Atheistic Morality

James Fodor / 17 November 2014


Here I conclude my critique of the major arguments raised by John Lennox at the “Cosmic Chemistry?” public lecture and the “Faith has its Reasons” conferences held several months ago. In this sixth and final part of the series, I discuss the claim made by Lennox that no sensible grounding of morality can be given within an atheistic worldview. I first address his insinuation that utilitarianism is compatible with Nazi ideology, arguing that such a comparison is absurd and there are many perfectly sound non-theistic reasons one can put forward to refute Nazi claims. I then consider various approaches to providing an objective atheistic moral theory, arguing that Lennox fails to engage at all with them, and furthermore fails to consider that many of the same critiques he applies to atheistic ethics can be applied to theistic ethics as well.

What Lennox Said

“The problem (with atheistic ethics) is that if you leave out god… you run into serious problems”

(In response to Utilitarian ethics) “Well Hitler decided that the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews”

“On what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?”

“If there is no external basis for morality external to morality, how can any conception of morality be anything other than the mere opinion?”

Hitler and Utilitarianism

To begin with I will just say that it is absurd to speak as if Hitler was or ever claimed to be a utilitarian in any sense, and I think it is totally disingenuous of Lennox to make this insinuation. But even if Hitler had said that “the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews”, he would have been wrong. It’s hard to define what is meant by ‘benefit’ here, but however we cash out the concept (suffering, utility, human flourishing, whatever), it seems incontrovertible that the Holocaust did not maximise human benefit.

What the Nazis in fact argued was that the Jews were sub-human, and therefore not worthy of ethical consideration. To defend this assertion they appealed to pseudoscientific arguments drawn from bad anthropology and worse social Darwinism. They used misrepresentations of history and manipulation of contemporary social indicators (e.g. the Nazis argued that hardly any Jews fought for Germany in WWI, illustrating their cowardice, but this was factually incorrect).

So the Nazi justification for oppressing the Jews was based upon bad reasoning and false information. As such, we can marshal any number of reasons against their contention that ‘the Jews were subhuman’ without invoking God at all. Nor should there be anything surprising about this, as when we think about why the Nazis were wrong, we talk about the horrific harm they did, and the false beliefs they had about race (among other things) – God does not figure into the explanation at all. No appeal to a creator is needed to understand that Auschwitz was a horrific crime – the suffering and death of so many sentient beings speaks for itself.

Atheistic Objective Morality

But suppose our imaginary ‘utilitarian-Hitler’ were to push the gauntlet. Suppose he were to say “I’m not saying the Jews are subhuman in any biological sense. I’m just saying that I don’t wish to accord them any moral value. My moral framework only accords moral value to Aryans. Thus the Holocaust, by benefitting Aryans, was a morally good action according to my utilitarian framework.” This would, presumably, be where Lennox would insert his rejoinder: “on what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?” How can the naturalist say that Hitler is wrong about not according moral value to Jews? Perhaps we might not be able to convince the Nazis, but is there a rational argument that can be given?

In fact, the problem faced by the naturalist is not a dearth of meta-ethical theories: rather it is of selecting from among a surfeit of them. A cursory examination of the relevant literature reveals these examples of non-theistic theories of the nature and basis for objective (understood sometimes in different ways) moral values: Railton’s Reductive Naturalism, Universal Prescriptivism (R.M. Hare), Quasi-Realism (Simon Blackburn), Ethical Non-Naturalism (G.E. Moore), Moral Functionalism (Frank Jackson), Cornell Realism, Discourse Ethics (Jürgen Habermas), and Ideal Observer Theory (Roderick Firth).

Professional philosophers are well are of the great deal of quality work done on this question: according to a PhilPapers survey, 59% of atheistic philosophers are also moral realists (compared to 81% of theistic philosophers). Lennox makes no attempt at even cursory engagement with any of these theories. All he made were unjustified assertions – indeed, often not even that, but rather quasi-assertions disguised as rhetorical questions. This is not how proper philosophy is done.

Problems with Theistic Ethics

Let me now reverse Lennox’s challenge: what can the theist say to Hitler? Why is murdering the Jews morally wrong – because God says so? Why should Hitler care what God says, even if he did believe that God exists? Who says that God gets to dictate morality? God says that? But that’s circular: what if Hitler says that he gets to dictate morality? Is it because God is all powerful? That’s just a variant of might makes right. God gets to dictate morality because God is good? But how can you say ‘God is good’ without antecedently having a concept of what ‘good’ means? Good with reference to what standard of good – God’s own standard? Hitler was also good by his own standard of good; why is God’s standard superior? Because he is more powerful? Now we are back to might makes right.


Lennox presented very little in the way of an argument against the possibility of an atheistic ethic – he merely made assertions and insinuations through rhetorical questions, many of which I think are misleading and poorly thought-out. In particular, I have argued that his portrayal of Hitler as a utilitarian is both inaccurate and irrelevant, since any number of reasons can be advanced to counter the racist claims made by Nazis. I also argued that Lennox failed to engage with any of the many atheistic theories of objective moral values, and likewise failed to see that many of the challenges he makes with respect to atheistic ethics can equally well be made with respect to theistic ethics.

All the more reason.