Can Objective Morality Exist Without God? (Round 1)

Can objective morality exist without God? That’s the question that Steven Dillon and I are debating over at Strange Notions. The schedule is as follows:

Wednesday (11/6) – Joe’s rebuttal (affirmative)
Thursday (11/7) – Steven’s rebuttal (negative)
Friday (11/8) – Questions exchanged (three questions each)
Saturday (11/9) – Answers (Joe and Steven answer each other’s questions)
Sunday (11/10) – Joe’s closing statement (affirmative)
Monday (11/11) – Steven’s closing statement (negative)

Here’s the first argument from my opening statement:

Argument 1: We Can’t Ground Objective Morality in Anything Other than God.

François-Léon Sicard, The Good Samaritan
 The easiest way to prove this claim is to begin with a simple three-prong test. To whatever extent possible, let’s reformulate the moral philosophy in question in this format: “If you want to achieve X, you must do Y.” (Obviously, this works in reverse as well: “if you want to avoid X, you must avoid Y,” etc.). Now, ask three questions.

  1. Could there exist a person who doesn’t want to achieve X?
  2. Could there be some good other than X that an individual values more than X?
  3. Is there another means of achieving X besides Y?
If the answer to any of these three questions is yes, your system is neither objective nor binding. This test should serve as a helpful guide, and will quickly show that the non-theistic moral systems fail. (If you’re going to contest this point in the comments, try to provide an objective, binding moral system in this format that doesn’t require God).
For example, consider the following four ways of accounting for morality without recourse to God:
  1. Social: An action is moral or immoral based upon whether society approves or disapproves of it.
  2. Personal: An action is moral or immoral based upon whether I feel it to be moral or immoral. (Going against conscience is the only sin.)
  3. Biological: Morality is “hardwired into our genes as an evolutionary survival mechanism.”
  4. Utilitarian: “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” – John Stuart Mill‘s Greatest Happiness Principle (GHP).
Why am I bound to obey society, or even my own conscience? Why am I obliged to act upon my genetic predispositions, or to act in such a way that it produces the greatest aggregate happiness? At a minimum, the social, biological, and utilitarian bases fail the first prong: we can easily imagine a person who is a social misfit, and who isn’t particularly concerned with survival of the fittest or the GHP.
All four theories fail the second prong of the test. Martin Luther King gives us an example of someone who valued a good (social justice) over the societal morality laid out by the Jim Crow South. Indeed, the entire notion of social progress is based upon the idea that we’re not bound to blindly accept social mores.
As for personal morality, the only reason that conscience is binding is because we believe that it corresponds to something higher than ourselves. If it’s our own creation, we are its master, not its servant. A guilty conscience would be, at most, one factor to be weighed in decision-making. In deciding to cheat on your wife or rob a bank, you’d weigh the amount of guilt you’ll feel compared to the amount of pleasure. If that’s the case, conscience is no more binding than indigestion is “binding” on my decision to eat eight tacos.
And if morality is merely biological, why not treat it as accidental or vestigial, like the coccyx? After all, couples routinely act directly against the propagation of the species by contracepting, choosing careers over marriage, etc.
Finally, utilitarianism. Why pursue the GHP? After all, this isn’t how moral decision-making works. If it were, we would stop taking care of our families, and send that money to the world’s neediest people. In practice, even utilitarians like Peter Singer abandon the GHP when they have to make important decisions. Moreover, utilitarianism leads to unconscionable resultsNo action—slavery, rape, genocide, torture, etc.—could ever be described as objectively evil. We’d have to determine how much pleasure the slavemaster, rapist, genocidaire, and torturer derive (along with the pleasure or displeasure of the general public). Only after we’ve weighed all of those factors, could we determine whether the action is right or wrong.

Read on for the whole thing, and here is Steven’s opening statement, in which he suggests that “agony is inherently bad” is a moral proposition that exists apart from God.

So far, there are over 200 comments on my post, and it’s only been a day — most of these comments have been thoughtful and reasonably civil comments from atheists who aren’t familiar with classical theism. Your prayers are most welcome!


  1. Obviously, this works in reverse as well: “if you want to avoid X, you must avoid Y,” etc.

    Should be, ‘…this works in reverse as well: if you want to avoid Y, you must avoid X.’

  2. K, so your opponents argument resting on the premise: ‘agony is bad’ is just a utilitarianism, but you already know this, and already know the response has insuperable difficulty with mutually exclusive agonies/goods, i.e. the economic problem of scarcity and utils, which is a value judgement not an objective morality. For Joe’s readers, what I mean by mutually exclusive agonies/goods is the economic problem of some person’s pleasure costing some other person pain. That is, our sneakers requires little kid slaves to make them. Something we don’t really have to many scruples about. But is the aggregate good of our society higher than the net evil inflicted on the more or less slavish conditions of the children who spend 14 hours making shirts? Economics obviously says that yes, it is morally better for us to have these goods, but most people if they had to travel (for free, without opportunity cost that is) to india or bangladesh to pick up their freshly tailored, well startched shirt from the little child slave in india, and then give him half a rupee for it, as he coughs up blood into a dirty handkerchif because he has a respiratory infection at 8 years old due to the working conditions (this isn’t a joke), well we wouldn’t just blush with shame.

    And the other author has the problem identifying why the word ‘morality’ is relevant when he hasn’t established free will, that is to say good and evil are nonsense to speak of in a world without free will, which must follow from a world without God, and which others of the less subtle athiests, like Sam Harris concede without quite seeing the absurdity of speaking on the subject of morality.

  3. Ryan: “That is, our sneakers requires little kid slaves to make them” and “Economics obviously says that yes, it is morally better for us to have these goods”
    I wish you were joking, but I fear you are serious. I can’t then take you seriously when you then accuse others of absurdities.

  4. “Could there exist a person who doesn’t want to achieve X?
    Could there be some good other than X that an individual values more than X?
    Is there another means of achieving X besides Y?”

    I fail to see how a “Yes” answer to any of these would make morality not objective. Please, define your terms. I’m thinking you mean “absolute.” That term would actually fit with your argument.

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