A Short Reply for an "Objective Basis for Ethics"

On Friday March 4, there was an article on a right-wing Christian site:

Atheists Targeting Nation With Godless Media Blitz



(much of article snipped)
While it is certain that atheists can be decent people who lead
fulfilling - even good - lives, Dr. Craig Hazen, a Christian apologetics
professor at Biola University in Southern California, told the Christian
Post that the differences between Christians and atheists go far beyond
actions. "You are talking about joy, and pleasure, and goodness and so
on," he said. "If you're employing words like that and you have no
objective basis for the reality of those words ... in other words, if
you don't believe in a moral law giver who actually gives meaning to the
words good and evil, you can ... put up billboards all day long and they
mean nothing." Noting the atheists' own worldview, Hazen challenged,
"What does it mean to do good in a world that's really just a gigantic
accident of matter and energy?"

According to the Christian Post, the Bible professor said that "he has
yet to hear a decent argument from an atheist or naturalist 'as to what
grounds their real objective morality.' The only way to know good, joy,
and love or even pain is if there is a moral law giver who can actually
communicate those things, he maintained," adding that "if it's a person
created in God's image and there' s a moral law giver, then you have a
real concept of morality and you can live a good life or you can live a
bad life and you can know such a thing."

(JBH) This is something we hear a lot, and it deserves a short, clear reply.

Religion does not provide any such "objective basis" for goodness or morality. Religion offers a hearsay account of some guy claiming to have had the subjective experience of meeting a really big ghost who claimed to be the Creator of the Universe, demanded obedience, and offered promises and threats. We have to take on faith that the account is correct, that the "prophet" was telling the truth about his subjective experience, that he was not hallucinating or dreaming, AND that the ghost he encountered was telling the truth, was not some local shade playing a practical joke, or a demon who feeds off worship and sacrifices. Nothing that you have to take on faith is an "objective basis" for anything.

For an "objective basis" for ethics, look at the consequences of actions for real people in this world. Because we are social animals evolved by natural selection, who survive by cooperating in groups, the great majority of people are going to value the health (survival-ability) of their families and the peace of their communities. A "good person" is a desirable neighbor, desirable from the point of view of people who wish to live in peace and raise families. If you want to maintain peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors, don't kill, steal, lie, or break agreements. This is objective. As Shakespeare wrote, "It needs no ghost, Milord, come from the grave, to tell us this."


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Comment by John B Hodges on March 13, 2011 at 1:40pm

Elsewhere on my blog, I have longer essays about all this. I agree with you that everything "good" is good TO somebody FOR something. Things have value because people value them. Goodness and badness are ultimately individual, subjective, and relative. Rightness and wrongness are ultimately interpersonal, social, and relative. But I disagree with your second paragraph; the word "objective" means "in the realm of the senses"...actually I will just post another of my essays that I haven't posted yet. Look for "Defining Five Terms". 


Even though "value" is subjective, ethical systems CAN be objective. An objective ethic is a consequentialist ethic with an ultimate goal that is objectively measurable. 


My own personal blog page- some 31 posts so far, most recent one at the top: 


Regarding the common claim by believers that nonbelievers have no basis for morality, perhaps even COULD NOT BE moral. I have several blog posts about that. A short one, 500 words:


A longer one, for people interested in reading philosophy:


Again, technical philosophy:, a discussion of the metaethics of Ayn Rand's Objectivism, and where I agree and disagree with it.


An essay where I discuss secular motivations for "being ethical":


Since believers claim to have the copyright on ethics, I once decided to see what Jesus had to say about ethics:


And my MOST popular blog post, "The Uncensored Ten Commandments":


Comment by Jedi Wanderer on March 13, 2011 at 9:07am

There is a deeper point that I think you are missing here John. I have had the same argument with a religious friend of mine, and the argument is stronger than I think you realize. You say "If you want to maintain peaceful and cooperative relations", but then why would this be considered good? You say if we want to look for an objective basis for ethics, we should look to the fact that we have evolved as social beings who value the health of their families and communities, but "in a world that's just a gigantic accident", why would the health or even survival of our species be a good thing? Maybe humanity is a giant pox, an infectious virus that destroys other living beings for its own ends. Is humanity necessarily good? Is life necessarily good?


My point is that if you want an objective basis for values and goodness, it doesn't make sense to look for what is good relative only to some particular beings within objective reality. You would need to have, as religious people believe they do, a value which goes beyond this world which can support this world. Of course, a problem which quickly arises is then what supports that value, and the only way out is to go still beyond that thing, whatever it may be, and look for something to support it, and so on ad infinitum. Obviously it doesn't appear that there can ever be an objective basis for value!


If you can agree with my reasoning so far, you will have come to the same conclusion that I have, which is that value must of necessity be relative to a valuer. When you ask if a thing is good, you must necessarily include, "good for whom?". The question is truly a deep one, and we atheists had better begin coming up with some satisfying answers to the question of what value is if we want to hold our own in these types of debates. Not that I haven't got some of my own answers, and there are many others even here on A|N who have come to similar conclusions, but this seems to me to be one of the most poorly-understood elements of atheistic philosophy.



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