Can You Be Good Without God? 5 Reasons Moral Relativism Fails

*This is a shortened excerpt from Prove It: The Art & Science of Understanding & Articulating Why You Believe What You BelieveThere is also an accompanying workbook available, here. NOTE: This is not claiming that atheists cannot do good things or that Christians are morally superior in action. The question is whether or not there is a philosophical foundation for goodness without the existence of God.

The Many Failures of Relative Morality

1. Functional Incoherence

Moral disagreements demand objective standards. Real moral disagreements are not possible without an absolute moral standard by which both sides can be measured. The very argument about moral correctness assumes an absolute morality from which to operate toward and away from.

2. Value Statements Beyond the Realm of Science

Think of it this way. The first hurdle that any worldview must overcome, when philosophizing about morality, is to establish some sort of value or worth of a subject. In other words, a worldview must answer the question, “Why is a given subject worthy of being protected from wrong action?” Naturalists, are left with a very poor answer to this question. As the universe is temporal, the greatest ascribable worth, from the perspective of naturalism, is that a subject holds some temporary utility. But even so, to what end? Who cares about the temporary utility that a subject might give to their culture or environment? If naturalism be true, there is no external entity ascribing value to people, places, or things. There is no eternity from which eternal value/worth can be derived. We are no more than chemical reactions that are in some freak process, somehow, self-aware. But this does not answer the question, “From where do we receive our value?” Only a transcendent, external, eternal entity is capable of ascribing transcendent, external, eternal value or worth.

“If moral statements are about something, then the universe is not quite as science suggests it is, since physical theories, having said nothing about God, say nothing about right or wrong, good or bad. To admit this would force philosophers to confront the possibility that the physical sciences offer a grossly inadequate view of reality. And since philosophers very much wish to think of themselves as scientists, this would offer them an unattractive choice between changing their allegiances or accepting their irrelevance.” -David Berlinski

3. Causal Determinism
  1. If the universe is deterministic
  2. then choice does not exist.
  3. If choice does not exist,
  4. then there is no such thing as moral choice.

According to a naturalistic worldview, that is, a world devoid of anything supernatural(especially a divine agent), the natural world is causally determined. As mentioned in the Kalam Cosmological Argument, this first premise is self-evident and the basic assumption upon which all sciences are built. If the world is determined, choice is an illusion. If choice is an illusion, then moral choice is an illusion. If we do not have the capacity to make moral choices or decisions, then there is no morally incorrect answer.

4. Self-Defeating

Moral relativism is self-defeating, or internally inconsistent. Here is how: moral relativism requires denying moral absolutism, which is, itself, a morally absolute claim. As Geisler states, “There is no way to avoid moral absolutes without affirming a moral absolute.” In claiming to be a relativist, one must deny absolutism, thus becoming an absolutist.

5. Violates the Law of Noncontradiction

The law of noncontradiction, which is a first principle in logic, states, “Nothing can both be and not be at the same time in the same respect.” Using this basic logical tool, relative morality is shown to be illogical. If Culture A says that X is morally good, and Culture B says that X is morally bad, they cannot both be true at the same time, in the same sense.

6. Moral Nihilism

Most apologists view moral nihilism as the inevitable reduction of relative morality. Though we are essentially saying the same thing, I go a little further in my language: Relative morality is ultimately indistinct from moral nihilism. Any attempt at distinction is superficial, as concluded by reasonable reduction, and, therefore, really no different from nihilism in the first place. Here is how it works. “Cultural relativism leads to individual relativism, and the autonomous self become the moral legislator[which is the same conclusion of moral nihilism].” There is no rational basis for moral agreement or disagreement, since the self is supreme.” Below is the syllogism for refuting relativism through nihilism.

  1. Relativism leads to nihilism.

 

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  2. Nihilism is morally unacceptable.

  3. Therefore, (a) relativism is morally unacceptable.

  4. Therefore, (b) we need another moral theory.

Notice that premise two is opinion. However, it is a widely held perspective. This syllogism doesn’t prove God, but it forces people to either accept moral nihilism or reject relativism. Atheist philosopher, Kai Nielsen admits, “We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me… Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.

6 Comments
  • Barbara Price
    Posted at 06:46h, 10 May Reply

    I’ve come to understand (in my old age). that….If the world can do it…it’s NOT God. How can that which is created even come close to understanding or doing that which only the uncreated can do. My kids laugh at me when I tell them that Oprah and Dr. Phil are the best the world has to offer. Only that which comes from the essence of God’s Kingdom has eternal value, purpose, and the kind of life we were meant to be filled with. Apart from all that…..it’s all vanity. So, I ask the.m…..Why settle???

  • Bob Seidensticker
    Posted at 10:07h, 06 July Reply

    I like the web site–very nicely laid out.

    One comment on this post: you need to better establish objective morality. You simply assert it and try (unsuccessfully, IMO) to show that any other kind doesn’t exist or is unsatisfying.

    As I see things, objective morality is simply an unnecessary assumption. It’s not necessary to explain what we see around us. What is often put forward as objective morality is simply universally or viscerally held moral opinion.

    • admin
      Posted at 11:11h, 06 July Reply

      Hey Bob. Good hearing from you. Hope the family is well. Thanks for the kind words on the website… many hours invested. When you say “better establish objective morality,” do you mean better define it? Or do you mean better evidence that it exists at all?

      As for defining it: I would say that objective morality would be a morality that exists independent of perception – an ethic that is actually part of the framework of reality independent of anyone recognizing or failing to recognize it.

      As for evidencing its existence: That is not the case I am making here. I don’t know that there is a way to prove that there is objective morality. I am simply pointing out that ethics exist independent of our opinion (objective morality) – or they don’t (moral nihilism). It is the in-between position (subjective morality) that I am addressing and claiming is fallacious.

      As for your comment that “objective morality is simply universally or viscerally held moral opinion.” I don’t believe that there is a universal opinion on morality. There may be visceral commonality, which can be used to evidence objective morality, but there are other possible explanations (evolutionary necessity etc.), assuming that we have not first clarified other ontological claims.

      I think some of the confusion stems from a communication misfire between theists (particularly Christian) and atheists (particularly secular humanists). While I think Christians tend to have this conversation within an ontological context, it appears secular humanists are more focused on the epistemological considerations. This can be seen in your comment about objective morality being defined as that which is universally or viscerally held opinion (which focuses on the perception rather than the existence).

      I hope this was helpful in clarifying my position. I just started teaching and taking new courses this week so I am ultra busy. If you respond again, I may not have time to get back to you in the coming days, but I will try to make a point of checking it out. Thanks for taking the time to read it. Give my dad a hug if you see him!

  • Bob Seidensticker
    Posted at 00:18h, 08 July Reply

    BTW, it would be nice to get email notifications of responses to my comments. Otherwise, it’s too easy to leave a comment that starts a conversation and miss the party.

    >>“When you say “better establish objective morality,” do you mean better define it? Or do you mean better evidence that it exists at all?”

    The latter.

    >>“As for defining it: I would say that objective morality would be a morality that exists independent of perception”

    William Lane Craig’s definition, which I’ve been using, is: “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.” This sounds pretty much like your version.

    >>”As for evidencing its existence: That is not the case I am making here.”

    Fair enough, but there’s not much point in discussing it if it doesn’t exist.

    >>”I am simply pointing out that ethics exist independent of our opinion (objective morality)”

    Nope—look up “morality” in the dictionary. Or “good” or “bad” or any related term. There is no objective anything in the definitions.

    >>”… or they don’t (moral nihilism). It is the in-between position (subjective morality) that I am addressing and claiming is fallacious.”

    Yes, I see that you’re making that claim, but you do nothing to support it. If this post is simply not where you plan on expanding on your justification for claiming that it exists (or that rejecting objective morality is flawed), you might want to make that clear.

    >>”As for your comment that “objective morality is simply universally or viscerally held moral opinion.” I don’t believe that there is a universal opinion on morality.

    Agreed. I was using a shorthand there. By “universally,” I meant “very widely.”

    Apologists will often use torture of one sort or another as an example of something that’s objectively wrong. But why label it this way when “very widely felt” or “viscerally felt” describes it just as well and doesn’t require a supernatural explanation (or at least an explanation external to humans).

    >>”While I think Christians tend to have this conversation within an ontological context, it appears secular humanists are more focused on the epistemological considerations.”

    Yes, this does seem to be a common differentiation. I have little interest in whether something exists if that existence makes zero difference to our reality. If objective morality exists but we humans can’t access it, who cares?

    >>”I hope this was helpful in clarifying my position. I just started teaching and taking new courses this week so I am ultra busy.”

    No problem.

    >>”Give my dad a hug if you see him!”

    You bet!

    • admin
      Posted at 11:08h, 08 July Reply

      >>”As for evidencing its existence: That is not the case I am making here.”

      Fair enough, but there’s not much point in discussing it if it doesn’t exist.

      >But I’m not really discussing objective morality in this article (only in a peripheral sense). The point of the article is to debunk the idea of subjective morality as anything more than a human construct that is ultimately nonfunctional, contradictory, and reducible to moral nihilism.

      _________
      Apologists will often use torture of one sort or another as an example of something that’s objectively wrong. But why label it this way when “very widely felt” or “viscerally felt” describes it just as well and doesn’t require a supernatural explanation (or at least an explanation external to humans).


      For the reasons listed in the article. Subjective morality is not a functional or coherent option when considered in detail. 1) It lacks the ability to objectively ascribe worth to its subject (ex: one person thinks that animals are the most worthy of protection and therefore eating meat is wrong, another thinks the Earth itself is the most worthy of protection and therefore humans are little more than parasites, and a third, probably following some form of speciesism thinks humans are the most valuable and so as long as what we do doesn’t destroy our habitat to the point that we lose human lives, we are free to do as we wish). In a subjective model, how can we tell any one of those people they are wrong? Yet they will ultimately arrive at irreconcilable cross-roads, which brings up point 2) What happens when an issue is unclear or different individuals or cultures have different feelings about what is right and wrong? If right and wrong are only subjective opinions and not external to human emotion, then the model is entirely nonfunctional and contradictory. There are other points, but I’ll leave it at that as I am out of time. My biggest “complaint” against secular humanism is its inconsistency about morality/ethics. For a system that espouses objective scientific epistemology, it seems extraordinarily odd and contradictory to defer to human emption/ ad populum arguments (“very widely felt” or “viscerally felt”) when addressing ethics. Even when I was an atheist, this seemed absurd to me. Either ethics exist as part of reality, independent of human opinion, or they are just human opinion and therefore nothing more than opinion. There is no “actual” right and wrong outside of the mind. I find the Nietzschean & Provinian brand of atheism much more internally cohesive – even if I disagree with its conclusions.
      _______________
      I will look into the notification thing. I didn’t realize that they weren’t active. Again, I do all of this on my own and have such limited time and resources, the list grows longer each day…

  • Tammy Watt
    Posted at 12:26h, 11 October Reply

    Wow. . . This seems like a really complicated discussion. . . Don’t you think a big issue here is that whats wrong for me. . . Morally or whatever may not be wrong for you and vise versa? This (IMO) is a big problem with whats going on in the world right now. . . Especially in the church although I get we’re not putting a religious perspective on it. . . Therefore under culture. . World. . Moral . . Religious perspectives somthing can be perfectly ok and comfortable for you but be unacceptable for me. . . If God or your parents or whatever has dealt with you on somthing it doesn’t mean I’ve been delt with. . . Mind you I agree there are generally accepted standards for right and wrong. . . Ie murder is wrong . . . But is smoking. . . Drinking. . . Swearing. . . For me maybe but who am I to say it is for you?

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