Can Atheists Be Moral?
Society is increasingly polarized over our conflicting moral biases, whether on abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, lying, or religion. We touched on some of these issues in the previous chapter. I can expect that many of you disagreed with some of the assumptions and positions of the Christian right and even Christians more broadly since many within Christianity subscribe to socially conservative views.
To reiterate, for the Christian, our moral positions are intuitive (our moral compass) or given to us by divine revelation (Divine Command). For the atheist, our moral positions are at times intuitive, but also intellectually derived, rather than given to us by God. In other words, our moral convictions are defended despite our natural intuition and acted on despite a natural inclination to do otherwise.
There are many things Christians and atheists agree upon, however, despite having different reasons for doing so. Few alive today would, for example, say that it is okay to kill someone who sleeps with your wife or even that it is okay to chop off a kid’s hand if they steal from you.
A Brief History of Morality
The question of what constitutes the best moral action has been debated for millennia from the time of the Ancient Greek and Eastern philosophers to the tweeting of Trump. 2,000 years ago, Plato, along with Aristotle, thought that a virtuous and moral man was one that abstained from ‘the passions,’ which included the various sensations we feel when we experience pleasure and instead directed their focus to the life of ‘the mind.’ Epicurus partly disagreed with them and believed that experiencing bodily sensations was necessary and moral.
David Hume famously posited that it is impossible to justify moral actions since we cannot obtain absolute proof for having them without appealing to a metaphysical deity. Instead, Hume believed that morality was a social contract between citizens to maintain order in society. Jeremy Bentham claimed that morality was entirely dependent on consequences. For Bentham, the best moral catalyst was ‘the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.’ Since then, many others have posited fascinating thought experiments to prove that categorizing moral actions based on consequences is not enough.
Today, we take moral reasoning particularly seriously because of the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The author, Yuval Noah Harari, even speculates that one of the last jobs that will be automated in the 21st century is that of a philosopher because they will have to work closely with engineers that program the behavior of AI.
Together we ask, what if we programmed consequentialist reasoning into AI? Is it ever justifiable to infringe on someone’s freedom to guarantee equality to the collective?
Moral philosophers have stumbled onto many difficult questions seemingly impossible to resolve since they’ve been disputed for centuries. But these questions are increasingly relevant with the development of surveillance technology and potentially autonomous AI, or Artificial Super Intelligence, as some like to call it. We do not have the answer to what are the best moral actions; We can debate endlessly.
Morality and Who Is Most Moral?
As we have seen from the previous chapter, Christians hold that moral laws are universal and given to us either by divine revelation (the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes, etc.) or are within us (our moral compass or conscience). Along with having a soul, Christians believe that this is what distinguishes us from animals. However, morality can be understood more broadly and does not have to depend on revelation. This is where atheists and Christians disagree.
But what is morality? In my previous blog post, I simply defined morality as a “set of universalizable behavioral principles.” However, there is no simple way to define morality, and many even disagree on whether morality needs to be universal, for example.
Robert Solomon wrote in his widely read textbook Introducing Philosophy, “Morality is a set of fundamental rules that guide our actions.” According to Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene, morality is a “set of psychological adaptations that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of social co-operation.” Michael Shermer writes that “Morality involves how we think and act toward other moral agents in terms of whether our thoughts and actions are right or wrong concerning their survival and flourishing.”
Nowhere in these definitions do we have the proposition that these “adaptations” or “rules” are universal. Although some atheists argue that, similar to Christians, morality can be universalized. This argument was most notably promoted by one of the most known moral philosophers of the 20th century, John Rawls. This attempt has been met with a fair share of hostility, however. In response to Rawls’ universal morality, Mark Johnson writes:
I will suggest it is morally irresponsible to think and act as though we possess a universal, disembodied reason that generates absolute rules, decision-making procedures, and universal or categorical laws by which we can tell right from wrong in any situation we encounter.
Many disagree on the premise that universal morality is important in the first place. The question is, why do we even need universal morality? Why do Christians think that universals justify morality in the first place?
Christian apologists argue that by abandoning “Judeo-Christian values,” our culture will inevitably lead to anarchy and nihilism. Indeed, this seems to be a commonly held view by most Christian apologists.
Timothy Keller argues that by rejecting divine revelation for moral truths, Enlightenment thinkers disposed of “a telos for human beings,” implying that any reason for behaving morally was lost with the Enlightenment. In his book Gunning for God, John C. Lennox argues that “atheism does not supply any intellectual foundation for morality.” According to the geneticist and Evangelical, Francis Collins, “[I]f the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good and evil.”
Hence, Christian apologists believe that to have objective morality, moral truths have to have been eternal; they could not have been the mere happenstance of evolution because that would suggest that our morals were random and arbitrary. Putting theory aside, studies reveal that everyday people behave morally without having any objective basis for morality. For some reason, atheists still think it worthwhile to treat their neighbors decently.
Do Atheists Have Good Reasons to be Moral?
In the end, when all laws and punishments are taken from us, what prevents atheists from stealing, cheating, and raping? Yes, our behavior results from societal influence, but atheists also have another very compelling reason to behave morally: genes ‒ the ultimate moral compass.
For the Christian, evolution is not a satisfactory answer because that would suggest that morality evolved by accident, as we have seen above. Keller writes that evolutionary reasons for morality come across as a “trick that our biology or society has played on us.” He says that even if loving altruistic behavior helped our ancestors survive, it doesn’t necessarily invoke a moral obligation for us today.
How our ancestors survived, of course, does shape our behavior. Much of our understanding of human behavior rests on this basic premise. When someone is on a diet and cannot stop eating chocolate, nutritious experts explain that this “irrational behavior” is a misguided function of evolution.
When studies show that repeated walks outside improve productivity, psychologists explain that it is because of the habitat of our ancestors ‒ where our genes come from. When we help a friend in need, and they help us in return, this encourages good behavior, which encourages genes that enforce this behavior to be passed down. Indeed, we can say with some degree of certainty that genes influence human behavior as much as our environment does.
In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins elaborates on why genes pass down good behavior. He writes that it is not uncommon for genes to “ensure their selfish survival by influencing organisms to behave altruistically.” Dawkins then lists the four different Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic or ‘moral’ to one another:
- Genetic kinship.
- Reciprocation: the repayment of favors given and the anticipating of favors given back.
- The Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness.
- (Theory) Conspicuous generosity (Altruistic giving may be an advertisement of dominance or superiority).
Dawkins writes that altruism would be promoted in early human beings. Natural selection programmed our brains to have altruistic and sexual urges, hunger, and even xenophobic tendencies. So, Dawkins writes, when a woman is on the pill, and her partner and herself still feel the urge to procreate, that desire is “independent of the ultimate Darwinian pressure that drove it.” And the same applies to altruism:
“In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators. . . . Nowadays that restriction is no longer there, but the rule . . . persists. . . . It is just like sexual desire.”
Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson have argued that for humans, cooperation beyond kin and tribal members had started occurring after agriculture had been developed, about 10,000 years ago. When food was scarce, tribes competed, forcing tribes to alienate themselves from one another, except when it came to annual gatherings where tribes came to access tools and goods. As communities started growing, there were more advantages to trading, and for tribes to interact and cooperate to gain an advantage over other tribes.
Altruism Across the Animal Kingdom
Importantly, cooperation is not unique to humans, which makes the case for evolutionary morality even stronger. If humans are unique in their moral capacity, then maybe we could argue that God implanted a moral compass within us even if our sinful desires often take over that compass. And, of course, Christians do not necessarily have to be against evolution, so they could say that God used evolution to implant the moral compass within us.
However, because of the universality across species of altruism, this explanation is not so apparent. For example, elephants and whales, who have evolved independently from us, have similar tendencies for friendship and social lives. Indeed, Nicholas Christakis writes that the observable independently-evolved morality of elephants and whales “demonstrates that this pattern of traits — the social suite — is adaptive and coherent.”
Patricia S. Churchland writes of numerous instances of interspecies cooperation. She writes of ravens leading coyotes to an elk carcass, humans and dogs cooperating for as long as 30,000 years, baboons used by humans to help guide stray goats, and so forth. Different species help one another and understand each other’s needs.
In one instance, Churchland recounts of a story where the female baboon Ahla, “led the farmer’s goats out in the morning, gave alarm calls if she spotted a predator, brought the goats back to the barn in the evening, groomed the goats, and regularly escorted separated juvenile goats back to their mothers.”
Indeed, animals born with rare mutations that make them indifferent to their environments are less likely to survive and procreate. Thus, it makes sense that we can observe altruistic behavior in the animal kingdom since it helps survival.
Many will read this and the fact that we act morally because of evolutionary reasons as a precursor to abandoning morality altogether. Keller writes, “[W]hat has been generally beneficial to the species over the ages may not be particularly beneficial to an individual in the present,” and “if morality is really a matter of benefit rather than of spiritual obligation transcending personal concerns,” then any set of ethical guidelines “can, like any other useful instrument, be taken up or laid down as one chooses.” Because of this, many, along with Keller, conclude that “There’s simply no way to tell right from wrong” and that we “shouldn’t try.”
However, Keller makes one fundamental mistake; Morality is not an instrument, but rather a behavioral obligation that transcends personal willingness to do otherwise.
For many, stealing is not a viable way to live even if the option presents itself. Patricia S. Churchland explains that the primary hypothesis on offer for having social values is the “neurochemistry of attachment and bonding in mammals.”
These are not mere instruments that we can choose to abandon to our liking. We are caring largely because it feels good; Indeed, caring, according to Churchland, is “pretty much all there is.” Mammals need care for survival. Piglets, calves, puppies, and humans who do not bond with their mothers cannot survive long. It is not merely, as Keller proposes, a matter of picking up instruments; Instead, our morality is a matter of survival.
More importantly, if we admit that evolutionary reasons are not sufficient in providing a moral law and hence cannot oblige fellow citizens to fulfill basic moral obligations, we still do not get rid of moral obligation, since the consequences to actions still matter, despite them evolving by chance.
Even if morality is as Joseph Heath says, “a complex cultural artifact” and not something that is within our “hearts or our heads,” we still do not dispose of our obligation to one another. In reality, whether or not we have an objective basis for behaving morally grounded in Divine Command or evolution, bears no weight on the state of the world.
It is not clear to me why having an objective metaphysical morality matters in the first place. Because if we come back from our lecture rooms and ivory towers into the real world, we see people behaving morally without ever knowing what Divine Command, consequentialism, kin altruism, deontology, or any other ethical theories or explanations, are.
If you want to continue reading on this topic, I have released a book where I explore this topic. This is an excerpt from Chapter 4 on whether atheists can be moral in the 21st century. It is now also in kindle version.
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I write to keep you thinking and to keep me thankful and reflective. Cheers and until next time,