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Why Atheists are not bound to subjective morality:

Often I see members of religious groups make the accusation that atheism is doomed to moral relativism. The argument often goes as follows:

P1: Objective morality exists
P2: Anything objective must have a basis
P3: Only a deity can be the basis of morality

(P2 AND P3) ->P1

Using the contrapositive:
NOT P1 -> NOT (P2 AND P3) which by DeMorgan’s Law is:

NOT P1 -> (NOT P2) OR (NOT P3)

Which says If object morality does not exist, then either there is something objective that does not need a basis or object morality exists. By assumption NOT P2 is false (I think most people would agree that objective things need a basis) so if one is to accept the claim that there is an objective morality, then one must accept that there is a deity otherwise risk being a conceited hypocrite for relying on a contradiction... or is this really the case? (I tried to be as charitable in my formulation of this argument as possible: if you find an apparent straw man please let me know and I’ll fix it).

I would contend that premise 3 is false and use a counter example: the morality of societies. I contend that morality is objective and that this is informed by evolutionary principles. Basically, that in the long run societies that lack certain morals degenerate and fail.
What do I mean by a society failing? Basically, the society does not make it easier in principle to survive: lack of access to clean water, lack of access to pre-hunted or farmed foods, lack of availability of shelter and safety. We can see real world examples of a failed society in Somalia.

Morality can be informed by science particularly with regard to evolution: certain societies will be selected against in favor of better societies by individuals. For example, societies that would permit murder, rape, theft wouldn’t last very long since a lack of a protection of property rights (this includes protection of your personal autonomy I.e your right to life and your own body) would cause individuals to flee or defend themselves by attempting to establish some sense of order. Morality is an adaptation of societies that can be objectively correct or incorrect.

Now morality isn’t the only factor that determines how successful a society is but it is a necessary condition to provide stability through law and order. This is why a country like the US is far more successful than a Somalia: it is difficult to further society when you need to fully take care of your own personal needs (safety, source your own food and water, etc). Again I will reiterate that there are other factors besides morality that lead to the success of a society, but it is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition.

So what could an atheistic argument for objective morality look like?

P1: Objective morality exists
P2: Anything objective must have an basis
P3: Science by it’s empirical nature, can inform us (though not proscriptively) of moral truths. (This is our basis for morality)

(P2 AND P3) -> P1

Therefore by modus ponens, P1

Or in words: Anything objective must have an basis and science by it’s empirical nature, can inform us (though not proscriptively) of moral truths. (This is our basis for morality). Therefore, objective morality exists.

So no, as an atheist I am not bound to moral subjectivism particularly since I have as a starting point the improvement of the human condition. I know there are atheists who are moral subjectivists but I just wanted to put this out here so you don’t necessarily think that your atheism bounds you to having a subjective morality. Let me know what you all think of this. Thanks for reading!

Wavefunction 5 June 27

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Of the first set of postulates, two of them are false, P1 and P3. All morality is subjective, as it relates to one's relationship to others, who have a different viewpoint. Deities cannot be used as a source of morality, as they don't exist and people have different ones with different beliefs.

Personally I don’t think P1 is false, but the point that I was trying to make with the post is not that morality is objective rather that by virtue of simply being an atheist one is not bound to simply accept morality as subjective. This is why I later replace P3 from the original argument with a naturalistic one I.e one rooted in science.


I would definitely need an example of what a "moral truth" is because I honestly can't think of anything I value as a moral that would always true in all cases. I mean even an objective morality today would likely change tomorrow if aliens landed on our planet or the moon.

I would rather pursue the idea/discussion there is no such thing as objective morality because the only basis for moral objectivity is what defines theist. They are the only ones in my perspective that can have any objective morality and in practice we know that is definitely false. Even the "objective" morality changes so it too is actually subjective or relative. I mean catholic morality is different than prodestant morality and they are "based" off identical text. Let's not get started on "thou shalt not kill" or "love thy neighbor"

Morality should change with growth and education and all sorts of external factors. I mean technically that is part of why we (humans) lay claim to be the "superior" species on the planet

Well we could start with something like “rape is wrong” I would think that would be a moral truth. I don’t think there would be any circumstance where it would be justified to rape someone. I understand where you are coming from but the whole point of the post was to argue against the notion that only theists can be objectively moral.


It's useless discussing this with theists. is the political organization of theism. grew to enforce the moral behavior of the people. It's a lot easier to get people to behave when there are bonuses and consequences that never have to come true. You see the same kind of blind belief in the US, when it comes to the constitution and the interpretations that are manipulated to fit beliefs. Or the knee jerk reaction when the word socialized is used. It's programmed belief that is reacted to. Just the same as programmed theism.
Ideologies or pragmatism are the opposites. Theism is just one of the ideologies.

I've had the ridiculous debate with a theist. He insisted it was impossible for him to be moral without his god. I said that I won't turn my back on him, because trusting him would be foolish of me. You never know when he might lose his belief. He will become dangerous to be around .


It's useless discussing this with theists. is the political organization of theism. grew to enforce the moral behavior of the people. It's a lot easier to get people to behave when there are bonuses and consequences that never have to come true. You see the same kind of blind belief in the US, when it comes to the constitution and the interpretations that are manipulated to fit beliefs.
Ideologies or pragmatism are the opposites. Theism is just one of the ideologies.


I’m guessing ‘objective’ means universally, permanently true. So that would rule out our individual, time-bound moral value systems. So objective values would be, in a sense, above the individual. In a hierarchy of value systems, objective values would be at the top. That’s probably where God came in. I think this is because there was no concept of aspiration apart from God. Man either aspired to be a god or to be God-like. Nowadays we’re trying to separate the two ideas.

Yes, it’s sort of analogous to the accumulation of scientific knowledge: we are not perfect moral agents nor do we know all moral truths, the best we can hope to do is to continue in our pursuit to learn more. Iteratively, we improve ourselves to learn and apply moral truths.


Seems to me that there are secular Buddhists, agnostic Unitarians, atheist physicians, humanists, and others who adhere to an oath or principal successfully enough to be good people.

would it occur to them to even ostensibly show the necessity of theism for adherence to rules of polite society? I dunno.

Well the people you listed who do behave morally are the reason why I would try to remove the religious premise in support of objective morality. I’m an atheist and while I am not a perfect moral entity: I do my best to act in a moral manner and pursue virtue rather than vice.


I seriously do not have a clue what you are talking about, as far as I am concerned all we need to know is that some people are good and some are not, do we need to go any further?

What defines good and not good?


I like your reasoning and agree with your conclusion. I'm more of a constructivist than a realist though and I think we can find essential first principles that are objective though not necessarily made true in virtue of empirical science although science would likely find these to be common amongst successful societies. In observation we might be able to conclude through rationality that successful societies share common characteristics (e.g. social cooperation and cohesion, consistent application of the law, fair and equal access partake in constitutional government, a system of labour that enables prosperity and incentivizes bringing goods into the pool of shared resources, the ability to defend itself from hostile neighbours) that are necessary for survival (i.e. if the society didn't have these things, the society would fail to operate, at least in the long term). We might know these rationally because they follow from the first principles provide the definition of what we would a successful society. It's to describe exactly what the laws of this kind of society would be or the kind of system of distributive justice it might enact because history and anthropology has shown us many different civilizations that have come to fruitation which have followed different laws and have agreed on different means of socio-economic redistribution. However because the particularities are different, it doesn't follow that we are unable to find any commonalities between societies that have been successful and others that have not.

Also the idea that the existence of a deity is necessary for the existence of morality is silly. This notion makes evident the moral cavity that the religious fall into. When a person believes there's no good except for god, it really means that their , which is essentially a set of rules for socio-economic participation whose authority is derived from a commonly agreed upon source (e.g. the bible, Jesus' teachings, other godhead figure) that can be understood as laws instead of morals. We can come to realize thay 'Thou shalt not kill' or 'Thou shalt not steal' are laws that are agreed upon which aren't moral by virtue of deeivation from humanitarian principle but rather are considered moral by divine command. It's eash to see how the act of murder is immoral, but the mistake that theists make is that they believe it is immoral to kill because god says so, not because murder causes harm to another human being who possesses the capacity to feel pain and is deserving of a life free from threats as another other human would be. Because of the authority lf divine command, it would follow that any perceived command decreed to be of divine authority could be considered immoral. If Catholic Church or the preachers of Islam decide somehow that it's an afront to the divine to wear shoes while appearing in public on Sundays, then it's just as fair for a religious person to say that wearing shoes in public on Sunday is just as immoral as taking the life of another person. I'm sure there are ways that a religious authority could decide that one rule is more important than another, but my point is that any rule could can be invented, and thus there is no real basis for what is moral. But when secularists talk about morality, they 're not talking about what's permitted by law, but make appeal some principle independant from positive law that allows us to have intuitions on what we believe to be moral. This might come from humanitarianism, perceived laws of nature, the unspoken laws of a community, or anything really so long as it's not a power that can decides upon morals from its own unchecked interpretation of what is or what should be moral.

Hmmm very interesting. I did leave open the possibility for other bases upon which objective morality may rest (like pure rationality). I’m a bit biased towards science because I am an empiricist but I can admit that I don’t know too much about other epistemologies. Though it seems what you are proposing is that rationalism and empiricism be used in tandem to support an objective morality (forgive me if this is incorrect); however, this is exactly what science does (combines rationality and empiricism to build a body of knowledge)as science contains both rational explanation whose premises are simply experimentally supported rather than assumed 100 percent true. I also agree with the last part of what you said: failed societies could have some attributes that are similar to those which are successful

@LoveLivingLife right so you are bringing up more practical reasons why it is difficult for religions to claim that they can establish an objective morality which I do agree with; however, I was trying to engage with it on a more rational level since I know that some theists really like that sort of discussion (at least those who I know, but they also don’t think atheists are morally bankrupt either). Also I wanted some practice using pure logic 😛

@Wavefunction Hahahah yes I really enjoyed learning logic, although it took me a while to get. Yeah, from what I understand in philosophy right now, most philosophers are empiricists or at least recognize that reason alone doesn't enable us to make knowledge-claims on the world. That always begins with experience, and from there we can use reason to draw further conclusions on the kind of world we live in, or might expect to live in. Science is rooted in empiricism, but I think the conclusions that scientists would like to make rely in some degree on rationality that at least use the principles of self-evidence to draw their conclusions. I know some philosophers and scientists will argue about the worth or lack of worth that each other field has, but scientists that develop and interact with far-reaching scientific theories in some way are dabbling with and deliberating upon metaphysical truths, and there is always room for philosophers to challenge and these theories for coherence among other theories to achieve greater clarity with regard to the way in which these truths are articulated and communicated. I'm really enjoying philosophy of mind right now since it has a lot of implications in the field of artificial intelligence which is a growing field in computer science and psychology right now. Also it's fun to talk about objective morals, since the implications can be really compelling. Plus it's no fun to always hit the wall that morality is relative or changes according to time and place. The challenge is to find a convincing reason for any particular moral system must be taken seriously amongst individuals that possess the capacity for moral agency.

@LoveLivingLife oh yes science most definitely includes rationality in its explanations. Ideally we try to test everything we can, but either we aren’t technologically advanced enough to test some details or somethings as we currently understand them can’t be tested but we may infer their existence by the fact that they predicted to exist by scientific theory. Testing is the gold standard in science and the silver standard is relying on a well tested theory for a prediction of we can’t test that prediction. It’s not ideal, but it’s also not the end of the world because there is plenty to test. The reason I think morality is objective solely (as of now) rests on the fact that societies lack morality don’t function or last. That’s not to say that people and societies don’t have different understanding of morality, but just that I think there are moral truths that exist provided we have some presuppositions:

  1. We as a species and as moral actors want to continue to exist.
  2. We want to progess: we want to advance the human condition.
  3. We want to become more virtuous and self-actualized as individuals.

It's a bait and switch.

Modern religious people say religions contain good moral principles, like thou shalt not murder. It's implied that they are good because of common sense. But then they say that there is no way to know they are good without accepting them as blind dogma, which is incompatible with common sense.

An easy way to remember it is that, from a dogmatic standard, all the crazy stuff like a virgin birth, jihad, etc is as equally valid as thou shalt not kill. There's no discrimination between crazy and common sense.

Even if a commandment is thou shalt not kill, faith, when used as an underlying basis, undermines common sense standards like thou shalt not murder That's because faith regards morality as obedience to a will that can change its mind and thereby change the laws of morality at any moment (think Isaac and Abraham), not common sense, objective standards. If God changes his mind and wants you to murder Isaac, thou shalt not murder is now though shalt murder.

Religion is subjective morality.

EvanW Level 2 June 27, 2018

I don't follow the logic, but maybe I misunderstand the symbolism. It looks to me like you are giving three premises, viz., P1, P2, & P3, and from these three premises I understand how theists draw the conclusion, viz. C=Therefore God exists. But I don't see that you go there; instead, it seems to me that you say "If P2 & P3 then P1," and I don't see the sense of this. First, you already have P1 as a premise; and second, I see no reason to accept what (I think) it symbolizes as true. That is, I just don't believe the following conditional statement: "If (P2)anything objective must have a basis and if (P3)only a deity can be the basis of morality, then (P1)objective morality exists." But maybe I have misunderstood....

So basically the theist argument is a proof by contradiction, the stated goal is not to show objective morality exists, but that because objective morality exists and the premise that a god can be the only foundation of an objective morality, then god must exist otherwise you must deny the existence of objective morality or be a hypocrite. My later argument for an objective argument replaces premise 2 from the original argument with a more naturalistic one and rather than assume the existence of an objective morality, I derive it at least if I properly formulated everything. Hope that clears things up.


Whether objective or subjective, I lean toward moral relativism—that our actions should be freely adaptable to circumstances. If society or instinct prescribes a correct behavior pattern then it is objective. If a person figures it out on his own, then it is subjective. The goal of behavior either way is well-being and survival, with balance between individuals and the group in mind.

IMO, morality is a rather shallow concept. A moral person is one of whose actions we approve. An immoral person is one who doesn’t please us. Maybe it would be better to speak of behavior rather than morality. Immorality is a sin against God in some circles, while misbehavior is is just making mistakes. God does not judge our behavior—we judge our own behavior and make adjustments as needed. We are extensions of God IMO.

If you don’t like what somebody’s doing, it seems more logical to try and understand why they are doing that thing rather than to judge them to be immoral.

Of course if they are a threat you might have a duty to take action against them, but that is not moral judgement.


I actually got into an argument with a history prof in college regarding morals. He asserted that morals were a static thing, unchanged throughout history... I responded that morals had clearly undergone massive changes in the last 2 thousand years... I asked him how it was morally responsible to keep slaves in the past when it clearly isn't now... He said it never was... I stated that according to the moral "guidance" for thousands of years it was... he didn't like me too much after that... I simply stated that morals are dictated by the society in which they're "authored" and not by any static set of tenets.

I would agree that one’s or a society’s morality is not static: it certainly does change. All the more reason in my opinion to use science as a basis to inform our morality.

Edited to insert “one’s or a society’s” before morality since there could be confusion between the moral body of truth’s which is unchanging and static and either a person’s or group’s understanding of morality which most definitely does change.

You can have very long arguments that will never entirely dismiss your point. At some point what we consider to be moral is agreed upon amongst members of a society. What becomes moral is subject to historical and political change. The long tradition of ethics in philosophy has been attempting to base morality on objective principles that are common at every place and at any point in time, but it's proven very to show this.


Humans are social animals, morality is the term we use to identify the instincts that make us more acceptable to the humans around us. Morality is not objective, but it is only subjective based upon mass opinion due to the need of the individual to interact with the group.

It's not a mystery and it's certainly has nothing to do with religion although they claimed it and routinely fuck with it.


The book is full of morality you murder a woman for not being a virgin, you wipe entire towns because your imaginary god tells you too! Then the morals of murdering someone for working on the sabath. Then the morals of murdering your unruly kids, selling them into slavery beating your slaves is ok as long as you don't kill them.


Morality is simply harm management and has no need of evolution or ridiculous gods. All of it is dictated by mathematics. Most children understand this from a younger age than any religious teaching can influence - they are natural fairness meters, and they judge what's fair by how the suffering and enjoyment is distributed. They get it right with ease, but armies of philosophers and religious freaks get stuck on this really simple thing that is morality.

I think children are born believing the world revolves around them and are conditioned by society to behave as team players from a very early age. If this is true, then the survival of the tribe by means of fair play and support would be cultural, not genetic. But Richard Dawkins, if I understand him right, believes that these cultural norms become infused into our genes over time.

@brentan Maybe it’s a combination of both. I thought that my kids were born with a sense of empathy and good behavior. I guess that might be prejudice on my part.

However they get there, they're very good at saying, "That's not fair!" and they're basing that on simple rules which are usually right.


Hey, my relatives are good people!

godef Level 7 June 27, 2018

Theists are tricked into thinking it forms consensus morality because of how widely it is shared.

Because it is imposed, theist morality is inferior.

Very well stated.

Nonetheless, I wonder if a superior morality might never actually materialise. I think secular humanist values might only ever be limited to educated, liberally-minded people. Perhaps a social system might enforce such values but that brings memories of socialist Russia and communist China.

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