Dangerous Memes

Why you should listen:

“It’s tempting to say that Dennett has never met a robot he didn’t like, and that what he likes most about them is that they are philosophical experiments,” Harry Blume wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1998. “To the question of whether machines can attain high-order intelligence, Dennett makes this provocative answer: ‘The best reason for believing that robots might some day become conscious is that we human beings are conscious, and we are a sort of robot ourselves.'”
In recent years, Dennett has become outspoken in his atheism, and his 2006 book Breaking the Spellcalls for religion to be studied through the scientific lens of evolutionary biology. Dennett regards religion as a natural — rather than supernatural — phenomenon, and urges schools to break the taboo against empirical examination of religion. He argues that religion’s influence over human behavior is precisely what makes gaining a rational understanding of it so necessary: “If we don’t understand religion, we’re going to miss our chance to improve the world in the 21st century.”

Who is he:

One of our most important living philosophers, Dan Dennett is best known for his provocative and controversial arguments that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes in the brain. He argues that the brain’s computational circuitry fools us into thinking we know more than we do, and that what we call consciousness — isn’t. His 2003 book “Freedom Evolves” explores how our brains evolved to give us — and only us — the kind of freedom that matters, while 2006’s “Breaking the Spell” examines belief through the lens of biology.
This mind-shifting perspective on the mind itself has distinguished Dennett’s career as a philosopher and cognitive scientist. And while the philosophy community has never quite known what to make of Dennett (he defies easy categorization, and refuses to affiliate himself with accepted schools of thought), his computational approach to understanding the brain has made him, as Edge’s John Brockman writes, “the philosopher of choice of the AI community.


1. How does Dennett’s story of an ant compare to human beings?
2. Dennett mentions several idea that many human beings lay down their lives for. What are some of these ideas?
3. According to Dennett, what is the secret of happiness?
4. What does Dennett mean when he says “memes are like viruses”?
5. What is one implication of the memetic perspective that Dennett mentions?
6. How are we going to tell the good memes from the bad memes?


Watch the video here....Ted Talk

Make Love not Porn website

Should we design people?

see here


Do you have the moral compass of a toddler?

Now watch this:

Now try this quiz....

Take part in a series of studies....

Have a go!

A good one to do!

As is this....

Seven more tests

1. Are you a moral relativist?

2. Are you socially responsible?

3. How moral are you?

4. Everyday ethics quiz

5. Morality play

6. The morality test

7. Where is your moral compass?

Then there's this:

Battleground God 
- Will your beliefs about God and religion survive on our intellectual battlefield? Now's your chance to find out!
In the Face of Death - Is murder sometimes justified?
Should You Kill the Backpacker? - Is it okay to kill one person to save five?
Should You Kill the Fatman? - Do you have consistent moral intuitions?
Morality Play - How do your moral judgments match up against those of other people? How broad a range of moral principles do you invoke when making moral judgments? Find out about your moral framework here.
You're Being Tortured In The Morning - Who exactly is it who is being tortured?
Should You Kill the Fatman? - Do you have consistent moral intuitions?
Talking with God - Can you navigate your way through the Euthyphro dilemma?
Do-It-Yourself Deity - Can you construct the perfect God? We somehow doubt it!
Whose Body Is It Anyway? - Who has rights over your body?
The Philosophical Health Check - Is your thinking up to scratch? Take our philosophical health check to find out.
Elementary, My Dear Wason? - Most people will fail this simple logic test. Will you be one of them?
Stayling Alive - Do you have what it takes to stay alive? Find out in our game of personal identity.
Taboo - Moral judgements, chickens and the yuk-factor. How do you measure up?
Britney Spears vs. Shakespeare - What is art? Which artists produce the greatest works of art? Discover the answers here.


God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

- Kipling

God and War

Does God Exist?

The Science of Morality: No Gods Required.

Is God a Moral Monster?

The Need for God as Basis for Morality

In a long article, “The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations for Morality,” ** William. L Craig (Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California) argues that objective morality requires a theistic base. In other words, without God humans do not have an objective basis for moral values and moral judgments.

In the process of so arguing, Craig commits a variety of errors, false assumptions, invalid inference, and offers a rather weak argument. I will show this by a two-part critique of his article. This is the part I.

Summary of his argument: Theism and naturalism are contrasted with respect to furnishing an adequate foundation for the moral life. It is shown that on a theistic worldview an adequate foundation exists for the affirmation of objective moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability. By contrast, naturalism fails in all three respects. Insofar as we believe that moral values and duties do exist, we therefore have good grounds for believing that God exists. Moreover, a practical argument for believing in God is offered on the basis of moral accountability.

Here are excerpts from the first part of Craig’s essay interspersed with my critical response and remarks in highlighted brackets.
. . . . . . .
But wait. It would, indeed, be arrogant and ignorant to claim that people cannot be good without belief in God. But that was not the question. The question was: can we be good without God? When we ask that question, we are posing in a provocative way the meta-ethical question of the objectivity of moral values. Are the values we hold dear and guide our lives by mere social conventions akin to driving on the left versus right side of the road or mere expressions of personal preference akin to having a taste for certain foods or not? Or are they valid independently of our apprehension of them, and if so, what is their foundation?

[Response: When secularists deny that we need a supernatural sanction for moral values the implication is not that moral values are “mere expressions of personal preference.” Secular philosophers have developed ethical theories which invoke moral values that are applicable to human conduct and are not just subjective expressions of social convention. The case for secular morality may be compared to civil law. Laws are independent of any individual’s apprehension of the law, yet laws do not issue from a supernatural source.]

Moreover, if morality is just a human convention, then why should we act morally, especially when it conflicts with self-interest?

[Simple answer: To say that secular morality is “just a human convention” is a misleading statement. Secular morality does involve social convention. But this does not make morality a mere expression of taste or ‘convention.’ At least some humans are moral agents, who recognize and act according moral rules that may be contrary to self-interest. A supernatural authority is not a necessary condition for such moral action and moral consciousness.]

Or are we in some way held accountable for our moral decisions and actions?

[Response: Yes, we are accountable to each other and to the community. But we’re not accountable as super-naturalists would have it: as accountable to a supernatural being who distributes rewards or punishment in some imagined afterlife.]

Today I want to argue that if God exists, then the objectivity of moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability is secured,

[What exactly does this ‘objectivity’ mean, given that different cultures all basing their morality on a god set up different moral codes? ….and given that god believers don’t concur on moral values. That “moral accountability is secured” under divine authority is questionable. Morever, as with civil and criminal law, secular morality can also involve accountability. ]

.. but that in the absence of God, that is, if God does not exist, then morality is just a human convention, that is to say, morality is wholly subjective and non-binding.

[It does not follow that without God morality is “wholly subjectivity and non-binding.” There are many counter-examples of non-theists who conduct themselves moral ways that do not arise from mere subjective interests and desires. Furthermore, again the writer misleads us with this assumption that morality as human convention is not really morality. ]

We might act in precisely the same ways that we do in fact act, but in the absence of God, such actions would no longer count as good (or evil), since if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

[This is a false proposition. Along with many other secularists, I recognize some actions as morally good and others as morally bad; and we hold our share of moral values. The proposition that “moral values do not exist” is not even a coherent proposition with a clear meaning.]

Thus, we cannot truly be good without God. On the other hand, if we do believe that moral values and duties are objective, that provides moral grounds for believing in God.

[Belief that moral values and duties are objective does not rule out a variety of actual moral codes, values, and moral action. Historically and with regard to current cultures, this factual variety – which even involves conflicting views as to the “higher moral good” – suggests a variety of deities; not one law giver.]

Consider, then, the hypothesis that God exists. First, if God exists, objective moral values exist. To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so. It is to say, for example, that Nazi anti-Semitism was morally wrong, even though the Nazis who carried out the Holocaust thought that it was good; and it would still be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them.

[One can agree with this without invoking objective values sanctioned by God. This is a high, moral imperative for which people (god believers and unbelievers) recognize no exception, but this does not require that we invoke a supernatural law-giver.
Moral imperatives, such as those forbidding genocide, arise from the experience, judgment and values of a society or culture. Moral good which is completely independent of all human experience and human society is a fiction.

On the theistic view, objective moral values are rooted in God. God’s own holy and perfectly good nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions and decisions are measured. God’s moral nature is what Plato called the “Good.” He is the locus and source of moral value. He is by nature loving, generous, just, faithful, kind, and so forth.

[Nobody has ever shown in detail how human values and moral imperatives are based on “God's own holy and perfectly good nature.” One could stipulate such divine perfection or Plato’s highest form of the “Good” and yet not be able to show how these supernatural posits help resolve difficult issues of moral conduct, values and moral dilemmas. Furthermore, these pronouncements of God’s perfectly good nature are simply pronouncements of a doctrinal faith; they do not constitute an argument for objective morality at all. In fact the God of scripture is not at all portrayed as one having a perfectly good nature; many of his actions are not morally respectable at all!]

Moreover, God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commands which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from His moral nature.

[Really? The commands “flow necessarily from his nature”? How exactly did you learn this? And what do we do when we have different interpretations of the commands that flow from “his moral nature”? For example, there is much contention among theists regarding such hard moral issues as the morality of war and the morality of birth control.]

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the whole moral duty of man can be summed up in the two great commandments: First, you shall love the Lord your God with all your strength and with all your soul and with all your heart and with all your mind, and, second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On this foundation we can affirm the objective goodness and rightness of love, generosity, self-sacrifice, and equality, and condemn as objectively evil and wrong selfishness, hatred, abuse, discrimination, and oppression.

[Yes, these are the easy ones. How do these “standards” help to resolve the really hard moral dilemma, e.g. morality of war, of abortion, euthanasia, disparity between rich and poor, distribution of benefits when they won’t cover all, etc. ? Loving a supernatural Being – who is declared to be perfectly good- and loving my neighbor as myself do not get me very far when I have to resolve the difficult moral conflicts that we inevitably confront. For example, on the issue of the morality of war, you can find plenty of Christians, all who profess to recognize the two principles of “love,” on either side of the issue.]


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The Argument from Morality

Like a lot of people I intuitively accepted the existence of ethical right and wrong but didn't think about how or why it exists. Many theists think that God is the correct explanation for the existence of objective morality. What do we mean by “morality” and “objective morality”? For our purposes, morality is the system of rules and propositions correctly describing how one should and should not behave (e.g. one should not steal). Objective morality is the idea that moral principles are valid, binding, and true independently of whether any of us think, feel, or believe them to be so. I’ll also refer to this belief as moral objectivism or ethical objectivism.

Although there are a number of different ways to argue the moral argument, the general idea (and my central claim here) is that if morality exists independently of what we human beings think, then this fact is evidence for the existence of God. Some philosophers even go so far as to say that if God did not exist, then objective morality would not exist. Why would anybody claim that? Wouldn’t we still feel that people committing genocide and rape is reprehensible even if there were no God? Of course we would. But if the immorality of such behaviors is to be an objective truth that is independent of what we think, then something besides us has to say people shouldn’t behave this way. There has to be some kind of transcendent, fundamental reality that says how we ought to behave. And this transcendent fundamental reality, the theist argues, is what we call God.

A Caveat

Note that the claim is not that an atheist cannot recognize the existence of moral values. An atheist could believe, however mistakenly, that God is not necessary for objective morality. Nor is the claim that belief in theism is necessary to live a moral life. An atheist could follow the rules of morality and still disagree, however mistakenly, on the metaphysical basis of those rules. Nonetheless, the moral argument does claim that God is the metaphysical basis for objective morality, and that to the very least objective morality constitutes evidence for the existence of God.


Why can’t ethics be like logic and mathematics? Not requiring a commander for its laws? One major difference is that theorems of math and logic are analytic truths. A truth is analytic if and only if it is “true by definition,” that is, true by virtue of the meanings involved, such as “all bachelors are unmarried” and “2 + 2 = 4.” What makes an analytic statement true is the meanings of the words it contains, but moral laws are not analytic. The statement “one ought not to rape” may indeed be true, but it is not true by definition like “hairless men have no hair” is. Also, mathematics and logic say what is, but morality says what ought to be. Who or what says how we ought to behave?

For sake of clarity I’ll explicitly define several more terms before getting to the actual argument. An ought-statement is a proposition that makes a claim of whatought to be rather than making a claim of what is, e.g. “people should not steal.” The answer to the question “Who or what says how we ought to behave?” need not be a literal mouth and voice or even necessarily anything that communicates to humanity. Rather, “Who or what says how we ought to behave?” is simply asking for the foundation of morality and the source of moral principles; i.e. the entity/thing/force that lays down these moral obligations and prohibitions. If for instance the basis of morality were mathematics such that all moral principles could be derived from some mathematical proof based solely on mathematical true-by-definition statements, then the answer is “Mathematics says how we ought to behave.” According to the moral argument, God is the entity that imposes moral prohibitions and duties upon humanity, thus implying the answer is “God says how we ought to behave.”

In the context being used here, authority is the power to impose prohibitions and obligations that ought to be obeyed. Authority is both the power to lay down rulesand to instill them with their ought-to-be-obeyed quality. This definition of authority does not, strictly speaking, contain the requirement that the authority be a conscious mind. Consider for instance the fictitious example of mathematics as the basis of morality. Another way to look at it is the metaphysical basis for a given moral statement is basically what imbues a moral command (e.g. “do not steal”) with its ought-to-be-obeyed quality. In the math scenario, mathematics gives “do not steal” its ought-to-be-obeyed quality because the truth of “one ought not to steal” can be proven mathematically. Mathematics is what lays down rules of what we ought to do via mathematical proofs, and mathematics is what makes the statement “one ought not to steal” true. Thus in such a strange scenario, mathematics would have authority over our behavior, commanding how we ought to behave. This idea does not work of course (moral statements are not analytic via such a mathematical proof or any other system built on analytic truths) but if it did mathematics would fit our definition of authority, even if this type of authority does indeed require a conscious mind in reality.

Broadly defined, God is the Supreme Being or the ultimate metaphysical reality. What it means exactly for something to be the Supreme Being or Metaphysical Ultimate will vary, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll choose a few attributes traditionally ascribed to God. “Transcendence” refers to existing beyond the physical world and not depending on anything in the physical world for existence (as by virtue of being an incorporeal entity). I define God as the immortal, eternal, omnipresent, transcendent Being with supreme and universally binding authority such that everyone ought to obey Him. Regardless of whether such a Being really exists and is the basis of morality, it is notable that this definition of God is not necessarily anthropomorphic. A human might be able to order someone to kill Jews for the purposes of ethnic cleansing, whereas the basis of morality (and therefore God) might not be able to do that. Certain aspects of God’s nature could be immutable.

The Basis of Morality

Interestingly enough, it seems almost self-evident to both the theist and the atheistic moral objectivist that objective morality is a fundamental part of reality. In the case of classical theism, God is the fundamental reality from which all existence and moral truths originate. Atheism faces a bit of a challenge however. Since moral statements are not analytic, it’s more difficult for atheism to explain why morality exists so fundamentally, because in that case what would be morality’s foundation? To better see what I mean by morality being “fundamental part of reality,” consider the following thought experiments where X is the basis of morality. This X does not seem to be confined to any particular time or location. If we cut out any tiny space-time segment of the universe and destroyed the rest, morality would still exist in that segment. So, the basis of morality is in some sense present at all places at all times. If this is true in all future space-time segments, the basis of morality exists in all future times is thus immortal. On the atheistic view, this X also doesn’t seem to depend on anything in the physical universe for its existence. For instance, morality would still exist if we took away cars, mountains, stars, and even entire galaxies. In other words, the basis of morality would be transcendent. Thus, the basis of morality must be some type of fundamental reality in the sense that it is eternal, omnipresent, immortal, and transcendent.

Actually, there’s one thing we left out in our thought experiments regarding transcendence that deserves special mention: human beings. So what about humans? If we took away humans, would moral truths not exist? Upon closer examination this does not appear to be the case. Take for instance the necessarily true statement “all bachelors are unmarried.” This claim would hold true even if there were no bachelors, because what the statement is essentially saying is, “If there was one or more bachelors, any such bachelor would be unmarried.” Similarly, the moral claim that “men should not torture infants just for fun” basically means “if there were a man and an infant, the man should not torture the infant just for fun.” Suppose the universe contained no humans. If we inserted some humans (a man and an infant) into this previously uninhabited universe, it would be the case that the man should not torture the infant just for fun. This means “if there were a man and an infant...” is a truth in a universe without humans just as “all bachelors are unmarried” is true without bachelors. The same goes for all other moral claims regarding humans. But if this is the case, the basis of morality is not dependent upon the existence of humans, even if humans are required for the practical application of such truths.

In addition to being some type of fundamental reality, the basis of morality would have a number of other interesting characteristics as well. Whoever or whatever it is that says how we ought to behave, this X must possess the following attributes.

  1. Supremely transcendent authority. It is one thing to merely say what people should do, but X (the basis of objective morality) must be authoritative in that people really ought to obey it. Suppose for instance a Nazi commands a subordinate to kill Jews. Is it the case that the subordinate ought to obey the Nazi? No, the subordinate ought to obey the dictates of morality instead, because the dictates of objective morality ought to be obeyed over the orders of any human. The basis of morality must transcend the authority of other people’s behavioral commands if its ought-statements are to be objectively truthful. This would include, for instance, transcending the authority of dictators who would order torture and genocide. Otherwise people ought to obey the dictator instead of morality. So the basis of objective morality not only says how we ought to behave but also does so with supremely transcendent authority (transcending e.g. Hitler’s authority).
  2. Universally binding. Goes along with the nature of objective morality. X’s authority must be universally binding in that it applies to everyone (e.g. all peoples in all governments) regardless of who, when, and where we are and regardless of what any human thinks, feels, and believes.
  3. Infallibly authoritative. The basis of objective morality cannot be mistaken on what is morally right (else it would not be the basis of morality when it says what is moral), so it says how we ought to behave with infallible moral authority.

So what could this X be? What are we left with as the metaphysical basis for objective morality if nothing in the universe will do? Especially if the basis of morality exists at all places at all times? At the end of the day we have a mysterious fundamental entity that just happens to be immortal, eternal, omnipresent, transcendent, the locus of morality, and commands our behavior with infallible, universally binding, and supreme authority. It is as if atheist has intuitively sensed the necessity of a God without realizing it.

Finding something that fits the description

The existence of God would provide the foundation for objective morality as the eternal sovereign entity that everyone ought to obey. The problem for the atheistic moral objectivist would be trying to find a reasonable basis for objective morality that fits the above characteristics (e.g. eternal and omnipresent while being the supreme authority in the universe) but cannot reasonably be called God. The most straightforward prospect perhaps lies in the realm of the abstract, such as logic and mathematics. Theorems of math and logic are analytic and therefore are unconfined by time and space while also being transcendent. Moral statements being analytic would thus solve the atheist’s problem here. But because moral statements are not analytic, the challenge of finding a basis for moral truths is rather troublesome, particularly since the foundation of objective morality must be some type of eternal, omnipresent entity with infallible and supreme authority over everyone. It may be then that God is required as a transcendent anchor point for objective morality.

Objections and Rejoinders
Objection: God being the basis of morality is vacuous and circular

The idea that goodness is whatever God commands makes moral goodness vacuous and circular, at least if we ascribe the property of “goodness” to God. God’s commands are supposed to be “good.” But we define “good” as “whatever God commands.” It’s circular. God’s commands are only “good” in that they conform to themselves.


First I’ll define some terms that represent three different branches of moral philosophy.

  1. Moral epistemology: how do we know what is moral?
  2. Moral semantics: what does “morality” mean?
  3. Moral ontology: what is the foundation for morality?

The last two are of interest here. The criticism that God being the basis of morality makes goodness circular conflates moral semantics with moral ontology. God is being offered as the foundation of morality, not the definition of it. What is the foundation for morality? God. What is the definition of morality? The definition of morality is not “God” or “whatever God commands.” Rather, the definition of morality is a different question with a different answer. One possible answer to the definition of morality (and the one used here) is “a set of principles describing how we ought to behave.” Morality is defined as a certain set of ought-statements, and the existence of God is merely the explanation of why those ought-statements exist.

Objection: the Euthyphro dilemma; and if God commands rape, then raping people would be ethical.

God being the basis of morality implies divine command theory. Divine command theory says something is morally good/bad because God commands it to be so. The Euthyphro (YOO-thiff-row) dilemma produces a fatal problem for it. In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates asked, “Do the gods love holiness because it is holy or is it holy because the gods love it?” Applying that principle in the case of ethics, this version of the Euthyphro dilemma becomes, “Is it good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?” If God commands it because it is good, then good is independent of God and God is not the basis of ethics. If it is good because God commands it, then ethics becomes arbitrary in the sense that God could command anything and it would become morally good. For instance, God could have commanded rape and rape would become ethical.


God’s nature

At first I thought this was a really good argument, but on closer examination it doesn’t quite work out, at least in part because divine command theory isn’t necessarily what we’re talking about when we say that God is the best explanation for objective ethics (though that may depend on how you define divine command theory).

One definition of divine command theory is that what is morally right and wrong flows solely from God’s commands, and that there is no deeper underlying foundation for morality. If we use this definition, divine command theory would indeed say that the God’s commands are good merely because God commanded them. However, the Euthyphro dilemma is a false dilemma because exists at least one other alternative: God’s commands are good not merely because God commanded them but because they reflect His perfectly good nature. Rather than the commands being arbitrary, those commands flow necessarily from that perfect nature. For instance, God necessarily commands us to love our neighbor because God is by nature loving. It is God’s nature that is the standard by which actions are judged as good, and God’s nature is the basis of morality (we could call this divine nature theory).

The general idea roughly resembles what Plato called “the Good.” Plato (c. 427-347 BCE) was a Greek philosopher who believed that physical things had models or archetypes called “Forms” from which they are generalized. For instance, a basketball takes after the Form of a sphere, and though a basketball may not be a perfect sphere, we have a conceptual idea of what a perfect sphere is. A sphere is an example of a Form from which we say “the basketball is spherical.” Similarly, Plato believed in “the Good,” the perfect archetypal nature of moral goodness. God is what Plato called “the Good,” in that God’s nature supplies the supreme moral standard. God’s commands reflect that perfectly moral nature.

Arbitrary morality

Still, some define divine command theory broadly enough to include God’s commands being rooted in His nature. And one could still argue that morality being based in God in any way would make ethics arbitrary in the sense that God could have commanded anything, even rape and torture, and it would become ethical. For instance, one could claim that God's nature is arbitrary in that it could have been anything, and therefore He could have commanded anything, even boiling babies. In any case, we can organize this sort of argument as follows:

  1. If God were the basis of morality, then it would be possible for God to command rape, and thus it would be possible for rape to be ethical.
  2. Rape cannot possibly be ethical.
  3. Therefore: God is not the basis of morality.

The argument is deductively valid (i.e. if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true). But is the argument sound (i.e. valid with true premises) or does it contain a false premise? One key problem is this. Suppose the second premise is true: rape cannot possibly be ethical. But if rape cannot possibly be ethical, then it cannot be possible for the basis of morality (whatever that might be) to command rape. We would have to reason that the basis of morality has some type of immutable nature. But if we know the basis of morality cannot command rape, why think that if God were the basis of morality He could command it?

Perhaps because the type of possibility being referred to is logical possibility, and it is logically possible for God to command rape. Something is logically possible if and only if it does not violate the law of noncontradiction. This law says for any proposition p, it is impossible for both p and not p to be true; a statement about reality cannot be both true and false at the same time and in the same context. Examples of logically impossible claims include “hairless men have hair” and “bachelors are married.” Many false claims such as “The Earth is flat” and “I created a perpetual motion machine” are nonetheless logically possible because they are not self-contradictory. Thus the statement “God commands rape,” while perhaps false, is logically possible.

But then we must be consistent. If we are only saying it is logically possible for God to command rape, then the end of the first premise becomes “thus it islogically possible for rape to be ethical.” And the second premise must be “It is not logically possible for rape to be ethical” to arrive at “Therefore God is not the basis of morality.” In other words, we get the following:

  1. If God were the basis of morality, then it would be logically possible for God to command rape, and thus it would be logically possible for rape to be ethical.
  2. It is not logically possible for rape to be ethical.
  3. Therefore: God is not the basis of morality.

The first premise is true, but the second premise is false. It is logically possible for rape to be ethical, because the statement “rape is ethical,” while false, does not produce a self-contradiction. So having the type of possibility be logical possibility and pointing out “It is logically possible for God to command rape” will fail to produce the desired conclusion.

So what kind of impossibility are we referring to if we say “rape cannot possibly be ethical”? Perhaps it is metaphysical or ontological impossibility, such as “the number six created the universe,” where even if it is logically possible such a thing cannot happen in reality under any possible circumstances. Suppose it is in this sense that rape cannot possibly be ethical. Then it still must be true that the basis of morality cannot possibly command rape. So we go back to our original problem: if God were the basis of morality, why think it is possible for God to command rape?

Perhaps because it is possible for humans to make such a command, and if humans can do this then God can also. But this would be making an anthropomorphic assumption about God that isn’t necessarily true. God’s nature is not necessarily like that of humans, especially if God is the basis of morality. If rape cannot possibly be ethical then it follows that the basis of morality (whatever it is) has an immutable nature such that it cannot command rape, so why think it is impossible for God to have this nature? Especially if God is not as anthropomorphic as the argument would seem to assume? If certain virtues are unalterable, then wouldn’t it follow that if God were the basis of morality, these virtues embodied in the nature of God would also be immutable? If for instance telling the truth is an unchangeable virtue, then God cannot lie. Incidentally, the belief that God cannot lie goes at least as far back as early Christianity (it can be found in Hebrews 6:18 of the Christian Bible). Why think such views are necessarily false?

In the end, trying to justify both premises faces serious problems of justification. If rape cannot possibly be moral, then the basis of morality cannot command it. So how does one justify that “If God were the basis of morality, He could command rape?” Apparently, it cannot be done without making some assumptions about God that are not necessarily true. If the basis of morality requires some type of immutable nature, there seems to be no reason why God cannot have this characteristic.

Objection: Reason says how we ought to behave

The lawgiver for moral laws is reason itself. One test a rational rule must pass is, in a thought experiment, apply the rule universally and see if we get an inconsistency. If we do, it is not a rational rule. It is reason that says how we ought to behave.


Reason says if we want to make society happy, enforce laws prohibiting theft and murder. Reason also says if I want to make society less happy, have no laws prohibiting theft and murder. Reason, logic, and rationality can tell us what to do to accomplish a particular goal, but it cannot tell us what goal we ought to achieve in the first place. Rationality gives what the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant called hypothetical imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives are if-then statements that tell us what action will help a particular result. For instance, “If you want to poison your teacher to death, you ought to choose a sufficiently lethal toxin” is a hypothetical imperative.

Kant claimed there was something called the categorical imperative, an unconditional moral law that does not depend on prior conditions of wants and wishes as to how we should behave, and is thus not a hypothetical imperative. Hypothetical imperatives take the form of “If you want A, then do B.” A categorical imperative would take the form of “Do B!” Kant’s first and most famous formulation of his categorical imperative is, “Act only according to that maxim [a principle one follows when choosing a course of action] whereby you can at the same time [rationally] will that it should become a universal law.” Take for instance “my country can break treaties whenever it feels like it” against the categorical imperative. If everyone followed this principle, treaties would in practice be nonbinding, and thus treaties would not be treaties, and thus we would have what Kant would consider a contradiction. Kant argued that a maxim is rational only if it can be universally and consistently applied. One could therefore claim that “reason” is the foundation of morality.

As nice as Kant’s categorical imperative is, as a foundation of morality it’s incomplete at best. The imperative may indeed be something we ought to follow, because it plausibly flows from the moral value of fairness. But who or what says we ought to treat people equally? Who or what says we ought to follow this imperative? Reason itself will not work, because it only tells us what means helps accomplish a particular goal, not which goal (e.g. treating people equally) to pursue in the first place. Furthermore, universalizing a maxim in a thought experiment to see whether it produces a “contradiction” may actually be contrary to reason depending on what goals one starts with. For instance, suppose my goal is personal wealth without regard to the welfare of others. I may believe that I should be able to steal from others but others should not steal from me. One could argue that nobody should accept principles that are so self-centered and we should obey Kant’s categorical imperative instead. But even if we ought to follow Kant’s categorical imperative, we still haven’t identified the entity or force that says we ought to obey it.

One could modify the approach and change it from “pure reason” to “rationality.” We have adequate grounds for thinking we ought to be consistent in applying the rules for everyone, and in this sense one could argue that rationality says how we ought to behave. However, having rational basis for believing something is different from being the source of its existence. We have rational basis for believing in the existence of the wind, but human rationality is not the source of the wind. Similarly, the basic moral intuitions we feel regarding fairness may be correct, but those intuitions are not the source of morality, particularly if moral principles are valid and binding independently of whether we feel/perceive/believe them to be so. Thus we must look to some other reality, one that transcends the intuitions we feel, to impose behavioral obligations and prohibitions.

Objection: Objective morality has a basis other than God; namely, benefiting society

God is not needed for objective moral values. Rather, the “source” of morality is benefiting the group. Utilitarianism, a theory of ethics famously championed by 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, is based on the concept of “the least pain and greatest happiness/pleasure to the greatest number of people.” This logically implies prohibitions against theft, murder, and the like. The obligation to benefit society is the authority behind moral ought-statements. Morality is based on the consequences of one’s actions to society, not some deity.


The main problem with pointing to ethical philosophies like utilitarianism is that even if they are true they don’t really answer the question of what the foundation of morality is. To illustrate why, imagine I am a bank robber and I rob a bank while getting away with the crime. One might say I’m wrong, since I am defying the principle of benefiting the group. I say, “Why should I care about the group if I can get away with the theft and it does not adversely affect me?” One cites the utilitarian principle “one ought to benefit society,” which leads us right back to where we started. What authoritative entity says I ought to behave in such a way to maximize society’s happiness? Who or what says how I ought to behave? The key question remains unanswered. Trying to base morality on another ought-statement only brings us back to square one. We’re still left without a real foundation for morality.

I’ve mentioned Kant and Mill to bring up another point. Merely pointing to an alternate ethical philosophy (e.g. Kantian ethics and utilitarianism) will not automatically solve the problem of “Who or what says how we ought to behave?” and thus won’t automatically serve as a valid alternative to God-based morality.

Objection: Objective morality is a brute fact

Some should-statements (e.g. my stapler should be blue) might require a source, but objective ethics (e.g. people should not steal) does not. Objective moral values are real and their truths are real. However, moral statements of what ought to be do not need any basis or source for existence. Objective morality is just a “brute fact,” not requiring further explanation. There is no point in asking why or how objective morality exists, it just is.


The response to this objection will depend on how exactly the brute fact position answers the question of who or what says how we ought to behave. We’ll consider three possibilities:

  1. Nothing says how we ought to behave
  2. Morality says how we ought to behave
  3. The universe (or reality, or existence) says how we ought to behave

We’ll go in order, first starting with “nothing says how we ought to behave” as the next objection.

Objection: Nothing says how we ought to behave

Morality has no basis, and the answer to “Who or what says how we ought to behave?” is nothing. Nothing says how we ought to behave.


This encounters problems when “nothing” is literally nothing. If there is literally nothing that says how we ought to behave, then there is also nothing that says Hitler ought to have behaved differently when he decided to slaughter millions of Jews. The problem with “nothing says how we ought to behave” is that it is tantamount to saying “there are no rules of behavior.” So this interpretation of a “brute fact” does not quite work here. Something has to say how we ought to behave, whether it be God, mathematics, or whatever.

Objection: Morality says how we ought to behave

It is morality that says how we ought to behave. That is, there is nothing that “puts forth” moral statements except for morality itself. It is morality that imposes behavioral prohibitions and lays down obligations. Morality is its own metaphysical basis.


But what is morality? A certain set of principles describing how we ought to behave. So when we say morality says how we ought to behave, we are really saying how we ought to behave says how we ought to behave. Although true in some sense, this is circular and provides no real foundation for morality.

It’s a rule of thumb in rationality to frown upon circular reasoning. One could say that morality is an exception to this rule, so perhaps it’s best to provide some justification why circular reasoning does not work here.

Recall that morality is a certain set of principles of what people ought and ought not to do. Let morality equal set S, where S is such a collection of all propositions of what we ought to do. Anything immoral violates something in set S. An example of a moral principle set S might contain is “one should not torture infants for fun.” Let set O be the opposite of all statements in set S (or at least statements that contradict set S). An example of a proposition in set O might be “one should torture infants for fun.”

Who or what says we should follow set S over set O? On what basis should we follow a principle of set S over a principle of set O? One could cite the statement of set S; it supports itself. But the antithesis statement of set O supports itself equally as well, and so circular arguments get us nowhere. The same sort of thing applies if were to take the sets as a whole. Set S may support itself (e.g. have a statement saying we should follow all statements in this set), but then so would set O (e.g. have a corresponding statement, saying we should follow all statements in set O). So this approach just doesn’t work. Something besides a mere collection of propositions has to say how we ought to behave.

Why is it that a moral proposition cannot be its own metaphysical basis? When inquiring what the metaphysical basis is for a moral statement, we are basically asking what makes it true. Any moral proposition (e.g. “one should not steal”) is simply a claim about what is true. So how can what a proposition means make itself true? Such statements are actually possible and are said to be analytic. Recall that a truth is analytic if and only if it is true by virtue of the meanings involved. One could indeed argue that what makes a moral statement true is the collective meaning of the claim’s terms. Problem is, this sort of thing applies only to analytic statements, and moral statements are seldom if ever analytic. The statement “one ought not to rape” may indeed be true, but it is not true by definition like “hairless men have no hair” is.

We could of course say that set S is relevantly different from set O because set S by definition has the “correct” statements; i.e. the moral principles of set S actually exist and morality is the one whose statements are based in reality. But when we come to the question of what makes the statements true, it is evident that the statements themselves cannot do that. If however one would argue that the basis of moral statements is reality and existence itself; that it is the universe or reality in some general sense that says how we ought to behave (if there is no specific component of reality that does so) then this would perhaps be more promising but different from “morality says how we ought to behave,” and this alternative will be discussed in the rebuttal of the next objection.

Objection: the universe/reality/existence says how we ought to behave

The basis objective morality existing is reality and existence itself. It is the universe in some general sense that says how we ought to behave.


A plane as a whole can fly even if some of its individual parts (as a chair) cannot. Nonetheless, a plane requires at least some of its parts to fly. One might then ask what parts the universe requires for objective morality to exist. As noted earlier, the basis of morality (and therefore morality itself) does not seem to require cars, planets, galaxies, or anything else in the universe, including humans. So what are we left with as the metaphysical basis of objective morality if nothing in the universe will do? Especially if the basis of morality is unconfined by time and space? Morality’s foundation would have to be the universe itself in some strange general sense, some mysterious fundamental essence of it existing at all places at all times. But surely this seems a bit odd for the atheist. At the end of the day we have a mysterious fundamental entity that just happens to be an immortal, eternal, omnipresent, transcendent, the locus of morality, and commands our behavior such that everyone ought to obey it.

At worst, this mysterious entity is just the thinly veiled God of theism. At best, we have pantheism. Pantheism is the doctrine that equates God with the universe/reality/existence. A major problem with the pantheistic possibility is that pantheism says God is, quite literally, everything. Rocks, trees, mountains, even individuals are simply extensions of God. Yet this pantheistic God would seem to have a “soul,” that is, a nonphysical essence. This is because the thought experiments imply that the basis of morality does not depend on rocks, trees, mountains, or anything in the physical universe; rather these experiments imply anonphysical aseitic essence in which morality is grounded. But if there exists some incorporeal essence that is not dependent upon anything in the natural universe, and this nonphysical entity is eternal, omnipresent, aseitic, the locus of morality, and commands everyone’s behavior with infallible, universally binding, and supreme authority, there seems to be little reason why we can’t call this incorporeal entity the God of theism.