How Do We Explain Morality?


by Randy Alcorn

Many years ago I took a sequence of college philosophy classes from a likeable atheist. I found the ethics course most interesting. Every time it came to the question of why the professor believed something to be right or wrong, he could say only that it “seemed” to him to be best, it “seemed” to him to help the most people. In other words, it always boiled down to his personal preference. Thirty of us sat in that ethics class, all with our own personal preferences, many fluxing with the current of popular culture…

Choosing moral behaviors because they make you feel happy can make sense, in a Bertrand Russell/Sam Harris sort of way, but what if it makes you feel happy to torture animals or kill Jews or steal from your employer?

“You misunderstand,” someone says. “We atheists do not base our morality on personal preferences, but on the judgments of society as a whole, on what benefits the most people.” But how does this help the argument? What if in our class of thirty students, sixteen of us really wanted to kill the professor? Would that be good? Or what if the majority of an entire nation thought it best to liquidate one portion of that population—would that be good?…

Nor does it help to claim the authority of some group of “elites” who supposedly have a finer moral sense. History teaches us that elite groups tend to call good whatever it is they’re inclined to do.

If there is no God who created us for an eternal purpose, and no God who will judge us; if there is no God who has revealed his standards and no God who informs our consciences—then surely any morality we forge on our own will ultimately amount to a mirror image of our own subjective opinions that will change with the times.

To say that the Holocaust or child abuse is wrong is a moral judgment. But such a judgment has no meaning without a standard to measure it against. Why are the Holocaust and child abuse wrong? Because they involve suffering? Because other people have said they are wrong? Feeling it or saying it doesn’t make it so…

We have only one basis for good moral judgments: the existence of objective standards based on unchanging reference points outside ourselves. Personal opinion falls far short.

After all, Nazis and rapists have their opinions too.

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No Higher Ideal

Even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create a higher ideal of man and of virtue than the ideal given by Christ.
        –Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

Ethics, Moral Laws, and Harvard

Charles ColsonInvited to give a lecture at Harvard Business School, Chuck Colson was given the topic: “Why Good People Do Bad Things.” Never one to mince words, Chuck told the students that Harvard could never teach business ethics because it did not believe in absolute values. The best it could do would be to teach pragmatic business judgments.

“You can’t teach ethics here because you don’t believe there are moral laws,” he said. “But there are moral laws just as certain as there are physical laws. We are simply unwilling to admit it because it interferes with our desire to do whatever we please, and doing what we please has become the supreme virtue of our society. Places like Harvard, indeed Harvard of all institutions, propagate these kinds of values.”

Colson’s speech was met by passive silence, then polite applause. Anticipating a more hostile reaction, he later queried organizers of the event: “Why such a docile response?”

“The material you presented was totally new to them,” said one young man. “They didn’t have the tools to debate it.”

–Jack Eckerd and Charles Colson,
Why America Doesn’t Work

Science cannot define morality

Justice_symbolOn atheism, there is no objective standard of good or evil, because atheism declares that the natural world is all that exists, and the natural world is valueless: There is no such thing as a good or bad bird, or a good or bad tree, etc. Therefore, one cannot use the study of the natural world (science) to determine right and wrong. As Albert Einstein put it:

“You are right in speaking of the moral foundations of science, but you cannot turn around and speak of the scientific foundations of morality.”

–Scott Youngren

The ethical bankruptcy of humanism

Clark pinnock copyAlthough the world cries out for justice, the basis for it has been disintegrating now that the vagaries of human will have come to replace faith in divine justice and eternal law. Although there is still a broad cultural consensus that it is right to be committed to the well-being of others, the rise of secular humanism makes it more and more difficult to support and explain any such obligation . . . All that the secular humanist has is his own present existence. Nothing has a rational claim to be of greater value for him. Therefore, no ethical claim which involves self-sacrifice, unless it promises due recompense, can win his assent.

The secular humanist who performs an act genuinely altruistic and self-sacrificing is presupposing the falsity of his humanistic beliefs. Loving our neighbour is not a rationally defensible ethic within the humanistic system. It is an ethic theologically grounded in the gospel and respected long after the erosion of faith because of its recognized rightness. It does not and did not grow out of humanistic soil. Logically speaking secular humanism is ethically bankrupt and its assumptions about reality when taken to their logical conclusions turn out to be inhuman and anti-human. The world’s deepest problems are moral and spiritual, not economic and technological.

–Clark Pinnock

Letter from an anonymous atheist

images[To] all my Atheist friends.

Let us stop sugar coating it. I know, it’s hard to come out and be blunt with the friendly Theists who frequent sites like this. However in your efforts to “play nice” and “be civil” you actually do them a great disservice.

We are Atheists. We believe that the Universe is a great uncaused, random accident. All life in the Universe past and future are the results of random chance acting on itself. While we acknowledge concepts like morality, politeness, civility seem to exist, we know they do not. Our highly evolved brains imagine that these things have a cause or a use, and they have in the past, they’ve allowed life to continue on this planet for a short blip of time. But make no mistake: all our dreams, loves, opinions, and desires are figments of our primordial imagination. They are fleeting electrical signals that fire across our synapses for a moment in time. They served some purpose in the past. They got us here. That’s it. All human achievement and plans for the future are the result of some ancient, evolved brain and accompanying chemical reactions that once served a survival purpose. Ex: I’ll marry and nurture children because my genes demand reproduction, I’ll create because creativity served a survival advantage to my ancient ape ancestors, I’ll build cities and laws because this allowed my ape grandfather time and peace to reproduce and protect his genes. My only directive is to obey my genes. Eat, sleep, reproduce, die. That is our bible.

We deride the Theists for having created myths and holy books. We imagine ourselves superior. But we too imagine there are reasons to obey laws, be polite, protect the weak etc. Rubbish. We are nurturing a new religion, one where we imagine that such conventions have any basis in reality. Have they allowed life to exist? Absolutely. But who cares? Outside of my greedy little gene’s need to reproduce, there is nothing in my world that stops me from killing you and reproducing with your wife. Only the fear that I might be incarcerated and thus be deprived of the opportunity to do the same with the next guy’s wife stops me. Some of my Atheist friends have fooled themselves into acting like the general population. They live in suburban homes, drive Toyota Camrys, attend school plays. But underneath they know the truth. They are a bag of DNA whose only purpose is to make more of themselves. So be nice if you want. Be involved, have polite conversations, be a model citizen. Just be aware that while technically an Atheist, you are an inferior one. You’re just a little bit less evolved, that’s all. When you are ready to join me, let me know, I’ll be reproducing with your wife.

I know it’s not PC to speak so bluntly about the ramifications of our beliefs, but in our discussions with Theists we sometimes tip toe around what we really know to be factual. Maybe it’s time we Atheists were a little more truthful and let the chips fall where they may. At least that’s what my genes are telling me to say.

–Author unknown
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Can you be an ethical atheist?

atheismTo know that you are simply an accidental conglomeration of chemicals at the same time that such a thing as morals even exist is oxymoronic statement and yet I hear it all the time from fellow atheists.  …Be consistent. Acknowledge that the Universe is an uncaused accident, ethics is an illusion, and act accordingly. Or acknowledge the possibility of another possibility.  Stop trying to have it both ways.  Can you be an ethical atheist?  Yes.  But you won’t be a logical one.

–Anonymous atheist

Rebelling against everything

G_K_ChestertonBut the new rebel is a skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. . . . As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. . . . The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.

―G.K. Chesterton