Can Objective Morality Exist In An Atheistic World View?

I only have a general understanding of this subject and am interested in hearing your thoughts.

God Bless:)

I personally hold that no, it can’t. There can be philosophies that hold to inferences from nature but ultimately they are not objective morals, just well educated guesses, in my opinion.

That said, seeing as how we are animals even if higher ones, we are naturally a social species. See the idea of mutual aid as developed by Kropotkin, as against the idea of survival of the fittest.

I’m not sure but a friend’s husband is agnostic and he says his sense of right and wrong comes from the civil law. No morality beyond that.

Of course that begs the question of where the civil law gets its morality from. And what happens when the civil law does a 180, as in the case of abortion; which is moral, the fact that abortion was outlawed or the fact that it is now legal? (And I’m not trying to debate abortion here, just using it as an example.)


I know. It doesn’t make sense. Glad I’m a Catholic :wink:


You’re making me feel my age - we had that in our Introduction to Law class when I was in college! :woman_facepalming:

IIRC (bear with me, this was 25+ years ago), that’s called legal positivism. Legal positivism is the theory that whatever is legal is moral.

However, history shows us that what is legal is not necessarily moral. At the Nuremberg trials, the prosecution countered the argument “we were just following orders” with the argument that natural law is higher than the letter of the law. Everyone from pagan to Saint knows in their heart (c.f. Romans 1) that murder is wrong even if they never heard the fifth commandment of the Decalogue (i.e. Thou shalt not kill.) So there is a law written in the hearts of all mankind which we are bound to obey even if the written law states otherwise.

We had to write an essay on whether or not one can legislate morality. In a sense, every law is legislated morality because morality is the only thing you can legislate. Example: Every single law against theft, embezzlement, extortion, black mail, insider trading etc all boils down to “Thou shalt not steal.” even if the Seventh Commandment is not explicitly mentioned.

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If by objective you mean universal, then, yes, plenty of atheist ethicists have built systems based on objective principles. If you mean objective literally (not including reference to the subject), then even I doubt if that is real.

I believe you are saying what I was thinking. Objective morality in religious terms is also subject to the interpreter of the particular religious and moral values. Those values are, so to speak, filtered by the perception and cognition of the individual, and therefore are not literally objective except according to the belief of the individual.


One atheist argument I’ve heard is that the morality comes from societal norms dictating it. If the majority believe X, X becomes codified into civil and therefore moral law.

I’m not going to defend this argument because it’s riddled with bullet holes. I can usually mention at least one culture that believes it’s “objectively moral” to bury a woman up to her neck and stone her to death for adultery. Amnesty International fights this sort of thing. :unamused:

On the flipside, when Alabama outlawed most abortions, pro-choicers were morally outraged. Why, if societies dictate morality, and that’s what the people of Alabama want?

This is true. At least religious people acknowledge the objectivity; it’s OK if what is objectively moral is up for discussion and debate. This happens daily on CAF.

I would argue that just because people perceive an objective moral truth differently, it doesn’t mean that this truth doesn’t exist. It’s there. But our individual filters can cloud our vision.

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Any such discussion should usually start with clarification of terms. People often conflate objective morality and absolute morality for example. @FaithHopeCharity would you be able to clarify what specifically you mean by objective morality?

As to the question, as best I can answer it without the clarification, it comes down to whether two people agree on what they mean by morality. One of the better foundations for secular morality systems I’ve heard expressed is based on wellbeing. That is that in most cases acts which increase wellbeing are what we call ‘good’ and those which decrease it are what we call ‘bad’. Moral quandries exist where two beings’ wellbeing comes into conflict, e.g. stealing increases the thief’s wellbeing, decreases the victim’s wellbeing, and has additional societal effects as well. Is wellbeing a perfectly clear, easy to apply concept? No certainly not. Neither is “health”, what’s healthy for one person may be very unhealth for another, but we’re still able to make certain objective moral statements about health, such as drinking battery acid is bad for one’s health. So too, if two people are using wellbeing as their standard for moral evaluation, we can make objective observations about how certain actions affect wellbeing.

Now the reality is since not everyone uses that as their foundation you kind of have to do realtime translation. If I’m using wellbeing as my standard and you’re using God’s word as yours, we’ll very likely overlap on a lot of areas, and disagree on others, depending on the issue at hand. And that’s why I asked above for clarification of what you mean by objective morality, because often people use that to mean absolute morality, which I don’t think many atheists adhere to, though I won’t speak for others.

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I can’t say I’ve heard that specific one often, usually it would be said to come from a combination of culture, tradition, societal norms and law, which all kind of mirror each other to varying degrees.

I agree, but then even if objective morality exists, since you have imperfect knowledge of it, how can you make anything but a subjective statement about it? Atheists are not infrequently accused of offering nothing more than their opinion as morality; but if your understanding of objective morality is clouded by your own filters (which would include your own personal opinions), how is any moral statement made by a theist any different?


This swaying in the breeze is part of being human. Being human doesn’t change the objective source of morality. Why should we assume that imperfect perception would change something that is perfected?

I’m not saying the perception affects what’s being perceived, I’m asking if any person’s claim about an objective moral truth can be considered objective, given the filter mentioned above.

I don’t know why not. Some have better perception than others. “Conscience” is formed. In Christianity, morality is not adhering to theoretical or ethical propositions, it’s conforming to a person (and that will include those propositions, or “laws”, as embodied in Christ).

I believe morality exists outside of anybody’s buy-in, so yes, it could.

If you mean “can an atheist have a moral code that came from outside the self”, I would say that yes, an atheist could find a moral code that somebody else worked out and that makes sense to them and they follow it, even when it’s hard.

If the question is does an atheist just make up a moral code all by themself on the fly, I would say yes in many cases, but TBF, I see a lot of self-described Christians who do that, too.

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“On the fly” might be a little bit of a stretch, I don’t think most people of any belief system are doing so without putting thought into it. If nothing else there’s plenty of moral teachings you get from the culture you grow up in, which means in the US many of those are judeo-christian even for people of other faiths/no faith. But I do think you hit on a point I wish was addressed more, because often times when these questions are asked very few ask ‘and does Christianity solve that?’. So as you suggested, while folks may suggest atheists come to their own conclusions about morality, does Christianity solve that? There should be many moral teachings which all followers believe, but when you really discuss details there seems to be as many unique conceptions of morality as there are believers. You can pick the big ones out sure, “is murder bad?”, but then I don’t know of any moral system, religious of secular, that didn’t work that out. But dig deeper, define murder, or ask is self-defense murder? What if I use an extremely disproportionate about of force to the threat posed to me? I’ve had discussions here on the forum where people have said it depends on local laws, if self defense is allowed that isn’t murder, but if it’s not allowed it could be murder. Objective absolute morality … based on local law.

Our own biases are unfortunately impossible to escape fully.

What authority do they base these universal judgments on? Does every atheist agree with the same set of morals?

Morals are written on our hearts by God, a Christian can’t change them. However that doesn’t mean they will follow them. The church is the interpreter and has confession for those who break her moral laws. It is not an individual choice.

An atheist can change morals like underwear, they have no universal foundation to fall back on or determine if the moral is right or wrong. Abortion is the perfect example of this, it was wrong and now perceived right



And yet if you actually discuss morality with atheists and people of other faiths, you’ll notice we don’t generally change our morals ‘like underwear’. But regardless this is a good example of what I was discussing above. How does Christianity ‘solve’ this? You admit Christians are able to follow or not follow their hearts according to whatever whims they have that day, while criticizing atheists for the same. You want to claim you have an objective moral law but as stated above we all filter such perceptions through our own personal filters.

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