I've been doing a lot of thinking on morality and the Moral Argument apologetic argument lately. Effectively the charge from apologists is that on atheism moral values have no ontological basis. That means that on atheism, morality "doesn't exist" in the same way that say matter/energy exists.
Conversely they argue that on theism, morality is as real a dimension of reality as matter/energy is.
There are a number of potential responses here, and a wide variety of secular moral systems that claim to provide an objective basis for moral realism - the idea that moral propositions are either true or false.
What I want to explore as one possible response is something very simple that could establish a very basic bare bones morality that would lead to at least a limited set of moral propositions being true or false - ie. moral realism. At a minimum, my goal is to establish an objective basis to condemn a subset of actions we commonly deem to be morally wrong (murder, rape, theft, etc).
This system is not meant to preempt other ethical systems or theories, but rather it serves as a bedrock system that could serve as a basis for morality in an atheistic world view if we were led to reject other moral systems.
Request for Feedback
What I also want is to have people critique this idea, especially theists who defend the moral argument. I'd still appreciate feedback from atheists who think that this account is false. I'm going to send this post around to a few places and hopefully get substantive criticism. When it comes to moral philosophy I fully admit that I'm at best an amateur, so I'm quite open to being shown the flaws in my reasoning here. I may defend from some objections, but I'm honestly looking for weak points.
If morality really is just a social construct - so what?
Lets say that morality merely a system humanity has devised to govern interactions between individuals and societies. What exactly follows from this? Are we simply stuck with relativism as a consequence?
I think there's a very simple way to avoid this - if the moral system had at its core a set of properties that were shared by all individuals then it would provide an objective basis for condemning certain actions.
The trick is teasing out things that would be recognizably true on an atheistic world view:
1.) Human beings (or more generally, moral agents) at a minimum, value their own well being.
2.) Human beings evolved as a social species that can impinge upon one another to negotiate codes of conduct.
I take (1) to be uncontroversial. It is very easy to see how such a trait would be selected for via evolutionary processes. Similarly, it is hard to imagine the case where someone doesn't truly value their own well being. In the case where there was such a person it seems to be a self correcting problem in the most callous way - anyone who doesn't truly value their own well being are sure to die rather quickly. Merely eating something when you are hungry contradicts the idea that one doesn't value their own well being.
It's true by definition that I don't want to be raped. It's nearly true by definition that I don't want to be murdered, or have my property stolen. Or a whole host of other things that pertain to my own well being.
However in evaluating these desires, I realize that this impinges on other people. This is where (2) comes in. In each case I don't want others to perform certain actions to me. Conversely, I realize that other people will have these same kinds of desires, which impinge on me to not murder, rape, steal, etc.
On atheism I can recognize that there's nothing that makes the desires I have for my well being stand above or below the same desires of another for themselves.
There are a few things we can glean from this. The first is that in order to maximize core parts of my own well being, it is in my best interests to cooperate with others around me to build a society where certain actions do not occur. As such it makes sense to create a moral and legal system in which we say it is wrong to murder, rape, steal, etc.
But what if I have other desires?
trivially true that other people will eventually have desires that
conflict with the desires of other people, even in the most basic cases
of murder, rape, or theft.
The problem here is that
even if I were to intensely desire to murder someone, once I breach that
basic rule there's nothing to prevent others from doing the same to
me. Even if i was extremely strong, I recognize that it only takes a
few people to overwhelm me, or that I must sleep sometime, or that
someone weaker but stealthy could use nefarious means to harm me.
such it's in my best interest to not be hypocritical and resist desires
to murder, rape, steal, etc. Furthermore it's in my interests to band
together with others to at least isolate anyone that violates these basic rules that we negotiate with others.
Notice that I'm not advocating for what is to be considered "good" or even that we should maximize our own well being. All I'm aiming for here is the very modest claim that we can derive a subset of moral facts that will be either true or false. For example the statement: "Murder is wrong" would be true.
I'm not pretending that this accounts for condemning all actions we would consider "wrong", that may require valuing something other than our well being. However this system doesn't preclude that an individual could value more than their own well being.
My point is that I can derive quite a bit out of this system that would be "objectively wrong". Typically the sorts of things I can derive as "wrong" are the kinds of things that apologists like to refer to in the moral argument that they claim atheists can't objectively condemn: genocide, murder, rape, etc.
The thing is, that's all we need to establish some form of atheistic moral realism, which disproves the moral argument.