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Can Morality Be Objective without God?

4. Objectivity in Ethics

Book cover: The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics by Gilbert Harman

I think this scenario shows that for a reason to be a moral reason for action, we expect it to be impartial; without appeal to the speaker's peculiar interests or the interests of their favoured group. We think people who give a partial or selfish reason for a moral judgment as being conceptually confused about what constitutes a moral reason for action. This requirement for impartiality, I want to say, is built into the very concept of morality.

Most moral philosophers down the ages have felt than morality is objective in some sense. And here they are in agreement with the person on the street. However, in their attempt to explain this sense of objectivity, some philosophers and most theologians have been looking for this objectivity in the wrong place. They have been looking for it in some mind-independent or human-independent metaphysical realm. And I think this project has failed. Here are four prominent examples. The first two examples do not require the existence of God, while the latter two do require his or her existence.

  1. Intuitionists mistakenly conflate moral attributes with some mysterious realm of non-natural properties and transcendent rules. On this view, the 'goodness' of giving to the poor, for example, is as much a part of the objective properties of the act as how much money was given and who it was given to.
  2. Kantian Rationalists try to derive moral rules from the demands of pure reason. According to Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, we should act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.
  3. Natural Law theorists and virtue ethicists rely on a dubious teleology of life's evolution on earth. For them, we act morally when we act according to our innate natures; natures that allow us to fulfil our purpose.
  4. Divine Command Theorists try to identify the good and the right with God's preferences and commands. On this view, to say that something is 'good' is just to say that 'God approves it'.

I mention these approaches here to show how theologians' attempts to ground morality in God's commands are not the only game in town. I'm not going to critique these four views tonight, except to point out one shortcoming that is common to all four. Before I get to that, I want to highlight one major problem faced in particular by the last view; Divine Command Theory.

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