Perhaps inevitably, the focal point becomes the willy.

As someone who feels they engage with issues of real controversy daily it is hard to underestimate the frustration of seeing debates one regards as long-settled inflame people again and again month after month. Presently, one such issue has been brought to the fore by Non-Prophet Week, a week of charitable giving by the non-religious, 29 October – 4 November. This is the third annual incarnation of the event organised by the British Federation of Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Student Societies (AHS). 

Now, it’s nothing new that atheists are criticised for having no reason to be good people (nor indeed that they themselves mock the notion of such a ‘moral overlord’), but what is the nature of this criticism? In its plainest form it is the kind of baseless attack that reproduces prejudice against those who are different- obviously atheists have reasons to be good. Goodness is by definition desirable for its own sake, and many goods are easily identifiable. ‘Godless giving’, in this case to victims of physical abuse by clericsi, is obviously very good and to be encouraged, and if it helps to lessen the prejudices faced by the non-religious that is an added bonus. 

Yet it is crucial to distinguish a second allegation about atheism nested here: many philosophers and theologians would say that atheists are being incoherent if they believe in objective goodness (henceforth goodness). This is a criticism which locates a problem in philosophy rather than in morality. In other words, it does not say that atheists are less likely to be so good in their moral lives (which would be false statistically), but that they are unreasonable in some of their beliefs. (Note that the question of whether life is meaningful enough is of a similar form but completely separate.) I have no interest in explaining the kind of incoherence purported here because it is not a view I share, but nevertheless, upon reflection I think this criticism is clearly quite an understandable one rather than a bigoted one.

One reason I do not make this criticism myself is that there are also many philosophers, living and dead, who have held that it is not incoherent for atheists to believe in moral goodness. I am thinking of people like: Spinoza, J. S. Mill, G. E. Moore, David Ross, Bernard Williams, Jonathan Dancy, Tim Scanlon, Michael Sandel, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Derek Parfit, Mary Midgley, Anthony Kenny, Philipa Foot, Iris Murdock, Robert Nozick, H.L.A. Hart, Rosalind Hursthouse, Thomas Pogge, Onora O’Neill, Michael Waltzer, Nancy Davis, Philip Pettit, Michael Martin, Erik Wielenberg, David O. Brink, Jonathan Lowe, Will Kymlicka, Philip Stratton-Lake, Joshua Cohen, Michael Slote, Gerald Dworkin, David Miller, Julian Baggini, Michael Smith, Alain de Botton and William Irwin.ii To this we could add the scholars representative of most eastern religions.

Needless to say, that they believe this does not make true, any more than is the case with those thinkers who disagree. Moreover, we must be aware that there are numerous contradictions between the views of the philosophers listed. But what gives me confidence on this debate is the very rich body of work which provides plenty of resources for the construction of a reasonable philosophy of goodness in the absence of God.

To remain logical, atheists who believe that they have reasons to be good and that they are coherent in believing in goodness must also reject a third criticism closely related to, but distinct from the previous two. This is that the existence of goodness is proof that God is real. This is subtly different from the second criticism, which argued backwards from the belief in objective goodness to the purportedly necessary presupposition of God (an example of a  transcendental argument).

This third criticism argues forward from the existence of goodness to God’s reality. As with the second I both personally disagree with this yet recognise that it is not bigoted but a perfectly respectable philosophical argument. That’s not to say, however, that the existence of goodness doesn’t help the case for the reality of God. I very much think it does, but there are some atheists who disagree.

Before I go into why, I’d like to point out that atheists often make the mistake when accused of not being able to prove that God doesn’t exist, of replying that it is impossible to prove that something doesn’t exist. Thinking in terms of the inductive generalisations of science, they explain that we can only prove that something doesn’t exist here or there, not that it doesn’t exist at all- what we might call a universal non-existent. The belief expressed in this reply is false, however, because we could prove that something does not exist anywhere if it contradicts either an aspect of the natural world, a certainty in our philosophical understanding of the world, or another aspect of that subject itself (e.g. of God) in such away to make it impossible. And this is just what the atheist can try to do with regards to morality.

The argument may run something like this:

  1. God is by definition both a supremely moral being and the source of all morality.
  2. But there cannot be a being that is both supremely moral and the source of all morality.
  3. Therefore God cannot exist.

Most people would agree with the first of the two premises. The second is the conclusion of an interpretation of the Euthyphro dilemma from Plato’s dialogue of that name.iii This is like a sacrilegious chicken and egg paradox. The dilemma is as follows: if God is the source of morality then He cannot Himself be supremely moral because morality would merely be an expression of His own arbitrary will. But on the other hand, if morality was not an arbitrary expression of God’s will such that He could be supremely moral, then God cannot be the source of morality because morality must have already existed before He created it. And with the definition of God it therefore follows that it would be impossible for God to exist.

Most atheists aren’t interested in using the dilemma in such an argument, however, and are content to use it to show that morality cannot be based on God. This weaker conclusion is also seen to be sufficient to disprove traditional theistic religions. A moral law imposed by a lawgiver who is not Himself supremely moral, so this argument goes, is likely to be arbitrary and therefore there is no reason to obey it (there may be self-interested reasons based on the threat of punishment but no reason authentically connected to morality).

It should be noted that this argument can be adapted to address Indic religions rather than just Semitic ones. Instead of expressing the question of ‘whether things are good because God says so, or whether God says so because they are good?’ the Indic version asks ‘whether things are good because they are rewarded by Karmic merit, or whether they are rewarded by Karmic merit because they are good?’. Expressed in questions of this form as per Plato’s original statement of the dilemma, a third aspect of the problem becomes apparent. Not only can it be used to argue that God cannot be the source of morality and that God cannot exist, but it also highlights the controversy between Consequentialist and Non-Consequentialist moral philosophies.

The subject of Plato’s enquiry in the Euthyphro dialogue was actually discussing was piety- pleasing the gods.iv So, are good acts good because they please God (or ‘the gods’) or do they please God because they are good? (Euthyphro, 10a) If good acts please God because they are good (the horn where morality pre-existed God) this suggests that there may be intrinsic features of the acts which make them good. If on the other hand good acts are good because they please God (the horn of the dilemma on which morality is reduced to the arbitrary whim of an amoral God) then the quality of our acts themselves do not matter, all that matters is that the result in God being pleased. We are all-too-familiar with this form of consequentialism: human beings continue to commit all kinds of vile acts believing them to be justified as satisfying God’s purported desires.v

It seems therefore that it would be better to pursue a solution to the dilemma in the direction of the other horn, that God does not stipulate morality by fiat, but morality to some extent exists independently of God’s will. Hence the remainder of this piece shall be concerned with rebutting these claims that God could not be the source of morality, or that God is impossible, due to the dilemma neglecting the more sophisticated Natural Law understanding of moral goodness in favour of a crude Divine Command theory.

First off, it should be noted that these atheistic arguments are not deductively valid anyway. The dilemma is not a strictly logical one because it ignores the possibility that being good and being pleasing to God are necessarily co-instantiated properties. This means that whenever an act is good it is also pleasing to God and vice versa. Moreover, neither property stands in a relation of explanans or explanandum to the other, that is to say, being pleasing to God doesn’t explain why something is good or vice But if the dilemma is reformulated in probabilistic terms rather than deductive ones, this objection doesn’t hold any weight unless we can give a reason why the two properties probably would be necessarily co-instantiated, and this does not seem to be forthcoming. (Perhaps the theologians reading this could make some suggestions?)

The most significant feature of the dilemma that is not immediately obvious is that it assumes a divine command theory of morality. As the name suggests this theory holds that good acts are good because they are commanded by God. This theory stems from religious scriptures rather than philosophical analysis, and indeed it is the picture of morality most people seem to gleam from stories such as God’s proclamation of the Decalogue to Moses. But the Divine Command tradition in moral philosophy is not so ancient, starting with William of Ockham in the 14th century.

Ockham began an intellectual revolt against the mainline Scholasticism of the middle ages. Philosophy at this time was characterised by servile deference to ancient Greek thinkers – particularly Aristotle- and Ockham wanted to tidy up this scene by simplifying it- as expressed in his infamous methodological device, the razor. Ethics was becoming increasingly complex and secular. He wanted to bring it back to basics in God. This way of thinking about religious morality has remained appealing (particularly for the non-religious) through the Enlightenment with its critique of institutional religion. This was because the theory lends itself to that crude understanding of religion as a mere list of rules with God as a dictator or daddy in the sky who will punish us if we don’t obey him. On the other hand the ancient Greek thought (which included Natural Law ethics) that had been the lifeblood of traditional Christian philosophy was perceived as having been outmoded by scientific progress.

More attentive readers will recall that I said at the beginning of the essay that goodness is by definition desirable for its own sake, and we can identify specific values as goods through our ordinary experience. Intuitionism of this kind is at the core of Natural Law conceptions of morality. Natural Law is not ultimately about a specific code of conduct but rather the values upon which such codes are grounded. Moreover, the ‘law’ part of name is a misnomer if it is taken to imply a focus on rules to the expense of virtues, intentions, and means-end proportionality. It also has nothing to do with arguing that things are bad because they are ‘unnatural’.

The basic goods identifiable in ordinary experience are both natural and legal because they are common to human life everywhere and enjoin us to respect our shared values at all times. They are are no more optional than they are relative. Nor are they supernatural: while many people do not explicitly discover them for themselves, human beings are in general naturally inclined towards discovering them, a particular religious insight is not needed.

So the ethics of the old school is a viable alternative, but how does it avoid the Euthyphro problem? It solves the arbitrariness problem because moral goodness is no longer simply a matter of God’s choice, but what of the other horn of the dilemma? If good things have value in themselves independent of God then doesn’t this constitute a moral order over and above the divine? No, because that would be to forget the single most important property of anything that could reasonably be called God: He is the ground of reality and source of the universe, there is nothing that exists that was not created by Him.

Hence, although God does not directly cause acts to be good or bad, He does so indirectly as the ultimate creator of all that by which acts are -in relation to human nature- good or bad. States of affairs, including mental states (these in turn including emotions), and of course acts themselves have properties which may include good-making features or bad-making features. To take the most basic example, the act of helping another person in distress possesses good-making features including of bringing happiness to that individual and respecting human life and dignity.

Still, theists typically believe that God not only is the ultimate source of moral goodness, but also reveals some types of acts to be good or bad through scriptures. This is perfectly consistent with the Natural Law theory so outlined. It only means that God recommends certain acts because of the good-making features they possess as part of the universe. It does not require that He makes them good by threatening punishment or that morality is a phenomenon pre-existent and autonomous from God.

By employing Natural Law we have exposed the Euthyprho problem as a false dilemma and therefore the arguments based upon it for the impossibility of theistic morality or theism itself are unsound, even if rendered probabilistically rather than deductively. In closing, my utterly unexciting view is that the existence of objective goodness proves neither atheism wrong nor a particular religious view correct, and the Euthyphro dilemma does not show that the source of morality cannot be in God, but only that such a God could not be a moral dictator, bossing His creatures about. To the extent the debate has taught us the latter it has been useful.

Where do we go from here? It is crucial that morality, rather than being used as a battlefield, becomes an ever-closer common ground between the religious and the non. A Natural Law ethics has the potential to realise this because while it is consonant with God, it can be reasonably defended without reference to religion. And this is not unrealistic because Christianity itself developed it from non-Christian AristoteliansStoics, and Platonists.


See my essay which defends Natural Law theory in more depth.

See my essay on Plato and life after death.

See my essays on Religion.


i With this particular cause there is a small danger of giving so much that it discourages Christians from sorting out the problems themselves.

ii I’m not 100% sure of those ones who are alive.

iii It should be noted that Plato’s point was only subsequently labelled a dilemma by Christians. It was not a dilemma for Plato because although he believed in a supremely good God his God was not the source of everything that exists like the Semitic God. Incidentally, his dialogue ends with the view that piety is the area of morality concerned with expressing honour and gratitude to God (Euthyphro, 15a), though we do not know if that was Plato’s own view.

iv Of course there’s nothing improper in reinterpreting Plato’s dilemma for other purposes.

v The problem with this theory, however, isn’t so much what people have done in its name, since people could do many bad things in the name of the ethic that is actually true. The problem is that even if we knew what God desired and actually did it we’d have no ultimate justification for identifying that as a moral act. As stated above, this is because it is only the stipulation of God’s will. Even if God’s will is perfectly functioning and informed, if morality does not stem from an external reality, this will is arbitrary as far as morality is concerned.

vi Note also that this possibility of co-instantiation does not require the two properties standing in a relation of identity with each others- this identity claim being what caused much perplexity for the characters of Plato’s dialogue. 

Atheism and Morality; Plato and Natural Law


4 responses »

  1. Would love to get your thoughts on my piece entitled “OMG… where are you?” Also, any thoughts you have on its related articles, linked in the comments section of that page are also welcome 🙂

    You may also enjoy this conversation I have been having with “the-great-antagonizer”. Great stuff!

  2. Seems like the idea of Natural Law extending to all humans on the planet is a pretty modern idea. Old Testament Law only extended to Jews, and Jews must kill anyone from the land of Canaan. Most European and North American rights extended only to freemen (not to serfs, slaves, or women) until fairly recently (last 200 years or so). Doesn’t this indicate that no universal Natural Law exists, and Natural Law is subject to the age and culture considering the ethical issues?

  3. With regard to the age of the idea of a Natural Law which extends to all humans on the planet, if we just stick to the West, in the ancient world this was the view of Aristotle and, from a century later, the Stoic school, and lastly Christianity. And in the medieval period this idea was foundational to Islam.

    With regard to your suggestion that the history of rights culture might disprove the reality of a natural law of morality here are two points. First, the language and culture of rights, which you rightly point out is only a few centuries old, is not the same thing as a natural law of morality. Second, humans having differing views on the natural law of morality no more implies that no such thing exists than humans having differing views on the physical laws of nature implies that no such laws exist.

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