We Cannot Answer The Ultimate Moral Question(s)

Posted in Atheism, Morality, Religion on  | 2 minutes | 10 Comments →

Naturalists and atheists generally regard empirical truth as a virtue, sometimes even the prime virtue. My ears perk whenever I hear them preach any form of moral realism, as always I’m curious to hear how they can ground what they say (I’d be a moral “error-theorist” if I were an atheist). In discussions of morality these days, many naturalists and atheists seem to grasp desperately for something like a complete morality, but I don’t think we can answer the ultimate moral question(s).

I assume most (a)theists agree that moral truths depends on empirical truths, and also that a non-trivial subset of empirical truths remain unknown (i.e. God’s existence, life after death, etc.). On top of that, some empirical truths cannot even in principle be known, and may only be believed. God’s existence affects the ultimate moral truth(s), but science cannot know whether God exists. Therefore, the best we can do is to approximate based on what seems to work according to some pre-agreed metric (i.e. let’s not steal each other’s goats), but this is tricky business because it’s quite easy to do harm while believing that you’re doing good.

This isn’t just a problem for naturalist or atheist ontologies, either. Sans direct revelation from God, the believer must also approximate to the best of his or her ability, even if they do so within the prescriptions set forth in Scripture. There’s another ramification of God’s existence with regard to moral truth: whatever God sets forth as the ultimate moral truth may only be believed. We don’t have any failsafe method of checking whether God’s ultimate moral decrees are true. Sure, we can reason to some extent, we can say something like, “I dunno God, burning babies seems kinda wrong,” but when it comes to moral truths beyond our scope, we’re SOL. How would we know whether “thou shalt not do X on Tuesday” is a morally true claim?

Ultimately, I believe morality is in a similar position as science: in the same way we could never know that we’d attained a complete science, I’m skeptical about any sort of complete morality.


  1. It’s depressing that, in this incredibly important area of our lives, we’re forced to make a sort of existential commitment to normativity. It’s also uncomfortably similar to an existential commitment to God.

  2. joseph


    Thanks CL,
    I like this post.

  3. Adam


    Hey cl, I am curious to know if you have heard of Stefan Molyneux, an atheist self-proclaimed philosopher who has written on a number of topics, mostly concerning, and criticizing, the State, but has also written on ethics.

    One free ebook he wrote is Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics.* In it, he attempts to lay a foundation for ethics scientifically. He has also written an (a)theist book which attacks theism, but also agnosticism. Just curious about your thoughts and/or offering a popular atheist philosopher as a target for future posts. Cheers.

    * http://www.freedomainradio.com/free/books/FDR_2_PDF_UPB.pdf

  4. cl


    Hey, thanks for the link. I checked out the first few chapters and already see much I like. In one short page this guy pulls the rug out from the Muehlhauser / Fyfe types, and that was really confirming for me. For example:

    The fact that human beings in general prefer to live, and must successfully interact with reality in order to do so, cannot be the basis for any valid theory of ethics. Some people clearly do not prefer to live, and steadfastly reject reality, so this definition of ethics remains subjective and conditional.

    It was very gratifying to read somebody who shares such similar views. Thanks much, Adam, I can’t wait to read the whole thing!

  5. Speaking of Luke Muelhauser and Stefan Molyneux, Luke has a critical review of his work at http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=75 that might also be worth your read.

  6. cl


    Thanks Peter. I like Luke, but I must point out the irony in Luke calling Stefan “badly confused” on morality. That might be true, I haven’t read Stefan’s book in its entirety yet, only the first few pages. Though I think he understands morality better now, at the time of that accusation, Luke was running around claiming that “If everybody desired to be surrounded by loud noise it would be moral to carry a boombox around all day.” Now, that’s a paraphrase, and as far as I know Luke pulled the original source. You can find it in his first PDF on morality / desirism. In fact, I bet I have it laying around… at any rate, yeah, Stefan’s arguments—at least the ones Luke addressed—seem to need a little salvaging.

  7. I have more hope for desirism than I have for Universally Preferable Behavior. I even was an open proponent of desirism for a few weeks or so before someone (I think it was TaiChi) convinced me that it didn’t work. (For those interested, the outstanding gap in desirism I see right now is that the claim “one ought to promote good desires” is not yet justified.)

    But I’m interested in what you think. I’m also interested in what you think about what I think, given that I’ve finally started the long march at outlining my (current) moral theory.

  8. For what it’s worth, my two biggest qualms with Universally Preferable Behavior are:

    1.) “The vast majority of people think that it is immoral to rape, therefore you ought not to rape” is a fallacy. A lot of UPBs seem to be framed like this.

    2.) Validating a moral theory by seeing if it correctly accounts for common-sense morality (Yay, my theory also says rape is wrong!) seems like a silly test, because it would (1) mean there aren’t any counter-intuitive moral truths and (2) kind of set-up this circular argument where “my theory is correct because it correctly identifies rape as being wrong, and rape is wrong because my theory shows it to be wrong”.

    But feel free to finish reading and see what you think.

  9. cl


    (For those interested, the outstanding gap in desirism I see right now is that the claim “one ought to promote good desires” is not yet justified.)

    It doesn’t need to be. A desirist could simply retreat to Fyfe’s All Purpose Super Duper Tautological “Defeater” For Everything: “People generally have reasons to promote good desires.”

    RE #8, not having read Stefan in full, my gut feeling is that desirism and UPB are two maps representing the same territory. IME, that’s the case with most of these moral theories.

  10. Adam


    Still interested in your thoughts on his theories Cl, mostly because he has a huge online audience and a lot of influence, therefore a good challenge/target(?) for future posts.

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