Guide Morality Without God?

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Premise One: ‘If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist’

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Nor did he claim that our moral norms are subjective—although this is a position often mistakenly attributed to him. He did not assert that the truth of moral judgments is determined by referring to our inner states, which would be a subjectivist position. Instead, he maintained that a factual statement, considered in isolation, cannot imply a moral norm. However, all such attempts to do so have foundered on the inability to describe with precision the nature of these mysterious nonnatural facts or properties and how it is we can know them.

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. Ethics is analogous to mathematics. 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.

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? Let me suggest we need to back up and look at morality afresh. We need to discard that picture. Why should we have morality? What is its purpose? I do not mean to be dismissive of this question, but it raises a different set of issues than the ones we should concentrate on now. What I am interested in is reflection on the institution of morality as a whole. Why bother having morality? One way to begin to answer this question is just to look at how morality functions, and has functioned, in human societies.

What is it that morality allows us to do? What can we accomplish when most people behave morally that we would not be able to accomplish otherwise? 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.

This is not necessarily an exhaustive list of the functions of morality, nor do I claim to have explained the functions in the most accurate and precise way possible. But I am confident that my list is a fair approximation of some of the key functions of morality. How do moral norms serve these functions?

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In following moral norms we engage in behavior that enables these functions of morality to be fulfilled. As the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and many others have pointed out, if we always had to fear being injured or having our property stolen, we could never have any rest. Consider a simple example, one that could reflect circumstances in the Neolithic Era as much as today. I need a tool that you have to complete a project, so I ask you to lend it to me. Moreover, I promise to return the tool. You lend me the tool; I keep my promise to return the tool.

This exchange fosters trust between us. Both of us will be more inclined to cooperate with each other in the future. Our cooperation will likely improve our respective living conditions. 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.

Going back to my tool example, let us imagine you do not respond positively to my request for assistance. This causes resentment and also frustrates my ability to carry out a beneficial project. Or say you do lend me a tool, but I keep it instead of returning it as promised.

Can You Be Moral Without God?

This causes distrust, and you are less likely to assist me and others in the future. Multiplied many times, such failures to follow moral norms can result in mistrust, reduced cooperation, and even violence. If I do not return that tool peacefully, you may resort to brute force to reacquire it. Fortunately, over time, humans have acted in ways that further the objectives of morality far more often than in ways that frustrate these objectives. Early humans were able to establish small communities that survived, in part, because most members of the community followed moral norms.

These small communities eventually grew larger, again, in part because of moral norms. Early human communities were often at war with each other. Tribe members acted benevolently only to fellow members of their tribe; outsiders were not regarded as entitled to the same treatment. One of the earliest moral revolutions was the extension of cooperative behavior—almost surely based initially on trade—to members of other communities, which allowed for peaceful interaction and the coalescing of small human groups into larger groups.

This process has been repeated over the millennia of human existence with frequent, sanguinary interruptions until we have achieved something like a global moral community. This outline of morality and its history is so simple that I am sure some will consider it simplistic. I have covered in a couple of paragraphs what others devote thick tomes to.

But it suffices for my purposes. The main points are that in considering morality, we can see that it serves certain functions, and these functions are related to human interests. Put another way, we can describe morality and its purposes without bringing God into the picture; moreover, we can see that morality is a practical enterprise, not a means for describing the world.

The practical function of morality is the key to understanding why moral judgments are not true or false in the same way that factual statements are true or false. But, as indicated, moral judgments have various practical applications; they are not used primarily as descriptive statements. Do these statements have identical functions? I suggest that they do not. The first statement is used to convey factual information; it tells us about something that is happening. The second statement is in the form of a moral norm that reflects a moral judgment.

Depending on the circumstances, the second statement can be used to instruct someone, condemn someone, admonish someone, exhort someone, confirm that the speaker endorses this norm, and so forth. The second statement has primarily practical, not descriptive, functions. Admittedly, in some circumstances, moral norms or descriptive counterparts of moral norms also can be used to make an assertion about the world, but they do not primarily serve to convey factual information. 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. To claim that moral judgments are subjective is to claim that they are true or false based on how a particular person feels.

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The reality is that there is a core set of moral norms that almost all humans accept. For humans to live together in peace and prosper, we need to follow norms such as do not kill, do not steal, do not inflict pain gratuitously, tell the truth, keep your commitments, reciprocate acts of kindness, and so forth. The number of core norms is small, but they govern most of the transactions we have with other humans.

This is why we see these norms in all functioning human societies, past and present. Any community in which these norms were lacking could not survive for long. This shared core of moral norms represents the common heritage of civilized human society. We ought to help one another. She was by far the most formidable woman philosopher of the 20th century. She was a disciple of Wittgenstein and she translated his books from German into English and was very instrumental in us all getting to know his work. She was a very high-powered moral philosopher but she also became a Roman Catholic.

I think that is total nonsense, but it is extraordinarily powerfully argued and one must respect the kind of relentless logic with which she argues that the concept of duty cannot exist without the authority of God who commands it. I think everybody ought to read it and see how impressed or not impressed they are. My own view of what one ought to do comes from what human beings need, but that is not her view. Would you not agree though that if human beings create a moral society, as mammals, and looking at the way that Freud writes about society, we will always say that we are good and moral but those people over there are bad and immoral?

Inclusion involves exclusion. I think religious people are very much at risk of saying: We know by revelation that this is what is right. They are not subject to the consideration of whether people are harmed, damaged by the consequences. A telling example is the attitude of the Roman Catholic church to contraceptives. You only have to look at any country plagued by AIDS to see that Catholic dogma is appallingly damaging and there is no moral justification for this, only a dogmatic religious justification.

That seems to me to demonstrate the appalling dangers of the arbitrariness of being able to hear the commands of God. An obvious example would be the theocracy of Iran that believes that adultery must be punished by stoning to death. There is nothing humanly intelligible in that decree. I suppose Hutus and Tutsis kill each other on racial grounds and we all hate each other on class grounds. Religions just seem like yet another excuse to hate each other. In Christianity the commands of God were supposed to include everybody. This is an oddity but it is a highly moralistic novel.

Children ought to be brought up to be moral agents, to teach them to feel in certain ways, to ask them how they would feel if someone else took their chair. Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books or even just what you say about them please email us at editor fivebooks.

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PHILOSOPHY - Religion: God and Morality, Part 1

This site has an archive of more than one thousand interviews, or five thousand book recommendations. We publish at least two new interviews per week. Aug 30, Dennis Littrell rated it it was amazing. Argues that atheists and agnostics are just as moral as theists It has been assumed in most societies since the dawn of history that humans cannot be moral without God and religion.

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  5. Sinnott-Armstrong who is a Professor of Philosophy and Legal Studies at Dartmouth College, presents in this extended essay the modern view to the contrary. More specifically he argues that a belief in God is not necessary for people to be good or for humans to realize that some acts are morally wrong. We do not need th Argues that atheists and agnostics are just as moral as theists It has been assumed in most societies since the dawn of history that humans cannot be moral without God and religion. We do not need the fear of eternal damnation to behave in morally acceptable ways.

    This is then a treatise in moral philosophy in which Sinnott-Armstrong takes the side of atheists and agnostics against theists who think that being atheist or agnostic means per force that you are immoral. Furthermore, the prejudice against atheists and other non-believers is so great that an avowed atheist has no chance of being elected to high office in the United States. He notes that people in general fear atheists and discriminate against them simply because they are atheists, and that fear stems from the mistaken idea that atheists can't be moral.

    In the chapters that follow Sinnott-Armstrong argues with some force that religious people and theists in general may be more morally compromised than atheists. He cites studies that suggest as much. Personally my experience with fundamentalist Christians and others who take the Bible literally is that their mental states are so compromised by the conflicting morality of the Bible that they practice a similar duplicity in their daily lives.

    If you've ever argued with a creationist you know what I mean.

    Secular morality

    But Christians are not alone in their prejudices against non-believers. One finds the same antagonism in other religions, especially in Islam and indeed in the conservative expressions of most religions. What Sinnot-Armstrong does not present here is the argument from psychology in which we see that people have neurological structures called "mirror neurons" that ape not just the behaviors of others but their mental states as well.

    Thus empathy and an identification with the plight of others is automatic and built into our nature in such a way that we are naturally moral animals who instinctively follow most of us any way, for the most part the edict of the Golden Rule which is to do unto others as you would have done unto you.

    We cannot help but feel that way unless of course we demonize others or make them our enemies or otherwise fear them. Others have argued that our social nature as formed over the ages has molded us into moral beings who are capable of behaving in ways that reflect our understanding of what is right and wrong and guide us to behave in accordance with what is right. This surprisingly is a modern revelation and contrary to the spirit of the Bible in which humans are seen as fallen creatures who need God and the fear of punishment in order to behave morally.

    Supporting this belief in the news we constantly hear about people committing horrendous acts of hatred and violence, and of course nation states including our own have brought death and destruction on untold numbers of innocent people. But these exceptions merely test the rule. Humans for the most part act morally because such behavior not only benefits them but other people as well, and is one of the reasons for the evolutionary success of the human race.

    For humans cooperation is what tames the jungle and molds the environment to our benefit, not blood thirsty competition. Sinnott-Armstrong's tone is reasonable and reasoned and his argument thorough to the point of something like near exhaustion. He bends over backwards to be fair to both theists and atheists while insisting that these former antagonists can live in peace and harmony. I would say he is entirely convincing but I am part of the choir here, and so it would be better to hear what those skeptical of his thesis might think.

    For those of you who are moderate in your religious views but not sure that you can trust non-believers this book might be an eye-opener. Nov 26, Micheal rated it really liked it Shelves: free-thought , philosophy. Atheophobia and religious bigotry fuels rage and adds to much misinformation and distrust when debates about god are the main topic. They are mostly conversation stoppers. Those who are the victims are mostly lay audience and unfortunately they're more than willing to adopt views than to analyze them believer or not for their soundness or cogency. This means that atheists have to addressed questions that may have been otherwise unconventional and not even slightly controversial but the debate Atheophobia and religious bigotry fuels rage and adds to much misinformation and distrust when debates about god are the main topic.

    This means that atheists have to addressed questions that may have been otherwise unconventional and not even slightly controversial but the debate today is not only limited to academics or the specialist and for this reason, books like these are of tremendous value for the public audience. I couldn't write a book liked this because I can't take god based morality seriously and even besides that it just takes a lot of patience to deal with claims that are so passionately inherently anti-atheistic as much of them are, at least based on traditional reading of religion , and show little to no willingness for change.

    But regardless of how I feel it's logically irrelevant , the response is a must have and it's a good thing that Wielenberg and Armstrong have engaged with this constant rhetoric. I deducted one star because the author could have mentioned very briefly some Platonic or non natural or even hedonistic accounts of morality for the sake of displaying the varieties off secular reasoning when it comes to morality Arnhart or maybe a bit of Darwall? All said, it's a short and accessible work more of which is not doubt yet to come.

    Nov 07, R. Cowles rated it liked it Shelves: philosophy. Sep 09, Vegantrav rated it liked it. I wanted to read this book after seeing a review that indicated that Sinnott-Armstrong attempts to establish an objective basis for morality in this book, but I was rather disappointed in his efforts in this direction. Now, I should say that Sinnott-Armstrong's main goals in the book are to show that it is possible for atheists, agnostics, and secularists to justify their moral beliefs apart from appeals to God and religious texts and to show the problems with religiously-based ethical systems p I wanted to read this book after seeing a review that indicated that Sinnott-Armstrong attempts to establish an objective basis for morality in this book, but I was rather disappointed in his efforts in this direction.

    Now, I should say that Sinnott-Armstrong's main goals in the book are to show that it is possible for atheists, agnostics, and secularists to justify their moral beliefs apart from appeals to God and religious texts and to show the problems with religiously-based ethical systems particularly the divine-command approach to ethics. In these two areas, Sinnott-Armstrong succeeds quite well; however, for those interested in ethics, he really does not present anything new or different, but he never claims to be attempting anything particularly novel. Basically, Sinnott-Armstrong is just trying to present these arguments in terms that those without any background in philosophy or ethics can appreciate, and, again, I think he does this very well.

    Sinnott-Armstrong's attempt to ground his ethical views in objective moral standards begins with the harm principle: rational agents should not take any actions that cause unnecessary harm to others, and they should takes steps to prevent any unnecessary harms to others when they are able to do so. Now, this principle is one that the vast majority of rational, normal humans would accept; however, there is nothing whatsoever objective about it.

    It is an opinion, and nothing more than that. Sinnott-Armstrong never tells us why or how his harm principle is objective, and I frankly have no idea what it would mean for any normative principle to be objective. Yes, I am a nihilist. In the realm of the objective we find empirical physical laws e. Moral principles, however, are not empirically true: while it may be necessary that if we all want to live a life of relative peace and security that we should not cause harm to others, there might be some who would reject that idea that we should all want to live lives of relative peace and security.

    Granted, they might be sociopaths or extreme egoists, but such people do exist. Nor is it an analytic truth that it is good not to harm others, for what is good for some may not be good for others: a sociopath, for example, may find that it is good for him to be able to harm others but not for others to harm him, and the same might be said for a megalomaniacal dictator like Caligula or Stalin. We could argue with such sociopaths that their actions are not good for the whole of society, but they may very well not care about such principles, and there is no objective standard to which we can appeal.

    And it will not do to state that part of the definition of good is not harming others unnecessarily, for this is simply begging the question of what is good and thus moral in the first place. Morality, then, is a matter of taste and opinion.

    Without God, there can be no morality - Arguments Against Atheism - Arguments for Atheism

    Moral principles are not principles that are true or false; they are principles that we establish if we want to achieve certain ends, such as living what most people would consider to be "the good life. Thus, morality is not something that can be objectively grounded in any way. Although Sinnott-Armstrong claims that he has given an objective basis for morality in the book, what he has really done is to provide rational arguments showing that the non-religious can rationally and consistently live a moral life despite lacking any belief in God: God is not necessary for morality.

    Of course, Plato fairly well established this about 2, years ago in Euthyphro. What Sinnott-Armstrong fails to do and what, it seems to me, no moral philosopher could ever do is provide an objective basis for morality. Oct 10, Shreyas rated it liked it. Very well argued and thorough.

    The most important part of this book in my opinion, however, is the message it conveys about how Atheists and Theists have to learn from each other and how we should tolerate one another's beliefs. The book tends to get rather repetitive though, where the same core point appears in almost every chapter. Jan 28, Landon rated it really liked it.

    This is a good, short book arguing that God and religion are not necessary for morality. In addition to that, he has an introduction and conclusion.