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« Sabine Döring on Emotion | Main | John Armstrong on What Can You Do With Philosophy? »

August 28, 2009



"It is not true that if God is dead then everything is permitted"

Permitted by who?

In the absence of God you can't just arbitrarily reestablish morality as a human construct. Right and wrong just go out of the window; the meaningless, empty. You can't get around this just by redefining the words as philosophers commonly like to do. Whenever I hear people use the words right and wrong it just makes me wince. It's the final argument of someone who's run out of arguments: "It's just wrong". I understand the sentiment but it's nothing more than that, a sentiment.

With morality out of the window all we are really talking about is force. As humans we have reached a concensus that certain things are unacceptable. We have established legal systems to regulate these actions and have labelled them as illegal. Their weight comes purely from the concensus which they were borne out of and the threatened force for contravention.

I really don't think that you can use the words "right" and "wrong" anymore. If someone does something that you don't like then say it but otherwise "Legal" and "illegal" are the only things that matter.

Harold Godwinson

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong comes across as a very nice guy. It is very interesting but there appear to me to be some confusions, unless of course I have misunderstood.

1. Causing harm to others is the basis of morality.

So he is a consequentialist.

2." Many different religions share the same morality which "shows that morality isn't based on any particular religious revelation."

Given the title of the interview, "Morality without God", surely this statement confuses the morality of a particular religious tradition with that of God.

Now a Theist could actually turn the argument around and argue that the large area of agreement across different creeds points to confirmation of an external morality albeit imperfectly embodied within any particular religion's moral precepts.

3. "Most people out there don't want to harm other people."

The fallacy here is to ignore the impact of centuries of religious socialization upon "common sense" morality.

The advocate of religion could point out that the empirical studies referred to are not germane to the question: the only valuable statistical analysis would be to set the common sense morality of a society with no theistic moral tradition against that of a a society which had one.

This is of course impossible.

The implicit moral code, the range of behavioural presuppositions which constitute the "common sense" moral code, of a society is of course diachronic, a synchronic analysis is hardly relevant.

4. "If the basis of morality is harm to the victim it doesn't matter whether God is around or not."

I am afraid that we have a bootstrap equilibrium here (to use Keynes' expression): The question of whether causing harm to others is the basis for morality must be argued, not simply asserted. Books 1 and 2 of Plato's republic explore this issue very well.

A different point of view might, for example, be that "Might is right".

Argument by assertion is simply not philosophically valid.

5. "One is gonna cite the Bilbe the other is gonna cite the Qu'ran .... citing these texts is not going to help solve the problem."

Once again a confusion between the morality of a particular text and the morality of God.

This confusion appears to pervade the whole interview. Should it, and Walter's book, have been titled "Morality without a text" ?

A first year undergraduate type of question which Walter should have addressed:

"Is it good because God wills it; or does God will it because it is good?"

The latter position would be untouched by W. S-A

(of course this would open up a vast metaphysical debate)

6. "Its helping other people not just trying to get your own self into heaven."

As I said W.S-A appears to be a consequentialist, the tradition of intention in ethics (which includes the Christian tradition) precludes the scenario of the believer being able get into heaven by the performance of ostensibly "good" deeds whilst all the time having vainglorious motives.

David A.Scott

We need not throw the terms right and wrong "out of the window" even though such judgements are apparently subjective. From an evolutionary perspective much of our individual and social behaviour is simply that which maximises our genetic propagation. The fact that certain behaviours, such as a taboo against murder or incest, are almost universal is not evidence for a God but a result of the general evolutionary context common to us all where cooperation is as important as other more selfish behaviours. The fact that certain behaviours are then termed "good" merely reflects this almost universal agreement. The upshot of all this is that our morality is essentially a product of our social evolution. Different societies have different interactions with their environment and that is why there are minor variations in "Moral codes" such as the acceptance of polygamy or polyandry in some societies but there is practically a universal agreement of something along the lines of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"
As our societies develop we should expect certain aspects of our moral code to evolve...which is why toleration of homosexuality,or "the right of women to speak in church" (W S-A)etc is now largely accepted. Those who refuse to accept that society impacts on our moral judgments and stick inflexibly (religiously if you will) to particular religious texts will find themselves increasingly marginalised. There is no contradiction in accepting some universal ideas of right and wrong whilst still allowing ourselves to evaluate so called "moral issues" in the light of social developments, at least not from an evolutionary perspective


Walter Sinnott-Armstrong makes a very uncompelling argument for the existence of morality without god. He has no answer for the categorical imperative, he's just rehashing utilitarianism. Common sense as a basic concept has no place in philosophy.

Christopher Wiley

As a theist I was looking forward to a challege here. I didn't get one. Sinnott-Armstrong failed to address and ( and I fear ) didn't even understand some of the questions that were put to him. As to the excellent one raising diversity of inerpretation within the Christian traditon -- his response failed to do justice to that diversity -- seeming to attribute it to mere selective proof-texting. Furthermore, his citations of scriptures permitting slavery and calling women to silence in the church fail to recongnize the institutional frameworks within which polity and morality are practiced. What should interest us is the fact that in the history of the world slavery is a universal institution (see "Freedom in the Making of Western Culture" by Orlando Patterson. Why is it that only in the Christian West and those cultures under the influence of the Christian West has slavery passed out of practice? So much more to say here about the feable and yet condescending arguments put forward by Sinnott-Armstrong -- but that's enough for now.

Christopher Wiley

He teaches at Dartmouth?!

That's unbelievable. My estimation of Dartmouth has taken a hit.

Tarrou in Camus' 'La Peste' declares he attempts to be a saint without God and this line exalted and inspired me when I was about 22 years old and read the novel for the second or third time. It made me susceptible and appreciative of a morality that was independent of the religious traditions and revelations or a supernatural a priori prescription. It makes the quest for ethics more demanding and a profoundly humanist effort.

So when Philosophy Bites spoke with Walter Sinott-Armstrong under the title Morality without God, I knew I was going to like the podcast and find myself on familiar ground. That turned out as a bit of a deception after all. No matter how appreciative I am of his views, not even I felt convinced by what he was saying. It seems to me he took Morality without God on from the wrong angle.

I'd like to point back to Tarrou and emphasize the 'attempt' bit - morality is first and foremost a quest. And here I'd like to make a side-note to say that over the years I have come to see it is no less a quest for the believers as it is for the non-believers, but the gain in the argument from extracting morality from any given set of rules is to take it away from useless points about consequentialism versus a priori good and the lousy attempt by Sinott-Armstrong to stick morality in the realm of common sense. (Does this mean religious tradition is not common sense?) Common sense, as it comes to us through the ages is historically and socially so obviously influenced by the religious traditions, that this tells us nothing. And whether religions were shaped by common sense, or common sense by religions, lies inextricably hidden in the mists of our history.

If you want to make a secular point, I'd say it should have been that what Tarrou meant to say: trying to be ethical is hard as it is, but trying it without god, that is without any revelation and without any social network and set of custom values such as religion, makes it a more sincere, existential quest. Tougher and truer.

And then, wasn't it the devoutly religious Kierkegaard who stated something like that?

Matt M

The interview itself was nothing new - a commonsensical presentation of utilitarianism, as others have commented above. But Nigel's final question about a "personal struggle" (I forget the exact wording) added an interesting twist. For a European, there is nothing controversial about atheism, it's the standard world view held by most educated people... but even now it's cause for ostracism in some parts of the US. Why is this?


Charlie & Godwinson & Wiley: your objections are known and extensively handled. Just read the book! Also read . After reading that, can you provide a christian defence against the problem of evil?

Jim Vaughan

Two myths that should be dispelled are 1) Atheists are immoral and 2) Theists are irrational. I also support Prof. Sinnott-Armstrong's advocacy of secular, rational common sense ethics. Humanism is ethical.

However, Christianity is more radical than common sense ‘humanist’ morality, e.g. “love your enemies”, “turn the other cheek” etc. As Machiavelli pointed out, this defies reason for anyone with worldly ambitions - it makes sense to crush your enemies swiftly and without mercy before they harm you. Where is the motivation in humanism to not harm those who wish you harm? Common sense would advocate only ‘game-theory’ strategies of a morality based on reciprocity.

Prof. Sinnott-Armstrong painted a picture of a dummed-down religion where morality is obeying the Biblical rule-book to avoid God's punishment (i.e. Hell). I think this may be how religion is taught in some churches, but it is so rooted in fear, it is almost a blasphemy.

Religion (Latin: ligo–ligere) means 're-connection' – with others, with nature and with the mysterious source of all existence (God). In its highest form it is love of the “Other” (to use Levinas’s term). The “Other” is the face of the stranger, the despised, the alienated AND of our enemy, and for Levinas, the face of God. This goes beyond common sense morality, and is so difficult, we need divine help. The motivation is love.

So, humanism and common sense morality based on reciprocity may be sufficient for most purposes. However, it is not sufficiently radical to solve the world’s conflicts. Only the vision of a Ghandi, or Martin Luther King, or Desmond Tutu, inspired by faith can go that extra mile without violence.

Just a final word - I salute Prof. Sinnott-Armstrong and those who stand up for atheism in a culture of not-so-subtle theistic coercion. It takes courage to stand up against the tyranny of the “They”.


As I was listening, I said to myself "This guy sounds like a preacher", right before you asked him if there's a personal reason behind his vehemence. I find quite ironic that so many atheists have adopted the similar tone as that of their nemesis: the religion.

But isn't that the problem? They are arguing religious dogmas, not theism per se. Theism can be extremely abstract, so such childish attacks as those on the Bible verses simply won't do. To make matter worse, Prof. Armstrong repeatedly made references to "natural tendency", which sounds awfully close to "natural law", which is the favorite phrase of many philosophically inclined theists.

Great interview, though, as always...

Marcus Ranum

Jim Vaughan writes:
Only the vision of a Ghandi, or Martin Luther King, or Desmond Tutu, inspired by faith can go that extra mile without violence.

You can't cherry-pick just the good ones!! If you want to claim King and Tutu (Ghandi was a racist fruitbag, whose campaigns of peaceful protest were largely peaceful because he had no choice. He also was deeply contemptuous of his own people's ability to stand up for themselves. Don't build him up as a moral mountain, in other words...) as exemplars of the moral good you get from faith, then the converse must also hold: you accept the moral wrongs that also come from faith (i.e.: Torquemada, etc). If faith-based morality inspires the good deeds, it also must inspire the bad ones, or you're left with the difficult position of explaining why only the good deeds count - that's a tough argument to make, I think.

Epicurus pretty much stuck a fork in all arguments for religion-based morality by showing that the gods are, themselves, are either immoral or powerless. And, as Harold Godwinson pointed out, above, he didn't answer Plato's question "what is pious?" If god is powerless, I suppose it doesn't matter, but if god is immoral, then following the wishes of such a god would also be immoral.

Scott Nandor

Sinnott-Armstrong makes three unfounded assumptions in his discussion of morality.

The first is that we have free will. Acting morally necessitates having free will and Sinnott-Armstrong mistakenly assumes we do have free will. Without the existence of a god, a physicalist model of the universe is necessitated. That being so, from whence does free will come? Humans are simply a myriad of physio-chemical reactions in a large biological creature with no ability to choose. Just as gravity and chemical reactions have no free choice, adding a complex organ like a brain does not produce free will, it only makes the physical reactions more complex.

Sinnott-Armstrong must explain the benefit of saying morality is doing no harm to others when one does not have the free will to choose to be moral. In Sinnott-Armstrong’s physicalist worldview, there is no free will and therefore acting morally is impossible Therefore, it falls to Sinnott-Armstrong to demonstrate how the chemical reactions in a humans brain translate to free will, which he does not.

The second assumption is that morality and instinct are different. He speaks as though we all know what is moral and what is not moral because we know. He calls it common sense. However, from a physicalist worldview, what is common sense other than instincts? And what are instincts, but chemical reactions? It is uncertain how instincts are moral or immoral. Good instincts assist in survival while poor instincts allow for the death of a creature. For physicalism, the determining factor for which actions are good and which are bad is how they relate to survival. Causing pain to another is not necessarily a survival issue. Sinnott-Armstrong does not clarify how ‘common sense’ or ‘instincts’ are in anyway moral. Simply because I am repulsed an action, only means, according to physicalism, that I have a physical reaction that I do not enjoy when I see that event. Where is the morality or evil in that chemical reaction? I have a reaction that I do not enjoy, but what makes that action (or my reaction) immoral?

The third unfounded assumption is that doing harm is not desirable. Given physicalism, survival of the fittest seems to be the case, it is the strong who survive to propagate. Nigel Warburton says that in the case of rape, it is easy to state it is wrong. Elsewhere, Sinnott-Armstrong has said the rape it simply wrong. Given the survival of the fittest, why are these two correct? Also, to claim something is wrong because it is does not give a reason for morality, it only gives a statement of morality. Claiming a moral belief is obvious does not make it so, nor does it give foundation for it being wrong. If the fittest must harm others (including rape) to survive, then why is this wrong from a physicalist point of view? Sinnott-Armstrong never shares an answer. He only presupposes he is correct.

As a side note, he bemoans the ‘plight’ of the atheist at the end of the podcast and states he is lucky to be a tenured professor in philosophy. It would be interesting for Philosophy Bites to have a guest who is a theist so he or she could complain about the plight of a theist attempting to be tenured in philosophy at a secular school.

Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth

Fr.Melier's the problem of Heaven eviscerates all defenses and theodicies by noting that should there be free will and a guarantee not to do wrong, the same shoud be had here; this is no hobgoblin of little minds,just the requriement for consistency and no special pleading.

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