Life after faith – how do atheists ground morals?

It was an otherwise unsuspicious church service. The youth pastor asked for all the teenage boys to follow him into a private meeting room. Once we were all situated, he asked in a hushed tone “did you know that guys who masturbate start growing hair on their hands?” The room was quickly transformed into a wild frenzy as dozens of panicked young boys began closely examining their hands. After about few seconds, the dust settled, and all of us realized we had been tricked. The room was filled with nervous laughter. And then we listened to a sermon that taught us masturbation and premarital sex was a sin, because God said so.

An hour later, when the rest of the group rejoined the adults in the large sanctuary, the nerds among us found a secluded classroom and began to discuss the issue of sin and sexuality. We could understand why God would want to make murder or robbery a sin, after all, it harms the person who is getting murdered or robbed. But we couldn’t, for the life of us, figure out why God would have made most sexual acts a sin. One of my friends said it was because sex creates a supernatural spiritual connection, and that it can only happen with one person. Another friend said it was because it’s selfish and gives you too much pleasure. But all of us thought there had to be a reason to forbid it, God wouldn’t just designate some random act as an evil, for no good reason!

Would he?

It was then I first encountered that difficult question: what makes something good or evil? Is it the consequence of the action? Is it because God said so? Why would God designate one thing as good, and another as evil? Whatever the answers are, the question is not an easy one. There are thousands of philosophy books that deal with ethics and most are notoriously difficult for the average person to understand. So my goal with this post is to make things as simple as possible, and very practical, even if that means oversimplifying a really complicated topic that still sees much academic debate and disagreement.

1. A MISTAKE WE MAKE WHEN TALKING ABOUT ETHICS

From an early age I discovered that it’s very difficult to talk about ethics because people hold preconceived notions that are faulty. So before we dive into how atheists/agnostics can ground ethics without God, lets take an eraser to the chalkboard that is this conversation. Lets be aware of a big mistake that can make this conversation impossible: viewing ethics as a false dichotomy.

About five years ago, I was invited to a large Christmas party. There was food, games, prizes, and pretty girls (yes, my then future wife was there, and she was the prettiest). And yet, I spent 2 hours of this party discussing ethics with someone I had just met. He believed ethics could exist without God, and I tried to disabuse him from his error. Irrespective of how much I tried, I could not get him to see things my way. This was because I viewed ethics as a false dichotomy: (a) either moral standards come from God, or (b) they were mere opinions and philosophically ungrounded.

 

metaethics false dichotomy

And yet, things aren’t so simple. When I tried to argue “if you’re don’t believe in A, by definition you must believe in B,” I was completely wrong and naïve. The largest survey of philosophers has indicated that: 85.4% of philosophers do not believe in a personal God, and yet only 27.7% reject the concept of objective moral values. This means the vast majority of PhD level philosophers are neither  (a) theists  (b) nor ethical nihilists/relativists.

I was not prepared for this. I had only extrapolated the logical conclusion of my views upon other people, I had never sincerely considered things from their perspective, only “what I would think, if I was in their shoes.

Turns out that throughout the ages thousands of philosophers have written hundreds of thousands of pages trying to comprehend morality. There is a whole field of philosophy, metaethics, that aims to simply understand what ethical statements really are. What does ‘good’ and ‘evil’ even mean? How are they defined? Where do they come from? There is a second field of philosophy, normative ethics, that aims to understand the standards of ethical actions and figure out what kinds of things are right and wrong.

I created the following chart to show a simplified breakdown of the ethical situation in philosophy, to better present the actual choices people have. There are certainly more options than these 10 presented, but lets note that there are more than the 2 choices most people assumePlease click for a larger view.

 

metaethics taxonomy

2. A SHORT CRITIQUE OF THEISTIC ETHICS

a. Do we need God to have objective moral standards?

Most believers say that objective moral values can only exist if there is a God. Though having had many discussions with Christian friends, I’ve not heard a good logical reason why this has to be the case. Now it’s true that some propositions are simply axiomatic, meaning they are true without requiring a reason or justification; for example, the sentence: “Drawing four right angles is the only way to make a square.”  It is true because its logically impossible for it to be false. Because a square, by definition has four angles, it’s self-evident that you can’t make a square with more or fewer angles.

Is the necessity of God for objective moral values also axiomatic? No, it’s not. The sentence: “God is the only possible way to derive objective moral values” is not a self-evident truth. It is possible for this sentence to be false, and in fact, we can demonstrate that it is. To do that, we must simply provide one alternative account of objective moral values. Do such accounts exist? Absolutely! Here is just one example: objective moral standards “just exist – without explanation” in the same exact way theists propose that God “just exists without explanation.”

Think that is strange?  Maybe. But the mathematical truth of 1+1=2 just exists as a fact, and while that’s really strange, it’s no less true. It’s even more strange to imagine that an intelligent being like God can “just exist” without being created, so why exclude something far simpler, like a set of moral laws? (“But who made those laws?” Well, who made God? “But God has always existed!” Then perhaps moral laws have always existed?). In the end, because there is nothing logically contradictory about moral laws “just existing” we can surmise that it’s a real possibility. Thus the statement “God is the only possible way to derive objective moral values” is demonstrably false.

So why do people say God is required? There are two reasons, (i) moral epistemology and (ii) moral ontology.

(i) Some think God is necessary because we cannot learn about moral values (moral epistemology) without God’s revelation. But that doesn’t make sense. Just because I don’t have a math teacher doesn’t make mathematics disappear. If I have no one to reveal to me that 1+1=2 is true, that won’t make it false! If there was nobody to teach us that drinking poison was bad for our well-being, it would still be true that drinking poising would kill us. In the same way, if there are moral facts, but nobody to teach us what they are, those facts don’t just disappear. It seems, therefore, that God as moral teacher, is not required for the existence of moral truths, just like math teachers are not required for the existence of math facts.

(ii) Others might say that God is required not as a source of knowledge about moral facts, but as the source of those facts themselves (moral ontology). Without God, they argue, objective moral standards cannot be created, because “moral laws require a moral law giver.” But is this really the case? Why should objective moral laws require a moral law giver? Do mathematical laws require a mathematical law-giver? Is the proposition “1+1=2” false unless a math-law-giver says its true? Not at all! Is the law of non-contradiction (“X can’t be both X and not-X”) only true because a logical-law giver said so? Again, no. So why then should moral law require a moral law giver? In fact, simply saying that a particular law requires a law-giver, necessarily means that this law cannot be objective but must be subjective. If it’s only grounded on the law giver, it must be subject to the law giver. It must be contingent on his/her choices, and he or she could give any law that he wants to.

b. Is it even possible for God to be to source of objective moral standards?

If you think the problem above is difficult to overcome, trying to ground objective moral values in God’s commands has an ever greater problem, the Euthyphro dilemma. This is a question about how God determines what things are good and evil. The only two possible options are: (a) God produces moral standards from within himself or (b) he obtains them from outside of himself. If we answer with A and say God determines good and evil from within himself, then it follows that there are no objective moral standards, they are all subjective to God, and therefore arbitrary. God could easily say “rape is good” and “kindness is evil” and we would have no way of knowing otherwise. Yet, if the answer is B, God obtains moral standards from outside himself, then this means there is a source of moral standards apart from God, and it is a moral standard that even God must obey. This means God is subservient to something else.

The image below presents an outline of this serious problem.

eutyphros dilemma

Christian theologians try to overcome this problem by saying that God’s nature is what grounds his ethical choices. They say Gods nature and character is intrinsically good, and that God determines whether a command is good or bad, by looking inward at his nature. This answer misunderstands the problem and only pushes Euthyphro’s dilemma one step backwards. We can step back and still ask the same question: how can we know Gods nature is good? Are God’s character traits considered ‘good’ as a result of fitting some external criteria of what is good and evil? Or are those character traits considered ‘good’ only as a result of God having them? (If Satan’s character traits were given to God, would they too become good, simply because they are now Gods?)

So we still have the same dilemma. If you answer with: (a) God determines it by looking outward, it logically follows that there exists a moral standard outside of God that he has to obey. This moral standard is “more God” than God. If you answer with: (b) God determines it by looking inward, we can ask: how does God determine that this set of character traits are good, but not another set? What internal criteria does he use? If God uses his nature, to determine if his nature is good, is that not circular and arbitrary?

As an analogy, assume that I invented a ruler/measuring stick that uses a newly invented unit called “zibs” instead of inches or centimeters. If this is the case, then the only way for us to know that “3 zibs” is really “3 zibs” is because I measured it with this new ruler! Isn’t that completely arbitrary? We could make any kind of measuring stick, and use it to measure itself, but that is an arbitrary measurement! It doesn’t mean anything more than “if we define a zib as this, then this is a zib.” But there is no real, unchanging, objective thing called a zib, its just something we made up!

At the end of the day, grounding ethics on God’s moral edicts is very difficult and filled with many paradoxes and problems. I think there is a much better way, that is both more pragmatic and more logical.

3. A SHORT PRESENTATION OF NONTHEISTIC ETHICS

a. What is good & evil? (Moral Ontology)

Our first question is a question of moral ontology, or what do the concepts of good and evil really mean? When it comes to ethical or moral statements, according to my naturalistic view, I define good and evil as two types of ‘states of affairs’ that correlate to sensory experiences by cognizant beings. Rocks and trucks cannot be the recipients or agents of moral good and moral evil, only sentient beings that are capable of experience:

  • Moral Good: the state of affairs in which a sentient being attains well-being and flourishing.
  • Moral Evil: the state of affairs in which a sentient being attains ill-being and harm, or is derived of some moral good.

It’s certainly true that for some people different things contribute to their well-being in different ways. If Joey is allergic to peanuts, giving him food containing the allergen causes harm, which is a bad outcome, but for Sandy, who is starving and doesn’t share Joeys allergy, it causes a good outcome, she is fed. Does this mean moral assessments are relativistic? Since we can judge the action of “giving a peanut butter and jelly sandwich” to be both good and bad, depending on person whom it is given to? No.

The specific actions may change, as they depend on one’s nature, but the ultimate consequences can be judged objectively. For example, some plants may need to be submerged in water year round, others watered daily, and some never at all. Yet, each of them has a specific set of circumstances, which are an objective fact for that plant, that produce the state of affairs we call health. Just because each plant requires a different set of actions to produce the consequence of health, doesn’t mean everything is now simply a matter of opinion. It’s not an opinion. We can take a microscope to the plant, and objectively evaluate its status. We can ask, “has watering helped or harmed this plant?” And we can know the answer as a fact, not an opinion.

Objective moral judgments are not a series of meticulously specific laws that apply to every single action, situation, and person for all time, but rather objective assessments we can make about the ultimate consequences. (For example the specific command that “lying is always bad” seems to prevent you from lying to a group of Nazis, in order to save Jewish lives. On the other hand the assessment that “harm is a bad thing” might encourage you to lie in order to prevent the Jews from being harmed.)

So how do we figure out what things are good for what beings? We will discuss this in section C below, but first we need to understand the complexity of moral situations.

b. How does an ethical decision work? (Moral Taxonomy)

When it comes to describing an ethical situation, I would describe it as having at least three parts which are not reducible to one. In every case when I want to understand a moral scenario, I need to know at least three things about it. These are

(i) moral intentions, which produce

(ii) moral actions, which in turn result in

(iii) moral consequences.

In other words, first someone desires to kill you, then they stab you, finally this results in your death. Each of these steps in the chain is vital to narrating the whole story, and we should do our best to avoid simply calling the whole chain “good” or “evil” because there are instances where its composed of different parts.

First, we can have scenarios where good intentions produce evils. My intentions can be good, while my actions and the resulting consequences can evil. For example, I may believe that pressing a blue button will help all people, but instead it launches a nuclear weapon that kills them. The consequences instantiated by my action were truly evil, but my intentions were sincerely good. Of course these good intention don’t justify the consequence; it is undeniably evil. Yet, in this scenario, the problem was a disconnect between my desires and the outcomes, I am to blame for knowing the wrong information about the button, not for desiring to kill everyone.

Second, we can have situations where evil intentions produce good. Imagine a sadistic person who wishes to cause severe pain and death to everyone on this planet, and so he clicks a red button. hoping to instantiate evil. Yet, this button simple causes millions of balloons to be sent to children in hospitals worldwide, making them quite happy. He inadvertently caused a “good” action, one that he did not intend. It would be far too simple to say “he did a good thing” for the whole story shows us his intentions were evil, and the good outcome is an accident.

Finally, we can also imagine scenarios where some parts of our moral chain are missing. For example, someone who is sleep walking and (i) without intention causes (ii) an action that results in (iii) another person’s harm. Or perhaps a ghost who (i) intends to harm innocent people but (ii) cannot act in a way that (iii) causes any kind of outcome or consequence.

Examples like these demonstrate that while terms like “good” and “evil” are appropriate words to describe moral situations, they should be used carefully and not be overly simplified. Knowing the full chain of events, we can far better grasp the whole moral situation than simply shouting “evil!” or “good!”

c. How do we know what things are good? (Moral Epistemology)

This is the question of moral epistemology, or how can we know what things are good? In my opinion, this is an easy question to answer, at least at a theoretical level, but can be a bit more difficult in the real world. Simply put, our goal is to discover what is “good,” or what is “the state of affairs in which a specific sentient being attains ultimate well-being and flourishing?”

Ideally, we would take each sentient being, put them into a theoretical laboratory, subject them to every single possible action/consequence, and then see which of these things result in well-being and which result in ill-being (biologically and psychologically). This would provide us with a comprehensive answer. Yet, we neither have the time nor resources to do this. Besides, experimentally subjecting people to every possible bad thing, is… well, bad.

So what’s our alternative? We use the very best of our knowledge of human nature, accumulated over thousands of  years. We ask our fellows, “what kinds of things will harm/benefit you?” because most people can accurately gauge many things through introspection. And finally, we experiment, we try new things, we observe, and we learn.

Let’s revisit the mythical story of Adam and Eve. Before anyone had ever been poked with a sharp object, how could Eve have known that poking Adam with a needle would cause harm and pain? Unless God magically implanted that knowledge into her mind, the only way she could have known is by poking herself or Adam and observing the reaction. Before that, nobody could know what would happen.

At the end of the day, its that simple, but also that difficult. It leaves us in the position of ethical agnosticism regarding some future outcomes, especially concerning new things we have never encountered. We don’t know the exact consequences of some future actions on certain people. But it also gives us an objective methodology for assessing any actions that have been committed in the past. We can evaluate the motivation, action, and consequences of actions in the past, and apply what we learn to our decision making.

Recall that moral scenarios includes these three parts: (i) moral intentions, (ii) moral actions, & (iii) moral consequences. Using this trilemma, we can summarize the situation in moral epistemology as follows:

(i) Moral intentions: we can evaluate intentions by asking introspective questions, like “why did I/you intend to do this action?”

(ii) Moral actions: We can evaluate actions by examining the direct casual outcomes they produce

(ii) Moral consequences: We can understand outcomes because they correspond to the mental and physical well-being of the subject.

e Why should we do things that are good? (Moral Motivation)

Alas, we have come to the hardest question. The question of moral motivation, or what kinds of things compel us to act a particular way. Hume once called this the “is-ought” problem, and to this day, it’s never been adequately answered. If we all agree that something is good, why ought we do that thing? Sure, it’s good. But, so what?

Let’s imagine that God was real, appeared before me, and then commanded me to give all my money to the rich because “it is a morally good thing to do.”

So what? Why should I care?

Even if I agree, and say “okay God, that is indeed a morally good thing to dowhy should I actually do it? What could God or anyone else say to motivate me? Why is it right to do a good thing? What compels me to do good?

  • If God says “jump,” I can ask “why?
  • If God says “because jumping is good” I can ask “why is it good?”
  • If God says “because I said so” I can ask “why does that matter?
  • If God says “just do it, because it’s good” I am back to asking “why”?
  • Just because something is good, doesn’t give us motivation to do it.

In most religions, especially Christianity/Islam the only obligatory motivation is punishment/reward. Why should you refrain from sin? Because if you don’t you will be burned in hell. Why ought you pray and read the holy texts? Because ultimately you will receive a reward from it (whether that be 70 virgins, paradise, or the joy of eternity with Jesus). At its core, the only possible obligatory  motivation in any religious worldview, is simple self-interest.

  • The only obligatory motivation for repentance is to be saved from pain, and enjoy eternity.
  • The only obligatory motivation for avoiding sin is to avoid the harm caused by sin & hell.
  • The only obligatory motivation for good deeds is to be loved/rewarded by God & people.
  • The only obligatory motivation for loving God, is the personal fulfillment experienced.

But religious people aren’t alone in this, in fact, I believe it’s nearly impossible for anyone to be motivated to do something without any self-interest. My suspicion is that most people who claim otherwise, are motivated by the mental satisfaction that arises from acting in a selfless manner! This does not mean I think everyone is evil and doesn’t genuinely care for others, I believe most of us do frequently behave in a selfless manner, but the positive mental experience of loving others and knowing “I caused that person joy, without expecting anything in return” is indeed a selfish reward of its own.

In fact there are all kinds of self-interested motivators, and without them action is impossible. They include being rewarded with (a) physical possessions, (b) pleasant mental/spiritual experiences, (c) respect/affection from others (d) the internal mental experience of doing such a good deed, causing others happiness, or even of doing something good, just for its own sake without expecting a reward.

If there is nothing at all to motivate a person to perform some moral action, there will be no action, unless it’s random and unintentional. This really strips the issue of ethics to its core and exposes the greatest fear of most religious people: If there is no God who will punish/reward you, what guarantee do I have that you will continue to do good to me?

There is no magical guarantee that I can offer, and that seems frightening.

Yet fear not, most human beings, by nature are social and altruistic creatures, we are wired to create bonds with others and flourish best when working cooperatively together. We achieve our own personal flourishing best when we promote flourishing in others. We satisfy our own safety best when we create societies where violence is illegal, and when we don’t act violently towards others. We promote our own good, when we treat others in a way that is good. As Jesus said, “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword” and so “do to others what you would want them to do to you.”

Even Jesus appealed to self-interested desire to motivate listeners to act according to his greatest ethical commandment. There is no reason atheists can’t do the same.

26 responses

  1. Great post! I’m definitely saving this to share with family members when this (inevitably) comes up.

    When I’ve been asked how/why I can be moral without God, I’ve always said that I’m moral for the same reasons anyone is (Christian or not); because of what I want. I want to live in a happy, healthy, flourishing society and acting a certain way contributes to that end.

    I definitely enjoy the profound philosophical discussions around this topic, but it seems to me that it’s really quite simple. Morality is determined by what you want. If you want to obey God, and that is your basis for what is moral, then of course morality apart from God would seem non-sensical. But if you want the well-being of yourself and others, then there is a concrete and objective way to bring that about.

    As a side note, one of my favorite debates and, incidentally, one of the few that William Lane Craig clearly lost, is his debate against Shelly Kagan on the topic of morality: https://youtu.be/SiJnCQuPiuo

    • As a matter of fact, that is one of my favorite debates as well, I am a big fan of Shelly Kagan, and have enjoyed some his philosophy series on youtube

  2. I wanted to add, I have loved reading through your journey. It’s so similar to mine it’s almost scary. From charismatic, to Reformed (which had great intellectual appeal after the disillusionment of the former), to “progressive”, to theist, to agnostic atheist. It’s almost like looking in a mirror!

    I can’t describe the heartache I felt as a charismatic, desperately wanting to see and taste something real. Being the only one standing in a worship service while everyone else was on the ground shaking and crying, all because I wasn’t willing to accept anything less than the real power of God, and feeling defective and rejected as a result. I still get a knot in my stomach thinking about those days.

  3. Yuri,
    This is an excellent and accessible review of moral philosophy. In the end I see that you fall in line with much of the skeptic community in embracing a consequentialist well-being utilitarianism, as defended by Sam Harris, Matt Dillahunty and the like. I’m sure you’re also aware that there is also quite a bit of push-back against this view within the skeptic community, particularly against the claim that this is a type of “objective” morality. So I would like to echo some of those objections here and see what you think. In short, the main objection is “What exactly is well-being, and why should we accept that maximizing well-being is good?”

    Allow me to also offer a few preemptive thoughts to aid in thinking about this. With regard to the first question “What exactly is well-being”, we often end up with a tautological definition of something like “well-being is that which is good”, so that doesn’t really help. All we’ve done is introduce a new synonym for good. Conversely, we might identify some set of properties, like happiness, health, life satisfaction, or even just existence. That’s fine, but it really only pushes the question back a level and we can ask why each of those are good. This is G.E. Moore’s “Open Question” argument. What’s interesting about this argument, however, is that it only has force if we’re trying to sustain an objective morality. If we grant that good is relative to some judgment\intuition\feeling, then it is the relationship itself which grants goodness and the line of questioning comes to an end.

    A second consideration that I would like to propose is that the divisions like the one outlined in your “How philosophers view ethics” creates boundaries that unnecessarily constrain our thinking about morality. We try to locate our theory within a single category, to the exclusion of the others, and find ourselves frustrated that we have difficulty fitting everything in. This is a problem that has plagued me as I have sought to arrive at an ethical theory over the last few years and I have more recently come to the conclusion that such an effort is actually detrimental to clarity. If I had to characterize my current position in the terms on that chart, it would be something of a mish-mash of emotivism, personal and cultural relativism (plus ‘human nature’ relativism) and consequentialism. Why not just consequentialism? Well, that goes back to the previous point: when you define “wrong” in consequentialism as “[that which] produces negative consequences” – I am compelled to ask, what does it mean for something to be negative? At which point I find myself falling back to emotivist and relativist explanations.

    What do you think?

    • Howdy Travis, I think my ethical system has largely been derived by two things, first sitting and thinking about it, and second, reading Keith Parsons stuff on ethics (he generally takes a more Aristotelian virtue ethics approach, but its nearly indistinguishable from my consequentialism.

      As far as Moores criticism of metaethical naturalism, I do see the problem if one assumes moral imperatives and obligations are part of the definition of good or bad, but in my case, they are not. I view these terms, instead, as a means of evaluating states of affairs in relation to the subjects well being, not some kind of categorical imperatives or obligations. So in my case, I view them “good” and “bad” as synonyms with “well being” or “ill being” and at the same time, can be quite comfortable in making the statement that this allows for objective moral statements. I speak not of objective moral obligations, but rather, objective evaluations in the realm of ethical intentions, actions, and outcomes. So if Moore were to ask me “well, Yuriy, why is that action ‘good’?” I would not answer about the ‘ought’ but about the ‘is.’ I would explain that an objective evaluation of the state of affairs directly instantiated by this action reveals it is “good” but I would be unable to claim there is an objective obligation to do the “good.” This is where my section on moral motivation comes from.

      As far as the somewhat synthetic divisions per the chart, no argument from me, I just love things to be tidy and in little boxes.

      As far as your difficulty in being strictly consequentialism, I find that for me it’s easier when I tie my definition of good/evil directly to the sensory experiences by sentient beings. If I define “well being” in reference to states of affairs that are experienced by cognizant creatures, I find many of the difficulties become less difficult and things like “negative consequences” are a little bit less vague. But I could be totally wrong about everything :)

      • Hey Yuriy (spelled it right this time),
        I understand the open question argument to speak to ontology rather than normative ethics. Regardless, it seems like the key statement in your response is

        So in my case, I view them “good” and “bad” as synonyms with “well being” or “ill being”

        This puts us into the tautological case where it seems to me that we haven’t really clarified the nature of morality. Can you define well-being as something other than “that which is good”? Or, alternatively, do you think that there is a difference between the following statements:
        1) Something is good if it increases well-being.
        2) Something is good if it increases goodness.

        an objective evaluation of the state of affairs directly instantiated by this action reveals it is “good”

        What would that evaluation look like? What would we measure?

        But I could be totally wrong about everything :)

        Excellent. Me too. I hope you don’t mind me pushing you on this a bit to help both of us clarify our views.

        • Hi Travis,

          First off, I actually appreciate your criticism as ‘truth springs from argument amongst friends.” And I do hope to hear robust criticism of what I am about to write as well.

          I understand the open question argument to speak to ontology rather than normative ethics

          What I was trying to explain, which I may have done poorly, is that perhaps the reason someone might argue that for “good” and “well-being” to be tautological is insufficient, is because they implicitly assume “good” necessarily entails moral obligations, while “well-being” does not.

          do you think that there is a difference between the following statements:
          1) Something is good if it increases well-being.
          2) Something is good if it increases goodness.

          There obviously appears to be a difference, yet, I think this is the byproduct of linguistics, not a serious moral ontological issue. I think that we have come to use words like “good” in a colloquial sense to indicate both (a) “an evaluation of that which corresponds to our well being” AND (b) “our preference for the instantiation of some action.” So when I read “something is good” I am, by the constraints of the language, subconsciously interpreting this to say both: (a) the moral evaluation and (b) my preference for a particular kind of moral evaluation. Here is what I think is happening:

          1) Something is (b) if it increases (a)
          2) Something is (b) if it increases (b)

          That said, I don’t necessarily see a tautological definition of something as a difficulty (unless it bears no correlation to something outside of the tautological definition, like saying a “girz” is a “larty,” there is nothing else it’s like, nor any other way to explain or demonstrate it, the end). As an example, “bachelors” are “unmarried men,” so when I ask “is it true that unmarried men are bachelors?” the question is tautological. Yet I think its a perfectly reasonable analytic evaluation of the meaning of those words because it does correlate to a synthetic meaning or a specific state of affairs in the world.

          To summarize what I think this means is, the following statements are equivalent and meaningful:
          1) something can be objectively evaluated as a good thing if it the type of thing that truly instantiates well being
          2) something can be objectively evaluated as a thing that promotes well-being if it truly the type of thing that instantiates well being

          “an objective evaluation of the state of affairs directly instantiated by this action reveals it is ‘good’”
          What would that evaluation look like? What would we measure?

          Before I go any further, it may seem like I am really talking about personal relativism, but that’s not the approach I take, although I see the apparent similarities. As I see it, for a personal relativistic approach, one grounds moral assessments from “the inside out” of their own subjective experience, based on their personal subjective experience. Whereas I look at it “from the outside” (as an impartial observer) and ground moral assessments on an objective evaluation of the particular subjects experiences. I will explain more below.

          First, at the core of any moral evaluation is our mental experience. Assessments like pain, pleasure, well-being, eudaimonia, aesthetic value, etc, are all directly dependent on having particular sensory/mental/conscious experiences. I’d venture a statement like: if there was no one to experience pain, then pain would not exist (except, perhaps as a logical possibility that could be conceptualized). I would also argue that pain and pleasure have intrinsic value in relation to well being, meaning there is no logical reason why pain is bad or ill-being, it just is as a brute fact.

          a) Normally talking about subjective experiences yields some kind of relativist metaethical view, like “because I feel pain, and because I personalty hate it, therefore it’s bad.” This gives the appearance that moral assessments are grounded on ones opinion and that anyone can conjure up anything they wish, as long as they feel its good. A rapist can subjectively feel that the sensation of rape is great, and voila, I have no right to say otherwise; in my opinion its bad, in his opinion its good, etc

          b) In my case, I view it as: “because experience E causes subject S unwanted sensations of pain that do not directly correlate to some greater good (i.e. a surgery that prevents even greater painful experiences), it is an objective fact for this universe that E is bad for S.” In this case, bad being “the state of affairs in which S is cognizant of E, a very painful sensory experience, which intrinsically correlates with a lack of well-being.”

          • Yuriy,
            I think there’s actually a lot we agree on. I am very sympathetic to the idea that we can “ground moral assessments on an objective evaluation of the particular subjects experiences”. I guess my primary disagreement is with regard to whether it is valid to then call this an objective morality.

            One statement you made which might be inconsistent with grounding moral assessment on the subject’s experience is that “I would also argue that pain and pleasure have intrinsic value in relation to well being, meaning there is no logical reason why pain is bad or ill-being, it just is a brute fact”. Are you defining pain and pleasure as the sensation itself, or as the response to the sensation? In particular, if the well-being of person A decreases as a result of pain sensation X, but the well-being of person B increases as a result of the same pain sensation X (because they are a masochist) – is one of them objectively wrong when they apply the label of good or bad?

            Regarding the larger topic – if we ground moral assessments on an objective evaluation of a subject’s experience, I think it is very confusing to call this an objective morality. In my experience, those who speak of an objective morality are referring to an ability to conduct an evaluation relative to something other than the human experience, or even just the human physiology. I understand why we want to claim an objective morality, and I myself tried to go down that road at one time, but ultimately I think it is just a word game that is driven by our desire for moral agreement. We really, really want to be able to hold other people accountable to some standard and we feel like we’re accomplishing that to some degree by defining our moral framework as objective. Conversely, moral frameworks which are labeled as relativistic are often strawmanned as being completely arbitrary and whimsical. I agree with you that we can potentially objectively evaluate an experience and correlate it with our concepts of good and bad. I just wish there was some middle-road terminology that could be applied to this kind of framework, because neither ‘relativistic’ nor ‘objective’ seem to do a good job of expressing what I think is probably the most correct framework. If I’m understanding you correctly, we’re talking about an “objective evaluation of relative feeling”. It’s kind of both.

    • Because in an effort to be “less wrong” as much as often, I think its valuable to try to have beliefs that are properly justified by evidence and reason.

    • “So many reasons?” Christians are the one’s who invent reasons and rationalizations galore, several different types of dispensationalisms, preterisms, historicisms, different notions of biblical authority, different interpretations of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, different interpretations of Christian holy practices and ecclesiologies, and much else. So Christians are the greatest debunkers of the Bible, specifically of the interpretations of the Bible held by other Christians. Talk about a history of schisms too numerous to mention, that is Christianity. Click on the weblink attached to my name for, “Are You a True Christian?”

  4. Sir, where were you 5 years ago when I needed a fellow kindred spirit amidst my angsty transition to enlightenment?! Seriously though, with your particular background and extensive theological knowledge, you are exactly what the Slavic fundamentalist community needs. Have only just been linked to your site but all the posts I’ve read so far are fantastic. I have often thought about creating some sort of support group type thing, like AA for “ex-veruyushii” community, as it can be a scary journey to go through. Going public and the consequences thereof can be absolutely haunting. In my experience, it’s the same plight the LGBT community face, however many of us must also live with the gnawing burden that our loved ones daily suffer mental agony of truly believing that their precious child/sibling/friend will be burning in hell for eternity. Not sure if you have any forums going yet but there’s an idea. I’d be happy to help admin if need be, as well. Anyway, best of luck in carrying on fighting the good fight!

  5. There’s R. M. Hare with his “prescriptive utilitarianism” (which is, essentially, a hybrid between deontology and consequentialism). My own ethical theories are also very much a mixture of many approaches; I simply call myself “eclectic” and, ultimately, a “syncretist” when it comes to morality. Too much dichotomizing going on in ethics and meta-ethics; it’s possible to ultimately work from a perspective that values all ethical theories and assigns each one of them some kind of hierarchy-dependent value (e.g., deontology assigned a value of 1, consequentialism a value of .75, etc.), having each theory in any given situation casting “votes” as to what should be done. As I stated earlier, that’s my own approach. (It’s obvious I value deontology more, but that does not mean I don’t use utilitarianism/consequentialism).

    • Howdy Moses, I do appreciate deontology as well, and am quite respectful of Kant, the categorical imperative, and etc. That said, I think this approach I take, is the simplest and easiest way to explain morality to people in a way that makes sense.

  6. Here’s an excerpt from my thoughts on what it means to be a moral leader, specifically one who is informed by ethical theories:

    “But even the divine Kant has his problems. What if two categorical imperatives conflict with one another? What if I am placed in such a situation in which I must choose between one or the other? What if, to invoke Kant’s article On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, an individual is faced with a choice between lying and murder, except in this case, whatever the reasons, it is a choice only between lying and murdering someone—you must commit one or the other. What do you do then? Even with Kantian ethics, we run into problems in determining what is the “right” thing to do. What if our intentions are always good and yet, strangely, our actions end up, consequentially, always harming others—are such actions “right”?

    I find both utilitarianism (consequentialism) and Kantianism (deontology) useful. However, as one can tell, I also find both ethical theories to be problematic to an extent. How do I, as the moral individual, resolve these problems? In essence, I resort to a via media by attempting to reconcile the two by means of some form of compatibilism.

    The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was perplexed as well by this problem. However, in his theological work Ethics, he found a way out, finding inspiration in Jesus’ saying, “[E]very good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Mt. 7:17, NIV):

    There is an old argument about whether only the will, the act of the mind, the person, can be good, or whether achievement, work, consequence, or condition can be called good as well—and if so, which comes first and which is more important. This argument, which has also seeped into theology, leading there as elsewhere to serious aberrations, proceeds from a basically perverse way of putting the question. It tears apart what is originally and essentially one, namely, the good and the real, the person and the work. The objection that Jesus, too, had this distinction between person and work in mind, when he spoke about the good tree that brings forth good fruits, distorts this saying of Jesus into its exact opposite. Its meaning is not that first the person is good and then the work, but that only the two together, only both as united in one, are to be understood as good or bad.[7]

    Like Bonhoeffer, I think that for an action to be morally right it must also be ethically right. That is, the ethical theory must be right, the intent must be right, and the consequential action must be right. The greatest good action is an action that produces the greatest good for the greatest number—according to empirical notions of pleasure and pain—being inspired by right intent; an action, at the same time, you would will to become a universal law.

    How does all of this translate into helping us become better, moral leaders in a modern society? Moreover, having considered ethics and morality, I now turn to leadership: what does it mean to be a “leader”?

    For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I will define “leadership” as the ability of an individual, functioning as a leader, to guide other individuals, functioning as followers, to act in accordance with the desired course of action of the leader. That is, a leader is able to get others to do what he or she desires that they should do. What, then, is moral leadership? Moral leadership, harkening back to our previous definitions, would entail the following definition:

    The ability of an individual, functioning as a leader, to guide other individuals, functioning as followers, to act in accordance with the desired course of action of the leader; the “desired course of action” being informed by a theoretical ethic, which are the external, theoretical principles informing one’s concept of right versus wrong that govern one’s behavior. Such theoretical ethics are then acted upon and become moral habits, which are the internal, practical activities an individual conscientiously and willfully engages in, activities that reflect one’s own internalized concept of right versus wrong. The moral leader’s concept of right versus wrong is greatly influenced by the maxim: The greatest good action is an action that produces the greatest good for the greatest number—according to empirical notions of pleasure and pain—being inspired by right intent; an action, at the same time, you would will to become a universal law.

    A moral leader, in my opinion, is inseparable from his[8] theoretical ethic (the “stuff” floating in his head) and his practical morals (the “stuff” everyone sees him doing). A moral leader is one who is aware of basic concepts regarding pleasure and pain. A moral leader is aware that not all utilitarian actions are “right.” He is aware that not all deontological actions are “right.” He is acutely aware of the problems one encounters when dealing with morality. However, a moral leader attempts to, nonetheless, strive to do the right thing. He formulates theories and rationales for his actions. He is the guy you find thinking long and hard about his actions and why he chooses to do them. And, most importantly, a moral leader guides others, influencing them to participate in his vision, a vision that he shares both passionately and with rationality with those who follow him. In inspiring others to act like him, to reason like him, to follow his desired course of action, the leader implicitly universalizes his morality. In doing so, one could only hope that he takes Kantian ethics seriously.”

  7. We can not be moral because of our nature. In our understanding of justice, we will always follow ” eye for an eye” rule, when God says, “love your enemy, and bless those who is killing you”. God needs us, to save us from our own “moral”! IMHO.

  8. Well spoken Yuri!

    I recently wrote something on the same topic

    Ethics, Morality, Free Will & Christian Apologetics

    Haven’t “unbelievers” won the general debate on morality by putting Christians in a defensive posture concerning the confusing contradictions and questionable morality of many of the Bible’s own laws, including certain commands and actions of Yahweh and Jesus? Look at how apologists are squirming these days, writing book after book concerning certain OT and NT passages, the teachings and actions of Yahweh, Jesus and Paul, trying to make them all sound sane and just.

    Furthermore, even in a world WITH God, everything is permitted, so people’s practical safety, nor that of one ‘s nation, is not any more assured via labeling morality “absolute” compared with “relative.”

    And speaking of relative morality, there is not much disagreement concerning whether being murdered or stolen from is relatively worse, nor whether having a little money or none is relatively worse, nor whether being sick or healthy, fed or starving, is relatively worse. Or whether being hurt by natural disasters or not being hurt by them is relatively worse. Hence, humans devised laws, set up police agencies, even set up emergency agencies, and insurance agencies. Because we agree what’s relatively worse. Many humans have even tried setting up a world court and tried to increase recognition of global health and safety concerns, because focusing on such concerns, compared with what happens when they are ignored, all make great sense relatively speaking.

    Another failure of apologetics involves the support of most Christians for the idea of libertarian free will and against all possible forms of “godless” determinism (Calvinist of course believe in a godly form of determinism that I will mention at the very end).

    But are free will decisions as important as making well informed decisions? I ask because libertarian free will decisions are inherently unpredictable. In fact the key definition of libertarian free will is that it is so unpredictable that if you were to place a person in the same exact place, time, circumstances (as well as in the exact same frame of mind and memories) a hundred times in a row, you could never predict what their decision would be each time. But that is also true for all practical purposes of what spinning a wheel of fortune is like. Does anyone really want to boast about having THAT kind of decision making ability?

    Instead, it is the gain of more complete knowledge of a situation over time that helps one to make better, wiser decisions. And we want better wiser decisions, rather than boasting about how “free” our decisions were, how disconnected from anything other than our libertarian unpredictable free wills they were. And according to “godless” science we are part of a cosmic flow — part of countless feedback loops of the cosmos in ever broader swaths, and to make better wiser decisions we need to seek to learn more science, technology, history, psychology, peer through telescopes and microscopes, read books and learn from first hand experiences in order to make more knowledgable and wiser decisions. This is determinism of a highly complex feedback loop and recursive consciousness sort, and seems to make more sense than the view known as libertarian free will, which is a will that is inherently unpredictable.

    So, determinism is really what teaches us the value of more knowledge and experience, not the view know as libertarian free will, which teaches us nothing and proves equally helpful to anyone with any wild beliefs or habits they imagine they simply “chose,” and which they might have chosen differently even given the exact same circumstances.

    In fact the libertarian free will view as espoused by Christian apologists seems to be most loudly espoused for one particular reason, so that apologists can use it to try and explain and justify why some people deserve eternal damnation, even though a God with infinite resources at his disposal who can heal damaged brain circuits or PTSD, and who has infinite time at his disposal to employ his infinite resources and knowledge to teach and to heal still must fail at such an endeavor. What? How could such a God fail? Oh, “free will” says the apologist.

    So “free will” seems only good for one thing, to ensure the damnation of at least some people, and yet maintain a loving God who wished to help us finite beings with his infinite resources. But the finite beings were too much for him to handle, so away with them. Yeah, right.

    But one may ask, will they have free will in hell, and the ability to repent? No says the apologist, their libertarian free will must always decide against such a choice for eternity. Must it? But then one wonders how it could be truly libertarian free will since by definition a truly libertarian free will is inherently unpredictable. So maybe libertarian free will is taken away in hell? But then my point stands that free will was really only good for one thing, getting some people damned. Bravo!

    And so the arguments of apologists remain as unconvincing as ever. As ad hoc as ever.

    Also there is the ad hoc notion that the smallest sin in God’s bright shining eyes casts an eternal shadow and is infinitely dirty and deserving of eternal punishment. But one may ask, what about the smallest speck of goodness in a human being? Isn’t it deserving of eternal praise and the blissful preservation of the person in whom it is found? No, says the apologist.

    How about putting such a person in a place that is neither heaven more hell where people with both some good and some evil can live and learn and be nudged to grow in goodness? Naw, says the apologist, that would be too much like earth, and people only get a minuscule amount of time there. Though one might then ask why an infinite God with infinite resources at his disposal is so impatient when it comes to soul building as to give people but a few decades or less out of eternity to do so.

    In fact a lot of apologetic arguments start out by trying to show how this world is perfect for soul building, the best of all possible worlds for doing so. Then what exactly is heaven for? Soul lounging around? All the real soul building action is crammed into the tiniest splinter of eternity on earth? That’s where you use your “free will” to choose whether you will become a devil or an angel for all eternity? Heaven’s gotta be duller than dull in comparison with all that drama crammed into the splinter of eternity on earth. And in fact Augustine worried about the this question in his own way. He worried that after millions of years in heaven people might forget about all that drama crammed into the tiny splinter of eternity way back then. So Augustine reasoned that the people in heaven would be kept on their toes praising God for eternity by having constant knowledge of what was going on in hell down below, and this be reminded eternally of the horrors they were saved from. Praise God! Otherwise those in heaven might indeed lose sight of the whole salvific drama after too many years of just bliss.

    I also said I would discuss the Calvinist view. One could adopt the Calvinist view that there is not even a speck of goodness in any of us after Adam and Eve’s fall (aside from “common grace” that God bestows on all to keep the world from immediately turning into hell). But in that case you would have to believe that many humans are merely devils whom God is temporarily covering with masks of “common grace.” Wow, pretty prejudiced view of your nonChristian friends and neighbors.

    So if a Calvinist tells his child to clean their room then inspects it and finds a speck of dust, he tosses his child into eternal hell. And if he ignores the speck of dust and concentrates on all that is clean in his child’s room, then he gets down on his knees with his child so they both can praise God, not his child, for the room’s cleanliness.

  9. I do not think one should limit discussions of morality to any one philosophical category because the word “morality” is a vast generalization and includes of course, some mental examination, considering consequences, as well as reasonable assessments, but also includes being raised as a biological organism in a society of such organisms who all share the same nerves and pain receptors as well as the same basic fears, needs and wants. Morality happens between and among people. It is emergent behavior as is much else about the human species. Also, morality includes imprinting from birth by one’s parents, “Hey, don’t do that! Do this,” which goes on constantly while one is being raised, until some reactions are practically reflexes. Also, very young children still in diapers can be seen in videos trying to help others, that too is part of the biological side of morality, as is our evolutionary connection with other primates who exhibit traits like forgiveness and a kind of compassion that connects them, even heroism in some instances as I relate in one example involving Washoe the chimp found in “The 27 best things ever said in favor of human evolution.” http://cretinism-vs-evilution.blogspot.com/2012/03/27-best-things-ever-said-in-favor-of.html

  10. Philosophical theories of morality are inconclusive. They all raise questions. Moral values and behaviors do not appear to be driven totally by one’s conscious mind, nor do they appear to be due totally due to genetic predispositions (including to some degree the behaviors the human species shares with its primate ancestors), nor totally due to repeated lessons from birth that eventually become ingrained behavior patterns requiring little to no thought. Moral values are based on all of the above, which is why they feel so much a part of us.

    Furthermore, moral values appear to be a sub-division of the relative values humans place on things. For instance, I don’t think many people have great difficulty agreeing on what values they hold dearest relative to the alternatives:
    1) being healthy rather than chronically ill or in pain

    2) being mentally healthy, rather than losing one’s memories and ability to concentrate

    3) eating rather than starving

    4) having at least a little money rather than living in abject poverty

    5) being sociable and having some friends rather than being shunned or living in total isolation from other humans and their society or their creations

    6) living in peace and safety rather than living in fear of having one’s life, belongings, family, friends, job, etc., taken from one at someone else’s whim

    7) living in peace and safety rather than living in fear of having one’s life, belongings, family, friends, job, etc.,taken from one via nature’s whimsical disasters, pandemics, genetic mutations, or day to day accidents

    Such “choices” seem undeniably obvious to us, being a species with a long shared biological background, large brains, similar sensory organs, similar nerves that record similar feelings of pain and pleasure, and a similar psychological need to feel wanted and belong, rather than mocked and shunned, and a hunger to be in the presence of other members of our species like our family and others who stimulate us physically, verbally, and mentally. Hence, joys shared are increased, while sorrows shared are reduced.
    READ MORE HERE http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-moral-question.html

  11. Praying for you brother! Honest question, wouldn’t it be better for one to have faith and believe, to find out that there is no God rather than being faithless and finding out that there is a God? I’m sure you’ve found kinks in the bible that you’ve questioned, but the majority of the historical facts in the bible prove to be correct. If that’s not reason enough to believe then I really don’t understand you? You say you prayed and prayed to God and never Got an answer. Where is your patience? Has the thought that God was testing you never crossed your mind? How can you believe that a Big Bang created this beautiful world? Are you saying that if I mixed a few chemicals together and slapped them against each other I can create a human? Or a tree? Or the ocean? Just like a painting, which doesn’t paint itself, has a creator, so does this world! I know that you’re an intelligent human being and I’m probably not making any sense to you but I really am curious!

  12. I noticed that since last time I talked to you a few things have changed and there is a few things that are different, I noticed that you no longer are out there trying to convince people that the day of Pentecost and the things learned from it are the only true way to worship god, you in the atmosphere where you were surrounded by these tongues felt that because of the energy being put toward it that it must be true; interesting how that changed.

    It seemed after being for example the mayor of a town with the feeling as if you have total control of that town only to find out the town’s people over looked you for the governor undermining your suggestions knowing the governor’s word and actions were more powerful, to realize that even being the propaganda machine for a Slavic youth you were not the center of talk nor were the ideas you put fourth.
    Only for you to literally deny the existence of god and his power only to find a group of people that with only tangible evidence explain these very deep questions and mainly a avenue for how they can still be relevant without god. There is one thing that has stayed the same, and I really get this vibe from reading these articles you have written, that you still crave the attention you get from those who agree with you and stroke this perspective you now have. To me I’ll explain it in the most basic way so even someone who believes in god could understand, without quoting the bible we would call the transformation you made cowardice, or 2 face because for many years you fully did everything you talk bad about in your articles with a true love for god, now to use your ex ideology you are considered Luke warm in the eyes of God, and what do you do when you drink lukewarm water? Spit it out because it is neither hot nor cold, so we reject this mix because it is not pure yet it contains part of both extremes, the bible puts it a little something like this, the looks down upon the one the worst who knows better yet continues to choose evil. Wake up man, you know the Lord, we don’t worship him for the fear of hell or the gift of heaven we do so because the love he showed his own son maybe you will be gone with the wind my friend but I pray that when the day of judgment which is like a thief in the night comes upon us, that we are ready to face him and not call the mountains to fall on us.

    • I have difficulty understanding what you are trying to say, except for all the condescending slurs aimed toward me. All I can say is, I am attempting my best to live honestly according to my conscience, and make my decisions based on what I sincerely believe to be true. As far as all of your strange accusations, I could patiently explain how they are completely wrong and illogical, but something tells me nothing I would say would ever change your mind, so I’ll just leave you with this link where I’ve dealt with similar rubbish.
      http://www.christianmegapolis.com/yuriy-stasyuk-responds-to-criticism/

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