The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Are atheists committed to a world without moral facts?


Christian Apologists often say that without God there would be no such thing as morality. But the obvious counterexample to this is the many moral philosophers who are not theists but are moral realists (that is, they posit the existence of moral facts).

What’s going on here? Are all these professional philosophers just blind to their incoherence?

It’s important to see that the primary reason to posit God’s existence is because of the many features of the world that would be radically unexpected if God did not exist. For example, the way the universe is fine tuned for human existence is rather unexpected if God did not exist. However, if God does exist and God had planned intentions for humans to occupy a smallish piece of dust in the universe, then one would expect to see a world tuned for the realization of those intentions. There are many such features, and there’s no doubt moral facts are an important example of these.

Mackie’s argument from queerness

It seems exceedingly odd that the world has moral values that govern the actions of human beings. This very point is made by the eminent philosopher of religion, J.L. Mackie, who was one of the most famous atheists of the 20th century. Mackie argued against the existence of moral facts, in part, on the basis of what he called the argument from queerness. He says:

If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception of intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else. (Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong)

Mackie concludes, given their queerness, there actually are no moral facts and defends an Error Theory, according to which all of our morally normative claims are, strictly speaking, false. However, this is a steep price to pay and many (perhaps most) subsequent atheist philosophers haven’t been willing to deny the existence of morality. Moral facts seem too obviously part of our world despite their queerness.

Moral facts are expected on theism

But moral facts are queer (or strange or unexpected) only on the atheist’s worldview. Moral facts are at home on a theistic picture. Theists have thought God, as the ground and source of morality, makes good sense of morality. This of course gives way to the moral argument for God’s existence.

But notice this doesn’t yield the claim that without God, there’s no such thing as morality. That’s overstated. Moral facts are queer (or strange) on atheism. They are not logical incoherent.

Atheist morality

What can the atheist say to account for morality? The atheist can say moral facts exist as brute facts of the world. That is, the world just is this way. Moral principles are necessary truths such that it isn’t possible for moral facts to fail to exist in a world with human agents. And the atheist can say we can apprehend these truths via our reflective (i.e., non-empirical) reasoning in coming to have moral knowledge.

An atheist, on this view. would not be a materialist or a naturalist, but something of a atheistic platonist. There seems to be logical space for this sort of view.

Is this ad hoc? Yes, yes it is. It leaves moral facts as posited, but not explained. But perhaps some entities of the world need not have an explanation. We all have to posit some brute facts at some point. Theists will think that God needs no reason or explanation for his existence. Rather, he is the explanation of the world. God exists in a brute way. Perhaps moral facts are like this. They explain the moral domain without themselves being or needing to be explained.

Who wins?

Now I think that theism wins hands down here. God is perhaps not entailed by moral facts but he is a far better explanation. God’s existence also explains a host of other features of our world (e.g., that there’s a world, the fine tuning of the world, the intrinsic value of human beings, logic/math, the regularity of nature, etc.). The atheist seems to have to say all of these things just are and this strikes me as extremely implausible. On the whole, I find atheism to be an impoverished worldview since it actually explains very little.

But are atheists committed to a world without moral facts? No, I think that’s overstated.


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5 Replies

  1. I’m struggling with the amount of respect you give to the idea of brute-fact morality. In an atheistic universe, how do humans determine morality? I’m not sure we can. In a secular society such as ours, morality seems to change quite often and can change based on human wants within separate societies. And even within societies, what would we hang our hats on to support our moral claims? Simple majority? But what if that majority has it all wrong?

    The brute fact is that murder is wrong, until it’s not.

  2. Atheists posit many theories through their unscientific ‘science’ (evolution) but none of it can be proven or replicated.

    Moral laws, I think, fall into the category that comprises scientific laws: They exist but no one knows or has even been able to hypothesize their origins.

    1. Travis Dickinson

      Usually there’s a distinction between scientific and moral laws. For example, moral laws are prescriptive and scientific laws are descriptive. Also moral laws seem necessary where scientific are contingent. But I think you are right that, on atheism, neither are explainable.

  3. Good stuff! I agree. One point of technicality: I don’t know if most theists believe God’s existence is a brute fact. (Brute facts are said to violate the principle of sufficient reason, which most theists want to affirm.) It’s not uncommon to think God exists necessarily, in which case the explanation for God’s existence may be that “it couldn’t have been otherwise.” (There might even be deeper reasons for why it couldn’t be otherwise.)

    1. Travis Dickinson

      Hi Blake, the term ‘brute’ can mean a few different things. All I’m conceding is that there is some ontological bruteness when it comes to God’s existence. I think moral facts are necessary truths as well. I don’t think they violate (at least certain versions of) the PSR. But I still think they are being posited as something of a brute fact by an atheist platonist.