When people find out I’m an atheist the most common question I get is “Where do you get your morals from if you don’t believe in God?” Now I know other atheists that are moral, so being an atheist doesn’t make you an immoral person. Of course the same can be said of a religious person (although in my opinion with more leniency since it can depend on how they view their faith- literally or metaphorically, etc) But philosophically speaking you can be an atheist or a religious person and still be moral. In fact many are. But the question I think has deeper roots and it’s something that others have argued with me about. I was raised Mormon, and I can’t disagree with the fact that many morals I hold were taught to me as a child. But does that mean that got my morals from God?

The answer is no, and here is why:

Theists argue (at least those with some philosophical training or background) that we can, and do, agree on moral values. They even agree that reciprocal altruism (don’t steal my stuff and I won’t steal yours) can come from our evolutionary history. But the thing they say is that objective moral values cannot come from anything other than a supernatural power, in other words God. Now an objective moral value (or truth per say) is something that is good or bad regardless of whether we believe it is. An example I’ve heard is that many Nazi’s who committed terrible atrocities believed that they were moral and following what they believed to be good. But that doesn’t change the fact that what they did was immoral and wrong. This is different than a subjective moral value, such as many Christians believe that homosexuality is wrong. That is their subjective moral view. And the argument of many theists is that without a God to lay the law of objective moral values that all we have is subjective moral agreements.

Now after hearing this for the first time I have to admit it stopped me in my tracks and sent me in very deep thought. Are morals without God subjective? Or is there an objective moral truth that can be derived without God?

The answer is yes there is.  

I’m assuming that anyone reading this accepts evolution as fact, so we’ll start there. Through evolution we have obtained conscious brains. We are self conscious. We can think about thinking. And our brains have a clear evolutionary history. Thanks to natural selection we can make conscious decisions. But is that enough to derive anything but subjective information? First let’s pull in some math to show the power of our brains. A synapse is a conduit for the neurons in our brain to pass information through (in layman’s terms). Let’s assume that each synapse has a binary yes-no response. So if we have 1 synapse, then we have only two mental states. For 2 synapses 4 mental states, and so exponentially growing. In the human brain we have somewhere in the neighborhood (and this is on the conservative side) of 10 to the power of 13 synapses. So here’s the math, only assuming a binary yes-no for each synapse: 2 raised to the power of 10 raised to the power of 13, in other words multiplied by itself ten trillion times. This is an astronomically large number. And if you doubt it then I challenge you to get as much paper as you can find and try writing it out and see how long it takes before your hand seizes up and stops functioning. With this much mental power at our mental finger tips it seems almost laughable at the idea that we can’t come find a way to determine objective moral values. Now, with this mental power at our beckon we can see how humans have been able to achieve modern medicine, physics, satellites, cellular phones and all the wonders of technology. Well, science is the clear winner here in technology, but what about ethics and morals? There are many scientists that claim that science can tell us the whats and hows about the universe, but when it comes to morals it can’t objectively handle the job on such a subjective subject.

This, in my opinion, greatly under appreciates the objectivism that science has provided in a numerable areas. For example, although we needn’t go so far back in time, a hundred years ago it wasn’t considered immoral and unethical for a parent to give a 10 year old a cigarette. But since then medical science has come forward in the 1970’s telling us that if you want to avoid lung cancer then don’t smoke. We have since recognized that a parent giving a child a cigarette is a form of child abuse. In fact many argue that even second hand smoke to young children is a form of child abuse. We know that it is harmful to smoke, thanks to medicine, and from that information we’ve all realized that whether you agree or not, giving a child a cigarette is harmful. This is an objective moral. Whether or not it violates your subjective moral code or not, it is still wrong. This of course is a simple example, but it makes a remarkably strong point. Through science, we have obtained evidence and from that evidence an objective moral. If science can give us morals through modern medicine then what other areas of science could be used to help shape our morals objectively?

Sam Harris goes into depths on this subject saying that if we need an axiom from which we start our scientific inquiry to obtain objective morals, we only need only insist that we imagine the worst possible suffering for the longest possible time and then move forward from there. There is a strong correlation between the advancement of science and technology and the betterment of the human life. We live longer, we have more treatments for illnesses and diseases. But this is just physical health, what about mental and emotional health?

Modern psychiatry, psychology, and neurology have made amazing leaps into treatments for those with mental and emotional ailments. Not just in the forms of medicine, but also in the forms of therapy and other techniques to help alleviate mental and emotional pain. My point is whatever facet of human experience we know, we have a science working constantly to try and improve and better it.

But is this objective? And do we, or can we pull our moral foundation from it? Yes, we do, and yes we can. We’re more ethical and moral now than we’ve ever been. And this hasn’t been because of God’s everlasting laws, it’s because as we find out more about how the world works, how we work, we become better more moral people. Through evidence, we gain our objective moral values.

Our objectivity is a product of our minds, it’s a product of highly evolved brains. Objectivity is the natural course for brains that have such mental power. It’s true that much of how we view the world is subjective. My own personal day to day experiences will probably affect me somewhat differently than you. But we live in an age where much of how we view the world is from objective knowledge, from evidence. Most people don’t give offerings to a sun god anymore, instead they look at the sun and understand that it’s a star. Most people know that storms are a cause of weather systems from our atmosphere. They don’t look out on a rainy day and say, “Looks like Thor is up to his old tricks.” Objective truths have become more and more a part of our daily lives. And they’ve all come from science, evidence, reasoning and the desire to really understand more about the universe, and a tiny but important part of that universe, ourselves.

I recommend reading from Sam Harris about more on this subject, it’s an important one not just to us atheists, but to those who might find it difficult to leave behind a lifetime of conflicting religious values. To say that science can’t provide a moral guideline is to allow the religious to say, “And that’s why we’re important!” It opens the door to subjective morals, that are only based on ancient and archaic texts. And of course I’m curious as to what my other fellow atheists have thought on this subject so please comment below!

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Replies to This Discussion

Hi, Blenderpunch, nicely written but I have to disagree with your premise that these morals are objective.  They are as subjective as any other morals we've come up with.  The issue isn't proving logically that atheists can find objective morals, it's accepting that religious morals aren't objective either.  There ARE no objective morals.

I'm a big fan of Sam Harris and I agree with his reasoning on most things.  But even his worst possible universe of maximum suffering scenario (let's call it WPU for short) can only be experienced and judged from the point of view of agents experiencing that suffering.  It's debatable whether this requires a conscious agent, but at the very least a living agent capable of experiencing suffering.  If I remember correctly, his WPU is, more or less, all humans experiencing maximum suffering all the time.  That is a judgement from the point of view of humans which is by definition a subjective judgement.

My position is it's okay for us to have conscious-centric or even human-centric morals.  And it's okay to understand that those morals are subjective because all morals are.  Even the ones taught by the religions are subjective.  No matter how strongly the "THOUGH SHALT" or  "THOU SHALT NOT" is in the commandments, there are numerous examples where the actions in question are  condemned or praised based on the situation.  

Thanks for the reply Fish :) My brother has had the exact same discussion with me, he also agrees with you that although morals are a subjective subject, it's more important that we acknowledge religious morals as subjective and not objective; and that it's OK to have a conscious-centric morals and that the need for objective morals is simply an argument from the theists. I personally still hold that while there are numerous subjective moral agreements, through evidence we can better determine an actual objective moral. And this comes from seeing the advancement of many of the psychological sciences, especially in neurology where we can see in live time neurological reactions to things like prejudice or memory trauma. I readily concede that finding objective morals is not an easy task, but I still think that we can utilize our technology and minds to rule out perhaps more if-y subjective ideas that might be easier to defend from a philosophical or religious background. But you make a very strong point, one that I do agree with to a large extent ( and one that my brother will be pleased was voiced) -thanks for the great feedback

A lot of good comments but we must remember the Golden Rule. He that has the Gold makes the Rules. Keeping the power of the individual in check is important for society to set morals that respect others. Otherwise we will be ruled by tyrants. It is a collective effort that progresses depending on the views of those who have the power to legislate and enforce policy.

 

 

Don't we have sociology and psychology to study human social development? Aren't morals simply the rules of behavior we learned are acceptable in our culture? We have law makers, so aren't they codifying, in effect, moral standards? Aren't the police, in addition to safety and control, enforcing codified morals? We, as social beings objectify morality just for far more than preventing us from killing each other. From the very earliest hunter gatherer evidence, construction that required many hundreds of humans cooperating to build them shows that we learned to cooperate through agreeing to work with each other for a common goal.  

Human development and behavioral studies of course provide great resources towards understanding how we function in social settings and how those social settings are adapted to the current zeitgeist etc. There is a wealth of information from studies and mountains of research. Richard Dawkin's himself had originally (in the Selfish Gene) talked about reciprocal altruism as a early form of moral/ethics in our evolutionary background.

The problem is two fold: 1) Morals/ethics are often avoided by majority of sciences. 2) The key reason for that is because historically Religion was the social source for enforcing codified morals, and has made it clear (which many scientists foolishly agree with) that morals and ethics are no place for science.

Most people feel that science can't tackle morals/ethics without losing it's objectivity. Many sciences study human behavior, interactions, and more-but not morals/ethics. Science doesn't say "this is ethical" or "this is unethical" because most people don't think science will handle it objectively.

Laws upheld by our police uphold the current morals in the zeitgeist they live in, but they don't help us understand what is moral or ethical. Another problem sociology, psychology and philosophy give us is that more often than not, whatever is socially acceptable in your culture in your current zeitgeist is moral. With so many different cultures, and era's with vastly different laws they can't all be correct. Or healthy, or useful. But many of the laws, and rules of behavior accepted in cultures can be damaging, unhealthy and pointless.

We have the tools in science to study morality objectively, but again, the key problem is that it's not done. Or attempted.

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