Can Atheism Support Objective Morality?

18 Jun

objective moralityThe first thing to get clear about is precisely what an objective moral theory is.

  • A moral theory is objective only if the moral judgments it generates are perspective-independent.

So, for example, if a moral theory generated only one moral rule, a prohibition against any and all harm, it would be objective because no matter what anyone believes about the rule, harm would still be wrong. Even if we are brainwashed to think harm is good, even if we are completely confused about the matter, and even if we disagree with our wits about us—nevertheless the fact would remain that according to this moral theory, harm is wrong.

Now, notice that in defining and concretizing an objective moral theory, I have made no reference to God. There is no need to, because objectivity is simply a matter of perspective-independence, and to assert that perspective-independence is dependent on a deity is absurd.

Does that entitle us to say that atheism can support objective morality? In one sense, yes, and in another no. In the first sense it is absolutely true that objectivity in and of itself does not require the supernatural. In another sense, however, it can be argued that all atheistic moral theories fail—including objective ones—and that therefore the atheist is not entitled to objective morality.

The second response is perfectly tenable. If a rational, informed person thinks that atheistic moral theories fail, they are entitled to the claim that the atheist cannot have objective morality. But in theistic rhetoric, this claim is often conflated with the claim that there are no plausible atheistic objective moral theories on hand. This is patently false.

To demonstrate the falsity of the claim (but not to defend this theory), I offer a brief sketch of contemporary Kantianism.


Kantianism begins with the thought that we are rational beings who can step back from our actions and examine our reasons for those actions. When we do so, we find that the rules that guide our actions are our identities themselves; they form the basis of our character. Who we are through time can be described by the rules that guide our choices.

Since we have free will, we are free to adopt or reject any set of rules we want. We can choose to be mean-spirited or compassionate. But if we are to be rational, the only requirement is that we should always behave in accordance with our character. This makes sense if you think about it. If I am to be a rational person, I cannot adopt and reject identities at whim; I must choose who I am and then live accordingly. And remember this isn’t constrictive (yet), because we are free to choose who we want to be.

We should say then, that is therefore an unoverridable law for humans that to be rational, they ought to behave consistently with their chosen set of rules for behavior. So what rules should we adopt?

Well, whatever rules we adopt, we must remember that all rational humans would be required to adopt them as well. Since there is no relevant difference between me and other rational beings deciding what to do, both I and them will adopt the same rules if they are truly rational.

So it would be irrational to adopt rules that I wouldn’t benefit from. If I adopt a rule that I will always steal, that would hurt me in the end, because other people would do the same thing and I would get stolen from. Since a part of being rational is pursuing my own self-interest, this wouldn’t be an acceptable law. But everyone adopting a prohibition against killing innocent people would certainly be in my self-interest, and so it would be rational of me to adopt such a rule.

  • Right actions, then, are actions conforming to a rule which you could rationally will everyone to conform to.

Now, putting aside objections to Kantianism, let us ask ourselves whether the rule which it generates is objective. Recall that the only criteria for objectivity is perspective-independence. Is the rule that we ought only act on a rule which we could rationally will everyone act on, perspective-independent? Of course it is. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you stand, or what you believe about it. If it is true, then it establishes an objective moral rule.

What else could theists mean when they claim that atheism can’t support objective morality?


It is sometimes suggested that atheistic theories are subjective rather than objective because they are mind-dependent. But what does it mean for a moral theory to be mind-dependent?

  • A moral theory is mind-dependent only if it asserts that moral facts would not exist were there no minds.

So, for example, if a moral theory states that moral facts are woven into the fabric of reality and that they persisted and will persist regardless of the existence of humans, it would be mind-independent. The technical term for this is moral realism. By contrast, moral anti-realism asserts that were there no minds, there would be no morality.

Are atheistic moralities necessarily mind-dependent? No. Atheists can maintain that moral facts are mind-independent, as does Erik J. Wielenberg, or else that moral facts are mind-dependent, as do Kant and Rawls.


It should be clear that when theists claim that atheism can’t support objective morality, they are simply mistaken. Robust, objective morality is just as available to the atheist as to the theist.

But why care in the first place? Theists often care because they are very concerned about relativism. If it turns out there are no objective moral truths, then the atrocities of genocide and torture might be endorsed since there would be no objective standard from which to condemn them. Now in point of fact, I’m concerned, too. While I don’t think the world would head to hell in a hand basket if relativism were true, I am much more comfortable with objective morality. Fortunately, I subscribe to Kantianism.

To sum up, I hope the word “objective” will be used more carefully by Christians and atheists alike.


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  1. Charles R

    February 23, 2011 at 8:12 am

    “Since we have free will . . .”

    So much for Kantianism.

  2. Adito

    February 23, 2011 at 10:54 am

    There’s also the problem that a theist must either admit that moral rules are bound up in Gods mind (making them mind-dependant) or external to God (making God unnecessary for moral truth).

  3. Andy Walters

    February 24, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Charles–I do think we have free will in the relevant senses; something like Dennet’s Freedom Evolves.

  4. Andy Walters

    February 24, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Adito–Right, but strictly speaking even if a Euthyphro-like dilemma established that God was not the ground of morality, we’d still have to have some account of how moral facts exist on naturalism.

  5. Jimmy Crabb

    June 22, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    I don’t get it. Really, I don’t get it…