Are Atheism & Morality Compatible (part 2)

We ended part one with three barriers to postulating an  evolutionary source of human morality—obstacles which Henderson considers insurmountable. First, he claims that evolution is incapable of leading to the development of animals who are altruistically unselfish or compassionate. He argues that if morality evolved through biological processes, it would have to be because humans needed it to survive. But, he continues

If this were true, for any claim to be moral, it would have to serve the practical purpose of advancing the human race. So compassion for the dying would be immoral, and killing mentally handicapped children would be moral. Perhaps the most moral action would be men raping many women and forcing them to birth more children.
Morality, in this view, can only mean those actions that are helpful to make more fit humans. It does nothing to help us grapple with the truth that it’s always wrong to torture diseased children or rape women.
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

He then introduces a second obstacle. Namely that

…morality was developed to ensure the success of societies, which are necessary for human survival and thriving. Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness. If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible. Because morality is the construct of a social group, it cannot extend further than a society’s borders or endure longer than a society’s existence. —Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

Like most theists, Henderson is convinced that a single, objective morality is absolutely needed, and since evolution can’t yield a moral code that is objective, a natural worldview is a non-starter. Without an objective source for morality outside of us, so the argument goes, we lack the necessary foundation for moral judgments about the actions not just of other individuals, but also of other social groups outside our own.

Henderson’s third obstacle, takes this a step further. Without this external source of morality, he argues, social reformers would have no leg to stand on.  Since a culture’s values represent the preferences of the majority and are important for social cohesion, it follows that under a natural worldview the most immoral citizens would always be “not merely the ones who transgress [a particular moral] code but the ones who intend to change it”. Abolitionists such as James Oglethorpe and William Lloyd Garrison would have to be considered immoral for opposing the values of their society—albeit once the abolitionists succeeded in changing attitudes about slavery their opposition becomes praiseworthy. But (and this is Henderson’s point) without an objective morality, whether social reformers are doing good or doing ill depends entirely on whether they are successful or not. And this will not do.

Is Objectively Morality Possible?

Henderson’s argument, in short is as follows: (1) morality must have its source in something objective and outside of us in order for morality to work as needed; (2) God is the only possible objective source for human morality.

But as we will see, both points are wrong. We will see that objective morality simply can’t work—not even within a supernatural worldview. And it can’t work for God because, as it turns out, God is in the same boat we are when it comes to morality. If you remember, I pointed out in part one how different beings in different places must have different values to drive their behaviors. But now let me draw your attention to a more fundamental problem.

Theists say that only when there is an objective set of moral values existing outside of us, does it becomes possible to judge our actions by their rightness (that is to say, to make valid moral judgments). They reason that if values exist within us then they are subjective, not objective, and consequently we cannot prove that they are right—that is, we cannot prove they are preferable to the subjective values claimed by someone else.

This sounds sensible, until we attempt to apply it to God. And it is appropriate to test it by applying it to God. After all, God must be a moral agent too—else it cannot be claimed that God’s actions are good. Let’s look at this more carefully.

If something is good because it is what God dictates (because it comports with God’s values), then God’s goodness is just whatever God prefers. In other words, God has no way of knowing if His chosen values are truly good; all He can confirm is that they are his values. And likewise for us. We have no independent or objective source for determining the goodness of God. We can’t rely on the Bible (or any other holy book) because first we need some objective way of determining if the moral advice in that book is good or bad—i.e. was the holy book inspired by a good God or by a devil falsely claiming to be a good God?

If the Christian insists on reliance on the Bible no matter what, it means that they are declining to judge the goodness of God’s set of values (versus, say, the Devil’s set of values), and instead have decided to arbitrarily defer to God’s power—or at least, to the power of whatever being inspired the Bible, and hope it’s the “one righteous God” the Bible claims.

The problem here is that without a source of morality that lies outside the Bible—and in fact lies outside of any holy writ—we can’t know the true source of that holy writ. But actually, we are in even worse shape than this. Even if we can somehow determine that the morality of the Bible came from God, we have no way of knowing if that morality is actually good or bad. We have got to be able to judge it independent of its source in order to really know whether that source is to be trusted. Is the God behind the Bible really good?

God is more powerful than the Devil, a Christian might argue, therefore his values should be preferable to us. But clearly this is not right. First, how can we ever be sure that the values of the Bible are from this God unless we have an independent way of judging goodness. And second, if we do have an independent way of recognize the goodness of certain actions and the badness of others—then it follows that goodness is not good because it is what is dictated by God, or because God is all powerful and we fear God’s wrath, but rather because we contain our own moral compass to judge what is good and what is bad.

It follows that for objective morality to work, it’s source must be something independent not just of our personal desires and wishes, but also independent of any words written in a particular book—and independent of God himself.

Furthermore, consider this. If an action is good because God dictates it, or because the goodness of that action depends simply on the fiat of the values instilled in us by some greater being, then we have no independent way to know if those values are truly, objectively good. Perhaps the devil instilled them in us rather than God. Or perhaps the being we think is God is really devil, and the being we think devil is the “True and Righteous One”. We are incapable of brokering such questions unless we have an independent source for determining goodness. But what independent source can we have, if not something from within our own nature? We have no manner of determining the reliability of anything else.

Put another way, all that we have to go on is our own sense of goodness and justice. But that is not reliable to judge between God and devil—and specifically not reliable to determine the goodness or badness of the being we worship—unless it provides us a basis which is independent of that being to use as a reference point. But morality based on something within our nature cannot be independent of the creator of that nature. And yet, if there is goodness within us, or a moral sense within us, we have no choice but to rely on it.

This means, for the theist, that we cannot judge whether the values instilled in us by our creator are objectively good. They are simply the values given us. And that has to be good enough. If it happens that those values are objectively evil, that our creator was imperfect, we cannot point to a set of objective values lying outside both us and God to broker the question (and if we could, it would follow that our God is not the true God.)

Perhaps this becomes clearer when we look at it from God’s point of view. Where does God get his sense of right and wrong? If it is from a source outside himself, who created that source? Is there a God beyond God? And how can God answer the question of the actual goodness of the values coming from this outside source? Only by referring to the sense of morality he has within himself. But whence did that come?

To summarize: for God to objectively judge the true goodness of his actions, there must be some referent outside himself. Yet how can he judge the correctness of any outside referent? Only by comparing it to his own internal sense of values.

As we have seen, what applies for God applies for us as well. Morality must stop at a source inside of us. And this solution—the only one which can possibly work—is applicable whether or not our worldview be theist or atheist. It applies whether God or evolution is the source of our human nature.

Thus Henderson’s plea for an objective source of morality is unworkable, It fails no matter the worldview. Morality must be subjective; it must stem from something inside of us. It must be a product of our human nature.

This should make it clear that a natural worldview is at no disadvantage regarding morality—at least, no disadvantage that does not also affect theists and their worldview.

What is Needed for Morality to Work

In order for morality to work in a manner that allows us to legitimately use it to judge individual behaviors as good or bad, or to judge the mores of our society, or to make valid judgments about other cultures and societies, three features are absolutely necessary.

(1) there must exist a difference (at least potentially) between what individuals desire to do and what is right to do.

(2) the source for determining what is right to do must be independent of our individual desires.

(3) this source for determining what is right to do must be the same for all human beings.

Working backwards, if we examine point 3 we notice that the source does not have to be objective; that is, it does not have to come from outside of us. It it perfectly fine if the source lies within us, within our common human nature. As we saw earlier, an outside source doesn’t work anyway—neither for God nor us.

We know already, if we think about it, that morality is species-specific. What is right behavior for a lion differs from what is right for us. We know that we cannot morally condemn a hungry lion for pouncing on a child. We will curse the lion and kill it if we can, but we cannot fault it on moral grounds. It is not human; it is not bound by human  values.

The lesson here is that morality is not and need not be absolute and universal. We can state it this way: the source of human morality must be broad enough to include all human beings, but not so broad that it includes lions and other non-human species. The first part of this, of course, is necessary if we are to legitimately be in a position to condemn a human being who kills a child. From this analysis, it becomes clear that morality is species-specific. We don’t condemn the praying mantis that eats its mate after copulation, but we would certainly be morally shocked if a human being did the same.

Point 2—that the source for determining what is right must be independent of our individual desires—is really the crux of the issue we are facing here. That is because if 2 is present then 1 follows necessarily. And without at least a potential difference between the choices we make and the choices we should make, there can be no valid judgments about human behavior. This is so whether we are a product of divinity or a product of evolutionary history. There must be some way for us to compare what we did to what we ought to have done.

So the question is a simple one, really. Is it possible for a species (specifically us, of course, but more generally any species) to evolve so that there comes to be this potential difference between what an individual member of the species desires to do and what is right as a member of its species for it to do? Is there a potential gap between the decisions an individual actually makes and the decisions the individual should make? Can a species evolve with a decision-making process which allows for this kind of disjoint between actual behavior and behavior that should (or should not) have been carried out?

Henderson can’t imagine it possible, at least not within a natural worldview. Most atheists (and I would suggest most scientists who study the subject) don’t see any theoretical problem in this regard. In part three, I will try to explain why.

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