Ronald Lindsay – How Morality Has the Objectivity that Matters – Without God

One attempt to argue objective morality exists from an atheistic perspective is by Ronald Lindsay.

The thesis of this essay is that morality is not objective in the same way that statements of empirically verifiable facts are objective, yet morality is objective in the ways that matter: moral judgments are not arbitrary; we can have genuine disagreements about moral issues; people can be mistaken in their moral beliefs; and facts about the world are relevant to and inform our moral judgments. In other words, morality is not “subjective” as that term is usually interpreted. Moral judgments are not equivalent to descriptive statements about the world—factual assertions about cars, cats, and cabbages—but neither are they merely expressions of personal preferences.

This thesis has obvious importance to our understanding of morality. Moreover, this thesis has special relevance to humanists and other nonreligious people, because one of the most frequently made arguments against atheism is that it is incompatible with the position that morality is objective and that rejecting the objectivity of morality would have unacceptable consequences. … thout-god/

Sure, some individual atheists can be relied upon to act morally, but, as political commentator Michael Gerson put it, “Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.” In other words, without God, atheists cannot explain how there are objective moral truths, and without objective moral truths, atheists have no grounds for saying anything is morally right or wrong. We atheists might act appropriately, but we cannot rationally justify our actions; nor can we criticize those who fail to act appropriately.

Yes, I agree with that.

Furthermore, this contention that God is required for morality to be objective has become the new weapon of choice for those wishing to argue for the existence of God.

Though this can be true, this is not relevant to the thesis. It is the atheists who claim God is evil, so they must first demonstrate moral claims are justifiable.

For these reasons—and also because we want a firm grounding for morality ourselves—it is incumbent upon humanists, and secular ethicists generally, to address squarely the contentions that without God there is no objectivity in morality and that this situation would be something dreadful.


The problem is that most try to do this by arguing that morality is objective in a way similar to the way in which ordinary descriptive statements are objective. The better argument is that morality is neither objective nor subjective as those terms are commonly understood.

Lindsay tacitly acknowledges atheists have not been able to provide an adequate solution.

Here he seems to want to change the definitions. Let’s see what he actually means. But first he addresses the common arguments by atheists.

Argument from well-being:

Or, if one wants to approach the issue from the other direction, well-being is a good thing, and, all other things being equal, people want to have well-being. The argument will then proceed by using this foundation to argue that we have a moral obligation to avoid inflicting pain or to increase well-being. But this will not do. Granted, pain is “bad” in a nonmoral sense, and people don’t want it, but to say that inflicting pain on someone is presumptively morally bad implies we have some justification for saying that this action is morally bad, not just that it’s unwanted. From where does this moral obligation derive and how do we detect it?

He cites Derek Parfit:

Derek Parfit, an Oxford scholar whom some regard as one of the most brilliant philosophers of our time (and I so regard him), recently produced a massive work on ethics titled On What Matters. This two-volume work covers a lot of ground, but one of its main claims is that morality is objective, and we can and do know moral truths but not because moral judgments describe some fact. Indeed, moral judgments do not describe anything in the external world, nor do they refer to our own feelings. There are no mystical moral or normative entities. Nonetheless, moral judgments express objective truths. Parfit’s solution? Ethics is analogous to mathematics. There are mathematical truths even though, on Parfit’s view, there are no such things as an ideal equation 2 + 2 = 4 existing somewhere in Plato’s heaven. Similarly, we have objectively valid moral reasons for not inflicting pain gratuitously even though there are no mystical moral entities to which we make reference when we declare, “Inflicting pain gratuitously is morally wrong.” To quote Parfit, “Like numbers and logical truths … normative properties and truths have no ontological status” (On What Matters, vol. 2, p. 487).

Parfit’s proposed solution is ingenious because it avoids the troublesome issues presented when we tie moral judgments to facts about the world (or facts about our feelings). However, ingenuity does not ensure that a theory is right. Parfit provides no adequate explanation of how we know ethical truths, other than offering numerous examples where he maintains we clearly have a decisive reason for doing X rather than Y. In other words, at the end of the day he falls back on something such as intuition, with the main difference between his theory and other theories being that his intuitions do not reference anything that exists; instead they capture an abstract truth.

In other words, Parfit also does not provide a justification for morality.

So secular attempts to provide an objective foundation for morality have been … well, less than successful. Does this imply we are logically required to embrace nihilism?

No. Let me suggest we need to back up and look at morality afresh. The whole notion that morality must be either entirely subjective or objective in some way comparable to factual (or in Parfit’s case, mathematical) truths is based on a misguided understanding of morality. It’s based on a picture of morality in which morality serves functions similar to factual descriptions (or mathematical theorems). We need to discard that picture. Let’s clear our minds and start anew.

He explicitly acknowledges secularist attempts have been less than successful in justifying morality.

I don’t think we need to “start anew”, but let’s see what he has to say.

So, if we are starting from the ground up, let’s ask basic questions. Why should we have morality?

Broadly speaking, morality appears to serve these related purposes: it creates stability, provides security, ameliorates harmful conditions, fosters trust, and facilitates cooperation in achieving shared and complementary goals. In other words, morality enables us to live together and, while doing so, to improve the conditions under which we live.

Multiply this example millions of times, and you get a sense of the numerous transactions among people that allow a peaceful, stable, prospering society to emerge. You also can imagine how conditions would deteriorate if moral norms were not followed.

No disagreement with this.

In rejecting the proposition that moral judgments are equivalent to factual statements about the world, I am not endorsing the proposition that moral judgments are subjective. A subjective statement is still a descriptive statement that is determined to be true by reference to facts. It’s simply a descriptive statement referring to facts about our inner states—our desires, our sentiments—as opposed to something in the world. To claim that moral judgments are subjective is to claim that they are true or false based on how a particular person feels. That’s not how most of us regard moral judgments.

He stated above he is not claiming morality is subjective.

The reality is that there is a core set of moral norms that almost all humans accept.

Yes, and another question is why is this true?

I don’t see a clear explanation proposed by him to justify morality. His point seems to center on subjectivity vs objectivity:

We can see now how morality has the type of objectivity that matters. If we regard morality as a set of practices that has something like the functions I described, then not just any norm is acceptable as a moral norm.

Yes, we all agree morality is objective.

Because of our common human condition, morality is not arbitrary; nor is it subjective in any pernicious sense.

Again states that morality is not subjective.

There is no single simple principle that governs morality. Yes, we want to encourage people to be virtuous—that is, to be kind, courageous, and trustworthy—but to what end?

We recognize that morality is objective, but it is interesting we cannot fully define what is morality, but we do all have a similar inner sense of what it is.

A second important objection to my argument is that I have not explained how it is that moral norms are binding on us. Even if we accept that there is a common morality, why must we follow these norms?

Yes, this is a key question.

The combination of our evolutionary inheritance and the moral training most of us receive disposes us to act morally.

No, evolutionary inheritance has nothing to do with morality. The most obvious counter to this is morality does not exist outside of humans. Do plants and animals even have the concept of morality?

There is no mystical intuition of “the moral law” that inexorably forces someone to accept the institution of morality. Nor is there any set of reasons whose irresistible logic compels a person to behave morally. Put another way, it is not irrational to reject the institution of morality altogether. One can coherently and consistently prefer what one regards as one’s own self-interest to doing the morally appropriate thing.

Yes, in an atheistic worldview, this would be correct.

That said, there is no guarantee that people will not make this choice. But notice that bringing God into the picture doesn’t change anything. People can make the decision to reject morality even if they think God has promulgated our shared moral norms.

True. But the issue is not how one behaves, but how one ought to behave.

You may say: “But what they did was objectively wrong”—and an atheist can’t say this. As you have admitted, there is nothing outside the institution of morality to validate this institution, so the obligations of morality are not really binding.” If one means by “objectively wrong” something that conforms to a standard of wrongness that exists completely independently of the human condition and our moral practices, then, correct, an atheist might not use “objectively wrong” in this sense. (Some ethicists who are atheists might, as I have already discussed.) But so what?

Here, Lindsay affirms an atheist cannot say anything is objectively wrong.

First, as indicated by the Euthyphro argument, the notion that God could provide such an external standard is highly questionable.

At least from a theist point of view, there is a logical justification for a moral standard.

Second, and more important, what is lost by acknowledging that morality is a wholly human phenomenon that arose to respond to the need to influence behavior so people can live together in peace? I would argue that nothing is lost, except some confused notions about morality that we would do well to discard.

Because as he acknowledges, “One can coherently and consistently prefer what one regards as one’s own self-interest to doing the morally appropriate thing.” No behavior is objectively right or wrong. People can do whatever they want and there is nothing that people ought to do.

At this point, the believer might protest, “But there has to be something more than that. Morality is not just a human institution.” Well, what is this something more? Why is it not enough to tell the wrongdoer that everyone condemns him because what he or she did violated our accepted norms, which are essential to our ability to live together in peace?

Morality is more than just accepted norms. Two hundred years ago, slavery was an accepted norm. Today, abortion is an accepted norm.

Though people do want to live in peace, there is no “oughtness” that everyone should live in peace. Also one person’s peace can result in another person’s lack of peace. Kim Jong Un wants peace. But are the people of North Korea living in a moral country? And on what basis can anyone say their leader is evil?

What some believers (and, again, some secular ethicists) appear to want is some further fact, something that will make them more comfortable in claiming that moral norms are authoritative and binding. Somehow it is not sufficient that a norm prohibiting the gratuitous affliction of violence reduces pain and suffering and allows us to live together in peace, and has, therefore, been adopted by all human societies. No; for the believer there has to be something else. A moral norm must be grounded in something other than its beneficial effects for humans and human communities. The statement that “it was wrong for Kim to hit Stephanie” must pick out some mystical property that constitutes “wrongness.” For the believer, this further fact is usually identified as a command from God, but as we have already established, God’s commands cannot be regarded as imposing moral obligations unless we already possess a sense of right and wrong independent of his commands.

There has to be some justification for the universality of this ethical intuition. Yes, I grant it is not solely from commandments from any religious text. We seem to intuitively understand what is ethical since all religions share similar standards. Even atheists agree that murder is wrong.

And it cannot be from evolution, since morality has nothing to do with evolution. There is no “oughtness” in evolution. There is only what actually happens, not how things should happen. Animals kill each other. There is no requirement that animals should not kill each other.

However, the whole world has moved away from the gold standard with no ill effects.

Yes, there are ill effects, in particular inflation, which all fiat monetary systems have undergone.

Why didn’t our economic systems collapse or become wildly unstable? Because currency doesn’t need anything outside of the economic system itself to provide it with value.

There is no fiat monetary system that has withstood the test of time. However, gold has never been worthless in human history.

Similarly, moral norms represent the value found in living together. There is no need to base our moral norms on something outside of our relationships. Moral norms are effective in fostering collaboration and cooperation and in improving our conditions, and there is no need to refer to a mystical entity, a gold bar, or God to conclude that we should encourage everyone to abide by common moral norms.

A fiat monetary system is actually a good analogy for an atheistic view of morality. Atheistic morality is based on what people for a certain time and place believe, like all fiat currencies. It cannot apply for all people for all of history, unlike gold. So, atheistic morality is not objective, but subjective.

In conclusion, the claim that we need God to provide morality with objectivity does not withstand analysis.

It is not really the burden of his thesis to disprove theistic morality, but to defend objective atheistic morality. And he doesn’t really offer any good justification for an objective atheistic morality.

To begin with, God would not be able to provide objectivity, as the argument from Euthyphro demonstrates.

From the Jewish perspective, the Euthyphro dilemma does not exist:

Jonathan Sacks wrote, “In Judaism, the Euthyphro dilemma does not exist.” Jewish philosophers Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman criticized the Euthyphro dilemma as “misleading” because “it is not exhaustive”: it leaves out a third option, namely that God “acts only out of His nature.”

Moreover, morality is neither objective nor subjective in the way that statements of fact are said to be objective or subjective; nor is that type of objectivity really our concern.

It is either objective or subjective. There is no third option. It is either morality is dependent on the standards of an individual or society for a certain place and time (subjective) or it applies to everyone regardless of place and time (objective).

Our legitimate concern is that we don’t want people feeling free “to do their own thing,” that is, we don’t want morality to be merely a reflection of someone’s personal desires.

Right, we all agree we cannot live by subjective morality.

To the extent that intersubjective validity is required for morality, it is provided by the fact that, in relevant respects, the circumstances under which humans live have remained roughly the same. We have vulnerabilities and needs similar to those of people who lived in ancient times and medieval times, and to those of people who live today in other parts of the world. The obligation to tell the truth will persist as long as humans need to rely on communications from each other. The obligation to assist those who are in need of food and water will persist as long as humans need hydration and nutrition to sustain themselves. The obligation not to maim someone will persist as long as humans cannot spontaneously heal wounds and regrow body parts. The obligation not to kill someone will persist as long as we lack the power of reanimation. In its essentials, the human condition has not changed much, and it is the circumstances under which we live that influence the content of our norms, not divine commands. Morality is a human institution serving human needs, and the norms of the common morality will persist as long as there are humans around.

Yes, humans throughout history all share an innate sense of morality. So, objective morality exists. But the important question is where does that come from and why do we have it? He has no answer for this except that it’s not from God. And actually he never even claims to address these fundamental questions, but only claims to address the objectivity of morality. We all agree objective morality exists, so not even sure how his article contributes to anything.

He stated, “one of the most frequently made arguments against atheism is that it is incompatible with the position that morality is objective.” The issue is not can atheists be objectivity moral. Yes, they can be. The issue is on what basis can they justify their objective morality? It’s like Christians can believe in God. But skeptics would counter this by asking on what basis do Christians believe in God? What are the justifications for such a belief? Is it just blind faith or are there arguments with evidence to support it? And for atheistic objective morality, Lindsay does not offer any justification for his belief in objective morality.