Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

A Response to The End of Faith - Frequently Asked Questions

This page hopefully provides answers to several questions about my response to Harris' book asks whether an objective, materialistic basis for ethics can exist. After reading Harris’ book, I became involved in a discussion with a member of the Yale Secular Student Association, who is a friend of mine.  Although he hadn’t yet read the essay, I felt that our conversation helped me clarify several issues that my essay left unaddressed.  In trying to summarize our discussion, I thought it could best be formulated as a series of questions and answers.  If you have read the essay and have bothered to follow this link, then you probably can stomach the rest of this FAQ.  However, if you are mainly wondering whether an objective materialistic basis for ethics is possible, I highly recommend skipping directly to Question #7, where this issue is addressed.

  1. Why don’t you discuss social contract theory or value theory in your essay?
  2. Do most atheists subscribe to Harris’ system of ethics?
  3. Are there any shared criteria for ethics to which both theists and atheists would assent?
  4. Does theism provide a basis for ethics which meets these shared criteria?
  5. Does atheism provide a basis for ethics which meets these shared criteria?
  6. What is “social contract theory”?
  7. Is it possible to find an objective, naturalistic basis for ethics?
  8. If we follow your argument, you haven’t actually proven that transcendent ethics exist, right?

1. The system of ethics that you attack in this essay is only one of many contenders for a fully objective system of naturalistic ethics. Why don’t you discuss social contract theory or value theory?

There are two reasons I don’t mention alternative systems of naturalistic ethics in my essay.  First, I know very little about them.  As I said, I’m not a philosopher and I apologize for my ignorance.  But my second reason is more legitimate.  This essay was written in response to Harris’ book and the arguments that Harris makes therein.  Because Harris makes few references (no references?) to alternative naturalistic systems of ethics in his arguments, I felt I was safe to ignore them.  Indeed, since Harris argues that ethics is derived from the objective fulfillment of sentient beings, it would seem counterproductive for him to mention that there are competing naturalistic views.  To put it another way, you can only raise this objection if you have concluded that naturalistic account of ethics outlined by Harris is implausible.

2. Do most atheists subscribe to Harris’ system of ethics?

As my friend pointed out, there are many ways to disbelieve in something.  Some atheists are nihilists, others are existentialists, others are postmodernists.  Some believe in the existence of moral imperatives, others do not.  However, I suspect that most thoughtful atheists would not subscribe entirely to the ethics described by Harris in his book for some of the reasons I mentioned in my essay.  But I could be wrong.

3. Are there any shared criteria for ethics to which both theists and atheists would assent?  In other words, what would atheists and theists agree about the requirements are for any valid, consistent system of ethics?

Again, there is the huge caveat here that atheism is not a positive philosophy, but merely a negative assertion (as all of the Neoatheists readily affirm!).  We could define an atheist as someone who does not believe in a personal, transcendent God, without saying anything about what such a person does believe.  Similarly, theists believe in a personal, transcendent God, but do not necessarily share similar views on ethics, epistemology, theology, etc...

That being said, based on my conversation with my friend, I think that atheists and theists would agree that any system of ethics needs to meet at least three basic requirements. First, it must not be arbitrary.  Second, it must involve an obligation on all sentient beings to follow it.  Third, it ought to conform generally to our innate sense of “right” and “wrong.”  To see that any system of ethics must meet these requirements, we need only to create a system which fails to meet one of these criteria.  For instance, we could define a system of ethics that required all sentient beings to speak in sentences with even numbers of words, but such a system would be utterly arbitrary because there is no intrinsic difference between even and odd numbers of words (Condition 1).  Or we could define a system in which all sentient beings are required to kill all other sentient beings in their immediate vicinity, but we would hardly refer to such a system of behavior as “ethics” without rendering the word meaningless (Condition 3).

4. Does theism provide a basis for ethics which meets these shared criteria?

I think so and I think that most atheists would also agree that it does.  It is fairly intuitive to most people that if a personal, transcendent Creator exists, then His will for human beings defines ethical behavior.  In other words, a behavior is ethical if it is consistent with God’s will and is unethical if it violates God’s will.  For instance, Jesus repeatedly declared that God’s will for human beings was to love Him with our whole heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  For Christians, this standard forms the basis for ethics and is the essence of its content (although it should be pointed out that Jesus’ summary applies not only to actions, but to motivations and emotions).

Hence, most theists and atheists agree that a theistic basis for ethics meets all three criteria.  First, it is not arbitrary.  God is a necessary (in fact, the only necessary) being and his character is the basis for ethics.  Because God’s character could not be other than it is, ethics is not arbitrary.  Second, ethics is binding on all human beings because God created human beings and requires them to live in a certain way.  We can certainly choose to reject His will, but our rejection does not nullify our obligation any more than my rejection of the bank’s authority nullifies my obligation to pay back my mortgage.  Third, the vast majority of cultures and religions recognize as the core of their ethical teaching “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Thus, a theistic system of ethics which affirmed this obligation to love our neighbor would be generally in agreement with behaviors which we instinctively and traditionally have understood as ethical.

The only possible sticking point is Criterion 1, which requires ethics to be non-arbitrary.  As I said, I think most atheists would agree that if God exists, then His character forms the basis for ethics.  However, an atheist could potentially claim that a theistic system of ethics is arbitrary by appealing to the Euthyphro Dilemma.  The Euthyphro Dilemma asks whether the moral law is good because God arbitrarily says it is good, or whether the moral law is good independent of God, in which case there is a standard of goodness higher than God himself.  Again, I believe this is a false dilemma because God (unlike anything or anyone else) is necessarily good.  In other words, asking us to imagine a not-good God is like asking us to imagine a square circle.  Because God’s goodness is a necessary attribute, it is neither arbitrary (it could not be otherwise) nor is it independent (God’s character is the ultimate source of goodness).

A similar response to the Euthyphro Dilemma comes from an appeal to God’s character.   If the Moral Law is really a description of God’s character, then we can see by analogy to our own character that it can be neither arbitrary nor independent.  For instance, there are many superficial preferences that each of us possesses which are essentially arbitrary, like our preference for vanilla over chocolate.  These preferences could change without altering who we are as people.  But there are other aspects of our character, like our belief that murder is wrong or our love for our children, that we could not alter without fundamentally changing who we are.  If God’s goodness is a fundamental aspect of His character, then it cannot be taken away without fundamentally changing who He is.  A God who is not good is not really God in the same way that a circle which is square is not really a circle.  Thus, what is good is neither arbitrary nor is it somehow higher than God himself, but is intrinsically part of his character.

5. Does atheism provide a basis for ethics which meets these shared criteria?

This issue is not only where many theists disagree with atheists, but also where atheists disagree with other atheists.  Making a gross generalization, let me say that most theists and most traditional atheists would say that without some basis in a transcendent standard, ethics do not exist.  In other words, ethics are inherently transcendent (i.e. they must derive from some source outside of and apart from the natural and material).  On the other hand, the Neoatheists and some modern philosophers would say that it is possible for ethics to exist in the absence of any transcendent standard. In other words, ethics are not inherently transcendent.

It should go without saying that theists and atheists both agree that human beings can behave ethically regardless of their beliefs about ethics.  However, the point of contention is not over ethical behavior but over ethics itself.  It is entirely possible for someone to pay all of their bills with Monopoly money.  But the question of whether Monopoly money is worthless is a separate question.  Similarly, I can behave ethically, but whether ethics has some transcendent source is a separate question.  Obviously, what I believe will influence how I act, but my actions will not render my beliefs objectively true or false.

Because theism identifies ethical behavior with God’s will for human beings, it immediately provides a source for ethics.  Of course, theists differ greatly over what is God’s standard is for human behavior.  However, for the atheist who believes that ethics can exist independently of a transcendent source, it is imperative to actually provide an objective definition of ethics.  An atheist cannot, like the theist, simply point to God’s character.  Although there are many different alternatives for atheists seeking a non-transcendent source for ethics, I believe that the objections I raise can be applied to any materialistic source of ethics.

6. What is “social contract theory”?

Social contract theory is a naturalistic system which many people believe meets all three criteria for a system of ethics and seems to be one of the leading contenders among philosophers who believe that objective meaning, value, and ethics can exist in a universe without any transcendent moral standard.  Imagine that the most educated, intellectual members of society met and drew up a contract which would govern the conduct of each member of society and maximize his or her fulfillment, without in advance knowing their own place in said society.  We could refer to such a hypothetical document as a “perfect social contract.” Ethical behavior is behavior which is congruent with this perfect social contract.

To see that such a system meets our three criteria for ethics, let’s consider them each in turn.  First, social contract theory is not arbitrary.  There does exist some perfect social contract which the most educated, intelligent members of society would construct, and almost everyone would agree that it would objectively lead to maximal human flourishing.  A truly arbitrary social contract (for instance, one that required everyone to use only words beginning with the English letter ‘R’) would objectively lead to less human flourishing. Second, social contract theory requires all human beings to abide by it because every human being implicitly makes such a contract with his neighbor whenever they enter into a social interaction.  Promising to abide by this contract is simply the “price of admission” into society.  If we want to reap the benefits of society, then we must obey the social contract.  That the benefits of a contract are conferred only to those who keep is an objective fact, and requires no transcendent, supernatural Obligator.  Third, we can rightly refer to such a system as “ethics” because it does indeed overlap greatly with the every ethical system, religious or otherwise, that has ever existed.  In fact, according to its proponents, we really should put this statement the other way around.  “Ethics” is “behavior in keeping with a perfect social contract.”  In thinking about the great ethical systems of the past, the social contract theorist claims that they were actually only rough approximations to social contract theory, which is what we actually mean (or should mean) when we speak about “ethics”.

As I said, social contract theory is only one among many contenders for a materialistic system of ethics, but it is currently a very popular and quite compelling one.

7. Is it possible to find an objective, naturalistic basis for ethics?

I would answer no. To be perfectly clear, I am not arguing that only atheists or only theists can act ethically.  Instead, I will argue that there is no coherent basis or grounds for a materialistic system of ethics, social contract theory included.  Let me try and convince you. 

I think that the essential issue is whether a naturalistic version of ethics can ever possibly meet Criteria 1 and 2: namely that ethics should not be arbitrary (Criterion 1) and that ethics is a binding system of behavior which all human beings are obligated to obey (Criterion 2).  I maintain that no materialistic system of ethics can fulfill these two criteria, and that they are actually related.  Although any naturalistic model of ethics can be objective and non-arbitrary in one sense, it must be radically arbitrary in a much deeper sense. Indeed, I hope that my examples will convince you that in order for ethics to be truly non-arbitrary, they must come from a transcendental, supernatural source.

First, I think it's very important to note the vital role that language must play in materialistic ethics. In fact, any materialistic formulation of ethics derives almost all of its power from the historical use of language itself. To see this, let's consider how and why materialistic ethics can be objective. In the case of social contract theory, it is perfectly true that there is some optimal social contract which the educated members of society would construct, assuming they knew nothing about their own position in society. This perfect social contract is objective; it is this contract -and no other contract- that is the one that the disinterested intellectuals would produce. In the same way, Harris defines ethical behavior as the behavior which objectively leads to the greatest overall human flourishing. I completely agree that these are both completely objective systems.

However, the problem comes when we try to claim that these objective systems of ethics are non-arbitrary. I would agree that they seem non-arbitrary, but only because the word "ethics" has a long Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman history which we carry with us whenever we use it and which assumes that ethical behavior is transcendentally desirable. I think that both naturalists and theists would agree that "ethics" as a word has transcendental baggage attached to it; but I want to make the radical claim that the actual concept to which "ethics" points is intrinsically transcendental.

To test this claim, let's simply remove the word "ethics" from our dictionary and use a different word instead. For instance, Shelly Kagan (a philosophy professor at Yale) would have us call a behavior "ethical" if it adheres to the ideal social contract. But let's instead call such a behavior "Kaganian" to avoid the transcendental baggage of the word "ethics". We can consider a few other objective systems of behavior as well. The second is a "Nietzschian" system. A behavior is "Nietzchian" if it optimizes the happiness of the person performing the behavior. The third is a system which expresses each behavior in the smallest number of English letters and sums their numerical value. A behavior is "Shenvian" if this numerical value is even.

Now note that I am allowed to play this game with ethics because I am allowed to play it with any other field of naturalistic knowledge, with which naturalistic ethics claims an equal footing. For instance, rather than use the phrase "quantum mechanics" to describe the laws by which particles interact, let's use the phrase "foo mechanics". "Foo mechanics" still describes the laws by which small particles interact just as "foo theory" could replace "number theory" as the laws by which integers can be related. Changing the phrase I use to describe the discipline would obviously not affect the objective nature of the discipline itself. But here is my key point: Changing the phrase I use to describe the discipline would not significantly change the speed with which the average person would recognize the equivalence of the ideas the two phrases represent. It would take only a few seconds to explain to the average person that when I say "foo mechanics" I mean "the laws by which particles interact".

However, unlike physics or mathematics, the word "ethics" itself is quite important. Typically (not the way Kagan would do it, but typically), how does a secular person try to convince a hot dog vendor to act ethically? They approach the hot dog vendor and point out that certain behaviors, like lying or stealing, are unethical. Ideally, the hot dog vendor immediately stops lying and stealing. Why? Because the hot dog vendor doesn't want to engage in “unethical" behavior.

But what if you approached the same person and told them that lying and stealing was not "Kaganian" behavior? Naturally, they'd have no idea what you were talking about. But let's say that you explained to them that if the smartest people in society got together and did not know their position in society, they would create a social contract which prohibited lying and stealing (which they probably would). You'd be met with stony silence. In fact, you could continue to explain the concept of Kaganian behavior to the hot dog vendor with very little success for quite some time… until the instant that the hot dog vendor realized that non-Kaganian behavior is unethical. Then, suddenly, they would stop wanting to lie and steal.  

My question is: why? If all people know that they "should" do what is congruent with a perfect social contract constructed by the intelligentsia, then why is it that not until the word "ethics" is broached (by you or in their own heads) that they would consider changing their behavior? If by "ethics" we really mean what Kagan says we mean, then why does the average person require the words "ethics" or "morality" or "goodness" to be brought up to recognize this simple fact? And yet, the average person could understand your remarks on "the way particles move" or "the rules by which numbers are multiplied" without caring about which labels you used.

One might argue that the average person is not very self-reflective and has not thought carefully about what they actually mean (or should mean) by the word "ethics". That is certainly possible.  But we must at least recognize that the average person does not use the word ethics in the way that materialistic philosophers like Kagan or Harris would demand.  Most of us intuitively use the word ethics in a way that suggests we ground ethical behavior in some transcendent standard which is not dependent on a social contract or on culture or on the behavior of others.

Second, and more importantly, any materialistic system of ethics must be contingent.  In other words, obligation to behave ethically according to some materialistic system must be contingent on achieving some desired end.  Let's imagine a truly objective, neutral party with no intrinsic desires or goals. A robot or a computer or a cold-blooded, wildly intelligent alien would be ideal. Let's present this being with a choice of three behaviors: a Kaganian behavior, a Nietzschian behavior, and a Shenvian behavior. Which behavior will they choose? Obviously, there's no answer. Why not? Because by definition, our neutral party has no desires or goals. They have no idea which behavior to pick because they have no way to judge between them. Consider that there is no inherent problem with this hyper-intelligent being answering a question like: "what is 1+1?" or "what is the atomic weight of Cobalt?" Or even "Which behavior should I choose in order to maximize my own happiness?" But the choice of a materialistic "ethical system" (wether Kaganian or Nietzschian or Shenvian) requires that the subject already have some goal which they adopt prior to the adoption of the ethical system itself.

This is another way of saying that all materialistic systems of ethics are actually wildly contingent. I agree that the system itself can be objective. But in order to choose the social contractarian model over the Nietzschian or Shenvian model, the subject must first value global human flourishing or a stable society or the continuation of the race above all other goals. Once such a goal is set, then and only then can a decision be made about which ethical system to choose. In the same way, every naturalistic ethical system is contingent. All materialistic ethical systems say: "I am the optimal way to obtain a certain goal; if you want this goal, choose this system." What no ethical system can tell you is which goal you "ought" to have. Again, the language of "ought" and "should" appear to address a question which naturalistic ethics simply does not and cannot address.

Third, not only do we tend to use the word “ethics” as if it referred to some transcendent standard, but we recognize the distinction between the contingent demands of materialistic ethics and the non-contingent demands of genuine moral obligation. In fact, the words “should” and “ought” appear to capture exactly this distinction.  Imagine that you're a graduate teaching assistant for one of Kagan's philosophy classes. An undergraduate comes to you privately and confesses that they have the opportunity to cheat on an upcoming test. Imagine the following conversation.

TA: Well, you've taken Prof. Kagan's course. You know that cheating eventually harms society and would be outlawed under an optimal Kaganian social contract.
Undergrad: Oh, yes.
TA: So cheating is certainly unethical.
Undergrad: Oh, I know. And I agree.  Cheating is not ethical.
TA: Well, then what's your question?
Undergrad: My question is, should I behave ethically in this situation?
Now here is the problem. Both you and I understand what the undergraduate means. And the fact that we understand what she means reveals that we typically use the word "should" in a very different way that Kagan would have us use it.  If "ethics" is equivalent to "that which is in agreement with the social contract model" and "should I do this?" means "is this ethical?", then this undergrad's statement is a precise tautology: "Is it ethical to act ethically in this situation?"

But you and I both know that this is not what the undergrad means. She is operating with a transcendental understanding of good and evil which is prior to our definition of ethics because it informs our choice of ethical systems. What she is really asking is: "What ultimate goal am I obligated to have as a human being? Should my ultimate goal be a happy, stable society, leading to Kaganian ethics? Or should my ultimate goal be my own personal happiness, leading to Nietzschian ethics? Or should my ultimate goal be achieving even-numbered behaviors, leading to Shenvian ethics?" If she already has an ultimate goal, then some system of ethics is objectively, ideally suited to achieving it. I have no problem agreeing with this statement. But I find it highly implausible to suggest that any naturalistic system can tell me which goal I "ought" to have.

I think the way to respond to these objections is the way that Rousseau did or that Dawkins, Pinker and modern evolutionary psychologists do, in their own way. We can point out that human beings are simply wired to understand ethics in some particular way, even if they happen to behave very unethically in practice. Ask a thief if stealing is unethical and should be outlawed and he will say yes, even though he is a thief. Although Rosseau and Pinker give different reasons for this behavior, it is often proposed as a solution to the problem. Perhaps ethics can't provide us with an ultimate goal, but it turns out not to matter. All human beings are hard-wired with an ultimate goal, so we'll never have to worry about cold-blooded hyperintelligent aliens asking tough questions.

The problem with this solution is that, on its own account, it is no solution at all. Just because we're hard-wired to value something doesn't tell us whether we "should" value it. Ask any Neoatheist, and they will tell you that we're hard-wired for religious belief but will still rage and fulminate against religious belief. So saying that all human beings will choose Kaganian ethics because they are hard-wired to value a stable, happy society is not really an answer to whether we "should" value a stable, happy society. Nor have we really addressed what "should" means. Furthermore, this solution runs up against the hard reality that most people actually adopt Nietzchian ethics rather than Kaganian ethics. We would agree that everyone else ought to adopt Kaganian ethics, but only so that we ourselves can adopt Neitzchian ethics and maximize our own personal happiness at the expense of everyone else. After all, there is nothing that says our ethical system "ought" to be universal. Kant himself recognized that the universality of ethics was a non-contingent, categorical imperative. But if non-contingent, catergorical imperatives do not exist, then even Kant’s can be ignored.

From these arguments, I conclude that any naturalistic system of ethics must be contingent and therefore arbitrary. This is not a function of the content or structure of the system of ethics in question, but flows out of its naturalistic basis.  Naturalistic ethics must, by definition, say the same thing as physics or biology: "If you want this outcome, you need this input." In social contract theory, for example, the contingency is: "If you want the benefits of society, you have to abide by the social contract." I agree that this in an absolutely objective statement. But it is also an undeniably contingent statement. To show that contingent demands are arbitrary, we need only consider the person who asks "why should I seek the benefits of the social contract?" A naturalist really has no answer to this. Since there is no transcendental referrent for "should", there is no reason why a person "ought" to value anything in particular, the benefits of a social contract or anything else.  As I said in my response to Harris’ book, a sociopath or a Neitzschian superman willing to step outside of the accepted ethical system of his society will find no non-contingent obligation to comply with it.

A contingent system of ethics makes statements like: “You must abide by this social contract if you want the benefits of the contract.  You must behave this way because it will ultimately increase your personal happiness.”  A non-contingent system of ethics makes statements like this: " You must behave this way.  Period." There are no goal-related "ifs" or "becauses". A non-contingent demand is obligatory simply because it is right and good for human beings to obey it. Again, given that all naturalistic sciences can only make contigent statements, and that all naturalistic systems of ethics can only make contingent demands, I think that only a super-naturalistic worldview can account for non-contingent demands that are non-arbitrary. Just as the laws of physics are built into the world so that physics is simply "the way particles behave", ethics is simply God's revealed will for his creatures. We can point to ethics as a description of God's character, which we can reject or obey. But we can no more deny its existence than the existence of physics or chemistry or biology.

8.  If we follow your argument, you haven’t actually proven that transcendent ethics exist, right?

Right.  I have argued that the word ethics appears to be inextricably linked to belief in a transcendental standard and that any materialistic system of ethics must ultimately be arbitrary. However, I have not proven that transcendental ethics actually exist.  Perhaps they do not and ethics is indeed arbitrary.

I think there are two options for an atheist, so let me treat each of them in turn.

First, an atheist can agree with the well-known atheistic thinkers of the past that ethics do not exist.  They would admit that ethics –as human beings normally talk about it, act on it, and understand it- is inherently transcendent in that it requires real moral obligation and hence a real moral Obligator.  Since no moral Obligator exists, ethics does not exist.  Ethics is an illusion, forced onto us by society or programmed into us by our genes, but has no basis in a universe that is materialistic.  Again, this has been the approach taken by many atheist thinkers of the past and seems to be an option for atheists today. 

However, we also need to go farther and recognize that ethics, the rules which govern how human beings acts towards one another, is actually related to deeper issues of morality, truth, and goodness.  If we deny that any transcendent standard exists at all, then not only do we have no transcendent basis for ethics, but we have no transcendent basis for anything else.  We can’t merely declare that “ought” is meaningless insofar as it applies to interpersonal behavior, but that “ought” is meaningless in any context.  There is no obligation for human beings to live ethical lives, or to seek what is good, or to seek what is true.

The downside of this claim is that it leaves us with no reason to do what is “right” and eschew what is “wrong”.  That is not to say that if we deny the reality of ethics that we will suddenly begin to act unethically.  We may continue to love our spouses, pay our taxes, be honest and fair and just in our dealings.  However, we will be doing so because of the force of habit or because of societal constraint or because our genes compel us to, but without any reason for doing so.  Because we deny any transcendent reality to “right” and “wrong”, there is no reason for us not to do what we and others consider to be “wrong”.  Why sacrifice for others at our own expense?  Why not transcend the dogma of society or the tyranny of our genes and choose to maximize our own happiness at the expense of others?  Obviously, we recoil at this idea.  Something in us recognizes that selfish behavior is evil, whether or not it makes us happy.  But our visceral rejection of immorality is only evidence that the behavior of the average materialist rises far above the dictates of his worldview, just as the behavior of the average Christian falls far below it.

One solace that the materialist should find in the absence of any transcendental standard is that there is no reason that he or she must hold true beliefs.  After all, the unspoken assumption in this whole essay is that human beings “ought” to believe only what is true or “ought” to at least have a self-consistent set of beliefs.  But if we deny the existence of “ought”, then there is no need for the materialist to believe what is true or even self-consistent.  Why not believe lies or hold a set of completely contradictory beliefs and practices?  If you answer that such a system will ultimately lead to our own unhappiness, I would ask two questions.  First, how you can be sure of this given that selfish behavior almost always makes me happier in the short-term?  But second, why does our own happiness even matter?  Why “ought” we to seek our personal happiness?

The second option is that a materialist can conclude that our intuition regarding the transcendent nature of ethics is simply incorrect.  After all, there seem to be many areas in which our natural intuition as human beings turns out to be mistaken.  For instance, we tend to believe that microscopic particles have well-defined properties like position and momentum independent of measurement.  But most quantum physicists believe that these properties do not exist independent of measurement.  Modern physics has led us to question and retrain our intuition based on the experimental data and the laws of quantum mechanics.  So there is no guarantee that our intuition about anything is necessarily valid.

We can make the same argument with regard to ethics.  Our argument, after all, is tethered to language.  The question is whether the word “ethics” and the concept to which this word refers is intrinsically transcendental.  I argue in Question 7 that the answer is yes.  When human beings use the word “ethics” or “ought” or “should” they implicitly assume that there is some transcendental standard by which all behaviors are measured.  Only highly educated philosophers or ethicists would use the word “ethics” in a non-transcendent way.  But that should be no more problematic to a materialist than a popular belief in Newtonian mechanics should be to a physicist.  When most people use the word “particle” they implicitly assume that such an object can have a simultaneously well-defined position and momentum, which most physicists will tell you is simply false.  Similarly, we can conclude that our natural intuition regarding ethics is simply wrong and needs to be retrained.  There are two important problems with this reasoning. 

The first is that our analogy breaks down at the level of observation.  The reason that modern physicists have concluded that our intuition about Newtonian mechanics needs to be retrained is that the experimental evidence for quantum mechanics is overwhelming.  Intuition has proved incredibly useful in all areas of mathematics and science and is normally only discarded if it comes into conflict with well-established experimental measurements (and sometimes, as in the case of Einstein and quantum mechanics, not even then).  The question to ask the materialist is what experimental measurements lead him to discard or retrain his intuition regarding the proper definition of ethics? Which objective observations about people’s behavior lead him to believe that there is no transcendent basis for ethics?

An appeal to intuition in ethics is different than an appeal to intuition in physics because it is the supernatural nature of ethics that is precisely the point in question.  We can appeal to objective experiments in physics because no one denies that physics describes the behavior of the natural, material universe.  However, when it comes to ethics, the question we are trying to decide is whether or not there is some transcendent standard which exists outside of the natural, materialistic universe.  How can this question possibly be settled by any appeal to experiment, no matter how subtle?

Second, it seems that materialistic ethics is often taken the wrong way around.  It is sometimes asserted that because a materialistic system of ethics can be constructed, therefore a transcendent God does not exist.  However, in practice we do exactly the opposite.  Because we have concluded that a transcendent God does not exist, therefore we can construct a materialistic system of ethics.  In fact, it seems to me that we must assume that God does not exist before we can overturn our intuition about ethics.

Imagine a debate over the correct definition of food in a rural village.  For years, villagers have been eating food because they believe it nourishes them and keeps their bodies alive.  Sometimes they accidentally swallow poison and often they decide to eat candy and junk food instead, but their working assumption is that “food” is by definition “that which nourishes the body”.  However one day, a philosopher comes to town and tells them that the correct definition of “food” is “that which tastes good.”  Because most food does in fact taste good, there is a great deal of overlap between their two definitions.  And plenty of people who accept the philosopher’s definition of food continue to eat vegetables and whole grains.  So it seems to be entirely a matter of definition.  Aren’t we free to choose to define “food” however we want? 

But all of this hinges on whether the body objectively requires nourishment.  We are certainly free to change the label we use.  We can call “that which nourishes the body” by the label “refreshment” or “beverage” or “dirt”, if we like.  But none of these labels alter the objective, physical needs of our bodies.  If we are absolutely certain that there are no objective requirements to sustain biological life, then we may as well challenge and alter the villagers’ intuitive understanding of “food”.  For instance, if the philosopher was certain that the villagers were residents of a complicated computer simulation (like the Matrix) and that their physical bodies would live regardless of their consumption habits, then he would certainly feel at liberty to overturn their intuition about “food”.  But we can hardly use his new definition of food to prove that the villagers actually live inside a computer simulation.

Obviously, the analogy between food and ethics breaks down because the necessity of food would immediately become apparent to anyone who begins subsisting on a diet of Splenda and sunshine.  But barring this difference, the same reasoning applies to ethics.  If we are already certain that there are no transcendent standards of good and evil, then we should feel free to challenge our natural intuition and redefine ethics in a way that is consistent with our materialistic view of the universe.  But we need to come to this materialistic view of the universe first, and then redefine ethics.

If God does not exist, then “ethics” is simply a convenient label that we use for certain types of human behavior.  If we are thoughtful materialists, then we should only use the word “ethics” in this non-transcendental sense.  But it is important to see that our atheism precedes and motivates our redefinition of ethics.  On the other hand, if God does exist, then His will is the basis for ethics, whether we acknowledge it or not.   Whether we choose to redefine our sense of moral obligation in purely materialistic terms, or to ignore it, or to reject it, or to try and fulfill it, we are still under this obligation.  Almost all religions recognize that God is the source of this moral obligation.  But as I said in my essay, Christianity is the only religion that believes we cannot possibly live by it.  God’s moral standard can only condemn us, since every one of us falls short of it.  His Law is there to show us His goodness and our wickedness and to drive us into the arms of the Savior.  My hope is that anyone who has read this far would be willing to read, and hear, and rejoice in the words of Jesus himself:

“the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ…God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.” – John 1:17, 3:17-18


Related essays:

Back to home Back to Essays