Moral Objectivity

New Atheism’s Baggage

It’s popular in secular culture to recoil at the claim that atheism implies a lack of moral objectivity. The instinct is that we need not throw the baby of moral truth away with the bathwater of supernatural claims, so to speak. A 2009 Australian National University in Canberra study of philosophers showed that while 73% were atheist, only 28% were moral non-objectivists. [1] Public champions of moral objectivity include many “new atheism” banner-men, like Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, the late Christopher Hitchens, and others. Though these men and women are among the most thoughtful and insightful, I believe that the existence of objective moral values should be rejected on rational grounds to strengthen the foundation of secular ethics.

Before going further, precise definitions are needed to avoid confusion. “Objective” in this case does not mean “scientific” or “empirical”. “Objective moral values” are moral value statements that are true independent of opinion. This is in contrast to a subjective moral values, which are grounded only in the opinions of individuals or groups of individuals. For example, “murder is wrong” is an objective moral value if it is true regardless of whether anyone has ever or will ever believe it to be so.

There’s one more piece of groundwork to lay: rejecting claims that objective moral values exist is distinct from making the affirmative claim that no objective moral values exist or that reality is best explained by there being no objective moral values. This distinction may feel familiar to the “weak atheist”, who similarly avoids the claim that God does not exist, but rather rejects any existence claims they have encountered. By way of illustration, if someone claims that invisible dogs exist because they’ve felt one brush against their arm, it’s easy to be uncompelled by their argument and continue to go on living as if no invisible dogs exist, but it is a much harder task to claim to know in fact that no invisible dogs exist. It is worth noting that for any affirmative existence claim, from invisible dogs, to God, to objective moral values, the burden of proof is with the claim and not the rejection. I will attempt to show why I find the major arguments for objective moral values un-compelling, and I will further put forth arguments toward the claim that their existence is in fact untenable.

Non-theistic arguments in favor of the existence of objective moral values fall into two main categories: that our moral experience is best explained by objectivity, and that moral subjectivity is contradictory or untenable. I’ll start with the first type of argument. Our moral experience includes our instincts about right and wrong, our sensations of guilty and clean conscience, our feelings of will power or lack-thereof, etc. The argument suggests that these phenomena, in particular our instincts about right and wrong, are as immediately apprehendable and vivid to us as any of our physical senses, and absent sufficient reason to doubt that what we experience is the objective state of the world, we ought to believe it to be true. As Louise Antony puts it, “Any argument for moral skepticism is going to be based upon premises which are less obvious than the reality of moral values and duties themselves.” [2] This argument is not compelling to me. I grant that it does follow that if complete skepticism is true, and we are in fact in a matrix or dream state, then moral perception along with all other perception has no objective ground. However, this does not imply that if we presume complete skepticism to be false, then all objects of perception are equally likely to be based in reality. For example, the claim that my orange car exists is believable because I have seen the car and its color, I have touched it with my hands and feet, I have heard its engine, I have smelled the interior; further, a radar detector could catch it speeding, a thermometer could read its temperature in the sun, a video camera could record it running a red light, the molecular makeup of the paint could be studied. That many first order sense perceptions agree and are supported by many second order perceptions of scientific instruments to affirm its existence, is a feature of my orange car not shared by moral values. To the extent that corroborating perception matters, belief in moral objectivity, like belief in optical illusions, witchcraft, and alchemy is less reasonable.

Another argument in this vein highlights specific moral values that are so self-evident that no human has ever or will ever disagree with them. This universal acceptance must be, so the argument goes, evidence of objective moral fact. Take for example the claim that maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures is good. It may be possible that there is some reasonable definition of “maximizing”, “well being”, and “conscious creatures” that could be accepted by all humans, or at least all educated people in good mental health. However, the universality of a moral claim has no bearing on its truth status. To illustrate, consider a world in which the nazis were successful in their mission. Further consider if they had killed all who believed that the holocaust was wrong, leaving only those in favor among the living. The universality of opinion in this thought experiment does no more for the truth of the claim that the holocaust was objectively good than universality of the opinion that the well-being of conscious creatures is good. Additionally, universality may not be constant through time. Consider that, unless a set of moral values is identical with the values that are most advantageous to natural selection, it is conceivable that moral intuitions would be pruned from the species like any other less advantageous tendency. Universally held moral beliefs may have been rewritten many times over and may be rewritten as many times again in the future.

A related argument highlights certain behaviors which appear to have no naturalistic reason for emergence. The claim is that these behaviors are evidence of access to a set of objective moral truths. One such behavior is true altruism. Proponents of this argument say that true altruism, or a desire to help others at the actor’s expense, with no expectation of reciprocity, in contrast to reciprocal altruism, has no reproductive value and could not have emerged through natural selection. It is not with the claim that true altruism exists that I take issue, but rather that there is no reproductive value to be had from it. Given that humans live and reproduce in groups rather than as individuals, it seems natural for tendencies which may contribute to stronger, safer groups to in fact have reproductive value. True altruism seems to be this exact type of tendency. Development thereof could contribute to more innate trust among group members, and could increase the likelihood of cooperation and enable more calculated risk taking. Evolutionary biologists such as as David Sloan Wilson confirm this suspision. Wilson writes, “the prosocial behaviors variously labeled “cooperation” or “altruism” are disadvantageous to individuals, and evolve only by virtue of the differential contribution of groups to the total gene pool.” [3] This tendency is also present in many birds, fish and non-human mammals, which presumably do not all have the same sort of moral experience as humans. A 2001 Davidson College study revealed that bottlenose dolphins, for example, will carry injured or sick mammals to the water’s surface so that they are able to breath, and will remain there for hours, keeping watch. [4] Given the possibility of a reasonable naturalistic explanation for emergence, these behaviors lose their unique status as additional evidence for objective moral values.

The second broad category of arguments in favor of objective morality suggest the untenability of moral subjectivity. The first of these arguments is the claim that people who do not believe in objective moral values behave self-contradictorily. Specifically, proponents of this argument claim that because non-believers follow moral values that are similar or identical to those held by believers, they must be guilty of self-deception. After all, as the argument goes, if you believe that objective moral values are in fact an illusion, there is no reason to follow moral values of any kind, especially in the absence of an observer. This claim hinges on the premise that values known to be subjective are not action-guiding. This seems empirically false. For example, opinions about beauty or humor have a profound impact on our daily lives, and we readily reject claims of their objectivity. The experience both of the beauty of a sunset and the wrongness of murder have the prescriptive power to bring us to action; neither of which need be grounded in objective truth. However, this perceived necessity arises from the natural tendency of human beings to ascribe external authority to their subjective opinions. Philosopher J. L. Mackie says it well: “the abandonment of a belief in objective values can cause, at least temporarily, a decay of subjective concern and sense of purpose. That it does so is evidence that the people in whom this reaction occurs have been tending to objectify their concerns and purposes, have been giving them a fictitious external authority. A claim to objectivity has been so strongly associated with their subjective concerns and purposes that the collapse of the former seems to undermine the latter as well.”[6] Further, even it were true that all moral subjectivists are in fact guilty of self-deception, their actual beliefs in the moral domain are not compelling evidence of objective moral values, as shown previously.

Another proposed behavioral contradiction of subjectivists is their ability and readiness to critique or condemn the moral values held by others. After all, so the argument goes, without objective moral values, there seems to be no authority on which to judge another individual or culture’s moral values. However, that it is wrong to criticize from a position void of objective truth is itself a moral value, one that only has the possibility of being objectively true if you accept the conclusion that objective moral values exist. Therefore this argument is circular. However, beyond being a circular link, that opinion is not held in practice. For example, I personally don’t believe an objective ground is needed for me to influence the world in ways I hold subjectively to be “good”, and presumably neither do the non-believers levying the criticism in question. No objective authority is needed to criticize moral values, in the same way that no objective authority is needed to criticize a gaudy new building or a well-done steak.

An only subtly different argument is that without objective moral values, all moral viewpoints are equally valid, and the fact that this necessary equality contrasts so starkly with our everyday moral experience is evidence for the untenability of non-belief. However, the belief that all moral viewpoints are equally valid does not follow from the belief that morality is subjective, in the same way that the belief that all art is beautiful does not follow from the belief that beauty is subjective. All moral viewpoints are equal in their lack of objective grounding, but they are not equal in how closely they conform to the values we actually hold. These differences are what proponents of this argument mean when they talk of “validity”. It’s important not to conflate comparisons of social systems based on moral axioms, with comparisons of the moral axioms themselves. Whether or not it is reasonable to judge two such systems against a moral standard to see which fits more closely, does not depend on the objective truth of the standard itself. Mackie continues, “The subjectivist about values, then, is not denying that there can be objective evaluations relative to standards, and these are as possible in the aesthetic and moral fields as in any”. He further affirms, “Given any sufficiently determinate standards, it will be an objective issue, a matter of truth and falsehood, how well any particular specimen measures up to those standards. Comparative judgements in particular will be capable of truth and falsehood”. [5]

I’ve discussed the different types of affirmative arguments for objective moral values and laid out the reasons why I do not find them compelling. Recalling the earlier discussion about burden of proof, it is not necessary to claim additionally that the absence of objective moral values best explains reality; however, there are arguments to suggest just that. The first of which centers around the necessary strangeness of the claim that objective moral values exist. If true, objective moral values must be features etched on the universe, entirely different from anything physically within it. And if their objectivity is detectible, humans would need to have some sort of perception thereof entirely different from the sorts of perception we’re aware of. Put another way, the claim is that there are certain states of the universe that, for all time, have been intrinsically preferable to others and that it is a potentially unique feature of a minuscule, recent expression of the universe, namely humanity, to detect this intrinsic preference. It is important to note that, by no coincidence, this is the same sort of strangeness that accompanies theistic claims. Indeed, the existence of moral values is an as-of-yet-unfalsifiable metaphysical claim that offers no clear way to collect evidence in favor or in opposition, and it is as reasonable or unreasonable as any other of the infinitely many claims of the sort, from God to Plato’s forms to karma. Furthermore, the lack of a clear way to produce evidence in favor or in opposition is a detachment from reality with an implication other than mere strangeness: truth statuses of claims in this category have no impact on our natural experience; rather, it is only belief or disbelief in them that does. After all, whether the perception of objective moral values is the cause of my instincts about right and wrong, or whether my instincts are purely subjective, I nonetheless have them. Belief seems self-evidently not necessary, and, from the principle of Occam’s Razor, should you lend it credence, a rejection of all such strange claims reasonably follows.

The second argument calls to attention wide variation and outright contradiction between moral values held by different cultures and throughout history . Given that each group appears to experience their moral values in a similarly obvious, vivid and action-guiding way, it seems that no one group is any better equipped to detect their objective validity. Absent such differences in moral instrumentation, it seems more reasonable for variation in behavior and circumstance to bring out variations in moral values, than the other way around. Differences in opinion about, say, polygamy, seem better explained not by differences in epistemological access to a moral truth on the matter, but instead by differences in behavior. This inversion of causality is demonstrated in a more extreme form by phenomena like Stockholm Syndrome and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “slave morality”. Nietzsche argues that values such as humility and pity emerge in the societies of enslaved peoples as a way of avoiding the reality that these behaviors were forced upon them by masters. He writes, “The slave revolt in morality begins when the re-sentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values”. [5] This opinion is strengthened by the possibility of naturalistic emergence of other moral values, discussed earlier.

A common response to this argument suggests that apparently contradictory moral values may actually be derived from common, objective moral values such as that rules ought to govern human behavior. Differing circumstances may result in drastically different derived moral values. The problem with this argument is that our vivid moral experience is not one of reasoned derivation from base principles, it is of immediate intuition, and, as shown in the first section, it is this intuitiveness that is at the core of the arguments in favor of objective moral values. However far you walk from the reality of moral experience to counter this argument in opposition, you must also walk from the similarly based arguments in favor.

No matter where on the question of objective moral values you land, the choice to affirm their existence has consequences for the persuasive power of secular ethics. Let’s first look at the foundation of secular ethical systems such as Humanism, which holds that individual, social and political systems should be judged on their ability to enhance the well-being of conscious creatures. The choice to claim the well-being of conscious creatures as objectively good rather than simply a subjective axiom of the system, although not universal among Humanists, is quite common, as shown earlier by the Australian National University study. This position, championed by Sam Harris in his book, The Moral Landscape, is unnecessarily held and precarious. Consider the following: theists may ask the question, “Why is the well-being of conscious creatures good?” A reasonable response may be, “because conscious creatures are valuable”. To that, a similar “why?” question may be asked, and to the response, another similar question, etc. This line of inquiry is a form of what is known as the open question argument. If the questions continue, ultimately a moral value held with no further possibility of justification will be reached. Though the non-theist may defend the objectivity of this value, as we’ve seen, these arguments are quite flimsy. They appear much more so when contrasted with theistic accounts for objective moral values such as divine command theory, provided the premise of a God is accepted. Theists and undecided voters, so to speak, who make an apples to apples comparison about the source of objective morality may easily conclude that the ethics of Humanism and the like are built on weak rational foundation.

I’ve up until now discussed theism only in passing, but I want to touch briefly on how affirmation of objective moral values affects the discussion of the existence of God, as it is central to secular ethics. Almost ubiquitously present in modern debates about the existence of God is the argument from morality. The modern form is as follows:

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

For the non-theist, rejecting premise 1 is a much more difficult and confusion-inducing task than rejecting premise 2. Sam Harris’ 2013 struggle to escape William Lane Craig’s spider web on the issue is an unfortunate example of the former. This difficulty stems in part from the hard-to-pin-down definition of God. Craig defines God, at least in this debate, in a way that certainly appears possible to satisfy this premise, perhaps trivially so. He says, “God, as the supreme good, is the appropriate object of adoration and love. He is goodness itself”. [7] In other words, this definition of God is either the only answer to the open question argument or is identical with the set of objectively true moral values. Rejecting the premise in these terms seems nigh impossible. Note that the obvious question of whether this definition of God is reconcilable with all the beliefs of a given religion is at best difficult and time consuming to answer, and at worst irrelevant.

However, even if the premise of the moral argument has an answer, its mere existence points to a more subtle problem: the exception in epistemological treatment that many atheists make for objective moral values. As we discussed earlier, claims of the existence of objective moral values are in a strange category alongside all other as-of-yet unfalsifiable metaphysical claims lacking a clear way to collect evidence thereabout. Put another way, belief in Zeus is as reasonable as belief in God, which is as reasonable as belief in objective moral values. Certainly the arguments against Zeus or God need not depend on the other beliefs of the speaker. However, it might have a similar effect as eating a ham sandwich every day for lunch has on the arguments of an evangelical vegetarian.

These precarious positions need not be defended. The case for secular ethics is stronger without an appeal to objective values. In the same way that it is reasonable to eat when hungry, it is reasonable to build systems that maximize the well-being of conscious creatures, because humans near-universally do think that well being of conscious creatures is good. This value, though subjective, is apprehended immediately and intuitively, like the beauty of a sunset. And for those who desire a society that represents the values they hold, it’s reasonable to compare, critique, admire, and condemn aspects of their own society and others for how well or how poorly they represent those values. These comparisons can be thoughtful, scientific, and useful without any appeal to the objectivity of the values themselves. In short, there is no baby in the bathwater.


[1] Australian National University in Canberra, 2009 “The PhilPapers Surveys”

[2] Louise Antony and William Lane Craig, 2012 “Is God Necessary for Morality?”

[3]David Sloan Wilson, 2011. "Instant Expert: Evolution of selfless behavior", New Scientist

[4] Davidson College, biology department, 2001. “Bottlenose Dolphins — Altruism”

[5] J.L. Mackie, 1990. “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong”

[6] Friedrich Nietzche, 1887. “On the Genealogy of Morality.”

[7] Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, 2013. “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural”

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.