This post is meant to clarify some important concepts that will be used in my next post, which will be dedicated to sketching an answer to the question, “What is the basis of morality?” I don’t think that anything that I will say in this current post is particularly controversial or profound (or original). For the most part, it is just some preliminary conceptual housekeeping that will help to lay the foundation for the substantive claims about the foundation of morality in my next post.

The reason for this series of posts is that, in many conversations that I’ve participated in about the basis of morality and, in particular, the role of God in accounting for objective morality, both with students and on the internet, I’ve come across many people claiming (or sometimes just assuming) that theism can account for objective morality but atheism cannot. Even though such assertions are  made by people I respect, including some widely respected professional philosophers, I find them utterly without foundation. God in no way accounts for the existence of moral obligation and the correct account can have nothing to do with God, for reasons that I hope to elaborate on in the course of a series of posts to follow. So, I hope to explain my perspective and show why it is so odd to think that God could have anything to do with the foundation of morality.

I want to start by explaining what I take the question, “what is the basis of objective morality?” to mean. The question assumes that there are objective moral facts. So, in order to understand the question, we need to understand what kind of facts these facts are supposed to be and also understand what it means for them to be objective. I take it that there are two kinds of moral facts: Facts about moral value; i.e., goodness and badness, and facts about moral obligations; i.e., rightness and wrongness. Putative examples of facts about value would include the following: Human life is of supreme value; each individual person is a locus of value; happiness is good; pain is bad. Putative examples of facts about obligations include: It is wrong to kill; it is wrong to lie; we ought to love our neighbors.

What does it mean to say that these facts are objective? Well ‘objective’ is the opposite of ‘subjective’ and ‘subjective’ means ‘dependent on or relative to the mental states (including beliefs, desires, preferences, attitudes, etc.) of an individual person or persons.’ Thus, to say that moral facts are objective is to say that they are independent of (and not relative to) the mental states of any person or persons. So, a position that is committed to the objectivity of moral claims, in this sense, is in opposition to the view that moral claims are subjective and/or relative in the way that tastes and preferences are subjective/relative. Whether chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla is subjective in that it depends upon the mental states/preferences of individuals. Further, the claim that chocolate ice cream is good is relative to an observer; for some individuals it will be true, for others it will be false. The objectivity of morality, then, is opposed to any kind of subjectivity or relativity (including cultural relativity).

The upshot is that to assert that moral facts are objective is to assert that there exist true moral claims such that the truth of these claims does not depend on the beliefs or desires of any individual(s), nor is their truth in any other way relative to an observer(s). Thus, assume that, in a particular context, I am morally obligated to help a stranger in need. If this obligation is objective, then it holds of me regardless of my desires, beliefs etc. In particular, even if I don’t want to help and even if I don’t believe that people should help strangers in need, I am still obligated to help.

I have found, in discussions about such matters, that occasionally people confuse the notions of objectivity and absoluteness. Some people speak of “moral absolutes” and sometimes they use this term as synonymous with “objective moral facts.” This is not my understanding. As I understand the term, in the context of morality, ‘absolute’ means, roughly, ‘no exceptions.’ To say that a moral claim is absolute is to say that there are no exceptions to it; it applies to everyone, everywhere, regardless of context.

So, there are two questions we can ask: Are all moral claims absolute? Are there any moral claims that are absolute? I think that we can easily justify a negative answer to the first question; about the second question, I am not sure. However, I don’t think anything that I will be saying will at all depend on the answer to the second question. So, why do I think that not all moral claims are absolute? The best way to answer this is to think about an example. Let’s suppose that it is wrong to kill. I take it that this means that, as a general rule, we should avoid killing (I will elaborate on this below). But obviously I can assert that it is wrong to kill and still acknowledge that there are possible exceptions, that is, there might be some circumstances in which killing a person would be permissible or even required. Such examples are not hard to imagine: if another person is attacking me and I have good reason to suppose that he will kill me if I do not kill him, then, I think, it is (at least) permissible to kill him.

So, I don’t think that all moral claims are absolute in the sense of holding independent of context so that there are no exceptions. At the same time, I am unsure whether there are moral claims that are absolute. It is wrong to torture an infant strikes me as a decent possibility. But, again, I don’t think anything depends on whether there are such absolute moral claims (if you disagree, please let me know).

So, if we acknowledge, as I think we should, that at least some moral claims will hold in some contexts but not others, then what are we to make of moral claims? What is their status? Are they just suggestions? Let us return to the moral claim that it is wrong to kill. I understand this claim to be an assertion that there exists a prima facie obligation to refrain from killing and this obligation applies to all people in all contexts. That is, regardless of the person and regardless of the context, everyone is under a prima facie obligation to refrain from killing others.

To say that an obligation is prima facie is just to say that it is an obligation that holds unless it is overridden but other more serious obligations. Many obligations will have this character because, given the existence of competing obligations, a given obligation might be overridden. (It might be helpful to think of a prima facie obligation as something that holds in all contexts but which is at least in principle defeasible in all contexts. It is an obligation which holds without consideration of other obligations that might hold in a given context.) In many circumstances a person will find that she is under competing obligations. We all should avoid lying (at least we can assume so for the sake of this discussion), but in some circumstances this obligation will conflict with other obligations. Obviously this would occur if I need to lie to save the life of an innocent person. Now, in a context in which I have multiple, competing obligations (suppose, in a given case, there are two things that I ought to do but that they are opposed in the sense that if I do one thing, I cannot do the other), there might nonetheless be some one thing that I ought to do. It certainly is not the case that I ought to perform both of the actions that conflict with one another (after all, if they conflict, then I cannot do both). But one of the options might be the right thing to do while, given the context and the relative strength of the competing obligations, the other option is wrong. It is also reasonable to think that prima facie obligations have differing strengths. The obligation to tell the truth is arguably not as strong as the obligation to not cause unnecessary harm, for example. So, in a context in which these two obligations compete, the obligation to not cause harm would, presumably, carry the day. In addition, we should note that not all prima facie obligations will compete. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations in which we have multiple prima facie obligations to perform the same action.

In a context in which I have multiple prima facie obligations, the one action that I ought to perform (the one that wins the day, so to speak) is called the “all-things-considered obligation.” To say that all-things-considered, I am obligated to perform action A is just to say that, taking into consideration all of my obligations, A is the thing that I ought to do. And this means that, in that context, I am not obligated to do anything else that I might be prima facie obligated to do if doing so conflicts with my performance of A.

A well-worn example will help to clarify these concepts: Suppose that you are living in Amsterdam in 1942. A Nazi patrol knocks on your door and tells you that they have reason to believe that some people in your neighborhood are illegally harboring Jewish citizens who otherwise would be deported to concentration camps. If you are providing a refuge for a Jewish family, then you ought to lie to the Nazis and tell them that you know nothing of such things. Now, I think that it is reasonable to say the following about your obligations in this situation: You have the prima facie obligation to tell the truth (this is an obligation that we all have). However, you also have the prima facie obligation to protect the lives of the family hiding in your house. It is impossible to discharge both obligations since they compete. The obligation to save lives is more powerful, hence it trumps the obligation to tell the truth. Thus, all things considered, you ought to lie.

Let us return to the big picture: We want to know what the basis of moral obligation is. Here is how I understand this issue: If moral facts are objective, then they must have a source that is external to any particular person. So, what we are looking for is an external source of moral obligation. Now, many people find such a source in God, and some of these suggest that only God could be the source of moral obligation (some extend this claim to cover the value categories as well). I don’t think that God could be a source, for reasons some of which I have articulated on this blog and elsewhere. It is not my current task to defend this claim. However, if I am right about the source of moral obligation, it follows that God is unnecessary. I will expand a bit on these remarks in my next post.