Why Ought I Act Morally? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the previous post, I explained atheist Dan Barker’s argument in a debate he had with Christian Matt Slick.  If you don’t remember what I said, please go back and quickly remind yourself, as this post won’t make sense otherwise.  Below I pick up where I left off.

What I don’t understand is how Barker jumped from telling us that morality consists of natural inclinations produced by a blind, purposeless, process of evolution (that is solely interested in how we reproduce) to a moral duty of doing less harm.  Barker has committed the classic faux pas of moving from an is to an ought.  He tells us what morality is – a natural inclination toward behaviors that promote human survival – and from there tells us that we ought to do whatever causes less harm.  But where does this duty come from?

If I am a person who is naturally inclined to lie about what atheists say in debates, why should I attempt to fight this inclination?  After all, maybe evolution needs some liars in the gene pool.  I am just playing my role in the survival of the species.  If Barker were to say to me, “Lying about what atheists say causes harm, so you shouldn’t do it,” I would say, “What duty do I have to follow Barker’s personal opinion about morality?”  What authority does he have to legislate my behavior?  If he answers that he is summarizing what Nature already is telling me, then I would want to know what duty I have to follow the commands of a mindless, purposeless, blind process?

Please notice that I have not even questioned Barker’s maxim of do less harm.  I am just assuming for this argument that he has correctly summarized our natural inclinations.  His maxim actually represents a utilitarian calculus which presents several major problems that philosophers have called attention to, but his idea of doing less harm can’t even get off the ground until he has provided a rational reason to accept it.  Many atheists seem to completely miss this point.  Atheists are able to rattle off dozens of moral theories which claim to summarize our natural moral inclinations.  But the question is why should anyone follow their theories?  What rational reason is there to let their moral theories dictate moral commands to anyone?

Dan Barker is a self-appointed ambassador for the periodic chart of elements (Nature).  The elements have spoken and Dan is translating for us.  But it’s even more bizarre than that.  Not only do non-intelligent and non-personal atoms have no authority to legislate, but they legislate contradictory things.  After all, the same Nature that produced Mother Theresa produced Hitler.  They both followed their natural inclinations, so how can I ever say which one was right and which was wrong?  Nature may need both of them for the species to survive so that it would actually be immoral to stop Hitler from doing what he was naturally inclined to do.

Barker’s world ultimately has no legitimate source for moral authority.  He could never tell us who is giving moral commands that has the legitimate authority to do so.  Based on his moral philosophy, I do not know why I should rationally be moral.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “I would say, “What duty do I have to follow Barker’s personal opinion about morality?””

    Why does it make a difference if you substitute “Barker” with ‘God”? You’ve already said yourself that it’s a childish argument to say one should be good only through fear of punishment. So you cannot then say that one should follow a certain moral code in order to avoid hell.

    So what duty do you have to follow God’s moral code, other than a selfish desire to reach heaven and avoid hell? You can say that you personally feel a duty to follow the code of your creator. But this pre-supposes an idea of ‘duty’. If this idea was created by God, then you’re offering a circular argument. If the idea of ‘duty’ exists externally to God, then atheists have no more need to justify it than you do.

  • Bill Pratt

    Why do we have a duty to follow any law? Because the source of that law is legitimate. God, as the creator of mankind, and as essentially just and loving, is a legitimate moral law-giver. Therefore, we have a duty to follow his moral commands.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Are ‘just’ and ‘loving’ God-made concepts that only make sense if a God exists?

    If yes, then you’re offering a circular argument. If not, then atheists can offer the same justifications. Barker can justify why we should act morally by referring to justice and love too.

  • Bill Pratt

    “Just” and “loving” are concepts we can understand from our human experience. Dan Barker appealed to evolution as the source for moral instincts, not love and justice.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Hi Bill, thanks for your response.

    I think the problem here is that there are two separate issues, and they often get confused. Allow me to use an analogy.

    You attend a graduation ceremony for class of Math students. Someone says to you “It’s amazing – I’ve spoke to all the graduates here, and all of them are very keen on math! What could explain such a coincidence?”

    Now, you can answer that after several years of studying a subject, one would EXPECT that the ones who haven’t dropped out by graduation day would be the ones who have maintained a strong enthusiasm for the subject.

    This explains the observed phenomenon. It doesn’t attempt to address why any individual student was interested in math, or why they should have studied it in the first place. It would be unfair to complai that you haven’t answered this different question.

    In the same way, you have two questions to answer. Barker addressed the observed phenomenon that humans as a species have developed a system that works for holding societies together. In this we are no different to countless other species, and we’re very similar to the more social species such as bonobo chimps.

    The question of why an individual SHOULD be moral is a separate one. I believe it to be a misunderstanding to claim that people are using evolution to attempt to construct moral imperatives.

    You seem to accept that love and justice are universal concepts. If so, one should not require a God in order to invoke them, and you are on the way to answering your own question of why you ought to act morally.

  • Bill Pratt

    Where do the universal concepts of love and justice come from if there is no God?

  • Andrew Ryan

    Bill, I already addressed this. If they’re dependent on God then they are not objective or universal.

  • Bill Pratt

    You’ve totally confused me now. You said that you believe there are universal concepts of love and justice and I am asking where these universal concepts came from. It is obvious how these concepts can be universal if they come from God, as He embodies these virtues as the creator and sustainer of the universe. You can’t get any more universal than that. But how do universal virtues make any sense apart from God? Where do these virtues come from?

  • Andrew Ryan

    Either you think these qualities are universal and objective, self-evident and axiomatic… Or you do not. If you believe they cannot exist WITHOUT God, then I would put you in the ‘do not’ camp. You are making them subjective qualities that require a creator.

  • Andrew, I am late to this conversation, so this may be old ground. But it seems that the question of “these qualities” being subjective or objective, if seen as arising from God, would depend a great deal on who or what one envisioned God to be.

     If by “God” we mean essentially a local deity writ large, on the model of the ancient Roman gods, then they would be most definitely subjective.  If by “God” we mean something (or someone) from which the entirety of the universe (more, if there is more than one universe) arises, then those concepts would be as universal as the laws of thermodynamics or mathematics and for the same reason.  

     I would think that seeing these qualities as universal, objective and axiomatic means that they arise from a universal source, as math, from the irreducible character of the universe, of creation; and not from the subjective understanding of any entity, whether small, like us, or large, like a local god. I would think that the big question, among people who agree that justice etc., is an axiomatic value, is not whether or not those qualities derive from something some of us call “God.” The argument would be whether this entity should be envisioned solely as a mathematical construct, a “unified field theory” or something that is that, but extends beyond that into personhood, (without losing any of the transcendent nature of math or physics, rather transcending *them*)

    There are strong points to be made on either side, and I am obviously a partisan.  But I think that is where the true battle lies. To suggest that a theistic source for the virtues is subjective is to suggest a view of god that you and we both properly reject. It is almost a straw man, but it seems that many who “reject God” are in fact rejecting this already cast-off impotency.

  • Andrew Ryan

    R, do you think that the laws of maths relies on a creator? In other words, the basic concept of 1 + 1 = 2. Do you think that a creator could have made that concept any other way? To reference another thread here, how about the Law of Non-Contradiction? How could that have been any other way? Try to imagine how a creator could have made an alternative to the LNC. How would He even have described this alternative Law without contradicting Himself?

    To be axiomatic is to be self-confirming, by definition NOT requiring creation to be true. If you’re saying that ‘raping children is wrong’ requires a God to be true, then you’re making it a subjective concept, one that another God could hypothetically have made not true. This is taking you down the very path to moral relativism for which people try to decry atheists. You either believe it to be self-evidently wrong or you don’t.

  • Andrew, you are pretty close to my point. I also reject a view of God,, or of moral values, that depends in any sense at all on anything but self-necessity, or internal consistancy. I can’t believe in such a being, or such an ethical foundation any more than you can.

    Another way of defining axiomatic may be that the proof lies in the nature of things, 2+2=4 and 4-2=2, well, because it does. No one “decreed” it to be so. It just is.
    But to take those same numbers, the fact that 4-2=2 is in some part due to the nature of 4 (and what is that nature, why it is 2+2, or 3+1)

    I no more believe in a deity that could decree that 2+2=4, or that rape is wrong, or that entropy increases than you do. But if you sum all these axioms together, all the things that “just are,” I will be content calling that sum “I AM”, God. It is true that I believe a good bit more than that by the word “God,” but I do not believe one step less than that.

    Subjective moral values, like subjective mathematical constants are bad theology.

  • Andrew Ryan

    That’s fine Eric. But in the same way that I accept that, I reject the apologist idea that for atheists, ‘rape is wrong’ must be an arbitrary notion, a simple matter of taste. It makes no more sense than calling 1 + 1 = 2 an arbitrary notion. The suffering that rape causes is the same with or without a God. Calling all atheists moral relativists is divisive and ultimately self defeating for the reasons I already described (as the argument eventually turns back on the apologist and makes their own concept of morals subjective too.)

    Thanks for the discussion.

  • Andrew, I think there is a good reason why atheists and theists (particularly Christian theists) end up talking past each other on this score.
    A large portion of atheist would agree with you, that certain core moral or ethical values are axiomatic. They just are the truth. Don’t introduce a big enforcer to explain that which needs no explanation, it makes the case for moral behavior weaker, not stronger.

    We would more likely say that they arise from the transcendence of God, and their influence and “proof” is all around us, every bit as much as the cosmic background radiation (understood as from the “big bang”) is uniformly around us. You can’t point a telescope at its source, its source is everywhere. It simply is there, or here.
    And as Barth described, such transcendence is utterly unknowable.

    Left to this one topic only, without recourse to arguments about revelation or incarnation, both views describe pretty much the same thing, with the same grammar. Only the nouns are different.

    And so we each sound to the other like we are talking nonsense.
    Of course, as I’ve said before, this aspect of God (transcendence) is only a fragment of what I believe about Him, and about what He has done. But the differences get noisier after this.

  • Andrew Ryan

    A big misunderstanding by Christians of the atheist position is the one I describe in my post a few entries up from this one, of ‘March 21, 2011 at 7:23 am’

    Do you get my point there? Bill, do you get what I’m saying there?

  • Andrew Ryan

    That said, WL Craig’s argument re: morality is similarly misunderstood by most atheist debaters.

  • Bill Pratt

    I re-read your comment. There are a few things to say. First, there really are atheists who have used evolution to construct moral imperatives. I have read them and researched them. There are others, who are more common today, that say that we should rise above our evolutionary moral instincts and do what produces the least harm or what furthers human progress or what helps mankind flourish or what brings people the most pleasure or so on.

    Which is Barker? Barker spent a lot of time explaining how moral instincts came from evolution, and his point was clearly that the evolutionary “goal” to produce the survival of the human species is a good reason for us to be moral. He was tying evolution to why we should be moral. What other reason would there be to spend so much time on explaining how our moral instincts came from evolution? If his argument was simply that to be moral is to do less harm, then his entire dissertation about evolution and morality was pointless. He could have skipped the entire discussion, but he did not.

    What Barker and other atheists seem to want to do is give evolution credit for producing our moral instincts to provide a naturalistic explanation of the source of morality, and then, once that point is made, discard evolution for the next step of the argument, which is to construct a moral maxim which summarizes how we should all behave (e.g., do less harm). But how can the atheist just discard evolution when it was a central part of the argument? If evolution has bequeathed this gift of moral instincts to us to further our survival, then shouldn’t we be heeding these instincts? After all, our moral instincts are for our survival! What better reason is there to be moral, on atheism?

    The theist’s point is that unless morality comes from a personal Creator God, then the instincts we feel have no authority over us. We can safely ignore all the instincts which we don’t happen to like – when they don’t serve our current desires and purposes. Theists have no such luck. Our morality comes from an ultimate personal God who does not excuse us from his moral rules when we don’t happen to like them. This is a clear difference between the atheist and the theist.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “. But how can the atheist just discard evolution when it was a central part of the argument? ”

    Because it’s two separate arguments – why we observe humans having a moral framework and why any individual SHOULD act morally.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “What Barker and other atheists seem to want to do is give evolution credit for producing our moral instincts to provide a naturalistic explanation of the source of morality”

    It’s equivalent to saying evolution gave us a facility for maths, but not using it to explain what math is.

  • Neil Hess

    Thank you for your post, Bill. If I might throw something out there to you, I would like an evaluation on my perception of the “cause least harm” position commonly taken by atheists.

    As the common train of thought goes Atheism relies on the “cause least harm” to substantiate what is moral and what is not. My rebuttal to that is what authority gets to decide what is “Least harmful”?

    The Atheist must then come back to the problem of how morality is decided:

    If it is decided by the individual, then we are back to the problem of individual subjective morality which would theoretically allow someone to walk up and shoot a random person in the head, saying that it was “causing the least amount of harm” because now there will be more food for the starving orphans in Africa.

    If it is decided by a governing body or the majority, then they are back to having to side with the Nazi’s that extermination of the Jews “caused the least harm” and find that actions of Adolf Hitler morally acceptable.

    Am I skipping a step in my logic somewhere, or is this a sound conclusion?

    God bless.


  • Andrew Ryan

    Neil, your logic is certainly missing a few steps if you consider the murder of six million Jews to be ‘the least harm’ by any reckoning. I’m sure a little thought will reveal the faulty logic in murdering a stranger to aid starving Africans too.

    Introducing a God does not solve your problem at all. Is something moral because God says it is, or is it moral either way?

  • Anonymous

    Nothing is objectively moral unless that morality arises from the character of the universe. Like gravity. That seems true from the atheist position as well as the theist, or am I wrong?

    For those who like me hold to creation by God, that means these moral laws are shot through creation as characteristics of the designer and creator.

  • Andrew Ryan

    I don’t get your confusion. As I said before, if a virtue has to be created then it isn’t axiomatic or universal – it’s dependent on a creator. By what mechanism is a virtue created. Where did God get the virtues from? Could he have created different ones? Could he have made rape a virtue?

  • Andrew Ryan

    What makes him legitimate? Are you saying that ‘being just and loving’ is an essential part of being legitimate? If so, where did the rule come from that that is an essential part? If it come from God himself then your argument is circular – he is granting himself legitimacy, which anyone can do. If it is a rule that transcends God, that being a loving creator must axiomatically grant one legitimacy, then you are allowing for transcendent values that do not require a God.

  • Andrew Ryan

    R, does that mean God have made a different set of moral laws? If not, then it suggests there are moral laws that transcend a creator – eg rape is never going to be moral. The alternative seems to be that morals are arbitrary – God could have picked and chosen what is and is not moral.

  • Anonymous

    Andrew, I doubt that I have anything you will find at all satisfactory, we’ve been over this ground before and I have nothing new. But the question is, I admit, a good one. I think wrestling with it forces some fundamental issues of “what is meant by God” out into the open. But to your comment…

    I think the question about morals is the same as one about math: could God have decreed that the sum of the squares of the sides did NOT equal the square root of the hypotenuse? Could he have decreed that pi = 4.2 ? Why or why not? (btw, I am not actually putting this question formally to you, although I would to a church religion class.) To answer the question straight, I think that He could not. The relationships inside a triangle are what they are. Rape is wrong, no matter who says what. No decree can possibly either establish or abolish these truths.

    OK, where does that get us? Your response is that these laws then would “transcend a creator.”
    I think this is where we are envisioning two very different gods, or creators. That’s the fundamental “what is meant by God” question. If god inhabits a reality, that reality (truth, morality, physics, whatever) is more fundamental. But I think that the only thing we prove is that we have stopped short. We have found that the god postulated is not the source, but we have not proved that there is no source. We have just kicked the can down the road.

    To quit playing defense, I have to follow that can and ask my own question: did those laws (to which some might say god is subject) arise from something, or did they arise from nothing? If they arise from nothing, it would seem that we are back to them being subjective; a product either of social agreement or a Darwinian-type adaptation. Both of these have been postulated, and with some merit –but they both fail in the face of a person who disagrees.

    If they arrive from something, then what is that something? You do not have to assume it is the Christian understanding of God, Other ideas are welcome. But if we come to that point, we are both theist, arguing theology.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Two plus two equals four. I think that asking where this comes from us to make a category error. It doesn’t COME from anywhere – it is transcendent, it couldn’t have been any other way.

    Thanks for your reply, Eric. I think you respond honestly, without trying to simply give the reply that protects your position.

  • Anonymous

    Andrew, one more little snip only, and you can have the last word with me if you wish one.
    Your point about transcendence is exactly what I would wish. The only difference between phrase and position is that you use a verb, and I use a noun.

    Interestingly, in the Mosaic account, when God was entreated to give himself a name, a noun, he didn’t do it. He gave himself a verb (“I am that I am. Tell them ‘I AM’ has sent you”)

    In your desire to protect the idea that there is a transcendent, object truth, not subject to some demigod’s decree, we are not far apart. Most of the rest is just details about the nature of that truth. I think it chooses to manifest to us with a personality, and through that personality, to reveal certain things, etc.
    And on the same details, you think I’m nuts.
    I can live with that.

    Thanks for the exchange.

  • Anonymous

    The question is how do we rationally ground moral laws. I am saying that there needs to be a legitimate law-giver before a law is grounded. This is a rational statement about laws and legislators of laws. God is a legitimate legislator because he is the most just and loving being in existence. There can be no better rational justification for a legislator than that. If God was not just and loving, then we should rationally question his legitimacy to legislate moral laws.

    A person cannot merely grant themselves legitimacy. They must be truly just and loving, and we would rationally only want the most just and loving being in existence to be given the authority to legislate all human morality.

    So, we are not arguing in a circle, because we are giving a rational grounding for why God is a legitimate moral legislator. If you can think of a rational reason why we would not grant the most just and loving being the authority to legislate morality, then make your argument.

  • Anonymous

    Andrew, I never said that God created values. I said that values are part of God, part of his essential being, so they have always existed as God has always existed.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Neil,
    I think you are right. The moral command to “do the least harm” is utilitarian and thus suffers from all of the criticisms of utilitarianism. Certainly the Nazis thought they were doing the world a great service by killing Jews. As you say, “do the least harm” is in the eye of the beholder and is a virtually useless moral command in my mind. It’s akin to saying “be good” or “don’t be evil.”

    It’s only when we get down to defining what constitutes harm that the command makes any sense. And who gets to define what constitutes harm? If there is no transcendent moral law-giver, then we are left with whoever is in political power deciding.

  • Andrew Ryan

    The problem with bringing up the Nazis is that they thought they were following God’s will, not utilitarianism. So the hollocaust, by your logic, would be a problem for ‘God as moral law giver’, not for utilitarianism.

  • Andrew Ryan

    If they have always existed, why is God needed to explain them? They could have always existed with or without God, no?

  • Andrew Ryan

    You ARE begging the question – your explanation for God an authority, and ultimately as a grounded source of morality contains the assumptions that ‘loving’ and ‘just’ are valid concepts. These are among the concepts that you are trying to justify!

    If atheists are allowed to use concepts like loving and just, then they can equally construct a moral system. If you do not judge it permissible for atheists to use these concepts to ground their moral system, then neither can you.

  • Andrew Ryan

    You never answered the question: “Are ‘just’ and ‘loving’ God-made concepts that only make sense if a God exists?”

  • No. You are misunderstanding the argument. I am taking as a starting point that we humans intuitively understand what love and justice are. We understand love and justice just like we understand that 2+4=6. That love and justice exist is a given for both theists and non-theists.

    I am then asking, if these concepts exist, where did they come from and does their source provide a rational reason for my choosing to be loving and just? I argue that God is where they come from and that his nature is a rational reason to be loving and just.

    There is no arguing in a circle at all.

  • What theists don’t get, is that secular morality is an appeal to reason, whereas theistic morality is an appeal to authority. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s more mature to back up your reasons for being moral than simply being told to do so. That’s for children.

    Doing less harm is very abbreviated. Of course you may have to cause harm for a logically necessary reason that is for a greater good, everyone recognizes that. But if you feel, as a theist, that we should be “moral” simply because god says so, or better yet, because a book believed to be the word of god says so, then what if the so called “morals” don’t make sense? What if they’re unreasonable? What if there’s no evidence backing them up to justify why we should be doing it?

    The truth is that no one actually lives by biblical morality. All Christians and Jews conveniently ignore that parts that will cause our society unnecessary harm. So theists are appealing to reason when they conduct themselves morally just like atheists are, they just don’t admit it and claim that they’re doing it because god says so.

  • Andrew is right, in the bible god commands actual genocidal holocausts. So if the Nazi holocaust was commanded by god to punish the Jews vicariously from god, you’d have to believe it was moral, because obviously, a theist like you can’t ever think for himself and know anything about morality. You have to be told what to think like a little child.

  • Then why aren’t we still keeping slaves according to his “moral” commands? And if a wife refuses to submit to her husband, is she disobeying god’s commands?

  • Let me finish this…

    Love and justice are built into the very nature of the universe, but they only pertain to certain evolved beings like humans. Many animals and insects don’t love, in fact they’re often cruel and indifferent. So who designed that? Can’t be a loving being?

    Justice is fairness, it’s equality, most mammals have a concept of justice, they know when they’ve been short changed. Therefore there is a natural evolutionary basis for justice, but we all know the world isn’t always just. So who designed that? Can’t be a just being?

    If it’s a given for nontheists than there’s no need to appeal to god.

  • The apologist response, The Thinker, is to ask why ‘doing less harm’ is moral in the first place. But as I said above two years ago, if one has to explain and explain and explain every axiom, then one gets an infinite regress and it’s special pleading to say that regress will stop when you say ‘It’s good because it’s God’s nature’.

  • Right, I just just remind them that god commands keeping slaves for life as it says in Lev. 25:44–6. Clearly not compatible with doing less harm.

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