Good Without God?

Sam Burdock, Warwick Alumnus, Philosophy and Literature 2007-10.

I want to argue for the possibility of an objective and secular moral system. It’s not my intention to state what that system might look like, but rather to show that it is possible to have an objective moral system that is not inspired or authored by a divine being. By objective I mean that when we say something is moral or immoral, we are making a claim whose truth value can be assessed.

Two standards which I believe all secular moral systems aspire to are to be evidence-based and self-correcting. If we, as a society, were to adopt a particular moral position, only to find that it resulted in more harm than good, we would have to reverse or alter our position. That would be the moral thing to do. A theistic moral system has no such standards, because divine scripture provides all the answers to us, complete and unalterable. However, when you ask a theist to demonstrate that their moral system is better than any other, they inevitably defer to evidence from reality. If not, the circular reasoning of “God’s moral system is correct because God says so” is exposed.

In this way, it’s almost trivial to demonstrate that one doesn’t need a God to be moral. We inevitably analyse the efficacy of a particular moral system against the available evidence. If it is indeed the case that a theistic moral system, be it derived from the Tanakh, Bible or Quran, is better than another moral system, then that fact will only be borne out by the evidence, not its divine origin. The supposed fact that this moral system was authored by a God is ultimately inconsequential, since it could equally have been authored by any human being who possesses a keen interest in individual and societal well-being.

One common objection to this line of thinking is that we humans wouldn’t even know that suffering was immoral unless God had given us the ability to discern right from wrong. There is no evidence to support this claim outside of scripture. What is more, the biological and sociological evidence overwhelmingly suggests that humans possess an ingrained sense of altruism and empathy. This sense does not require a God; its evolutionary origins in primate sociality have been expounded for decades.

The only recourse for a theist who wants to continue to affirm that God is an essential component of a moral system is to argue that the primary purpose of a moral system is not the betterment of individuals and society, but rather to follow the commandments of God. My first objection to this is that it presupposes not only the existence of a God, but also his benevolence. Until these presuppositions can be validated through further evidence, there is no reason to accept the claim that to follow God’s commandments is to act morally.

My second objection to this claim is known as the “Euthyphro dilemma”, named for the Platonian dialogue in which Socrates discusses piety and its relationship to the Gods. The dilemma can be best illustrated through example: if, tomorrow, God commanded his followers to conduct the wholesale slaughter of a particular group of people, then his followers would have little choice but to obey. Such a command would mean the slaughter is moral. Many theists would suggest that their God would not give such a command, because it is against his nature to act immorally. If this is the case, then God must be subject to a moral system that he himself cannot change.

Put simply, if God precedes morality, then morality is arbitrary, non-evidential and subject to the whims of this deity. If morality precedes God, then we do not need God to discern right from wrong. As a secularist, I have no problem in stating that, if a God does exist, the moral law must precede him. A theist who believes their God is ultimately responsible for morality has a far more difficult choice to make.




  1. Boyan

    ‘’Self-correcting’’ and ‘’objective’’ are diagonally opposed. You cannot expect to be able to evoke something universal if you know that your standards are subject to change. The thing with truth values is that we should be able to pass moral judgments not only on people living in our time, but also on previous ages, and next generations would need to be able to judge us, too. That would be impossible if moral standards were subject to change.
    What you argue for is a theory of ethics, not one of morals. The need for God stems not from the fact that certain dictums are written in the scriptures, but from the fact that this type of universality that morality requires needs to be grounded in something. If you insist that morality itself is universality, then it is God. If not, then it falls into subjectivism.
    Also, you shouldn’t evoke Socrates, since he was an ethicist, not a moralist.
    “What works” is a good maxim to use in politics, not in morals.

  2. Sam

    So would you say that the theory of gravity is not both self-correcting and objective? I think you’ve got it mixed up – something can only be objective if it is evidence-based, and something which is evidence-based self-corrects as we go about the iterative process of scientific inquiry.

    Morality being universal and objective are two different things. Objectivity refers to the truth value of a statement, and truth is contextual. It is true to say that gravity exerts a force that causes bodies to accelerate towards the centre of the planet at 9.8m/s. This is objective, but it is not universal, because gravity works different depending on which planet we are talking about.

    What we can do is examine a society today and see that the participants are better off if they live a society which actively prohibits slavery, when compared to a society that doesn’t. So yes, we can pass judgement on previous judgements because the evidence tells us modern societies have a more accurate moral system than past societies. This is not because morality is universal, it is because it is iterative, because we are always getting better at getting better. It is iterative only because it is objective.

    Universality is a trap; a moral system has to change if it is able to be fit for purpose. If not, you have situations like we have today in which millions of Africans suffer unnecessarily from HIV, which stems from of a universal prohibition against the use of contraception. The evidence tells us this prohibition is immoral, and that is an objective fact. We can see the suffering it causes, and yet the Catholic Church continues to advocate this harmful practice. Furthermore, if morality is universally grounded in a single figure, like Allah, Jesus, the Pope, whoever, then it is necessarily subjective because it is contingent on a single mind, that of its author. The morality I seek is not contingent on any one mind, but on the facts of reality.

    I do not insist that morality is itself universality, I insist that morality codifies a subset of actions into the categories of moral and immoral in an attempt to enhance individual and social well-being. If you want to have a discussion about what that constitutes specifically, by all means we can do that, but recognize that it would necessarily be a secular discussion. Why? Because that discussion is grounded in the reality of evidence and experience, not in the dictates of a deity. Morality is necessarily secular, as evidenced by the fact that every religion consistently modifies its moral system as the beliefs and practices of its adherents changes, often in line with secular thought.

    I fail to see why I’m prohibited from citing Socrates (or more accurately Plato) because he was an “ethicist”. The Euthyphro dilemma is an important argument in the morality discussion, one which many Christian writers have tried (and failed, in my opinion) to answer successfully. I recommend you look it up, the centuries have produced some very interesting discussion around the topic.

    I see no practical difference between the purpose of politics, law and morality, and I pity any society that does.

  3. Pingback: Pestalozzi, on morality | Fireflies of the Imagination

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