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.