of eternal consequences. The answer is no, it doesn’t make sense. Here’s why.

There are two types of ethical constructs, deontological and consequentialist. All moral frameworks fall into these two categories. Let’s start with deontological frameworks. Every such theory begins with a presumption of some eternal end toward which every good action strives or which every human character is developed. Therefore, the concept of eternity is already built into the deontological construct. Deontology is predicated upon the existence of some eternal result which does not abide by the constraints of temporality. I have also never met a deontological atheist, nor heard of one. With that in mind, we can safely say that deontological moral systems do not make sense without some conception of eternity to back them up.

The more contentious, and important I think, to discuss are the consequentialist systems like utilitarianism. Most all atheists I have met are consequentialist in some fashion or another. Their moralities are predicated upon principles of doing good, not causing harm, helping other people, etc. In other words, an action’s “goodness” is determined by the consequences it has, and certain consequences like causing suffering are bad while others like causing happiness are good. Independent of the individual problems with these theories is the question of whether or not they can logically function without the existence of eternal consequences.

Well, I contend that the answer seems pretty simple. How can a system which determines morality based upon consequences work if consequences don’t last forever. What do I mean by this?

Well, let’s take a fairly common principle: murder is wrong. Ok, well, why is murder wrong in the consequentialist world? Because it causes death, or pain, which are both bad. But here’s the problem; everybody is going to die anyway. And if there is nothing after death, then why is killing somebody so wrong? Because you violated their rights? Well, they were going to die anyway. So why do their rights matter now? What is the consequence of me killing somebody? They die, which they were going to anyway. I get the death penalty (worst case scenario), but I was going to die anyway. In the world without God, the final consequence of every action or chain of actions is death. Therefore, every action ultimately holds the same moral value, which is no value at all.

Let’s make this more complicated. Where do we draw the line of consequences? Suppose you save somebody’s life, but that person turns out to be a serial killer. How do we evaluate your original life saving action? Some would say we value immediate consequences only because we cannot see that far into the future. Well, then the Heaven/Hell system seems better because it already has eternal consequences in place, so the problem of being able to see the final consequence is eliminated.

But ok, let’s agree for the sake of argument that we can attach value to temporal consequences. How do we attach that value? Well, every society does it on its own, right? So, we’re left with an absolutely relativist system in which no morality is better than the next. We can determine which moralities are better though, based upon the benefit/harm that they cause, right? The problem is that the evaluations and definitions of benefit/harm are also relative, and we’re back to square one.

Eternal consequence is necessary for any moral system to logically make sense.

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17 responses to “Morality Without God: Does it Make Sense?

  1. “We can determine which moralities are better though, based upon the benefit/harm that they cause, right? The problem is that the evaluations and definitions of benefit/harm are also relative, and we’re back to square one.”

    No they aren’t.

    Drinking bleach is harmful.

    Don’t believe me? By all means, go for it.

    • There are a couple problems with your point. You are talking about physical harm, and you have not explained to me why physical harm is the same as moral harm. Also, there are many rights and rituals which uphold physical harm as a good, such as fasting, rites of passage, and even spanking children. Drinking bleach may be physically damaging to the body, but like I said earlier, we’re all going to die anyway, so why does it matter?

      I would say blowing myself up is harmful, but there are other moral systems which would call it a benefit to mankind.

      • “you have not explained to me why physical harm is the same as moral harm.”

        Because it’s the only thing that makes sense.

        If I do something that is not shown in any evidential way to cause harm to anyone, how is it immoral?

        “Also, there are many rights and rituals which uphold physical harm as a good, such as fasting, rites of passage, and even spanking children. ”

        And we can look at those and determine if they are moral, immoral, or amoral depending on who they are harming and how much harm is caused.

        It’s really not that hard if you actually make the attempt to figure it out.

        In general, but not always, pleasure is preferable to pain and living is preferable to death. Using that as a basis, everything else follows.

        Where there are exceptions, we use reason to figure things out. Chemo-therapy, for example, causes harm…but a harm that may lead to a greater benefit.

        “Drinking bleach may be physically damaging to the body, but like I said earlier, we’re all going to die anyway, so why does it matter?”

        It matters to me. Maybe it doesn’t matter to you. If not, drink bleach.

        I know what life is. Death doesn’t look appetizing.

        The thing is, most people who have ever lived have cared about not dying. Which is why, thanks to evolution, most people who are alive feel the same way. Those who don’t usually die and don’t procreate.

        “I would say blowing myself up is harmful, but there are other moral systems which would call it a benefit to mankind.”

        It’s harmful to you. But if you’re doing it of your own free will and understanding, and don’t harm anyone else, I wouldn’t call it immoral.

        Stupid, perhaps. Misguided. Unfortunate. But not immoral.

      • 1. Again, you are determining that it makes sense. The original point was that determinations of harm are subjective. As I have pointed out, there are practices which are held by someone to be morally beneficial though they are physically harmful. Why is your idea of “sense” better than someone else’s under a system where consequences determine morality? Would you tell your child that lying about his/her test grades is wrong? It doesn’t harm anybody to lie about it, but isn’t it still wrong?

        2. “We can look at these….depending on who they are harming and how much harm is caused.” You have yet to explain to me why physical harm = moral harm.

        3. The point that death does not look appetizing to you is exactly what I’m talking about. What makes your evaluation better or more sound than mine or anyone else’s? Reason? Reason tells me that if two actions have the same consequence, then they are morally the same. This means every action is the same because it ultimately results in death and nothingness, as I pointed out in my post. Why is it that most people who lived cared about not dying? Do you think bacteria actually “care” about not dying? Or do they just act in such a way naturally as to avoid death and stay alive. It’s a long step from living to caring about living.

        4. Why am I different from anyone else? If harm is the metric for determining morality/immorality, then why does the target of the harm matter?

        Your entire response consists of your own personal evaluation of a somewhat consequentialist morality. In order for this to work, you have to tell me how to separate actions if the ultimate result of every chain of actions is death and nothingness. I understand that it is possible to have morals without believing in God, as I said at the beginning of my post. My argument is that none of these systems make logical sense, and your response proves it. You have given me your own relativist interpretation of morality without providing me a reason as to why it is better than anyone else’s.

    • Yeah, I can see that a little bit. Although, it is important to remember that and “end” is different that a consequence. Every deontological theory has some sort of end built into place which does not abide by temporal constraints. At least, to my knowledge they do 😛

  2. “Again, you are determining that it makes sense.”

    I am. Strangely, most people seem to agree on what makes sense.

    “Would you tell your child that lying about his/her test grades is wrong? It doesn’t harm anybody to lie about it, but isn’t it still wrong?”

    It harms the student to lie about their grades, because then they can’t get better.

    “You have yet to explain to me why physical harm = moral harm.”

    Why not?

    “Reason tells me that if two actions have the same consequence, then they are morally the same. ”

    Then I don’t think you’re reasoning correctly.

    “You have given me your own relativist interpretation of morality without providing me a reason as to why it is better than anyone else’s.”

    Mine is better because less people are harmed when it is used.

    Which makes it superior to ‘don’t do it cause magic man will punish you’ morality.

    • “I am. Strangely, most people seem to agree on what makes sense.”

      No, they don’t actually. Political conflicts, varying religions, and vastly different moral systems prove they don’t. The contentions over all sorts of moral issues also prove that they don’t. And if we go by what most people determine is sensible, we’d still be in an era of slavery (globally we are).

      “It harms the student to lie about their grades, because they can’t get better.”

      Ok, so what if they lie, study harder, and do better next time? Is the lie still wrong? And unrealized benefit isn’t harm. It doesn’t harm me not to play the lottery because I’m not winning a million dollars.

      “Why not?”

      As I explained already, there are physical harms which are not considered moral harms, such as fasting and spanking children. The burden of proof is on you because that is the basis of the moral system you are proposing.

      “Then I don’t think you’re reasoning correctly.”

      Really? Give me an example which proves me wrong. If consequences determine morality, then the same consequences necessarily mean the same moral evaluation. That’s a logical necessity.

      “Mine is better because less people are harmed when it is used?”

      Harm is the best metric to use because less people are harmed when you use it? That’s circular.

      That all being said, you still have to prove to me how you can attach value to temporal consequences. If the final consequence of every action is nothingness, why does anything matter?

  3. Hello. This isn’t stuff I’m super-familiar with, but that I like thinking about so…forgive me what I don’t know!

    What exactly are you looking for that you haven’t found–a logically coherent system of morality without a higher power? Are you claiming that it’s not possible to even have a logical coherent moral system for atheists even if they can have morals? Also, I know this maybe is a silly question but, what’s the benefit of having a logically coherent morality–consistency in applying it?

    “prove to me how you can attach value to temporal consequences. If the final consequence of every action is nothingness, why does anything matter?”

    For me, there are two pieces. 1) thinking about it/theoretical (describing what ‘is’), 2) acting on it/practical (taking what ‘is’ and making a ‘should’ out of it). As for 1), I like what you say and see your point about why it might not be possible for a logical morality to exist without god(s). But I’m wondering, how big of a problem is that little detail about it not being logical? Can you still apply an illogical system, and would there be a benefit in doing that, versus applying a logical system (I’d enjoy an example of an existing logical system of morality, because that would help me think about it more concretely)?

    To me, it’s like in calculus how you have to define the limits of an integral in order to have a solution, or like in physics when you take the frictionless surface with a puck on it and add in all those real-life terms that make it muddy and complicated. Those analogies are pretty rich, but I’m not sure if I’m applying them in the right way so I’ll just leave it at that…

    • Hi PFrost,

      I like what you’re saying here, and I agree. Not everyone needs to have a logically coherent system in order to apply it or even apply it consistently. That being said, I personally require logical coherence because, epistemologically speaking, it’s the only thing that can get us closer to the truth. If I do not have a sound/valid reason to believe something, than I do not.

      Any existing system, like utilitarianism for example, relies upon some consequence to make a moral judgment. Non-consequentialist systems also rely on moral ends. So, there has to be some eternal consequence for these systems to make sense. However, there’s no reason a person can’t be a utilitarian and apply his/her morals without believing in God.

      I come from a tradition of philosophy in which logical coherence is the most important thing in any assessment of the world. That is the perspective I am approaching this from. You are right, however, in saying that this wouldn’t be a problem for everyone.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

  4. Some thoughts:

    1) “There are two types of ethical constructs, deontological and consequentialist.”

    Well, no. You’ve missed at least two that might be relevant to your theme: virtue ethics and natural law.

    2) ” In the world without God, the final consequence of every action or chain of actions is death. Therefore, every action ultimately holds the same moral value, which is no value at all.”

    This appears to be a non-sequitur.

    A) The fact that the “ultimate” end of all living things is to perish does not make that end a necessary *consequence* of any particular action in a chain of events. At the very least you should be expected to provide argument for this view and you’ve not done so.

    B) Even if it did, that does not necessarily mean that a moral value cannot be prescribed to individual actions based upon immediate or foreseeable consequences.Feeding a starving person could be viewed as a good action based upon its immediate consequences (immediate preservation of life) regardless of the fact that that person will eventually die.

    3) I think you are confusing the concepts of “good” and “justice”. Although they are certainly related (you cannot have “justice” without some sort of values system that identifies what should be sanctioned and what should be punished), I’ve never seen any convincing argument that one cannot have “good” without “justice”.

    4) Finally, it would seem that your entire argument would fall prey to Euthyphro. If “good” and “evil” can only exist in light of “eternal consequences”, then their definition rests squarely with the judge. If they’re based on whim, then they are arbitrary and if they’re based on something else, then it becomes impossible to argue that they require “eternal consequences” (as their definition would be *prior* to any such consequences).

    • Hi C.D. Ward,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and post such thoughtful comments! I really appreciate it. I’ve included my responses below.

      1. I would include virtue ethics and natural in deontological constructs. They are both rule based systems, and in its broadest sense, “deontology” would incorporate both.

      2. A) This isn’t something which requires a warrant, it is a logical necessity. If every living thing is to perish, then regardless of any living thing’s action, the end is that all living things will perish. The purpose of this is to illustrate that, in a consequentialist world where the final consequence of an action determines its morality, all actions have the same value.

      B) It could be, but as I point out, the line of which consequence you pick becomes arbitrary. What if the starving person whose life you saved murders three people, but one of those three people would have murdered 100, and so on and so forth…..Where can I draw the line to stop the evaluation?

      3. I don’t think about talk about justice in this post, or what people are due in terms of punishment. I’m talking about what determines right or wrong.

      4. They are not based on something else, so the second point does not apply. The determination of “good” and “evil,” in my argument, would rest solely upon the will of the arbiter. This does not, however, make them arbitrary, because one can justifiably say that God is a more suited arbiter than any other. And even if He isn’t, the necessity of that arbiter still exists.

  5. 1) Well, I would argue that neither virtue ethics nor natural law are truly “rule based”. “Rules” require a “rule-maker” and neither construct necessarily requires such an entity. But I suppose that’s really irrelevant as you don’t appear to be evaluating such systems…

    2) A) But this is the problem. Consequentialism, as a moral system, only makes sense when the “consequence” of an action takes place within a context that includes the actor. Oblivion as an “ultimate end” to any chain of events is not necessarily a context in which the actor plays a part. You’ve essentially constructed a strawman of consequentialsm and then knocked it down. Good job, but you haven’t addressed any type of real consequentialist system.

    2) B) You draw the line at the evaluation that includes the context of the actor. I cannot foresee that the individual I feed will go on to murder other people and thus it is irrelevant to the evaluation of the value of the original act.

    3) You don’t talk about justice explicitly, but it seems to me that the connection is self-evident. “Eternal consequence” in light of the connection of morality with the existence of God, necessarily contains within it the idea of eternal justice; that the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished.

    4) It seems to me that you’ve destroyed your own argument. If “good” and “evil” require an arbiter, then whence that arbiter’s knowledge of “good” and “evil”? Another arbiter? And down the rabbit hole you go…

    Saying “God is a more suited arbiter than any other” is simply a different form of relativism. Why is God more suited? If you’re going to claim that it’s his will that informs good and evil, you’re both rendering “good” and “evil” arbitrary artifacts of his will as well as abandoning your claim that they require an arbiter (who “arbites” God?). If you’re going to claim that it’s God’s perfect nature that inform good and evil, then you’re simply abandoning the idea that they require arbitration in order to exist (For God’s nature would exist prior to any such arbitration).

    • 1) They are both rule systems. Natural law claims that moral rules (laws) already exist in nature. Virtue ethics similarly uses rules to dictate the direction of human behavior (Aristotelean virtue ethics use the Docrtine of the Mean, for example). You’re right that neither system concerns itself with the “rule-maker,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a rule system, just like Kant’s categorical imperative is a rule system but doesn’t comment on the rule-maker.

      2) A) and B) If that is the line, then it’s no longer a consequentialist system because you’re saying that the actor’s intent is what matters. For example, if a doctor doesn’t know a patient is allergic to morphine, and gives the patient morphine to help with the pain, the doctor cannot be held accountable under your system because the doctor could not foresee the death of the patient. Being able to foresee the outcome of an action cannot be the deciding line because it is not only impossible to predict consequences absolutely, but it is also reduced to the intent of the actor.

      As an additional point, drawing the line at what the initial actor can foresee is still arbitrary; why is that different from any other line? It also doesn’t consider any actor which came before the one you’re evaluating.

      3) This is a moot point. You’re assigning a term to something I’m not talking about. I’m talking about how we determine what is good vs. evil. Justice may be a linked concept, but it is irrelevant to this discussion.

      4) I should clarify. Good and Evil require an eternal arbiter. The reason that God is better suited has nothing to do with his nature, but rather that He is eternally existent, without a beginning or an end. In that sense, he, and his nature, cannot be arbitrated. Also, his nature does not need to exist before “good” and “evil.” It may very well be that in defining “good” and “evil,” He defines His nature.

      I will not disagree that “good” and “evil” must be artifacts of His will, but they are not arbitrary artifacts. They are necessary artifacts.

  6. Ace,

    If you don’t mind my asking, are you religious? What are your beliefs? You don’t have to say, I’m just wondering.

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