The Problem of Evil: Still A Strong Argument for Atheism

Introduction

In this article I will consider the problem of evil, one of the main arguments against the existence of an all-good and all-knowing God. This article is written largely in response to a conference on the problem of evil I attended recently at which Christian apologist John Dickson presented keynote lectures. As such, much of my discussion, in particular the ‘inconsistency response’ which I critique at length, are inspired by his remarks at this event. However this piece is designed to stand alone, and so is not structured as a point-by-point critique of Dickson’s arguments. Instead, I discuss a number of issues which I think are of relevance to this question.

First I begin by presenting a simple ‘naive’ argument from evil, setting the groundwork for a discussion and critique of a common rebuttal to the argument, namely that the problem of evil requires a presupposition of theism and therefore is self-contradictory. I argue that both of the key premises of this rebuttal, namely that an atheist must presuppose moral realism in order for the argument to work, and that moral realism cannot be justified under atheism, are both false, and therefore the inconsistency rebuttal dependent upon these premises is unsound. I then present an improved, inference to the best explanation form of the argument from evil, and consider various criticisms of this form of argument. I conclude that the problem of evil remains a powerful argument in favour of atheism.

A Naive Argument from Evil

I will begin by presenting what I describe as a ‘naive’ argument from evil. I describe it as ‘naive’ not in order to denigrate the argument (which I think is promising albeit in need of further refinement), but merely in order to distinguish this simple, generic version of the argument from evil from more sophisticated, specific versions of the argument that have been advocated in the philosophical literature. It is something like this ‘naive’ argument that atheists often raise and theists often respond to in more popular discourse, and therefore I think it useful to frame the discussion for much of the remainder of this piece. The argument is given as follows:

P1. There exist a large number of horrible forms of evil and suffering for which we can see no greater purpose or compensating good.

P2. If an all-powerful, all-good God existed, then such horrific, apparently purposeless evils would not exist.

C. Therefore, an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist.

Note that the conclusion could be interpreted as being arrived at with deductive certainly, or (more plausibly), as being established by the argument as probably true to some level of certainty. Logical versions of the problem of evil are much more difficult to defend philosophically than evidential versions, but I don’t wish to get distracted by such distinctions here, so readers may feel free to interpret the above argument through either lens.

The Inconsistency Response

One common avenue of response to the problem of evil is for a theist to argue that the atheist critique of the ‘problem of evil’ is self-contradictory, depending for its force upon the existence of God in order to argue against God’s existence. The idea is that if atheism holds and God does not exist, there cannot be any objective existence of evil or suffering, for to make any sense of such concepts requires the existence of God, whose perfectly good being serves as the grounding of all notions of goodness, and against which the countervailing notions of evil and suffering can be contrasted. Without God providing grounding for goodness, therefore, there can be no evil and no suffering, and so in appealing to these concepts the atheist is actually contradicting themselves, unintentionally furnishing an indirect argument in favour of the very God they seek to disprove. We may summarise this response in the form of the following syllogism:

P1. In order for the argument from evil to be sound, it must appeal to an antecedently established source of objective morality.

P2. Under atheism, there can be no source of objective morality.

C. Therefore, the argument from evil is unsound.

I reject both premises of this argument. In the next two sections I shall successively explain why I think each of them is false. My purpose is to show that the problem of evil survives this popular criticism against it, and thus retains its force as a reason for disbelief in an all-good, all-powerful God.

Is the Problem of Evil Self-Undermining?

Beginning with the first premise, I do not agree that it is necessary for the atheist to appeal to any notion of objective morality or evil in order for the argument from evil to be sound. This is because the argument from evil can be understood as a form of reductio ad absurdum. Such arguments work by assuming the truth of the conclusion they wish to critique, and then demonstrating that this leads to absurd results. On the basis of these absurd consequences it is therefore reasoned that the contention in question is impossible (or at least unlikely) to be true.

In the case of the problem of evil, all that is needed is a recognition that certain states of affairs prevail in the world that possess properties contrary to the purported nature of God. For example, natural disasters and diseases cause millions to suffer and die for no apparent purpose. Such occurrences are contrary to God’s nature to be caring and loving towards his creation, not wishing them to suffer without reason. We therefore may use words like ‘evil’ to describe such occurrences, not in the sense that the hurricane was malevolent, but in the sense that the states of affairs resulting from such occurrences are contrary to God’s alleged good nature. Once we recognise this contradiction between God’s purported nature and the actual state of affairs in the world, we arrive at the reductio portion of the argument. Namely, that if a God with a god nature did exist and was all powerful, the world should be absent of horrific pointless suffering this being against God’s nature. But this is absurd, for the world abounds in horrific pointless suffering. Thus we infer that God does not exist.

The crucial point to realise about this argument is that it does not require the atheist to present a grounded, objective conception of evil or suffering in order for this argument to work. Rather, all they need to demonstrate is a conflict between an all-good God and other facts about the world. Thus the response that this argument ‘presupposes the existence of God’ thus entirely misses the point, since presupposing the conclusion one wishes to refute is precisely the point of this line of argument, and does not represent some sort of mistake or defect. The idea is to presume the truth of the conclusion and then show that this leads to absurd results. This type of argument is used widely in philosophy and indeed even in mathematics, and responding to such an argument by asserting that it ‘presupposes the conclusion it seeks to refute’ demonstrates a lack of understanding of a basic tool in logical reasoning.

Does Atheism Entail Moral Nihilism?

Proceeding now to the second premise of the rebuttal, I will argue that there is in fact no good reason to think that atheistic worldviews are in principle incapable of supporting objective morality. In my experience this alleged incompatibility between atheism and objective morality is seldom actually argued for by those making this argument, but rather it is merely asserted. What reason is given for this exactly?

Morality, at least under one understanding, consists of a set of propositions concerning the goodness or badness of certain actions and/or states of affairs. What exactly is the reason for supposing that such facts cannot pertain in the absence of a God? There are numerous serious accounts presented in the literature as to how such propositions might be instantiated or justified in a naturalistic framework. Indeed, I think it is much more plausible to argue that we suffer from a plethora of competing accounts for how this could be, rather than a complete lack of any such proposals as the theist claims.

In order to justify the claim that no naturalistic accounts of morality are viable, therefore, one would need first to demonstrate the inadequacy of all serious proposals for a naturalistic morality, and furthermore provide an argument for why no similar future proposal could possibly work. Usually I find virtually no attempt to do the former, and only very weak arguments made in defence of the latter. Below I briefly respond to a few common points that are often made when criticising atheistic morality, and show why they are fallacious. Note that the particular forms of the arguments I quote in italics were written by me, but I think are broadly representative of the sorts of claims often made in the context of such discussions.

The Materiality of Mankind

‘Under naturalism humans are nothing more than bags of cells brought about by chance collisions of particles, with no inherent purpose or value whatever.’

I have two main objections to this argument. Firstly, this argument commits the fallacy of composition, inferring that because atoms or cells have no moral value in themselves, that therefore any collection of them cannot have moral value. This is equivalent to arguing that because individual water molecules are not wet, that therefore collections of them cannot have the property of wetness. Such reasoning is fallacious therefore and cannot be used to ground a case against atheistic moral realism.

Second, it is question-begging to say that without anything beyond the material world, there can be no moral significance to anything in the material world, because that is precisely the point of contention which the atheist moral realist denies. It is necessary to give an argument as to why something beyond the material world is necessary for objective moral values to exist, rather than merely assert that since atheism lacks such a thing that therefore atheistic morality must fail. In particular, the theist needs to explain what would be necessary in order for objective morality to exist, what epistemological or ontological function needs to be fulfilled, and then explain how God fulfills such a function while no purely material entities could do. An example might be: ‘any ground for morality must be eternal, but no material thing is eternal. Hence the ground for morality must be God’. I disagree with the first premise, but the point is that this is the type of argument that would need to be given to show that some supernatural entity fulfills some specific function that a material entity could not. Absent such an explanation, this rebuttal is entirely question-begging.

The Is-Ought Gap

‘There is no way for atheists to bridge the ‘is-ought’ gap.’

The idea of the is/ought gap is that one cannot validly draw an ethical conclusion from a series of non-ethical premises, without implicitly relying on unstated ethical premises. The idea is that there is a ‘gap’ between any factual ‘is’ statements one may make, and any normative conclusion that one may wish to draw from them. Allegedly, this serves as a fatal flaw to any attempted naturalistic account of morality, for it is impossible to argue from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ without incorporating normative premises into one’s argument, thereby begging the question.

Along with a number of other philosophers who have considered this question, I am of the belief that this notion of an argumentative ‘gap’ is not specific to morality at all, but rather is a much broader point concerning how to connect different subject matters or spheres of discourse. To understand this, think about how one might try to give a reductive account of why an event was ‘fun’. One might talk about playing with friends, going on rides at a fair, telling great jokes, having stimulating new experiences, and many other such things, but none of these premises would allow us to say anything about having fun. To make a conclusion about ‘fun’, we would need to include an additional premise of the form ‘laughing is fun’, or ‘having stimulating new experiences is a fun experience’, etc. These premises, however, include the notion of ‘fun’, which is precisely what we are attempting to give an account of, and thus we may be accused of begging the question. From arguments like this, we could conclude that there is an ‘is/fun’ gap, or no way of giving an explanation as to why an experience was fun using purely non-fun concepts.

This particular example is my invention, but this general idea has been discussed in the philosophical literature. My own preferred response to such matters is that there simply is nothing problematic about such arguments, and that the person taking issue with them ultimately is forced into a position of widespread scepticism, in that they will be unable to justify a large range of claims they typically would wish to make without (by their own criteria) begging the question.

A second, independent consideration that theists raising the is/ought gap seldom acknowledge is that if an is/ought gap does exist, appealing to God does nothing whatever to overcome it, a point that has been discussed by philosophers like G.E. Moore. Indeed, Hume himself explicitly includes ‘the being of a God’ as one such ‘is’ fact in his original formulation of the dilemma! Theists can make a long list of assertions about God’s commandments, or God’s nature, or God’s relationship to us, or whatever other facts they may wish to appeal to, however since these are all claims about what ‘is’, they are vulnerable to the ‘is/ought gap’ critique in exactly the same way as any naturalistic ethical theory would be. That is, in order to infer based on what God commands what one ought to do, one must introduce a premise something like ‘one ought to do what God commands’, which is a moral premise. Thus theistic ethical theories do no better in bridging the is/ought gap then atheistic moral theories.

Blind Forces of Nature

‘There can be no greater purpose to life or objective moral worth in a universe run solely by the blind forces of nature.’

This is very similar to the first objection, but I include both because I often find that theists will make this same fundamental point in a number of different ways, using slightly different language. My response, as before, is that this objection is question begging. The atheist moral realist claims that there can be objective morality in a purely material universe. Rather than presenting an argument for why this is impossible, the theist making this statement is merely asserting their position as if it were self-evident and requiring of no further substantiation. Perhaps such views are self-evident to some theists, but they certainly are not to many atheists, and as such it is incumbent upon those making the claim to provide a cogent argument for it, rather than merely asserting it.

The atheist moral realist is totally unfazed by talk of ‘blindness laws of nature’ or the ‘cruelty of the natural world’, and other such aphorisms. The atheist moral realist believes that facts regarding meaning and purpose can supervene upon, or emerge out of, purely materialistic states of affairs, in a way analogous to how the meaning of language derives from mere neural firings and vibrations of air molecules, or how living beings are comprised of nothing but materials which themselves are non-living chemicals. The atheist has numerous sophisticated philosophical accounts to appeal to in support of this contention, none of which are addressed by this argument.

Laws Imply a Law-Giver

‘Laws imply a law-giver, and therefore moral laws imply the existence of a moral law-giver’.

I dispute the notion that the existence of laws implies or requires a law-giver, as I think there are many examples of various sorts of laws that exist despite the absence of any clear law-giver. There are laws of propriety and etiquette without any person or body to act as ‘law giver’. Laws of grammar and spelling exist without any lawgiver. Laws of physics/nature can exist without any lawgiver. (Note that if theists dispute this, they are taking the position that without the existence of God, there could be no form of orderliness to the cosmos at all. If this very strong position were true then I question why theists would even bother arguing about morality, as atheism would not even be able to account for the regularities discovered by science).

Perhaps one could argue that none of these are really ‘laws’, but are customs, practices, rules, or mere regularities. In some cases this may be a valid distinction to make, but I very much doubt this will apply to all such examples. For example, there are very explicit laws about the spelling of many English words, without requiring any person or group who gives such laws. These are not mere optional customs: if you violate them you will be described as doing something “wrong” (not morally or legally wrong, but wrong in terms of the laws of spelling), and often reprimanded (often by social or professional disapproval). Call these spelling rules if you prefer, but I fail to see the relevant difference.

Notwithstanding one’s views on science or spelling, even in an explicitly legal context, I think it is clear that the principle of laws requiring a law-giver is false. What lawgiver establishes the legality of a constitution, or of international laws? For instance, by what legal authority was the United States Constitution promulgated as lawful? What lawgiver established the legal force of the International Criminal Court? In the United Kingdom, which lacks a written constitution, who exactly is the supreme law-giver supposed to be? Is it the monarch who imbues legal authority to the parliament, or the parliament who imbues legal status to the Queen? The very fact that in cases like this legal scholars can argue at length about technical de jure justifications and de facto realities just illustrates my point that this notion that ‘laws require a lawgiver’ is predicated upon an absurdly naive and indefensible notion of what constitute ‘laws’ and on what virtue they have normative force.

On the basis of such examples and numerous others, I see no reason at all to accept the premise that laws require lawgivers. The only way to save this argument that I can see is to assert by definitional fiat that laws must be established by lawgivers, in which case the argument becomes question-begging, since the theist would have to begin with the presumption that a moral lawgiver (i.e. God) exists, in order to establish the existence of the very ‘moral laws’ they seek to use as proof of the existence of said God.

An IBE Argument from Evil

Having considered two main objections to a naive form of the argument from evil, I now wish to reiterate the argument in a form which I think has considerable persuasive power. The argument takes the form of an inference to the best explanation as a mode of argument to establish the probable truth of the conclusion on the basis of the premises.

P1. There exist many diverse forms of apparently purposeless evil and suffering in the world.

P2. The best explanation for this is the non-existence of an all-powerful, all-good God

C. Therefore an all-powerful, all-good God (probably) does not exist

Theodicies

Besides the objection I responded to at length above (singled out because it seems to be the most common objection), theistic responses to this argument typically take one of three forms. The first is to deny P1, which is typically done by appealing to some form of theodicy, or an explanation of God’s reasons for allowing suffering and evil of various types, and therefore denying the existence of pointless suffering and evil. I regard all extant theodicies as incomplete or problematic, especially with regard to natural evil (e.g. natural disasters, diseases), and thus incapable of explaining all instances of apparently pointless suffering, as would be required in order to disprove P1. For time and space constraints, however, I will not offer critiques of specific theodicies here, something however that the atheist does need to do in order to provide a completely rigorous defense of this argument. For the moment, however, I shall simply appeal to the fact that many Christians seem to be in agreement we me that no extant theodicy is satisfactory. Indeed, most theodicies are theologically very controversial, which may be one reason why many apologists often seem to avoid offering them.

Skeptical Theism

The second broad form of response is to deny P2, the most prominent justification of which takes the form of a position known as sceptical theism. Skeptical theism does not deny that there many apparently pointless evils and sufferings in the world, but instead argues that atheism is not the best explanation for them. Instead it is argued that we have no particular reason to be aware of the reasons, complex and far beyond or ken as they may well be, that God may have for permitting such suffering and evil. Thus it is asserted that lack of ability to gain insight into which such reasons might be is the best explanation for apparently pointless suffering, rather than the absence of an all-powerful, all-good God. I regard this response is more convincing than any theodicies I have heard, but still I think it fails to defeat P2. The reason I think it so fails is because sceptical theism does not offer any explanatory power of its own. It merely asserts that we are not in the capacity to know why God may permit suffering and evil, but offers nothing comparable to the explanatory power naturally provided by the atheistic explanation. To use an imperfect but perhaps helpful metaphor, sceptical theism may give a reason why theism does not ‘lose points’ as a result of failing to explain suffering and evil, but it does not alter the fact that atheism ‘gains points’ as a result of the explanatory power that this hypothesis gives us regarding the observed phenomena of evil and suffering in the world.

Defeaters

The third general form of response to this argument is to accept P1 and P2, but deny the validity of the argument. One method for doing this would be to say that the argument is only valid ‘all else being equal’, but that even granting the premises, the conclusion can be avoided if sufficiently strong ‘defeaters’ are present. Such defeaters would likely take the form of independent arguments for the existence of God, which establish the falsity of atheism to a sufficiently high degree of likelihood such that even after factoring in the negative evidence provided by the problem of evil, on balance one is still left with a greater likelihood than not that an all-powerful, all-good God exists. Such an approach is, in my view, by far the most reasonable theistic response to the problem of evil – basically to say that apparently pointless evil and suffering constitute some evidence against the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God, but not sufficient evidence against to make belief unwarranted. Where I differ from theists offering this defense is of course the strength of those other, independent reasons for believing in God’s existence, however discussion of such further matters is best left for another blog post.

Conclusion

In this piece I have argued that the problem of evil, especially when presented in the form of an inference to the best explanation, survives common refutations and emerges as a powerful argument against the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God. In particular, I argued that the existence of apparently pointless suffering and evil in the world is better explained by atheism than theism, and thus constitutes a reason for belief in atheism. I defended this argument against the criticism that it is self-contradictory, briefly discussed some problems with theodicies, and argued that sceptical theism fails to address the issue of explanatory power which is at the heart of the IBE form of the argument. As such, it is my belief that the problem of evil remains one of the strongest arguments in favour of atheism over theism.

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Should I Worship an Evil God?

Synopsis

In this piece I argue that it is possible for God to exist but be unworthy of our worship (or at least of my worship). I discuss what traits I believe a God would not to exhibit in order for me to desire to worship him, and then defend my views against the charge that I am being arrogant in placing my own views of goodness above those of God. I conclude with some reflections on why this issue is important.

Could God be Unworthy of Worship?

Suppose that I came to believe in the existence of an all-powerful God who created us, and who reveals himself to mankind by various means, such as scripture or experiences of the divine. My question is, should I worship such a God? By ‘worship’, I mean (something like) devoting my life to that being, showing them admiration, reverence, paying thanks, granting praise, etc.

My answer to this question is ‘it depends’. Specifically, it depends on whether said being is a good God. By this I do not mean ‘does this being declare themselves to be good?’ (for sinners also do the same), but rather ‘do they satisfy what I believe are the standards of goodness?’ My standard of goodness for God would be something like ‘exhibiting a deep love and concern for all sentient beings, and doing everything within its power to promote the ultimate welfare of such beings’. According to some Christians I have spoken with or read, particularly those coming from a reformed tradition, God does not exhibit such qualities. They say things to the effect that mankind has rebelled against God and rejected him, and as such God no longer has any obligations to them. God is righteously angered (some may substitute a different word here which expresses a very similar meaning) towards mankind because of this rebellion. As such, God chooses to enter into a renewed relationship with some people (‘saving’ them), but not with others. That is his prerogative and perfectly just, as no one is deserving of such treatment at all, so there is no basis on which anyone can complain or claim unjust treatment for not receiving it.

If God is like this, then I do not judge God to be good by my criteria. I couldn’t care in the slightest whether or not God has a moral (or really any sort of) obligation towards mankind, nor could I care less if mankind rejected God seventy times, or even seventy times seven. To do good is, I believe, to strive to promote the ultimate wellbeing of others, regardless of whether or not they have treated you nicely or fairly or justly. If God is not doing this, if he is doing any less than his utmost to promote the wellbeing of mankind, if he is picking and choosing whom to save (or whatever word one cares to use) on the basis of some arbitrary whim and then justifying this on the basis that he has no ‘obligation’ to anyone because they all rejected him, then I call that God nasty, petty, callous, and uncaring. I will not devote my life to such a God, shout hosanna to them, or express unqualified rapturous gratitude to them. I will use what is left of my life to do what I can to help others, and then after I die I will face the eternal conscious torment that at least some Christians believe such a God has justly prepared for me. I’d rather suffer in hell than undeservedly worship the creator of such a horrific place in the obsequious hope of avoiding being sent there.

Am I Being Arrogant?

Is it not exceptionally arrogant (a word I henceforth use to mean ‘too stubborn and overconfident in one’s beliefs’) to declare that God must adhere to my standards of goodness and morality, especially given that I have assented to the proposition that such a being is our creator and is immensely powerful and knowledgeable? I don’t think so. Why should it be the case that because God is our all-powerful all-knowing creator, that therefore he must be good and worthy of worship? What justification is there for such a belief? To me it seems totally without basis, and indeed stands in direct contradiction with our overwhelming evidence that power and intelligence do not in any way imply goodness or virtue. God could be all knowing and all powerful, but just not care very much (or at all) about the welfare of his creation. If that is what God is like, then why should I devote my life to him? Why should I worship him? I’m totally serious about this – I can’t understand how anyone would want to worship such a being, even if they believed very strongly that he existed. Maybe I’m missing something, maybe I’m looking at this all the wrong way, but currently I feel no desire whatever to worship a being of this sort, nor can I see any reason as to why I should have such a desire – again, even if I strongly believed he existed.

Many Christians speak of how they came to a firm conviction that God exists by sensing his actions in their life, or by reading the bible, or by considering various other arguments and evidences, or by some combination of these methods. Whatever its genesis, making such an emphatic and strong claim is, in my view, profoundly arrogant. If someone thinks that God has revealed himself to them in some personal or experiential way, they believe not only that God has chosen to reveal himself to them when so many others do not receive such divine favour, but also that they have been able to correctly understand and interpret God’s intended message while so many others are deceived or mislead by their spiritual experiences. Similarly, if someone believes that they have come to a correct understanding of God through careful study and analysis of the arguments, then they believe that they have managed to see the evidence clearly and correctly where so many other learned and intelligent people have failed (including both non-theists and adherents of other religions).

Either way, or in the case of a mixture of the two methods, a Christian who claims strong confidence in their beliefs is, I think, making an exceptionally arrogant claim. (Note: I am not saying that Christians are arrogant. I am saying rather that Christians who claim such high confidence are exhibiting arrogance in making this particular claim. I have argued this point in more detail here.) This doesn’t make the claim false, but I think it is grossly inconsistent for a Christian to state that they have seen past all the potential confusions of human psychology, false spirits, bad arguments, and all the rest, and have been able to accurately grasp some of the most profound and deepest truths of human existence, whilst simultaneously criticising as arrogant my claim, which I regard to be the relevantly innocuous, that I have no reason to worship a God who does not care deeply and supremely about the welfare of all sentient beings and do all within his power to help them.

Many Christians speak of how the positive influence of God in their lives is a factor that strengthens their faith. And yet, when I express my negative reactions to certain Christian beliefs about God’s nature, I am accused of being irrational and allowing emotions to cloud my judgement. Not only does this seem to me to be grossly inconsistent, but it also misunderstands the nature of my claim. I am not claiming that the truth of God’s nature or existence is in any way affected by my moral reaction to it (which I think is totally different from ’emotion’, but let’s leave that for the moment). Rather, I am claiming that my moral reaction to God’s nature is relevant to my decision about whether to devote my life to worship of said God. Given that often Christians will speak of how their reading about or contemplation of God leads them to see how amazingly good and worthy of worship he is, I hardly see it as consistent to then criticise me for expressing my reservations about devoting myself to God on the basis that when I read about or contemplate certain teachings about his nature, I am led to see how morally inadequate and unworthy of worship he is (at least according to these particular understandings of God).

Conclusion

I am not claiming here that God is unworthy of worship, or that the Christian God is an evil God. I am not even saying that the God as understood by the particular reformed perspective to which I react so negatively is necessarily ‘evil’. What I am saying is that if certain beliefs about the nature of God are correct, then I see no reason to worship or unreservedly praise such a being. This is important, because it means that if I were to adopt Christianity or another other religion, I would need to be persuaded not only of the existence of whatever divine being the religion believes in, but also of the desirability and rightness of worshipping such a being. I need to be persuaded both that God exists, and that God is good. Either alone is insufficient.

Are there Moral Facts or Duties without God?

Synopsis

In this piece I consider the two related concepts of ‘moral facts’ and ‘moral obligations’, contrasting them within theistic and naturalistic worldviews. I first consider what is meant by ‘moral facts’, and argue that, subject to a certain clarification regarding the meaning of ‘mind-independence’, objective moral facts can exist within a naturalistic framework, as facts concerning states of affairs relating to idealised human desires. I then consider the concept of ‘moral obligations’, and argue that such obligations may be consistent with naturalism depending upon how the notion of ‘moral duty’ is interpreted. I also argue, however, that the concept is essentially unnecessary in a naturalistic worldview, as it does little beyond what is done by the concept of ‘moral facts’. I conclude with some analysis of how theists and naturalists may respond to the moral skeptic, arguing that neither can provide moral motivation to the skeptic on the basis of reason alone.

Moral Facts

The first question to be considered is whether or not ‘moral facts’ exist. For a moral fact to ‘exist’, what I mean is that the proposition in question is true. Thus, the question I am asking is whether any propositions about moral states of affairs are true, a view called moral realism, as opposed to error theory, the position that all moral propositions are false. (There are also so-called non-cognitivist positions which hold that moral statements are not propositions at all. I will not address such views in this piece.)

To facilitate clarity, let me propose a working definition of objective moral facts:

(1.0) An objective moral fact is an evaluative proposition concerning the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of some action or outcome, which is true irrespective of the mental state (opinion, belief, etc) of any person.

In my personal view, I think it unlikely that objective moral truths as defined in (1.0) exist, as I believe that the rightness or wrongness of any action is always ultimately determined by the mental states of human beings (and potentially other sentient creatures too, but I’ll leave that out of the discussion for now). According to the view that I lean towards, moral facts are propositions concerning the maximal fulfilment of idealised preferences, considered from a social point of view (see my earlier piece describing Railton’s Reductive Naturalism for more detail).

In keeping with this view, I would propose a new definition of moral facts:

(1.1) An objective moral fact is an evaluative proposition concerning the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of some action or outcome, the truth of which is not dependent upon the mental state of the agent making the moral judgement in question.

The difference between (1.0) and (1.1) is that, while (1.0) requires that the truth values of all moral propositions be independent of the mental states of any person (i.e. they are facts about nature itself independent of humans, or perhaps something beyond nature), (1.1) only requires that the truth values be independent of the mental state of the person evaluating the claim. Thus, if one person or group thought that genocide or female genital mutilation or ignoring the poor were not morally wrong, by this view they would be mistaken. They would be mistaken because they hold a false belief concerning the truth value of a certain moral proposition, which proposition derives its truth value from particular states of the world concerning which states of affairs would be conducive of the maximal fulfilment of idealised desires, from a social point of view. Moral facts are thus facts about the world with objective truth values independent of the mental states of those evaluating the truth of the claims.

Also note that according to my preferred view, it is even possible for everyone to be mistaken about moral facts. This is because the truth value of moral propositions does not depend (primarily, though it may have some relevance in some cases) upon people’s opinions concerning the truth value of the proposition. Rather, moral propositions derive their truth value from states of affairs concerning idealised preferences of agents considered from a social point of view. It is perfectly possible for entire societies to hold systematically mistaken views regarding such idealised preferences – indeed, I think I can cite some plausible historical examples, though I won’t do so here because I’m fairly sure that doing so would distract the discussion. The main point to note is that, although according to my preferred position, moral facts are subjective in the sense that their truth value is dependent upon the mental states of humans, and not merely upon natural states of affairs outside of humans (as are, for instance, many scientific claims), they are also objective in the sense that their truth value is not determined by the attitudes or preferences of the person making the judgement, or even the collective judgements of a society, since it is possible for an entire society to hold mistaken views concerning what would best satisfy idealised preferences from a social point of view.

Moral Obligations

Having considered objective moral facts, what can we make of the idea of moral duties? It seems that the mere existence of moral facts, absent certain further assumptions, need not necessarily imply any moral duties – after all, there are any number of other propositions which are objectively true, but nonetheless do not entail any duties.

Let me (tentatively) define moral obligations as follows:

(2.0) A moral obligation is a duty to act in a certain way that arises as a consequence of one or more objective moral facts.

While I think this definition goes some way towards capturing our primitive notion of ‘moral obligation’, I am left rather unsatisfied. I still find it very hard to understand what is meant by this notion of a ‘duty to act’ -what does it mean to say that we have a duty to do something? Sometimes duties are acquired on the basis of someone accepting a formal or informal position of some authority and responsibility, and explicitly or implicitly promising to act in a certain way in fulfilment of this role. It seems, however, that this does not really capture the inherent proscriptivity entailed by our concept of ‘moral duties’. That is, we would generally want to say that there is no action that one needs to take in order to acquire moral duties, nor is there any way of eschewing them, as would be possible for other duties by, for example, stepping down from the role in question.

The idea of ‘moral duties’ seems to be that, in some sense, we “must” act in a particular way, regardless of whether or not we want to, or whether or not we agree, or even whether or not we even know about the duty (though some may perhaps dispute this last point, at least my naive notion of ‘moral duty’ would say that even, for instance, feral children would have moral duties, even though they would presumably have no notion of the concept of morality). But what does it mean to say that we “must” act in a certain way? Obviously this doesn’t mean that we are literally unable to act differently, because quite clearly it is possible to act immorally.

One possible answer, traditionally advocated by some theistic philosophers, is to ground the notion of ‘moral obligation’ in the commandments of God. That is, moral obligations are injunctions to act in a particular way which are made by God, and are (ultimately) enforced by God through some sort of final judgement. The notion of ‘moral obligation’ is thus analogous to that of a legal obligation – both derive from some external authoritative source, both are binding regardless of our particular attitudes or opinions, and both are ‘enforceable’ in the sense of there being consequences for disobedience.

This would lead to a definition something like the following:

(2.1) A moral obligation is an enforceable injunction to act in a certain way, deriving from some legitimate authority ‘external’ to human preferences or opinion.

I think there are various problems with approaches such as this to ground moral obligations on God’s commandments. For example, I think it is at least plausible that one may acknowledge an injunction to come from God, but still question whether or not obeying is the right thing to do. It seems to me that God could at least potentially be evil, and that therefore moral duties are not constituted solely in the injunctions of God, but have reference to things outside of God as well. I’m not saying these and other issues are necessarily insoluble, nor do I wish to get distracted into an extensive debate about them here. I just wanted to flag them as being tangentially relevant before moving on.

Let us suppose, however, that we can develop a consistent and plausible theory of theistic moral duties which circumvents some of the difficulties mentioned above. Can the same be done from within a naturalistic worldview? I think doing so is at least conceptually possible – it seems for example that a principle like karma would go some way towards meeting the criteria set out by (2.1), and at least some understandings of karma see it as essentially a completely natural phenomenon. However, I personally do not believe in karma, or any such natural process like it. As such, I would lean towards the view that, if there is no God, then moral obligations as defined in (2.1) do not exist.

In essence, I lean towards the view that the notion of ‘moral obligations’ is essentially unnecessary in a naturalistic universe, and is really only the cause of conceptual confusion. I believe, as I argued above, that objective moral facts as defined by (1.1) are perfectly capable of existing in a naturalistic universe, and that there is simply no place for or need of ‘moral duties’ that go beyond moral facts. So, for example, I do not believe that it is necessary to interpret a statement like ‘you should behave in this way’ as a statement about the existence of moral obligations or duties. Rather, I think it is perfectly consistent and sufficient to interpret this as an assertion of the proposition ‘behaving in this way would promote the maximal fulfilment of idealised preferences from a social point of view’, as well as an injunction to act in accordance with this fact (this notion of moral assertions constituting injunctions relates to another model in meta-ethics that I find persuasive, R. M. Hare’s Universal Prescriptivism, however I do not wish to get too distracted discussing that in detail).

Furthermore, I do not believe that the mere truth of particular moral facts provides any rational obligation to act in accordance with them. That is, those who ignore morality are not necessarily irrational, they are just immoral. Do I believe that the truth of moral facts provides any moral obligation to act in accordance with them? It depends upon what is meant. If by ‘moral obligation’ one means something like (2.1), then no, I do not think moral facts entail moral obligations (since the moral facts are not injunctions from an external authority in the sense required for moral duties). On the other hand, I think a lot of people talk about ‘moral obligations’ more loosely as essentially referring to the same thing as ‘moral facts’, and in this looser sense I do tend to think that moral duties exist, because (as I argue above) I tend to believe that moral facts exist.

Responding to the Moral Skeptic

So where does all this leave us? Certain theists tend to phrase this discussion in terms of having a response to the ‘moral skeptic’, who when confronted with a moral claim, asks question like ‘why should I?’ or ‘what privileges your view over mine?’ I believe that, working within the framework of Railtonian Reductionism that I have outlined here and elsewhere, the naturalist can provide answers that are at least as satisfactory as those the theist can give (I personally think they are much better, but that’s a stronger claim I won’t attempt to defend in full in this piece).

The theist could answer (something like) ‘you should because God commands it, and he is our creator and so has legitimate authority over such things’. It seems to me, however, that the moral skeptic could acknowledge that God exists and mandates particular commandments, but still either dispute that they are morally obliged to follow these commands, or even just fail to care about divine moral obligations, and not feel motivated to live up to them. It seems to me such a person has not committed any mistake of rationality here – they just don’t care what God has to say on the matter, and so far as I can tell this violates no precepts of sound reasoning. It may, of course, make them an immoral person, but there seems little else the theist could say to motivate or convince them.

The naturalist could answer (something like) ‘you should because doing so would better promote the fulfilment of idealised desires from a social point of view’ (this is often described less verbosely using language like ‘promoting human flourishing’ or ‘maximising wellbeing’). Of course, the moral skeptic could acknowledge this to be the case, but still dispute that they have any moral obligation to promote human flourishing, or simply fail to care and see no reason to act in accordance with any moral facts or duties that may exist. As before, such a person may be immoral, but as far as I can see they have not committed an error of rationality, and as such there seems little else that could be said to motivate or convince them.

Thus, at the end of the day, I think that neither the theist nor the naturalist can convince the moral skeptic to follow the precepts of morality using reason alone, which perhaps they may antecedently have wished to do. I think, however, that this inability should not come as a great surprise, as to suppose that rationality and moral motivation are inextricably linked in this way would be to believe that the most rational people are also the most moral, a view which seems highly dubious at best, nor indeed does it even seem consistent with our naive notions about morality. As such, I think that what Adam Smith described as ‘moral sentiments’ are very important – not to ground the existence of moral truths as such, but rather to provide a basis for our caring about them and acting in accordance with them. I think this is necessary regardless of whether one believes in God or not.

How to get an Ought from an Is

Synopsis

Is it possible to get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’? That is, can we derive normative claims about what ‘should be’ from descriptive claims about what ‘is’? David Hume, and many others since, have argued that there exists an insurmountable gap between these two types of claims. In this piece I will argue that this view is mistaken. I begin by outlining a theory of morality, based on the reductive naturalistic account developed by Peter Railton. I will then outline how, given such a conception of morality, the ‘is-ought’ gap rests on a conceptual confusion, since ‘ought’ claims simply are a certain type of ‘is’ claim, and as such there is no intrinsic problem in deriving one from the other. I then proceed to consider in turn the issues of moral motivation and moral relativism, arguing that the moral framework I have presented is sufficient to provide objective, non-relativist reasons for action for any morally-competent person. In doing so I argue that the notion of a rationally compelling reason for action that is totally independent of the desires or objectives of the agent in question is incoherent, and so the inability of my metaethical theory to provide one does not constitute a limitation of the account, but merely reflects a constraint on what itself reason can do.

Railton’s Reductive Naturalism

‘Non-Moral’ Good

First of all, let me present an account of what an ‘ought’ claim is. The account I present here is a condensed version of that outlined by Peter Railton, and is a form of reductive naturalism. Railton constructs his account of the good in two stages. First, he defines a concept that he calls ‘non-moral good’:

“An individual’s (non-moral) good consists in what they would want themselves to want, or to pursue, were they to contemplate their present situation from a standpoint fully and vividly informed about themselves and their circumstances, and entirely free of cognitive error or lapses of instrumental rationality.”

The basic idea of this account is that what is (non-morally) good for a person is what would satisfy their idealised preferences. By ‘idealised preferences’, I mean the preferences they would want themselves to hold if they were ideally rational, and fully informed about all possible considerations and alternative courses of action, ways of living, consequences of different alternatives, etc. This additional element of abstraction enables the account to incorporate the fact that we often don’t know what we actually want, or what would be good for us, and so frequently hold mistaken beliefs about what will satisfy us or be helpful for us.

Moral Good

Next, Railton generalises this conception of the ‘non-moral good’ into ‘moral good’ by introducing a social dimension:

“X is morally right if and only if X would be approved of by an ideally rational and fully informed agent considering the question ‘How best to maximize the amount of non-moral goodness?’ from a social point of view, in which the interests of all potentially affected individuals were counted equally.”

So, by Railton’s account, the moral good consists in maximising non-moral good from a social point of view, treating the interests of all individuals equally. I think this captures a very significant aspect of morality, which is its intrinsic social, relational dimension. Morality is about incorporating the concerns of others into one’s own decision making, and not privileging one’s own interests over those of others. I think this is key aspect of morality is captured very well in Railton’s account, and this acts as a powerful consideration in its favour.

‘Nasty Preferences’ Objection

What if someone has nasty preferences? What of the person whose preference is to rape little children, or torture animals, or whatever other depraved action we may care to contemplate? If they have a preference to do these things, does that mean that such actions are good by this account?

I believe this objection rests on a twofold failure to understand Railton’s account of moral goodness: an initial failure to understand his notion of ‘non-moral goodness’, and a subsequent failure to understand its extension into ‘moral goodness’. In regard to ‘non-moral goodness’, this objection presumes that what an individual’s preferences are now is the same as what a fully informed and instrumentally-rational version of that individual would want their preferences to be. This assumption is unwarranted, because precisely the point of introducing such a concept  is because the two are often considerably different. If we consider, for instance, the cat torturer or the child molester, we must ask the question: what sort of life would they want themselves to pursue, and what sort of preferences would they desire themselves to have, if they had access to all relevant information about possible alternative lifestyles, approaches to living, sources of meaning, etc? If they could somehow consider all the alternatives and choose carefully which they most preferred, would they still choose child molestation or cat torturing? I consider this to be very unlikely; I just don’t think it is the case that many people would actually find those to be the good life for themselves, if they had proper access to alternatives and the time and mental clarity to consider them. To an extent, this is an empirical question, and one I would welcome further research into. Nonetheless, it seems to me that it is at least highly plausible to argue that at least a sizeable proportion of cases of ‘objectionable preferences’ would be eliminated by simply considering idealised, rather than actual, preferences.

That being said, let us say for the sake of argument that there is some subset of people who, even after considering all the other possible modes of living and their comparative virtues, nonetheless would still prefer a lifestyle which we would view as abhorrent or undesirable in some way (e.g. cat torturing, child molesting, etc). Does Railton’s account require us to say that such a lifestyle (and its constituent actions) are morally good? Not at all, for such an inference rests on a misunderstanding of the second aspect of Railton’s account, the distinction between ‘non-moral good’ and ‘moral good’. Even if we accept the premise that, for some small number of depraved persons, their ‘non-moral good’ consists in doing things which we would consider to be repugnant, when determining the moral good we must also take into consideration the interests of others. If, from a social point of view, these interests outweigh the non-moral good of the individual in question (as I think they inevitably will for the sorts of abhorrent acts mentioned above), then it will still be the case that Railton’s account declares such actions to be immoral. In essence, it is not the ‘non-moral good’ of a particular person which is the most important; what is fundamental to this account are the interests of all individuals considered from a social point of view. And needless to say, the abhorrent preferences of a depraved few will be easily outweighed by the former. Thus, the ‘nasty preferences’ objection fails as a substantive critique of Railton’s account of morality.

Deriving ‘Ought’ from ‘Is’

Dissolving the Problem

Having outlined Railton’s reductive naturalistic account of morality, I now wish to return to the main question with which I began this essay: how to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. My answer, in essence, is that there is actually no real problem, because ought claims just are ‘is’ claims. By Railton’s reductive naturalistic account, moral claims constitute a particular subset of factual claims about the way the world is. Specifically, moral claims are statements about what would satisfy the idealised preferences of individuals in a society, treating every person equally. By this account, therefore, moral claims are both ‘ought’ statements and ‘is’ statements – the former is in fact a subset of the latter. The alleged difficulty of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ thus rests on a conceptual confusion, namely presupposing ex ante that the two claims are of a fundamentally different sort – a view which I see no reason to accept. I believe that a perfectly sensible reductive naturalist account of the nature of moral values can be provided (viz Railton’s reductive naturalism), and as such there is simply no difficulty in deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’, since ‘ought’ claims just are a particular type of ‘is’ claims.

But how can I make the leap from the statement “X will maximise idealised preference satisfaction from a social point of view” to the statement that “X is morally good”? Isn’t the first simply a claim about facts of the world – an ‘is’ statement – while the latter is an evaluative claim – an ‘ought’ statement? How to we get from the one to the other? Asking the question in this way is, I think, betraying precisely the sort of conceptual confusion which I am here attempting to defuse – namely, that there is some unbridgeable gap or ultimate chasm between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. This is precisely what I am denying. I am arguing, in fact, that the set of actions and states of affairs which satisfy the predicate “maximises idealised preference satisfaction from a social point of view” is the same as the set of actions and states of affairs which satisfy the predicate “is morally good” (caveat: I am not actually claiming the sets are precisely equal. More carefully, I am saying that the sets are close enough for this account of morality to be a very good one).

Moore’s Open Question Argument

It is important to understand that I am not saying that these two things (‘moral goodness’ and ‘maximising social preferences’) are the same by definition (this point formed the basis of Moore’s famed ‘Open Question Argument’ against ethical naturalism). Rather, what I am saying is that we begin with this concept called ‘morality’, which is rather fuzzy and confused in some ways, but which we nonetheless seem to posses some basic intuitive understanding of. We then think very hard, look around at the world, and ask the question: “does this concept of ‘morality’ refer to anything real?” That is, we ask ourselves whether we can give a sensible account of this thing we call ‘morality’, or, alternatively, will we find that no sensible account can be given, and that like so many other naive concepts (such as bodily humours, phlogiston, absolute space and time, élan vital, and many more), we must consign morality to the dustbin of history? What I am arguing is that in thinking hard about our concepts and looking around at the world, we do find that there is in fact something which matches up quite well to our notion of morality, and as such our conception of morality is validated – not by definitional fiat, but by conceptual analysis and empirical investigation.

It is true that the account of morality that Railton provides is (as he calls it) a ‘reforming definition’, by which he means that it does not, absolutely and in all respects, match up perfectly to our naive, unreflective conceptions of morality. However Railton also argues, as do I, that the account is sufficiently close to that of ‘naive morality’, and also has sufficient explanatory power, such that we are adequately justified in maintaining the concept of morality and declaring that we now have a reasonable account of what it refers to. This contrasts, say, with the concept of a ‘vital life force’, which was not found to match up sufficiently with any real-world phenomenon, and as such the idea was discarded.

Water and H2O are not defined to be the same thing – we know they are the same thing because we went out into the world and looked, and discovered that they are the same. I am saying that something analogous can be done with morality: we begin with a naive concept, we go out and see if there is anything that is a reasonably close match for this concept that we can give a sensible account of. Since we are able to do this, the concept of morality is validated, and we are affirmed in our use of it (and indeed our understanding of it is heightened). Morality refers to idealised preference satisfaction from a social point of view. We have not defined it to mean that – we examined our concepts, we examined the world, and we matched the two together. We constructed an empirical explanatory account of the concept of morality, just like we have done in the sciences for many other entities.

A Restatement

So, bringing the threads together, how do we make the leap from the positive to the normative? I am saying that there is no leap. We have constructed an account of the normative by which we understand that it just is one class of claims about matters of fact. The problem is simply dissolved; there is no ‘is-ought’ gap under a reductive naturalistic metaethic.

Reasons for Action

Rationality and Moral Motivation

It is important to understand that there is one thing which this account of morality does not do: by itself, it does not provide us with any universal reason to be moral, or even to care about morality at all. At this point, I will say that if what one expects morality to provide is some reason for action which is in some way ‘binding’ or persuasive to all rational agents of any sort, regardless of their particular goals or objectives or preferences, then one will be disappointed, because this is something this account does not provide. I do not, however, consider this to be any real problem, because I think that the notion of something which is universally rationally compelling to all agents, regardless of their particular preferences or goals, is simply incoherent. I understand ‘rationality’ to mean “taking effective means to one’s ends” (as borrowed from D. A. Lloyd Thomas). By this understanding, there is simply no fact of the matter as to what is ‘rational’ for an agent to do or pursue absent some predefined ‘end’ or ‘purpose’ or ‘objective’.

Appeals to Teleology

Taking an Aristotelian perspective on the matter, one might say that there is a fact of that matter as to what a rational agent should do, even absent any particular end or objective which they hold to, and that relates to the agent’s underlying ‘innate’ teleology, or purpose in being. For example, Aristotle famously argued that humans are rational creatures, and so our teleology lies in the pursuits of reason, wherein man achieves his greatest excellence. Though I think there are some valuable insights to be gleaned from this approach, overall I find it unpersuasive as a metaethical theory as it fails to provide any clear notion of what constitutes an innate teleology or whence such a notion can be derived. Perhaps a notion of teleology could be constructed via some reductive account of the moral good, for example by using aspects of Railton’s account. However in that case the notion of teleology is doing no explanatory work, as it is merely being defined in the same manner as morality, rather than providing a more ‘ultimate’ basis out of which the latter can be defined or understood. As such, ultimate teleology is either a mistaken concept (as it does not refer to anything real), or an unnecessary one (because it is merely parasitic on the concept of morality, instead of underpinning it as we had hoped).

Though there is much more to say on the notion of teleology, I will forebear at present, and merely summarise this portion of the essay by restating that I do not believe there is any fact of the matter as to what it is rational for an agent to do sans any account of their particular interests or desires. As such, I do not believe there are any universally-compelling reasons to be moral. On the other hand, I also do not think there are any universally-compelling reasons to believe in the truths of mathematics or logic or science, or indeed to care about truth or good arguments at all. In short, I do not think there are any universally-compelling reasons for anything at all. Every reason of any sort must, at bottom, make some sort of appeal to a pre-existing goal or value or presumption; reason always has to begin somewhere. As such, I think a notion of objective-independent reasons which are rationally compelling to all rational agents independent of their goals or desires is simply incoherent, and is not something we should demand from an account of morality.

Reasons to be Moral

I must emphatically emphasise, however, that I am not saying that we do not have good reasons to be moral. I believe there are immensely good reasons to be moral, none of which are particularly innovative on my part: acting morally helps others, it allows us to reduce suffering and promote human flourishing, it brings us joy and helps us to become better people (in either a moral or non-moral sense), etc. Are these not good enough reasons to care about being moral and doing good? I think they should be perfectly good reasons, perfectly sufficient reasons for action, for any morally competent person. They will not, of course, be compelling to a person who does not already possess some fundamental, underlying ‘moral competence’, but why is this a concern? Do we really expect that the reason people lack moral motivation is that they are actually irrational; that there exists some ‘killer reason’ or ‘overwhelming argument ‘ which would cause them to become morally motivated by the sheer force of reason? To me that sounds absurd on the face of it, and even more absurd in the light of the analysis I have given about the nature of rationality. I think we all have ample reasons to be moral. If those reasons are uncompelling to a particular person (assuming they understand them), it is because said person is simply not morally competent. That is unfortunate, but is a defect of that person’s character, and not of the account of morality which I am here defending.

Relativism and Subjectivity

A Non-Subjective Morality

In metaethical discussions, the question of relativism inevitably rears its ugly head. Is the account that I have here presented of the meaning of and basis for moral claims a relativistic one? That is, when I say “it is wrong to murder” or “you ought not murder”, am I merely expressing a subject personal preference against murder? Is it simply a question of taste – some people like murder and some people don’t, and we just happen to be fortunate enough to live in a society in which most people share my distaste for it?

To answer this question: no, I do not think that moral claims are subjective or relative in this way. By the account that I have defended, moral claims are statements of fact which can be true or false. Their truth or falsity depends upon the manner in which the world is constituted, including certain properties of human beings, their desires and preferences, how these preferences are socially distributed, etc. These facts are objective, in the sense that they are not dependent upon the minds of those making the judgement. It may be the case that peanut butter is delicious ‘for me’ and disgusting ‘for you’, but by Railton’s account of morality, it cannot be the case that X is morally right ‘for you’ (say because you dislike murder), but not morally wrong ‘for me’ (say because I’m not bothered by murder), since what is morally good is determined by facts of the world which are invariant to the perspective of the person considering them. Of course, different people may disagree about what these moral facts are, but disagreement does not imply that there is no fact of that matter at all.

What maximises idealised preference satisfaction from a social point of view does so regardless of whatever your or my attitudes about murder or anything else might happen to be. As such, this account of morality is not relativist, and does not degenerate into mere preferences. (Note: the concept of ‘non-moral good’ is subjective in this way, because it depends on the agent’s idealised preferences, however the notion of ‘moral good’ is not subjective in this way, because it depends upon the preferences of all individuals, and not merely the subjective attitude of the person making the ethical judgement).

Moral Injunctions

When I make the injunction “you ought not murder”, am I merely expressing a personal, subjective attitude towards murder, which at base is no more or less justifiable than any other possible attitude? I do not think so. Rather, what I am doing is making a statement concerning what would maximise the idealised preferences of individuals from a social point of view, which is an objective claim that is not dependent upon any single person’s attitudes towards the claim. Now, of course, whether or not the person whom I am addressing cares about what is right or wrong is completely separate question; they may accept that murder does not maximise the idealised preferences of individuals from a social point of view, but simply not give a damn. That is unfortunate, and I would of course try to persuade them that they should care (by appealing to the ‘reasons to be moral’ I outline above), but as I previously argued, if my interlocutor does not share at least some fundamental concern about the welfare of others, or a desire to do good (or something like that), then there is simply no reason I can give  them which will rationally ‘compel’ them to care about doing good. As I argued, the notion of ‘bootstrapping’ any motivation from ‘pure reason’ in this way, without any reference at all to pre-existing desires or concerns, is simply incoherent. This, however, is not a limitation of my account of morality – it is imply a fact about the limits of reason. Nor does it follow that moral injunctions are mere statements of preferences. They are statements of facts about the world, which one may or may not happen to care about. If one does not care about these moral facts, that does not necessarily make one irrational. But it does make one immoral, in an objective, mind-independent sense.

Moral Obligations

What of objective moral obligations? Do they exist, and do they have any normative force? Can we make sense of them within the framework I have outlined? I would argue that the notion of ‘moral obligation’ is mostly (if not entirely) redundant, as to say that someone has a ‘moral obligation to do X’ is just to say that ‘it is morally good to do X’ or ‘you ought to do X’, which, in turn, simply means that ‘doing X will maximise the satisfaction of idealised preferences from a social point of view’. As such, I do not believe that the concept of ‘moral obligation’ offers any addition insights or provides any additional moral or motivational force beyond that which existing concepts already possess, and so while I think objective moral obligations are perfectly compatible with a reductive naturalist account of moral value, I also think they are a rather superfluous addition.

Conclusion

In this essay I have argued that there is no fundamental problem with deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’ claims, because ‘ought’ statements are in fact merely a special type of ‘is’ statements. In making this argument I first outlined Peter Railton’s reductive naturalist conception of moral good, and defended it against the objection of ‘nasty preferences’. I then argued that on the basis of this account, the ‘is-ought’ gap can be dissolved as resting on a conceptual confusion, because ‘ought’ claims simply are a special type of ‘is’ claims. Morality is validated, I argued, on the basis of our ability to construct a plausible naturalistic account of its relationship to objects in the real world. I then considered the issue of moral motivation, arguing that this account of morality will not motivate those who lack even the most basic moral competence, but that this does not constitute a limitation of the account, as the notion of a reason that is rationally compelling to all agents regardless of their personal preferences is simply incoherent. Finally, I considered the issue of subjectivity, arguing that the account of morality I outlined  is not subjective, and does not rest merely on the attitudes of those making moral statements.

 

 

 

The Ethical Imperative of Effective Altruism

Synopsis

In this piece I argue for the ethical imperative of Effective Altruism, by which I mean that I believe we are ethically obligated to donate as much money as one can to the charities which save the most lives per dollar spent. I take a rough figure of $2000 per live saved from GiveWell, and argue that we must always consider this as the benchmark against which all other proposed donations and causes are judged. I then expand this argument to apply not only to charitable donations, but also to all our purchasing decisions. I argue we must seriously consider the lives we could save for every single dollar we spend on anything.

Saving More Lives is Better

How much does it cost to save a life? Many people don’t even like to think about such a question – after all, isn’t it crass and vulgar to put a dollar value on human life? I don’t think so. Indeed, I think it’s positively immoral not to ask this question, and seriously consider the answer. We simply must ask the question of how much it costs to save a life. Why? Basically the argument goes like this:

1) Holding other relevant considerations approximately equal, we ought to take the action that saves more lives over any actions that save fewer lives
2) Donating all one’s charitable contributions to the charity which saves lives for the lowest cost will lead to more lives being saved than any other action we could take
3) Therefore, we should donate all our charitable contributions to the charity which saves lives for the lowest cost

Some Responses

There are a lot of ways one could object to this argument. One could debate about the merits of attempting to deal with deeper structural or social problems, rather than donating exclusively to specific global health initiatives. One could question the value of present lives versus future lives, and how that might affect our analysis. One could argue that life itself is not all that matters, and that we also should consider the good being done in improving the quality of life. All of these objections, and many others like them, are completely valid and worthy of discussion and serious consideration. They also, I think, largely miss the point. And what is that point? The point is, whatever else one proposes that we use or money or resources for, whether it be environmental activism or political reform or human rights protection or art preservation or whatever else, we must everywhere and always remember this fact: that every dollar spent on such causes could (in general) have instead been used to save lives. This is a concept called opportunity cost – the forgone benefit that we could have received had we used our resources in another way. In arguing that we ought to donate time or money to a particular cause, we must always and everywhere remember that this represents time and money that could have been used to save lives by instead donating to the most cost-effective charities.

Our Opportunity Cost

So how much does it cost to have a life? GiveWell has some excellent analysis of this question, some of which can be found here. The issue is stupendously complicated, but let me just pick a ballpark figure. Based on the GiveWell data, let’s say that the best charities can save a life for about $2000. Maybe its really $1000, or $5000. And maybe there are other benefits of these programs too besides just saving lives. That’s not really important. The rough figure is what matters, and it seems pretty clear that it is on the order of a few thousand dollars.

So what does that mean? First of all, I think it ought to put a lot of things in perspective. When I’m considering whether to give to an art gallery or an environmental lobby group or to cancer research, I must remember that every $2000 I give is one less life saved. That’s my opportunity cost. So I had better be pretty damn sure that the money I’m donating to this other cause is going to have some very significant impact, if this is to outweigh the forgone benefit of one life saved. This isn’t some abstract intellectual exercise. GiveWell considers all sorts of factors in evaluating charities, including actual on the ground effectiveness and room for more funding. That means, as best as we can tell, you can, in fact, actually increase the number of lives saved by providing these charities with additional funding, allowing them to expand their operations (e.g. buy more bed nets, disperse more money, fund more deworming programs, etc). I’m not saying here that none of these other causes can ever be worth it. My point is simply that we have an ethical obligation to be aware of what we could be doing with our funds, and what we are giving up when we donate to charities other than the most cost-effective charities.

Doing Both?

But can’t we do both? Can’t we donate, say, to deworming and also to cancer research or greenpeace or whatever else? No, you can’t. At least, not in any meaningful sense. Unless you are someone like Bill Gates, your funds are very limited compared to the capacities of the organizations in question. This means that every dollar you don’t give to the most cost-effective charities is failing to have as much impact as it could. You can’t just pretend that the opportunity cost somehow magically disappears just because you donated some of your money to the more effective charity. That alternative still exists for every single dollar you give away. So you simply cannot ‘do both’. For every dollar, the question is the same: donate to the most effective charities which can save a life for $2000, or donate so some other organisation. Again, I’m not saying that the ‘some other organisation’ option is never the better choice (though I do think it very rarely is). I’m just saying, this is the alternative that we always have. This is the reality we face.

The Ethics of Every Purchase

My argument here, however, does not extend only to our charitable donations. It also can (and I think ought to) be applied to absolutely every purchase decision we ever make. Here is the brute fact: every dollar we spend on anything is one less dollar that could have been spent on GiveWell top charities, saving (something like) one life per $2000 donated. Thus, every single purchase we make is a moral act. Every time we hand over money for anything, we are handing over some part of a chance to save a life. Whenever you see a price tag, you should mentally divide by 2000, because that’s the number of lives you are not saving by buying that thing. How much does a car cost? Several thousand dollars for a used one. That’s a couple of lives right there. How much does it cost to attend a music concert? A hundred dollars? Several of those in a year is maybe a fifth of a life. How much does a cup of coffee cost? A few dollars? How often would you buy one? Ever other day? Every day? That’s some non-trivial fraction of a life. How much does an overseas holiday cost? Several thousand dollars? Another couple of lives. How much do you spend on jewellery? Alcohol? Eating out? Electronics? DVDs? Airfares? Vacations? How much money do you earn every year? How much do you spend in things that you do not really need to get by? How many lives could you have saved, but did not?

Conclusion

I do not paint a very attractive picture here. I’m saying that most of what we spend our money on is frivolous in comparison to the good that we could do by donating this money to the most effective causes. And I don’t mean to put myself on a pedestal. I do try to limit unnecessary purchases. But am I really any better? I doubt it. There are numerous luxuries that I allow myself which I nonetheless don’t really need. But however much of a hypocrite I may be, I don’t think that in any way diminishes our ethical obligation to do better. We simply must do better. Many, many lives depend on it.

What Lennox Got Wrong: A Refutation of his Key Arguments

Synopsis

In this piece I offer a critique to some of the major arguments raised by John Lennox in his recent talks at Melbourne, both at the Friday night ‘Cosmic Chemistry’ public lecture, and also the Saturday ‘Reasons for Faith’ conference. Quotes that Lennox uttered over the course of these two events are presented at the beginning of each section in italics and quotation marks. These are taken from my notes made at the events in question. I have divided them up into topics, which I respond to in turn. The topics I address are: Lennox’s denial of evolutionary science, the argument that Christianity is responsible for the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the argument that language and semantic meaning cannot in principle be explained naturalistically, the notion that the very rational intelligibility of the universe must be taken for granted for science to even begin to function, the assertion that Christians were responsible for the abolition of slavery and the declarations of human rights, attacks on Atheism based on the evils done by Hitler and atheistic communist regimes, and the argument that without God there can be no objective grounding for morality. In general terms, I argue that Lennox misrepresents facts about history, fails to engage with philosophical disputes and the views of those thinkers who disagree with him, oversimplifies complex issues, and generally fails each time to present a cogent case for his arguments. (Note: Lennox also mentioned the evolutionary argument against naturalism, which I will not address here but will save for a future piece.)

Denial of Evolution

Lennox made a number of statements that were critical of evolution, or questioning of certain aspects of the current Neo-Darwinian consensus. In my view all of these arguments have been more than adequately refuted many times over by scholars far more learned than me, and such arguments are not taken seriously by biologists. As such, I don’t feel the need to rebut his claims specifically. I’m just going to list some of his most egregious assertions here for reference, as illustration of the profound extent to which of scientific denialism is to be heard even from a prominent mainstream Christian apologist such as Lennox.

  • “Where I have difficulty is in seeing this natural process (mutation and selection) as being creative, in the sense of generating new information. Evolution can explain about the survival of the fittest but not the origin of the fittest”
  • “You can arrange cars in a hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean that they are related…the tree of life has been turned upside down by biologists”
  • “Until you can give a mechanism for the progress of the lower organisms to the higher ones, you’ve just got an empty word (referring to the word ‘evolution’)
  • “Ideas coming out in the recent decades seriously questioning established wisdom…about the gradual accumulation of mutations” (note: I think what he was referring to here is growing evidence for punctuated equilibrium rather than gradualism, but he did not clarify this and made it seem that biologists were questioning evolution itself)
  • “I’m reacting as a non-biologist…but popular accepted wisdom in the blind watchmaker seems to be dying out”

The Christian Origins of Science

“Christian belief in God far from hindering science was actually the engine that drove it”
“Historically we owe modern science to Christianity”

A Dubious Thesis

The argument that Christian beliefs facilitated the scientific revolution in early modern Europe is not a new one. The usual argument goes that Christian belief in the presence of a lawgiver who created a universe governed by regular laws that we humans, imbued by God with the powers of reason, are capable of comprehending, was instrumental in facilitating the rise of the empirical scientific method in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. I have a number of comments about Lennox’s use of this argument. The first point to make is simply that this historical thesis is, at best, highly controversial, and Lennox really made no effort at all to substantiate it – he just asserted it as if it were a proven fact.

Second, it obviously is not the case that Christianity per se led to the scientific revolution, since Christianity was widespread in Europe for some thousand years before the scientific revolution, and it seems exceptionally implausible to argue that cause can proceed effect by over a millennium in this way. A more reasonable argument would be that some particular form of Christianity arising from the reformation, or as Lennox puts it “the particular way the reformers read the bible”, led to the genesis of science. But even this adjusted argument has major problems. For one thing, it is unable to explain why so much good science was done in Catholic countries (especially France and Italy; case in point – Galileo). Additionally, it’s not at all clear just what reading the bible has to do with science, or what specific beliefs were so new to the Reformers that could have been relevant to the scientific enterprise (the idea of natural law certainly wasn’t new, and some of the reformers, such as Luther, were actively hostile to human reason).

Science in Other Civilizations

Third, this explanation of the origins of science is just inconsistent with history. Much early pioneering mathematics and science was done in ancient Babylon, and more by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Chinese in the first and early second millennium were advanced in many areas, notable inventions including movable type, gunpowder, banknotes. The Arab World for centuries led the Christian world in philosophy, science, and mathematics. If we are to take the religion argument seriously we would have to say that paganism, Buddhism/Confucianism, and Islam all at different times and different places contributed to the rise of science, but later stopped doing so as these regions ceased to be world scientific leaders. This seems quite ad hoc and to lack much of any explanatory power.

A far more plausible explanation, I think, is that scientific progress is the product of an immensely complex interplay of economic, political, social, environmental, and ideological factors, with religion at best playing a contributory, and by no means mono-directional role (i.e. the same religion could help or hinder science, depending upon the context). Lennox’s simplistic thesis totally fails to account for the facts, and is ridiculously naive in its oversimplification of historical reality. As such I see no reason to take it seriously as an argument for anything. Of course, I agree with Lennox that scientific progress is consistent with Christian belief, but that’s a much weaker and also, I think, far less interesting claim.

Explaining Language and Thought Naturalistically

“That writing there that you take to have meaning cannot be reduced to the physics and chemistry of the paper and ink on which these symbols appear…the problem is that it cannot be explained reductionistically”
“The one area when explanations do not move from the complex to the simple is in language”

Lennox made this argument in a number of different ways at different times. It was not entirely clear to me whether he was arguing that language cannot be explained by reductionistic/naturalistic means, or whether meaning itself cannot be so explained. I think probably what he meant was something like the semantic-bearing component of language – the fact that language means something – can’t in principle ever be explained by reductionistic materialism.

Theorists Who Disagree

Like the Christian origins of science, this issue is a very complex and controversial one; and yet as before, Lennox gave no hint of this in his presentation. He made no mention of thinkers like Paul and Patricia Churchland, David Marr, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Hilary Putman, and many others who do think such a program is possible. Of course Lennox would also find support for his position in thinkers like John Searle (with is famous Chinese Room argument) and Rodger Penrose. My point here is not to decide that matter, but simply that the issue is a complex and controversial one, so Lennox’s confident claims that we can be sure that providing such an explanation is not possible are very difficult to justify – especially when he doesn’t even mention the controversy in the academic literature.

Progress in Semantics

Let me now consider whether we have made any progress in constructing a naturalistic explanation of meaning and/or semantic content. I’ll just list a few theories, schools of thought, and fields of research which I think are relevant:

  • Natural language processing
  • Context-free grammars
  • Semantic networks
  • Neural networks
  • Machine learning and pattern recognition
  • Formal semantics of logic (model-theoretic, proof-theoretic, and truth-value semantics)
  • Neurolinguistics
  • Machine translation
  • Computational linguistics
  • Neuroimaging and lesion analysis of brain regions associated with language

I am certainly not saying that these and similar fields or theories constitute a complete naturalistic explanation of the nature and genesis of meaning. Obviously we still have a great deal to learn, and much remains a mystery. What I am saying is that, as I think any honest analysis of these fields and theories will show, we have, over the past few decades, made considerable progress in understanding meaning and how the brain processes language, and there is ample reason to suppose that such progress will continue. Will there be absolute limits to this endeavour which leave any naturalistic explanation ultimately incomplete? Perhaps so, but my point here is that Lennox is dramatically overselling his case by simply asserting that this must be the case, ignoring the significant progress that has already been made in linguistics, computer science, psychology, and neuroscience, and also ignoring the significant philosophical disputes and complexities on the subject.

Understanding Reductionism

Furthermore, it seems patently false to say, as does Lennox, that ‘explanations of language are not reductionistic’. It’s true that such explanations do not attempt to reduce linguistic meaning to the physics and chemistry of the paper and ink, but that is a ridiculous strawman vision of the purpose of science and of the meaning of reductionism. We don’t attempt to reduce economic or sociological theories to chemistry and physics, but does that mean they are somehow mistaken or incomplete? Even biology cannot always be reduced to chemistry to any significant degree (e.g. we still don’t know the molecular bases of a good portion of biological functions).

Nonetheless, reductionistic explanations are still possible, if we think of them in the correct way. In the case of language, the reduction occurs by considering the symbols in which symbolic meaning is instantiated, and also the physical systems responsible for decoding those symbols (e.g. the human brain), and determining how they work. Current approaches in linguistics, machine translation, neuroscience, etc, are precisely reductionistic in this sense. But no sensible person thinks the meaning of symbols is to be found in a chemical analysis of the paper and ink. I find Lennox’s claim about this to be a totally bizarre strawman argument.

The Rational Intelligibility of the Universe

“Physics is powerless to explain its faith in the intelligibility of the universe, because you have to accept this before you even do any physics”

Intelligibility as a Working Hypothesis

I have always found this claim puzzling. It sounds to me like arguing that one needs to believe that a particular cake recipe will taste good, and that one will be able to follow all the steps of the recipe successfully, before one can even begin to bake the cake. Of course, I need not believe any such thing; all I need to believe is that these things might be true, and that it is worth my while to give it a try to see if they are or not. In my view, this is precisely what happens in science. We cannot say ex ante that a given theory or technique will work, or whether some phenomena will even be rationally intelligible at all – but nor do we need to. We try a bunch of different approaches and see if any of them work. If not, we try something else. Perhaps there will come a time when we say ‘we have tried every conceivable scientific approach to answer this question and all have failed, so it’s time to give up and admit defeat’. But I do not think we are in that situation about any topic of importance in science at the moment.

Lennox does think we are in that situation with respect to the origin of life: he said “if there is no possible natural explanation for the origin of life what you’d expect is for all attempts to do so will fail, and the problem will just get worse over time, and this is exactly what we have seen since the Urey-Miller experiments in the 1950s”. Looking at the state of the literature in that field I can’t say I agree with his assessment at all. Nonetheless, my point remains: just as we don’t have to believe that we can successfully bake a delicious cake in order to try out a recipe, so too we don’t have to believe that the universe necessarily is rationally intelligible in order to try out the scientific method and see if it works.

Lennox’s Questionable Axiom

While I am on the subject of foundational axiomatic beliefs, I will quote another thing Lenox said: “There is a basic axiom behind everything I do, and it’s a biblical axiom”. (Rom 1:19) ‘for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it…so they are without excuse'”

I’m not precisely sure what Lennox was claiming to be his axiom here – that the bible is true, or that the world of God is plainly revealed in the bible, or that God has plainly revealed himself to the world? Whatever the case, I would wonder what justification Lennox would offer for this axiom, and why he considers it to be more plausible than, or superior to, the empirically far more successful presupposition of science that the universe is rationally intelligible. If he is allowed to adopt this highly controversial axiom without any particular justification, why cannot science proceed on the basis of a (generally less controversial) axiom (or as I prefer to think of it, a working hypothesis) that the universe (or parts thereof) is rationally intelligible?

Christian Contributions to Society

“It was Christians who helped with the abolition of slavery”
“Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights”
“So many of our institutions, universities, hospitals, and so on, are due to Christianity”

I generally find these sorts of arguments irrelevant and rather silly. They always seem to end in a game of counting up Gandhis verses Stalins on each side in a futile attempt at one-upmanship. This proves nothing either way – Christianity could be beneficial and false, and vice-versa for Atheism. That said, I do want to address the factual accuracy of some of Lennox’s claims here, because I think he is playing a bit fast and loose with the truth, and that is something I find objectionable.

Christianity and Abolitionism

Were Christians the leading proponents of the abolition of slavery? Certainly the early abolitionist movement in the UK was led by a number of religious figures, including evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce and the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was founded mostly by Quakers. On the other hand, virtually everyone in the UK at that time was a Christian of some form, so it’s not completely clear what this tells us. If anything the main distinction of relevance seems to have been between mainstream Christian groups such as Anglicans on the one hand, and Dissenters (who were not eligible to serve in parliament) such as Quakers and Anabaptists on the other. So at best the UK abolitionist history gives us mixed support for Lennox’s thesis.

If we consider the situation in France, we note that the abolition of slavery first occurred under the First Republic in 1794 led by Robespierre, famous for his dechristianization policies and advocacy of the Cult of the Supreme Being, a rationalistic Deistic religion designed to replace Christianity as the French religion. Prior to the revolution, enlightenment figures such as Montesquieu had also argued against slavery. I’m not exactly sure what his religious views were, but he certainly is not strongly associated with any particular Christian group. Thus the French case does not appear to support Lennox’s thesis: the early abolitionist movement was largely non-Christian in origin. Note that after the revolution slavery was reinstated by Napoleon, who was a Catholic.

In the United States, the abolitionist movement was also in large part spearheaded by Quakers. On the other hand, as in the UK, virtually all those who opposed abolitionism were also Christians. Consider, for example, Virginian Baptist minister Thornton Stringfellow, who defended the institution of slavery on various biblical grounds. So once again we find mixed evidence.

So putting it all together, did Christians help with the abolition of slavery? Most definitely, especially the Quakers and other nonconformist groups. Did Christians hinder the abolition of slavery? Most definitely. Did non-Christians help the abolition of slavery? Definitely, as we see from Robespierre. Were there non-Christians who hindered the abolition of slavery? Probably: Hume had some rather unsavoury views about Negros, so he might be an example, though I’m not sure what his views were on slavery per se. My point here is that Lennox was just not being careful when he spoke about this. The facts are so much more complex, and it’s by no means clear that the reality of history supports his implication that Christianity per se (as opposed to people who were Christians) was instrumental for the abolition of slavery.

Christianity and Human Rights

Lennox’s claim that “Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights” is an intriguing one. I wonder which declaration he is referring to – there have been many. Perhaps he is referring to the famous statement from the American Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. If so, it is very dubious indeed to say that ‘Christianity’ was behind this declaration, as a number of the most prominent of the Founding Fathers were either Deists or held various hybrid beliefs that some scholars have described as ‘Theistic Rationalism’. The famous 1798 Treaty of Tripoli also states “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”. The precise meaning of this statement has been debated, but I think there is ample reason to be dubious of the notion that Christianity was “behind” this statement in the American Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was passed by the French National Assembly following the French Revolution, was very much a secular document with derived much of its intellectual heritage from Enlightenment thought, which was in general not atheistic, but also seldom supported traditional Christianity either. So considering these two cases, we once again find a much more complex and messy picture than is painted by Lennox. Christians were certainly involved in the early declarations of human rights, but to say that ‘Christianity’ as such was ‘behind them’ I think is a gross misstatement of history.

I think my point has already been sufficiently made, so I won’t comment specifically about hospitals and universities (look up ‘hospital’ on Wikipedia – Christians hardly invented them). I restate my core objection: Lennox’s history is sloppy, and his conclusions drastically oversimplified and premature.

The Evils of Atheism

“A corollary to this argument is that atheism is to blame for nothing…Imagine a world without Stalin. Without Hitler and Pol Pot”
“They (atheists) do not want anyone to draw a comparison between the communist attempts to obliterate religion and the current New Atheist attempts”
“The amount of blood that has been spilled by atheistic philosophies is colossal”

I’m not entirely sure why Lennox even brought this topic up. I don’t think he was arguing that Atheism was false because it has (allegedly) led to these evils. So why mention them in the context of a discussion about ‘reasons for faith’ and ‘science and faith’? These statements seem to be an almost complete red herring.

Hitler was no Atheist

There are many other problems with Lennox’s remarks here. First of all, he seems to be implying that Hitler was an atheist. Lennox did not say so explicitly, but he did say ‘atheism is to blame’, and then mentioned Hitler in between the names of two very staunchly atheistic communists (Stalin and Pol Pot), so I think it is legitimate to infer that he was at least implying that Hitler was an atheist. As anyone who has investigated the topic knows, the religious views of Adolf Hitler are a highly complex and controversial subject (I’m getting tired of saying this actually). Hitler made numerous statements on the subject that were often unclear or potentially contradictory. He certainly didn’t approve of mainstream Christianity, but of course that doesn’t make him an atheist. I personally don’t think the evidence supports the notion that Hitler was an atheist – I think he had too much of a sense of destiny and teleology for that view to make sense (though he wasn’t a very deep thinker so he might have just been inconsistent). Either way, I certainly think that casually throwing in Hitler in this way and implying that he was an Atheist is at best intellectually lazy, and at worst intellectually dishonest.

Atheism and Communism

As to the remark that atheists “do not want anyone to draw a comparison between the communist attempts to obliterate religion and the current New Atheist attempts” – is that supposed to come as a surprise? What Lennox is doing here is a dishonest and misleading bait and switch. Communism was atheistic, therefore contemporary atheists (or atheism generally) necessarily have some connection to the deeds of past Communist regimes. If this notion were to be applied consistently, it would mean that Christianity would have some necessary connection with the evils of the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, anti-Semitism across history, and any number of other evils perpetrated in the name of Christianity. Lennox argued that such evils should not be placed at the feet of Christianity because Jesus would have abhorred such things, and “no one who disobeys Jesus is a true Christian”. This is just the No True Scotsman fallacy – every Christian who does evil is not really Christian, but every Atheist who does evil is still a perfectly ‘real’ atheist.

Lennox’s Double Standards

Lennox, rightly, does not want to be associated with those Christians who advocated religious warfare or defended slavery on biblical grounds. Similarly, I do not want to be associated with communist leaders like Stalin and Pol Pot. For starters, I (like I think most atheists) am not a communist, and do not agree with much of their philosophy or politics. Furthermore, even modern-day communists generally deny that Stalin or Pol Pot (etc) were real or true communists. They were not following Marx’s actual teachings, nor would Marx have approved of their actions, so how could they be real Marxists? Sound familiar? Anyone can play this game.

I’m quite happy to agree that Stalin was an atheist. So what? Why would we think that his atheism was responsible for his crimes. He was also a Georgian – maybe that was to blame. Or maybe it was because he attended seminary. Or maybe it was because he had a moustache. Hitler had a moustache too, and modern-day moustache-wearers don’t like to compare Hitler’s and Stalin’s moustaches with their own pro-facial hair positions. To (mis)quote Lennox: it’s very important that we realise where the facial hair bus is going before we get on.

The Impossibility of Naturalistic Ethics

“The problem (with naturalistic ethical theories) is that if you leave god out and elevate any of these systems to the top, you run into serious problems. Well Hitler decided that the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews, Poles”
“On what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?”
“If there is no external basis for morality external to morality, how can any conception of morality be anything other than the mere opinion?”

Most Atheist Philosophers are Realists

This is another common apologetic argument – without God there can be no objective grounding for morality. Often this is defended by invoking certain quotes from Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and others (in a manner that I think misrepresents their views, but I won’t get into that here). I always find this strategy to be rather dishonest: selectively quote-mine some nihilistic or apparently nihilistic philosophers, whilst ignoring the fact that 59% of philosophers who are atheists are also moral realists (compared to 81% of theists – not actually such a big difference). So prima facie this argument already faces an uphill battle – most philosophers don’t buy it.

But what of Lennox’s specific arguments for this thesis? He didn’t actually offer many. At least in my experience, this is another common apologist tactic: to simply repeatedly assert that there is no objective morality without God, without actually giving any clear argument as to why this is the case.

Hitler was no Utilitarian

First let’s look at the case of Hitler. To begin with I’ll just say that its absurd to speak as if Hitler was a utilitarian in any sense. It is totally disingenuous of Lennox to make this insinuation. But even if Hitler had said that “the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews”, he would have been wrong. It’s hard to define what is meant by ‘benefit’ here, but however we cash out the concept (suffering, utility, human flourishing, whatever), it seems incontrovertible that the Holocaust did not promote human benefit. How could the Nazis get around this? They could, and in fact did, argue that Jews were sub-human, and therefore not worthy of ethical consideration. But how did they defend this assertion? They used pseudoscientific arguments drawn from bad anthropology and worse social Darwinism. They used misrepresentations of history and manipulation of contemporary social indicators (e.g. the Nazis argued that hardly any Jews fought for Germany in WWI, illustrating their cowardice, but this was just factually incorrect).

So the Nazi justification for oppressing the Jews was based upon bad reasoning and inaccurate information. As such, we can marshal any number of reasons against their contention that ‘the Jews were subhuman’, without invoking God at all. Indeed, God contributes nothing to this analysis. There’s nothing surprising about this. When we think about why the Nazis were wrong, we talk about the horrific harm they did, and the false beliefs they had about race (among other things). God does not figure into the explanation at all. No appeal to a creator is needed to understand that Auschwitz was a horrific crime – the suffering and death of so many sentient beings speaks for itself.

Why be Moral?

But suppose our imaginary utilitarian-Hitler were to really push the gauntlet. Suppose he were to say “I’m not saying the Jews are subhuman in any real biological sense. I’m just saying that I don’t wish to accord them any moral value. My moral framework only accords moral value to Aryans. Thus the Holocaust, by benefitting Aryans, was a morally good action according to my utilitarian framework.” This would be where Lennox would insert his rejoinder: “on what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?” How can the naturalist say that Hitler is wrong about not according moral value to Jews? Well, I think the naturalist can make an argument about that, but it would take rather a long time to explain, because meta-ethics is complicated.

For now, let me just reverse the challenge: what can the theist say to Hitler? According Jews zero moral value is wrong because God says so? Why should Hitler care what God says, even if he did believe that God exists? Who says that God gets to dictate morality? God said that? But that’s circular: Hitler says that he gets to dictate morality. Is it because God is all powerful? That’s just a variant of might makes right. Perhaps Hitler might be persuaded by that sort of argument, but the naturalist likely will not. God gets to dictate morality because God is good? But how can you say ‘God is good’ without antecedently having a concept of what the good actually is? Good with reference to what standard of good – God’s own standard? Hitler too was good by his own standard of good; why is God’s standard superior? Because he is more powerful? Now we are back to might makes right.

These are deep questions, and of course this brief post will by no means exhaust the debate. But hopefully I have illustrated my main point: Lennox has got a lot more work to do if we wishes to show that theistic ethics succeeds where non-theistic ethics fails.

Subjective doesn’t mean ‘Not Real’

Let me address a final comment Lennox made: “If there is no external basis for morality external to morality, how can any conception of morality be anything other than the mere opinion?” I find this to be a strange thing to say. First of all, I don’t think any naturalist would want to say that there was ‘no external basis’ for morality. Surely morality would be based on the interactions and circumstances of people (and perhaps also animals), facts about the external world which are not ‘mere opinion’. But I think perhaps what Lennox means is something like “why would any statement to the effect that we should place value on some external state of affairs be anything other than mere opinion?”

In responding to this, I want to draw attention to the phrase “mere opinion”. I would ask Lennox why he thinks that ‘opinion’ is necessarily ‘mere’ in any sense? Why should the fact that something is solely the product of human evaluative opinion make it any less real or important? Is the beauty of Mozart’s music ‘merely’ human opinion? The fact that money is valuable is certainly the product of ‘mere human opinion’ – there’s no value to money outside of the value we place on it. Similarly with language – there’s no meaning at all to the sound ‘tree’ other than that we humans place on it as a result of our subjective opinion. Would Lennox also ask “if there is no external basis for the value of money, how can any conception of the value of money be anything other than mere opinion”? Of course the value of money is ‘merely opinion’, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value, or that the value of money is somehow less ‘real’.

And to push the analogy further, if a divine being declared that money was valuable by fiat, that wouldn’t actually change anything. People would still only place value on money if in their opinion it had value (this is why governments do not always succeed in having their fiat currencies accepted by the population). Likewise for language: the best attempts of the Académie Française aside, no external being or body can imbue meaning in a word by fiat, unless people themselves also had a subjective sense that this is indeed what the word means. All the world’s governments could declare tomorrow that ‘green’ actually means ‘blue’, but unless people’s subjective opinions on the matter also changed in this way, the governments would simply be wrong – the words would not mean that. Furthermore, people may disagree about the beauty of a Mozart piece, of the value of a particular currency, or the meaning of a word. But such disagreement does not entail the fact that ‘all opinions are equally valid’, or that all such talk is meaningless and without meaning or real purpose.

My point here is not to say that morality is the same as aesthetic value, or monetary value, or linguistic meaning. Obviously there are differences. My point is simply that things can be both ‘mere opinion’ and still also be perfectly real and meaningful. If Lennox wishes to argue that morality is useless or meaningless if it is ‘mere opinion’, then he will need to present a cogent argument to that effect – something he did not do in his presentations.

Conclusion

Though he did say some things that I agreed with, such as calling for more civil dialogue between believers and non-believers and rightly calling out many of the New Atheist thinkers for their sloppy philosophy, overall I was disappointed with Lennox’s presentations. I felt that his arguments were, generally speaking, unstructured, sloppily presented, imprecisely expressed, and inadequately researched. He frequently oversimplified complicated and controversial questions, and seemed far too willing to dismiss the fact that a sizeable majority of experts in the relevant field disagree with his opinion (e.g. in the case of evolution and his views about moral realism and theism). Of course Lennox’s time was limited, so he was unable to go into complete depth on any subject, but he did have over four hours in total at his disposal, and I think he could have done much more than he did in that time. Overall I did not find the case that Lennox presented for Christianity to be very compelling at all, nor do I think it dealt very directly or ably with any of the core philosophical questions at the heart of the dispute. In my view, Christian apologetics deserves better than this.

PolesWikipedia: The Poles are a nation of predominantly West Slavic ethnic origin who are native to East-Central Europe, inhabiting mainly Poland. The present population of Poles living in Poland is estimated at 36,522,000 out of the overall Poland population of 38,512,000. The preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of Poland defines the Polish nation as comprising all the citizens of Poland.