Non-theistic foundation of morality?

I’ve often heard it said that while you can be good whether you believe in God or not, God offers the only possibility of a foundation for morality. Supposedly, in the absence of God morality is reduced to mere opinion that is not sufficient to justify judging any act as good or evil.

I think there can be a non-theistic ground for objective morality. Morality is rooted in our human need to trust each other and thereby facilitate closer cooperation and greater achievements than we could gain by ourselves. Someone who treated morality as mere opinion (and used that for selfish advantage in every situation) would be too changeable to be trustworthy, and wouldn’t receive cooperation, losing out on the gains from said cooperation.

This idea supplies the benefits of positing God as the source of morality (unchanging and negative consequences for failure to act well) without positing a transcendent entity or realm whose mysterious existence is the source of morality.


There is a slew of theories in ethics that are “objective” as most people use the phrase and also don’t make an appeal to a divine lawgiver.

If I’m reading your description right, you’re not offering an objective view of morality. You seem to be describing either a reductive view (that when you say “x is good”, you really mean “x is helpful and promotes cooperation”) or an error theory. (That there is no good or evil, and we just use the terms) Or possibly a combination of both.

Here is a liberal Catholic article on whether evolution can explain morality:

If I ask if something is right or wrong, then who decides if it is not something obviously covered in scripture or the catechism? We all do, individually.

When all votes are in, then how do we know who has the correct answer? In fact, how do we know if there is a correct answer in the first place?

Stealing is wrong. Well, depends, really, doesn’t it. Killing is wrong. Well, not under all circumstances.

Does God write it in our conscience? Because what he has written in mine is different to what he has written in yours.

It would be interesting to make a wide survey of traditional peoples and thoughtful individuals including those with a more amoral concept of what a “god” might be, to see how widely different people in all ages and countries have had an inkling of what, according to them, morality should be.

Not so as to be bound by it, but informed.

I think that repeatedly over the course of 120,000 years, there has been weakness in the manner of explaining and personally demonstrating to others whatever relationship there may be between morality and any revelation. Very rightly it gets pointed out that it’s not good enough to imply simplistically that this ought to just be seen by everybody. People who’ve developed a morality anyway have got a lot going for them (whatever “a lot” may mean).

What you are is saying is just that morallity is good for the society to be efficient. However, y still provide no objective ground, why a given person should follow morality. Opportunism is all too easy, and tricky opportunists are always often able to avoid societal sanctions a and live their lives happily to their advantage, at the expense of society.

The fact that people want morality to be objective is one of the proofs for its transcedent origin.

Yes, an atheist is capable of moral and immoral acts. We are all created with a moral sense, and all will be judged, even those who believe there is no Judge.

The distinct advantage of theistic morality is that the theist is constantly reminded that there are consequences to his behavior, either good consequences or evil consequences. That reality is held up to him every day of his life and there is no way he can pretend that God is not watching because there is no God to watch.

Another advantage of theistic morality that the atheist cannot benefit from is the fact that when a sinner confronts his sins, he has someone to confess them to and someone who can forgive those sins: namely God. The sinner also has a source of grace (if he is open to it) that will give him strength to be a better person than he might otherwise be.

So one of your arguments is: You better do good because someone is watching.

An argument which also does not address what that ‘good’ is in the first instance. Again, if God writes it into our conscience, then who do we listen to if two Chrisitans have different views on what ‘good’ actually is?

So I’ll address it for you.

We listen to all the arguments for and against and use reason to determine which is correct. If we are lucky, everyone will agree on the same thing. If not…well, that’s the way the world goes around, Charles.

The thing is, you are in no better a position to determine the morality of an act than anyone else. Be they Catholic, or a different denomination, a different religion, a non-believer, a secularist, a humanist. All must give reasons for their views.

Excuse me if I choose to completely ignore any argument based only on personal interpretations of divine will.

You might as well argue that the existence of the police and the courts is no deterrent to crime** just because they are watching**. Have you never been given a ticket for speeding? And right away what did you do, go out and speed some more so that you could get another ticket and pay another humongous fine? For my own sake, I hope the police and the courts are watching, the FBI too … and watching better than they do as we found out just two days ago.

That would depend upon who it is that is watching and for what purpose.

If it were someone who knew better than you in all instances what you ought to do, then it would behoove you to pay attention to whatever signal that “someone” who is watching you might give to assist in your making of judgements regarding the good.

If you assume that the someone who is watching you is merely there to catch your mistakes and condemn you for them, then you might be correct. But that would be grossly misrepresenting what Christians mean by God watching your every act. The implication would be that God is watching and has the unlimited wherewithal to support, assist, counsel and grace whatever you do, i.e., the Eternal Advocate and Mentor. Your version of “someone watching” seems more to align with what Scripture would call “the Accuser.” Surely, you know who he is.

Will you, likewise, ignore any argument based only on personal interpretations of the truth?

Doesn’t it amount to the same thing?

Divine will would be defined as the will of the Omniscient, Omnibenevolent and Omnipotent Ground of all Being (aka the Ground of Truth and Goodness Itself.) There has to be interpretation happening by everyone involved in the moral life.

In fact, I would argue that interpretation is, itself, an aspect of one’s moral development. We continually seek out the judgements of others who may have a better handle on the truth of moral life BECAUSE we think it important to get the moral life right in our attempts to live it out. That seeking is known as moral formation, and we wouldn’t give it up unless we’ve decided one of two things:

  1. To abandon the moral life altogether, or
  2. Our view of the moral life is the only or most correct one and no one else’s “interpretation” can ever be helpful towards our own moral perspective.

Which of the above would be the reason you would give for ignoring any argument based only on personal interpretations of divine will – which properly understood would be the reason anything exists at all?

I’ll save you some work.

Yes I understand that you make a distinction between truth and divine will, but again – properly understood – truth, since it must be intentional where morality is concerned, cannot be anything but the determination of omniscience, omnibenevolence and omnipotence (I.e., the divine will.)

And, yes, I understand the need for giving reasons for moral decisions, but it seems to me that you are dismissing the very possibility that God might be the only legitimate ground for morality out of hand. What you have to show (as in provide a good argument for) is that there is a completely sufficient ground for morality apart from God (the divine will) in the sense that morality can be founded on purposeless, material existence. That might be more difficult than you presume.

If purposeful moral intent (goodness) is built into the nature of existence itself – if God is the ground of Being itself – then morality and why we ought to behave morally is built into Existence Itself. On the other hand, if material existants are all there is and there is no ultimate teleological reason for anything existing, then the “ground” for being or acting morally has had its proverbial feet kicked out from under it.

If human beings are eternal beings destined to live forever and our actions VIs a VIs each other have serious long term consequences both to ourselves and for others, then we ought to “buck up” and treat the whole matter very seriously because what we do counts eternally.

However, if we are merely agglomerations of molecules which will shapeshift continually over billions of years and the different forms which these agglomerations take over time are no more or less valuable than any others, there is really no good reason (except personal preference) to value one form over another – there is no inherent value. Ergo, morality is mere preference signaling and nothing more.

God and, therefore, purpose to all that exists (and, therefore, the divine will) makes a huge difference regarding the nature of morality.

There is a Pascal’s Wager in here somewhere. The consequences for denying moral purpose – living as if there is none – are far more serious (if incorrect) than living as if there are moral consequences and later discovering there were none. The first entails great loss, the second no loss whatsoever since there was nothing to be lost or gained.

Let’s take it up a little. It’s too easy to break a speed limit without intentionally doing so.

Let’s say drink driving.

Your argument leads to one of the reasons for not doing it is because you might get caught. It seems to miss the point ENTIRELY that any right minded person would not do it anyway. No right minded person needs the threat of being caught.

We don’t need anyone watching over us to make sure we do the right thing. Well, I don’t. It seems that you do. Otherwise, why argue the point.

To keep the building analogy active, I think trust, as you describe it, is more like a pillar of moral life than the foundation for it.

To arrive at the real foundation for morality, we need to ask the question, “Why should I be moral?” The proper, as in sufficient, answer to that question will get us to the “foundation” of morality.

We wouldn’t, I don’t think, claim that we ought to be moral so that we can trust others.

The reason we wouldn’t claim that is because, morally speaking, we wouldn’t want to trust that blindly. We would only want to trust those who are worthy of our trust, i.e., those who act in a morally trustworthy way.

That would mean trust itself requires something else to support and justify it, which is morality, properly understood.

Ergo, trust cannot be the foundation for morality since trust, itself, must sit on or be founded upon something else.

Again, the question to be asked is, “Why should I be moral?”

That question wouldn’t be answered by, “So I can trust others,” unless you believe simple blind trust of anyone is the greatest possible good achievable by any moral agents.

So who makes these interpretations of divine will? Who decides moral matters on behalf of lGod?

You bet that you understand the need for reasons. Because you know full well that ‘God says so’ don’t cut a lot of ice. You can claim any moral decision to be divine, but without secular reasons, they’re not worth squat.

Well, first of all…which God? Whose God do we choose to give the morality? So right away, people are choosing which moral rules or moral god they think is the best, right one.

And then if we look back at some gods that are held up as moral compasses–for example, the Judeo-Christian one in the Christian Canon–we see that there are many instances where this God did *not *act morally at all, but lashed out in anger and hurt people. I don’t think a world based solely on this God’s morals would be so moral or happy at all.

Third of all…that same God does seem to change. From the OT to the NT, the morality and laws became less harsh.
Even the Catholic church has changed it’s stance on consequences, has it not? (for example…didn’t teaching several decades ago say that one could only find salvation if they were Catholic, but now that teaching has been revised?)

Which takes me to the third point which is…many (tho not all) theists actually listen to themselves and ignore their God when it says to do something immoral. Today’s theists don’t stone their children to death if they disobey, right? No. They use their common sense and ignore that one.
And…if a parent does hear God’s voice telling them to kill their child as proof of their devotion and they follow thru with it, well…we put these people in the hospital or jail.

But how is that an advantage? How does that make him/her a moral person? There is no guarantee that it does, as we see many theists–even priests or bishops–act immorally, and we see some atheists who act more morally than theists.
So being “watched” and reminded of terrible consequences doesn’t seem to do the trick. It may even backfire for some.

Not true. A theist can confront herself and the people she has harmed and confess bad behavior and ask for forgiveness.
In fact, I’d say this is a much clearer, more moral way of dealing with “bad” behavior…to speak to the persons you have harmed–yourself and the recipient of your actions–rather than talk to a third party. It goes right to the source and also, helps the recipient feel better, too.
And this is also why we have friends, parents, therapists, siblings, and advisors to talk to.
Then, in being honest about our actions, we learn and get the strength to be better people.


So anyone who drinks and drives is not “right-minded?”

You have never had a drink or two and driven? Ever?

DId you suppose – presuming that you did at some time in your life – that you were still sober enough to drive? That would have been a judgement made under the effects of alcohol, would it not? At some point, the alcohol would have incapacitated your judgement to some extent, perhaps even to an extent that your judgement would have been completely impaired and, at that point, even “right-minded” individuals might have become incapacitated to the point that they were no longer “right-minded.”

Ergo, even normally “right-minded” persons do not necessarily stay “right-minded” at certain times in their lives – they may have their right-mindedness incapacitated.

Couldn’t that also occur with respect to strong temptations? For example: lust, avarice, power, jealousy, etc., etc. In those instances, perhaps normally “right-minded” individuals become incapacitated and take wrong-minded actions?

Isn’t it about those instances that Charlemagne is speaking? Where sober-second thinkers in our midst keep us from doing irreparable harm to others when we lose the capacity to be “right-minded” under some incapacitating influence or other?

As moral agents, sometimes first hand experience of our own failures teach us to be wary even of ourselves and our own assumed perfection.

Nothing like driving while drinking a few and supposing ourselves competent but having a close encounter that might teach a life lesson about not drinking and driving, even for those who normally exhibit “right-mindedness” but may slip up a time or two while fine-tuning that “right-mindedness.”

I am fairly certain, from my own experience as a human being that “right-mindedness” is not a trait that one is born with. It is one forged out of a myriad of life experiences; sometimes fortuitously; sometimes because others are watching over us; sometimes due to virtues acquired by failures, suffering and toil.

I’ll take whatever help I can get, even a strong sense that God is watching over me to keep me honest.

Why are you assuming that “God says so,” automatically cuts short the question of “Why does God say so?”

In fact, I would suspect that assuming the omniscience, omnibenevolence and omnipotence of God implies that a complete and sufficient answer to the “Why?” does exist after all.

Whereas if there is no intentional omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent directing agent behind everything that happens in the universe, then the moral presumption is that no answer to “Why should I do this rather than that?” exists after all.

I mean, if your assumption is that there is no ultimate purpose or point to the universe – no values except those we impose on purposeless matter – then the proper assumption is that moral matters are ultimately irresolvable and it doesn’t really matter, in the end, whether you choose this or that. So called “secular reasons” don’t exist and, therefore, the permissibility of any behaviour is simply rationalized away under the pretext that secular reasoning permits both this and that – i.e., do what you want because there are no compelling reasons to do one over another, after all.

Which is really what your “secular reasoning” amounts to, no?

This would be the reason why you stop short of claiming there are any moral principles which obligate all human beings under all circumstances since the “backdoor” to rationalizing away any principle you don’t approve of under some circumstance or other is always open to you. Thus, your “Says who?” or “By whose morality?” retort to all moral questions.

If you can choose to dis-obligate yourself at any time, what sense is there to speak of moral obligation? It merely amounts to whatever you will when you decide, does it not?

You can’t be wrong at any time because that would be an admission that objective moral principles do exist over and above your will that would obligate your will.

Where would those principles be sourced if not in your will?

Provide some possibilities:

Society at large? What would make what is acceptable by the average Joe obligatory to you? Sounds too much like mob rule.

Reason? That requires your acceptance of first principles. Boiling down, once again, to your choice or will at some stage in the reasoning process.

There is only one possibility – an ultimate intentional ground and purpose to the universe. AKA God.

If you need that help, that the Christian God is watching you, then so be it. A vast majority of the planet doesn’t need it. And personally speaking, I’d prefer to sit in a car with a driver who knows it’s wrong to drink and drive rather than one where the driver thinks it just might be OK in certain circumstances but doesn’t do it because ‘God is watching over me’.

If you REALLY know it’s wrong, then you don’t need anyone peering over your shoulder. If you DO need that, then it’s an admission that you are not really sure. That there would be circumstances where you might do it.

And again, who makes the call about whether it is right or wrong?

I can’t recall any passages about D and D in scripture. So maybe God wrote into your conscience that it was wrong. Again, so be it. But if you can’t come up with a reasonable secular answer to WHY it is wrong apart from your guilty conscience, then thanks, I’ll get a cab.

Because every single question of morality has to be based on reasonable arguments. They have to be. Just saying it don’t make it so. Even if the guy just saying it is God. Even God has to give reasons. And if you bring up that old canard of ‘who can know the mind of God’ as a get-out-of-jail card for not giving a reason, then again, you will be ignored.

Notwithstanding that different Christians seem to intpret differently what God really wants. Are you always right? Hell, no, says Peter. So who is the guy we turn to for a decision? Who DOES know the mind of God? Hey, you can nominate anyone you like. But if they can’t give me good reasons why God wants it so, then thanks for calling and have a nice day.

So morality is determined by us all based on reasonable arguments. If we disagree, then so be it. Worse case scenario is the big guy stomps on the little guy. So much for reason, eh?

But you can tack God onto the arguments for the big guy or the little guy. No-one can tell if the majority or the minority have the God given answer unless they can convince me (and you) that they speak for God. And who was that…?

So if your reason for taking any position in regard to a moral matter is ‘God’s will’, then He being omni this and that, He will have his reasons. By all means use them to further your argument. If they are reasonable then they will be accepted.

Personally, I could care less whether God passed them on to you in person or whether you just think that He did or whether they are your arguments all along. If they are good enough, they win the day. If they are not, then they will not.

That’s where reason comes into it. It’s what you use when someone else tells you that God said he had to do X. You think about it and determine if it’s reasonable. At least, I hope to hell you do.

That’s what we all do. Every. Single. Time. We decide if something sounds reasonable based on the available evidence. If using reasonable arguments isn’t good enough for you, then I guess you’ll have to rely on your conscience. That little voice inside that tells you what is acceptable.

We all know where that can lead.

Every right-minded person and every wrong-minded person needs the threat of being caught, for the simple reason that, despite your protestations to the contrary, you are not a saint. None of us is a saint (yet) and all of us are subject to temptation and perdition.

But you seem to miss the point entirely, which is that we all need watching. Even the watchers (police, courts, F.B.I.) need watching. :shrug:

The question is not whether being watched guarantees saintly conduct, but whether it helps us toward that goal. Bad priests and bishops are not an argument that “God watching” is of no avail. A great many good Catholics know God is watching and urging them to be their better selves, and they respond to that urging.

Who urges the atheist to be his better self? The police? The Courts? The F.B.I.? Well and good, but they are no guarantee that the person will be his better self either. Yet to do away with the watchers would be catastrophic for society. The notion that we can rely upon ourselves to be our better selves is arrogance personified. Parents, therapists, siblings cannot forgive our sins, and (based on the condition of our godless society today) they are altogether too likely to be among the least perfect guides to sainthood.

" … it is no wonder, that the movement of atheists, which declares religion to be just a deliberate illusion, invented by power-seeking priests, and which has for the pious belief in a higher Power nothing but words of mockery, eagerly makes use of progressive scientific knowledge and in a presumed unity with it, expands in an ever faster pace its disintegrating action on all nations of the earth and on all social levels. I do not need to explain in any more detail that after its victory not only all the most precious treasures of our culture would vanish, but — which is even worse — also any prospects at a better future." Max Planck, Physicist Nobel Laureate

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