Moral Absolutism in an Atheist Universe

Does atheism allow for an objective moral code?

Now, it is no use to say that ‘atheism’ is not a doctrine since not all atheists agree on all points. Nonsense. They all agree on the one point that there is no God.

All atheists in order to be called atheist must hold that there is no God. This means all atheists must hold that there is no divine intelligence who created the universe, created man, or has any right, neither by virtue of paternity nor wisdom, to issue moral imperatives to mankind, nor is there any divine authority whose writ runs to all men throughout all time and space.

This means that all atheists must hold that either morality is subjective or objective; but if it is objective, the atheist must hold that this alleged objectivity is not based on the writ of an intelligent authority whose power reaches everywhere across all time.

Within that limitation, I would offer that atheism does allow for a certain degree of objectivity in the question of morals.

An atheist could argue, and I think quite successfully, that certain self-destructive behaviors, or behaviors deleterious to the common good, cannot be maintained in a man or in a society under normal conditions. In such cases, it is simply a matter of logic, not of judgment, that one cannot will the consequences of an action without willing the antecedents. One cannot logically will self-preservation and will acts which lead to self-destruction.

By arguments along these lines, a man’s own sense of self-preservation and his own desire to serve his self-interest, can form a foundation upon which to erect an objective moral code.

The limitation to this argument is that it does not apply to emergencies, short-term situations, or situations where self-sacrifice or even self-restraint is called for.

Some atheists deal with this limitation by simply denying its application: they define self-sacrifice as not being a moral imperative, or say that ‘lifeboat’ situations do not apply in real life. The paradox here is that if I were in a lifeboat dying of starvation and exposure, and if I were the cabin boy or cripple with lots of richly marbled meat on my bones, I would much rather share the boat with starving cannibalism-prone survivors restrained by Christian notions of self sacrifice than by atheist notions of enlightened self-interest.

For one thing, the world view of atheism admits no possibility of punishment in the next life, bad Karma or Last Judgment, because neither reincarnation nor resurrection are possible in a nonsupernatural universe.

This means the strong and starving cannibal trapped on the lifeboat with my unconscious but chubby body  is restrained by no fear of penalty aside from the weak tissue of his own conscience. He can quite logically conclude that if he survives by committing an abominable crime on my person, he can find some way to soothe or smother his conscience.

A person who believes in an afterlife or next life can into account divine reward or punishment when making his moral calculation.

Ironically, even if all religion is myth and falsehood, and the cannibal sharing a lifeboat with me is totally deceived, totally superstitious, and totally wrong about the possibility of divine punishment, it is in my self interest the he be so deceived. Only if there is life after death will he calculate the costs and benefits of his planned murder of me to tear the raw flesh from my bones, and have something to add to the costs column to counterbalance the benefit of survival. Only if there is life after death is the emergency moral calculus the same as the normal moral calculus.

In other words, if there is life after death and divine punishments and rewards, does the act which in an non-emergency situation would be a ‘no-brainer’ (that is, the clearly and obviously righteous thing to do) continue to be a ‘no-brainer’ in an emergency when life and death are being weighed in the balance.

But an atheist cannot have divine punishments or rewards, and life and death weigh very heavily in the scales of moral calculus, and the temptations become as strong as can be imagined to do that which we would not do in normal circumstances.

Now, a possible objection often raised at this point is that atheists can indeed commit acts of noblest self sacrifice for loved ones, family or nation, on the grounds that the atheist, as easily as any other man, might value the life of his wife or child above his own life. In such a case (so it might be argued) the man simply holds his own life to be of less value than the life or the cause of something he loves more than himself. All well and good, and no one should scoff at this noble sentiment, but it is a sentiment only. It cannot be the basis of an objective moral imperative.

An atheist can say, “I choose to die for what I hold dearer than life itself” but he cannot say, “In it an objective moral imperative that men in a case like mine should lay down their lives, even those men who do not hold anything dearer than themselves” on the grounds that the atheist cannot deduce a moral imperative from any authority other than nature, or his own mortal mind. If an atheist judges his life to be an absolute worth, outweighing the lives of lovers, wives, children, nations or causes, no other mind has the right to overrule nor correct him, for (in the atheist universe) all other minds are as mortal and limited as his own. The mind that judges his mind, in that case, is his own, and this judge is also the one who is to be extinguished, and extinguished forever, if the mind judges self-sacrifice to be a moral necessity.

The atheist can make no reference to a person outside himself who granted him his life and who has the right to command the atheist to value it to a certain degree or value it in a certain way. This is because, absent any divine beings, life is a natural phenomenon, an accident, not something an intelligence granted on purpose or designed or defined with an intelligent purpose in mind. Obviously no mortal person can claim to grant life or have authority over it.

Experience also shows that emergencies happen often enough that an entire apparatus of custom and law we call the nation or the state must be erected to prevent violent death at the hands of our fellow men, and in such conditions of war, self-sacrifice is noble and heroic.

As for the rest of the argument, it is enough to note that no matter what atheists do not have in common, they do have in common that they do not believe in any gods. Hence, any discussion of moral imperatives among atheists is restricted to (1) matter of fact and (2) man-made laws and customs.

There are those who say that one can deduce a moral conclusion from a matter of fact. In fact, one cannot, unless one adopts a moral axiom, express or implied.  Frequent candidates for the moral axiom are such things as efficiency or survival or the ability to act morally. Sad experience shows than men will act against their own long term best interest, sometimes their own short term interests, when vice lures them.

Logic can indeed show that it is objectively true, true for all times and places and conditions, that a suicide bomber blowing up himself in order to wound, maim, and murder Jewish schoolchildren does not act in his own longterm self interest of his continued earthly life. However, he only abrogate an absolute moral rule against murder-suicide if it is an absolute moral rule that he ought to serve his own longterm self interest of his continued earthly life.

This is called the ‘naturalist fallacy’ or sometimes it is said to be ‘the attempt to deduce an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

A man made custom cannot be the basis of an objective moral code, since any man beyond the pale of civilization, visiting a foreign land, or living a number of years sufficient to see the laws and customs he knew in his youth fall into oblivion, finds himself in a landscape where his old moral certainties no longer apply.

In sum, there are only two options. Absent a god or divine power of some sort, an atheist can only ground his moral code on the imperative, not of an divine authority who has a lawful right to demand the obedience of all men, but merely on (1) the imperative a human authority, or on (2) the imperative of self-interest, or some other universal principle.

The limitations both in wisdom and power of human authority preclude this first option for arguing that morality is objective.

The second option contains no compulsion for obedience beyond one’s own personal inclination. It may be a fact, objective and true for all men, that act X leads to outcome Y, so that if one wants outcome Y one needs must do act X, but this is still a conditional, not an absolute, so that if I do not want outcome Y, then act X has no authority or imperative force over me, and no grounds on which it can be called morally right or morally wrong.

The strongest argument to be made in favor of a conditional objective moral code is by making X, the basis of the code, something as universal as can be, such as a drive for self-interest or survival.

But even the drive to survive does not apply to all men at all times. If a soldier finds he must throw his own body on a hand-grenade to save his squad, or a mother chooses death in childbirth so that her child might live, the most that a moral code based on self interest can say of that soldier’s action, or the act of that mother, is that it did not serve self interest.

The philosopher advocating an objective moral code based on self interest cannot call an act of self sacrifice wrong or evil, for whose authority did soldier or mother defy? Who gave them the order to live? Who had the right to give such an order, and by what authority did he give it?

This authority cannot come from nature, since nature is unintelligent. And unintelligent circumstance can establish a set of facts (such as “you must do X to achieve Y”) but an unintelligent circumstance cannot issue a lawful order which rightly commands our obedience (“you ought to achieve Y”). A moral imperative imposed by a divine being can.