Saturday, March 21, 2009

Atheism and Morality

Its been quite interesting to see how many atheists there are who believe that objective morality exists. Actually, I would say that the majority believe in objective morality. However, objective morality is inconsistent with the atheist worldview; they don't have a foundation for acting in a "moral" way versus an "immoral" way. I'm not saying that atheists can't be moral; they can. I'm just saying that they can't justify it. Here's why.

Morality implies "oughtness". How something ought to behave. That implies that you understand that that thing (that ought to behave in a certain way) was designed to behave in the expected way. Example: A watch ought to keep time. It is designed to keep time; therefore, it ought to. If it were not designed to do anything, it ought (is expected) to do nothing.

Atheism posits that humans and the universe have no design or purpose, period. Therefore, it must be concluded that atheism has no room for moral (among other types of) "oughtness".

Does "oughtness" flow logically from "design" or "expectation"? The atheist might be able to get away from the conclusion above by claiming "oughtness" just implies an expectation. But I would have to question what they base their "expectation" on. If they want to base it on history (rather than design) then, they must determine which parts of history they want to base the expectation on, and I would ask them why they choose those certain parts of history and not others.

Now, some atheists have tried to explain the foundation for their belief in objective morality by pointing to examples in the world. They argue along the lines of "look at society; obviously, murder is wrong" or "obviously, stealing is wrong". They use examples to prove "why". The problem is examples don't prove "why" something is true; they only prove "that" something is true. Atheists still need to provide a reason "why" they ought to act a certain way.

Once again, I'm not saying that atheists can't be moral. I'm saying there is no objective foundation for determining why a certain behavior is moral or immoral in their worldview.

Not only does Christianity explain "why" objective morality exists (it is the very nature of God), but it explains "how" an atheist can be moral, yet believe something completely opposite.

Here's a good article on the subject from Dr. William Lane Craig:
Can We Be Good Without God?

Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Greg Koukl is a good book about atheism and morality.

Here's a video from Greg Koukl. He is asked if pain and suffering disprove God's existence.

23 comments:

  1. Direct reply:

    “Morality implies "oughtness". How something ought to behave. implies that you understand that that thing (that ought to behave in a certain way) was designed to behave in the expected way. Example: A watch ought to keep time. It is designed to keep time; therefore, it ought to. If it were not designed to do anything, it ought (is expected) to do nothing.”

    It can be said then, from an atheist perspective, that humans were designed by natural selection to be social creatures – therefore, we ought to behave in a social way (see evolutionary ethics). Humans that behave in anti-social ways reduce their chance of survival and reproduction. The collapse of society leads to what Hobbe’s describes as “The State of Nature.”

    “Atheism posits that humans and the universe have no design or purpose, period. Therefore, it must be concluded that atheism has no room for moral (among other types of) "oughtness".”

    Atheism posits humans were “designed” by natural selection, and that humans have no inherent purpose. Purpose is a human construction. That atheism has no room for moral ought is a non sequitur. That atheism has no room for types of “oughtness” is false. That’s like saying that because of our evolutionary design and lack of inherent purpose one cannot say one ought to brush his teeth if he wish to avoid cavities. Brushing one’s teeth prevents cavities. Acting morally creates social harmony. Living in a State of Nature outside of social harmony, results in life being “nasty, brutish, and short.” It is much harder to survive and reproduce in the State of Nature than in a state of social harmony. Seriously deviant behavior, or as law calls it “capital crimes” ostracize a member from society and they will diminish their chance for survival, reproduction, and possibly happiness. The ought is contingent on the individual’s wish to be a part of society, just as brushing one’s teeth is contingent on the desire to avoid cavities. Most human beings are social though, and the antisocial human is the exception, not the rule. I briefly address the contingency of morality further below.

    “Now, some atheists have tried to explain the foundation for their belief in objective morality by pointing to examples in the world. They argue along the lines of "look at society; obviously, murder is wrong" or "obviously, stealing is wrong". They use examples to prove "why". The problem is examples don't prove "why" something is true; they only prove "that" something is true. Atheists still need to provide a reason "why" they ought to act a certain way.”

    The examples are not the end in themselves. The point of the examples is that such things are objectively moral because society would not function without them. They examples show why. The why is functionality. Create a society without these moral laws, and I posit that the moral laws would emerge within the society or the society would fail. What is meant by society failing? The members would no longer trust and interact with each other, society would fall apart, and they would resort to the Hobbesian State of Nature. This is the state of things we see in lawless parts of the world where society has broken down. Consider Katrina during the hurricane. There was no social order, the society had broken down. Humans would have a very difficult time surviving, reproducing, and thriving in an environment that persisted in the State of Nature. Katrina ended. In most parts of the world, the people do not live in the State of Nature. They all tend to live more or less harmoniously together based upon a mutual social contract.


    “Not only does Christianity explain "why" objective morality exists (it is the very nature of God), but it explains "how" an atheist can be moral, yet believe something completely opposite.”

    Except if you accept the 10 commandments as fundamental to morality, the atheist cannot be moral because he breaks the first four by virtue of his own identity.

    A Basic Argument for the Origin and Necessity of Morality without need for redress to teleology:

    Now, further explanation of why an atheist can have objective morality, and a why it is consistent with atheism. I digress from the use of the world worldview as one’s theological position is only a part of one’s worldview, and atheists have many differing worldviews amongst themselves.

    Claim:
    I would say that atheist morality cannot be absolute but it can be objective.

    Definitions:
    Objective shall be defined as having actual existence or reality (American Heritage Dictionary).

    Absolute shall be defined as - free from imperfection; complete; perfect.(Random House Dictionary).

    Background:
    Evolution can imply design, but not in the teleological way theists understand it. For example, natural selection designs us to behave in certain ways. Design is not meant to imply a teleological purpose behind it, just a pragmatic focus on survival and reproduction. Due to our "design" (another way of saying, how we evolved) we evolved to be social creatures. Due to our intelligence and relatively weak physical attributes, we survive best as social creatures. Whereas other animals have strength and agility, we have brains and the ability to fashion tools and to use language. We are evolutionarily geared towards cooperation with other members of the species. Therefore, the foundation of morality is a functional need to survive, reproduce, and thrive based on our biological design. Again, this design is another way of saying “how things emerged” and I am not implying teleological purpose or intent.

    The Social Contract:
    In order for society to function, social contracts are made.
    Imagine a desert island with 10 people. In order to survive and thrive, people will make contracts with each other and form a society. An example is an agreement not to harm each other. In addition to this agreement, they may provide for sanctions to enforce the rule. A member who does harm another member of the society will be punished by ostracizing. They will no longer have access to the benefits of society.

    This example is illustrative of the functional nature of morality. There is no need to seek teleological purpose. From an evolutionary perspective, the humans who socialize have a better chance at survival. From a psychological perspective, there are many benefits to being part of a society – our minds are geared towards socializing. Morals then are constructions we use to ensure we get these benefits. They are objective because they are real and exist, but their existence is contingent upon the society that makes them. If a society does not make them, and never does so, it will not last long as a society. All human societies have norms and mores, and it is simply a matter of necessity that they have them.

    Further:
    “Thou shalt not kill”. It's pretty universal because it is required for society to exist. A [functional] society cannot exist where people are afraid to interact for fear of their life. As for the why, I don't think we need to posit anything teleological;if members of a society fear being killed by other members, they will not work together and interact - and that diminishes their ability to survive and reproduce. Humans who are cooperative will survive and reproduce; those who are loners will have a much harder time doing so, and those who are anti-social will be ostracized. This need for cooperation is expressed in a morality of social contracts.


    The moral truth of "you shouldn't kill each other" is objective. It is an actually existing moral rule. In our society, it is codified into law. I cannot think of many societies that do not have it, but there may be a few in primitive parts of the world somewhere; but I am inclined to hypothesize that they highly homogenous and have strong informal social controls circumventing the need for “thou shalt not kill” being made into a formal rule. “Thou shalt not kill” is based on our need for cooperation and society in order to survive and reproduce. It is fundamental to the existence of society.

    Not Absolute:
    It is not absolute. Obviously, when members of the society break the contract they are no longer apart of the contract and it no longer applies to them. This is why we imprison, and sometimes even kill murders. When members of other societies attack our society, we kill them to protect our own society. This is why we allow killing in war. We recognize that the objective rule "thou shalt not kill" is contingent upon the agreement of other members of the society and other societies with whom we interact. It is objective in that it is a real, existing rule. It's why is based in functionalism. Society would not work without it. It is not absolute because there are circumstances where it does not apply.

    There are many other examples.

    A Strong Counter-argument to Absolute morality:
    The best example I have against an Absolute morality will require the absolutist/Kantian to admit that it is a) "wrong to lie" and b) "it is wrong to aid in the murder of innocent persons.

    Now, say you are a German in 1940. You are hiding Jews in your basement. Nazi soldiers knock on your door and ask if you have any Jews on your property. Now, if lying is absolutely wrong we cannot lie. If it is wrong to aid in the murder of innocent persons, we cannot tell them about the Jews. This leaves a conundrum for the absolutist.

    My response to the conundrum:
    I would say it is objectively wrong to lie and to aid in the murder of innocent persons, but that it is contingent upon circumstance. The Nazi state, by depriving the Jews of the right to life - has forfeited the social contract; therefore, it is okay to lie to them and hide the Jews. Some did not view it this way, and considered the Nazi government legitimate and helped exterminate the Jews because they were ordered to do so. The "I did as I was told" defense did not hold up at Nuremberg. The reason is because the Allies, who were victorious, considered it wrong to kill the Jews - and since they had the power to enforce their moral code on the Germans, they did so.

    Disclaimer:
    Obviously, I am not saying it is okay to kill Jews. But I am saying that the right to life is a construction, and constructions do require power to hold them together when others would break them. This is why governments have police forces and militaries. Obviously, from a social contract perspective, the right to life is somewhat fundamental to society - and it is very easy to understand why it is a necessary construct for a functioning society.

    A last note.... this social contract model of morality I am explaining understands that morality and rights are constructions. They are not absolute facts. They are objective in that we codify them into law. Some morals/laws are better than others. We can measure the "goodness" or "badness" of a law based on our values, which are also constructions. Ultimately though, law and morality have to be functional. If they are not functional, society will break down. When society breaks down, human survival and reproduction (as well as happiness) are jeopardized.

    Summary:
    So, if you still claim atheists have no absolute morality, I am sure they would agree. However, I don't think you can claim it is not objective. Morals exist because they are functional in nature (why). People agree upon morals, and sometimes even codify them - making them explicitly objective (how). But morals do not exist independently of the people who agree upon them; and morals can be more or less effective at producing societal harmony depending on their construction.

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  2. Atheism only allows for the appearance of design, not true design. How is it not a nonsensical claim to say that "natural selection designed humans to be social creatures?"

    If "to be social creatures" is a purpose, how can atheism also claim we have "no purpose"?

    Can you think of anything that was designed (I'm talking true, not appearance of design) that has absolutely no purpose? (We need a control to test the claim against.)

    Is natural selection intelligent?

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  3. But that is exactly the point. Natural selection has the appearance of design. It does not imply teleogical design. Design is merely a word commonly employed to refer to "how something evolved" but it does not mean the same thing as the ID proponent uses it for. When the naturalists says, "natural selection designed humans to be social creatures" it means "the ones who weren't social did not reproduce and pass on their genes." It does not mean that some intelligence made them to be social.

    Our "purpose" isn't to be social creatures; that is just merely the way we evolved and what helped us survive and reproduce best. Purpose and design have distinct meanings within evolutionary biology seperate from the vernacular. ID proponents are guilty of equivocation.

    The second to last question is an equivocation of natural selection and design with intention. Design by natural selection is not the same as design by engineering. They mean different things. Human design has intent. "Design" by natural selection is merely how things evolve to survive and reproduce.

    Living things evolve in response to their environment, then reproduce on their own causing the "design" of natural selection. Man made things evolve in response to their designer, and cannot reproduce on their own. It is not apples to apples, and hence not really a control because whenever you compare a biological organism to a man-made object.... there is always the variable of a designer with the man-made object that doesn't exist with the biological organism. Biological organisms evolve on their own. Watches do not.

    Is natural selection intelligent? So far no.

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  4. It appears as though you are accusing Naturalists of changing the definition of the word "design", simply so they may use it. Please look up "design" in a dictionary. Did you notice that all the definitions involve a "plan"? Is it possible to "plan" something without intelligence? Is randomly putting things to together (with no purpose) really a design?

    My point is that Naturalists need to stop using the term "design". They need to replace it with something else that does not, by definition, require an intelligence.

    The reason for my asking about a design without a purpose was so that you might be able to find a hole in what I just stated. Since no design exists without a purpose, natural selection cannot be described in terms of a "design".

    At this point, it cannot be said that, "Natural selection designed humans to be social creatures; therefore, social responsibility determines objective ethics." The truth of the second part of that statement depends on the first part being true.

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  5. Naturalists aren't trying to change the definition of design as it occurs in the vernacular. They just use it in a specialized sense.... just like physicists use "entropy" in a specialized sense whereas it means something different in the vernacular.

    I read an article by a naturalist saying they should stop using "design." The problem is that it's just plain an easy word to use so long as someone understands the nuances of it. It's understood that evolutionary designs means "the way something evolved and adapted to be".... and the word design is a lot shorter than "the way something evolved and adapted to be."

    The first part is still true. Naturally selection caused humans to evolve and adapt in such a way as to be social creatures; therefore social creatures must abide by social rules for social coherence.

    Except, since I didn't use the word "design" I had to write "caused humans to evolve and adapt in such a way" which is 9 words longer than the word "design."

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  6. Thank you for changing the vocabulary of the statement. You have made yourself much more clear in your meaning and less open to misinterpretation. Now, moving on...

    "...social creatures must abide by social rules for social coherence"

    I agree. But, why is "social coherence" good? What is so great about "social coherence" that the behaviors that lead to it would be deemed objectively, morally good, from a naturalist perspective?

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  7. There are a minimum of two stances we can take from this point.

    "good" is what lends to survival and reproduction. Evolutionary morality.

    "good" is a social construct. Social contract theory.

    I think a naturalist would have a solid foundation for either of those.

    In social contract theory, even though the morals are a construction, they are constructed objectively.

    Think of your house. Before it existed, it was just land. There was no house there. People got together, designed some blueprints, and built the house. The house now objectively exists. The house may be good, but it may have some imperfections. You eventually may have to tinker with the design by say, calling a roofer to fix a leak in the roof. I think that is at least a decent analogy to how social contract theory could be understood. The blueprints are the morals society creates for itself, and as societies evolve and progress rules some moral rules change while some stay the same.

    But I think you'll find that some rules for morality are essential for functionality, e.g. rules against killing other members of society for no-reason. Rules also exist for a house to be functional, it must have a roof to provide shelter. You could have a house without a roof, but would it be functional. You could have a society without laws for murder, but would it be functional and how long would it last?

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  8. Are the rules objective (unchanging) in either one of these stances, regardless of circumstance, species, time, or emotion?

    Are you prepared to accept, as a moral behavior, one that is currently considered by society as immoral, but is extremely effective for survival and reproduction?

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  9. Objective does not mean unchanging. I think you are conflating the term "objective" with "absolute."

    Objective merely means "having actual existence or reality."

    I've already stated the social contract is subject to change.... but the changes are made objectively.

    Law is an objective reality. But it is not unchanging. There is a process whereby it is changed. Something can be objective, but that does not mean it must be unchanging.

    And your last question conflates social contract theory with evolutionary ethics/egoism. They are not the same thing.

    But, what specific behavior are you speaking of?

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  10. one last note:
    I think there is some truth and value to social-contract theory; but I think I would most place myself under the category of "Buddhist ethics" if I had to claim an ethical system.

    But that is different from the point of your post: that secular atheists cannot have objective ethics. Which I think is false, and depends on a hijacking of the word "objective" to mean "absolute."

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  11. Fair enough. I'll stick with "objective" meaning "having actual existence or reality".

    Did morality have actual existence or reality before humans or societies existed?

    You refer to evolutionary morality to say that "survival" and "reproduction" are good. Does it reasonably and logically follow that because something happens, it is good?

    Let me rephrase my last question in my last comment (its a mouthful):

    Are you prepared to accept, as having the actual existence or reality of being good, a behavior that is currently considered by society as having the actual existence or reality of being wrong, but is extremely effective for survival and reproduction, thus evolutionarily, ethically good?

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  12. "Did morality have actual existence or reality before humans or societies existed?"
    The response of the naturalists would be no. Morality is a human construction.

    "You refer to evolutionary morality to say that "survival" and "reproduction" are good. Does it reasonably and logically follow that because something happens, it is good?"
    Absolutely not. Is does not equal Ought.

    Are you prepared to accept, as having the actual existence or reality of being good, a behavior that is currently considered by society as having the actual existence or reality of being wrong, but is extremely effective for survival and reproduction, thus evolutionarily, ethically good?
    No, because I don't believe in evolutionary morality - and I don't know many who do. I see evolutionary morality being alone the lines of what Nietzsche advocated and what comic book supervillains emulate.

    Social contract theory is a much better secular explanation and system of morality. But social contract theory.society has to deal with those "beyond good and evil ubermensch" types that do things that are "ethically good" according to mere survival and reproduction..... which is why we have so many law enforcement agencies.

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  13. the ubermensch goes sort of beyond survival and reproduction, and Nietzsche introduces the concept of "will to power" but to KISS, as a social contract theorist I would say that breaking the rules of society are wrong even if it benefits an individual because it hurts the society.

    It depends a lot on whether one has a collective or individualist view to life....

    I'm not a social contract person, but I recognize it has explanatory power and that it's one of the better theories out there.

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  14. Okay, so let's abandon evolutionary morality as accepted, and not worry about debating it.

    Do you want to debate the objectivity of naturalistic, "social contract"-based morality? If you do, put forth your explanation of it, and we'll go from there.

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  15. see my first comment in re to social contract theory.

    "The Social Contract:
    In order for society to function, social contracts are made.
    Imagine a desert island with 10 people. In order to survive and thrive, people will make contracts with each other and form a society. An example is an agreement not to harm each other. In addition to this agreement, they may provide for sanctions to enforce the rule. A member who does harm another member of the society will be punished by ostracizing. They will no longer have access to the benefits of society.

    This example is illustrative of the functional nature of morality. There is no need to seek teleological purpose. From an evolutionary perspective, the humans who socialize have a better chance at survival. From a psychological perspective, there are many benefits to being part of a society – our minds are geared towards socializing. Morals then are constructions we use to ensure we get these benefits. They are objective because they are real and exist, but their existence is contingent upon the society that makes them. If a society does not make them, and never does so, it will not last long as a society. All human societies have norms and mores, and it is simply a matter of necessity that they have them.

    Further:
    “Thou shalt not kill”. It's pretty universal because it is required for society to exist. A [functional] society cannot exist where people are afraid to interact for fear of their life. As for the why, I don't think we need to posit anything teleological;if members of a society fear being killed by other members, they will not work together and interact - and that diminishes their ability to survive and reproduce. Humans who are cooperative will survive and reproduce; those who are loners will have a much harder time doing so, and those who are anti-social will be ostracized. This need for cooperation is expressed in a morality of social contracts.


    The moral truth of "you shouldn't kill each other" is objective. It is an actually existing moral rule. In our society, it is codified into law. I cannot think of many societies that do not have it, but there may be a few in primitive parts of the world somewhere; but I am inclined to hypothesize that they highly homogenous and have strong informal social controls circumventing the need for “thou shalt not kill” being made into a formal rule. “Thou shalt not kill” is based on our need for cooperation and society in order to survive and reproduce. It is fundamental to the existence of society.

    Not Absolute:
    It is not absolute. Obviously, when members of the society break the contract they are no longer apart of the contract and it no longer applies to them. This is why we imprison, and sometimes even kill murders. When members of other societies attack our society, we kill them to protect our own society. This is why we allow killing in war. We recognize that the objective rule "thou shalt not kill" is contingent upon the agreement of other members of the society and other societies with whom we interact. It is objective in that it is a real, existing rule. It's why is based in functionalism. Society would not work without it. It is not absolute because there are circumstances where it does not apply."

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  16. Am I understanding this correctly?

    Social contract-based morality states that one society can say that one action is right, while another can say that the same action is wrong.

    The first society may have rewards for said action, while the second society may have punishments for said action.

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  17. In a nutshell, yes.

    Also keep in mind that societies are dynamic.... they evolve over time, and as part of their evolution their morals evolve. E.g. slavery and abolition; pre-marital sex and contraceptives (before the 1930s, most Protestants were adamently against contraception, not the case today even amongst the most conservative); homosexuality and marriage; interracial marriage; etc. etc. etc.

    Norms, mores, and folkways change over time; and society redefines its laws as the culture changes. The relationship is bi-directional though, sometimes law can cause cultural change (desegregation laws leading to racial integration); sometimes cultural change causes the law to change (abolition, gay rights).

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  18. Let me take it a step futher:

    The moral law is subject to the society and subject to the development of the society.

    The moral law is also relative to the society and relative to the development of the society.

    In a nutshell, am I correct?

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  19. Yes, but I would phrase it different.

    Moral laws are products of society. Since moral laws are products of society, as society changes, moral laws change to reflect the changes to society.

    Moral laws differ between societies. Depending on how a society has evolved, their moral laws will be different from other societies.

    Example:
    A communist society cannot have laws against theft because there is no such thing as private property, whereas in a capitalist society there are many laws about theft.
    A capitalist society cannot have laws against profit because capitalism runs on profit; a communist society has many laws against profit.

    Some laws are more universal than others because they are functionally necessary, "do not kill another person for no reason."

    Further:
    see Max Weber (society and moral/legal development).
    Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Rawls - philosophical development of SCT.

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  20. Perhaps so I don't get caught in a word-trap I should make a point.

    The objectivity of a moral system is contingent on frame of reference. It is objective within a given frame of reference, the frame of reference being society.

    Sort of, Einstein's relativity meets ethics and society.

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  21. "The objectivity of a moral system is contingent on frame of reference."

    You just showed how, in the worldview of atheism, there is NO absolute moral law.

    By making it contingent on ANYTHING, how are you making it NOT relative, NOT absolute, NOT subjective, and NOT universal?

    Also, what determines, in each society, what behavior is to be agreed upon as the moral law of the land at the time?

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  22. It is not absolute, that I already admit.

    Some morals are universal, some are not. The prohibition against killing another member of the society without cause is universal simply because it is functionally necessary; societies that don't have it will cease to exist. They will go extinct. Kind of like natural selection I suppose; some developments are essential and must be kept - others just kind of happen.

    It is objective only in the sense that the laws and mores within society really exist.

    People and/or their governments determine what behavior is agreed upon. Society determines the moral law.

    And hey, I'm just playing devil's advocate. I realise that in this context
    a) Nazi Germany was justified in killing the Jews EXCEPT
    b) if humanity as a whole is the macro-society, and they condemned the behavior, and they won the war, they could rule that genocide is immoral.

    You really need to debate a secular atheist on this.... I can only go so far at playing devil's advocate.

    The secular atheist may be able to get down to a) this is what makes for the good life (construction), possibly based on an objective principal (suffering bad, happiness good) b) these rules will be most conducive to above c) these are the moral rules. So we arrive at utilitarianism.... and ironically, utilitiarian morality seems to be the ethical code of choice for purely atheistic societies (U.S.S.R., Communist China).

    My take:
    Interdependence has some empirical evidence, but I think there is a metaphysical element to it; karma as well. But those are not in the playbook of the secular atheist....

    Summary:
    The rules in a secular atheistic society, even if artifically constructed are still objective in the sense that they exist and they are defined. They are just not absolute (unchanging) or universal.

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  23. To wrap up, my point has been made and agreed upon by the "devil's advocate" (I'll have to press a real advocate for real answers). But, it has been made apparent that in atheism "objective" cannot be used to describe morals without qualifying the "sense". This lends to the agreed point that even if you wish to give atheistic morals the description of being "objective", they are in no way absolute.

    There are a few other arenas of this that I would like to delve into, but I will save those for a future post.

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