Theists often complain that atheism erodes morality in society. Atheists retort that it is perfectly possible to be a moral atheist. I think both sides have a point, but the issue is more complicated than that.
It is certainly possible to be a moral atheist. All my own atheist friends are people of strong principles. Most people who are loudly vocal about their atheism advocate it in the names of truth and freedom.
There is a problem, though. It does not lie with atheism, strictly, but with materialism or physicalism, the philosophical position that nothing exists but matter and energy in space and time. This is a position widely held by atheists, but you can be an atheist without it. One could be a Taoist atheist, or a Buddhist atheist, without irreparable violence to those religions. Or one could be some form of Platonist-like idealist and still be atheist. Many existentialists appear to be atheist and to not give a hang about ontological issues like materialism. Some high-and-dry versions of pantheism or deism are not strictly atheist but look a great deal like it.
All these other atheist positions, though, have something in their ontologies besides matter – the Tao, karma or buddha-nature, or subsisting ideals. And in each case, right and wrong are linked to those immaterial extras. As David Hume said, and as C. S. Lewis repeated in The Abolition of Man , you cannot derive an "ought" from an "is," and materialism is a philosophy that starts from nothing but the "is" statements of physics.
To summarize part of Lewis's argument, many materialists have tried to derive morality from some feature of human nature, e.g. from empathy or a supposed instinct to preserve the species. But these benign impulses come up against other impulses, just as natural. My empathy for your suffering may or may not overcome the survival instinct that makes me reluctant to risk my safety. My instinct to preserve the species may conflict with my desire to throttle someone.
On what grounds do we prefer one set of impulses over another? Cowardice and wrath are just as natural as empathy and a species preservation instinct, so it can't be naturalness.
Suppose you just take it as an axiom that the species ought to be preserved, or that we should care for others' suffering as much as our own? Well, that's fine, but that act of declaring such an axiom is not a logical inference from the data. Axioms are the start of inference, not the result.
If you analyze such efforts in terms of formal logic, the problem is just that premises in the indicative mood never imply conclusions in the imperative mood. Put another way, no conclusion with "ought" in it can be valid unless "ought" also appeared in the premises — unless the premises already had a moral dimension.
This leaves materialists in one of three positions regarding morality:
Those who drop morality (1) may in fact be using materialism as an excuse for dropping it. They can claim that, if there's just the physical, there is no objective good and evil, just various parties who approve or disapprove. This is the position Lewis warned against in The Abolition of Man and portrayed in That Hideous Strength. It is also the position pilloried by Charles Tart in The Western Creed. This is blessedly rare, but Lewis, Tart, and others fear that physicalism can give more people the excuse that morality is simply a dumb idea.
Those who simply have materialism and morality exist side by side, unrelated (2), are probably the commonest of the three. Either their moral philosophy exists in a separate system or they have no real philosophy about morality and just unreflectively do what seems right. I expect such materialists generally have the same morals as the surrounding society, perhaps with a tendency to be less sentimental about it. They may also tend to be more strong-minded about their morality; if philosophical materialism is not typical of the surrounding society, then the people who adopt it anyway are the sort who often buck the trend and act deliberately, not conventionally.
Then there are those who link their materialism and their morality with faulty philosophy (3), based on the misconception that you can derive "ought" from "is." This can breed strange and sometimes dangerous ideologies, as when the greatest good for the greatest number (and interpreted solely as this-worldly good) or surivival of the species are made the master goals, and individual rights get trampled. Of course, strange and dangerous ideologies are not the monopoly of materialists, but it's not like the world needs another source of such things. And, if you are moral, you won't want your morality based on faulty philosophy.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011