Monday, February 3, 2014

A Bare Bones Secular Morality?

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 occurAs 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?

It's 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. 

As 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.

Mostly Negative

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.


  1. For what it's worth, my own view is that morality/ethics is a type of applied rationality. **** To the extent that the laws of logic and the rules that govern rational discourse exist and describe true features of the world, morality exists.**** This is a type of 'practical reason theory', that there are reasons to act in certain ways towards a being of a particular type, and those reasons should be respected by any other being that purports to be a rational agent.

    That is to say, moral codes and precepts are the 'then' statements of hypothetical conditionals.

    *If* you value fairness, *then* you will join the back of the line and not cut in.

    To translate this statement into moral language: "You *should* join the back of the queue, because it's fair.

    Now depending on who you ask, this will or won't count as a moral realism. I, and any professor I care to ask at my university, considers this a type of realism. Every nihilist I've ever spoken to disagrees. They seem to have a fantastically narrow view of realism though, on a par with the realism of physical entities, like rocks, which is absurd.

    1. I have to admit some sympathy to that view, and I think it's largely compatible with what I'm advocating in the post: "If you value your well being, then you should not murder."

      I do think you ultimately have to describe goodness in terms of things that promote the well being of conscious creatures, otherwise what prevents someone from saying:

      "If you value getting revenge, you should kill Bill"

  2. I don't know whether a 'bare bones' morality could arise in an evolutionary stable strategy. My guess is there is always going to be some idionomia and ontological dysphoria such that some agents don't value their own life except in so far as they can spend it convincing as many people as possible that this world sucks and everything common sense tells you to do, or any cooperative game theoretic eqbm, is actually like totally evil and genocidal and come on sheeple! you know deep down that only by chopping off your left thumb and reciting the Tax Code backwards can WE BRING ABOUT REAL CHANGE IN AN ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE AND TRULY DEMOCRATIC MANNER.
    BTW, no Religion or Ideology I ever heard about has a bare bones morality- though they may pretend otherwise. Thus- Abortion is a crime if an unwed mother does it but cool if it is the byproduct of Industrial pollution by a Big Company. Or alternatively- abortion is totally about empowering women unless those women choose to selectively abort female fetuses in which case it's gynocide. Stuff like that.
    Interestingly, in Rabbinic law, there is the concept of 'halachah vein morin kein'- a law which is not a law if you know it's the law.
    Maybe you can still get 'bare bones' morality from some sort of ideal situation contractarian gedanken- but so far as I know the attempt always fails. Rawls would have to end up endorsing worse race/sex/anti poor discrimination than currently obtains. Nozick would have to permit contract killing etc.
    One way out is to say 'let's pretend the future fitness landscape is fixed in advance and suffers no inconvenient convexities and has a well behaved Lyapunaov candidate function etc.' But, in that case, our discourse is just as ontologically dysphoric as the worst sort of religious/ideological nutcase. We have ceased to make ourselves at home in the world. Either Reality has to give or we gotta emigrate into a Platonic world of arid scholasticism.

  3. I went too long so I posted my thoughts as a Blogue.

    1. Thanks for the reply. I actually think I can find some sympathy with the views here.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. My pleasure. In sum I don't think theists will dispute that a rational moral system can be developed such as the one you present. Rather they will point to the inherent ontological limitation and suggest it is accordingly not an "absolutely" objective basis for morality and "ultimately" it is arbitrary. I think the response has to be to accept this limitation and point out that their ontological basis is just an assertion, and their epistemological limitation is devastating to their ability to argue the "truth" of any moral value they subscribe to. Needless to say the skeptical theist response to the evidential problem of evil draw this out nicely.

  4. I like and abide by Kant's secular morality (he was a Christian). I believe this system creates a morality superior to Christianity's and at least as "real".
    I wrote about it in an earlier blog post here:

    1. Getting into Kant would be it's own project! In some resepects I'm sad I never got into philosophy in college when I could have studied it properly. I do like how our deconversion prompts were almost the same.

  5. Disclaimer: I am a Christian philosopher. However, your moral project and my own are similar. I reject Divine Command Theory and even to some extent Natural Law, though I sympathize with its intuitions.

    Anyhow, I think you're heading in the right direction. Every civilization in the world which ever conceived of morality and law had had in common one thing: that they were. Capital-B Being is at the root of all moral systems.

    Stealing terminology from Sartre, I call moral goodness "Being-with-others" and "Being-for-oneself." It is about creating the proper sorts of relationships with other people and yourself. Moral goodness is not a static set of laws but a creative cooperative agreement between individuals that allows everyone to be who they are.

    This might sound odd for a theist, but I follow the intuition that morality cannot be some arbitrary construct dictated by God. As a philosopher and also something of a computer scientist, these arbitrary moral systems scream terrible design. The God I believe in would design a more robust system where morality was something more fundamental.

    It's been a long time since I wrote about this on my blog, but you may be interested in reading an earlier post of mine. It has some Christianity in the party, but it is not Christianity-dependent.

    1. Correction: "it has some Christianity in parts." Typed this on my phone.

  6. To me, morality is either objective or subjective based on the definitions in use for good and bad or right and wrong. For something who thinks wrong behavior is defined as unacceptable behavior and right behavior is acceptable, then morality is subjective because what person A accepts could be different than person B.

    If the definitions are right behavior is that which causes more benefit to others than harm to others and wrong behavior is the opposite, then that definition may be applied objectively. There are still judgement calls to be made, but no one could argue murder, all else being equal, isn't wrong.

    That said, the choice of which definition to use, could be said to be subjective. :-)

  7. Principle 1 seems circular. How do you define well being without a moral framework in place? That is precisely what you are trying to define.

    Principle 2 seems less than obvious. A mafia boss will kill people and just accepts they might try to kill him. Same with a dictator. Kings killed people and tried to argue it was wrong to kill them based on the larger good of the nation or the divine right of kings or whatever. Even Obama had predator drones and accepts that some of those targeted might try and kill him. It just does not seem obvious that these positions can't be seen as moral. People who lived these lifestyles often only questioned the morality of it when the victim was a close friend or family member. The killing of adversaries was not even shocking. So saying this is so obvious nobody can disagree seems strange.

  8. If you would like to see my attempt at this kind of project, it's here (e-mail address on home page.)

  9. I've got clear and simple answers to all the usual questions that arise when designing a moral system. If you're interested, ask away.