An Atheist Foundation for Objective Morality

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. ~ Steven Weinberg

The “Moral Argument for God” is very popular amongst lay Christian apologists and has been championed by professional apologists such as William Lane Craig. The assertion is that without God, there would be no objective basis for morality. No atheist, they say, has a warrant to claim that anything is really good or bad. Therefore, objective morality implies the existence of God as the moral lawgiver. There are many problems with this argument and few professional philosophers think it has merit. It is based on the idea that morality is nothing more than “obeying rules” and so directly contradicts the essence of our humanity by denying our innate morality grounded in love. Morality precedes philosophy. We all have moral intuitions long before we go looking to ground them in philosophical speculation. Their truth cannot depend upon a speculative philosophical foundation before we have warrant to believe them. Any satisfactory answer to the question of objective morality must rest upon universally self-evident propositions; who and what we really are.

The atheist foundation for objective morality is based on two simple principles:

  1. Self-love: All rational beings desire the best for themselves.
  2. The Golden Rule: There is no objective reason to prefer one over another. This is the principle of moral symmetry, commonly known as “fairness” or “justice.” An action is objectively moral if and only if a person would want to be subjected to his or her own actions.

The Golden Rule is objective because it is based on the objective concept of moral symmetry – objective moral judgments must be valid from any point of view, like an inertial frame of reference in special relativity. It is directly analogous to the symmetry principles used to derive the objective laws of physics such as the conservation of angular momentum which follows from rotational symmetry of space by Noether’s theorem.

I have never seen a sustainable objection to this definition of objective morality, though there are many subtleties that must be addressed to form a complete argument. This article is merely an introduction to a plausible foundation for objective morality. The Golden Rule is an overlooked topic in moral philosophy. Bill Puka, who wrote a very thorough review of the prominent philosophical treatments of the Golden Rule for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, says that “Moral philosophy has barely taken notice of the golden rule in its own terms despite the rule’s prominence in commonsense ethics.” He noted many of the conundrums that philosophers have but did not suggest that any philosophical consensus of any kind regarding its use as a foundation for objective morality.

Both principles are founded in the most basic and universal moral intuitions shared by all humanity and any objection is immediately shown to violate one of the two principles. The Golden Rule stands above all other moral principles as explained by Professor R. M. MacIver in his article The Deep Beauty of the Golden Rule (provided online by Google Books):

Do to others as you would have others do to you. This is the only rule that stands by itself in the light of its own reason, the only rule that can stand by itself in the naked, warring universe, in the face of the contending values of men and groups.

There also is another approach that really gets to the heart of the matter. My argument is a “left brained” analytic approach to morality. The “right brained” holistic approach is much simpler. It subsumes both principles in a single concept – Universal Love for all sentient beings. This is an objective standard because any rational observer could, in principle, discern between what is or is not more loving. To refute this argument, it would have to be shown that people cannot objectively determine what is more loving. Put together, we have a “whole brained” approach to the understanding objective morality:

Left Brain, Analytic
Right Brain, Holistic
1) Self-love: All rational beings desire the best for themselves.
2) The Golden Rule: Moral symmetry, fairness, do unto others as you would have them do to you.
Universal Love for all sentient beings.

Despite its clarity, many theists will attempt to refute the analytic form of my argument because it defeats their moral argument for God. This is a great irony because the two principles were taught by Christ when he said “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39). His statement includes both principles of Self-love and the Golden Rule, and is best described as Universal Love so it encompasses both forms of my argument. Another irony leaps out when Christians oppose the analytic form because they unwittingly imply that they lack love for others when they say that there would be no morality without God. They forget love – the first principle of morality – when they argue that morality is based on mere rules dictated by a god.

I will now review some of the most common objections to my argument.

Objection 1: Self-love is subjective and so cannot be a foundation for objective morality.

While the experience of self-love is subjective, there are objective standards by which to judge if a person is behaving consistently with self-love. But I need not argue this point. I can grant for the sake of argument that self-love is subjective and so cannot by itself be the foundation for objective morality. Either way, self-love is fundamental to our understanding of objective morality because it is the root of our moral intuitions which we access when we empathize with others. It is how we subjectively know if something is right or wrong. The objectivity of morality comes from the Golden Rule which is based on the objective principle of moral symmetry.

Objection 2: Psychopaths may want bad things done to themselves so if they obeyed the Golden Rule they would do bad things to others.

Psychopaths are not rational if they want bad things done to themselves. This objection fails because it contradicts the first principle of self-love.

Objection 3: Self-love is selfish and leads people do bad things to others. This principle is the source of immorality, not morality.

This objection fails because it violates the second principle. A selfish person who violates the Golden Rule is immoral by definition. This is why this approach gives authentic insight into moral questions. It brings self-love into dynamic tension with the Golden Rule; self-love is the root of both moral and immoral behavior. But when coupled with the Golden Rule, we have the foundation for objective morality.

Objection 4: Not everyone accepts the Golden Rule.

Correct. And we have a word for such people – immoral. This objection actually proves my point. Morality is based on Self-love and the Golden Rule.

Objection 5: Hitler and the Nazi’s were not wrong, then, as getting rid of certain segments of population was built upon treating others as oneself, like removing a cancer because “the needs of the many out weigh the needs of the few…”

This objection was raised in this post on the forum. It is based on a false analogy that likens Jews to a “cancer” in the Nazi society. For such an objection to work, it would have to be shown that Jews were objectively like a “cancer” to the Nazi society and also prove that there is an objective reason to prefer the welfare of the Nazi society over the welfare of the Jewish society. Any solution would violate the Golden Rule and so this objection fails. Silly confusions like this are very common amongst Christians desperate to defend their moral argument for God. The irony is that if they applied similar skepticism to their belief in the Bible it would instantly crumble to dust. The next objection was raised in the same post.

Objection 6: How then is the Islamic oppression of women, children, non-Muslims and imposing Shria law morally wrong when Islamic men think it is in their personal best interest to subjugate all thru means of oppression and removal of due process of law?

This objection violates the Golden Rule. Would anyone want to be oppressed by Muslims if they were not a Muslim? Of course not. But this brings up a very interesting subtlety in the Golden Rule. What does it mean to say “if I were that person?”. Confusion arises if we assume that I could imagine being “that person” while retaining characteristics like personal religious beliefs that are not held by that person. The solution is simple. Would I want to be a person subjected to my own actions? Would I want to experience what the other person experiences under my hand? My actions are objectively moral if and only if the answer is yes.

I invite comments by all readers.

Posted in Christianity, Philosophy
2 comments on “An Atheist Foundation for Objective Morality
  1. Now that I’ve written my own original argument for the foundation of objective morality, I am researching what others have said. One of the first pages I found was this fascinating post on called Golden Rule only possibility for objective moral truth by a user ichthus77 whom I have been able to identify as Maryann Spikes, the author of an article on called Weighing the great theories in Ethics against the Golden Rule, with emphasis on human rights which compares her thesis with major philosophical theories. She is a Christian apologist with a Certificate of Apologetics from Biola University (a private institution run by Christians) and a blog called The Sword and the Sacrifice Philosophy.

    I’ll break it down to the bare essentials…

    1. We all behave as if our moral conduct is truly justified, or apologize or make excuses for it if it isn’t, and the Golden Rule is found in every culture throughout history.

    2. If there is moral truth, it is either created (evolved by man, God, or nature), or it is discovered by beings who evolve the ability to intuit moral truth like humans evolved the ability to intuit mathematical truth. Since ‘created’ is outside the defintion of truth, if there is moral truth, it is discovered (we know it intuitively, articulate it using reason).

    3. No other theory in the history of Ethics, besides the Golden Rule, completely answers “How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?”

    4. The Golden Rule recognizes that a ‘how’ (conduct theories) without a ‘why’ (consequence theories) is pointless; that a ‘why’ (end) without a ‘how’ (do) is impossible to apply—the Golden Rule is both ‘why’ (love) and how.

    5. The Golden Rule sees that the nature of the “doing” (conduct theories) affects the nature of the “being” (virtue theories) and vice versa—the Golden Rule is both what we should do, and how we should be (love).

    6. The Golden Rule acknowledges self as Other and Other as self, and so rules out self-abusive theories as well as egoism.

    7. However, to embrace the Golden Rule, but reject the only being to which it may perfectly correspond, commits the fallacy of reification. If moral truth exists, it corresponds to a being who always is and does what we should be and do (God).

    8. On the other side of the same coin, to justify the Golden Rule by pointing to people who follow it, or even by pointing to God’s existence, is to commit the is-ought fallacy; the existence or practice of a rule is not its justification.

    9. The Golden Rule is justified because it answers “How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?”—and it is real, if it is real, because it corresponds to a being who always is and does how we should be and do (God).

    I agree with her first six points and they fully support my argument. Indeed, her statement that the “Golden Rule acknowledges self as Other and Other as self” is an excellent expression of moral symmetry. Unfortunately, her logic breaks down with her wildly non-sequitur leap to “proof of God” via the “fallacy of reification.” But that is irrelevant. Her entire argument up to that point is an argument for the Golden Rule as the foundation of objective morality without God. It is only after she proved the reality of objective morality that she tried to use it to prove God. So she confirms my thesis.

  2. garry says:

    Richard, haven’t read your ENTIRE article here just yet, but I just had to comment on the leading quote:
    “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” ~ Steven Weinberg
    My comment is (in the 70’s venacular): Right on, right on, right on!!! Love that quote.

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