I mentioned recently that I just read Justin Brierley’s book on apologetics. In that post, I talked about Lewis’s trilemma and how it presents a false choice. I want to mention a similar false choice (or incomplete choice) regarding the moral argument, and what I think Brierley gets right and wrong about the moral argument.
Suppose someone believes there is no objective morality, and that our moral systems are an evolutionary product, and could have evolved very differently. That person might believe that murder is wrong, while also believing that things could have wound up differently, such that a world would exist where most people think murder is fine. At the time that Brierley interviewed him, this seemed to be Richard Dawkins’s view — though Dawkins also seemed uncomfortable talking about the idea.
Brierley essentially says that such a person can have strong moral beliefs, and live a very good and ethical life, but will have no justification for their moral beliefs. He is careful to add, both in his book and in this recent podcast, that he is not saying that an atheist cannot be a good and moral person. Just that they cannot ultimately justify their beliefs. There is no moral grounding.
And yet, Brierley says, we cannot help but talk and think about morality in objective ways, as if there is a moral ground. As we try to justify a particular ethical view, it seems that there is a ‘moral ruler’ being used, at least implicitly. Up to this point, I agree with Brierley.
Brierley goes on to say that he believes God is the best explanation for moral grounding and human dignity (because humans are made in God’s image). My point in this post is simply that there are other options on the table. Namely, you can be a moral realist without being a theist. Case in point: atheist philosopher Peter Singer is a moral realist. The philosopher Philip Goff, who describes himself as an atheist regarding the “omni-God,” is also a moral realist. A moral realist believes that there are universal moral truths, and that we discover them through reason, intuition, and experience. These truths have their own reality, similar to mathematical truths. This is the view that I lean more and more towards: I’m not religious, but I am a moral realist.
There are other options, of course. For example, there is a view associated with Sam Harris that you can essentially read morality off from nature. But I think Harris is pretty isolated in that particular theoretical space.
And as Alex O’Connor mentions in the podcast discussion with Brierley, you can believe morality does not consist of objective truths, while also denying moral relativism. For example, you might accept that we could have ended up in a world where murder is considered fine, but the fact is that we didn’t, and in our world murder is wrong everywhere, i.e. we are unwilling to make cultural concessions about murder.
Different notions of where our morality comes from is the domain of metaethics. I can recommend this book on the topic.