In Atheism can objective morality exist through evolution?


I can’t speak for “these forums,” but the point would be that a deliberate embrace of atheism implies a deliberate embrace of no higher moral authority than human beings. Which means that any morality implied by atheism will necessarily have no grounds in any reality except humanity. In that sense it is “human centered” which may or may not imply self-centered. Although, since having a “self” is the highest attributive quality for being human, it would seem that atheism does imply human self-centered morality, although a case would need to be made that utilitarianism necessarily follows from that. I haven’t seen many atheists argue for anything but utilitarianism, so that might be a PR issue on the part of atheists.

What is the ground for atheist morality if not human “selves?” And what standard would there be for atheist morality if not utility regarding what works or doesn’t work for preservation of human selves?

Can you make the case that atheism doesn’t imply “self centered utilitarianism?”


The question isn’t which systems of morality atheists do in fact hold, the more important question is which moral systems can be deduced from an atheistic world view.

Human beings tend to be very inconsistent with regard to the values they hold. Those values are not necessarily consistent with their metaphysics. So the question, again, is which moral systems can logically be deduced from an atheistic world view? Assuming, of course, that atheism implies a strictly materialistic metaphysics.

There are some atheists who apparently believe in an afterlife. Can those two beliefs be consistently held?


If your usage of “atheist” is to only refer to a person that isn’t convinced that there are any gods then the label by itself doesn’t tell whether a person believes some part of them-self will survive death. There are some forms of Buddhism that might also be considered atheistic. There are people that believe that there exists spirits without having the belief that any of these spirits are supreme. While it appears that absence of the belief of an afterlife is common among those that do not believe there is a god the two beliefs can be independent of each other. One can believe there is a god while also not having the belief that there is anything for humans after death.

From this I gather your usage of the word “atheist” is not only to refer to those that don’t answer “yes” to the god-proposition; you have some additional characteristics in mind. These characteristics may or may not be applicable to an individual that isn’t convinced of a god.

I don’t know what you mean when you speak of someone deliberately embracing atheism. Can you expand on that? As for moral authority it’s not necessarily from an authoritarian interaction alone that one might make a moral decision. Having an object of concern and knowledge or belief of how one’s actions will affect that which one cares about may be enough to motivate someone to make moral decisions.

I think we are in agreement on this : “atheism doesn’t imply a morality or lack of it.”


Evolution is simply a process in nature.

Morality is a living thing, an evaluation of human acts, in reference to something outside one’s self. Morality is not a box to be opened somewhere. It’s not a book either, although books might describe it and give guidance. Morality searches for the good through discernment and decision making, always according to some fixed reference point. A previous poster asserted that morality should not be tied to authority. Nonsense. Everyone has a referential authority, (might be yourself, which is definitively immoral because -you- cannot be the ultimate good). Authority exists, the question is about it’s moral legitimacy.
Even atheists appeal to something outside themselves, attested to by references to the disciples of atheism in this thread.


And who makes the decision on whether something is morally acceptable or not, based on the facts of the matter? Why, you do, Harry.

Even when the church defines what is acceptable or not, you run through a mental process, either consciously or unconsciously, to determine whether you agree with it or not.

Imagine if God spoke to you in a dream and said He needed you to help the poor in your neighborhood in a particular way. You would quite possibly do it. But if the following night He said it was OK to kill all children of atheists, then you wouldn’t. Because you mentally go through the same processes as I do: ‘Helping the poor is a good thing to do. Killing children is bad’.


Bacon tastes good. Pork chops taste good. :slight_smile:


I think you are overstating this point. Compare the mental processes regarding morality to the mental processes regarding the eating of food. Yes, each of us is in charge of choosing what we eat and do regulate completely what enters our bodies as food, but that is far from implying that we decide what is healthy or not. The state of our bodies is our responsibility and the extent to which we properly undertake that task will reveal itself through the state of health of the body we currently inhabit. The fact that the obesity rate in many modern western countries hovers around 50% is telling regarding how successful people are regulating the food they eat. The mental processes don’t determine the healthiness of foods any more than the mental processes determine the morality of actions and decisions. The moral fallout from those decisions will reveal how successful individual moral agents have been with making moral determinations. Those mental processes do not determine the morality of decisions, although they do determine our responsibility as moral agents for our choices regarding morality. These are not the same thing. You are equivocating.

That would be because neither goodness nor God are so capricious. Goodness flows from God in a determinable way. The “mental processes” are one way of determining the correctness of our moral choices. Those mental processes do not completely redefine the principles of morality and goodness with each decision. Sometimes moral choices can be difficult for moral agents, but that is because we are autonomous and that autonomy means we are completely responsible for our development as moral agents which occurs through the processes of thinking, choosing and acting. That does not mean we determine the nature of the good capriciously, autonomously or unilaterally. We are still responsible for the quality of our moral thinking (conscience) along with the choices we make and the actions we undertake. No one said moral agency would be easy. Sometimes it is very difficult.


I wouldn’t say ‘moral’ fallout because it seems to we’re getting into a tight little loop. We need to decide how we determine a moral decision is the correct one without referring back to morality (or making an appeal to authority).

You appear to be separating the consequences of a moral act from morality itself. As if morality is ‘out there’ somewhere and we need to find out what it is so we can comply with it. But you are overcomplicating things.

A moral act is one which has good outcomes and an immoral act, bad ones. And if you need to determine what is good and what isn’t, then use the Categorical Imperative. Or the Golden Rule. They both encompass empathy and reciprocal altruism.

I will accept that some acts which we class as good might turn out to have bad consequences in the long run. And vice versa. So it’s not always an easy decision, even if the process for making that decision is straightforward. But we can only play the cards that we have been dealt.


The only difference in my view between an atheistic justification for morals and a theistic justification for morals is that an atheist doesn’t believe that the theist is right that the moral code in question comes from some higher power. We’re social animals and more particularly apes, and like all the apes, we have codes of conduct. Our brains are a lot bigger and our social arrangements considerably more complex (particularly since we started living full time in groups of greater than a few hundred individuals), and thus the complexity of the codes get greater. In general, however, there is considerable fluidity in the morals of various societies, and commonality more seems to come from the fact that different human societies in time and space have had to solve similar problems.

There are a few potentially archetypal moral codes; like a common incest taboo. “Thou shalt not steal” does not easily exist in very primitive societies where much of the property is communal, so it may not be all that much of an archetype. Beyond that, different societies have accepted practices as horrifying to modern sensibilities as cannibalism, necrophilia, human sacrifice, slavery (the latter was accepted by a good many Christians for a considerable length of time), genocide, subservience and even chattel status of women, and so forth. The Athenians, for instance, viewed the Spartan version of eugenics with some distaste, mixed with awe, but to the Spartans, it was a perfectly justifiable practice, applying the selective breeding that they would apply to a sheep or a grain crop to their own offspring.

The one universal principle that seems to apply to humans is that we require codes of morals and ethics. What constitutes those codes is highly variable, and changes significantly even in the same society over time.


It seems a little odd that you state that we’re “getting into a tight little loop” by referencing “morality (or making an appeal to authority),” and then you go on to create an even tighter (or slacker) little loop by referencing some moral rule or other.

To wit:

It isn’t clear to me that simply universalizing actions actually determines what is “good” in any insightful way, so much as define the “good” as what good or reasonable agents would choose to universalize or engolden.

Either way we are left with the question of what it is that makes the choices that “good” people choose actually good. Seems you still end up with a Euthyphro type of dilemma – Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? – except that “the gods” are replaced by “rational” or “good human beings.” Is the good loved by good and rational human moral agents because it is good or is it good because good and rational moral agents love it?

Rules and principles don’t so much uncover the nature of morality as provide a conceptual system by which to try to uncover or understand it.

Seems to me that no morality is possible without a teleology or a fundamental purpose for which things (including humans) exist and that is not possible absent purpose, significance and meaning being inherent within the fabric of being or existence itself.

If existence reduces to pure purposeless matter that exists as brute fact for no reason and without significance, morality is fundamentally groundless and warrantless. Oh sure, we can pretend or imbue our existence with some sense of value, but in the end that value is merely grounded in human imagination and desire. Change the desire or imagination and voila, a completely different morality is conjured up.

If a large number of humans contrive a society based upon rape or pillage, those become the standards for their behaviour. If another group contrives a society based upon private ownership or enterprise, then those become the standard by which their morality is weighed. There is no way to rate one group as having a higher morality or standard than the other because the standard is grounded merely upon human determinations. Sure, you might be able to persuade some group or other to agree to a different standard or morality, but then you are not resolving which is better, you are just compounding the issue by multiplying moralities.

Morality has to be based within the nature of what it means to exist as moral agents and sourced in a proper understanding of quality or meaning regarding that existence or it is without ground or foundation. Existence itself has to ground morality or it is merely contrived.


Some apes have rather bizarre (and immoral, if they had moral agency) codes of conduct.

If that is all there is to morality – codes of conduct and social arrangements – then the society is completely free to contrive a different set of codes and arrangements if it so chooses. All we have is a de facto set of behaviours which might or might not be justified within the group by some reference to group survival, but that completely ignores the question of whether the group ought to survive or not in its current iteration or any iteration.

If you want to punt to making changes to better ensure survival of the group, it still doesn’t address the question of whether the group should survive in that iteration or any other. The actual qualities of the group qua moral agency is completely ignored.

Should cannibalistic, warring and sadistic human societies exist if they successfully survive over a long period of time? Your “code of conduct” version of morality has nothing to say in that regard, does it?


In other words, no morality can be derived from tenets of atheism. So if the proposition “God does not exist,” is accepted, it follows that the proposition entails nothing about morality.

Apparently we are not to take that as meaning that any morality is as good as any other, but it is difficult to see how distinctions can be made between moralities given that no grounding beyond “human being” can be argued. Moral agency gets reduced to something like “what human beings do.”

You will then need to provide a foundation for morality. How is “good” to be defined? What is the standard by which we decide what is “good?” If that standard is “good for human beings,” how do we know what it is that is “good” for human beings? Mere longevity? Is there a means to determine who does or does not qualify as human?

Morality is simply what “we” decide, then? Presumably, some kind of inclusive “we” with somewhat hazy boundaries on who is or is not included.


In what way would you discount the Categorical Imperative? Or the Golden Rule?


Both hide the problem of what makes a reasonable human being good by presuming good and rational human beings to be the standard by which decisions are made.

The golden rule – do unto others as YOU would have them do to you – presumes a good and reasonable human being as the standard by which to decide what ought to be done to others. Fine if you are a decent moral being. What if you are not? What then are you to do to others if you are, for example, sado-masochistic or narcissistic? The golden rule would seem much less workable, no?

Similarly, Kant’s categorical imperative presumes something like good faith, a functionally moral practical reasoning ability, and good moral character in order to properly “universalize” moral actions.

Both presuppose good or decent moral agents are preparing to undertake moral activity, thus presupposing one feature that is required to ground morality.
Morality requires a proper teleology or end state of being and at least adequate moral agency – I.e., agents who apprehend that end state as imperative. Absent those you end up with a cobbled together pragmatism which sort of resembles morality.


Kudos to you for being so wise and good at arguing this topic. I am just reading in the background but enjoy it a lot


I wouldn’t put it like that at all. Moral codes don’t evolve in a vacuum, and rarely does a society just completely flip on its values. You’re not taking into account that everything humans do is in the context of culture, and it is culture that informs morals. To a large extent, European culture was informed by, or evolved right out of Roman culture, and despite all the Hollywood movies showing gay bathhouses and the like, the Romans were actually a fairly austere people, with strong codes of ethics and a very strong sense of family ties and honor. Most Continental Law is basically Roman at its core, and even the Common Law jurisdictions borrow a good deal from the Roman civil law concepts via the Normans importing it into England.

Anyways, I digress. The point I’m making is that while moral codes are really a matter of consensus, the weight of previous generations always bears down on any moral “innovations”, and even such innovations in a society’s moral view tend to be rooted in preexisting precepts. Morals, like all parts of a society evolve over time.

I guess that gets us into the “where did all begin”, and I imagine my theory would disagree with yours on that point, but it’s pretty clear even from a survey of the history of the West from the Edict of Milan onward that even Christian morals have shifted over time.


If someone doesn’t believe there is a God or believes that there is no God it doesn’t inform us of their morality. If someone does believe there is a God that also doesn’t tell us about their morality. I don’t get the impression that you see atheists as being necessarily immoral or a Moral or that someone that is convinced there is a God to necessarily be a person that will try to be good. If I am wrong here please let me know.

To do a comparison and come to an agreement with others some shared values will probably be necessary. The applicable shared values are going to depend on what aspects of morality are being discussed. If those shared vales are not present then discussion is likely not to get far. With or without the belief of a god people can find themselves with values not shared by another. This is one of the challenges of living in a society that we have to deal with.

You and I probably have the necessary shared vales to agree on a moral evaluation on killing someone because the person is not liked. On some other issue we might not, such as two people having sex before they are wed or whether or not morality is situational. We will have areas of agreement and disagreement on whether something contributes to ones well being and harm. But this isn’t necessarily an issue of someone believing or not believing there is are gods or a God. People with opposing replies to the god-proposition can come to agreements. People with the same answer can disagree.

Care for and emotional connections to others outside ones self, the ability to learn or understand the effects ones actions have on another, and a general desire not to cause harm are great starting points.


Even your language presumes some “end point” towards which moral codes are headed. How would we know moral codes are, indeed, improving or – in your words – “evolving,” absent any sense of where they ought to evolve towards? How do we know that moral codes are evolving without some absolute standard according to which they are to be compared?

So it you want to claim evolution of moral standards is actually happening, produce that absolute standard by which we can compare competing moral codes to assess how close each of them are to that standard and the extent to which any one of them has “evolved.” If you can’t produce that standard, then kindly take back your point about codes of conduct “evolving.”

Otherwise it is a pure assertion designed to purport that existing codes of conduct have some kind of legitimacy as moral codes.


One person believes that eradicating inferior human beings is a societal good, and he feels it deeply, and might have deep care for others. He might believe he is causing no harm, or even improving the lot of humanity by eliminating defectives.

How do you refute his moral evaluation if your foundation for moral evaluations is feelings and sentiments and popular opinion? Those are not sound evaluations because you recognize no objective foundation.


The only end point is the here and now. And it will continue to evolve so long as there are humans.

There is no ultimate standard. That’s the point, and the proof is the great variance in moral precepts throughout time and space. Just because something evolves doesn’t mean it’s headed in any one direction. The only direction given to cultural evolution is the weight of that evolution to date. You’re not likely to see cannibalism become an accepted practice because the taboos against it are so strong, and there really aren’t any examples, at least in Western civilization, of it as a cultural practice. The few recorded times it has occurred have either been due to extreme mental illness (ie. Ed Gein) or due to extreme deprivation (the Donner Party).

When you look at changing views on, say, homosexuality, I’d say that has happened in part because it is an inevitable outgrowth of the notions of liberty, and also that homosexuality, while long condemned, has often been tolerated, particularly among the aristocracy. So while certainly removing legal proscriptions against homosexuality, and ultimately SSM itself, seem innovative, they are born out of previous cultural movements.

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