ATHESIM-Are moral values brute facts?

A second attempt to reject God as the basis of morality is to view objective moral values as brute facts in a godless universe. There are objective moral values, but they are not related to God, because there is no God. This is called “atheistic moral realism.” The atheist resists both nihilism and theism thereby. This atheist argues that some things are morally despicable (rape) and other things are morally admirable (love). These are moral facts that cannot be reduced to contingent evaluations of individuals or societies. Thus, they are not reducible to any material properties, such as those addressed in biology. However, for various reasons—possibly because of the Euthyphro problem or the problem of evil—the atheist does not place these moral facts in God as the evaluator-in-chief. Sinnott-Armstrong claims that we know rape is wrong not because a God disallows it but simply because it hurts someone. That is sufficient. He sees no need to bring God into it, especially since he finds other reasons to disbelieve in God.

But atheistic moral realism suffers from several philosophical problems. First, the ontological status of these moral facts is puzzling (at best). They simply exist without explanation as brute givens, part of the furniture of the universe. But as objective moral values, they are not reducible to physical states of affairs. Neither are they reducible to the subjective thoughts of any person’s mind, since they are objective. These moral facts must be immaterial realities that are part of an otherwise totally material universe. They are not personal beings or rooted in any personal being, so they lack consciousness or agency or feeling. Atheist philosopher J. L.Mackie argued that the existence of objective moral values was inconsistent with the atheist construal of reality; they were just too odd and out of place in a universe that is otherwise valueless and merely material. He denied their existence, since their existence would require that he—an atheist—enter the realm of theism.

Second, moral facts would involve propositions, such as “Murder is wrong” or “Rape is wrong” or “Charity is better than cruelty.” (They also involve the correlative imperatives, such as “Do not murder,” “Do not rape,” “Be charitable, not cruel.” The significance of this imperatival aspect will be explained later.) So, if a human being thinks or speaks one of these moral statements, his or her statement is true if and only if the statement corresponds with some reality outside of the statement itself (given the correspondence view of truth). A moral statement made by a human
(whether right or wrong) constitutes a thought in the human mind. How can a true statement (with normative force) exist apart from some kind of a mind? Yet according to atheistic moral realism, the objective moral facts required to rescue the atheistic worldview from relativism/nihilism are not located in any mind. They just are—mindless. This seems surpassingly strange metaphysically: there is propositional content without any mind proposing it.

A far better explanation for the objective and normative existence of statements about morality would be that they are thoughts in a mind. The mind of God serves this function perfectly. However, atheistic moral realism has no such resource. Even if the concept of a brute moral fact can be made intelligible, theism provides the better explanation for moral truths.

British philosopher Hastings Rashdall argues that if we believe in an objective and absolute moral order, we must logically believe in God as well.

Only if we believe in the existence of a Mind for which the true moral ideal is already in some sense real, a Mind which is the source of whatever is true in our own moral judgments, can we rationally think of the moral ideal as no less real than the world itself. . . . A moral ideal can exist only in a Mind from which all Reality is derived. Our moral ideal can only claim objective validity in so far as it can rationally be regarded as the revelation of a moral ideal eternally existing in the mind of God.

Third, according to atheistic moral realism, there is no overall design of he universe that correlates brute moral facts with the human beings that fortuitously know them. That too is simply a happenstance. Because these moral facts are not personal, they cannot communicate their truths to humans through any kind of intentional cognitive agency. On this view, humans evolved for no purpose and simply happened to intuit brute moral facts through some faculty that transcends what was produced through
natural selection and mutation, which is a purely material and unintelligent process. Craig notes, “It is fantastically improbable that just that sort of creature would emerge from the blind evolutionary process which corresponds to the abstract existing realm of moral values.” But according to theism, moral knowledge is entirely explicable and expected. God, a moral and communicative being, created us to know moral truths.

Fourth, as Leff so ably argued, moral evaluations—whether they be about obligations, prohibitions, the moral status of institutions or whatever—are based on some personal evaluating being. But the atheistic moral realist simply posits the existence of objective moral values such as justice, fairness and love. These moral facts exist apart from any personal evaluator. We can imagine a person being just or issuing a just decree, but abstracting the concept of justice from anything personal vitiates it of its meaning. To defend the existence of objective good and evil, we need the judgment of the evaluator-in-chief: a personal and moral God.

Fifth, how is moral obligation possible on the basis of impersonal, abstract and brute moral facts? Can we be obligated to a mere idea (which is not even in a mind)? The necessary and sufficient conditions for moral obligation depend on God. If, as Leff claims, “there is in the world such a thing as evil,” we are obligated both to avoid and to oppose evil, as well as to promote good. The very concept of moral law implies a lawgiver to whom we are obligated. The nontheist philosopher Richard Taylor nails this down: “A duty is something that is owed. . . . But something can be owed only to some person or persons. There can be no such thing as duty in isolation.”91 Moral obligations make sense if understood as duties imposed by God, but if there is no “higher-than-human lawgiver,” the very concept of moral obligation becomes “unintelligible.” This makes a simple modus tollens argument:

  1. If God does not exist, there are no moral obligations.
  2. There are moral obligations to parents, to children, to fellow citizens, to
    the truth itself and so on, which are more than socially constructed (relativism).
  3. Therefore, God exists as the source of moral obligations.

Sixth, if God does not exist, it is impossible to hold a high moral view of human beings. If humans do not bear the divine image, their worth can only be determined on the basis of their differing abilities and empirical qualities. Humans could not have “unalienable rights,” as the Declaration of Independence states, if they have no objective value simply by being human. The moral traditions of the West, shaped significantly by Christianity, revolt against this kind of devaluation of human beings. Yet when secular moral systems cling to this notion of equality, they illicitly depend on stolen capital from Christian theism.

Categories: atheism

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