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Morality – Religion, Philosophy and Science

by Steven Novella, Jan 07 2013

What is the proper basis for morality? This question comes up frequently in skeptical circles for various reasons – it tests the limits of science, the role of philosophy, and is often used as a justification for religion. There has been a vibrant discussion of the issue, in fact, on my recent posts from last week. The comments seemed to contain more questions than anything else, however.

Religion and Morality

Often defenders of religion in general or of a particular set of religious beliefs will argue that religion is a source of morality. They may even argue that it is the only true source of morality, which then becomes defined as behavioral rules set down by God.

There are fatal problems with this position, however. The first is that there is no general agreement on whether or not there is a god or gods, and if there is what is the proper tradition of said god. There are scores of religions in the world, each with their own traditions. Of course, if god does not exist, any moral system based upon the commandments of god do not have a legitimate basis (at least not as absolute morality derived from an omniscient god).

Related to this is the issue of religious freedom. It is impossible to base laws on religious beliefs without oppressing the religious freedom of those who do not share those religious beliefs.

Another fatal problem is that, even if we lived in a universe where there is a god who has moral commandments, nobody knows what those are. There is no one who objectively and verifiably knows the will of God, and God has not seen fit to unambiguously make their will known to all of humanity. We are therefore left with the interpretation of God’s will by people, and therefore at best all we know are the interpretations by very fallible and culturally biased people. If the multitude of religious traditions is any indication, this is an extremely variable and flawed filter through which to see the will of God.

Finally there is a philosophical dilemma inherent in basing absolute morality on religious faith. If God’s morality is perfect and absolute, is it so because it comes from God, or is it inherently perfect and God, who is omniscient, is simply able to discern it as so? The latter seems like an untenable position – morality is whatever God says it is, without any appeal to logic or any objective criteria of what a good moral rule would be.

This position, however, seems to fit the evidence from ancient religious texts. As many have pointed out, the morality of the god of the old testament was brutal and even evil by today’s standards – God apparently thought it was OK to murder children for poking fun at his prophets, to rape women, to engage in slavery, and to commit genocide.

If, on the other hand, morality is itself absolute and God simply knows what absolute morality is, then shouldn’t we strive to understand morality and derive proper moral decision-making on our own? If a moral position is objectively correct, then we can demonstrate that objective without appeal to religious faith, avoiding any problems with freedom of religion.

Science, Philosophy, and Morality

To what extent is our moral decision-making, including laws that derive from it, based upon science vs philosophy? I agree with the position, articulated by Massimo Pigliucci, that both science and philosophy are needed for moral reasoning. The other position, defended by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape, is that we can develop an objective morality based entirely on science.

The problem with the science-only position is that it is dependent upon taking a particular philosophical position – that of consequentialism (also called utilitarianism). This is the philosophical position that the best moral decision is the one that maximizes human happiness. For distinction there is also deontological theory of morality, which states that an ethical system derives from rules. These rules are based upon the most fundamental assumptions possible. An example would be – it is unethical to deliberately deceive another human.

A third system is that of value ethics, which considers the effect of specific moral decision on the values of the person who makes them. This system essentially asks – what kind of people do we want to be, and what kind of society do we want to have?

Personally, I do not think there is any one ethical system that always works. It is legitimate to consider consequences, but also to have a system of rules, and to consider the bigger question of individual and societal values. These get mixed together in a complex way in order to make individual moral decisions. But there is no algorithm or method to always derive the right answer.

Science plays a role in all this – science can tell us about why we have the moral senses that we do. This is based mostly on evolutionary theory and on neuroscience. For example, most humans seem to have an inherent sense of reciprocity and justice. We feel that if we do something good for someone else, they should give back to a similar degree. Further, if someone does something bad against another person or (worse) the group, they should be punished in some way. These are evolved senses, based in the hardwiring of our brains.

None of this, however, can tell us if we should punish those who commit crimes.

Another contribution of science, however, is to tell us about outcomes. If we create certain laws or rules of behavior, what is the outcome? This type of evidence informs ethical decision making, but cannot makes the decisions for us. We still have to decide what outcomes we want, and how to value different outcomes when they conflict. How do we balance freedom and safety, for example? And how do we account for the fact that different individuals would draw the line in different places? How do we balance the rights of different individuals when they conflict?

Science cannot answer these question for us – it can only inform our choices by telling us what the likely outcomes will be.

Those defending science as the final arbiter of ethics either knowingly or unknowingly are taking a consequentialist view. Even if this view can be defended as the best system of ethics (and I do not believe it can), that is still a philosophical choice that needs to be defended philosophically.

Here is an example of why consequentialism breaks down. Would you consider it ethical to take someone against their will, kill them, and harvest their organs in order to save the lives of 5 people (or 6, or some other arbitrary number)? Most people would say no. However, you are saving 5 lives at the expense of 1, and it can be demonstrated that this will maximize happiness all around.

Ethicists would argue that the right not to be killed (a negative right) outweighs the right to be saved with a medical intervention – but this is now invoking ethical rules, not just considering outcomes. Further, we might argue that we would not want to live in a society in which one can be forcibly taken and murdered to have their organs harvested (a value ethics position).

Pure consequentialism, in my opinion, is not a tenable position. In any case, there is simply no way to avoid doing philosophy when thinking ethically.

By the same token it is difficult, and in some cases impossible, to apply moral thinking without having information provided by science. The two disciplines are complementary.


The best approach to morality and ethics, in my opinion, is a thoughtful blend of philosophy and science. I do not see a legitimate role for religion itself, however, cultural traditions (many of which may be codified in religious belief) are a useful source of information about the human condition and the effect of specific moral behaviors. There may be wisdom in such traditions – but that is the beginning of moral thinking, not the conclusion. Religious traditions also come with a great deal of baggage derived from the beliefs and views of fairly primitive and unenlightened societies.

110 Responses to “Morality – Religion, Philosophy and Science”

  1. Trimegistus says:

    Any moral/ethical system ultimately requires some axioms: “don’t take lives” or “respect the rights of others.” The trouble is that those axioms aren’t facts, they’re aspirational goals. You can’t logically demonstrate an aspiration, so it’s basically impossible to have an ethical system (other than brute pragmatism) based purely on reason.

    Religion sidesteps the issue by asserting, basically, that the axioms are “because we say so.” To the post-Enlightenment mind, this is unsatisfactory. However it must be noted that as a matter of brute pragmatism, post-Enlightenment attempts to come up with ethical systems have not done well. “Because it is in the interest of the race” or “Because it is the will of the proletariat” aren’t really any better, either logically or in terms of observable outcomes.

    This is why I resist skepticism’s reflexive hostility to religion. As a matter of brute pragmatism, religious ethical systems have a pretty good track record. I’ll happily match the Thirty Years’ War and the Crusades as examples of religion-induced horrors, against the purges in the USSR and Mao’s China plus World War II. Explicitly non-religious systems managed to kill and torture more people in half a century than all the religious wars and inquisitions managed in two thousand years.

    Quite simply: I’m an atheist, and I’d rather be an atheist in a society which is informed by Christian moral principles than an atheist in a society designed by atheists.

    • Janet Camp says:

      I was with you until the last paragraph. The “moral principles” are not so much informed by Christianity, as being the result of human endeavor to find universal principles of good vs. evil. Their commitment, or lack of, to a particular religion is just cultural overlay.

    • I completely disagree. This is a common argument, but it fails in equating the excesses of the Soviet or Mao governments with atheism. Those purges were ideologically motivated. The problem is ideology, whether religious, economic, social, or whatever.

      Moral thinking took place in the past largely within religious thinking, because that’s what they had. But – that religious moral thinking (at least in the West)is largely based upon Greek philosophers. Aristotle laid out the basics of moral philosophy, and everything since then has derived from that – although with significant contributions and extensions. To say it is based on Christian morals is simply misleading, or that we would not have a workable ethical system without religious tradition is quite wrong.

      • Daniel says:

        Perhaps you can’t “equate” the excesses of Communism or Mao with atheism, but atheism certainly had an influence. At bottom, Mao and Stalin were amoral, for which, as I see it anyway, atheism is a necessary although not sufficient precursor. (On the prospect of a nuclear war, Mao said it wasn’t a big deal if hundreds of millions Chinese perished, as there were a billion more where they came from). Without the belief that your actions are being judged objectively, you’re free to do anything.

        And it’s a cop out to say that’s not what atheism is “really all about”, the same way that an atheist would find it a cop out for a religious person to say that the persecution of Galileo wasn’t really what religion teaches.

      • tmac57 says:

        Where were the Catholic church’s morals in it’s position toward the Nazi’s during WWII?
        The German’s were neither atheists nor were the Japanese.Yet the godless Soviet Union fought with the Allies.

      • Daniel says:

        The Nazis’, or at least the Nazi leadership’s, attitude towards religion was neither fish nor foul. (Hitler once called Christianity the biggest trick the Jews played on civilization). They had this kind of occult belief in the Aryan Superman, but not in a supreme being or something like that, that judges us after we die.

        Historical nuances aside, I have never said that religious people always act morally. However, at least they tend to act as if there’s an objective underpinning behind their actions. Atheists can’t have that. (Was it Somite that commented in another post that he/she believed in science and nothing else?) I don’t know whether if we were to weigh the scales of the atheists moral shortcomings or religious fanatacism, which would result in the greater suffering on a pound for pound basis. At least in the 20th Century though, atheists don’t have a lot to brag about in that regard.

      • Martin says:

        I believe Dr. Bronowski answered this best:

      • RCAF says:

        I’m sorry, but you really don’t have any perspective on history, especially if you think that Atheism leads to brutality. I really can’t understand how people get this idea in their head that their are “good” Christian values without ignoring everything that has been done by those in the “just wars”.

        I’m a Canadian military airman and it is sickening what the Allies did. If you aren’t aware, you should take a military history course, and read about how the Airforce targeted the civilian populations in both Germany and Japan.

        Germany lost 350,000 lives, and over 780,000 casualties. Japan fared worse with a single night killing 100,000 people in Tokyo – oh, and wasn’t it the Christian US that was the only country that has used neuclear weapons? The two bombs killed nearly 250,000.

        And this pales in comparison to the past – the Crusades, anyone? Sacking a town was rewarded by letting the soldiers rape, pillage, plunder the local civilian population.

        So please, don’t even start on the old “we are free to do anything because we don’t have a diety” argument. Not only is it tiring, and completely wrong. It is one of the most ignorant things ever said.

      • Daniel says:

        My guess is that I know a lot more about history than you think.

        In any event, without turning this into a history lesson though, just ask yourself this, would you rather live in those atheist paradises that were Stalin’s USSR or Mao’s China, or amidst the the fervent of bible thumpers in middle America (I guess there are probably a few of them in Canada as well).

        No matter which way you slice it, atheists have a near monopoly on the the most brutal dictatorships of the 20th century. That kind of track record isn’t a coincidence.

      • RCAF says:

        @Daniel, you make the same tired arguments that Mao and Stalin were Atheists as every ill-informed appologist I’ve ever met. So whatever your knowledge of history is, it is obscured by your bias. For starters, Hitler was regiouis, and espoused Positive Christianity. Moreover, he regarded Atheism in the same way he viewed communism, and Judaism.

        Your question about where I’d rather live is an utter non-sequitor. I can comfortably live here as it is a secular society. I could easily ask you if you’d rather live in Mao’s China or Stalin’s USSR, or be a Christian in Armenia during the genecide? How about a Muslim in Bosnia during the 90’s? Do you think you’d fare better as a Christian these days in Iran, or Afgahnistan?

        Furthermore, why stop at the 20th century, this is why I doubt you know much history? Go back the to the Crusades, to the birth of Islam, and to the Bible itself. How about a Jew in Spain during the Inquisition? How about a Catholic in England during and after Henry the 8th’s reign? Or a heretic in any part of Europe before the Renaissance? And care to have a chat with Vlad?

        Yes, I’d take my chances in Russia or China compared to the likes of the good religous folk. Face it, any way you slice it, religion doesn’t look so good; this is no coincidence.

    • Somite says:

      Religions are considered a source of morality only because they have codified laws in very old books. Nothing else. Some of those laws would be absolutely repellent today so people pick and choose what they want to follow based on modern western standards. See Deuteronomy.

      Regarding the tired trope of atheist dictators; atheism is the logical conclusion that there is no god. If they did evil they did because of who they are, not because they derived evil from atheism.

    • Tom M. says:

      Bravo. Brilliant analysis. I believe you’ve managed to express the essential reasons why Enlightenment rationality has stumbled, why religion is not going away, and why we nontheists and nonreligious need to better appreciate the limits of the former and how the latter, particularly Christianity, has been on the whole probably more of a force for good in history than for the bad its detractors tend to fixate upon.

    • Phea says:

      Trimegistus, when tallying up the religion -vs- secular body counts, did you take technology into consideration?

      • Max says:

        The Soviets didn’t need technology. They used starvation, gulags, and executions.
        If there’s one thing that should be accounted for, it’s the size of the population, which is what Steven Pinker did in The Better Angels Of Our Nature: How Violence Has Declined.

      • tmac57 says:

        One wonders what the ancient Christians or Muslems would have done with modern weaponry? Makes me shudder.

      • Daniel says:

        Pakistan has nuclear weapons. No mushroom cloud over New Deli yet. While it doesn’t have any nukes, Saudi Arabia has a modern military. They haven’t bombed Shi’ite Iran or Israel.

        So my deduction is that mutually assured destruction would have the same effect in ancient times as it does now.

      • tmac57 says:

        You forget,there are more powerful players (U.S Russia for ex.)in the mix that introduces that uncertainty. Reduce it to just one or two,and the dynamic can get ugly quickly.

      • Max says:

        The Iran-Iraq War got pretty bad with Iraq using chemical weapons, and Iran using children to clear minefields.

      • Daniel says:

        Max, re Iran-Iraq War, one side undoubtedly theocratic (Iran), the other secular (Ba’athist Iraq).

        tmac57, if you’re making the argument that theocratic societies are more prone to violent behavior, I doubt that they would care where the destruction that would rein over them came from.

    • Max says:

      An ethical system that says “respect the rights of others” for whatever reason wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is an ethical system that says “DON’T respect the rights of others” because of their religion, race, or social class.

    • Johnny says:

      “However it must be noted that as a matter of brute pragmatism, post-Enlightenment attempts to come up with ethical systems have not done well. “Because it is in the interest of the race” or “Because it is the will of the proletariat” aren’t really any better, either logically or in terms of observable outcomes.”

      I live in Sweden, one of the most secularized (yeah, look that up ) countries in the world. It does much better than the more religious places in the world. A brute fact for your consideration.

      The UN Declaration of Human Rights is not a religiously baed document. It is the foundation for many liberal democracies in the world. You probably live in such a society rather than one informed by Christian morality. Go back a few hundred years to see what a society informed by Christian morality is like.

      Yes, the communists weren’t theists (that is, atheists), but they weren’t astrologers either. If that an argument for astrology?

    • AL says:

      Well before you compare say Soviet purges to the Crusades, you do have to control for population size. 20th Century Europe was far, far more heavily populated than 13th century Europe. If you just say the Soviets were worse because their body count was higher, then by applying similar reasoning, you’d have to conclude that life in a Yanomami village is better than life in Detroit, MI or Oakland, CA.

  2. Daniel says:

    Science can perhaps explain WHY humans or any other intelligent species, strive to act “morally”. And perhaps acting morally, as your average joe might understand morality, is necessary to the survival of the species. I just cannot see how moral values are anything but subjective without the existence of some higher supernatural power, and perhaps even some kind of afterlife. (I’m not that religious morality is objectively correct either).

    Humans could loot, pillage, murder and rape one another to oblivion and the universe will hum along and expand all the same. Or, the Nazis could have won, and we’d be asking whether the assumed morality of “racially pure” dictatorship can be proven scientifically.

    • Daniel says:

      Another way to look at it, there are hundreds of millions of people that believe the 9/11 attacks were morally justified. Could that claim be falsified or assessed scientifically? I doubt it.

      • tmac57 says:

        And those hundreds of millions of people may I point out ARE fervently religious,AND believe in a higher power.So much for god being the basis for morality.

    • RCAF says:

      You mistate the point, relgious morals are just as subjective. With religion you just do whatever you want, and then justify it using some bronze age nonesense, or you beg forgiveness.
      People have used religion to justify everything from rape, murder, slavery, and genocide. Do you not read the news? Have you not noticed that most conflicts are based on either two religions (Philippines, Dafur, Indonesia, etc.) or two factions of one religion (the Arab Spring)?

      Is it your contention that you can morally justify the murder of doctors for performing abortion? Do you approve of preventing two people from being in love because they are the same sex? How about forcing a woman to bear a chld due to a rape?

      What about the molestation of children by priests and pastors? What about the sucking of a child’s penis by a rabbi during a bris? Do you approve of that?

      More importantly, why can you not find one major moral issue, such as I’ve listed, without religous people arguing on both sides? As a Christian, don’t you have god’s answers? Maybe, he’s bored and playing with you?

      • Daniel says:

        Yes, of course religious values are subjective, unless one particular religion “has it right.” The point though is that without the actual existence of a supernatural deity, morality is subjective. As I understand Novella’s point, he argues that science and non-theism has something to tell us about morality in an objective sense. It’s obvious though that those things only tell us why it would be in someone’s best interest to act morality.

      • Daniel says:

        BTW, I tend not to proofread comments I make on blogs.

      • RCAF says:

        I don’t proofread, much either. So we are even there.

      • RCAF says:

        The point would be that even with the same diety, there is no agreement on morality. Are you aware that studies in secular countries show there is little relation between a person’s faith and their actual beliefs and actions?

        Are you aware that Catholics use birth control at a rate that is equivalent to non-Catholics, and that fundementalist Christians have abortions at a higher rate than the general population?

        Furthermore, how is it that those with a diety to give absolute morality commit some of the most heinous crimes imaginable? Why is it that priests and ministers sexually assault children at such high rates? Why are there those such as Fred Phelps that spew nothing but venom, or why are the Muslims trying to kill little girls going to school?

        Seems that the belief in a diety leads to the same morals as not having a belief in a diety – at least that appears to be your view. Are you, therefore, stating that the absolute morals of a diety are evil?

      • Daniel says:

        First, on Catholics using birth control. I am commenting only on the belief in a deity, not necessarily whether you adhere to everything or even not very much of what your official faith states.

        Second, on evangelicals having the most abortions, I seriously doubt that you could ever quantify that. An abortion is a medical procedure that is confidential.

        People that believe in god doing bad things, and perhaps doing so in the name of their god. I have tried to make clear that I don’t dispute that. I also don’t dispute that there are plenty of atheists that are more moral in the intuitive sense than religious people. However, the subjectivity of morality absent the existence of deity is not a pedantic observation with no real world consequences. As I say, you can’t chalk up the fact that Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were atheists just to coincidence. They weren’t sociopathic dictators that just happened to be atheists.

        You’re right though. If we were to tally up the body counts of atheists, religious zealots, or just hypocritcal religious types, the number very well might be equal.

      • itzac says:

        Daniel, we have aggregate statistics that show a far higher rate of abortions in states with higher poverty and religiosity. Now it’s possible that all those extra abortions are being had by the few irreligious women in those states, but it’s not very likely.

      • tmac57 says:

        Here’s a plausible scenario:
        Fundamentalists believe that sex before marriage is a sin,and that birth control is either wrong or inappropriate for an unmarried person.
        Young people have strong sex drives despite what religious teachings say.
        Young people act impulsively .
        People who have sex unprotected tend to get pregnant more often.
        Fundamentalists are less likely to be understanding of young people engaging in ‘shameful,sinful’ sex.
        In an attempt to hide their ‘terrible shame and sin’ young people seek out an abortion.
        Sound about right?

      • RCAF says:

        Daniel, if you ignore the fact that the use of birth control is a blatant disregard of the Pope’s authority, then I have to confess that I’m not sure what the conclusion of your argument is. If your argument is that theists have absolute morals, but no one follows them, then what good is having them?

        As for the abortions – please check out the link

        There have also been other, more recent studies involving only fundementalists, but this gives you the idea.

        BTW the body count isn’t even close. Remember that the ancient empires weren’t atheists, merely pagan. Christianity and Islam also had at least a millenium head start, so this shouldn’t be surprising.

        And if you believe the body count attributable to the god of the old testement, well, let’s just say that no one holds a candle to wiping out everyone, but a family and a few animals.

        Don’t get me wrong, I don’t support the brutality of the evil dictators you mention, but I don’t agree that it has anything to do with their lack of belief, as they are nothing special when you compare them to past rulers.

  3. d brown says:

    All the Crusades were was trying to take back what invaders took. They had too many leaders to do it right.

  4. Max says:

    Religious moral values aren’t that absolute. Lot’s daughters got him drunk and committed incest with him to bear his children.

  5. Max says:

    I’d consider harvesting the organs of murderers. Can’t bring back their victims, but can still save some lives.

  6. Somite says:

    I just don’t understand the problem with applying consequentialism. Just keep current laws and apply the objective pursuit of happiness. For example, in the case in the article there are laws against murder so the point is moot.

    The examples against consequentialism always involve the relative happiness of one party against another. Part of what Harris proposed is to codify this in a way that maximizes happiness for the most people. One way to solve this is that decreases in happiness supersede the increases in happiness of another party.

    Sam Harris never called his approach consequentialism because it isn’t. He actually openly disdains philosophy pigeonholes.

    As an aside. Have you noticed philosophy never works? Philosophy problems are distillations for which in practice we find solutions every day. I would not discount any approach because it resembles a philosophical position. You need to press the red button in this one.

    • Max says:

      Should cartoons of Mohammed be outlawed because they make a billion people unhappy and result in riots and deaths?

      • tmac57 says:

        Not in a logical world,but on the other hand,I wouldn’t want to be the one responsible for that editorial decision in THIS world.

    • Max says:

      “For example, in the case in the article there are laws against murder so the point is moot.”

      It wouldn’t be called murder. Murder is unlawful killing with malice, but this would be lawful killing with good intention.

    • Max says:

      Do you donate all the money you don’t need for survival to Africa?

  7. Tom Griffith says:

    Call it what you want. It comes down to “good” vs “evil” choices or “right” vs “wrong” choices. These aren’t choices that necessarily make for good evolution – but they do allow a society to exist. It puts self-interest as a subordinate objective.
    So where does this all come from? Use a lot of fancy words and phrases and the final answer is “we don’t know”. Clinging to any explanation that can’t be tested and proven is an exercise in faith. Religion is faith in something that can’t be tested and proven. Therefore you have just replaced the word religion with “science” and “philosophy”.
    So stop sneering at people with religion – because your religion of “science” or “philosophy” can’t test or prove why we have morals any more than a religion can.

  8. mike marriam says:

    Who defines happiness? If the majority of people have fun killing kittens does that make it morally acceptable? Take the 10 commandments out of the cannon of western law and you are without rule of law.

    • Max says:

      Only two or three of them are inscribed in Western law: don’t murder, don’t steal, and don’t bear false witness as in perjury and defamation.
      But last time I checked, polytheism, graven images, working on the Sabbath, adultery, and disrespecting your parents were quite legal.

    • RCAF says:

      I don’t think you’ve read the commadments, if that’s your belief. Moverover, the Christian faith lead to murdering people for being witches, and torturing people because they were Jewish during the Spanish Inquisisition. The Bible was also used to condone slavery.

      You might also be interested to learn that even Isreal uses secular laws, which is a good thing because there would be a lot of people executed for working on the Sabath, otherwise.

  9. Amy Sterling Casil says:

    I don’t think you did much better than James Corbett did a while back. I did better than you, and I’m a Christian.

    May I ask politely, why you would choose to write about a subject you don’t know much about?

    By the way, let me translate for you in advance. Yes, I am a Christian. However, I do not believe that all morality derives from the Bible. The difficulty in making science “fit” some sort of structure should indicate that science, much like any other human activity, can only go so far.

  10. glenn says:

    This is a very poorly reasoned piece.

    Here’s jsut one example. The author declares “It is impossible to base laws on religious beliefs without oppressing the religious freedom of those who do not share those religious beliefs.”

    I that were true, then the universal legal proscription against murder would be “oppressive” to anyone who does not believe in the portion of the Ten Commandments that proscribes murder.

    My morality is your oppression, I suppose. But such is morality. To say that basing it in religion is “oppresive” accomplishes nothing but name-calling.

    • RCAF says:

      Please, tell me how the 10 commandements (using Exodus’ version) isn’t oppresive? The first four deal stickly with obedence to your god, and number 10 is utter ridiculous as it deals with nothing more than thought and emotion. And if thought control isn’t oppresive, then I have no clue what is.

    • itzac says:

      This is a rather niggling comment. Apply the principle of charity and you will realize, as most other readers have, that the author left unstated the stipulation that this is only a problem when religious and secular laws conflict. Does this really need to be stated explicitly?

  11. Phea says:

    To me, living a moral, ethical, decent life pretty much boils down to a very simple, basic question. Will the world a better, or worse place because I was here? On my gravestone, will there be a + or a -? No one can really, fully answer that question. We have no control over our descendants’ actions, for example. I personally feel trying to be a + is a worthy goal. After I’m gone, I hope overall, I was responsible for more joy than sorrow, more pleasure than pain, more laughter than tears… more good than evil. If the world is a worse place, because I walked upon it, I can’t think of anything more depressing than to have led a wasted, useless, negative life. I certainly don’t need the childish promise of “heaven” or threat of “hell” for motivation to try and be a +. To believe, or even suggest that the only reason a person could, would, or should be moral, is because of religion, is insulting.

    • Daniel says:

      ” To believe, or even suggest that the only reason a person could, would, or should be moral, is because of religion, is insulting.”

      No one here is making that claim. People are, however, disputing the notion that there is an objective basis for morality without some kind of supernatural entity (or Jewish mother guilt trip) that judges are actions and imposes consequences on us in the afterlife.

      If you’re sure that you’ll end up as only a pile of bones when it’s all said and done, why do you care what others think of you when you’re gone? I’m sure there are a lot of reasons, but none of them are based on notions of objective truth.

      FWIW, I tend to split the baby in half, and try to be a nice guy for fear of the consequences in this life, and just in case I find myself before the pearly gates.

      • tmac57 says:

        So,you’re not one of the dangerous Christians that are a mere conversion (to atheism) away from becoming a homicidal sociopathtic maniac then?

      • Daniel says:

        Was raised Jewish, and am more or less agnostic (deep down though, I take the Saul Bellow route and say that it’s 50/50 between the afterlife and oblivion). I have a Jewish mother that bombarded and continues to bombard me with the guilt trips that only a Jewish mother can. That is much more effective in keeping one in line than the most ardent Christian’s belief in the Lord.

        But to take a more realistic scenario, and all levity aside, if I all the sudden became sure there was no god and no afterlife, would I cheat on my wife if I knew for certain she would never find out? It’s hard to answer since that’s not the situation I’m in now, plus I’m of the belief that nothing remains secret. A cop out I know, but there you have it.

        Or, maybe another way to think about it, is if I had to choose between having Stalin or Cromwell as my absolute dictator for life, I’d go with Cromwell.

      • tmac57 says:

        So you admit to a shaky internal moral compass that is only keeping you from immorality due to the extra possibility of god looking over your shoulder?

      • Daniel says:

        tmac57: That, and the fear of facing consequences in this life. (I don’t have children yet, but one day you might throw in there some evolutionary need to ensure my genes get passed on — vanity, I know). Sure, deep down, I’d feel icky if I, say, committed perjury even if I faced no consequences, or if I hurt someone that didn’t deserve it. But, when you strip it down, if there’s nothing else that’s real besides science, those are just biological impulses that have been influenced by my environment.

        I suspect this is how it is for the overwhelming majority of people, whether they want to admit it or not.

      • RCAF says:

        So you are taking Pascal’s Wager? What if it were Allah, and he wanted you to take a hard line on all infidels? The Islamists certainly believe this, and are willing to kill their own who transgress. They stoned a 13 year old girl to death in Somalia a few years ago for the crime of being raped.

        For my part, I don’t really care about what people think of when I’m gone. I do, however, care about the type of environment that I’m apart of during my life. I don’t steal because that person may really need what I take. I give to charities because people have a need. I don’t go looking for physical confrontations because someone will get hurt – and it’s worse if that someone is me. I’m trained to use a weapon, but I refuse to own one because I don’t believe killing is right.

        The objective morality that many religions offers is actually quite brutal, when it comes down to it. Slavery, genocide, racism, and treating women as chattle are as a much a part of Judeo-Christian values, as honouring your parents, and not stealing. So what is the value in this?

      • Daniel says:

        “Pascal’s wager, I prefer George Costanza who, when reminded that he didn’t believe in god, responded, “I do for the bad stuff.”

  12. RCAF says:

    Since Daniel and I seem to be having a lengthy discussion about objective morality that religion imparts, I found this little clip article about a caller to the Atheist Experience rather timely.

    It’s hard to fathom that there are people in the world that not only believe this, but actually think it is objectively moral.

    NB, this isn’t meant to be a statement of what I think Daniel’s moral’s are – in fact I quite doubt he would hold this view. However, if there are objective morals, then I will take subjective morals any day.

  13. d brown says:

    You think Communism was not a religion? It sure seemed like it to me when I talked to them in Europe. Heck I met a fool over here who carried a Little Red Book and used it like a bible to make every decision. The Nazis acted like it was a religion. A look at history shows that religion is a big factor and not always a good one. The religious kill like mad and always have. A 60’s comedian said the the first basis for morality was don’t shit next to the the camp fire. The other rules fallowed. There were a lot more than 10 commandments, these are the ones that are convenient to follow. Look up how many things we should be stoning people to death for. The true laws of of christianity are lost.

    • Daniel says:

      “You think Communism was not a religion?”

      The objective/subjective argument does not come down to “religion”, but the existence of a deity. Saying someone has a “religious” attachment to Communism is the same as saying that an atheist has a religious attachment to the idea that no deity exists.

      • tmac57 says:

        But in a cult of personality,in a authoritarian state,the leader becomes the giver of wisdom whom all MUST obey.
        I dare say you will not find many atheists who would buy into such a scheme. Theists seem much more willing to suspend their own ideas in deference to a ‘moral’ authority.

      • Daniel says:

        Wouldn’t the theist, or even religious loony, believe that God is all of those things and reject, to the extent possible so as to avoid being executed, a human who claimed that kind of authority? I mean, the reformation was basically a rejection of the idea that god could have a representative on earth. Muslim theocrats don’t themselves foster a cult of personality, maybe the exception being Khomeni.

        Since Cromwell (and even that’s debatable) there really hasn’t been a theocratic totalitarian state. Authoritarian and barbaric, but not a state that seeks to control every aspect of your existence.

      • tmac57 says:

        That may be so,but that doesn’t automatically mean that atheists would embrace an authoritarian leader by default. Those kinds of situations occur because of concentrations of power that gain control before the populace understands what the implications are. People (of any persuasion) do not readily seek to be dominated by their government.
        Most atheists that I know are very suspicious of authoritarian figures of any kind.I might add that collusion between government AND religion are particularly suspect.

      • Daniel says:

        I also know a few atheists that have this bizarre leader worship when it comes to Obama.

        Again, I understand that there are quite a few atheists that would join the resistance again a would be tyrant, of the religious or irreligious type. History tends to show though that other atheists would be ratting out their relatives to the secret police.

  14. MadScientist says:

    I disagree that a science-based approach would necessarily be bound to utilitarianism. Questions which science can explore include what factors affect people’s appraisal of what’s moral and what isn’t, and how/why do people come to accept a particular thing as moral or immoral? In the past 70 years is it philosophers or psychologists and sociologists (or others) who have contributed the most to the ongoing development of morals in society? Why the peculiar deference to the vague importance of philosophy in matters of morality?

    • MadScientist says:

      As concrete examples of changes in morality, there was the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights movements – all organized and run by philosophers of course.

  15. Yanis K. says:

    I absolutely agree with your conclusions. There is a necessity for prompting scientists away from Scientism, as well as theists away from any dogma –though if I am to take a side I’d support the first. The term “philosopher” of course means nothing. Everyone is a philosopher nowdays, as well as Berkeley is considered one (to me he’s not, for Philosopher simply is the one who loves wisdom, someone who asks the right questions instead of ranting a bunch of moronic ideas that easily can turn to a dangerous doctrine).

  16. Deschain19 says:

    I still feel like some of you (especially tmac57 and RCAF) are missing Daniel’s point. Maybe part of that is his use of the term “subjective” rather than “meaningless.”

    Without a “higher power” or an afterlife of some sort, any actions we take are completely meaningless. We are almost nothing compared to the universe. The Earth and the universe will end and possibly start over without us or anything we’ve ever done. The universe will exist one day as if humanity never existed.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not religious. But I do believe in a lasting positivity or negativity that science cannot currently explain. I believe that good and evil exist beyond the physical world as our current level of science can explore. If not, what we think and say are meaningless. There’s no way around this.

    • tmac57 says:

      Deschain19- Read the comments on this same article here for a much more indepth discussion.Some of my thoughts are there,but there are much better ones from other commenters that I agree with that might help you see where we are coming from.

      also continued on this companion blog post:

      I really don’t want to rehash this again on this blog.

      • Deschain19 says:

        All right, I’ll take a look. What I read in these comments certainly did not sound like a resolution to the discussion.

      • tmac57 says:

        Probably not,but if you study the arguments of both sides,you might clarify your own position,which so far only amounts to a question about meaning,and I am not even sure I understand what you are asking for.
        Did it ever occur to you that “Why are we here?” (meaning purpose) may not even be a valid question that can be understood without your own subjective answer?

      • Deschain19 says:

        I meant what I read in the comments on this blog didn’t seem like a resolution. That’s before taking a look at those links.

        Anyway, I realize that the meaning of life is not something we can objectively pin down. I think what I’m asking is, why should one who believes we are just an organism that’s about to disappear in the blink of an eye (compared to universal existence) even care to argue morality? Why would a scientific (outcome-based) measurement of morality even care about happiness when that is not the goal of existence in nature (survival is generally accepted as the goal)?

        I do feel like I’m not able to accurately communicate my meaning, and reading through those links might help, but I’ve read many similar writings. I’ll see.

    • tmac57 says:

      What we say and do can have meaning to us now,and to those alive after we are gone. Think of the works of all the great thinkers,humanitarians,scientists,artists, and poets of history.
      If you demand more than that, then believe whatever makes you happy,just don’t demand that I believe the same to validate your beliefs.

      • Deschain19 says:

        This doesn’t actually explain what gives it meaning. You’re just stating that it does. You’re presenting a premise as an argument. The outcome in the physical world is always going to be the same, no matter what choices we make or actions we take, because the outcome is always going to be beyond our existence. That’s all I’m saying.

    • Max says:

      How does a higher power give actions more meaning? It gives us arbitrary rules to follow for no particular reason other than the self-serving purpose of going to heaven instead of hell. Doesn’t sound all that meaningful.

      • Deschain19 says:

        I’m not talking about religion and arbitrary rules. I’m talking about the fact that our existence ends, so unless we exist beyond the physical, then none of our emotions (happiness, joy or sadness, suffering) actually matter.

      • Max says:

        It doesn’t matter to you whether you, your children, and the world are happy or sad?

      • Deschain19 says:

        I’m saying it matters to me, but if the world is only as science currently sees it, the feeling that it matters means nothing. It’s only impulses in an organism made to perpetuate itself. It’s no more meaningful than the way plants angle leaves to catch the sun.

        I’m just saying that the ideas of ethics or morality should not exist if that’s all life is (and by “should not” I don’t mean ideally, I mean there’s no reason for it, there’s no way to explain why this organism of us even thinks about things like this in abstract ways).

      • tmac57 says:

        Why would eternal life be more meaningful? What would be going on in eternal life that would be different than what you are now experiencing?

      • Deschain19 says:

        I guess there’s some sort of limit to how many consecutive replies there can be from a single comment. This is supposed to be a reply tmac57’s comment below.

        I’m not necessarily talking about an ‘eternal life.’ However, in general, the difference I’m proposing is the possibility of any sort of meaningful outcome-based ethics. In our current understanding of the universe this is, on a practical level, impossible. The outcome that should be measured is as far down the timeline as is foreseeable. In our case, the case of humanity, the furthest outcome is the same no matter what our actions. It is, neutrally, the end of all human existence and the disappearance of all marks we’ve left on the universe.

        If there was an ‘eternal life,’ there would at least be a continued stream of existence, so there would be no unavoidable final outcome of complete neutrality. So discussion of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ might actually have some practical value.

      • tmac57 says:

        If there was an ‘eternal life,’ there would at least be a continued stream of existence, so there would be no unavoidable final outcome of complete neutrality. So discussion of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ might actually have some practical value.

        Why would you think that the concept of good and evil would not be meaningful (practical)in a finite existence?
        If you knew that you only had 2 more years to
        live,but someone decided that since you’re going to die anyway that they will kill you now and take all of your possessions.From your point of view,this would probably be an evil scheme,even though you know that you were going to die anyway(assume no eternity in my example here).
        The point is,things matter here and now to people.You don’t get to discount the importance of that because those people will not be here in the future.

      • Deschain19 says:

        Yes, but if I ceased to exist when they killed me, how would that have any affect whatsoever on me?

        Logically, from the point of view that someone ceases to exist at all at death, the act of killing another human being is only a neutral action (it is creating neither positive nor negative emotions for the person killed). The only morality of it comes from the sadness created by those who care for them.

      • tmac57 says:

        That is a bizarre conclusion.Maybe you should step back a bit and think through the implications of what you just wrote.That sounds sociopathic to me.
        Sorry to have to call this to your attention.

      • Deschain19 says:

        I think you’re misunderstanding me. I don’t start from that premise, so that conclusion is not what I believe. What I’m saying is, if you start from the premise that a person simply ceases to exist when they die, murder cannot be anything but neutral in and of itself.

      • tmac57 says:

        No,I did not misunderstand you.My concern about your extrapolation still stands.This implies that everyone who does not believe in an afterlife (which includes some religious people by the way) is a sociopath. Murder for me(and most people) is not neutral,it is empirically wrong.If you do not understand this,then you might have a problem.

      • tmac57 says:

        Also,I would like to add that you have it exactly backward.
        With the promise of eternal life after this mortal one,then this life becomes cheap and expendable,because after all,you then move on to your eternal one (which I guess are assuming is a happy existence,but why not a miserable one for eternity?)
        With your end of existence on the line,what you have here and now should be to you and those who love you,very precious and something to be valued above all else.Therefore, taking that from someone else is the ultimate crime.Not neutral.

      • Deschain19 says:

        People use that argument quite a bit, but never really explain it.

        In nature, what’s actually observable, life is nothing more than a mechanism that shuffles energy around for a while then stops. It arises randomly and doesn’t actually have any affect on the universe.

        But you and those who share your views, attribute an intrinsic value to life and emotion (which is, observably, nothing that animals and even arthropods, including spiders, don’t share with us). Yet most people attribute a greater intrinsic value to human life over other life. This, in itself, doesn’t make much sense.

        However my bigger question is, why do you attribute an intrinsic value to life if you believe it is a randomly appearing electro-chemical system that seems to serve the only observable purpose of shuffling energy around? Is it because of how you’re hardwired to feel about yourself, so you attribute that same feeling to other humans? Rarity in the universe is something I’ve heard from others, but that doesn’t make much sense. Rarity is meaningful in economics, but not in nature.

        I know that you can’t speak for the entire community that shares your general system of belief. However, I’d like to know where you personally get your sense of intrinsic value for life and why you attribute a greater value to human life. Many people who argue what you do don’t actually explain this most basic assumption, but you seem willing to talk and answer such questions.

      • tmac57 says:

        Like most humans (but apparently not all) I was born with an innate sense of empathy, the capability of ‘theory of mind’,and the facility of logic.
        These combined attributes help me to understand the principle of reciprocity. I can fare better in the world, and society functions better when we all respect each others right to live,prosper,and cooperate.
        This principle holds whether or not there is some deity commanding us to do it’s bidding,or whether or not there is an ‘eternal reward’.

      • Deschain19 says:

        So it sounds like you adhere to the belief of moral egotism.

        What you answered with does not answer the question though. You answered with, basically, “life has value because I was born with the feeling that it does, and faring better in life is my goal.” You didn’t say why. I’m assuming you just mean that we should simply live as we are hardwired to by evolution.

        It’s not a question that can be objectively answered. I was just wondering about how you reach the conclusion that life is intrinsically valuable, without question, as everyone has their own way of justifying the idea of intrinsic value of life (some have argued in the past that there is no intrinsic value to life). However, you sound like you believe that it is somehow self-evident through logic, starting only from direct observation, which I’ve never heard before. Can you explain further?

      • Deschain19 says:

        Oh, and isn’t that a principle that describes how things work, not how they should work? The philosophy of morals and ethics is about how things should work, isn’t it?

      • Max says:

        Deschain19, would good and evil exist if there was no life in the universe?

      • Deschain19 says:

        Is that a rhetorical question that is meant to say that this is your reason for attributing intrinsic value to life itself, or are you asking what I think?

        If you’re going by the scientific view of the universe, and you believe that there is currently some sort of universal good and evil (required for one to determine that someone else’s behavior, and not just their own, is good or evil), then, logically, yes there would still be good and evil, since life, in this view, is nothing more than a specific organization of matter similar to other systems of energy transfer that exist on larger scales throughout the universe. But, obviously, that doesn’t FEEL correct.

        *Now going off on a bit of a tangent*

        This is why, I’m assuming, anyone who believes that we are only as science can currently observe must believe that there is no universal good or evil, there is only description of behaviors as they relate to certain goals. This, of course, means that good and evil change depending on a person’s goals. Therefore, you cannot dictate any kind of moral bounds on others, as their goals may differ from yours.

        This makes me unsure of why those who hold these beliefs even talk with others about their moral beliefs. Aren’t they starting from the assumption that their own moral beliefs don’t apply to others?

      • Deschain19 says:

        Tmac57, I didn’t see your first post above until just now (the one in which you state killing is “empirically wrong”). What do you mean by that? Do you mean to say that it is provable through experimentation that something is morally good or evil? Do you mean because most people agree?

      • tmac57 says:

        I meant the latter.The rules of society start from empathy, reciprocity,and theory of mind,and everything else from there is negotiation.
        That is our history.There is no final word from an objective source.

      • Max says:


        No, it wasn’t a rhetorical question. I’m trying to understand your view. Like, do you think morality only applies to humans or to other animals too? Are carnivores and parasites evil?

      • Max says:

        And if a murdered person’s soul goes to Heaven for eternity, then murder is bad? Or good?

      • Deschain19 says:

        That’s kind of my point. Outcome-based morals doesn’t make any sense when you can’t predict anything about the outcome. You need some kind of faith about the way life and death works too actually think morally about anything. Many of you have faith that there isn’t anything other than our current existence.

        But, hypothetically, if you’re assuming heaven, are you assuming a deity?

    • Retired Prof says:

      Good and evil do not exist beyond the physical world any more than ripeness exists beyond the physical world.

      In order to have ripeness, you’ve got to have some thing that’s ripe: an apple, a grain of wheat, a corpse, a virgin. You can see that ripeness is not an attribute of the thing itself because there is no common clue to ripeness in those four ripe things. “Ripeness” merely expresses a relationship between the speaker and something else that is ready for some designated purpose or treatment.

      “Good” and “evil” are also relational words; they refer to how desirable (or not) a thing or situation is to the person speaking or writing. Beyond the physical world, there is presumably nothing to approve of or object to and also nobody to approve of or object to it. Therefore no good or evil.

      • Deschain19 says:

        I’m not sure how abstract ideas exist anywhere in the physical world.

      • Deschain19 says:

        By you logic, which is simply an explanation of how we communicate abstract ideas, murder is good for serial killers because it’s more desirable. However, most of us would disagree with the idea that good and evil are purely relative to how one feels. Perhaps partially, but clearly there’s more to it than language.

      • Retired Prof says:

        Your example of serial killers is interesting. Some of them apparently agree with the rest of us that their actions are evil and commit them anyway. I would apply the adjective “evil” to the murderer himself, not just his actions. However, the person’s impulse to murder was not imposed on him by some pervasive outside evil force, but from from anomalous brain structure and function

        Also consider the act of detonating bombs in crowds of people for a cause. If we sympathize with the cause, we call the perpetrators freedom fighters and their act good, believing that the pain it caused is counterbalanced by the good it is intended to do. If we oppose the cause, we say the people are terrorists, and both their actions and their intentions are evil.

      • Deschain19 says:

        Yes, people say one thing or the other, but you’re suggesting that nobody is actually correct. So what is the point of arguing over which is morally correct if you’re starting from a point of view that sees it as subjective.

        I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just saying that you have to assume that there is a universal good and evil if you’re going to attempt to reach a conclusion. Otherwise, the conclusion is simply that there is no conclusion.

      • Retired Prof says:

        Deschain19, I see we have reached an impasse because of a fundamental difference in outlook: you are an essentialist, and I am a nominalist. I hope this discrepancy does not mean we can’t be friends, because I have enjoyed our discussion.

      • Deschain19 says:

        It certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t be friends. I always enjoy discussions of this sort.

        But, yes, I suppose I am. I’ve always like Plato’s theory of forms.

  17. Deschain19 says:


    For example, you’re speaking from the premise that your feelings of morality, the concept itself, is meaningful. Just for the sake of the exercise of argument, what gives it meaning?