A Castle Floating in the Clouds: Harm-based Morality without God?

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As in my previous article, let’s begin by reviewing the Moral Argument for the existence of God:

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

This argument is valid. That is, it’s impossible for the conclusion not to follow from the two premises. The only way to get around the conclusion, then, is to show that one or both of the premises are false, and some skeptics challenge the first premise.

Morality is objective whether God exists or not, insists philosophical atheist, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong in his book, Morality Without God?  In this work, Armstrong argues that morality is objective and independent of human opinion. The author writes, “Many of our human ancestors did not believe that slavery and marital rape were immoral, but it was true that slavery and marital rape were morally wrong, even in those dark days of the past. The reason should be obvious…Slavery and rape caused harm to the victims who were people, so they were protected by the same moral rules as everyone else. These victims had moral rights even if most people at the time did not recognize their rights” (p. 92). In other words, if our ancestors were wrong about slavery and rape, even though they thought these acts were morally permissible, moral values are independent of personal or societal opinion, and are therefore, objective.

The key idea for Armstrong is the word ‘harm.’ He writes that an act is morally wrong if it harms the victim for no adequate reason. For example, “Rape is wrong because it harms the victim for no adequate reason. The victim feels pain and fear, loses freedom and control, is subordinated and humiliated, and suffers in many others ways” (p. 57). This harm principle extends to many other acts that we would deem as immoral, such as murder, kidnapping, and other acts of aggression that unnecessarily violate the wellbeing of another individual. Obviously there may be some disagreement regarding what causes harm, but Armstrong insists that, “Most people agree that harms include death, pain, and disability” (pp. 58, 59). One should qualify the above quote by adding (as Armstrong attempts to do), all things being equal, and in most circumstances, many people agree that harms include: unnecessary death, pain, and disability.

The author goes on to write that: “If what makes an aggressive war morally wrong is that it hurts innocent people, then whether it is wrong does not depend on my desires, such as whether or not I want to harm those people. It also does not depend on my beliefs, such as whether I believe that the war will hurt those people. Thus, atheists and agnostics can hold not only that there are moral facts but also that these moral facts are objective rather than subjective” (p. 75). Walter’s argument, therefore, appears to give morality a degree of objectivity without invoking the existence of a creator God who issues moral commands.

Armstrong makes many assumptions in this line of reasoning. The question that is never convincingly addressed is: Why is it wrong to harm another human being, when it may be advantageous for you to do so? Or: Why is it wrong for a human being to harm another human being, when it is not wrong for other animals to harm each other? According to atheists, humans are simply more highly evolved animals. Armstrong’s entire moral paradigm rests on the uniqueness of humanity, but what arguments does he give for the validity of this presupposition?

In the end, it seems more plausible that the prohibition on harming another human being unnecessarily, even if it may be personally advantageous to you, must rest on the uniqueness of human beings and some kind of intrinsic moral value that people possess, simply by the fact that they are human. Additionally, the foundation of humanity’s intrinsic moral value must be incredibly secure, because the entirety of Armstrong’s moral framework of harm reduction rests upon its validity.

Why is it wrong for a human being to harm another human being, when it is not wrong for other animals to harm each other? According to atheists, humans are simply more highly evolved animals.
It really doesn’t matter whether an individual believes in God or not, if they are willing to bravely assert the intrinsic moral value of humanity as an opinion, an independent brute fact about the cosmos. Once this assumption is granted, the argument in Morality Without God?, although vulnerable to critique at certain points, makes sense as a coherent whole.

But where in the world does that presupposition come from? It doesn’t come from ethics; it is the presupposition of all ethical systems (deontological or consequential). Why ought I to care about others when it is not personally advantageous to me? Well, because of the intrinsic value of human beings, you egoistical, moral Cretan!

And fair enough.

Yet, in an atheistic, evolutionary worldview, the presupposition that all of humankind possesses equal and unalienable rights due to the intrinsic value of our radically contingent biological species is akin to a castle floating in the clouds; it is unicorn prancing through green fields; it is fantasy embraced by smart people for pragmatic purposes. It is unwarranted favouritism towards our own biological classification.

This whole ethical endeavour is an unjustified leap of faith into an ontologically barren void; it is an attempt to domesticate an unliveable worldview; it resembles a reversion to some type of platonic, mystical realm of the forms, accompanied by a stubborn refusal that taking this view is like fearfully tiptoeing back from the bottomless pit of nihilism; it is…well, you get the picture.

Deny it all he wants, the problem for Armstrong is that the idea undergirding his entire paradigm is essentially a religious one; it is inextricably linked to the Judeo-Christian heritage and the concept of the imago dei.

G.K. Chesterton wrote these words years ago:

The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man.

One could write the same thing about the UN declaration of human rights and objective morality in general. There is no basis for either except in a dogma about the divine origin of man, which is the gift of religion to humanity, a gift that keeps giving, even to atheists.

About the Author

Chris Price

Chris Price is the lead pastor at Calvary Baptist church and the author of Suffering with God, published by Apologetics Canada. He lives in Port Coquitlam, B.C. with his beautiful wife Diandra and his two children Kaeden and Mila.

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