I’ve been discussing morality with a Christian friend of mine. He claims that atheists have no authority to make statements about standards of moral behavior, because they have no basis for such standards.
It’s the usual trope about atheism having no hook to hang its morality on. As I’ve argued at length here (see my essay on morality, for instance), atheists have a rich tradition of secular ethics to draw from, much of which can be defended by reason.
But I still find my friend’s accusation a little difficult to address, partly because some of the concepts it uses need to be better defined.
Here, I’d like to tackle the concept of authority. What is authority?
As best as I can make out, there are two types of authority:
1. Authority of knowledge. When we say someone is an authority on particle physics or Middle Eastern history, we mean they are exceptionally well-versed in that particular field. They’ve done the research and know the facts. They can therefore speak with authority. They can be trusted more than others to know what they are talking about.
2. Authority of power. When we talk of someone in distress going to the “authorities”, we mean people who have been given some sort of power over the mechanics of society. Police, in particular, are regarded as authorities. They have been given a measure of control over how society operates. The same goes for magistrates, politicians, school principals, factory supervisors, etc.
In both senses of the word, authority involves the handing over of responsibility to others. With authority of knowledge, we yield to an expert the responsibility of understanding, and making progress in, a difficult area of study. This is necessary because we do not have the time to fully investigate all fields of study ourselves. We must therefore assign this responsibility to people who will dedicate their working lives to the task.
Similarly, with authority of power, we yield to certain people the responsibility of keeping law and order in our society and of running our educational, governmental, and corporate organizations. Again, this is necessary because we do not have the time to do these things ourselves. We need people dedicated full time to such tasks, and so we give them the responsibility of doing so.
Crucially, it seems to me that authority is something we acquire. We are not born with it. Either we bestow it upon others or we try to acquire it through hard work.
So what does authority mean when it comes to morality? If moral authority is an authority of knowledge, then a person with moral authority is someone who is an expert in the field. Someone who knows a great deal about moral behavior. Christians would presumably argue that no one knows more about morality than God, so he must be the ultimate authority on the matter.
If moral authority is, instead, an authority of power, then a person with moral authority is one who has been given the power to impose his or her idea of morality over others. God seems to be in this category also: His followers have ceded the reins of right and wrong to God.
In the Christian worldview, then, God knows more about morality than anyone else and, as a result, his followers have given him the power to impose his moral requirements on them.
Rather than delve into the question of whether God really deserves the authority his followers have granted him, I’d like to ask instead whether the above model necessarily preclude atheists from speaking with authority on moral issues.
The answer must surely depend on what moral knowledge is and where it comes from. If, as many Christians claim, morality is built into the very fabric of the cosmos like some sort of natural law, then perhaps they are right. Perhaps only God has the intellect and power to access this mysterious, hidden moral code.
Unfortunately, I have a very hard time accepting the possibility that morality is “built into the fabric of the cosmos”. This is a grand-sounding idea, but it doesn’t come with any sort of meat to it. What is clear is that morality is a set of guidelines for human behavior. And behavioral guidelines do not generally exist in some mysterious non-sentient form in the fabric of the cosmos, like gravity might be said to do. They are engineered by human minds. The closest they come to being part of the fabric of the cosmos is when they are written down on a sheet of paper.
Putting the “transcendent” morality aside, then, can we still argue for some single ideal set of moral guidelines that is better than any other? If we were to “optimize” morality, would we find a single peak on the moral landscape? Or would we find a range of equally good options?
If a single ideal morality existed, perhaps Christians could argue that only God has the knowledge or power to find that ideal morality. How they could demonstrate this to be true, though, I do not know. It certainly does not seem to be the case that Christians are significantly more moral than atheists or people of other faiths. If the citizens of strongly atheist countries behave just as well, if not better, than citizens of strongly religious countries, then why should anyone believe that the Christian God has spotted some sort of ideal location on the moral landscape?
More to the point, if God has simply found the highest peak on the moral landscape, then multiple authorities on morality are possible. The very notion of a moral landscape implies some sort of yardstick by which to measure the fitness of a moral system: a peak in the landscape is a moral system that excels when measured with this yardstick, while a trough in the landscape is one that fares poorly. So there may be a whole set of moral systems that excel – that lie on very high peaks in the landscape. Just because God’s particular peak is a little higher than the others doesn’t make the other peaks meaningless or useless. They still do very well at achieving the desired goal.
My Christian friend, near the end of our discussion, shared what he felt was the goal of Christian morality. It was to look out for our best interests. Such a broad goal, which is shared today by so many ethicists (atheist and theist alike) is likely to yield multiple authorities. It really is possible for atheists to have good ideas about how to behave in a way that promotes people’s best interests. One does not need to refer to supernatural entities to make a contribution. It therefore follows that atheist moral authorities are plausible, even from the Christian perspective.
(Of course, my friend may be unusual in his view. Other Christians might, perhaps, claim that the sole purpose of moral behavior is to benefit God, not ourselves.)
My basic conclusion is therefore that until some “morality of the cosmos” can be found, there is no reason to suppose that God is the only viable authority on morality.
In fact, until God himself can be found, there is no reason to suppose even he is an authority on morality.
UPDATE: Please read the insightful comment posted by Tom Stewart, below.