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Meta Ethics: Toward a Universal Ethics — How Science & Reason Can Give Us Objective Moral Truths Without God

William Lane Craig is one of the world’s foremost Christian apologists. He has presented this wellknown argument for the existence of God:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.1

Are you persuaded? I’m not. Sure, the logic is valid per modus tolens (If P, then Q. Not Q. Therefore, not P.) but the first premise is false and so the conclusion does not follow. As I shall argue here, even if God doesn’t exist, objective moral rules still can and do exist; God is superfluous. Craig does not give a clear and precise definition of “moral values,” but I would imagine that this category includes moral rules. A moral rule is any proposition, claim, or assertion which guides or governs the interactions of persons with respect to some end or objective. Moral rules may be properly expressed in at least three different ways:

  1. Normative Way: “Any person X ought not (or should not) rape any person Y.”
  2. Descriptive Way: “It is immoral (or morally wrong) for any person X to rape any person Y.”
  3. Imperative Way: “Don’t rape another person.”

Throughout this essay I will express moral rules in the normative way, all the while keeping in mind that any rule formulated this way can be just as easily formulated in the other two ways.

What is Objective Morality?

A moral or ethical code (I will use “moral” and “ethical” interchangeably) is simply a coherent set of moral rules. Moral codes have existed since ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt and likely go back to hunter- gatherer cultures. In tribes or groups of probably less than a hundred individuals, there had to be rules for sharing the hard-earned bounty from the hunting and gathering. These rules would have constituted a primitive moral code. However, as plants and animals were domesticated and humans congregated in cities, moral codes became more extensive, sophisticated, and complex. In our modern world moral codes are formulated in religious doctrines, in the laws of states, nations, and international organizations, and in, perhaps at the pinnacle, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.2

Craig believes that a moral rule is objective or at least can be objective, but what does this mean? Because “objective” and “subjective” both have different meanings in different contexts, I will set out what meanings I believe they have for the moral realm. A subjective assertion is a claim for which the truth or correctness can be verified only by the person making it, e.g., “I have a headache,” or a claim made solely by one person, or a claim which has not yet been evaluated by anybody else. On the other hand, an objective assertion is a claim for which the truth or correctness can be verified not only by the person making it but also by other persons properly situated, e.g., “The Earth is round, not flat.”

Are assertions about moral rules subjective or objective? I think they are objective, and so on this point I am in agreement with Craig. Take the moral rule mentioned earlier — “Any person X ought not rape any person Y.” Intuitively, that seems correct, and most persons would probably agree that it is correct, but in what thought process might different persons engage to each reliably reach the same conclusion? To answer this we need to overcome David Hume’s objection that we can’t derive an “ought” statement from an “is” statement.3

I view an “ought” statement as both a contingent prediction and an encouragement. If I say “You ought to shop at the grocery store today” then I am predicting that if you shop at the grocery store today, then you will have a good outcome for yourself and perhaps for others, and so I am now encouraging you to go there. This reduces the “mystery of the ought.” If we think carefully about the first component, i.e., the contingent prediction, we may understand that it is really based on two “is” statements. It “is” a fact that in the past when you have shopped at the grocery store, you have almost always had a good outcome, and it “is” a fact that when under similar circumstances you have not shopped at the grocery store, you have almost always had a bad outcome. The second component is also an “is” statement, i.e., it “is” a fact that I am right now encouraging you to shop at the grocery store today. Thus, the original “ought” statement is derived from three “is” statements, two about the record of past events and one about encouragement. We can derive “ought” statements from “is” statements, but we must do it carefully by the use of reason.

This kind of analysis can also be applied to moral rules. Let’s see how it would work. “You ought not rape anybody” is both a contingent prediction and an encouragement. If you will rape anybody, then you will have a bad outcome for yourself and for others. But if you will not rape anybody, then you will have a good outcome for yourself and for others. In the past when some persons have raped other persons, the outcomes were bad for the perpetrator, the victim, and the community. But when persons have avoided raping persons, the outcomes were good for everyone in the community. And so, I encourage you to not rape anybody. Here the “ought not” statement is derived, as before, from three “is” statements. This moral analysis is based on a utilitarian or consequentialist moral framework. I claim that all other moral frameworks, i.e., deontological ethics, virtue ethics, divine command theory, etc. are all reducible to the utilitarian framework, but defense of that claim is beyond the scope of this essay.

Are Moral Rules Invented or Discovered?

Let’s briefly examine the ontological nature of moral rules. I assert that moral rules are cognitive inventions, not discoveries. They exist not in the physical realm, but in the mental realm. You can’t see, hear, or touch them, but you can see their results in the behavior of persons who comply or don’t comply with them. A moral code is like a set of instructions. There is no good evidence for a Platonic realm in which moral rules exist. And they don’t exist in nature per se. Without persons, moral rules would not exist at all! They just exist in the minds of individual persons. Every moral rule begins as some person’s opinion, whether that person might be human, alien, robotic, or divine. The opinion is “This moral rule is probably correct” or “This moral rule will probably work better than its converse or any similar competing rule.” This view may be classified as a form of moral realism inasmuch as moral rules exist in minds of billions of persons, even though minds are fully dependent on brains.

If a moral rule is objective, then its truth or correctness must be subject to verification by many persons, not just one. How can this be done? It’s not easy, but I suggest we follow the scientific or quasi-scientific approach of a number of thinkers working in this area, including the evolutionary ethics of primatologist Frans de Waal,4 the group selection theory of evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson,5 the neuroscience of moral decision making by Joshua Greene,6 the social psychological Moral Foundations Theory of Jonathan Haidt,7 and the well-being moral systems of Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Michael Shermer. A utilitarian analysis of morality could be well founded on either “the well-being of conscious creatures” (Harris in The Moral Landscape8), or “principles that maximize the flourishing of humans” (Pinker in Enlightenment Now9), or “the survival and flourishing of sentient beings” (Shermer in The Moral Arc10).

Let’s start with the idea, explained earlier, that “ought” implies a contingent prediction. If a person X rapes another person Y, then the outcomes will be much worse than if X does not rape Y, and so we must encourage X to not rape. But what outcomes? There are many which could be chosen for evaluation such as happiness (Jeremy Bentham11) or the wellbeing of sentient creatures (Harris, Pinker, and Shermer). Those have merit, but I propose that we evaluate a little different outcome — the fulfillment of the basic biological values of survival, reproduction, well-being, and advancement for all persons. All or nearly all persons, whom we know to exist and who might exist elsewhere, do value these four things. This is an important fact that can be verified with scientific surveys, brain studies, and behavioral observations of large samples of persons.

To be more specific, if person X does not rape person Y, the outcome for all relevant persons in terms of well-being in particular, the third of the four mentioned biological values, will be better than if X does rape Y. Part of well-being is being free of restraint, injury, and pain, and of course rape does or might impair all of these. We can know about the differential outcomes of following different moral rules by examining history and life stories, conducting social psychology experiments, arranging thought experiments, and running computer simulations. But could any one of us be mistaken in our predictions of outcomes? Yes, we could be mistaken because we are fallible human beings. This is where verification by others comes in. A moral rule is objective if its truth or correctness can be verified not only by the person originally devising it but also by other persons properly situated. Correctness and objectivity are not the same thing.

A moral rule may be correct, but not objective, and it may be objective, but not correct. Because I have used reason to devise the moral rule “Person X should not rape person Y,” the rule is probably correct. But if nobody else evaluates the rule or if most of a group of others, also using reason, concludes the rule is incorrect, then the rule is not objective. A consensus is required for objectivity. Suppose one scientist does research and concludes that the burning of fossil fuels has caused a warming of the Earth. We would not trust this report without verification. But if nine scientists independently conduct research using the same methods and if at least seven of the nine did agree with the original conclusion, then we have the verification from a consensus. This same approach can and should be used with respect to moral rules.

Objective Morality

William Lane Craig’s idea of objectivity in morality is different from mine. He says “When I speak of objective moral values, I mean moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not. Thus, to say, for example, that the Holocaust was objectively wrong is to say that it was wrong even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was right and that it would still have been wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everyone who disagreed with them. Now if God does not exist, then moral values are not objective in this way.”12 According to Craig’s account, the moral rule “Group N should not exterminate group J” is correct whether anybody believes it is correct or not. But this just can’t be true! Somebody needs to believe that the moral rule is correct. Moral rules do not exist independent of the minds of persons. Craig is being disingenuous in his analysis. When he says “whether anybody believes in them or not” the “anybody” to which he refers is any human person. He rests the belief in, or knowledge of, the moral rule only in the mind of God, thereby shifting the objectivity of the moral code from natural to supernatural.

However, the moral rule we are discussing here is both correct and objective because a consensus of thinkers using reason confirms that it is correct. The Nazis, or at least some of their leaders, strongly believed that the converse moral rule was correct, i.e., “Group N should exterminate group J.” This rule, however, was based on at least two false premises — that group J was genetically inferior to group N and was responsible for most or all of the problems in the world. The Nazi leaders were not properly situated to judge the correctness of their odd moral rule; they were not using reason. They were wrong, and they had to be defeated by force.

Whether or not God exists, the moral rule “Any group N should not exterminate any group J” is both correct and objective. God is totally unnecessary for a proper grounding of moral rules. In fact, if God did exist and he devised a moral rule on his own, the rule could not be objective without verification by other minds. If any god were to command that we follow a particular moral rule, e.g., God commanding Abraham to kill his son Isaac,13 then we would have a duty to evaluate its correctness. We ought not just accept it on faith, as Craig implies we should.

Correct Universal Ethics

The moral codes of the different nations and cultures of the world vary widely. In some places the moral rule “Parents should authorize the clipping or cutting of the genitals of their child daughters” is faithfully followed. In other places governments enforce the moral rule “Any person convicted of murder should be executed.” Some moral rules are incorrect, unreasonable, relativistic, and/or nonobjective. This state of affairs results in unnecessary harm to persons every hour of every day. What shall be the future of morality? I propose that we aim towards establishing a Correct Universal Ethics (CUE).

CUE would be a comprehensive moral code for all persons devised from the ground up by a qualified panel of persons. Desired qualities of CUE would include clarity rather than obtuseness, specificity rather than generality, simplicity rather than complexity, objectivity rather than subjectivity, rationality rather than irrationality, breadth rather than narrowness, stability rather than malleability, universality rather than relativity or parochialism, and circumstantialism rather than absoluteness. Perhaps a “blue ribbon” panel could assess ethical codes and moral values and issue white paper statements meant to advise governments and legal systems.

There are many different possible ways by which such a panel could work. For example, the panel could use a variety of moral reasoning tools, such as John Rawl’s “Veil of Ignorance,”14 Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical Imperatives,”15 Peter Singer’s “Expanding Circle,”16 and Pinker and Shermer’s “Principle of Interchangeable Perspectives.”17 I suggest it also use a thought experiment I shall call “Island Dyad.” Imagine two persons, X and Y, ship-wrecked and stranded on an island by themselves, not knowing if they will ever be rescued.

They are forced to live together. They need some moral rules to govern their interactions. If they use reason, then what rules will they devise? Suppose they resolve to establish a rule on killing. There are four options:

  1. Person X should kill person Y.
  2. Person Y should kill person X.
  3. Person X should kill person Y, and person Y should kill person X. (This could happen if they wounded each other and then both subsequently died later.)
  4. Person X should not kill person Y, and person Y should not kill person X.

If the two people use reason to devise the rule on killing, then which of the four alternatives would they adopt? Moral rule #4 of course! Selection of that rule would maximize the survival, reproduction, well-being, and advancement of the dyad, compared to the other three alternatives. Similarly, a rule regarding attempting to kill could also be devised. This kind of moral reasoning can be generalized to the eight billion people living on Earth, no gods required.

Thus, any person X should not kill any person Y, except under a few special circumstances, e.g., when it is necessary as a last resort to protect oneself or a third person Z from serious injury or death.

A Community of Rational Thinking Persons

William Lane Craig has claimed that although atheists might behave in moral ways, they have no grounding for their morality. There is no moral authority to obligate them to follow moral rules. Of course, Craig believes the moral authority to obligate rests in God himself. But as I have demonstrated, God’s existence is not necessary. We just need an authority on which to ground our morality. I suggest that it is simply the community of rational thinking persons.

In this essay I have shown that William Lane Craig is mistaken about morality, how to solve the problem of deriving an “ought” from an “is,” and how to provide a foundation for Correct Universal Ethics that is consistent with secular humanism. I think we now have a proper meta-ethics for the 21st century. END

About the Author

Dr. Gary Whittenberger, PhD, is a freelance writer and retired psychologist, living in Tallahassee, FL. He received his doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Florida State University after which he worked for 23 years as a psychologist in prisons. He has written many published articles on science, philosophy, psychology, and religion, and he is a member of several freethought organizations, including Humanists of Tallahassee. He is the author of two books—God Wants You to be an Atheist: The Startling Conclusion from a Rational Analysis and God and Natural Disasters: A Debate Between an Atheist and a Christian.

  1. Craig, W. L., & Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2004). God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist. Oxford University Press.
  3. Hume, D. (2009). A Treatise of Human Nature (D. F. Norton, Ed.; Reprint with corrections). Oxford University Press.
  4. De Waal, F. B. M. (1996). Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Harvard University Press.
  5. Wilson, D. S. (2019). This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Pantheon Books.
  6. Greene, J. D. (2013). Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. The Penguin Press.
  7. Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Pantheon.
  8. Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Free Press.
  9. Pinker, S. (2018). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Viking.
  10. Shermer, M. (2015). The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Henry Holt and Co.
  11. Bentham, J. (1789/1948). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Macmillan.
  12. Craig & Sinnott-Armstrong, op. cit.
  13. New International Version Bible. Genesis 22:1–19.
  14. Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice (Rev. ed). Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  15. Kant, I. (1785/1895). Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. Pantianos Classics.
  16. Singer, P. (1981). The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress. Princeton University Press. Op. cit. Pinker, Shermer
  17. Op cit. Pinker, Enlightenment Now, Shermer, The Moral Arc.

This article was published on October 4, 2022.

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